Awk-upy: Left Love and Shame
There are currently two occupations in Washington, DC. One had been planned months before Occupy Wall Street: a week of action against the American Wars, called “Stop the Machine." It was to re-energize the mostly dormant anti-war movement, using camping as a method of sustained action and coalition building. The other was a response to the call following Occupy Wall Street and calls itself “Occupy DC." It’s strange. The “Stop the Machine” protestors are self-identified leftists, anti-war activists, non-profits and socialist parties working in coalition. The Occupy DC protest, in contrast, is full of folks new to organizing. Apparently most of them didn’t even know the planned protest was going on.
What happens every day in DC now is a strange dance between the two camps. The Occupy DC marches draw tactics from the extant left, but feel themselves to be using them in new and fresh ways. The “Stop the Machine” protestors are still using those tactics, but their whole frame has changed since Occupy Wall Street broke out. They only intended to camp out for a week and then get arrested, and now the parks department extended their permit to four months. Now they use very similar General Assembly procedures to Occupy DC and they’ve lost their anti-war focus. The camps are on friendly terms, but it’s awkward. No one quite knows why there are two camps, but no one seems too excited about unifying.
My first instinct, which I think is common, is to take this awkwardness as an obstacle, a hump that we must devote our time to getting over. But looking at at least 30 years of impasse on the left I’m skeptical of this instinct. Instead maybe we should be exploring our surroundings, letting ourselves drift a little in the present. At the moment it seems impossible to conceptualize a reconstitution of the left, it’s difficult to even say the words “the left” and not feel anachronistic and nostalgic. But the homelessness of the left and our political depression doesn’t need to stop us. Instead of being one more instance of the left not “getting it," this awkwardness might help us in our efforts to figure out where we’re going.
It might seem strange to use the term “the left” so cavalierly. But I’m writing this for a simple reason: I want to be a leftist.
Naomi Klein began her speech at Liberty Plaza in New York City by saying, “I love you." Slavoj Žižek began in his address to the crowd with a word of caution about romance. Apt, if love is the refuge of the desire for true intersubjectivity into an exterior object. The feeling, pervasive on the left, is of fresh love, when your crush begins to return your glance or laughs at jokes that aren’t quite funny. It’s less a prolonged, committed intimacy as much as it is an expression of sheer glee for having an object in the first place.
But becoming intimately in love with your object is also becoming close to shattering loss. You never know when some reality (it could be as quiet as discovering that being bored with the person is in fact boring) will pull the floor out from under you, shattering all your attempts at world building.
Many on the left recognize so strongly in the Occupy movement an image of their fantasy to be on the inside again, to be one side of the barricades. But they are cautious. The image feels thin, billboard-like, not because it is emptied out by commodification, but because it’s beauty is never so striking as when caught in the bright light of corporate media, circulating with the spectacles of advertising like they’ve pulled one over on hegemony and finally made politics public again. In the circulation of immediate, everyday life however the movement is tiring, and trying and worrisome. At a protest on the Strip in Las Vegas, a man dressed as Elvis picked up a sign and began posing dramatically for the camera. This was my dream, a man on the street, one in fact “on the job” since he was there to make tips, spontaneously joining the protest. But he was posing as much out of clowning as out of solidarity. When asked what his “Medicare for all” sign meant he would probably not be able to say. If you asked him to come to meeting he’d likely say no, or maybe he’d say yes but never show.
Illustration by Tom Tian
This isn’t new for an experienced organizer. So often we’re lied to by folks who say they want to struggle but end up being unreliable. It’s the source of a timidity around new movements or campaigns. You learn to deal with the unreliability of those you’re organizing as an organizer. You become calloused. You stop taking people at their word; you learn to call enough times for them to get annoyed, to show up at their house to drive them to the action if necessary. Our love affair with the proletariat is over; and now each new beloved revives the same doubts about reliability and durability. I don’t want to love the Occupy movement, and I don’t want to call myself an “occupier” if as soon as a federal jobs program starts I’m left in my tent alone. There’s plenty of love, but it’s unsure and tender and sometimes it feels like I’m taking it slow on purpose.
The trepidation of the left isn’t without basis in experience either. Our optimistic attempts to join the movement have not always been successful or even welcome. I’ve been trying to be involved with Occupy Las Vegas as much as possible to provide experience, skills and at times leadership. The higher-ups at the union where I’m employed look at me strangely when I tell them about sleeping in a tent or spending my evenings outdoors in a parking lot. For a few nights I ended up with the role of facilitator of General Assemblies—which is (in case you haven’t had to try it) a very difficult task. I have experience facilitating, and I’ve worked in consensus-based environments before, so I figured it would be a way for me to support the group. Over the course of two nights I presided over the decision making process for what actions the group would take on and in fact did what I responsibly could to have the group stage a protest at the target of an organizing campaign being undertaken by my union.
The night after the group decided to do the action I was sitting talking with my comrade who also works for the union, exhausted by the hour and half of facilitating, when a fellow occupier came up and said started asking about my connection with the union and whether I thought it was a problem that I’d been facilitating. It was odd to me at the time and I didn’t understand his full meaning till the next night when the General Assembly exploded with accusations of the union attempting to co-opt the movement. I was not there for most of the meeting, but when I was there people talked about the need to focus on Occupy’s issue of “the banks” and how groups needed to be involved as individuals “not as organizations.” After the GA I facilitated, it turned out, rumors circulated about my suspicious involvement in the union. Why was the group doing a protest on the union’s issue? I took the whole situation irrationally hard, maybe because I was tired, maybe because I was shocked at how naive the group was being. And, partly too, I was shocked the group’s disregard for all the decisions I’d facilitated in the GA. But a big part was shame.
I was ashamed that I hadn’t been a good enough facilitator or leader. A good organizer knows to predict people’s hang-ups and inoculate folks. In fact I hadn’t been transparent enough about my affiliations, and I hadn’t had the energy to keep engaged after the meetings I facilitated to make sure people felt good and the things decided were on track to get done. The shame is about not measuring up to an impossible and insane image of myself. I stayed involved after that, and plenty other frustrating and upsetting things have happened, but I’ve been more careful about sticking my neck out.
The shame encountered by leftists around the movement is about more than just failures. Recently a comrade of mine responded abruptly to the assertion that Occupy was a mass movement. He said “I feel like that shames me." “If this were a mass movement,” he reasoned, “and I feel so ambivalent and even resentful toward it, then I am guilty of resenting the masses.” A revolutionary cannot resent the masses; it can be a tense relationship, but it must be one of love and caring. He doesn’t want to have to love this movement which feels so alien and improper to him; he doesn’t want to have to bear the guilt of feeling like he does toward the people.
What’s so difficult about this emotion is that so often coming to the left is a path out of shame. Shaming is so tied to the process of victimhood. Sexual assault victims are often gripped with self-guilt; neoliberal discourse incessantly blames the poor for their own plight; even mundane shaming by a manager is crucial to maintaining worker discipline. The key to becoming strong is learning that this shame is false. Shame is supposed to index the hegemonic false sovereignty of the market that is replaced by a truer sovereignty found in struggle. A strong leader does not feel shame, they accuse; they shame those who maintain hegemony. Nothing brings more glee than shouting “Shame!" through a bullhorn at a customer crossing a picket line, or watching a crowd of hundreds chant "Shame" at police brutally detaining a peaceful protester. As a privileged student (and a straight-white-male at that), learning to be in solidarity with oppressed peoples was a way to deal with the shame of living on the good end of inequality. The hours spent in privilege workshops, taking care with my language and “being a good ally," were coping mechanisms to make my (un)fortunate social position bearable.
When I first became an activist I was motivated by the drive to be the perfect, insane image I had. I take great pride in how successful I’ve been getting past this and grounding my leftism in a more healthy and consistent way that finds my own roots of struggle instead of imagining myself coming from some free “outside." The fact that I reverted back to this destructive mentality when faced with a challenge at the occupy camp was itself a source of shame, and, as shame does, it set off a positive feedback loop of being ashamed for being ashamed for…
I feel I must suppress the shame for fear of getting caught in that positive feedback loop, for fear of what might sweep me away from the struggle. But at a moment when so many are being introduced to the history of the left for the first time, shame may in fact be a powerful tool for building solidarity. Understanding that it’s a significant part of our relation to ourselves and to the world could help bridge gaps between the extant left and the newly political. Sharing stories of shame in an organizing scene may help folks feel more legitimized and less alone in their struggle. Leftists writing creative and analytical reflections on shame may help to humanize and resist the tendency toward mythology that is so problematic for left leadership. Indeed creative public actions around shame might even be possible like impromptu communal sharing of shame stories disruptively in a public space. Being open to shame could mean accepting and remembering the difficulty in “becoming left.”
Love and Shame are not necessarily the most prevalent affects on the left regarding the Occupy movement, but they do remind us of something more fundamental about the left in this moment. The left is tender, timid, scared and full of trepidation and self-doubt, almost too sensitive to face the world. The last 30 years have felt like one beating after another. For those who became activists in this period it was only a matter of time before they faced a devastating failure. Lives on the left have felt misshapen and tenuous, warped by coping mechanisms. Those who want to keep their pride become cynical and resentful and scoff at the failure of any movement to develop a properly sophisticated analysis. Those who want to keep their optimism scale back their expectations so that remaining human is itself the highest form of resistance. Those who want to keep their grand vision develop the glazed over eyes and disjointed reason of a cult follower.
The recent explosion of mass mobilization and public left-sympathy has shaken the foundations of these coping mechanisms. Finally an event shows the abstruseness of our ideologies, the smallness of our vision, and the infeasibility of our systems. It exposes how raw and sensitive we are. Our juvenile love and our shame are indices of this sensitivity. I want to dwell on them because I think this sensitivity is the foundation of the left’s strength. It’s only because we listen to stories of struggle and oppression, and cannot stand for injustice, that we can organize at all. We became leftists because we could not be callous to an unfree world, because we could not bear the shame we felt or hide our love of people. I said I didn’t want to see the left’s awkwardness as a failure; that’s because its rooted in the same place as our power to succeed.
Much of this might be obsolete by the time it’s published. The movement has already taken on decidedly more militant and political flares in many places and folks from the left have become much more central. My newsfeed from my activist friends is filled with updates from around the country. In the Oakland General Strike I saw the first images from my lifetime of the historical process I want to be a part of. A banner across an intersection reading “Death to Capitalism," “Strike” in one-story-tall letters on a Whole Foods; tens of thousands marching, not to show their numbers, but to shut something down. On a recent trip to the encampment in Portland, Oregon, I saw the circle-A everywhere. Everyone was talking politics; when I dropped off some fruit to the kitchen they thanked me “for feeding the revolution." Much of my continued negativity has to do with persistent issues in Las Vegas, but even here things are getting more congenial to the left. Some folks, some of who identify as anarchists and communists, have started talking about forming an organization that has more focused politics and tries to do strategic actions around specific issues. I’m starting to feel more at home in the movement.
The left is the community of individuals, institutions, organizations, political parties and discourses that I call home. I read The New Left Review, watch Democracy Now! every morning and can identify the full names and ideological affiliations of more than a dozen left-wing parties. These aren’t criteria for being left, they’re my attempts at building a life of struggle for myself. So is the insistence in this essay of using the term “the left," even when it may seem imprecise and nostalgic. My Left is the community that defines itself around the struggle against injustice, asserts its agency over the forces of oppression and takes up a common history that points backward toward servitude and forward toward freedom. I want to be a leftist and I call myself one because I’m proud of that community and history. I want a politics that I can project into the future, that I can ask normative questions to and that I can call my own.
We’re not there yet. “The left” is still in an impasse. A revolutionary must be patient, but it’s hard and awkward. It’s from out of this discomfort that a real left will emerge. At this point all I have is faithful resignation; faith that the problems of the movement won’t doom the project of human emancipation, resignation to what it reveals about how hard that project is. With this resignation I return to the site of Occupy Las Vegas each night, help unload water deliveries, and write this essay. As my comrade and tent-mate Mike Hachey often says as we lay on our floor of furniture pads protecting our hip bones from the hard asphalt, “Welcome to the new normal.”
Illustration by Tom Tian