Occupy Wall Street and the Question of Hegemony: A Gramscian Analysis

Several books and articles have already been published on the emergence, dynamics and defeat (at least temporary) of the Occupy movements in the US. To date, Gramsci’s theory of hegemony has not played a major role in the evaluation of this political trajectory. In regard to Occupy Wall Street (OWS) this is certainly no coincidence. It is indeed easy to list several reasons why a Gramscian approach to OWS is problematic. Isn’t it obvious that OWS’s claim to be a “leaderless movement” clashes with Gramsci’s description of leadership in terms of educating “organic intellectuals”? Gramsci’s perspective of uniting the industrial proletariat and forging class alliances with the peasants and other subaltern classes through a political party, which meant at the time the Communist Party of Italy, part of the Third International, would be rejected by many of those involved in OWS as reflecting an outdated centralist model of representation. For David Graeber the left is neatly divided into “verticalists” and “horizontalists” so that OWS becomes a case in point to demonstrate the virtues of anarchism as against the failures of the Marxist left.1

A similar dichotomy, though in reverse, is put forward by critics who argue that OWS is a fundamentally “anarchistic” movement without any realistic perspective on social change. This is the view of Barbara Epstein, who argues that the movement’s “insistence upon egalitarianism, its suspicion of the state and aversion to mainstream institutions and culture, and its emphasis on the creation of alternative communities, intended to be, as far as possible, beyond the reach of the state and mainstream society” clearly demonstrate its “anarchistic” character (Epstein 2013: 66). By this classification, Epstein hands over crucial components of many progressive protest movements to one single tradition. This surrender is in turn based on an undialectical opposition between “resistance” and “social change,” according to which the former “calls for drama, performance, spectacle,” whereas the latter “calls for thinking about how to get from where we are to the society that we want” (ibid., 81-2). Epstein’s dichotomy misses the strategic importance of a “revolutionary Realpolitik” (Rosa Luxemburg, GW 1/1, 373) designed to mediate the contradictions between short-term and long-term goals, reform and revolution, parliamentary and extra-parliamentary practice.

I consider the fixation of such ever fluid contradictions into a rigid dichotomy of “anarchism versus Marxism” superficial and outdated. A social analysis that looks at what people are actually doing (not just what they are saying) shows immediately that what in fact was done by a supposedly “leaderless” movement was to educate good organizers, new “organic intellectuals,” who can be described using Gramsci’s concept of “leadership” as opposed to “domination,” i.e. in a non-hierarchical sense of building processes of consensus. Cornel West might have had this dialectic in mind when he described the movement as both “leaderless and leaderful.”2 Suspicion of political parties in the US is of course primarily directed against the two-party-system and the attempts of the Democratic Party to co-opt the movement in order to revitalize the presidential campaign of Obama – a sort of co-optation conceptualized by Gramsci as “passive revolution” and “transformism,” by which the wider perspective and stamina of the movement would be sucked dry. The real problem from a Gramscian perspective, however, is why the movement did not try to construct its own independent political formation of a new network type so that the temporary achievements can be consolidated.

I am particularly interested in two questions: 1. how OWS was able to break into the predominant hegemonic framework, to effectively intervene in the symbolic order, and to stir the make-up of people’s common sense; 2. how to grasp the limits that blocked the construction of a political alternative and a sustainable counter-hegemony.

Prepared and not-prepared: the overdetermination of the initial event

The emergence of a social movement is obviously not something that can be planned beforehand on a drawing board; nor is it a pure “event” breaking into the chain of being, as some formulations of Alain Badiou might suggest. What is so difficult to grasp is the way that it is both prepared and not-prepared. Althusser has tried to capture this enigma with his concept of overdetermination, which describes a phenomenon as shaped by multiple determinants.3 Movements emerge from different overlapping initiatives and dynamics, but it is exactly the intersections that cannot be fully planned. There were a lot of well thought out and organized preparations behind OWS ranging from the Canadian website Adbusters‘ appeal for an occupation in mid-July 2011 to the demonstrations under the umbrella of New Yorkers against Budget Cuts. Both the peace movement and the trade unions were preparing actions for the fall. There were also a lot of objective and subjective conditions that provided a strong sounding board for these initiatives: soaring income polarization from the late 1970s onwards, rising poverty levels, increasing numbers of foreclosures, skyrocketing student debt leaving graduates as prisoners in their own country, disappointment about Obama’s broken promises, crisis of neoliberal hegemony and of political representation. OWS obviously did not fall from the sky, but emerged as part of a “new cycle of movements,” kicked off by the “Revolution of Dignity” in the Arab World and taken up by different movements like the indignados in Spain, the student revolt in Chile, and the labor movement in Wisconsin, to name just a few. “It is crucial for an understanding of the protest movements to look at the ways old and new forms of mobilization interlock, regroup and are recombined spontaneously.”4

But the question remains what particular interventions or attitudes were able to bring about a specific overdetermination that produced a synergy effect, by which the result became greater than the sum of the individual components. Different accounts of the initial event agree on the observation that OWS emerged from a split within the movement against budget cuts. A fraction did not want to go on with the usual rallies and protest marches, which are the convenient forms provided by the system for the voicing of dissent and demands. A traditional progressive rally was taken over and transformed into a General Assembly, which then in turn decided to prepare for the occupation of a place near Wall Street.5 On September 17, the activists settled in Zuccotti Park until the place was cleared by the police on November 15. What was new and surprising was first a symbolic act of re-appropriation of the commons, and this in the midst of the Wall Street sanctuary of private property. A combination of boldness, inclusiveness, and inventiveness, of nonviolent militancy and the creation of new forms of democratic participation made it a successful and provocative intervention. In addition to the initial event, there was the capacity to stay there, to persevere against all the odds. Both the chuzpe of the occupation and the resilient stubbornness to hold the ground for two months were crucial to the hegemonic struggles, which tapped into popular anger and freed up aspirations for revolt and change.

Visible display, spatial practices and rhizomatic networks

In order to grasp the appeal of OWS one has to differentiate between a) the visible display of the occupation and its general assembly, b) the constitutive hegemonic practices in space, and c) the mostly invisible rhizomatic networks underneath. Most theorists focused on the first aspect and neglected the second and third. Graeber came to the conclusion that it was the concrete experience of direct democracy and of community that fundamentally changed the notion of politics and of life as such. Slavoj Žižek invoked the “holy spirit” in the sense of an “egalitarian community of believers who are linked by love for each other.” Judith Butler referred to Hannah Arendt’s concept of “space of appearance” (Erscheinungsraum) and highlighted the importance of “bodies in alliance” that constitute public space.6 Inspired by Antonio Negri, some observers have interpreted the occupations as the emergence of a “constituent power,” which manifests itself as an “exodus” from the parliamentary system.7 For David Harvey, the Occupy movements showed “that the collective power of bodies in public space is still the most effective instrument of opposition…. It is bodies on the street and in the squares, not the babble of sentiments on Twitter and Facebook, that really matter.”8, J1

Each of the interpretations contains elements of truth, but the one-sided emphasis on what is visible conveys an illusion of immediacy. Harvey obviously has a point when he argues against a technocratic overestimation of the “social media,” but his opposition between bodies in space and the “babble” on Twitter obscures that there are manifold concrete practices of connection and organizing that enable the functioning of both the “real” collaboration in Zuccotti Park and the “virtual” communication over the net. Instead of fixating one’s attention solely on the “space of appearance,” it would be more instructive to take up Lefebvre’s concept of “spatial practices” and to re-interpret it in the framework of a theory of hegemony.9 Zuccotti Park could thus be understood as the spatial “dispositif” (arrangement)J1 of an alternative hegemonic apparatus, which combines different (counter)hegemonic practices and functions.10 It provided a political domain for debate and decision-making, requiring careful work with both mainstream and movement media (the latter powered by its own generators)11 and practices of intense education, both by famous “public intellectuals” and in small working groups. OWS established its own public library, which was then destroyed by the police and dumped as trash. It developed a large body of Occupy imagery as part of a vibrant “social movement culture.”12 The activists who actually lived there claimed to practice a new way of living in cooperation and solidarity (a claim which however was threatened by inner tensions and some isolated cases of harassment). Overall, the effective combination and condensation of counter-hegemonic functions and capabilities created an emotional density and made the occupation at once significant for the movement and dangerous for the powers that be. Otherwise the police would not have used so much force and intimidation to prevent new camps from emerging. When Zuccotti Park and the other occupied squares were cleared, the movement lost the spatial centers of its hegemonic apparatus.

Most importantly, however, Zuccotti Park could only assume these counter-hegemonic functions because it was the hub of an underlying rhizomatic network. From the outset, OWS built relationships with many community groups, with anti-poverty initiatives, immigrant rights organizations, church communities, and not least with the trade unions. It sent its activists to the headquarters of the telephone company Verizon to show solidarity with the communication workers’ strike. A similar action supported the strike in Sotheby’s auction house. In response, several trade unions supported OWS, and this solidarity in turn protected the movement for some time against the police, whose lower ranks, the “Blue shirts,” are unionized as well. The relationship between the organized labor movement and a clearly leftist and anti-capitalist movement is much closer than before.13

The collaboration between OWS and other initiatives was such that it strengthened the capacity to act on either side: on the one hand, OWS was enabled to extend itself beyond Manhattan and to emerge in different battlefields. Despite the fact that it was itself predominantly white, it was, in part at least, capable of overcoming the racial barrier and of spreading to poor, predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods, where it helped organize actions against evictions and foreclosure auctions. On the other hand, the different movements used OWS as an appealing label that gave their actions and demands more publicity. This can be seen with the example of National Nurses United, one of the most active and radical trade unions, showing up at many demonstrations with their red-green uniforms and demanding an extra “Robin Hood Tax for Wall Street” in the name of a new “economy for the 99%.” Such mutual collaboration was only possible because it followed a clear strategy of non-violence.14

Intervention into the symbolic order

Some Marxists argue that OWS was unsuccessful because “the functioning of Wall Street was not disrupted. Occupy Wall Street never occupied Wall Street.”15 The observation is correct, but its interpretation is shortsighted and fallacious. It is obvious that OWS did not succeed in occupying the power centers of society. Its calls for a general strike in New York did not have a direct effect; the attempts of Occupy Oakland to shut down the port of Oakland mobilized about 20,000 demonstrators but could not be sustained. To expect this to happen would however be illusory from the outset. To set goals that cannot be realized is certainly a risky strategy that cannot be repeated endlessly. For the time being, it nevertheless served to re-open a space of imagination for further struggles.

It does not make sense to set the barrier so high that the actual strength of OWS becomes invisible. This strength was its effective intervention into the symbolic order. The idea of symbolic order played an important role in structuralism and in Lacanian psychoanalysis, but has been disputed because of its claimed fundamental status and its “ahistorical” nature. I utilize it, however, to denote a particular and ever-changing part of hegemonic relations. It should therefore not be confused with the concept of hegemony in general, which includes the actual relations of force in the economy, on different levels of politics and even in the military, whose function Gramsci characterized as being “not purely military, but politico-military.”16 The symbolic order refers to the discursive formation, the meaning-making aspect of these relations. This is also the aspect that reflects and influences what is usually considered “public opinion.” The symbolic order has its limits, but also its own reality and efficacy.

The efficacy of the OWS intervention at this level can be demonstrated using the example of the slogan “We are the 99%.” The New York Times described it as “a national shorthand for income disparity. Easily grasped in its simplicity and Twitter-friendly in its brevity, the slogan has practically dared listeners to pick a side.”17 At the demonstrations in which I participated, it was in fact this slogan that was shouted the loudest and with the most passion by the most different kinds of people. Some theorists have criticized it for its lack of differentiation. For Jens Kastner e.g., it contradicts Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, which showed that the system of domination functions in a more complex way so that financial wealth, state-political power and social participation do not immediately coincide. According to Kastner’s critique, the slogan also creates illusions by presupposing the unity of the movement, instead of presenting it as a goal.18 This argument implies that the demonstrators are not aware of the performative character of the slogan and of the contradictory relationship between particular interests and common goals in the movement.19 What is important in a slogan is not the precision with which it depicts the social structure, but rather the degree to which it articulates relevant dimensions of societal reality in a way that frees up counter-hegemonic potentials and capacities.

The “truth”-value and appeal of the slogan are based on several factors. First, it expresses a socio-economic polarization characteristic for the neoliberal period of capitalism in the US. Shortly after the occupation of Zuccotti Park, the Congressional Budget Office published its finding that over the last 30 years the top 1% more than doubled its share of the nation’s income, whereas all other segments went down.20 It is obvious that this statistic does not reflect the conflicts of interest within the ruling class or the actual hegemonic blocs and political majorities. It does however articulate the reality that the stagnation of real wages, the precarization of labor, rising debts, and impoverishment harmed different subaltern classes and groups across traditional distinctions, including large parts of the “middle classes.” Instead of bemoaning a lack of academic differentiation, a Gramscian analysis should be interested in the way OWS picked up a simple and statistically undeniable socio-economic ratio and transformed it directly into a political slogan. The efficacy of this move might be described as a bold and ingenious “strategic essentialism” (Spivack), by which a fundamental deep-structural development is translated into a mobilizing formula.

Second, OWS turned out to be so refreshingly provocative because it clearly stood out against a long US tradition of single-issue-movements and identity politics, which engendered a deeply ingrained habitus of proclaiming social distinctions along the lines of race, gender and sexual orientation. The 99% slogan broke down a taboo that has dominated the political discourse on the left for a long time, namely the postmodernist command: you shall not invoke a collective identity. To do so was embarrassingly un-cool and old-fashioned, an “essentialism” that projects a collective standpoint where there is nothing but fragmented selves traversed and produced by shifting signifiers. Let us note that Gramsci started out from a plural composition of the personality as well, whose “common sense” is contradictory and “strangely composite,” containing “Stone Age elements and principles of a more advanced science, prejudices from all past phases of history … and intuitions of a future philosophy.”21 Unlike the predominant tendencies in postmodernism, however, he did so from the perspective of a philosophy of praxis that develops strategies to render common sense more coherent. The stronghold for such a critical intervention  can be found in what he called “good sense” (buon senso), the “healthy nucleus” of common sense, characterized by a sense of “experimentalism” and of attentive observation of reality so that the philosophy of praxis “coincides with ‘good sense’ that is opposed to common sense.”22

The slogan “we are the 99%” can thus be interpreted as a successful initiative to work on the coherence of people’s common sense by connecting with their “good sense.” One of OWS’s main achievements was that it unhinged the different ideologies of “plantation politics” (Du Bois) and fragmentation. The form of the slogan is utterly open and inclusive: like the Arabic “revolution of dignity,” it focuses not on what separates us but rather on what connects us. Remarkably, this is at the same time the form that brings the long repressed socio-economic class-divide back on the agenda, which in turn explains to a large degree the shift from the Tea Party Movement to OWS.

Common sense as a battleground

Let us look back a few years. When the economic crisis hit the US in September 2008, neoliberal ideology with its holy trinity of deregulation, privatization, and free trade seemed completely discredited. As the US government started huge bailouts of big banks and financial institutions, public wrath turned immediately against both the financial heroes of previous years and the politicians that bailed them out. Thomas Frank, in his book Pity the Billionaire, described this as a “populist moment,” which however was missed by the new president Obama who followed the bailout course of his predecessor and turned economic policy over to Wall Street friends Larry Summers and Tim Geithner.23 The successful rhetoric of activation of Obama’s “yes-we-can” campaign therefore had no chance to materialize as a new historic bloc based on a social and ecological New Deal, but led to the dismantling of its own social base and finally to a state of paralyzing dyshegemony.24 Since there was (and still is) no independent and viable leftist formation that could articulate the popular anger, the terrain was immediately occupied by the Tea Party, which redirected people’s resentment from “Wall Street” to “Washington,” i.e. against government and taxes and federal directives. The Tea Party movement embodied the authoritarian radicalization of a neoliberalism in crisis, but despite the fact that it was organized by leading conservative institutions, it was able to portray itself as a popular uprising from below.

Up to mid-September 2011, it seemed to be set in stone that the Tea Party was the only vibrant and expanding social movement in the US. Liberals and leftists could not imagine that a mass movement like OWS could emerge and develop in such a short time. One month later the hegemonic landscape had changed considerably. According to a poll of late October 2011, 43% of US citizens agreed with the views of the “Occupy Wall Street” Movement,25 compared to an approval rating of 9% for Congress at the time.

This rapid shift can be better understood if we examine it in terms of Gramsci’s concept of common sense, with its contradictory and incoherent composition of which people are usually unaware. Without simplifying too much, one can say that there are two major ways by which experiences of the current economic crisis are being translated into popular common sense: the predominant neoliberal version is that the fiscal debt is not sustainable; that the government is driving the country to ruin by spending too much, in particular for the wrong people, namely the urban poor, blacks and other minorities, as well as “privileged” unionized employees in the public sector; that  Hispanic immigrants are taking our jobs etc. A second layer of common sense, more akin to Gramsci’s “good sense,” manifests itself as awareness of the income polarity between rich and poor, which it sees as unsustainable and morally scandalous – a view which usually sees the main culprit as the speculative part of capitalism, its financial sector. Underneath, there is a growing suspicion that capitalism itself might not be sustainable. This layer of common sense, however, remains mostly latent, blocked from consciousness by fear of being ostracized as radical lunacy, and by the lack of an appealing democratic-socialist alternative.

The inherently contradictory make-up of common sense is further complicated by the intermingling of different, even opposed, narratives within the same social groups and individuals, where they build inconsistent but tenacious “compromise formations.”26 The fact that OWS was able, at least temporarily, to shift  the inner composition of common sense, reflects at least two characteristics: first, contrary to exaggerated assumptions of complete manipulation by the Culture Industry or to Baudrillard’s “hyperreal” speculation that the US is actually nothing but Disney World writ large, popular common sense harbors enormous potentials for a possible leftist alternative;27 second, in times of crisis, the relations of force within common sense are much more volatile than in times of stability. This however can be true in both directions, which leads us to note some of the limits and weaknesses of OWS.

Corporatist limits and weaknesses

Nobody knows whether or in what forms the Occupy movement will revive – or its successor emerge. The clearing of Zuccotti Park was obviously a hard blow. The loss of the spatial “dispositif” for counter-hegemonic practices has discouraged and disoriented many. It became clear, on the other hand, that the connections with trade unions and other civil-society organizations helped OWS to live on in many local actions, e.g. against student debts and foreclosures. Malik Rhasaan and Ife Johari Uhuru founded the “sub-movement” Occupy the Hood (OTH), which focuses on articulating the voices of racial minorities and tries to anchor the movement in poor neighborhoods. In April 2012, a broad coalition launched The 99% Spring, a training program for economic education, nonviolent direct action, and organizing. On May 1, 2012, OWS re-emerged in New York City with a demonstration of about 30,000 people. The swift and effective relief activities of “Occupy Sandy” showed that the Occupy networks in New York are still alive. Even if OWS doesn’t find another point of coalescence, there has been a learning process that might safeguard the movement from falling back to the level of single-issue campaigns and identity politics.

The flipside of OWS’s successful intervention into the symbolic order is of course that the symbolic order is itself just a volatile dimension of overall hegemonic relations. OWS has altered the public discourse, but not the structure of the economy and the state, nor the inner composition of the hegemonic apparatuses. The political domain is still monopolized by the two-party system; power relations in the corporate media did not change a bit, so that media coverage fell sharply after the clearing of Zuccotti Park and also turned predominantly negative. It seems that this has already had an adverse impact on public opinion. Gramsci once pointed out that the Catholic Church could reiterate its doctrines again and again so that they got firmly anchored in the common sense of its believers. He concluded that “each cultural movement … striving to replace common sense and the old worldviews” must relentlessly “repeat its own arguments (while altering their literary form).”28 Even though leftists might not feel flattered by the comparison with the Catholic Church, they should recognize that Gramsci’s observation applies to a progressive counter-hegemony as well. Without some stable positions in civil society which allow us to spell out the critique of capitalism again and again, the “good sense” elements in common sense risk subsiding after a while, drowned out by the prevailing ideologies.

I see two main areas where OWS (and/or its successors) should develop. First, I would argue that direct democracy and the consensus principle in occupied spaces are not only impossible right now, but also, even if implemented, will soon become relatively pointless unless they can be translated into tangible and convincing projects of economic democracy. Since OWS in fact articulates the fundamental contradiction between democracy and capitalism, it is actually a movement for Economic Democracy, but has not developed this perspective in an explicit way. To do so would have several strategic advantages. Economic Democracy is part of various progressive traditions that are in one way or another involved in OWS: e.g. anarcho-syndicalist movements oriented towards building workers’ associations; social-democratic traditions culminating in the co-determination model of the Swedish Rudolf Meidner Plan of 1982; communist movements for council democracy, including the factory occupations in Northern Italy at the time of Gramsci’s Ordine Nuovo. It is no exaggeration to argue that whenever radical movements were attractive to broader masses, it was because they were movements for a more encompassing democracy. By contrast, as soon as they jeopardized economic democracy, they started undermining their own hegemony. Drawing lessons from the failures of both Eastern state socialism and Western social democracy, Economic Democracy has the potential to become a key-concept that allows the left to reformulate and redefine what a new democratic-socialist perspective in the 21st century is about. It is also not just a pipe dream but belongs to what Marx in The Civil War in France described as “elements of the new society” within bourgeois society that need to be “set free”:29 an estimated 13.7 million Americans work in 11,400 so-called Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs), in which employees own part or all of an enterprise.30

Second, in regard to the problem of building counter-hegemonic strongholds in civil society, it is impossible to circumvent the question of a political party. Due to the undemocratic electoral system in the US, this is of course a thorny question, prone to create splits before a critical mass is even constituted. I certainly cannot present any ready-made solution. It is important however to note that Gramsci did not employ the term party in the superficial electoral sense in which it is often used today. In the framework of his theory of hegemony, he used the concept in relation to the fundamental task of organizing, constructing, educating an “entire active social bloc.”31 The “political party” is described as a collective intellectual, by which social groups “elaborat[e] their own category of organic intellectuals directly in the political and philosophical field”; it is “responsible for welding together the organic intellectuals of a given group … and the traditional intellectuals.”32 The phase where “previously germinated ideologies become ‘party'” marks the moment of “catharsis,” by which the articulated interests “transcend the corporate limits of the purely economic class, and can and must become the interests of other subordinate groups too.”33 In short, the “party” in a functional sense coincides with the process of overcoming corporatism, by which Gramsci characterized a social group’s limitation to its immediate goals, cut off from any wider perspective of social emancipation and transformation.

I am not pleading, of course, for the nostalgic or rather dystopian project of rebuilding a centralized and top-down vanguard party. Gramsci’s theory of hegemony must be reformulated and concretized for the current stage of High-Tech Capitalism. Already in 1981, Wolfgang Fritz Haug developed the concept of a “structural hegemony,” i.e. a hegemony without a pre-determined vanguard party and developing as result of an “activating arrangement” (Aktivierungsdispositiv) of social forces, both plural and structured, that would increase the capacity to act of each component.34 The diversity of the subjects was then famously expressed by Hardt/Negri’s concept of the multitude, which however did not answer the political question of how the different components of the multitude can be brought into a productive arrangement.35 A more substantial attempt to conceptualize a new network-like form of political organization is the concept of a connective mass party (partito connettivo di massa), developed around the Italian Rifondazione Comunista.36 Hans-Jürgen Urban’s concept of a “mosaic left” describes the process by which fragmented identities are transformed into a structured mosaic-like arrangement, in particular between trade unions, social movements, and parties, thus reconstituting the left as a “heterogeneous collective agent.”37

I mention these accounts only in shorthand in order to illustrate that a Gramscian analysis must not be bound to the specific historical forms coined during (and co-determined by) the period of Fordism, in which Gramsci developed his theory. His emphasis on the intellectual, connecting, and educational functions of the party can be reformulated under the conditions of “heterogeneous collective agents.” The leftist parties in “developed” capitalist countries which are relatively successful right now, e.g. Die Linke in Germany, Izquierda Unida in Spain, the Front de Gauche in France, and above all Syriza in Greece, are in fact already umbrella parties or party coalitions. For quite a time, there were strong and combative social movements organizing huge demonstrations in Greece against the imposed austerity politics, with no direct impact however, until Syriza succeeded in assembling the impulses of the movements into a connective political alternative, which in June 2012 garnered almost 27% of the votes.

Obviously, such an independent, non-sectarian, and connective leftist formation is lacking in the US. There is no network and/or organization both open and consistent enough to bring together the different constituencies of a progressive bloc, to organize alternative information and analysis, to train new “organic intellectuals,” to translate the movements’ impulses into the domain of politics. Politics should not be reduced to electoral politics, which make sense only under suitable local or regional conditions. On the other hand, general rejection of a parliamentary strategy risks contributing to increased abstentionism and thus opens the way for the victory of conservative and right-wing parties (as happened in Spain).38 OWS has so far not mustered the political will to initiate a leftist network organization of a new type, by which the corporatismJ2  (in Gramsci’s sense) of single-issue movements and identity politics could be overcome. The “constituent power” did not yet find a way toward a “constituted power,” which could in turn incite and combine more processes of constituent power. The weakness of the 99% slogan therefore lies not in its proclaimed construction of a broad historic bloc, but rather in the fact that this proclamation is not backed by a coherent political and organizational strategy. OWS certainly developed promising connections with other initiatives and organizations, but it did not yet reach what Gramsci called an “ethico-political” level and therefore relapsed again and again into dispersion and fragmentation.

But this might change again. Rosa Luxemburg argued in The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions (1906) against the “bureaucratic” notion that one needs fixed organizations as a precondition for successful mass actions. She maintained that in Russia of 1905 the new organizations were “born from the mass strike,” which became “the starting point of a feverish work of organization.”39 To the extent that OWS is able to cooperate with the existing labor movement and anti-poverty movements as well as to build independent and sustainable institutions, it could perhaps become the starting point for a new leftist formation. It is not about choosing between a “horizontalist” social movement and a “verticalist” leftist party, but rather about looking for a new “mosaic left” that combines different social actors in a democratic and productive way. OWS must not be fetishized as the promising alternative to other forms of leftist politics, to parties, trade unions, traditional social movements etc., but it has the chance to become a revitalizing part of a new left.


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Rehmann, Jan 2011: Einführung in die Ideologietheorie, 2nd. ed. Hamburg: Argument-Verlag [English edition in preparation, to be published in 2013].

Sassoon, Anne Showstack 1987: Gramsci’s Politics, 2nd ed. London: Hutchinson.

Taylor, Astra et al.(eds.) 2011: Occupy! Scenes from Occupied America, New York: Verso.

Thomas, Peter 2009: HKWM entry “Catharsis,” in: Historical Materialism 17 (2009), 259-264.

Urban, Hans-Jürgen 2009:  “Die Mosaik-Linke. Vom Aufbruch der Gewerkschaften zur Erneuerung der Bewegung,” in: Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, 5/2009, 71-78 (http://hans-juergen-urban.de/archiv/literatur/2009_mosaik_linke_bfduip.pdf).

Wallis, Victor 2012: “Their Crisis and Our Response,” Socialism and Democracy, Vol. 26, No. 2, July 2012, 23-5.

West, Cornel 2011: “A Love Supreme: Deep Democratic Awakening,” The Occupied Wall Street Journal, Issue 5 (November).

Wolff, Richard 2011: “How the 1% got richer, while the 99% got poorer,” The Guardian, October 26.

Wolff, Richard 2012: Occupy the Economy. Challenging Capitalism, interview with David Barsamian. San Francisco: City Lights Books.

Wolff, Richard D., and Jan Rehmann 2011: “Occupy Wallstreet. Eindrücke und vorläufige Überlegungen,” in: Luxemburg 4/2011, 124-28.


1. Graeber 2012: 27, 122-23.

2. West 2011: 1.

3. Althusser 1979/1965: 209.

4. Candeias 2013: 2-3.

5. Cf. Kroll in Gelder 2011: 16ff; Taylor 2011: 3; Graeber 2012: 26-29, 33.

6. Graeber 2012: 78, 153, Žižek in Taylor 2011: 69; Butler 2011.

7. Lorey 2012: 10ff.

8. Harvey 2012: 161-62.

9. Cf. Lefevbre’s distinction between “representations of space,” “representational spaces,” and “spatial practices” (1991: 33). The latter are fundamental for the “production of space” (36-38). They describe social practices projected in all their aspects onto a spatial field (8), embracing the “particular locations and spatial sets characteristic of each social formation,” ensuring continuity and cohesion (33).

10. The concept of dispositif  has been used in different ways. Foucault employed it in the sense of an institutionally fixed spatio-temporal arrangement, which subjugates the subjects to the technologies of power (translated into English as “mechanism”; e.g. Foucault 1995: 202-3). The concept has been taken up and reformulated in the framework of a critical ideology theory (cf. Rehmann 2011: 147-9). Hardt/Negri use it in the general sense of “material, social, affective, and cognitive mechanisms or apparatuses of the production of subjectivity” (2009: x, 126). In the context of OWS, I employ the concept to describe a spatial arrangement that frames counter-hegemonic practices.

11. The stakes can be demonstrated by the fact that already in late October 2011, the police removed OWS’s generators from Zuccotti Park as a “threat to public safety.” “Activists quickly recovered from that setback and installed stationary bicycles rigged to car batteries” (Gambs 2012: 59).

12. See the analysis by Goldstein 2012.

13. See Wolff/Rehmann 2012: 127-28; Wolff 2012: 67-69.

14. As Nathan Schneider reports, “some tactics don’t mix…. Once violence enters the picture, it monopolizes the landscape of the conflict, co-opting other tactics and alienating potential participants” (in Gelder 2011: 43-4).

15. Marxist-Humanist Initiative 2012.

16. Gramsci 1971: 180-3; Gramsci 1975: Q 13, §17, 1583-86.

17. NYT, December 1, 2011.

18. Kastner 2012: 67-8, 72-3, 75.

19. On the relationship between singularities and the common, see Hardt/Negri 2009: 338-41. That OWS did not perceive itself as a homogenous unity but was aware of its manifold contradictions can be seen by the intense debates on the opening sentence of the founding declaration “As one people, formerly divided by the color of our skin, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or lack thereof…,” which was finally modified in the sense of acknowledging the existing discriminations: “As one people, despite the divisions of…” (see Ashraf in Geder 2011: 33-5; Beeman 2012: 52f). See also the dialectics between singularities and the common in the personal narratives published on the website http://wearethe99percent.tumblr.com/.

20. In 1979, the top 1% took 8% of the cake, in 2007 it grabbed 17% of it, and it was in fact the only section of the income-earning US population to experience a rise in its share of total US income (see Wolff 2011).

21. Gramsci 1971: 324; Gramsci 1975: Q 11, §12, 1376.

22. Gramsci 1971: 328, 348, 380; Gramsci 1975: Q 10.II, § 48, 1334-35; Q 11, § 56, 1483; Q 12, §12, 1378; Q 16, § 21, 1889.

23. Cf. Frank 2012: 34, 39, 167-68.

24. See the neo-Gramscian analysis of Obama’s politics in Haug 2012: 175ff, 197ff.

25. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20125515-503544/poll-43-percent-agree-with-views-of-occupy-wall-street/ — from October 25, 2011. Seven in ten Americans say they have heard or read at least something about “Occupy Wall Street.” 46% say “Occupy Wall Street” represents the views of most Americans.

26. The originally Freudian concept of “compromise formation” has been taken up and employed as an ideology-theoretical concept signifying “a condensation of antagonistic forces… in the framework of the structure of domination.” It is a contradictory form, “in which the dominated forces are compelled… and in which the system of domination concedes them an outlet” (Haug 1987: 72; cf. Rehmann 2011: 160-64).

27. In a poll in April 2011, 20% were of the opinion that the US would fare better with a socialist system than a capitalist one; among young people between 15 and 25, the preference for socialism was 33 % (Graeber 2012, 80).

28. Gramsci 1975: Q 11 §12, 1392.

29. MECW 22: 335.

30. Cf. our analysis in “Manifesto for Economic Democracy and Ecological Sanity” 2012.

31. E.g. Gramsci 1975: Q 15, §55.

32. Gramsci 1971, 15-16; cf. Sassoon 1987, 146-50.

33. Gramsci 1971: 181-2; cf. ibid., 366-7; Gramsci 1975: Q 10.II, §6, 1244; Q 13 §17, 1583-84. On Gramsci’s concept of “catharsis,” see also Thomas 2009.

34. Haug 1981: 14ff.

35. Hardt and Negri’ invoke in Commonwealth  a key concept of Gramsci’s political theory, namely the “Becoming-Prince,” defined as “the process of the multitude learning the art of self-rule and inventing lasting democratic forms of social organization” (Hardt/Negri 2009: viii). Since they presuppose however that people are already routinely engaged in an increasingly “autonomous” production of the common, they reduce politics to a “biopolitical diagram” (ibid. 364) and thus fail to acknowledge the political as a relatively independent domain of social struggles. In the framework of an already existing common-ism on the ground, the question of the political organization of the multitude can no longer be addressed in isolation.

36. Mimmo Porcaro 2012.

37. Urban 2009.

38. “The point is not that we should never engage in electoral politics, but rather that our doing so should be conditional  upon having candidates who are from our midst — not just politicians who say things that we like to hear.” (Wallis 2012: 24; italics in the original).

39. In Hudis/Anderson 2004: 186 (italics in the original).

J1. The meaning of “dispositif” is sufficiently explained in the following footnote

 J2. I’ve inserted an explanation of corporatism further up so that the meaning of corporatist level should be clear.

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