McKenzie Wark on Occupy Wall Street: 'How to Occupy an Abstraction'

The occupation isn't actually on Wall Street, of course. And while there is actually a street called Wall Street in downtown Manhattan, "Wall Street" is more of a concept, an abstraction. So what the occupation is doing is taking over a little (quasi) public square in the general vicinity of Wall Street in the financial district and turning it into something like an allegory. Against the abstraction of Wall Street, it proposes another, perhaps no less abstract story.

The abstraction that is Wall Street already has a double aspect. On the one hand, Wall Street means a certain kind of power, an oligopoly of financial institutions which extract a rent from the rest of us and in exchange for which we don't seem to get very much. "What's good for General Motors is good for America" was the slogan of the old military industrial complex. These days the slogan of the rentier class is: "What's good for Goldman Sachs is none of your fucking business."

This rentier class is an oligopoly that makes French aristocrats of the 18th century look like serious, well organized administrators. If the rhetoric of their political mouthpieces is to be believed, this rentier class are such hot house flowers that they won't get out of bed in the morning for less than a thousand dollars a day, and their constitutions are so sensitive that if anyone says anything bad about them they will take their money and sulk in the corner. They have, to cap it all, so mismanaged their own affairs that vast tracts of public money were required to keep them in business.

The abstraction that is Wall Street also stands for something else, for an inhuman kind of power, which one can imagine running beneath one's feet throughout the financial district. Let's call this power the vectoral. It's the combination of fiber optic cables and massive amounts of computer power. Some vast proportion of the money in circulation around the planet is being automatically traded even as you read this. Engineers are now seriously thinking about trading at the speed of light. Wall Street in this abstract sense means our new robot overlords, only they didn't come from outer space.

How can you occupy an abstraction? Perhaps only with another abstraction. Occupy Wall Street took over a more or less public park nestled in the downtown landscape of tower blocks, not too far from the old World Trade Center site, and set up camp. It is an occupation which, almost uniquely, does not have demands. It has at its core a suggestion: what if people came together and found a way to structure a conversation which might come up with a better way to run the world? Could they do any worse than the way it is run by the combined efforts of Wall Street as rentier class and Wall Street as computerized vectors trading intangible assets?

Some commentators have seen the modesty of this request as a weakness of Occupy Wall Street. They want a list of demands, and they are not shy about proposing some. But perhaps the best thing about Occupy Wall Street is its reluctance to make demands. What's left of pseudo-politics in the United States is full of demands. To reduce the debt, to cut taxes, to abolish regulations. Nobody even bothers with much justification for these any more. It is just sort of assumed that only what matters to the rentier class matters at all.

Its not that the rentier class buys politicians in America. Why bother when you can rent them by the hour? In this context, the most interesting thing about Occupy Wall Street is its suggestion that the main thing that's lacking is not demands, but process. What is lacking is politics itself. 

It may sound counter-intuitive, but there really is no politics in the United States. There is exploitation, oppression, inequality, violence, there are rumors that there might still be a state. But there is no politics. There is only the semblance of politics. Its mostly just professionals renting influence to favor their interests. The state is no longer even capable of negotiating the common interests of its ruling class.

Politics from below is also simulated. The Tea Party is really just a great marketing campaign. It's a way of making the old rentier class demands seem at least temporarily appealing. Like fast food, it will seem delicious until the indigestion starts. It's the Contract on America, its Compassionate Conservatism, but with new ingredients! The Tea Party was quite successful. But you can't fool all of the people all of the time, and no doubt there's a new marketing campaign waiting in the wings for when it runs out of steam. But none of this is anything but the semblance of a politics.

So the genius of the occupation is simply to suggest that there could be a politics, one in which people meet and propose and negotiate. This suggestion points to the great absence at the center of American life: a whole nation, even an empire, with no politics.

Wall Street is a name for an abstraction with the double sense of a rentier class which uses vectoral power to control resources that bypasses political processes which at least had to negotiate with popular interests. Against this, the occupation proposes another abstraction, and it too has a double aspect. 

On the one hand, it's a physical thing, a taking of space. This has confused the New York Police Department, which has responded with clumsy tactics. It just can't figure out what to do with an ongoing occupation that is peaceful and mostly content to camp out, but which swells on the weekends to thousands of people. There's a danger that it could become about the NYPD and its cack-handed arrests and either devious or incompetent crowd management.

It is possible that Occupy Wall Street has the rentier class a bit spooked. Not that they would be too bothered by a few anarchists, but they are bothered by the very possibility of any cascading of events that could really catch fire from this largely symbolic action. In the absence of any real competence at the growth and refinement of a political economy, the rentier class has basically decided to loot and pillage from what is left of the United States and to hell with the consequences. They just don't want to be caught doing it.

The taking of a tiny square in downtown New York hardly impinges on the power of the vector. It doesn't even inconvenience the minions who work in the surrounding offices, but the actual occupation is connected to a more abstract kind of occupation, and the slightest hint that it could spread disturbs the fragile constitutions of the rentier sensibility.

The occupation extends out into the intangible world of the vector, but not in the same way as Wall Street. The cop who was stupid enough to pepper-spray some women who were already cordoned off behind orange mesh was quickly identified by hackers, and all his information appeared on the internet for all to see. The incident on the Brooklyn bridge where the police let people onto the roadway and then arrested them for being on the roadway is on the internet from multiple angles. The occupation is also an occupation of the social media vector.

The so-called mainstream media doesn't quite know how to deal with this. The formalities of how 'news' is now made is so baroque that news outlets descended to weird debates about whether the occupation is 'news.' It doesn't have top tier publicists. It didn't issue free samples. It doesn't buy advertising space. It started without any celebrity spokesmodels. So how can it be news? The occupation exposed the poverty of reporting in America. And that in itself is news. 

The abstraction that is the occupation is then a double one, an occupation of a place, somewhere near the actual Wall Street; and the occupation of the social media vector, with slogans, images, videos, stories. "Keep on forwarding!" might not be a bad slogan for it. Not to mention keep on creating the actual language for a politics in the space of social media. The companies that own those social media vectors will still collect a rent from all we say and do - not much can be done about that - but at least the space can be occupied by something other than cute cat pictures.

While intellectuals have gotten into the habit of talking about The Political, the occupation has proceeded by creating a lower-case-politics which is abstract and yet at the same time completely everyday. Its no accident that it started with what we might broadly define as 'anarchists', who have been working on both the theory and the practice for some time now.

The organized labor movement started paying attention when it looked like the anarchists and the following they drew would not be easily dissuaded by bad weather or the NYPD. It is as if organized labor woke up one morning, saw that the occupation was still going strong, and said to itself "I must follow them, for I am its leader!" It beats trying to steal members from already unionized workplaces, which seems to be mostly what the unions do.

By now what we have here is what I would call a weird global media event. It is an event in that nobody knows what will happen next. It is a media event in that it's fate is tied to the occupation of the double space of Zucotti square and the media at the same time. It is a global media event at least since the NYPD arrested people on the Brooklyn Bridge and handed the occupation great free publicity. (Thanks guys!) And it is a weird global media event in that it has unprecedented elements that set it outside the staple stories of now boredom, dissent, utopia and all that other stuff is usually managed and assuaged. 

For example, commentators tie themselves in knots over whether it is a social movement or not. It is an occupation. It is in the title in case you missed it: Occupy Wall Street. Those who have been paying attention will notice it is part of a global wave of anarchist inspired occupations, big and small. My own university, the New School for Social Research, was occupied in 2008, however briefly. This is a tactic that has been tried and refined for a few years now.

An occupation is conceptually the opposite of a movement. A movement aimed for some internal consistency within itself but uses space just as a place to park its ranks. An occupation has no internal consistency in its ranks but chooses meaningful spaces which have significant resonance into the abstract terrain of symbolic geography.

That it just doesn't do some of the things social movements do is part of why its working, at least so far. It is as remote from The Political as some intellectuals would have it, but it is also different to the Social Forum politics of the recent past as well. For those who want a theory to go with the practice, you will have to look elsewhere than to Negri or Badizek (Badiou+Zizek). There's no multitude; there's no vanguard.

If the occupation is a little confusing for us intellectuals, take pity on our poor billionaire mayor! Bloomberg suggested that the occupation was inconveniencing regular banker struggling on a mere 40k-50k per year. The average household income in my neighborhood, which is quite a nice one, is just under 40k per year - and that's household income. The "poor bankers!" line seems unlikely to garner much sympathy.

So as to how this plays out, nobody knows. That's how it is with weird global media events. It's a test of wills. The NYPD are not quite ready to use strong force in case that's counter-productive. There could be quite a few people - anarchists or not - willing to get arrested. There could be quite a reservoir of popular support. For once the object of the occupation is something generally held in low regard by just about everybody who doesn't benefit from it. The key is keeping the focus on the abstraction that is Wall Street, the pernicious effects of which pretty much everyone feels in their daily life.  

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