Prescriptions and the 99%: the real Universal against the blockages of positional epistemologies

After speaking about Occupy and the situation of protest in North America last week at TAPSS, I realize I need to write something about what I think of the state of protest and what I think the real challenges are against the formation of societal consensus against the current elites. Basically, the question I’m grappling with is the same everyone in the Occupy camp is grappling with (unless they’ve adopted an easy answer) – what is the role of unity in the movement, what is the relationship between demand and unity, and what is the relationship between demands and dis-unity? In the park even I repeated last year the chorus that to ask us for our demands was to oppress us – and I still think that was true in that context, but nevertheless it expresses a sincere weakness the consciousness of the left today: the inability to perceive specific demands as universal. And this is related to my academic work, where I’m trying to rescue the idea of universality from its perceived contradiction with partiality. In fact, in the German idealist tradition stretching forward to German and French phenomenology, no such contradiction exists – and the role of the universal is always a partial role, a partial appearance, and is never a guarantee that the values it claims to motivate and guide it will in fact be anything other than the next tyranny. This was already Hegel’s critique of the universal, and I think it’s frankly a bit pathetic that people are so quick to identify the critique of the universal with feminism, or post-colonialism. This semi-formed thought has been meant to serve as an introduction to an article I want to recommend which is related to this question. Called “New Radical Alliances for a New Era“, and published on Z-net, Joshua Khan Russell and Harmony Goldberg argue against the discourse that Occupy has been “co-opted” by mainstream liberals. They argue that the more mainstream left must be part of a boarder based revolutionary movement, and that those who deny the importance of ready-existent institutions confuse mobilization for organization, and get stuck in a “harvest” mentality where they only want to see demonstrations which are manifestations of ready existent public sentiment, rather than do the difficult work of building and education the public to consider themselves part of movements which can direct this sentiment to revolutionary or reformist ends. They therefore oppose critiques of broad based alliances on the basis that excluding the moderate left to “purify” the movement is counter productive and weakens the political possibilities that can be achieved by the broad base of the “99%”. In conclusion, they claim

Uncomfortable alliances are not just necessary; they reflect and speak to the tremendous possibility of our political moment. The experience this week with May Day illustrates our point: May Day actions in areas that involved deeply rooted alliances between labor, immigrant groups, and community organizations were vibrant, well sized, and got largely sympathetic public attention. Largely, actions in places that lacked this collaboration weren’t as successful. Our goal therefore isn’t to “purify” the 99% movement to keep radicals in our comfort zones, but to break it open, to make it accessible to the leadership of people of color and working class organizations that are in tune with the needs of huge sectors of our society. In doing so, we shift society closer to our transformative visions.

I agree with the anti-exclusionary sentiment expressed here. However, I think there is something sorely lacking in this kind of approach to movement building, to “radical alliances”. It’s not enough to break things open. That language suggests destruction of currently held ideas. And of course, the destruction of currently held ideas is what revolution is all about. Or is it? That’s only one account of revolution – the other one is revolution is the turning over from some ideas into other ideas, and those other ideas may need decades or centuries to be refined such that they are adequate both to the organization of society, and that they psychologically appeal to a broad base of groups such that they can be affirmed as the manifestation of their freedom. There is something remarkably un-careful, I think, about the idea that we can simply break things down and build them up again. Things worthwhile are not built in a day, or I think, in the context of many disperate groups getting together to try to agree on something in common. Of course something like this is possible, but why do we think that this approach is adequate to questioning modern industrial/post-industrial/globalized capitalism? Why do we think that what is essential about our ideas is that they come from every place, rather than the adequately criticize the problems we are faced with?

The problem I’m talking about is the radicality of the critique of hierarchy we experience today as the only thing not counting as oppressive. We have a terrible relationship with hierarchy today, we experience so much unjustified hierarchy that we can’t imagine what a justified one looks like, and we expect every form of authority to be built from the ground up in every instance, and of course this includes intellectual authority. This is tragic because it actually undermines the very project which it attempts to put forward – by concentrating on the position from which discourse emerges rather than the content of the ideas with respect to the situation, we actually make it more difficult, and sometimes impossible, to actually have discussions across class, gender, racial lines. We are so concerned with oppression that we forget that the reason we were concerned with it was that it blocked our ability to work with ideas in a way that didn’t exclude groups, and replaced that with a concern that an idea didn’t materially originate from a group then therefore it is oppressive of it. So no “big ideas” are possible, only partial ideas, individual voices, marginalized group’s voices. We can’t therefore be surprised that large scale critiques have so much trouble emerging today – it is because the questions of the time which are answered in theorists like Marx and Hegel are simply not asked today, we are not having conversations about large scale content questions. We’ve pushed our discourse from content to position, and we do this at our peril.

The failure of content approaches to emerge which could be the subject of many angled critiques and potential large scale buy in is reflected in the ever-provisional language of Occupy, and is repeated in the above article’s emphasis on radical alliance building. I am all in favour of building radical alliances, alliances across traditional ideological boundaries. However, such alliances only have substances insofar as they become attached to their own ideas, insofar as they are based on prescriptions – on positive content analysis which is normative, meaning it tells you what’s wrong, and it tells you what to do, and it gives its reasons publicly so that you can criticize it and maybe improve it if you think it’s wrong. This is what Kant called the “public use of reason”(something I’ve written about before), and I think that without it our movements remain weak and vulnerable to the worst kinds of co-option – the one that speaks the appropriately sensitive language, and yet fails to address the root problems such as class conflict, inequality, instituted politically correct racism, and imperialist foreign and domestic policies against other nations (for the US this includes of course the continued colonization of indigenous peoples as well as the occupation of Mexican territory). Of course, we might disagree about what the root problems are – but we need to disagree in public, and in ways that it might be possible by giving public reasons to change peoples minds and to come to a consensus on an analysis which would be the basis of a real “radical alliance”.

Therefore, the real role of academics in the current political climate, and the need to overcome traditional leftist militant purism with “radical alliances”, should be the same role that philosophers and other thinkers have traditionally held in the context of political strife: they should give analysis of the situation which attempts to be adequate, both descriptively and normatively, to the situation itself. And they should give their reasons in public, and speak as plainly as possible so that the theories can be taken up in public discourse. In this realm they fight a losing battle on a terrain tipped against them by a dominant analysis of oppression that privileges form (or rather, position, but that is essentially a formal characteristic) over content, or the material of the critique.

There are two major tools I can see that academics can use both to respond to the charge of the positionally of their discourse, both rhetorically and substantively. And these aren’t complex theoretical tools – I’m just talking about engagement and honesty. By engagement I just mean they have to actually learn from what the different communities are saying, from the partial local analysis from so many disperate groups. And isn’t hard, because everyone puts their thought on the internet today it’s perfectly possible for any academic anywhere to, if they put the work into it (and it takes ages), to discover the values and arguments being put forward by any particular group. The explosion of alternate news sites, blogs, facebook pages – it’s not difficult and doesn’t require travel to engage with the analysis of any leftist group. Furthermore, many people who think enough of themselves to put their ideas online would love to tell you what their ideas are, you can just call them. I’m sure some groups will find the idea of talking to academics oppressive, but it’s trivially easy to try and probably get an interview (via skype of course) with any group that has even a modicum of operational capacity. As for the second tool I named – honesty – I mean that we take seriously the inherent hypocricy in the position of trying to say something general. Of course we are particulars, we are specific people with specific experiences, and in both a trivial theoretical sense as well as a substantive moral sense, what we think is general is in fact not. However, the mistake is to interpret universality, or generality, as the kind of thing which is either perfectly instantiated or not existent at all. An approach to the work of writing something which is not purely specific to your own situation involves the recognition of the partiality both of your own position and the one which claims your position to be nothing but partial. This critique is not modern, was not invented by feminists or post colonial thinkers. It is in fact Hegel’s critique of the French Revolution, which sees the Terror as the negativity of pure freedom, which despises every will for being tainted with subjective interest, and must kill everyone, because anyone held up against the standard of virtue, or pure concrete universality, will fail to meet the test. But Hegel overcomes this criticism of universality, because it is possible to institute a revolutionary government, and the impossibility of perfect revolution doesn’t prevent incremental progress, this doesn’t mean we can’t live in freer societies, more open societies, societies with less class antagonism and less inequality. The radical that opposes an attempt to give a prescription and institute a revolutionary or reformist change on the basis of its imperfection is no better than the hypocritical skeptic who is the true believer in absolute knowledge so as to deny its existence. And in real revolution, which means the schismatic one which is at the same time pure and impure, a turning of an idea in its own tension between promise and achievement, they will cling too long to the barricade, and be the first against the wall when on the basis of their radicality, the vanguard which sees only the infinite pure future becomes counter-revolutionary force, the putting down of which is required to secure and institute the achievable freedoms in the face of the particularities and idiosyncrasies of the day.


16 thoughts on “Prescriptions and the 99%: the real Universal against the blockages of positional epistemologies

  1. In the park even I repeated last year the chorus that to ask us for our demands was to oppress us – and I still think that was true in that context, but nevertheless it expresses a sincere weakness the consciousness of the left today: the inability to perceive specific demands as universal.

    The idea that “to ask us for our demands was to oppress us” seems utterly absurd to me. Is it not evident that politics is always a struggle for influence, and that all policies serve some people better than others? If you cannot express cogent objectives for your political movement, it is virtually certain that you will lose the struggle for influence and the policies that are created will serve other people.

    The rich and influential can lobby politicians directly, but populist movements like ‘Occupy’ can only win by showing politicians that they have public opinion on their side. That cannot happen when the public doesn’t even understand what the movement wants – when they seem like an angry mass of marginalized people with no practical ideas.

    1. That seems like a much more negative and off-putting way of saying what I already put forward in this post?

  2. I think it’s a view that more clearly expresses what the Occupy movement seems to misunderstand about politics.

    We can’t all come together and build a world that is good for everybody. For one thing, there are elements of politics that are zero-sum. One person has to win while another loses. For another thing, we can never seriously set about reforming the whole system all at once. People who are invested in the way things are will always resist effectively.

    All we can do – both as individuals and as politically active groups – is make targeted interventions in hopes of changing some policies. Those changes could be extremely important (like putting a meaningful price on carbon), but we cannot reform societies wholesale.

    When people have tried to change a great deal at once – through revolution – the results have usually been awful. This doesn’t really matter in a practical way though, as there is no appetite for revolution now in countries of interest (Canada, the US, major European powers, Japan, China, etc). Perhaps in Greece, but I doubt it will go well (they just elected a bunch of unreformed communists and neo-nazis).

  3. But these books are more or less boosterish. None examines the movement’s basic goals in depth; instead, they exemplify its unwieldy belief in letting every voice be heard. This pluralism makes the Occupiers very good at talking to themselves, but less good at making themselves understood to outsiders, even sympathetic ones. This may be one reason why a movement that claims to represent 99% of the population has managed to mobilise only a small fraction of its constituents.

  4. “The Occupy movement spontaneously created something that doesn’t really exist in the country: Communities of mutual support, cooperation, open spaces for discussion … people doing things and helping each other,” Chomsky says. “That’s very much missing. There [has been] massive propaganda going on for a century, that you really shouldn’t care about anyone else, just yourself … To rebuild [class solidarity] — even in small pieces of society — can become very important, can change the conception of how society ought to function.” (go to 9 minute mark)

  5. “Communities of mutual support, cooperation, open spaces for discussion”

    These aren’t rare at all. There are countless examples in the United States and Canada – schools, clubs, families, etc.

    I thought ‘Occupy’ was about trying to change society, largely in response to the 2008 financial crisis, not just about having a pleasant time together with some people who share some of your political views.

    1. I think that occupy has created communities of mutual support at levels which didn’t exist before. And I think that it’s both an example of and creator of feelings of solidarity along class lines and across cultural divisions. The difficult part is to use those feelings to a political end. However, what is happening in montreal tells us that the enemy can unintentionally supply such a political end by antagonizing an mobilizable group with neoliberal reforms.

  6. What’s happening in Montreal seems even more pointless and incoherent than the Occupy movement generally.

    As governments cut spending, university tuition is likely to become more costly. I don’t see how a bunch of noisy disruption is going to change that.

    What the upheaval does seem to do is discredit the students in the eyes of the general public.

      1. Doesn’t it seem problematic to be locked in paralyzing arguments with people who you basically agree with, while being simultaneously unwilling to talk to those who disagree?

  7. Incidentally, if you think climate change is an important issue, you might not want to automatically distance yourself from people who are willing to sacrifice for the benefit of future generations, nor complain that a way they are doing this isn’t fully within our existing (and failing) political system:

    “Young people in this province genuinely believe that this fight is for the sake of future generations, our younger brothers and sisters, so that they will have access to the same opportunities that we do.

    That intensity of feeling is not something easy to translate into formal party politics. Perhaps because of this, we are increasingly feeling the tension of an intergenerational disconnect between the way traditional voters see government and democracy and the way the new generation sees both.

    One thing that should be demystified from the beginning is the process by which these decisions are made by students. While there seems to be specific discomfort among some people regarding votes by “show of hands,” students tend to prefer open votes in general assemblies because discussion, debate and the power to amend decisions build a sense of mutual accountability in ways that shoving a ballot into a box simply does not.

    Indeed, members of Premier Jean Charest’s own Quebec Liberal Party vote by a show of hands at their policy meetings; our elected representatives in Parliament and the National Assembly also vote openly as opposed to secretly.

    While episodes of voter intimidation should not be accepted or taken lightly, instances where it happens are addressed swiftly and are isolated if they happen at all. Students have an interest in maintaining the legitimacy of their vote.

    This process has taught young people a fundamental lesson: that democracy is not something that happens every four or five years. Democracy is ongoing, collaborative, and occasionally chaotic.

    This movement, whatever people might feel about the issue(s) behind it, has put hundreds of thousands of people on the street in the largest demonstrations in the province’s history; and it’s clear that this has also provoked a level of discomfort in the public mind.

    While the occasional violence (both from police and protesters) is undoubtedly unfortunate, it has also served to distract attention from the persistence, resilience and largely peaceful intent of the overwhelming majority of students.

    Neither arguments about the legitimacy of a majority government nor constant parroting about a “silent majority” serves to address the heart of the issue. When the electoral process fails an entire generation, when public consultation isn’t meaningful, when petitions, letters and phone calls to elected representatives go unheard, there is often no other option than to express those convictions in the street.

    It bears noting that never in this province’s history has such a prolonged public outcry been left truly unaddressed by those in power. Not all issues are equal: surely some will generate more intense political reaction than others. But this one has captured the public’s frustration and imagination, and the attention of young people, in a way that few political causes ever will. And when the government’s response is obstinate, dismissive and contemptuous, what kind of democracy is that?

    There is a tenacity and spirit behind the student movement that serve to remind us that a ballot in a box every few years should never trump the will of an entire generation. I’ll say this for the Charest government: at the very least it has managed to create a social crisis so profound that the myth of our “apathetic youth” is dead.

    Perhaps it is the government that has a thing or two to learn from students about democracy.”

    Read more:

    Read more:

  8. There is a spectrum of opinion in which there is interesting disagreement – amongst people who agree on basic values. People who are basically opposed to substantive democracy and solidarity need not be included, they can include themselves by changing their values if it interests them.

  9. Incidentally, the opinion which really needs to be addressed is the growth of the extreme right – which although largely characterized by xenophobia, does substantially address some of the excesses of capitalism. We know what happens when the left fails to organize an alternative program for the downfall of the current order of the elite.

  10. By all means, do all you can to build the resilience of important institutions (like the free press).

    They definitely need to be protected from politicians and bureaucrats.

  11. What “free press” is that? The recent positive coverage of the student strikes in the National Post and Gazette illustrate the depth of corruption in Canadian media – even ring wing rags will attack politicians if its in their interests.

    But anyway, I think liberal concepts like “free press” are meaningless unless they have as content substantial criticism of the current elite. And since they are owned by the elite, that is unlikely to appear. You believe in a false opposition between the elites and politiciens, when in fact politiciens work for the elite while the people and the future are left to the side. Fascists are powerful because they side with one element of the elite against the rest and co-opt populist opinion by dealing with a substantive issue – i.e. a banking crisis, alongside an immaterial issue, i.e. racism. You can’t combat fascism with liberal “free speech” talk that fails to substantively criticize the economic system. If you continue to support those who prop up the existing order and call those on the democratic left who dare to consider alternatives discrediting “students in the eyes of the general public”, you not only mistake “the general public” for “the manufactured opinion”, you by dismissing the leftist opposition to austerity unintentionally strengthen the rightist one.

    There is a difference between productive and dismissive criticism. If you agree with the values expressed in the Occupy and Montreal student movement, the you should not criticize it dismissively. And if you disagree with the values expressed, then you shouldn’t be surprised if people who express solidarity with the movement to lack an interest in discussing the issues with you. After all, if I were a coach of a sports team, I wouldn’t discuss strategy with someone who wanted my team to lose.

    1. Freedom is always somewhere between total and non-existent. There are major problems with the ‘alternative’ press too – particularly poor quality control and fact checking.

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