Occupy Wall Street, Part Two

This is part two of my reflections on the relevance of Deleuze & Guattari’s political philosophy to the Occupy movement: the first one was on war machines; this one is on ahistorical becomings.  Part One ended with a discussion of Deleuze & Guattari’s quip that, in a sense, “May ’68 did not take place,” suggesting that in a similar way “Occupy” could be said not to have taken place – inasmuch as neither event had the kind of historical impact or uptake we would have wished for.  Part Two starts by explaining the notion of “historical uptake) behind such claims.

Ahistorical Becomings

In order to better understand the sense in which Deleuze and Guattari can say that May 1968 did not take place and yet call it a pure event, we must learn, along with them, to distinguish between history and becoming, that is to say, between linear history and the potential alternatives to historical development they call becomings. History for Deleuze and Guattari is always a mixture combining linear development that is causally determined with bifurcation points that are unpredictable both as to when they occur and where they will lead. May 1968 in France, as we have seen, was a potential bifurcation point that could have led French society in a very different direction, but it didn’t (or hasn’t yet) because the requisite collective agencies of enunciation weren’t available. One of the important roles for political philosophy is to diagnose the becomings inherent in historical events, to extract what is ‘untimely’ (as they say, borrowing the term from Nietzsche), from linear historical determinacy. If Deleuze and Guattari were able to extract a concept of micro-politics from May 1968, is it possible today to extract concepts from OWS? We will return to this question below. But first we need to further examine the relation of becomings to history.

Conceiving of history as non-linear poses at least three kinds of problem. One is that historical achievements are never permanent. Deleuze and Guattari contrast May 1968 in France with the mid-twentieth century American New Deal, inasmuch as the New Deal was able to institutionalize the solutions it envisioned to address the Great Depression. Yet those institutions have not survived decades of Republican attacks, so that now, even when confronting the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, a new New Deal has not been possible. A second problem arising from non-linear history is the impossibility of identifying bifurcation points, or even assessing their potential when they are recognizable. May 1968 may have set in motion deep-seated transformations in French society that will take decades to become visible – and the same may be true of OWS: perhaps it will have been a bifurcation point, and we just don’t know it yet. Finally, in the context of non-linear causality, effects may be wildly disproportionate to causes – as in the famous (if fanciful) illustration of a butterfly flapping its wings and thereby contributing to a hurricane on the other side of the globe. Such disproportionality adds to the difficulty of identifying bifurcation points in the first place, and to the impossibility of assessing their future potential with much confidence. What all this suggests for political strategy is a new way around the hoary reform–revolution conundrum. Given the non-linear view of history, there is no point in waiting around for the right moment to make the revolution: we might miss any number of opportunities because we didn’t recognize them as tipping points. At the same time, there is no reason to shy away from reforms, even those that at the moment seem unlikely to produce widespread change, because with effects being disproportionate to causes, any one or combination of them might be or become a tipping point before or without our realizing it in the short-term. Political action must be worthwhile in its own right, in the short-term, as well as hold out reasonable prospects for contributing to significant and wide-ranging social change in the medium-to-long-term. This was one of the most striking features of the Occupy movement in practically all of its incarnations: rather than simply calling for a more democratic society, as many political demonstrations tend to do, it actually enacted one. Food was collectively prepared and distributed; lending libraries and small discussion groups were established; most important, a whole set of informal discussion and decision-making procedures were developed for the General Assemblies (particularly in the face of police injunctions against the use of megaphones and PA systems). OWS tried to instantiate and illustrate what true – participatory – democracy looks like, rather than merely make demands of a supposedly democratic system that it knew to be hopelessly corrupt. Yet at the same time, its propensity was emphatically not to ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’ (as it was for a portion of the 1960s counter-culture movement), but rather to take the example of more truly democratic social relations to the very ‘heart of the beast’ – Wall Street. So OWS had both a long-term or systemic large-scale target (Wall Street) and an immediate small-scale goal (instantiating democracy), and satisfying this double requirement is one aspect of what I have called (Holland 2011) the slow-motion general strike, which we will discuss below. But it poses some problems for the politics of the war machine, as discussed above. How do you make political action that is not obviously revolutionary into something contagious? How does the felt need for social change become urgent? In the 1960s United States, it was anti-war protest, and the prospect of dying in a war we didn’t believe in, that lent the counter-culture movement its sense of urgency; in 1960s France, however, there was no such focal point, and yet the French student movement proved far more contagious than its American counter-part, and ended up mobilizing a far greater proportion of the French people than were mobilized by the American counter-culture and anti-war movements combined. The Occupy movement certainly became contagious, but despite the name ‘Occupy,’ it never had concrete long-term ambitions: what will become of ‘Occupy 2.0’ is a pressing question that so far remains unanswered. One of the unfortunate difficulties of the war machine and non-linear history is that they are so unpredictable – practically by definition. It is just as impossible to produce enthusiasm or solidarity at will as it is to predict the timing or extent of a bifurcation point in advance. But it was certainly no accident that ‘ground zero’ for the Occupy movement was none other than Wall Street.


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