“I wonder what Occupy Wall Street is going to do next…”
So goes the refrain that punctuates many conversations about Occupy Wall Street today. The refrain marks a quiet, barely acknowledged shift in the Occupy movement’s place within the national imagination. On the one hand, there have been very few headlines to emerge under the OWS. label in the last month or so. Occupy Our Homes and Ports, the fight over Duarte Park, the short-lived re-occupation over New Year’s, and Occupy Iowa have all gotten some attention, but they have failed to recapture the energy of late October/early November.
On the other hand, we’ve come a long way since the days when people crowed about the lack of “demands” from the Occupy Wall Street activists. Now they’re a known entity — identified not by policy positions but by a general political attitude and a collection of images and phrases. Some people believe “they” are simply hibernating for the spring, while others expect that the presidential campaign will spark new protests, most likely over the summer.
OWS, in other words, has become a character in a reality television show for which many Americans cannot wait for the next episode.
Put differently, Occupy Wall Street, and its companion “the 99%,” have become something like brands. I don’t mean to say that the occupation has been corporatized; rather, OWS has become like a brand in a more fundamental sense. A brand is a fact that can be consumed, or that can be used to motivate consumption, because it is not up for debate. A good brand doesn’t raise questions, it simply is. Nike is that shoe company that makes sneakers for athletes and puts a swoosh on everything it sells. Starbucks is that coffee place you can find anywhere with the caffé mochas you love so much. Bank of America is that dependable bank with ATMs all over the city that is (allegedly) way too powerful to go bankrupt. One can have all kinds of arguments over whether Nike, Starbucks, or Bank of America are good or bad, or do good or bad things, but no one is arguing about what they are, exactly.
Occupy Wall Street is the people who are fighting the good fight. It is that left-wing activist thing that puts up tents, sponsors rallies, makes YouTube videos, uses the human mic, holds general assemblies, and gets Michael Moore excited. And ‘the 99%’ is the have-nots, the disadvantaged masses, the not-elites, the protagonist in the class war; ‘the 1%’ is the elite, the powerful, the villain.
There’s another word for the transformation from an abstract and indefinable collection of facts and interpretations into a concrete and not-up-for-debate “thing” — the process is called reification. Marxists love the word, which is why most people have never heard of it these days, but it’s the key principle behind the making of a brand. And whatever you want to call the brandlike concretization of OWS, it must be acknowledged before engaging in any more serious discussion of politics in 2012.
The first step to recapturing the potential of Occupy Wall Street is to resist its reification, and we can do that by remembering that the power of the Zuccotti occupation was in how much it didn’t make sense. A month and a half after the end of the New York encampment, let’s try thinking of Occupy Wall Street not as an organization but as a claim: that private interest is a public problem.
It worked like this: Wall Street is a private space that pretends to be a public space (just like Zuccotti Park — the poetry was in the homology). On Wall Street, meaning the stock market, any adult can become a part-owner of a private company, so that the corporate world seems to offer itself to the democratic masses to be carved up according to its whims. But the truth is that the stock market solidifies power for the wealthy few, who, alone, can afford enough shares to hold sway in boardroom meetings — and, by extension, in the halls of Congress via lobbyists and corporate donations. For the rest of us, the stock market is both the lottery and the illusion of influence (assuming we can afford to “play” at all). Still, the health of the stock market is taken to be an indicator of the health of the nation as a whole.
Occupying Wall Street means calling the stock market’s bluff: It means shaming the private sector for pretending to be public, and demonstrating that the public good cannot be served by private interest. The reason “demands” were hard to come by in the early days was that Occupy Wall Street’s claim delegitimized the stock market and corporate power altogether. If that were to be taken seriously, the means by which our nation conducts its business would be in jeopardy, and something else — something unknowable in advance — would have to take its place. The immensity of that change might feel like a revolution, but it is necessary for the well-being of America and the globalized world.
So Occupying Wall Street was not a crazy scheme that a group of activists did for attention. They did it for us. If the stock market is really going to be a seat of power in contemporary society, then we all have a stake in what happens there. If Wall Street is king, then Wall Street is ours, and the activists were holding our spot. The state knew this, so it dispatched some of its employees to arrest a few of us, to pepper spray a few others, and then, finally, on a cold November night, to throw all of us out.
Today, the distribution of power — you could call it the state, the oligarchy, the 1%, the “system,” or whatever — has got what it wanted. Wall Street and Occupy Wall Street comfortably co-exist. Everyone is happy that the good guys are still fighting, regardless of where they are or how many of them there are left. The stock market bell rings every morning, and both state and federal legislators continue to claim the low market numbers and the rising debt as excuses to gut public programs. Occupy Wall Street is another label everyone can wear to a New Year’s Eve party or talk about with their left-leaning friends. And journalists can do their due diligence by covering new Occupy actions as footnotes to the main event: election season.
Instead of asking what Occupy Wall Street is going to do next, we should be asking what kinds of public claims can yet be made that will challenge the status quo, that will confuse people by baldly suggesting that private is public, and that everyone, not just those who can buy into the system, matter. We will know that we have succeeded in cracking the brand-status of Occupy Wall Street when we are no longer speaking about “it” and waiting for “them” to do something new. Instead, we will be talking once again about “us.”
Jason Fitzgerald is earning a doctorate in Theater and English at Columbia University. This is his second essay on the meaning of Occupy Wall Street, for Off the Bus.