At the moment, my favorite sentence in the Occupy Wall Street declaration, posted today by the NYC General Assembly, is its concluding footnote. It points to the iterability and openness of a nascent movement that knows it’s in play, and also knows that it is cultivating its ritualized production while simultaneously trying to field insistent questions from within and without about its ‘concrete’ policy demands. It’s always astonishing to see how quickly the mainstream media, state institutions, and outside individuals transform into ruthless pragmatists when confronted with something that doesn’t yet fit easily into their notions of legitimate spheres of political coordination and activity. I say this as someone who is actually rather fond of being able to ‘get things done,’ as people say. But the pragmatic turn in oppositional rhetoric is always wedded to an idea that the things to be done are things that fit neatly within the strictures of actually existing political, economic, or intellectual systems of thought. Of course, there is no inherent reason to believe that such a fit is always possible or desirable, and there are often many more ways to ‘get things done’ than are dreamt of in our narrow philosophy.
In the meantime, perhaps we might cast this pragmatic impulse in the other direction. Should we not ask the market and the capitalist project (henceforth named imperfectly as ‘Wall Street’): what are your concrete demands? At the moment, in the midst of economic turmoil and devastation the capitalist economies of the world haven’t seen for generations, Wall Street seems to demand something called ‘stability,’ ‘security,’ or some other kind of globalized soothing balm to apply liberally to nervous markets the world over. But surely this cannot be right. Markets in truth demand instability, insecurity. They are built on friction, they exist only by virtue of destabilization. There would be no market or existing modes of production without it. This demand, then, is Wall Street’s rational derangement. So how are we to understand the primary demand being made by Wall Street, the Eurozone and their ilk right now? In brief, it is the demand for a host of interrelated political, financial, and regulatory parties to radically reorganize the prevailing logic of the market so that those regulatory defensive measures can themselves be undone all the sooner. The markets need to be saved from instability so that they can get back to their halcyon days of kinder and gentler forms of systemic instability, which is an engine for generating profits. The distinguishing feature of Wall Street’s own demand, even if its demands for salvation have been going on for a few years now, is its impermanence, its planned obsolescence.
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It can be difficult to occupy Wall Street, as we’re seeing, but it is happening. It’s even more difficult to preoccupy Wall Street — that is, to get noticed by the market, to register as an object of concern. At the moment, what is being called an occupation involves rallies, sprouting tent-cities, general assemblies, organizing, and healthy doses of indiscriminate fencing and pepper-spray. The market traders and their main state and corporate investors themselves, however, are not immediately looking at all of this so much as at each bit of economic and monetary news from Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and (especially) Germany, just as they’d been scrutinizing each crumbling house of finance a few years ago. While the public and semi-public spaces of Wall Street are becoming occupied in a new sense, ‘Wall Street’ itself is preoccupied with something else, leaving the scrutiny of the occupation for the moment to the police and an array of other agencies of enforcement. So while the occupation of Wall Street grows daily, so too does Wall Street’s own rather different preoccupation. Both exhibit their nervous energies and profound ideological investments, and both are daily confronted with the possibility that their strength may be greater (or more diminished, as the case may be) than they had once believed.
Regarding popular movements, the mainstream media in the United States has now abdicated at least twice this year, if we collapse all kinds of critical distinctions and give one of them the convenient misnomer of the ‘Arab spring.’ When most mainstream American news outlets ran scant or skewed coverage of what was unfolding in Egypt, Bahrain, and elsewhere, they were merely continuing in a longstanding tradition of American provincialism. And even when popular movements are unfolding at home, literally on the doorsteps of media empires, the old-guard Fourth Estate media outlets (crumbling as surely as some of the houses of finance had) are still captive to the twin ruling principles of political cowardice and salacious gossip masquerading as news. This is why occupation of space as a political project in itself may turn out to be more fruitful than efforts at preoccupation — that is, forcing other parties into recognition of specific demands, which are then all the more easily absorbed, co-opted, subverted, and destroyed. Where there is no legitimate political voice or the economic power to purchase one, and where the organs of state and institutional power, pepper spray in hand, kindly demand that you specify what exactly it is that you want, the mere fact of the space-taking body, individually and in the collective, is often the only enduring thing the citizen or a political cohort has.