Dan S. Wang on Thu, 3 Nov 2011 05:39:06 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> from wisconsin, on OWS and post-democracy

Nettimers, for your consideration....

All best,



During the Great National Debt Ceiling (non-)Debate of 2011, when President
Obama stood his ground after giving it away first, like many of my fellow
Americans I called and emailed the offices of my US senator and my
congressional representative. I urged my senator, the ultra-regressive Ron
Johnson, to vote for the debt ceiling-increase plan, and I advised my
congressperson, liberal Tammy Baldwin to vote against the House version of
the bill. In the end, Ron Johnson blew off my opinion and voted against it.
Tammy Baldwin honored it and voted against it. I sent an email to Senator
Johnson expressing my disappointment, and an email to Ms. Baldwin applauding
her for listening to her constituents.
Did you get that? On my score card Johnson voted against it and did the
wrong thing. Baldwin voted against it and did the right thing. Huh?
The thinking was this: voting against the bill would be handing the
regressives a victory in their effort to sabotage the US economy; this
invented crisis was their method of blackmailing the American public into
accepting draconian cuts to social spending. From this position, the
conclusion was that Senator Johnson needed to hear from constituents opposed
to his extreme regressive tendencies. So, call his office and lodge a tally
in the Vote Yes column.
For her part, Tammy Baldwin always needs encouragement to uphold the
progressive standard she proudly advertises but frequently fails to deliver.
As noted, President Obama gave away the ranch even before getting the
Republicans to the table. No self-respecting defender of social priorities
could possibly vote for such an insult. So, call her office and tell her to
stand up to the assault by voting No.
In the end the bill passed, with the No votes cast by a bunch of Tea Party
greenhorns who had gleefully put Speaker Boehner¹s panties in a twist, and a
cadre of progressives who couldn¹t stomach the bill¹s passage without
lodging a principled refusal to take part in the charade. Nevermind that the
Great (non-)Debate has already been forgotten, more or less, in just the
several months between then and now. The absurdity of the actual vote?what
those votes represented, and how complex positions mixed with ideological
posturing cannot be reduced to a yes or no vote?not only remains, but is
replayed every single time an ideologically written bill comes to the floor
of the legislative chambers. Which is to say, now, all the time.
Governing by lowest common denominator may work in periods of equilibrium,
but dysfunction and the exacerbation of crises are all but guaranteed when a
society deals with urgent challenges using the blunt tool of majority rule
in an oligarchical representative democracy. Tactical voting and
manipulative campaigning (was I secretly trying to get Senator Johnson to
vote No?) against ever more preordained outcomes only makes the base level
limitations more obvious. Though I tell the story above as a personal
experience, it is a mass phenomenon, experienced by millions every day. The
absurdity of the participatory experience can no longer mask the essential
disenfranchisement that supports the cheap veneer of a functioning
democracy. Though perhaps most acute in the US, with the unrestricted
amounts of money now warping the electoral process beyond repair, the limits
of democracy are felt in all variations of the parliamentary system, and in
all presidential systems, the world over. Judged by the standards of
effectively tackling the problems faced by societies, representative
democracies as functioning systems are the exception, not the rule.
As the existing system proves itself incapable of addressing the needs of
ordinary people, an out of whack economy, and ecologies on the brink?and,
most fundamentally, the crisis of political participation itself?other
systems, embryonic and half-blind, emerge, wherever they can. The most
evident emergence of a non-parliamentary system from recent times is the
process at the heart of the Occupy Wall Street movement, that is, the direct
democracy of the General Assembly. Owing much to the long history of group
process identified with movements of social justice and egalitarianism,
going back directly to the councils of Seattle, the cultures of consensus in
the social experiments of the 60s and 70s, the workers assemblies of
revolutionary Catalonia, the voteless decision making of the Quakers and
nineteenth-century utopian societies, the GA presents the seed of the long
term project, the one that builds different social relations through an
extraparliamentary, non-representative system.
It is the resolute refusal to avail itself of the existing democratic
system?not just the political parties, but the system of representation as a
whole?that marks Occupy Wall Street as a movement for a different world, as
much or more than any of its critiques of finance capital, corruption, and
corporate power. The General Assembly takes the direct vote and/or consensus
process to a new level of proliferation by virtue of its visibility and
performed display. For the six weeks of the Occupy movement at pretty much
every Occupy site the GA has been held in the open, anyone can listen, and
anyone can participate. The process has thus far resisted corruption and the
concentration of power, and yet still allowed groups of people numbering in
the hundreds and even single thousands to make concrete decisions. What is
being created through the practice of daily assemblies (at some sites twice
daily) are new political cultures and working models of direct democracy.
Badiou specifies the resonant radicalism of the Paris Commune precisely in
its Committee¹s rejection of, as he says, a parliamentary destiny. Based on
his interpretation of March 18, 1871, it seems reasonable to wonder whether
the Occupy movement might qualify as, in his word, an ³event.² It is
difficult to say, for two possible reasons. First, the historical
reverberations that conclusively mark a political moment (a ³site,² as he
says?and OWS is already that, certainly) as an event only come later; it is
too early for such reverberations even if the original moment over. The
other, better reason may be that OWS is not over, and an event is never
known as an event for its duration. Within that duration, time is different;
seasons change, but the present holds still for as long as the insurgency
authors life freshly, thereby disrupting the reproduction of daily life.
Unlike the territorial particularity of the Paris Commune, the Occupy
movement has proliferated across geographic space and distance. With the
arrests in Chicago, the bulldozing in Richmond, and above all (thus far) the
brutality of Oakland, the mediated affective center of the movement pinballs
around the nation, with each turn extending the movement. The longer the
Occupy movement stays viable as an unpredictable process, the longer and
broader the site gets stretched, facilitating its evolution toward an event.
On the level of long term possiblity being considered here, the most
dangerous of the counterforces is neither police repression nor eroding
public sympathy, nor even the shrinking of public spaces suitable for
occupation. Rather, it is the reassertion of normal processes of governance,
ie a turn away from the GA and toward a formalized representative system,
especially as some elements of the Occupy movment eventually move toward an
institutionalized, sustainable form.
When Brian Holmes speaks of post-Fordism, he is careful to describe that
condition as the new media, hyper commodified, globalized environment of
complex subjectivities living in societies that at many key institutional
and structural levels remain Fordist in origins, design, and essential
operation. When Xudong Zhang writes about the cultural politics of
postsocialist China, he is describes the contradictions of an unshackled
market economy and exploding middle class, learning to consume the material
and the symbolic, overlaying a society whose socialist foundations are far
from disappeared across an uneven geography. In other words, the ³post-²
phase of a society is about emergence, layering, and coexistence. The later
system, paradigms, lifeways, and economies never wholly or cleanly supersede
the earlier frame?especially when that earlier frame was itself a wholesale
displacement of the pre-modern, as it was the case with both American
Fordist industry and Chinese revolutionary socialism.
Similarly, OWS hints at the coming of the post-democratic. This is the long
term potential of the movement. One can see it in Madison, where the GAs
take place practically within shouting distance of the capitol building. The
GA is a study in the amateur, what with its balky sound system, ramshackle
info tables and grungy participants. Every additional day is a kind of
existential victory. Meanwhile, the edifice of officaldom that is the
Capitol silently screams permanence. For the rest of our lives and probably
far beyond, these two systems of governance, decision making, and power
distribution will coexist, with the post-democratic system growing,
developing, and gaining traction wherever it can, and the democratic system
continuing to monopolize official power but rotting from within.
For activists, the challenge is how to fight and function in both arenas at
once. The nascent world must be nurtured, we must acculturate ourselves to
the post-democratic social relations by participating, giving of ourselves
to the emerging embryonic systems. At the same time at the very least we
must defend against the brute attacks coming out of the existing democracy,
wielded by the regressives with the stamp of state legitimacy. That means
fighting battles on the terms of that system: using the legislative process
and the elections.
In Wisconsin, this contradictory position will be coming to a head in the
next few months. The recall campaign targeting Governor Walker will be
starting on November 15. The recall campaign will almost certainly achieve
its goal of staging a new election, but the outcome of that election is far
from a guaranteed victory. Republicans will do everything they can to win
it, precisely because they understand that when they win, they will then
have the final mark of legitimacy that they will need. The extremist agenda
we have seen up until now will be nothing?nothing?compared to what will come
should Walker win (or, more accurately, buy and steal) the recall election.
Therefore, we must defend against this possibility by working for a Walker
defeat in the election, but at the same time articulate our basic rejection
of the election as anything but a sham exercise that confers zero legitimacy
on whomever should win. There is no simple way to deliver this dual message,
other than through our actions?to work in the electoral sphere (door
knocking, fundraising, get out the youth and minority vote) and also to
build up our local post-democratic initiatives (co-ops, GAs, experimental
In Wisconsin, in Oakland, at OWS, and all the as yet unknown future sites,
it is up to us to make this latest ³post-² phase a reality. As with other
post- phases, it is really not a choice, but simply where the decaying but
extant structures leave us. We have the rest of our lives to do it, but the
reasons for diving in are all right now.


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