Economic development · Education · New York City · Personal Essays

The Madness of Occupy Wall Street’s Reason

Someone asked me recently what I thought of Occupy Wall Street, as an anthropologist. I’m just going to sketch out some thoughts here.

The idea of the commons has been made famous in academic circles by Michael Hardt, a professor of literature at Duke who has worked extensively with Antonio Negri and follows the thinking of the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze. Hardt has written about empire, the multitudes, and the common, in a triad of books that essentially bring Marxism up-to-date in a post-industrial, networked world. When I look at Zuccotti Park (a.k.a. Liberty Square), I see the commons. I see an effort to imagine, to build, to create a world in which wealth is shared at least somewhat equally among all, and in which all contributions are recognized and valued as long as they benefit the group as a whole.

But wait, you say, don’t you know that socialism doesn’t work? Wouldn’t it be ridiculous, you say, if you were a doctor and you were paid as much as a janitor?

I often recall one very specific detail about Cuba, where I visited for two weeks in 2008 in an effort to bolster my pre-grad school understanding of Marx. In Cuba, plastic is very hard to come by. At the market, for example, plastic bags cost a significant sum of money, so very few people buy them. (Cubans are the original canvas bag carriers.) They also don’t have plastic cups or bottles to drink from. And this is the detail that sticks in my mind: every few blocks, there are informal (though of course the government knows about them) drink stations, where you wait in line for five or ten minutes to purchase a glass of cold, sugary juice with Cuban pesos (during which you chat with your mates in the queue, exchanging news about family and work). When you’re finished, you put the glass back. It gets washed. There is no waste.
I just don’t understand why it’s so unbelievably difficult for Americans to do that. Couldn’t we just maybe make do with less, so that everybody didn’t feel the need to rack up $80K in the hopes of achieving the American Dream?
Going back to Michael Hardt, what’s clear to me is that this occupation is about giving voice to the multiplicity of political views that make up the Left. The Left is notoriously fragmented, much more than are conservatives. We bicker among ourselves to the point where we – unionists, anarchists, progressives, liberals, etcetera – cannot agree on anything. The move by the occupiers of Liberty Square to simply decline to demand a specific vision of change strikes me as as opportunity to welcome in a multiplicity of political voices. Conspiracy theorists? Come on in. Graduate students angry about the job market? Take a seat. Underpaid public school teacher, janitor, bus driver? Sign right up. The resultant cacophony is best expressed in the form of grievances, rather than demands; in that OWS has made a very intelligent strategic move.

And this movement is largely a declaration of the New Left (or, the New New Left?) that we have not forgotten politics; it simply doesn’t look like the politics of the May ’68-ers or of the 1970s hippies and environmentalists. We’re making it up as we go; we don’t know what it looks like yet! But it’s ours and by claiming it we reserve our right to be empowered by it, too.

That said, the occupation is inclusive to all generations, despite ideological or strategic differences, and there is an extreme variety of ages among the protesters and leadership.

In his essay, “The Madness of Economic Reason,” Derrida plays around with the notion of the gift, one of cultural anthropology’s most famous tropes. Marcel Mauss wrote The Gift building on Malinowski’s research in the Trobriand Islands, with the agenda of proving the values of egalitarianism and socialism. The gift, it is professed by Mauss, is exchange outside of the logic of capitalism. It is therefore the antidote to modern alienated forms of exchange, and an answer to the problem of global inequality.
But Derrida, being Derrida, tears that apart. The gift-exchange, Derrida writes, is ultimately about time; it is the return of time. A gift requires reciprocation – everyone knows that if someone gave you a gift and you’ve got nothing in return, you’ve f**ked up. It follows therefore that a gift is not free; it is an exchange of obligation, or social ties, that are in fact much stronger and more concrete than the abstract exchange of money that occurs in capitalism.
The madness of economic reason emerges when you realize that so-called “free market” economics does not, cannot, lead to progress. It is not linear, only cyclical. The housing bubble (surplus) of yesterday could only lead to the anger (recession) of today; there was no other path. Occupy Wall Street is simply the reciprocation of a gift. Here, dear country, is our contribution: an assembly, a group of diverse and sometimes unruly idealists, a vision of a future in which wealth is more equitably distributed, and, let’s not forget, pure rage at a social contract onto which we signed our names, only to find that it was just as abstract and worthless as that other piece of paper we find ourselves forced to use, money. We’re not asking for that contract to be obliged. We’re asking for a new one altogether.
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2 thoughts on “The Madness of Occupy Wall Street’s Reason

  1. In 1985 I was involved with the Greens in NYC as a couple dozen of us in various committees and maybe a couple hundred at plenary meetings went through a protracted period of first developing a statement of principles and then agreeing on the general direction of the group. There were disagreements and struggles to take the group in one direction or another (eg, electoral politics vs education/advocacy vs demonstrations/civil disobedience.)  I found it striking that while most of us had firmly rooted democratic ideologies, few of us had adequately democratic sensibilities.  When the group splintered, I took this as a failure and departed to focus on political and economic theory. In retrospect, I was wrong to see that schism as a failure. And the protestors on Wall Street are right to embrace a radical pluralism. In this spirit, it seems appropriate to support their general orientation of protesting, demonstrating, occupying and listing grievances.  It strikes me, however, that the hoped-for outcome of all this is significant reforms in the way business (and government) does what it does.  It seems unlikely to me that such reforms could go far enough in solving problems of poverty, unemployment, climate change, etc. You write that “we have not forgotten politics; it simply doesn’t look like the politics of the May ’68-ers or of the 1970s hippies and environmentalists.”  Actually, Liberty Square does look like the sixties – it’s basically a protest aimed at reform. But there IS a “politics” (or anti-politics) of your generation that DOES look different from the primary (anti-war, anti-poverty, anti-nuke, civil rights, women’s rights) movements of the sixties.  It is the organization of Civil Society. It is the rapid proliferation of NGOs sprouting up across the globe.  I would predict that it is into those that the spirit and energy of the Arab Spring and the American Autumn will eventually be channeled. And I imagine that Civil Society organizations are our best hope for finally coming to grips with all the social and environmental problems that businesses don’t care about and that have come to seem “intractable” to governments.

  2. I’m not much for words these days but I am in agreement with the concept of the “gift exchange” as the strongest tie between individuals and groups as a way to tramp out social inequalities. Global politics have gone beyond extreme complexity and it’s time to return to Maslow’s concepts of making sure the masses have the basics of life.

    Presently, I reside in the rural southeastern region of the U.S. to study southern cultural evolution (completely foreign to me, a Babyboomer born and raised in NY) and attempting to raise up the concept of “gift exchange” as a way to reduce all types of inequalities that are problematic and wide spread in rural areas which I believe African Americans have been hardest hit by our economic crisis.

    Thanks Rachel for sharing your views.

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