Organization as Liberation (Power and Occupy Wall Street)

“Political freedom, generally speaking, means ‘the right to be a participator in government,’ or it means nothing at all. – Hannah Arendt

1. Conflicts of Interest

The legendary political scientist Arthur Fisher Bentley (I suppose a political scientist can be legendary) was among the first to boil politics down to a matter of conflict. Despite our distaste for “interest groups” or “partisanship” in government, Bentley, to present his theory in a rather crude manner, put forth the notion that the political process was indeed nothing more than partisan bickering. In all our talk about kicking out the “special interests,” Professor Bentley, were he alive today and assuming he still held to his original theory of the political process, would likely laugh at us for being so oblivious to the fact that partisan bickering or special interest groups were not just part of the game but politics itself. This theory of pluralism, as it came to be called, did not hold that terms such as interest groups or partisanship were dirty words. In fact, we all have interests and politics is just a matter of seeing that our interests rather than conflicting ones become law.

From such a perspective, several things are key. Interest groups require organization, financial capital, a clearly articulated agenda, the means to sell it, and perhaps most importantly, access to lawmakers. Access to relevant lawmakers or influential figures, whether in Ottawa, Washington, or any other capital, is essential in pushing one’s interests. It’s no coincidence that high ranking legislators and civil servants often fall into similarly high ranking and lucrative positions in lobbying organizations upon leaving government. This being the case, it’s difficult to deny that there is some reality to theory of pluralism as so many organizations and interest groups clamour for funding and access.

This too is the lens through which the great majority of media outlets cover the political process. The penchant for horse-race style coverage of elections, which I’ve moaned about constantly, and the constant drawing of analogies to sport, particularly brutal ones, are vivid illustrations of the fact that we love a good fight when it comes to politics. Who has the best PR? Who presented and articulated their ideas most clearly and in a manner that resonated emotionally with their audience or “the base”? Who landed the knockout punch? These are the big questions. The process as it is, whether legislative or electoral, is accepted as given and analysis, if it can be called that, is devoted to which “interest” can best exploit those systems. Certain ideas or groups, whatever their merit of their interests, are dismissed if they are unlikely in the eyes of analysts and pundits to gain traction.

In all the talk of “damn dirty hippies” or the “low budget” and wildly disorganized nature of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which by now has moved to several other cities and reached across the border to here in Canada and even overseas, this “conflict of interest” framework remains firmly intact. Because protestors lack a single coherent message or any contingent in Washington, or because some of them may like to play bongo drums, they are dismissed as nothing more than the very fringes of the population worthy of scolding and ridicule.

This is, needless to say, incredibly lazy journalism. The fact that a movement has managed to amass so many followers while spreading to so many locales, and according to some polls find support from a majority of Americans, yet still be dismissed by most mainstream news outlets as having no legitimacy and not being worthy of any deeper examination is absurd. Though Occupy Wall Street does not possess the conventional markings of an interest group, and though it is indeed a diverse movement, does not at all entail that it is meaningless. Moving away from this type of framework and choosing to see the democratic process as more than just a battle over who is more organized and affluent reveals that the Occupy movement is about something very significant and ill in the political process.

2. This is What Democracy Looks Like

Power, as conceptualized by Hannah Arendt, depends heavily upon support. Even under an autocratic regime, those in power require support from the population at large, whether through the docile and unquestioning behaviour of citizens or the willingness of a small group to enforce the authority of the autocrat. In the Human Condition, Arendt writes, “when we say of somebody that he is ‘in power,’ we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people to act in his name. The moment the group from which the power originated to begin with disappears, ‘his power’ also vanishes.”

Democratic institutions, specifically, maintain legitimacy through the fostering of public deliberation and participation, or representation. In On Revolution, Arendt further adds that “Political freedom, generally speaking, means the right ‘to be a participator in government, or it means nothing.” Once again, there is a condition by which ruling institutions maintain legitimacy, power, and support from those it serves. The loss of authority comes with a failure to maintain that support.

Others have written elsewhere, and I agree, that this is what Occupy Wall Street is truly about. Institutions, specifically major financial institutions and the government itself, have relinquished their legitimacy in the eyes of many citizens due to their failure to provide representation or serve as a means to meaningful participation. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Foreign Affairs have posited the protests as fighting for the representation that has disproportionately been accorded to Wall Street:

One obvious and clear message of the protests, of course, is that the bankers and finance industries in no way represent us: What is good for Wall Street is certainly not good for the country (or the world). A more significant failure of representation, though, must be attributed to the politicians and political parties charged with representing the people’s interests but in fact more clearly represent the banks and the creditors. Such a recognition leads to a seemingly naive, basic question: Is democracy not supposed to be the rule of the people over the polis — that is, the entirety of social and economic life? Instead, it seems that politics has become subservient to economic and financial interests.

Jeff Jarvis is similarly blunt:

We don’t trust institutions anymore. Name a bank or financial institution you can trust today. That industry was built entirely on trust — we entrusted our money to their cloud — and they failed us. Government? The other day, I heard a cabinet member from a prior administration call Washington “paralyzed and poisonous” — and he’s an insider. Media? Pew released a study last week saying that three-quarters of Americans don’t believe journalists get their facts straight (which is their only job). Education? Built for a prior, institutional era. Religion? Various of its outlets are abusing children or espousing bigotry or encouraging violence. The #OccupyWallStreet troops are demonizing practically all of corporate America and with it, capitalism. What institutions are left? I can’t name one.

Jarvis is on to something, and perhaps his claim speaks to the supposed disorganization apparent among the movement. Indeed, there have been countless interests represented among those protesting. There are students laden with debt and little prospects post-graduation, seniors who have lost their pensions, people who have lost their homes, workers whose jobs have been shipped abroad, and soldiers who can no longer count the amount of wars that they are being asked to fight. In short, they are the 99%, and while their voices may not sound in harmony, they are clamoring for their voices to be heard and lashing out against the institutions that they feel have abandoned them.

Wall Street has been chosen as a target, but this movement is not all about Wall Street. It is not even about placing the blame entirely on this one institution. Many actors and entities, including citizens themselves, were complicit in much of the current crises that America and other nations are facing. This, however, should not grant license to those who are charged with covering the political process to dismiss the movement entirely as devoid of goals or doing nothing more than scapegoating capitalism.

Coming together and deliberating in the style of general assemblies, as protestors have done, is itself a legitimate political act and serves as a point of liberation from and rebellion against a politics that sees them as invisible, one in which only certain segments of the population seems to have faced any consequence for the economic collapse and one in which certain voices are simply not heard. Occupy Wall Street borrows a model from history wherein individuals come together to proclaim that the powers that be have lost their support and legitimacy. Just as an increasingly autocratic rulership and harsh police infrastructure in pre-revolutionary Russia led to the formation of the Petrograd Soviet by workers, an out of touch government has forced citizens to exercise agency in the only way they can. They do not have money or access or a concrete agenda, at least not at this point, but they have a desire to participate.

At this point, legislative goals are not important. I cannot pretend to know what shape the movement will take in the coming weeks, months, and years, but as of now protestors are not necessarily attempting to play the game, but to critique the game itself. When institutions fail, people organize, though they may appear sporadic and disorganized in their goals. It is through understanding this fact that Occupy Wall Street would be better understood.

3. The Rules of the Game

When I was teaching politics as a graduate student, I repeated often to my students that the rules of the game determine who plays it well or plays it best. What’s necessary for accomplishing goals or seeing one’s interests realized determines just who accomplishes those goals. In a current system requiring access and in one dominated by big money, it’s quite clear that certain interests will be excluded. Occupy Wall Street, if we can understand it as a repudiation of the current political process, and if we can come to understand this critique as legitimate, invites us to more closely examine just who has access in the political process and who is included and excluded.

This is how we need to understand the movement. Not as a waste of time, but as something that has compelled so many in so many different places and from so many different walks of life to take action. It is imperative that we ask why citizens suddenly felt that this was their most effective way of participating in the political process. The notion that there is a firm divide between the 99% and the 1% seems to have resonated widely and we need to ask why that is.

It is necessary that we interrogate political processes in order to discern whether or not they achieve ideals of participation and rule by the people. Perhaps this sounds naive, but it is equally delusional to assume that a process is democratic without further examination of what principles underpin this thing we call democracy and whether or not we are living up to those principles. That such a movement has become such a phenomenon might be reason to seriously call such matters into question.

There may be some element of truth in Bentley’s original argument that politics is nothing more than competing interests. But the process in which those interests are arbitrated or even brought to light is another matter entirely. Whether or not participation is even tenable under certain conditions is yet another issue in need of examination. Again, Occupy Wall Street invites us to do just that.


The following paper was invaluable for helping me grasp Arendt’s conception of democracy:

Dan Jakopvic – “Hannah Arendt and Nonviolence”, Peace Studies Journal, Volume 2, Issue 1, Fall 2009

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