Saturday, October 29, 2011

Déjà vu - OWS explanations - Part II

I apologize for the delay in writing the second part. It was in part due to being busy, but also because of research obsession. I realized I was going a little too far and that this was not a scholarly paper when I found myself reading Richard Rorty's criticism of Ernesto Laclau this morning. Why is that a problem? Because a) Rorty died 4 years ago, so he obviously hasn't written anything about the OWS movement, and b) I haven't found anything from Laclau about the topic. I can be wrong, but I think Laclau is too busy in Argentina explaining why Cristina Kirchner is the second coming of Lenin or something like that. Seriously. If you read Spanish, here is an interview he gave to an Argentinian newspaper in early October, where he states things like "una democracia real en Latinoamérica se basa en la reelección indefinida" Translated into English: "a real democracy in Latin American has to be based on the unlimited reelection [of progressive leaders, I guess]". Currently, most Constitutions in Latin American countries forbid more than two terms in a row. I guess he wants to change it. Barf...

But I digress. Expanding and explaining the previous post, what do I mean by déjà vu? It is not about the OWS phenomenon in itself. Again, protests are good. Challenging is good. Paying attention is good. My increase annoyance is towards some college professors and towards what can be called 'progressive', educated individuals (both in real life and in the blogosphere) who, when somebody dares to raise an objection to the idea of the "99%" or that the OWS as it stands is really a challenge (as in threat) to capitalist power, reply either with personal accusations ("You think you are different and you are immune to the catastrophic economic situation") or with a bullet point that is loosely based on the political concept of the multitude as elaborated by Negri and Hardt and Paolo Virno among others (yes, I know they are not the same but I am oversimplifying for the sake of not turning this into a theoretical discussion), without any critical or contextual elaboration of the concept.

Regarding the phrase "We are the 99%", I think that regardless of how accurate or not it is in itself to describe a certain state of things in the United States currently, it is better to think of it as a political slogan, as a way of communicating a message. How successful it is in the long term will be proven not by abstract analysis or discussions, but by how many different groups and people actually join the movement. And that is impossible to determine right now. The uncritical embrace of those mass protest as a fresh, exciting new way of challenging global capitalism is not new, but has its origins in the late 1990s conceptualizations of anti-globalization movements (Seattle et al.). My problem is with the idea that it necessarily constitute a serious threat to the status quo. In other words, what I refuse to do is to accept the idea that any massive protest necessarily constitutes a challenge (as in threat) to the capitalist system and provides the potential to articulate new, more radical and egalitarian democracies. Why? Because I've seen the same argument used 10 years ago, to a very different phenomenon. Déjà vu.

As I said in a previous comment, this rhetoric brings me too many flashbacks of Argentina, early 2002. And, as profacero argues, this isn't Argentina 2002. Exactly my point. Let me explain a little better. In late 2001, the neoliberal economic policies implemented in the country in the 1990s had been such a failure that the whole country's economy literally imploded. To quote from that never-ending source of knowledge, Wikipedia:
Social unrest was also growing. Since the late 1990s, protest movements had formed in Argentina, notably the piqueteros ("picketeers"), initially made up of unemployed workers. The piqueteros blockaded major roads and highways demanding government subsidies and other welfare measures. This entire crisis came to a head on November 29, 2001, when Argentines took to banks and financial institutions to withdraw millions of pesos and dollars from their accounts. Had the withdrawal continued, Argentina's entire banking system would have collapsed.
The unrest started when Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo, introduced restrictions to the withdrawal of cash from bank deposits, intending to stop the draining of deposits that had been taking place throughout 2001 and had reached the point where 25% of all the money in the banks had been withdrawn. These measures were aimed at controlling the banking crisis for a period of 90 days, until the exchange of Argentina's public debt could be completed.

Although people could still use their money via credit cards, checks and other forms of non-cash payments, the enforcement of these measures caused delays and problems for the general population and especially for businesses. Massive queues at every bank and growing reports of political crisis contributed to inflame Argentina's political scenario . . .

[President] De la Rúa's position had become unsustainable . . . Between December 16 and December 19 [2001] there were several incidents involving unemployed activists and protesters which demanded the handing-out of food bags from supermarkets. These incidents ended up with outright looting of supermarkets and convenience stores on December 18, taking place on Rosario and the Greater Buenos Aires areas...

[On the night of December 19th], De la Rúa addressed the nation to announce the state of siege and to call the Peronists to negotiate a "government of national unity". Following the broadcast, spontaneous cacerolazos ("pot banging") took place throughout Buenos Aires and other major cities, signaling the middle-class' own unrest. December 19 concluded with the resignation of Domingo Cavallo, who had lost whatever support he had within the government. Groups of protesters mobilized throughout Buenos Aires, some of them arriving to Plaza de Mayo, where there were incidents with the Federal Police forces.

The next day the situation and the violence worsened, not only in Plaza de Mayo but throughout the country. More than 20 people were killed because of police repression that day. On the late afternoon of December 20th, 2001, President De la Rua resigned. The following 12 days, Argentina probably beat a World record: it had 5 presidents within the period. Finally, former Vice-President Eduardo Duhalde was named president by the Legislative Assembly (basically, it was the legal and constitutional way to do it, but Duhalde was not elected by the popular vote). The crisis had produced creative responses and forms of protests from the Argentine population: from the above mentioned piqueteros, to neighborhood assemblies, to barter systems for those who could not access their money in the bank. And as I said in the comment to my own post,
I was in Plaza de Mayo the night of December 19th, 2001 (that's a story for a whole post). And for 6 month after that, Argentina was the hottest thing on the planet, as far as revolutionary scholars go. Too much of what I read now reminds me of what was written about Argentina in 2002

I apologize if I don't link directly to anything, but most of what I've found is in Spanish. However, many foreign political theorists (and a few Argentine ones) hailed the Utopian possibilities of these movements. Whether it was the piqueteros or the "cacerolazos", it didn't matter. Notwithstanding the fact that their reasons for protesting were absolutely different. In the case of the piqueteros, it was because they were unemployed working class that had been devastated by the loss of (mostly) factory jobs in the 1990s. The people who participated in banging pots where usually middle class (loosely defined) who were protesting that they could not access to a "normal" financial system. In 2001, their interests coincided and it was powerful enough to overthrow a hated government. To assume that the alliance would last for long, though, was far-fetched at best.

As I said before, for six month to a year after December 2001, Argentina was the hottest thing on the planet, as far as revolutionary scholars go. It was a really weird personal experience to read so many things written about the situation by First World academics who were very quick to apply certain fashionable theories to the Argentinian context. Paolo Virno, for example, linked the "cacerolazos" to what had happened previously in Seattle and Genoa. Even more bizarre was to arrive to my graduate institution in 2002 and witnessed at least 3 (American) students from other departments (English and Political Science, I believe) planning their PhD dissertations on some of the phenomenons that had arisen as a response to the crisis. I say bizarre not because I don't consider the "cacerolazos" or the "piqueteros" or the (short-lived) barter system organizations important, relevant or worthy of writing about. I say bizarre because of what I found was an a-historical, utopian faith in what these phenomenons represented.* They were putting theory before practice and really did not care about how well it fit. I found that to be some sort of new form of "academic cultural imperialism", where Thirld World countries keep providing the First World academics revolutionary movements they can be excited about and write about. It is not old-fashioned Che Guevara or Fidel Castro, but it is the same model adapted to the neoliberal ages. This has become too long again, so I will cut this post in half. Keep tune for part 3.

* As an example, by 2004 President Duhalde had managed to split the "piquetero" movement in different fractions, using the very old-fashion method of welfare handouts to some of them who accepted to be re-absorbed into the Peronist party. Personally, I have no problem with welfare distribution methods. But it certainly demonstrates the relevance of the State apparatus. The same "cacerolazos" (urban middle class) that had came out and toppled De la Rua in 2001 was out on the street in 2008 . . . protesting a bill that would have introduced progressive taxation to wealthy landowners (difficult and long to explain, but related to the very particularities of Argentina's history).


  1. Yes, I know those theory before practice people, and they are tiresome indeed.

    On it being better to think of "we are the 99%" as a political slogan, as a way of communicating a message - is it thought of in some other way?

    (I am not reading much news commentary, so I really don't know - I took it as a slogan when I heard it, and didn't realize it was being taken other ways, still am not sure I know what those other ways are....)

  2. Also - I see your general argument, this is just a moment in which people of different stripes walk together, not a "revolution." My delicada esperanza is that it may at least make something other than neoliberal quietism or whatever be a comprehensible p.o.v.

  3. " On it being better to think of "we are the 99%" as a political slogan, as a way of communicating a message - is it thought of in some other way?"

    I've seen it use to explain the state of US educational system entirely. Not just higher education, but elementary and secondary education as well. In my opinion, that just falls back into ignoring class divisions in the US. As an example: an associate professor at my institution and his/her professional spouse. There are plenty. They probably have a combined income of 100 - 130 K a year. They do not belong to the 1%, but live in a nice upper-class neighborhood. They do not send their kids to expensive private schools or high schools, but to a good public school funded on property taxes. It is a much different picture than what an inner-city family faces.

    Now, one could object many things to this:

    a) It is not relevant to the moment or to OWS. Fine, but as an analysis it is particularly weak.

    b) The couple I gave as an example could very quickly find itself in rapid downfall: he/she looses hir job, can't pay mortgage, etc... Absolutely true, but it still doesn't address the fact that the US education system problems are not just the divide between those who can pay 20-30K a year in tuition for their kids school or high school, and those in public schools. How public schools are funded are a big part of the problem.

    c) In the future, such a kid will find itself in the same situation as many young middle class students find themselves now: deeply in debt over a college degree and unable to find a job. Absolutely true also, but it still doesn't make it a good explanation model.

    "My delicada esperanza is that it may at least make something other than neoliberal quietism or whatever be a comprehensible p.o.v."

    Absolutely agree.

  4. - I don't know that they're not just speaking in shorthand, or maybe they're just some incompletely informed passerby - I wouldn't take that at face value or take it too seriously

    - but when I was a child, before all this tax cutting and budget cutting, *even* "inner city" schools weren't as bad and more importantly, public colleges and universities were practically free (my college tuition at UC Berkeley was $600 per year) and easier to get into than now, and there were all these slots available for minorities / the disadvantaged which have been closed now because it "wasn't fair to the whites/non-poor" and financial aid in the form of grants not loans was much greater, etc. And there were people there who had gone to bad high schools like Galileo in S.F. Things really were less polarized and more accessible. I know you're going to call this "personal experience" but it's an example - not an opinion or a figment of my imagination - you can look up the figures.

  5. Also - decline in public space. In California a lot of the gorgeous parks where *everyone* used to go and camp and things, are now closed due to lack of budget. And, you have to pay for parking to park at the beach, and bus services to it have been cut.

    So, more and more you have to have access to a private woods and private beach, and private transportation and so on, i.e. it's all more and more like many parts of South America where there isn't as much pleasant public or common space or access to it as there was here within living memory. This diminishment of common public areas is very marked.

  6. Ah - on another note - it also occurs to me that people who idealized Argentina 2001 may not have all had a lot of organizing experience themselves, may not know a lot of history, and so on. There are short-lived, specific issue oriented alliances and then much longer term projects. Reading a little of this and that theory and then deciding on not enough evidence one has seen it in action, that's very student-y - can maybe fly as a project in certain kinds of academic programs, but it's not terribly serious as a political analysis.

    What I think I'm arguing against, is actually something you may not intend. I think I think I'm arguing against the idea that the Occupy people really are what some see in them.

  7. "What I think I'm arguing against, is actually something you may not intend. I think I think I'm arguing against the idea that the Occupy people really are what some see in them."

    Now I am confused, but if what you mean is that the Occupy people ARE NOT what some see in them, I would agree.

  8. Laclau on the identification process between Argentinean people and Kirchner:
    "En Argentina yo he encontrado un grado de identificación política que no recordaba desde los años ’70. Me parece estar de vuelta al comienzo de los ’70. Está dominando el setentismo sin militarismo. Es un enorme paso adelante."

  9. Yes, I had the same reaction as I write in the first paragraph... that's how I spent a morning reading Rorty.
    Here is an interesting blog post by an Argentinian political theorist regarding that interview...I love the title: "El desprecio". The comment thread is worth reading, too;

  10. Re Laclau: he lived in Argentina and was a member of the Partido Socialista de Izquierda Nacional until 1969, when he traveled to the UK for his PhD. Another cheap psychological explanation is that he is trying to have what many of his generation did in the 1970, with the return of Peron, Montoneros, etc. I wonder what Cristina current Chief of Staff, Juan Manuel Abal Medina (h), has to say in private about it. In public, he parrots that speech like crazy. I don't know how much he believes it in private, though. In the 90s, he was one of the most brilliant TAs in Political Science and a fervent political activist (a brilliant and fast one, as his career proves). I always got the feeling there was a tension between his academic side and thoughts and the political one. I mean, his dissertation advisor was Guillermo O'Donnell, not the most revolutionary political theorist I know.