Lots of people have asked me, in person and via email, what I think Mayor Bloomberg’s ouster of OWS means.  I think it means we won.

“L’etat, c’est moi,” that’s what our leader said Tuesday morning.  In more modern parlance, and in order from Alexander Haig unto George W. Bush, “I’m in charge here,”  “I’m the decider.”  How comic, how pathetic is this, when the little emperor acknowledges that he’s naked but still sits on the throne?  Public health balanced against free expression, and Brookfield Properties gets to define the state’s overriding interest?  The common good balanced against the spectacle of political nomads encamped uncomfortably near Wall Street, and the common good gets defined by the guy who came from the Street?

Please.  It’s unseemly at worst, but quite funny at best.  Everybody knows it.  Including me, and I was the one who worried that the local ruling class had lost faith in its capacity to rule.  Of course it has, what was I thinking?. Tom Wolfe recorded that transition long ago, and not just in The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Notice, then, where the New York Times went for comment on the consequences of the mayor’s political cleansing operation: to left-wing intellectuals like Maurice Isserman.  I’ve agreed with Isserman on nothing until now, but he’s right, a change of venue in the largest sense is a good thing for the movement.

The war of position is what we’re fighting now, not the war of maneuver.  We’re not going to overthrow the state or do anything dramatic like tear down some monument–topple Big Red in Zuccotti Park, splash paint on the Merrill Lynch bull, what would that mean?–but we don’t have to, either.  The nature of revolution in our time doesn’t require armed struggle except as spastic skirmishes, and, by the same token, it doesn’t require regime change as a formal, political passage.

But seriously now, how is that we won?  Listen to Joshua Leavitt, a radical ideologue who worked with Theodore Weld in making the transition from abolitionism to anti-slavery in the late 1830s and 1840s, having decided that their project was making slavery the central issue in every available vernacular idiom–taking the case to the people–rather than abstaining from the compromises and corruptions of politics, lobbying, and Washington D.C.

Here’s what Leavitt wrote to a comrade in 1848:

“I believe now there is a general preparation in the minds of the people to look to the ‘overthrow of the Slave Power’ as the ultimate result of our movement.  The Slave Power is now indissolubly incorporated in the political nomenclature of the country.  We must make the most of that word [because] the incessant use of the term will do much to open the eyes and arouse the energies of the people.”

Just so with ‘the 1%’ and ‘We are the 99%.’  OWS marks a change of moral season because this language is a performative speech act, it creates what it names, as in “I now pronounce you man and wife:” it names and creates both division and solidarity, an identifiable enemy and a plausible mass of opposition.  This language has now been insinuated–the passive voice is appropriate–into everyday utterance as well as editorial pronouncement.  It lets us, forces us, to see the world anew, even though we might already have thought of the world’s divisions without these particular denominations.





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2 responses to “OWS XI

  1. What a great articulation of the analogy: the Street/the 1%: the disgusting institution that never should have been. So intertwined with governance, then and now. Dare I say that the change of moral season is real, and reason for hope? Cheers, K

  2. Paul Wolman

    Nicely stated, and well-conceived, Jim. I think that Jeffrey Sachs has made a complementary argument in his NYT op ed of last Sunday(http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/13/opinion/sunday/the-new-progressive-movement.html?_r=1) in characterizing OWS and other protests as harbingers of “a third progressive era,” of a cyclical phase shift in political-economic development.

    What strikes me in particular about the OWS activities is that they appear to have learned from, and in some ways transcended, the egotistical and sectarian morass into which much of the left of the “sixties” fell. And to have retained and put to the fore a healthy focus on inclusiveness, liberty, and equality. All the more ludicrous does that make the Fox-inspired expostulations of “communism.” Or David Brooks’ cynical mockery, his persistent, career-long effort to paint the left into a corner of irrelevant dilettantism. He must really be getting scared now.

    Oh, I’m not so naive as to believe that sectarianism doesn’t rear its ugly head in many ways (particularly among environmental absolutists seeking to “purify” themselves and everyone else of modernity). Still, I sense that the personalities – and dare I say it, the upbringing – of the younger generation has taught many of them in one way or another the immaturity of sectarianism.

    So, then, the language, and the culture, and the intelligentsia (Sachs, not Brooks) have evolved. And that’s all a good thing. –Paul

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