The Occupy Wall Street Movement and the Post-Political Condition

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The beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century saw a global outcry of grievances against political, economic and power systems evident in the ruptures of protests in Tahrir Square in Egypt , the Los Indignados protests in Spain, austerity protests in Athens, and the Occupy Wall Street encampments in the United States to name a few. Taken together, these global protests form an emerging succession of struggles related to the inequalities produced by unfettered global capitalism. These protests, although globally having taken place under different forms of political systems and differing in demands and struggles, all point to an increased discontent with the current laws, regulations and ideologies that govern today’s global economy (Zizek 2012).

The Global Spring, or the rapid wave of protests seen across the globe, can be understood as a growing discontent with the contemporary formation of official politics where a critique of the assumptions shaping policy formation fails to emerge (Zizek 2012).  Specifically in the West, this consensus on neoliberalism as a particular ideology informing economic ‘best practices’ among policy makers is characterized as the post-political condition (Swyndegouw 2007) insofar as it seeks to foreclose the articulation of alternative ways of organizing society, those perhaps not in sync with neoliberal ideology.

Of growing interest to political theorists, sociologists, anthropologists, geographers and the like, is the use of the post-political framework to examine political decision making at a variety of scales and the analysis of the associated implications (Paddison 2009, Swyngedouw, 2009 ). While much literature exists to name contemporary politics as post-political, little is discussed on how it might be contested. This paper focuses on the social protest movement, Occupy Wall Street,  as it has sought make public the growing inequalities coerced by neoliberal economic policies.

Occupy Wall Street (OWS) was started by the Vancouver-based magazine, Adbusters which challenged its readers to gather on Wall Street in New York City as a protest of corporate influence on democracy (Adbusters, 2011 , Fleming, 2011). Officially the OWS Movement started September 17th, 2011 and sought to make public issues related to the growing disparity in wealth, lax financial regulations, and corporate personhood by physically occupying public parks and creating impromptu camps (Fleming, 2011). The slogan of OWS quickly became “We are the 99%” and defines solidarity between the 99% of American citizens that are controlled by the “richest 1% of financial elites writing the rules for an unfair global economy that is foreclosing on our future” (“Occupy Wall St”. 2011). Since its inception OWS has spread across the country and internationally to over 1000 cities. In this sense, OWS can be seen as an example of how the parameters that shape contemporary political policies can and has been challenged by OWS through expanding the breadth of political discussion, challenging the consensus of the ‘best practices’ for economic prosperity and  not taking as given neoliberal capitalism and contemporary representative democracy.

Arguably, the consensus of neoliberal ideology to inform best practices for governance, the decreased capacity of democratic institutions to hold governance regimes accountable to the demos, and the overarching assumption that conflicting ideologies are a thing of the past has grave implications for politics. Scholars characterize the post-political configuration as the consensual approach to democracy and policy formation which forecloses the possibility of ‘the political’ (Mouffe 2005, Swyngedouw 2007, Žižek 1999).  What is considered as ‘the political’ is the struggle between competing visions of society that bring into question, or politicize, the injustices created by the normal order of things, or the status quo (Dikec 2005, Hewlett 2007, Ranciere 2001, Zizek 1999). The political, thus is inseparable from conflict precisely due to the presence of competing interests and ideologies (Mouffe 2005). Therefore, the post-political condition can be defined as the reduction of politics to the administration of pragmatic, common sense assumptions which guide policy formation in such a way that those assumptions remain unquestioned and unquestionable (Paddison 2009 and Swyngedouw 2009).

Recent literature in the social sciences has shown anecdotal evidence of how urban governance regimes have framed various policy objectives as generally agreed upon (Dikec 2007, Hilding-Rydevik, et al., 2011, Paddison 2009, Swyndegouw 2009 ). In particular, there has been examination into the politics and rhetoric of Climate Change as an example of the post-political condition (Gill et al 2012, Hilding-Rydevik, et al., 2011, Kythreotic 2012, Schlembach et al 2012, Swyndegouw 2011). In particular, Erik Swyndegouw has demonstrated how political debates around climate change are framed in particular ways to orient consensus on solutions within narrowly defined parameters. Framed in this particular manner, by scientists, politicians, and other technocratic elites, the space to argue alternative futures and trajectories are properly foreclosed upon as the debate is framed around reducing carbon emissions to get ‘nature’ back in-sync, through proposed solutions such as fuel-efficient vehicles, carbon trading, and sustainable forestry, rather than interrogating the structures that led to a carbon crisis in the first place and the necessity of the market to provide solutions to the carbon crisis (Swyngedouw 2011).

Additionally, the literature cites the post-political character of the growing consensus on sustainability (i.e. the popularity of sustainable growth and sustainable cities discourse) in that it narrows democracy as a choice between proposals of sustainability within the realm of neoliberal ideologies to sustain capitalism rather than putting capitalism in question by considering what should or should not be sustained (Swyngedouw 2006). Therefore, at stake in the post-political condition is the normalization of neoliberal capitalism and the foreclosure of possible alternative futures as politics have been reduced to the negotiation of interests as a result of the accepted parameters guiding policy formation and debate (Mitchell 2003, Mouffe 2005, Swynedougw 2011, Zizek 1999). Or in other words, at issue is the legitimacy of the consensus that neoliberal capitalism is the ‘best practice’ to guide economic prosperity.

This paper now presents and interprets the OWS movement through empirical data consisting of qualitative interviews with participants from OWS encampments from around the country and extensive participant observations of the NONATO week of action, hosted by Occupy Chicago, in May of 2012. This research indicates that participants in the OWS movement challenge the post-political condition in three distinct ways. First, OWS has expanded the breadth of political discussions and shifted the national discourse to issues on the Left. Participants stated that OWS has given them a stage in which to have public political discussions beyond those topics continuously reported in main-stream media. In addition, OWS has spawned a host of ancillary organizations with the “Occupy” meme. The popularity and power of the “Occupy” meme to animate and empower advocacy groups can be seen as evidence to the potency the movement has demonstrated towards expanding and transcending the parameters places around political debates by what is considered common sense.

Second, OWS has contronted the post-political condition by challenging the elite, shallow and narrow mode of conventional decision making. A major tenet of OWS has been the practice of direct democracy through the General Assembly and its breadth of working group which operated through participation and deliberation in a democratic process to reach consensus on a particular proposal. The inclusion and meaningful participation of participants to make collective decisions is in opposition to the post-political mode of exclusive decision making in which consensus on the parameters defining agendas and even on the proposed outcomes of those decisions is assumed without ever offering those agendas up to challenge and interrogation by democratic public debate.

Finally, OWS has challenged the post-political condition by calling into question the underlying laws, regulations and ideologies that govern today’s economy. For example, during the NATO counter summit the necessity of such a supra-governance structure was called into question, “with its plans for a missile defense shield, its extensive infrastructure of foreign military bases and its aggressive interventions, NATO generates a massively excessive military budget, 75% of total global military expenditure. This money is desperately needed for social, economic and ecological programs in all member countries” (no-to-nato 2012). There was general sentiment among participants towards the inherent injustices of capitalism and the creation of experimental space for counter-hegemonic activities such as sharing resources, bartering, mutual economies and skill banks. In addition there was much talk among participants for learning how to live beyond the capitalist system while also generating conversations about rendering visible the oppressive power structures normalized under a capitalistic order and how these issues might be addressed meaningfully.

In conclusion, with respect to the post-political condition, OWS can be understood as linking up of diverse groups of people to expose the normalized power structures both of society at large and within the movement itself. If we understand the post-political condition to describe the administration of various issues within the realm of existing social relations (Swyngedouw 2007). OWS, then, is connecting and politicizing these very social relations on a national scale. In this sense, OWS is rejecting prevailing power relations and established trajectories and rendering visible the anti-democratic institutions and practices veiled by the post-political arrangement.