Occupy the Political: Politics of Self-Expression and the Occupy Movement

My colleague Daniel Kreiss and I have  paper titled “Occupying the Political: Occupy Wall Street, Collective Action, and the Rediscovery of Pragmatic Politics” which has been accepted to the journal Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies.  In the paper, we compare some instances of strategic decision making in the civil rights movement with that of the Occupy movement. We argue that social movement participants have become so focused on self-expression as a mode of politics that strategic decision making and intervening (and changing) the broader political arena has taken an unfortunate back seat–and these developments are to the detriment of actual political change.

In other words, if movement participants concentrate this much on “being the change that they seek”, it may hinder their ability to bring about change.

If a movement is to be more than about creating a particular environment for people who have the resources, time and the possibility to occupy a public square for a longish period of time (in other words, for the 99% of working people), it needs to more strongly consider decision making and strategic action avenues that are more than about self-expression–and may even clash with it.

We wrote the paper to hopefully be part of such discussions we know are going on among many people who participated in the Occupy movement and are pondering the next step for politics of dissent and social change.

The full-text of the paper can be found here.

Title:  Occupying the Political: Occupy Wall Street, Collective Action, and the Rediscovery of Pragmatic Politics

Abstract:  In this paper we compare the institutional and strategic decision making structures of the civil rights movement with the Occupy movement with special emphasis on the role of self-expression as a political value versus strategic considerations. We argue that Occupy participants cast the values and form of the movement itself – how it operates and makes decisions – in terms that are synonymous with its very identity and survival. Occupy is the change that its members seek. There is both promise and peril in this approach. Occupy is finding it difficult to engage in institutional politics—which we argue is key to broad and durable societal transformations. We suggest that as Occupy goes home, and as it prepares to come back, it should renegotiate the tension between self-expression and strategic institutional action, and between movement itself as a goal and movement goals. In short, we argue that mistaking an anti-institutional style of participatory democracy and self-expression for both real democracy and radical capitalist critique undermines political power—and ultimately results in less progress towards participatory democracy as the movement becomes politically less relevant and less able to bring about societal change.

 

Feedback welcome!

3 thoughts on “Occupy the Political: Politics of Self-Expression and the Occupy Movement

  1. Ruby Sinreich

    Thank you for this, Daniel and Zeynep. I look forward to reading the entire paper.

    I found this same phenomena in my local Occupy as well. They were literally too wrapped up in their idea of radicalness to even vote in local elections or participate in community visioning processes, through which they could have actually CHANGED THINGS.

    I thought we were at a great inflection point last year in which an “Occupy Party” could arise to rival the Tea Party, but there just didn’t seem to be any interest in political participation (or even political coherence locally).

    Reply
  2. Nicasio Martinez

    Ruby Sinreich– “They were literally too wrapped up in their idea of radicalness to even vote in local elections or participate in community visioning processes, through which they could have actually CHANGED THINGS.”

    …True, it is not within the existing two party system to bring about any semblance of a just society. In the Civil (Human) Rights movement, we reached the hearts and minds of people because the brutality became self-evident, very visible. When last have you seen dismembered bodies of children laying in a pool of blood in the Arab lands. Democrats/Republicans are one and the same– they feed greed, hatred, and the industrial military complex.

    RS– “(or even political coherence locally).”

    What you do in your home, backyard, local community is the key! Occupy– on the weekend, but do the labor that will strengthen yourself and other Mon. -Fri., rest on Sat. Obama proved to be the pipe-piper, true to most any elected official with very few exceptions. He rides the grand limousines and flies in Air Force One. Romney will do the same, does it matter who sits in the oval office?

    Love and labor with and for your neighbor, each other. Occupy as you can. Hint– In Egypt it was done after Friday prayers. Mine is a voice that welcomes the late coming shrinking middle-class. A white bread Mayonnaise sandwich I still will occasionally eat. Those days may come again….

    Reply
    1. Nick Gotts

      does it matter who sits in the oval office?

      Yes, it does, immensely. It matters hugely for women, whose right to bodily autonomy is under furious assault by the Republican Party. It matters hugely for LGBT people, whose right to equal treatment is similarly under attack. It matters greatly in the Middle East, where Romney is far more likely to extend the war in Afghanistan, and to launch a new one in Iran. It matters deeply to the entire world, as the Republican Party has also been captured by antiscience zealots who deny the reality of anthropogenic global warming. Obama has been a disappointment – even if you recognized him as a moderate conservative from the outset. But a Romney presidency would be a disaster from which the USA and the world might not recover.

      Reply

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