Sam Feldman

Whose Side Are They On?


Artist unknown, print from On Articulate Sounds: And on the Causes and Cure of Impediments of Speech, 1851

Listening to their releases, media quotes, drafts of demands, signs, and so on, you’d get the impression that Occupy Wall Street’s main concerns are the concentration of wealth in the hands of the top 1%, the outsize influence of money in the political process, our shrinking welfare state and lax regulatory regime, and the inherent oppressions of capitalism upon the 99%.

But looking instead at their actions, and at the organizational structures they’ve placed at the heart of their movement, it seems like the occupiers’ main concern is with Voice. What they want is for everyone to be heard, for everyone to have the chance to speak, for no one’s voice to be silenced or elided, for no one to speak for anyone else. Suppression of speech is a key term in American political discourse and a basic symbol of injustice for the whole political spectrum, but that section of the left that’s set up camp in the country’s downtowns takes free, unobstructed, heard speech as the sole origin-point of all rights and liberties.

This overriding concern with allowing and promoting speech stems from the left’s historical self-devouring. The proletarian universalism of industrial labor unions and socialist parties was disrupted first by the civil rights and feminist struggles of the 1950s and ‘60s. These movements fractured in turn. Feminists were attacked by womanists who claimed, not incorrectly, that feminism had been constructed around the concerns of white women alone. As gays and lesbians started to make progress with their own struggle for civil rights, other sexual minorities clamored to be heard and respected. Where once the left saw society divided into classes, as opposed to the unitary nation of the right, today it sees thousands or perhaps millions of affinity groups, each of which must tread carefully to avoid speaking for its members.

The modern leftist has spent their life watching liberationist movements fracture into affinity groups and movementlets that may form tenuous coalitions but never abandon their hard-won right to speak for themselves within the left, or their ongoing struggle to exercise the same voice in the mainstream. Against this background, how could it ever be okay for anybody to speak for anybody else?

This explains the simultaneous appeal of “direct democracy” and the rejection of voting. Direct democracy does away with what political theorist Jodi Dean has called “the crime of representation”: without representatives, no one has to delegate their voice to someone else. Voting, meanwhile, means the voice of the minority is ignored in favor of that of the majority. The main advantage of consensus is that the outcome is determined by everyone’s voice, not just those voices which can command enough support. Consensus also encourages persuasion and discussion past the 51% mark, as opposed to the sometimes divisive majoritarianism of voting. These are just about its only advantages; it is slower, more frustrating, and less efficient, and it has a conservative bias towards indecision and inaction. But if Voice is the point of the process, the sacrifices are more than worthwhile.

In addition to consensus decision-making, the General Assemblies at the heart of the occupations employ other techniques optimized for Voice. The main one, which has become the symbol of the current occupations although it did not originate there, is the people’s microphone. As facilitators always explain to newcomers, the way the people’s mic works is that everyone within hearing range repeats the speaker’s words, whether they agree with them or not. It is by common consent that speakers reach an audience, but this consent is compulsory; if you shout “Mic check!” a few times at an occupation, whatever you say next will be heard. Delivering or listening to a speech via the people’s mic is slow and frustrating, and the medium always colors the message. There’s an effective ceiling on how long and complex clauses can be, but sentences wind on and on as relative pronouns and conjunctions pile up. After all, if you end a sentence you may lose the floor. The occupations don’t use clapping to express support, because it makes such a racket that people can’t be heard. Instead they use a set of hand signals to signal agreement, disagreement, points of information, and points of order without interrupting or trampling anyone else’s Voice.

Unsurprisingly, General Assembly procedure also maximizes protections for Voice by regulating opportunities to speak. I’ll quote from the minutes of the New York City General Assembly’s October 26 meeting:

We abide by two important principles. The first is that we take progressive stack. This means the stack taker will reorder the list of people who want to speak by prioritizing traditionally marginalized voices. The second principle is a self-imposed principle called step-up, step-back. Take note of the privilege in your life and if you have been traditionally encouraged to make your voice heard in society, we invite you to step back, and if you have been traditionally discouraged from making your voice heard, we invite you to step up.

These two principles exemplify the divergence between the mainstream American ideal of free speech and the Occupational Left’s ideal of free speech. Conservatives and moderate liberals might see this as affirmative action run amok, the victory of identity politics over Enlightenment rationalism, historical inequality used to justify present inequality. Free speech, to them, means something like a net neutrality of the public domain; the organizing authority must be impartial towards all speakers and all messages. For the Occupiers, though, the most important thing is that everyone be heard. Sacrificing organizational impartiality to protect Voice is almost no sacrifice at all.

The people’s mic, the consensus process, and the ideologically diverse crowd make the General Assembly a poor executive body. To the extent that this has become a problem, the Occupiers’ solutions are working groups and spokes councils. Working groups also operate through consensus and can’t make decisions without bringing them to the General Assembly. The Demands Working Group, for example, was formed shortly after the beginning of the occupation in Zucotti Park. After many long hours of discussion and argument, the group endorsed a short set of demands, which was then presented to the General Assembly on October 30. It was tabled and has not resurfaced. Spokes councils are meetings that balance mass participation with small-group discussion through a creative seating arrangement. The use of these tools rather than some form of representation is an attempt to make direct democracy scale without losing any of its immediacy.

Despite the General Assembly’s shortcomings, the Occupations are often held up as models of direct democracy, in contrast to the US government and others. It is difficult to say what “the Occupiers” think, of course, since they make no pretense of being ideologically unified, but it’s safe to say there is at least a broad current that feels our national government is illegitimate. From the debate over the Demands Working Group’s proposal:

Facilitator : We first have a P[oint] of I[information]. Demands validate the US government. [The proposal] seeks the US government to allow us what are our rights.

Point of Process : There will be time for concerns. We are now opening stack for questions first, followed by concerns.

[ …]

Clarifying Question : Although I agree we need a Demands group, my question is this: have you considered, by asking a criminal organization for jobs that they may very well give you jobs for nuclear plants, military establishments, GMOs,…?

Facilitator : Mic check!

[ …]

Clarifying Question : The demand reads: We demand “democratically controlled” etc. We do not acknowledge the legitimacy or democratic capabilities of any political party presently existing to carry out our demands. We trust only ourselves.

[ …]

Clarifying Question : It’s unclear to me what it means that this is a demand. We’re demanding from a government who you say we don’t think is legitimate to meet these demands. Are we demanding of ourselves, and if it’s the government, what are we going to do if they don’t do it? Are we going to leave if they do? What is this?

Response : Perhaps one way we can answer this good question is this: Look around, this crowd is great but this is not the 99%. This is exclusivity, and the way this demand is phrased can reach out and expand this struggle to parts of NYC that know nothing about this movement because for some reason, for some it seems controversial to make a political point, which is, we demand of ourselves first of all, like we said in the preamble. Public education for example is something we’re fighting for in our movement, to make the movement broader, these demands can help us do this.

Clarifying Question : Could the presenters of this proposal clarify in what way it does not presuppose the legitimacy of the institutions to which the demand is made? As far as I’m aware, all revolutions started by making a demand to a state that could not fulfill them.

Response : The legitimacy of the government does not matter. We cannot ignore that it exists and has a chokehold on us.

Belief in the illegitimacy of the US government, if not universal among the Occupiers, was at least widespread enough to prevent the proposed demands from passing. But if our government is illegitimate, what would a legitimate form of collective organization look like? The General Assembly would be an obvious answer, but no one is proposing to reorganize the United States (pop. 312 million) as a giant General Assembly. If we assume a maximum assembly size of 500 people, the US would have to be divided into 624,000 successor states in order to achieve the Assembly’s level of direct democracy, though few at the Occupations are proposing that either.

This is not to say that our only choice is between our current, flawed representative democracy and the General Assembly. Of course there are countless other possibilities, many of which would maintain various degrees of representative government while ensuring greater protections for Voice. But the Occupiers as a group seem uninterested in these accommodations, none of which prioritizes Voice to the extent the Assembly does. Voice is the Occupiers’ primary and uncompromisable demand, but it’s neither possible nor imaginable for an entire country to organize itself around Voice to the extent the Occupations have, so they pass over the prospect of national change and focus on building villages to hold up to the world.

Within these villages, there seems to be widespread contentment with the pace of progress. As some Occupiers have declared,“just being here is enough” and “it’s already a success.” A few things you can do in Zucotti Park: You can take books out from the people’s library. You can work on or read the Occupied Wall Street Journal. You can interview others or be interviewed for the nonstop online coverage. You can discuss politics and philosophy with people who have a wide range of opinions. You can create or borrow signs to get your message out to the passing tourists. You can attend religious services. No one will stop you from speaking your opinions, no matter what they are.

Zucotti Park has become a paradise of Voice, which its occupants hold and defend against the cold, the grime, the rain, the discomfort, the interpersonal tensions, the police, and the skeptics. These and other hardships are the price of a visible location; if the Occupiers wanted only to speak and hear amongst themselves, they could meet anywhere, but the central plazas they’ve claimed in busy downtowns ensure a steady stream of press coverage and political attention. How complete could a festival of free speech be if it went unheard by those outside? Judging by the Occupiers’ deeds rather than their declarations, their utopian project is to create a Voice-centered mini-society to present to the mainstream.

It seems to me that this obsessive focus on Voice has been misunderstood by much of the left and center, which takes the Occupiers’ signs and slogans about greed and corruption at face value. In October, Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum responded to liberals dismayed by OWS’s ragged fringes by reminding them to ask themselves, “Whose side am I on?” An important question, and one the Occupiers should ask themselves as well. They’ve shown themselves to be on the side of mini-utopias and free-speech parks. But is that also the side of facing our broken world as it is and trying to fix it? And if not, whose side are we on?

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