Policy Is the Best Policy
August 13, 2012

The concept of policy is the American political imagination’s self-circumscribed border. You can do what you like with policies–build, mold, destroy, rearrange–but the context in which policies appear is static, unchanging. Policies can reflect different governing philosophies, but only those philosophies which endorse governing through policy. Policy can shape philosophy as much as philosophy shapes policy.

Policies deal with the tactile and the quantifiable. If it’s not measurable, it’s not truly thinkable. Policy is hostile to virtue ethics or theology, but it loves utilitarianism. To the extent that policy addresses psychology, it turns us all into behaviorists. Behavioral economics has made policy more sophisticated, but it has also made its outer limits more sharply visible.

The ultimate end of modern politics is to exert as much influence as possible over policy making. You can do that either by electing your own policy makers or by influencing the ones already in office. Elected officials, public institutions and interest groups form alliances and compete among one another to most effectively dominate the policy-making process. Within those categories, political actors are distinguishable only by their stated policy preferences, the amount of power they wield, and how they use that power. So, for example, all interest groups are identical insofar as they all do more or less the same thing in the same way. A labor union is indistinguishable from a pro-life activist group is indistinguishable from the Chamber of Commerce until you examine their stated policy preferences and the strategies they use to achieve them.

This is essentially why Occupy Wall Street was so baffling: it refused to behave like an interest group. When members of the press urged Occupy to release its demands, they were really asking for a menu of policy preferences. Occupy Wall Street’s idea of a politics beyond policy seemed as intelligible as a language spoken without words. But that idea’s moment has passed, at least for now, along with its frightening ambiguities. Policy has resumed its central, uncontested place in political discourse. Occupy–cloudy, confusing and inchoate–has ceded to the simple, comforting, and diamond-hard.

Even more comforting: Paul Ryan’s appearance on the Republican presidential ticket this election cycle. Conventional wisdom has it that his presence will make the election especially policy-heavy. Here’s hoping!

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The Religious Attitude
April 21, 2012

The above clip comes from Adam Curtis’ four-part BBC documentary series, The Century of the Self, in which he tries to show how the modern West came to be ruled by (in his eyes) an ideology of radical individualism. Politics, he argues, is no longer about communal interests or the promise of a different world; it is instead about administering to the present state of affairs, and satisfying the individual’s self-interested needs and desires.

Curtis returned to that theme, one of his favorites, in a talk he delivered last weekend in New York City’s e-flux gallery. There, he expressed frustration with Occupy Wall Street and the left in general, saying that both had failed to come up with a workable alternative to the cult of the individual. Horizontalism, in Curtis’ dim view, is little more than an anarchified twist on the old fallacy of the market’s invisible hand: both posit that a mass of people all expressing their own individual preferences can somehow yield a coherent, dynamic, and mutually beneficial ecosystem.

You can quibble with that take on horizontalism, if you like — it is, to be sure, more than a little reductive to equate heavily structured General Assembly discussions with the Hobbesian chaos of a laissez-faire market. But Curtis’ broader indictment of the contemporary left is both harder to swallow and harder to dismiss. Those elements of the left that have denounced the ideology of the self (and they are fewer than you think) leave a conceptual vacuum in its wake. (more…)

Do You Believe in Magic?
January 24, 2012

As Corey Robin, Malcolm Harris and IOZ have all suggested or implied, Melissa Harris-Perry’s latest is perhaps best read as a sort of Swiftian parody of liberalism, written by a closeted anarchist. What else does one make of a column that compares American liberal democracy to Santa Claus and then exhorts us to believe in it?

Santa exists only if we make him real through belief. The American project in democracy is similar. Even as we challenge it to be better, fairer and more honest, we still have to believe that democratic governance by the people, through their institutions, can and should exist. Like Santa Claus, democracy requires us to believe that collective faith can be greater than our individual doubts. In 1994’s Miracle, Santa says, “I’m not just a whimsical figure who wears a charming suit and affects a jolly demeanor…. I’m a symbol, I’m a symbol of the human ability to suppress the selfish and hateful tendencies that rule the major part of our lives.”

Granted, we do Dr. Harris-Perry an injustice if we refuse to engage with the substance of her argument and instead content ourselves with snarking at an unfortunate metaphor. She does, after all, have a point, or at least half of one. A republic of institutional nihilists will destroy itself in seconds flat; the glue that holds any democratic project together is a shared commitment to democratic values. Whether or not one can have a rational commitment to those values is a point of contention as old as moral philosophy. On this point I would only say that even if all ethical claims are non-rational, they are still qualitatively distinct from empirical claims regarding the alleged existence of supernatural avatars of jolliness.

Anyway, even if ethical claims can’t be mathematically proven, they can still be persuasively argued. That is not what Harris-Perry has done; in fact, her entire column is a long exercise in question-begging. We are told that we should believe in the American democratic project because, if we don’t, then the project will fail. But if we don’t believe it in the first place, then why should we want it to succeed? A more persuasive version of this column (though also, no doubt, a much longer one) might have told us why, whether or not Santa is real, we should want him to be real.

Furthermore, it might have told us how that desire should translate into reality. I’m no anarchist — this little boy wants to believe. But what am I supposed to do with that? Faith in American democracy must mean something different from faith in the institutional machinery of the American state, machinery which Harris-Perry admits has failed us. That being the case, trying to exercise power through established channels may be necessary, but it is woefully insufficient. That’s why Harris-Perry’s final paragraph made this little boy’s heart sink:

Our faith has been badly damaged by governors who crush unions, by a Congress that will not govern, by a military that tortures, by campus police with pepper spray, by coaches who prey on kids, by CEOs who slash jobs as profits rise, by a system that seems irreparably broken. But building a country requires investment in one another, hope that we can be better tomorrow than we are today and faith that our failures are not definitive. In these final days before we enter the 2012 election year, it is time to ask, “Do you believe?”

Juxtapose the reference to 2012 with the glaring omission from Harris-Perry’s list of faith-damagers, and this starts to sound dangerously close to another call for everyone to just suck it up and vote for the Democrats. I submit to you that doing so, and letting the extent of our civic engagement stop there, would actually be a testament to our profound lack of faith in democracy. Surely Occupy Wall Street should have reminded us that democracy is more than something you do for a couple hours once every four years; it is, in fact, a way of life.

That’s another problem with the Santa Claus analogy: Saint Nick comes but once a year, if he comes at all. If American democracy is to be rescued, or if we are to so much as demonstrate that American democracy is worth rescuing, then that means conceiving it as a permanent, year-round state of existence.

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From an Occupation to a Movement
November 16, 2011

The New York Times is reporting that, as of this morning, a handful of occupiers remain in Zucotti Park. That is both encouraging and unsurprising, but it doesn’t alter the fact that Liberty Plaza as it once existed — as a camp, an incubator for radicalism, and as an anarchist village unto itself — is over. Occupy Wall Street has lost its occupation, and I do not think it can be recovered.

Yet today I’m not filled with despair or anger, but hope. There are now, after all, other occupations. Many others. November 17 is tomorrow. And the New York occupiers are still out there. Many of them are doubtless more galvanized than ever.

So no, this is not the end. It may well be the beginning of the end, but that’s in our hands, not the mayor’s. The choices that Occupy Wall Street and its supporters make in the next couple of weeks will decide whether their eviction was a check on Occupy’s expansion or a catalyst for more. If we’re smart and lucky, then all that happened was what had to happen for the occupation to evolve. It’s not the way I would have chosen for things to go down, but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s tremendous opportunity in this crisis.

What we have now is a chance to fundamentally restructure Occupy Wall Street. That means completing the transition from one central space to a number of autonomous spheres. It means devolving power from the General Assembly to a network of autonomous factions with their own goals, strategies and leadership structures. Time to stop thinking commune and start thinking movement.

I’ve long been skeptical of the General Assembly. A consensus-based model of governance has considerable merits, but those merits have been harder to find the more the occupation has matured. The prerequisite of consensus makes the decision-making process difficult, time-consuming, and strategically incoherent. It leaves Occupy unable to seize the initiative or respond to nasty surprises (such as, say, an NYPD raid in the dead of night) in a rapid, coordinated fashion.

It’s also less democratic than it looks. Doing away with formal leadership structures doesn’t do away with hierarchy, it just makes it harder to see. Differences in knowledge, expertise, experience, charisma, and dumb luck create informal hierarchies that can be just as coercive as formal hierarchies (if not more so), but lack clear institutional boundaries. Behold the disproportionate power wielded by Occupy Wall Street’s opaque Finance Committee, or the unofficial network of “ad hoc leaders” profiled here. When people say that Occupy, is “not leaderless, but full of leaders,” this is what they really mean.

Because these leadership structures go mostly unacknowledged, there’s no formal process for improving them. And because they’re based on the same informal hierarchies we find in the world at large, they often have the some old privilege-based power dynamics. But to their credit, most of the occupation’s unofficial leaders seem to be aware of this, and they have been taking steps to correct the problem. As Sarah Seltzer reports in The Nation, Occupy has taken steps to privilege traditionally marginalized voices in the General Assembly. Even more promising was the recent adoption of the Spokes Council model, described here.

The formation of the Spokes Council was a good first step towards the eventual factionalization and movement-ization of Occupy Wall Street, but that’s all it is. This new model preserved the General Assembly’s tyranny of consensus while leaving a little more room for internal caucusing. For Occupy Wall Street to go full movement, these spokes would next have to be granted more freedom from both the GA and each other, and assume a central role in organizing and decision making.

The end result would hopefully look something like the American civil rights movement, one of the most effective and transformative mass movements in American history. If you look at one of that movement’s individual struggles — the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike that Dr. King died defending, for example — you’ll see an amorphous group of individual “spokes” with deep organizational and philosophical differences. In the case of the strike, those spokes included such wildly divergent groups as the Southern Christian Leadership Council, AFSCME, and a local group of black militants known as the Invaders. These groups did not try to achieve consensus, either internally or with one another. In fact, they had very serious disagreements that were never truly reconciled. Nevertheless, their ad hoc unified front successfully secured a collective bargaining agreement for hundreds of oppressed black sanitation workers, an unheard of victory in the anti-union, segregationist south.

That victory was won by the sort of movement-based model I always hoped Occupy Wall Street would eventually morph into. Now that the occupation’s central base of operations has been dismantled and co-opted, it might not have any choice. The time has come for evolution or endangerment, and possibly extinction.

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#OWS and Organized Labor
October 28, 2011

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 18:  Members of the Occ...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

Having previously compared the New Left to Occupy Wall Street, Shawn Gude wonders aloud why the latter is so much more inclined to play nice with labor unions. His theory:

Constant rearguard attacks and mass deunionization have surely play a part. Labor is beleaguered—not an ossified, establishment force. And the cultural chasm between the labor rank-and-file and leftist seems to have shrunk; organized labor has moved to the left in recent decades, and the left has moved to the right (no more antiwar sentiments transmogrifying into anti-soldier enmity). I just can’t imagine anything comparable to the Hard Hat Riot happening now.

The first part of that sounds right, though I’m not so sure about the bolded portion. It may well be true that organized labor has liberalized significantly on social issues, but I don’t think they’ve done so out of proportion with trends in overall societal norms — and besides, it’s not like all the true leftists were ever entirely purged from the movement. As for “the left,” whether or not it moved right sort of depends on who you’re talking about. The Democratic Party has certainly undergone a sharp rightward tilt in many respects, but I don’t think Shawn was referring to them. If we’re instead talking about the anarchists and other hard leftists who were caucusing at OWS from the beginning, then I’d argue there’s been very little shift towards the center in those intellectual traditions. It’s not like anarchists have gotten significantly less anarchist of late. (And outside of those ideologically concentrated cells, the intellectual makeup of OWS is too diverse and fraught with internal dissent to even call it “the left” without qualification.)

But then, I know very little about the New Left. What I can talk about with slightly more authority is US labor history in the first half of the 20th Century. That was a period when organized labor was the left in America; maybe not necessarily all of the rank and file, but among staff and leadership the philosophical gamut ran from center-leftism to syndicalism, socialism, anarchism, and out-and-out Communism.

I won’t be able to do justice to the possible causes for the New Left’s formal split with organized labor, but I will note one key factor Shawn didn’t mention: overall economic climate. The 60s were a time of relative prosperity, at least for white America. Between the New Deal and the Great Society, ambitious social welfare proposals were now mainstream propositions.. These weren’t exactly the conditions for class struggle.

Contrast that with the current economic climate, which more closely resembles the conditions that led to peak labor activism in this country. The modern labor movement was born in the Gilded Age and sustained itself through a succession of financial crises which eventually culminated in the Great Depression. Today we face decades of stagnant wages, a crippling financial crisis, Gilded Age-level inequality, and what one might well call another depression. In times like these, one of the left’s primary concerns is class, and organized labor’s value becomes self-evident. The big question now is whether that’s enough.

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A Rather Urgent #OWS PSA
October 13, 2011

Close followers of Occupy Wall Street have undoubtedly heard the news already, but here it is for those who haven’t:

Occupy Wall Street is gaining momentum, with occupation actions now happening in cities across the world.

But last night Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD notified Occupy Wall Street participants about plans to “clean the park”—the site of the Wall Street protests—tomorrow starting at 7am. “Cleaning” was used as a pretext to shut down “Bloombergville” a few months back, and to shut down peaceful occupations elsewhere.

Bloomberg says that the park will be open for public usage following the cleaning, but with a notable caveat: Occupy Wall Street participants must follow the “rules”.

NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has said that they will move in to clear us and we will not be allowed to take sleeping bags, tarps, personal items or gear back into the park.

This is it — this is their attempt to shut down #OWS for good.

The whole velvet-gloved “cleaning” pretext is classic: ugly, dissent-quashing authoritarianism thinly disguised as benign paternalism. Which makes it a perfect metaphor for what the occupiers came together to resist in the first place.

Anyway, 6 AM is when everyone’s getting together at Freedom Plaza to turn down the city’s eviction notice. Dress nice, be polite to your friendly neighborhood officer. Maybe bring a camera. And if you can’t make it, consider calling 311 (for New Yorkers) or 212-639-9675 (for non-New Yorkers) and asking Bloomberg and Kelly to let the occupiers exercise their right to peaceably assemble.

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#OccupyWallStreet is Not a Protest, Cont.
October 3, 2011

In his interview with Ezra Klein, anthropologist and Occupy Wall Street co-organizer David Graeber said:

In a way, what we want is to create spaces where people can think about questions like that. In New York, according to law, any unpermitted assembly of more than 12 people is illegal in New York. Space itself is not an openly available resource. But the one resource that isn’t scarce is smart people with ideas. So we’re trying to reframe things away from the rhetoric of demands to a questions of visons and solutions. Now how that translates into actual social change is an interesting question. One way this has been done elsewhere is you have local initiatives that come out of the local assemblies. [Emphasis mine -- NR]

He doesn’t elaborate much, but I think this gives support to my theory that Occupy Wall Street is less a traditional protest than a communal space and movement incubator.

Over at Forbes, Erik Kain has more:

Like Resnikoff, I think that even just organizing and maintaining these protests is worthy of praise. The manifestation of #OccupyWallStreet as more than just a hashtag is a real achievement. From incoherence comes relevancy, however messy or disorganized that process may be.

But I also think that in order for this communal space to become something more, to really achieve movement status, the activists will need to establish more than just a permanent outpost. Somehow these activists need to translate the protests and the communal spaces into actual institutions.

Furthermore, the real import of these protests is not the protests themselves but the deep need for solutions outside of the political duopoly and the realm of government. Unions used to be a real bastion of political activism. Now that unions are on the decline, there are few populist outlets remaining. For regular people to have a voice, they need strength in numbers.

The Tea Party understands this all too well. Until recently however, the left had forgotten the importance of solidarity.

Perhaps Wisconsin should be seen as a precursor to Occupy Wall Street, and perhaps Occupy Wall Street is only the beginning. Progressives need to keep looking to civil society to affect change. They need to rebuild the crumbled institutions of the left.

That last paragraph is key.

(By the way: If you haven’t encountered Graeber’s work before, I recommend his illuminating Naked Capitalism interview on the history of debt.)

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#OccupyWallStreet Is Not a Protest. It’s Something Better.
October 3, 2011

Day 8 Occupy Wall Street September 24 2011 Sha...

Image by david_shankbone via Flickr

(Despite this post’s intentionally provocative title, I’m not really 100% confident about any of this. But I figured it was worth raising the issue and seeing what other people think. Observations and criticism very welcome, especially from those who are actually involved in the occupation.)

I was originally an Occupy Wall Street skeptic, for the reason that most left-leaning skeptics usually give: without any coherent demands or strategy, I figured the “occupation” could only marginalize itself and misallocate activist energy that would be much better spent elsewhere. Progressive commentators such as Matthew Yglesias,Doug Henwood, Mike Konczal, and Lauren Ellis, among others, have voiced similar complaints, and let’s face it: they have a point. Successful protests typically have predetermined strategies and goals — Occupy Wall Street has neither. If we are to judge the occupation as a protest, we must judge it harshly.

But we should not take the “protest” frame for granted, as most of Occupy Wall Street’s left-leaning critics do. In fact, I submit that this occupation is something entirely different, and much more important: it is a public, counter-establishment communal space.

(more…)

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