The Politics of Anti-Political Protest: What to Make of OWS

This idea of a leaderless movement is often mentioned in connection with the Occupy Wall Street protesters’ lack of demands. What’s overlooked is the deep conviction that many in the movement have about the idea of consensus and the practice of direct and leaderless democracy.

By Roger Berkowitz

Tagged Protests

OWS Protests 2.jpg“Consensus” is the title of a video flying around the web. With chants and crowd noise in the background, the video begins with a voiceover by a young woman who says:

People ask all the time, well, who are the leaders. Well, none of us are leaders and we are all leaders. We’re all exactly the same.

This idea of a leaderless movement is often mentioned in connection with the Occupy Wall Street protesters’ lack of demands. What’s overlooked is the deep conviction that many in the movement have about the idea of consensus and the practice of direct and leaderless democracy. What are we to make of the experiment with direct and leaderless democracy going on in Zuccotti Park?

1. The protesters are enjoying themselves. For some critics, this is evidence of the lack of seriousness of the protesters and evidence that they are spoiled and na&#239ve elites with nothing better to do with their time. But what is wrong with bringing joy into politics? Politics, as Hannah Arendt never tired of saying, is an activity of public happiness, of the joyful acting together in public. Those who criticize public happiness have another view, namely, that serious things require working or raising one’s family. We thus have here two opposed views of the world, one prioritizing private life, the other focusing on public life. I give the protesters credit for resisting the self-centered narcissism of modern politics. As did the original Tea Party activists, they have rejuvenated the political discourse.

2. The protests point to the limits of representative government. The premise of representative government is that governing is not important, or that its import is primarily as a means for securing our private ends. Under such a view, we elect politicians to deal with the business of keeping things in order so that we can get along with the important activities of our lives. Is it any wonder, then, that we don’t get the best people going into politics? One might also ask: Is it any wonder that we have such woefully uninformed citizens? To see the protesters breaking into working groups, debating, and joyfully learning what it means to be engaged in public issues is beautiful, but it is also a bit like watching a group conversion experience. We are witness to people learning that—in Arendt’s words—“political freedom, generally speaking, means the right to be a participator in government or it means nothing.”

3. Direct democracy can be dangerous. As James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10, the premise of a large federal republic was to counter the dangers that direct democracy poses to liberty. While there have been beautiful moments during the protests, there have also been uglier scenes, as when the civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis was turned away by protesters in Atlanta who refused to let him speak. One particularly bothersome characteristic is what is called a “mic check,” where the speaker’s words are repeated in unison by the crowd. Originally developed as a technique for illegal protests (which this one is) to be heard without amplification, the “mic check” has become an article of faith amongst the faithful, used joyfully in all circumstances. To watch dozens, hundreds, and even thousands of people thoughtlessly repeating words in unison should raise goosebumps—and not of the good kind.

4. Occupy Wall Street is, like the Tea Party, driven by an apparent disdain of government, elites, and traditional institutions. These protests began with a call to action from a Canadian group called Adbusters and its embrace by an organization of hackers called Anonymous, a group closely associated with Wikileaks. The hope is that if you just tear down all barriers to information, allow for absolute transparency, and present citizens with the facts, a citizen democracy will emerge that ushers in a more rational and fair system of government. This is actually a technological version of the communicative rationality theories made popular by J&#252rgen Habermas in the late 20th century—the idea that in a system of transparent and perfect communication, democratic reason will lead to rational decisions. As a result, we don’t need leaders, or elite institutions. It is a fantasy that a radical horizontal democracy—even if such a thing were possible—would inaugurate an era of reasoned consensus. That Google and the iPhone put the whole world in our hands leads, as often as not, to misinformation and irrationality as it does to rational decisions. The dream of an apolitical and technological solution to political problems is just that, a dream.

5. The protests are anti-political. Respect for government is at record lows, and for good reason. But Occupy Wall Street has a peculiarly anti-political response to our political crisis. To reject leadership, to refuse to govern, to insist simply on talking and debating is not to be political, but is to announce one’s rejection of politics. To engage in politics one must not only rebel and tear down, but one must also found new institutions and build up. It is precisely the concern with foundation—the desire to build responsible institutions with power that would check and other powers and thus guarantee both political power and liberty—that Arendt understood to be the genius of the American Revolution. And it is precisely this political desire to found power that Occupy Wall Street protesters lack.

The great experiments in direct democracy—the New England town meeting, the spontaneous workers’ councils or Soviets in the early days of the Soviet Union, and the workers and citizen councils that sprung up during the 1956 Hungarian revolution—were all efforts by citizens to take over the activity of governing. Leaders necessarily rose up, chosen for their political ability to speak and act, and also to lead. But the protesters at Zuccotti Park refuse to govern; they decry leaders. Instead of cultivating those who might make the movement politically relevant, they have isolated themselves in a park surrounded by like-minded people. I am sure the conversations are enlightening, provocative, and idealistic, but there is a huge difference between acting in a park with compatriots and acting in the public realm where one has to confront others who disagree with you. As exciting as the exercise in direct democracy must be for those engaged in the communal experience of talking and acting together, there is a political sterility in an activity that governs nothing and in which nothing is at stake.

I give the protesters in Zuccotti Park credit: They acted. At a time when most everyone else was stuck in their daily routines, bemoaning the sorry state of politics as they went on with their lives, the protesters went and did something. Now, however, the protesters want to maintain control, in spite of their claims to be a leaderless movement. They indoctrinate followers into their hand signals and sing-song modes of participation. They insist that no one has the power or right to speak for the collective. They want to impose their own anti-political ideology on the movement. But they can’t. The movement they began is now bigger than they are. It will now develop and grow and move and morph into many other things and movements. Let’s applaud them for starting this, but it is now in our hands, those of us who will try to impose some meaning on it.

You can read Roger Berkowitz’s other posts on Occupy Wall Street at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities Blog. Here, here, and here.

Photo credit: Ove Overmyer

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Roger Berkowitz is director of The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities and associate professor of political studies and human rights at Bard College.

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