- The Idea(s) of Occupy
“You cannot evict an idea whose time has come.” A rewriting of a famous passage in Victor Hugo’s The History of a Crime, this slogan was included in a flyer released shortly after the November eviction of the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park. The flyer also called for a day of mass action on November 17th, the two-month anniversary of the movement, highlighting a resolve to persist despite the police crackdown on encampments, not only in New York City but also across the United States. The flyer is exemplary of a strong commitment within the movement to unite theory and practice, the idea and mass action, but it also raises some important questions about the shape of the movement and its future trajectory. What exactly is the idea whose time has come? What is the relationship of this idea to the movement? Is there one idea that can unite such a heterogeneous body of activists? Would subscribing to one idea limit the movement or exclude some of its participants?
If these questions sound familiar, it is because they are some of the same questions raised when debating the advantages and disadvantages of uniting the movement around a single demand. Up until now, the movement has decided not to answer Adbusters’s inaugural question “What will be our one demand?” and it looks unlikely that it ever will. A movement such as this one, which has taken on so many different issues, simply cannot be subsumed under a single demand. Yet the slogan of the flyer suggests that the participants of the movement are united under a single idea, the idea whose time has come, even if some of us are unaware of it. We should therefore also consider the relationship between an idea and a demand. Does an idea, insofar as it challenges the current social reality, implicitly include a demand?
In “Promissory Notes: From Crisis to Commons,” the Midnight Notes Collective schematizes the politics of demands in a way pertinent to understanding the Occupy movement. Updating the old distinction between reform and revolution, the collective differentiates between actions that are on the “inside” and those that are “autonomous” or on the “outside.” As the group explains:
The inside/outside distinction … is not a spatial one, but one of political relation. ‘Inside’ means demands on a (state/market) institution that is normally dedicated to reproducing the labor-capital relation, while ‘outside’ means communal appropriation of de/non-commodified resources, perhaps in parallel with formal demands … The two aspects can be complementary or contradictory. For example, appropriation can be enhanced and/or undermined by demands made on an institution.”1
From the struggle against foreclosures, austerity measures, and police brutality to the battle for free education, workers rights, and public space, the movement has occupied both inside and outside approaches, combining in complimentary ways demands on institutions with autonomous direct action and self-organization. It is clear, however, that most participants of the movement, in tandem with the prescription of the Midnight Notes Collective, seek to “escape the bounds of being ‘inside’” by moving “social democratic struggles towards autonomous action.”2 The objective is not, therefore, to take up the position of the beautiful soul and claim pure exteriority to present contradictions but rather to find ways to radicalize tactics and thereby explode those contradictions.3 Accordingly, any demand implicit in the idea whose time has come will not look like the usual social democratic demand.
While the flyer announcing the idea whose time has come went viral, appearing in blog posts, social networking sites, and radical online journals, the Occupy Wall Street website posted an entry whose title matched the slogan used in the flyer. The post was popular, with over 100 comments, but did not receive the same attention as the flyer. Also unlike the flyer, the post was very clear about the content of the idea whose time has come: “[W]e are engaged in a battle over ideas. Our idea is that our political structures should serve us, the people – all of us, not just those who have amassed great wealth and power...