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Occupy first

The protestors must address what comes next. Slavoj Žižek writes.

india Updated: Oct 27, 2011 23:07 IST
Slavoj Žižek
Slavoj Žižek

One of the great dangers the protesters of the Occupy Wall Street movement face is that they will fall in love with themselves. In a San Francisco echo of the Wall Street occupation, a man addressed the crowd with an invitation to participate as if it was a happening in the hippy style of the 60s: “They are asking us what is our programme. We have no programme. We are here to have a good time.” Their basic message is: the taboo is broken; we don’t live in the best possible world; we are allowed to think about alternatives.

But there is a long road ahead, and soon we will have to address the truly difficult questions — not questions of what we don’t want, but about what we do want. The open-ended debates will have to coalesce not only in some new master-signifiers, but also in concrete answers to the old Leninist question, “What is to be done?”

The direct conservative attacks are easy to answer. Are the protests un-American? When conservative fundamentalists claim that America is a Christian nation, one should remember what Christianity is: the Holy Spirit, the free egalitarian community of believers united by love. It is the protesters who are the Holy Spirit, while on Wall Street pagans worship false idols. Are the protesters violent? Their very language may appear violent (occupation, and so on), but they are violent only in the sense in which Mahatma Gandhi was violent. They are called losers but are the true losers not there on Wall Street, who received massive bailouts? They are called socialists but in the US, there already is socialism for the rich. They are not communists, if communism means the system that deservedly collapsed in 1990. The only sense in which they are communists is that they care for the commons — the commons of nature, of knowledge — which are threatened by the system.

They are dismissed as dreamers, but they are awakening from a dream that is turning into a nightmare. They are not destroying anything, but reacting to how the system is destroying itself. We all know the classic scene from cartoons: the cat reaches a precipice but goes on walking; it starts to fall when it looks down and notices the abyss. The protesters are just reminding those in power to look down.

In boxing, to clinch means to hold the opponent’s body with one or both arms in order to prevent punches. Bill Clinton’s reaction to the Wall Street protests is a perfect case of political clinching. Clinton thinks that the protests are “on balance … a positive thing”, but he is worried about the nebulousness of the cause: “They need to be for something specific, and not just against something because if you’re just against something, someone else will fill the vacuum you create,” he said. Clinton suggested the protesters get behind President Barack Obama’s jobs plan, which he claimed would create “a couple million jobs in the next year and a half”.

What one should resist at this stage is precisely such a quick translation of the energy of the protest into a set of concrete pragmatic demands. Yes, the protests did create a vacuum - a vacuum in the field of hegemonic ideology, and time is needed to fill this vacuum in a proper way, as it is a pregnant vacuum, an opening for the truly new.

The art of politics is also to insist on a particular demand that — while thoroughly ‘realist’ — disturbs the core of the hegemonic ideology: i.e. one that, while feasible and legitimate, is de facto impossible (universal healthcare in the US was such a case). In the aftermath of the Wall Street protests, we should definitely mobilise people to make such demands — however, it’s no less important to simultaneously remain subtracted from the pragmatic field of negotiations and ‘realist’ proposals.

What one should always bear in mind is that any debate here and now necessarily remains a debate on enemy’s turf; time is needed to deploy the new content. All we say now can be taken from us - everything except our silence. This silence, this rejection of dialogue, of all forms of clinching, is our ‘terror’, ominous and threatening as it should be.

The Guardian

First Published: Oct 27, 2011 23:06 IST