Occupy Wall Street
and the Abolition of Public Space

October 13, 2011

I am perhaps the only person in the world who has neither advice to offer to Occupy Wall Street, nor an interpretation of it all to inflict on anyone. I do not know what it is; I do not know what it means; I do not know where it's going, or what's going to happen to it. In any case, at the moment I am writing this, the city government has stated that it will in effect disperse the Occupation by force at 7 a.m. tomorrow morning, October 14. I may be writing about something that won't exist by the time you read this.

I do have some observations, which will perhaps be obvious to everyone; but I haven't seen anyone make or take up these points in any detail. They are about the Occupation's setting, its circumstances, rather than its internals or its direction. These circumstances will remain regardless of whether the Occupation is suppressed.

I think we have seen the breakdown, the freezing-up of the American political mechanism, and the abolition of public space by an increasingly inept ruling class, which now seems to have no talent but kleptocracy and the cynical exertion of property rights to further and defend its practices.

Many of those who have reported on, speculated about, or taken orders from their bosses to praise or disparage or condescend, have made the error of supposing that the population of Occupiers is rather uniform, and animated by a common political philosophy. This is not my perception. I see a sign reading 'Restore the Glass-Steagall Act' next to one reading 'Abolish Capitalism.' Obviously, there is no point in restoring the Glass-Steagall Act (which regulated private banks) if one is going to abolish private banks. So we have reformist liberal social democrat types standing next to anarchists and communists. Actually, 30 or 40 or 50 concerns have been uttered by the Occupiers, covering a wide range of ideological positions and sensibilities. (And in addition, the Occupation is obviously laced with provocateurs, saboteurs, informers and trolls (as is any organization or gathering which goes against established power and authority); some of these people may make signs or shout slogans precisely in order to rile or offend the public. It is remarkable that, through their principles and self-discipline, the Occupiers have resisted being effectively besmirched, betrayed or misled in this way by their enemies — so far.)

So, why are mild reformist liberal social- democrats hanging out with anarchists and communists? Why have they adopted the radical tactic of assembling to petition the governent for redress of grievances, instead of 'working within the system' — that is, of uttering and discussing their desires and interests in the media, voting on them or for representatives to decide how to accomodate them in elections? That, of course, is easily answered: the American political system is broken. It has frozen up. Although many, possibly a majority, of the electorate opposed the bailouts, they went through. Although they oppose the wars, the wars grind on. Although they wanted Single Payer, and later the Public Option, these were 'off the table'. War criminals and financial criminals went unpunished. Meanwhile, the elites have so mismanaged the economic system that unemployment and foreclosure are rampant. The liberal social-democrats dutifully worked within the system in 2006 and 2008. They voted for hope and change. They got nothing.

In a way this is not surprising. For most of the time Europeans have dominated North America, the rich have been the ruling class, the leadership caste. The Constitution was set up to protect their interests. The composition of the rich, of the ruling class changed as the country developed, however; it went from Virginia planters to industrial capitalists to military-industrial complexists to financiers. Nevertheless, the idea that the wealthy should be the ruling class and that the ruling class should be wealthy permeates American culture very deeply, informing most of its institutions, and it will be very difficult to replace it with anything else.

However, there have been certain palliatives. Between about 1910 and 1970, organized capital had to deal with their own inability to administer the economy, and with the advance of anti-liberal, anti-capitalist mass movements like anarchism, socialism, fascism and the like, and the states which they produced. For capitalism to survive, the domestic working ('middle') class of the home countries at least had to be secured. There was some dispute as to whether that should be done by repression or seduction; those in favor of seduction, by and large, won the argument, provisionally anyway.

Thus there arose a social contract in which loyal industrial and military service were to be exchanged for a light Welfare state and a reasonable, constantly improving standard of living at least for some workers and those dependent on them. But as the enemies of liberal capitalism were defeated or went into decline and sued for peace, the usefulness of this social contract and its obedient, loyal working class became dubious. The contract began to be challenged overtly in the 1970s and open war on it began with the elections of Thatcher and Reagan. It was not a quick war, because much of the social contract had been institutionalized, but it has progressed.

In regard to Occupy Wall Street, it is most relevant that part of this war has been the sequestration and reorganization of public space by the capitalists or the government bureaucrats who serve them. Control of territory has been an important tool of social control in general, as indeed is a great deal of the way in which land, space, access and real estate is configured by the capitalist state. (Thus the isolation of the suburbs and the turning of the centers of cities into highly supervised and closely policed malls.)

One of the problems posed by the liberal rights of free expression, association, assembly and so on for the cardinal principle of property is that the speakers, associators and assemblers have to have a place to stand, speak, associate and assemble. As the social order becomes more and more privatized and sequestered, such spaces tend to disappear; what remains is often reserved for the moneyed.

This problem has been illustrated by the Occupation: the protesters were not allowed to gather on Broad Street in front of the New York Stock Exchange, which is theoretically a public street with plenty of room, a very reasonable location to assemble since their protest was about institutions such as the New York Stock Exchange. So they escaped to a nearby 'park' which is actually not a park, but a piece of private property which was put in a park-like legal state as part of a zoning agreement having to do with the excessive height of a nearby building owned by the developers (the black corporate tombstone to its north, presently called the Equitable Building, without a scintilla of perceptible irony).

You can see the problem here: because the agora which is assumed for public discourse in the liberal state had been taken away, the protesters had to create a new one if they wanted to exercise their right to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances. They could do this only by bending or breaking the law.

This is not a new problem. Many years ago there was an analogous civil rights issue in a major city. It seemed that there was a club to which only White males of a certain age and degree of prosperity could belong. The problem with this club was that important decisions involving the whole city were negotiated and concluded on its premises. Civil Rights, feminist, and poor people's groups began to picket the club and made an issue of certain politicians' membership in it. The club's members of course complained that their rights of privacy were being violated. I don't know how this came out; I'm just using it to illustrate the conflict. There are similar conflicts in small towns whose only common space is a privately-owned mall. In effect, we are witnessing an exercise of class war on the part of those wealthy enough to control space, first against the poor, and later against the working or middle class, through territorial acquisition and exclusion.

To some extent the mass media were supposed to replace the physical agora, but here we observe a similar problem: except for the Internet, they are all owned, operated, edited and filtered by the same ruling class which owns or dominates most of the physical space. This is why the Occupation was shut out of the mainstream news until someone made a video of a police officer macing a couple of innocent demonstrators, which was too exciting to forgo.

Now, I think this dispute, which is basically a conflict between the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights and others generally assumed, on the one hand, and the right of the wealthy and powerful to dominate and subjugate everyone else through the property system, is inherent in liberalism- capitalism, which is one of the reasons I find capitalism unsatisfactory and work to encourage people to emerge from it. Liberals, however, seem to want to continue to live with it, so they have to find at least a provisional solution to this conflict, whether repressive or seductive.

Cynical maneuvers on the part of the ruling class like 'free speech zones' half a mile out of sight are not going to fool anybody, so the sort of political conflict we observe around the Occupation seems inevitable. There doesn't have to be anything 'behind' it; both sides of the conflict are now out in the open: those who wish to speak, and those who wish to shut them up.

There is yet another side of the struggle here, and that is between the movement and its supposed friends. It is probably much more in danger from those who want to seduce, use, neutralize and then discard it, than it is from those who hate and abuse it. (The way in which the Democratic Party infiltrated, used and then destroyed UFPJ is a good example.) This is not really different from the direct attacks made upon it by the Right, but it is more subtle. The Right's direct insults, abuse, lies and threats directed against the Occupiers may assist in the seduction — attacked, who doesn't look for allies? — all as part of the effort to force the Occupation back into politics as usual, business as usual.

If the Occupation is destroyed by force, it will at least leave behind a powerful myth. If it is drawn into compromise and self-betrayal, it will leave nothing.

The Occupiers are lambs surrounded by wolves and serpents. But they do have the power of representing the many, the invisible, and of speaking the truth.

As I have indicated, I don't think there is any way of telling how the struggle will come out. Strangely (to me), many people want to serve indifferent or abusive masters, perhaps hoping to be masters one day themselves. Others choose otherwise. Now they are joined, as the phrase goes, 'in dubious battle'.


1FreeWorld 2011