Occupy Wall Street: what is to be done next?

What to do in the aftermath of the Occupy Wall Street movement, when the protests that started far away – in the Middle East, Greece, Spain, UK – reached the centre, and are now reinforced and rolling out all around the world?

In a San Francisco echo of the OWS movement on 16 October 2011, a guy addressed the crowd with an invitation to participate in it as if it were a happening in the hippy style of the 1960s:

“They are asking us what is our program. We have no program. We are here to have a good time.”

Such statements display one of the great dangers the protesters are facing: the danger that they will fall in love with themselves, with the nice time they are having in the “occupied” places. Carnivals come cheap – the true test of their worth is what remains the day after, how our normal daily life will be changed. The protesters should fall in love with hard and patient work – they are the beginning, not the end. Their basic message is: the taboo is broken, we do not live in the best possible world; we are allowed, obliged even, to think about alternatives.

In a kind of Hegelian triad, the western left has come full circle: after abandoning the so-called “class struggle essentialism” for the plurality of anti-racist, feminist etc struggles, “capitalism” is now clearly re-emerging as the name of the problem.

The first two things one should prohibit are therefore the critique of corruption and the critique of financial capitalism. First, let us not blame people and their attitudes: the problem is not corruption or greed, the problem is the system that pushes you to be corrupt. The solution is neither Main Street nor Wall Street, but to change the system where Main Street cannot function without Wall Street. Public figures from the pope downward bombard us with injunctions to fight the culture of excessive greed and consummation – this disgusting spectacle of cheap moralization is an ideological operation, if there ever was one: the compulsion (to expand) inscribed into the system itself is translated into personal sin, into a private psychological propensity, or, as one of the theologians close to the pope put it:

“The present crisis is not crisis of capitalism but the crisis of morality.”

Let us recall the famous joke from Ernst Lubitch’s Ninotchka: the hero visits a cafeteria and orders coffee without cream; the waiter replies:

“Sorry, but we have run out of cream, we only have milk. Can I bring you coffee without milk?”

Was not a similar trick at work in the dissolution of the eastern european Communist regimes in 1990? The people who protested wanted freedom and democracy without corruption and exploitation, and what they got was freedom and democracy without solidarity and justice. Likewise, the Catholic theologian close to pope is carefully emphasizing that the protesters should target moral injustice, greed, consumerism etc, without capitalism. The self-propelling circulation of Capital remains more than ever the ultimate Real of our lives, a beast that by definition cannot be controlled.

One should avoid the temptation of the narcissism of the lost cause, of admiring the sublime beauty of uprisings doomed to fail. What new positive order should replace the old one the day after, when the sublime enthusiasm of the uprising is over? It is at this crucial point that we encounter the fatal weakness of the protests: they express an authentic rage which is not able to transform itself into a minimal positive program of socio-political change. They express a spirit of revolt without revolution.

Reacting to the Paris protests of 1968, Lacan said:

“What you aspire to as revolutionaries is a new master. You will get one.”

It seems that Lacan’s remark found its target (not only) in the indignados of Spain. Insofar as their protest remains at the level of a hysterical provocation of the master, without a positive program for the new order to replace the old one, it effectively functions as a call for a new master, albeit disavowed.

We got the first glimpse of this new master in Greece and Italy, and Spain will probably follow. As if ironically answering the lack of expert programs of the protesters, the trend is now to replace politicians in the government with a “neutral” government of depoliticized technocrats (mostly bankers, as in Greece and Italy). Colorful “politicians” are out, grey experts are in. This trend is clearly moving towards a permanent emergency state and the suspension of political democracy.

So we should see in this development also a challenge: it is not enough to reject the depoliticized expert rule as the most ruthless form of ideology; one should also begin to think seriously about what to propose instead of the predominant economic organization, to imagine and experiment with alternate forms of organization, to search for the germs of the New. Communism is not just or predominantly the carnival of the mass protest when the system is brought to a halt; Communism is also, above all, a new form of organization, discipline, hard work.

The protesters should beware not only of enemies, but also of false friends who pretend to support them, but are already working hard to dilute the protest. In the same way we get coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, ice-cream without fat, they will try to make the protests into a harmless moralistic gesture. In boxing, to “clinch” means to hold the opponent’s body with one or both arms in order to prevent or hinder punches. Bill Clinton‘s reaction to the Wall Street protests is a perfect case of political clinching; Clinton thinks that the protests are “on balance … a positive thing”, but he is worried about the nebulousness of the cause. Clinton suggested the protesters get behind President Obama’s jobs plan, which he claimed would create “a couple million jobs in the next year and a half”. What one should resist at this stage is precisely such a quick translation of the energy of the protest into a set of “concrete” pragmatic demands. Yes, the protests did create a vacuum – a vacuum in the field of hegemonic ideology, and time is needed to fill this vacuum in in a proper way, since it is a pregnant vacuum, an opening for the truly New. The reason protesters went out is that they had enough of the world where to recycle your Coke cans, to give a couple of dollars for charity, or to buy Starbucks cappuccino where 1% goes for the third world troubles is enough to make them feel good.

Economic globalization is gradually but inexorably undermining the legitimacy of western democracies. Due to their international character, large economic processes cannot be controlled by democratic mechanisms which are, by definition, limited to nation states. In this way, people more and more experience institutional democratic forms as unable to capture their vital interests.

It is here that Marx’s key insight remains valid, today perhaps more than ever: for Marx, the question of freedom should not be located primarily into the political sphere proper. The key to actual freedom rather resides in the “apolitical” network of social relations, from the market to the family, where the change needed if we want an actual improvement is not a political reform, but a change in the “apolitical” social relations of production. We do not vote about who owns what, about relations in a factory, etc – all this is left to processes outside the sphere of the political. It is illusory to expect that one can effectively change things by “extending” democracy into this sphere, say, by organizing “democratic” banks under people’s control. In such “democratic” procedures (which, of course, can have a positive role to play), no matter how radical our anti-capitalism is, the solution is sought in applying the democratic mechanisms – which, one should never forget, are part of the state apparatuses of the “bourgeois” state that guarantees undisturbed functioning of the capitalist reproduction.

The emergence of an international protest movement without a coherent program is therefore not an accident: it reflects a deeper crisis, one without an obvious solution. The situation is like that of psychoanalysis, where the patient knows the answer (his symptoms sare such answers) but doesn’t know to what they are answers, and the analyst has to formulate a question. Only through such a patient work a program will emerge.

In an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic, a German worker gets a job in Siberia. Aaware of how all mail will be read by censors, he tells his friends:

“Let’s establish a code: if a letter you will get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it is true; if it is written in red ink, it is false.”

After a month, his friends get the first letter written in blue ink:

“Everything is wonderful here: stores are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, movie theatres show films from the west, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair – the only thing unavailable is red ink.”

And is this not our situation till now? We have all the freedoms one wants – the only thing missing is the “red ink”: we feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom. What this lack of red ink means is that, today, all the main terms we use to designate the present conflict – “war on terror”, “democracy and freedom”, “human rights”, etc – are false terms, mystifying our perception of the situation instead of allowing us to think it.

The task today is to give the protesters red ink.


NYPL logo

• This article is based on remarks Slavoj Žižek will be making at an event at the New York Public Library on 25 April, ahead of publication of The Year of Dreaming Dangerously (2012).