Philosophical perspectives on Occupy Wall Street

Jon asked:

A movement in the name of Occupy Wall Street began in the United States in September, and people around the world, including in Canada, have participated. Discuss how the ideas of at least two ‘thinkers’ can help make sense of these events.

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Post-Modernist: Gilles Deleuze

Influenced by the student events in France, 1968, Deleuze attempted to provide an explanation for their occurrence outside of existing Liberal Democratic and Marxist Theory. These were judged too insensitive to the micro-occurrences of events to provide a convincing account. Upon his earlier re-reading of Spinoza, Deleuze proposed that social reality or social ontology is composed of desires, forces. These are either active or reactive. Reactive forces manifest themselves in macro structures — general, established structures of a society [in his terminology: Molar Lines of Force; Aborescent or Sedentary Lines; Planes of Transcendent Organisation] such as the State and its mechanisms of control. Active forces are fluxes of desires, forces which transgress the established structures in new ways. [In his terminology: Micro lines; Rhizomatics, Planes of Immanence, Nomadic Lines]. Lines divide up and constitute the operation of reality.

Macro lines of established forces operate in a binary manner. It is a matter of either/or. So we have Capital vs. Labour, Ruling-Ruled, Male-Female, Adult-Child, Heterosexual-Homosexual and so on. Active Micro lines are in flight — active lines of flight which deteritorialise [I.e. uncouple the connecting lines] to establish forces in new, unpredictable and novel ways. They can make connections which were previously unthinkable [mechanic assemblages or reterritorialisation] thus evidencing the creative plasticity of active forces.

So in 1968, student demonstrations and uprisings were deemed to be supported by Deleuze’s view. They acted outside the established parameters of Labour-Capitalism, Socialism-Capitalism of orthodox Marxist thought. They were outside of the traditional liberal view of thinking, rational ‘zombie’ who passively votes for change via elections to representative office every five years. This held for feminist, for minority groups, for queer politics, for Identity politics. Moreover, their dynamic was not aborescent [hierarchical, macro-ordered and operating like a tree with foundations, controlling trunk and subordinate branches] but Rhizomatic [effecting new forms of organisation and being, horizontal not hierarchical, Participatory and not subordination].

In some respects, this could apply to the Occupy movement. The established, very sedentary Political apparatus has failed to articulate the grievances of the multitude. Whilst those established political, aborescent structures expect that issues can be raised and settled within those established political, aborescent structures, the Occupy movements call for some other alternative. The Occupy movements have made alliances of new mechanic assemblages with various, previously unconnected forces: veterans against the cuts, Christians, Muslims, ecologists, youth, the unemployed, activist involved in the ‘Arab Spring’, trade unionists — a heterogeneous assemblage which would not otherwise have connected. At the moment, the movement is formless eschewing order, hierarchy, programme, leadership allowing the creative manifestation of plural voices into the new. It is a nomadic machine of various assemblages from various sources deterritorialising the established macro structures and literally, deterritorialising and reterritorialising the space occupied by the reactive forces of finance and ‘politics’. Many commentators speak and write of a new movement occurring as yet undefined. As Deleuze said:

‘Politics is active experimentation, since we cannot know in advance which way a line is going to turn. Draw the line says the accountant [banker? MJ]: but one can in fact draw it anywhere.’ P. 103 Dialogues.

Marxist: Louis Althusser

Whilst Deleuze would emphasise the creative re-working of lines in new, unthematised ways, Marxists would propose that events to which the Occupy movements are responding to are systemic — they are inherent to the very nature of capitalism. In that sense, they are nothing new. Capitalism needs profits to survive, overproduction reduces the level of profits. In this instance, overextension of credit has led to the decline of profits, triggering economic slump. Whilst the Occupy movement might be an alliance of various social groups and forces, all have a commonality in that they are the victims of capitalism — a collective subject shaped by the Object of Capitalism. Young unemployed, anti-capitalist activists, Trade Unionists etc all share common interests. As such, they operate within and are explicable by the concepts and categories of Marxist theory. Although at a certain specific level, each group, each individual has their own issues; these are simultaneously common or universal: the specific is the universal and universal is specific. Again, Marxists following the theorist Louis Althusser would, whilst recognising the diversity, complexity of a society admit that each group faces its own specific tensions with, or specific contradictions with the structures of capitalism. Yet they are not wholly isolated or atomised. They also share a commonality in that a common structure — the economic, or the political, connects them. Each specific contradiction fuses with others to become overdetermined — they fuse into one general contradiction — operating at the macro-level. Revolutionary social change is then possible.

That the traditional ‘labour movement’ has not yet come on side does not exclude it in favour of new social forces. The problem with the Deleuzian analyses is that it emphasises dynamics at the micro-level, the macro-level of Lines are to be deterritorialised then reterritorialised with something new. It is held that movement from below will somehow change, subvert the macro-level through many, mini-revolutions. It is about changing the world without gaining power as John Holloway would say.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen. Despite Deleuzian’s and Anarchists criticism that macro-level change merely brings about a new macro-level which will repeat the failings of the previous one, Marxists will conclude that social and revolutionary change qua change has to occur at the macro-level and for that, macro-level organisations such as the labour movement and revolutionary vanguard parties are required. This doesn’t entail the existing, sedentary forces but new, reinvigorated ones but, they will be operating at the macro-level. Without this, there will be no change.

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