The Politics of Anti-Political Protest: What to Make of OWS
The great experiments in direct democracy—the New England town meeting, the spontaneous workers’ councils or Soviets in the early days of the Soviet Union, and the workers and citizen councils that sprung up during the 1956 Hungarian revolution—were all efforts by citizens to take over the activity of governing. Leaders necessarily rose up, chosen for their political ability to speak and act, and also to lead. But the protesters at Zuccotti Park refuse to govern; they decry leaders. Instead of cultivating those who might make the movement politically relevant, they have isolated themselves in a park surrounded by like-minded people. I am sure the conversations are enlightening, provocative, and idealistic, but there is a huge difference between acting in a park with compatriots and acting in the public realm where one has to confront others who disagree with you. As exciting as the exercise in direct democracy must be for those engaged in the communal experience of talking and acting together, there is a political sterility in an activity that governs nothing and in which nothing is at stake.
I give the protesters in Zuccotti Park credit: They acted. At a time when most everyone else was stuck in their daily routines, bemoaning the sorry state of politics as they went on with their lives, the protesters went and did something. Now, however, the protesters want to maintain control, in spite of their claims to be a leaderless movement. They indoctrinate followers into their hand signals and sing-song modes of participation. They insist that no one has the power or right to speak for the collective. They want to impose their own anti-political ideology on the movement. But they can’t. The movement they began is now bigger than they are. It will now develop and grow and move and morph into many other things and movements. Let’s applaud them for starting this, but it is now in our hands, those of us who will try to impose some meaning on it.
You can read Roger Berkowitz’s other posts on Occupy Wall Street at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities Blog. Here, here, and here.
Photo credit: Ove Overmyer
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