In late October of last year my cousin came down to Liberty Square, then home of a thriving Occupy Wall Street, to meet me for a drink. He arrived early so he could check things out for himself. I was eager to hear his impressions.
“What stood out to me,” he told me at a bar around the corner, “was how you all are recreating society—or creating a microcosm of society. It’s all there: a kitchen, a medical tent, a security force, a public library, and a whole alternative decision-making structure. It’s fascinating!”
Much has been made about the prefigurative aspects of Occupy Wall Street and the occupy encampments across the country, when they existed. The camps, for example, served as more than just a protest, more than just a tactic. Participants consciously prefigured the kind of society that they were striving to build. It was indeed a compelling moment for my cousin—or for any stranger—to witness. In the two months of the physical occupation of Liberty Square, newcomers like him could walk in off the street and join our world—could even speak up during a General Assembly meeting if they felt so moved. Everyone’s participation was welcomed. A modified consensus decision-making process is used in the General Assembly and in working group meetings so that decisions have to take into account everyone’s input and ideas, thus prefiguring a kind of direct democracy lacking in the wider world, particularly in the realm of mainstream politics.
“It’s kind of utopian,” my cousin suggested.
“I hope not!” I replied.
While I believe that consensus and participation are important principles in democratic grassroots organizing, I’m also not as enamored with process as many folks are. In practice, I’ve often found aspects of consensus-based processes deeply dysfunctional. I take that in stride and with patience. Social movements are messy and it takes a while to figure out good and functional processes for democratic decision-making and accountability.
What is striking though is how these processes and rituals have come to stand in for a strategy for many participants. Particular forms of process—from mic-checks to sparkle fingers to making space where everyone who wants to can speak—have often become confused with political content (i.e. goals or a platform).
This is not at all to denigrate these particular forms. Nor is it even to dismiss the importance of collective ritual in protest and challenger movements. Collective ritual fosters strong group identity, cohesion, and solidarity. Participants’ willingness to give of themselves depends on this strong sense of solidarity and identity. But if our intention is to change the world—not just prefigure a utopian vision, with no idea about how to actualize it—then these critical collective rituals must take their place within a larger overarching strategic framework.
“The attribute ‘utopian’ does not apply to political will in general, but to specific wills which are incapable of relating means to end, and hence are not even wills, but idle whims, dreams, longings, etc.,” Antonio Gramsci wrote in his Prison Notebooks, elaborating a definition of utopianism that goes further than its popular notion of rosy-eyed visions of how the world could one day be. Gramsci dismisses utopianists not for the content of their vision of the future, but for their lack of a vision or plan for how to move from Point A to Point B, from present reality to realized vision. In other words, dreaming about how the world might possibly someday be is not the same as political struggle—even when the dreams are punctuated with dramatic public spectacles.
At Liberty Square we had created a feeling of utopianism. Utopianism as a feeling is hardly about the future; it is something that is felt—often overwhelmingly so—here and now. At Occupy I began to wonder whether participants’ sense of a strong integrated identity was itself the utopia they were after? What if the thing we are missing, the thing we are lacking—the thing we are longing for most—is a sense of an integrated existence in a cohesive community? And what if that longing can be so potent it can eclipse the drive to affect change in the broader world?
I believe that this longing for integrated existence and group identity provides much of the conviction behind prefigurative politics—more so than any stated instrumental goals. So many of us feel alienated and isolated in our everyday lives. Others have already hypothesized that the dispersal of group identities in modern societies—accelerated with the further development of capitalism and corresponding rise of individualism in highly industrialized nations—may be a root cause of many mental illnesses and of anomie. If so, would it not also be the root of our deepest longings? Perhaps this lack, this longing, attaches itself in some people—including many who gravitate to social movements—to issues of injustices, partly from resonance and compassion, but also as fetish objects that stand in for our hope of completion, for the filling of our lack.
The problem with this arrangement is political. Insofar as participants are motivated by the hope of psychic completion (by community and a strong sense of belonging) as opposed to instrumental political goals (i.e. to concretely change X in the world), their focus will likely shift to deepening group identity over bolstering the group’s external achievements. After all, the sense of utopia-as-group-belonging can be accomplished without ever having to actually win anything. This is how a group’s internal processes can come to stand in for a strategy. Our tactics become valued more for their self-expressive and group-benefiting capacities than for their instrumentality. The participant motivated more by the group itself than by the group’s accomplishments will likely gravitate toward self-referential tactics, rituals, and rhetoric. This, in turn, can lead the core of a potentially popular movement to insularity, isolation, and impotency.
“There is a danger,” Slavoj Žižek warned us last fall at Liberty Square. “Don’t fall in love with yourselves. We have a nice time here. But remember, carnivals come cheap. What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal lives. Will there be any changes then?”
Žižek warned us to not fixate on our own image in the mirror; to not let love of our own liberation devolve into narcissism. Our challenge is to build and celebrate our community—including the deeply motivating feelings of belonging and solidarity we experience—while also keeping our eyes on the prize of real-world victories. Valuing the internal life of the social movements we are part of—our spaces, our culture, our rituals, our processes, etc.—is important, but we have to balance this with the value we place on what our movements actually achieve.