Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Bankrupt Politics and Occupy Wall Street


On October 15, 24 Occupy Wall Street protesters walked into the Citibank at 555 LaGuardia Place with the intention of closing their accounts and, presumably, taking their money elsewhere. Because this completely legal act by a group of peaceful demonstrators was admittedly difficult to distinguish from a bank heist, they were locked in the bank and then arrested by the NYPD.

Media coverage of the confrontation—both local and national—was quite thorough. But while reportage on the Occupy movement has been impressive in its breadth, there has been an utter dearth of analysis from these same outlets. Indeed, if not for the heavy-handed response from the police, this action would almost certainly have gone unnoticed by the media. Meanwhile, questions like, "What did 24 protesters think they were accomplishing by withdrawing their money from the bank?"; "Do such lifestyle decisions constitute substantive politics?" and, "Can such politics pose a realistic threat to the prevailing political-economic order?" go unasked and unanswered.

The concept of running-on-the-banks-as-politics is not an innovation of Occupy Wall Street but rather of certified One Percenter, Arianna Huffington. Her "Move Your Money" plan was hatched in December of 2009 over a dinner conversation with some friends. The idea, which she describes as arriving in "a lightbulb moment," differs from the kind of idea you have before you stumble over to the 7-11 in a haze and buy a bag of Funyuns, an Entenmann's Danish, and a Big Gulp of Mountain Dew only to the extent that she actually went through with it. "The idea is simple," she says.
If enough people who have money in one of the Big Six banks (the four we mentioned earlier, plus Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley) move it into smaller, more local, more traditional community banks, then collectively we, the people, will have taken a big step toward re-rigging the financial system so it becomes again the productive, stable engine for growth it's meant to be.
Let's accept for a moment that by the sheer force of Arianna Huffington's persuasiveness, a significant number of Americans were convinced to move their money into smaller, more local banks and credit unions. Problem solved, right? Of course not. As Doug Henwood of Left Business Observer astutely notes, "small and local" should not be used interchangeably with "good." Small banks and credit unions must do something with the excess money that they cannot profitably invest locally. And that "something" is lending the money to one of the Big Six banks.

Huffington's explanation is laughably naive, and it betrays a fundamentally bourgeois understanding of politics:
Think of the message it will send to Wall Street -- and to the White House. That we have had enough of the high-flying, no-limits-casino banking culture that continues to dominate Wall Street and Capitol Hill. That we won't wait on Washington to act, because we know that Washington has, in fact, been a part of the problem from the start.
Washington can't be expected to act, so vote with your wallets! It's fundamentally bourgeois because it imagines political change resulting from the choices of individual consumers as opposed to class-based collective activity. It's fundamentally bourgeois because it takes what is a systemic political problem and posits lifestyle decisions (in this case, personal finance choices) as effective resistance. It is important to draw a distinction between this and boycotts that are tethered to union organizing drives or other broad-based political organizing efforts.

Finally, Huffington's statement evinces a deep cynicism with respect to politics in general. Of course Washington won't act without being prompted, but that doesn't mean that progressive legislative reforms aren't durable gains worth pursuing. While true systemic change might not be possible at the moment, a good step toward curbing the casino banking culture that Huffington laments would be organizing a political movement that can force Congress to reinstate Glass-Steagall, for starters.

To the credit of the occupiers, they have attempted to think of the problem in systemic terms, and the call to reinstate Glass-Steagall has been one of the many raised, but for a vocal core of participants, the actions of those 24 protesters arrested in the Citibank flow logically from their commitment to "lifestyle politics." "[D]emonstrators are not simply camping out to ask the corporate government for legislation, they are creating the change they desire; creating a democracy that is direct and representative of all members of the 99 percent," gushes Alternet's Kristen Gwynne in her report from Zuccotti park.
People are living, and thriving, in the space. Using donations, demonstrators have set up their own society, with free books, food and (minimal) health care. When I slept there Sunday night, I found I had almost everything I needed to survive. There was plenty of food -- baked ziti, fruit and cookies -- laid out in the buffet-style line. Between meals and late at night, there is always something to munch on, usually healthy foods like apples and bananas.
If you've spent any amount of time at your local occupation zone—particularly in a bigger city—you have likely dropped in on one of the daily "General Assemblies" where such important matters as the location of the encampment Port-o-Potty are hashed out in painstaking detail, with full respect for the fetishized notion of direct democracy that permeates the movement. At one General Assembly of Occupy Philly, 45 minutes were spent discussing whether there would be a designated "smoke free/sober zone" at the occupation and, if so, what its boundaries would be. I don't know what the outcome of the discussion was, because I got bored and left before it was over.

I've noticed a stark divide between Occupy participants. On one side are those who understand the demonstrations to be a means to the end of broader societal transformation. On the other side are those to whom the occupied zones are ends in themselves. To these people, the encampments "prefigure" a new society; an old IWW saying, "Building a new world in the shell of the old," is common among this cohort. Another of their favorite aphorisms is Gandhi's, "Be the change you want to see in the world" (as the above quote shows), which captures the essence of these occupiers' lifestyle politics quite neatly.

Rather than viewing the challenge to the capitalist order as a matter of politics, they see it as a matter of changing the way they live. And once you accept that the makeshift society is the movement, concerns about maintaining the society—things like where the Port-o-Potty will go and where you can and can't be drunk—take precedence over outward strategic concerns.

Like all utopian experiments, there are two main problems with this. First, because exponents of this project are not primarily interested in doing political organizing, its participants remain self-selecting and, thus, the movement is ultimately self-limiting. The only recruitment tool that this allows for is a vague moral plea, and moralism is an historically inert method for galvanizing the type of constituency that would be needed to alter the distribution of wealth and power in America. Second, it leaves the broader social order essentially intact. Indeed, capital is perfectly happy to let individuals "opt out" of the system here and there so long as the system can continue to operate unabated. Everyone from Robert Owen to the Icarians to generation after generation of kibbutznik can attest to that.

Perhaps the most damning development on this front is the news that Viacom property MTV is planning to cash in on Occupy fever. On October 19, CBS News reported that MTV is looking for OWS participants to apply for its long-running reality show The Real World. Then, on October 24, MTV revealed that they would be airing True Life: I'm Occupying Wall Street on November 5.

On its face, it might not make much sense to you. This is a network that includes on its roster the drunken escapades of Jersey Shore guidos, the lavish sweet sixteen parties of the entitled progeny of America's opulent, and a show that allows teenagers to be "made" into something for which they have no talent. What interest could they possibly have in OWS? But insofar as MTV's central project is portraying and cultivating the "lifestyle choices" (with a special emphasis on consumption patterns) of the 13-25 age demographic, and insofar as OWS is seen by some as a particular lifestyle choice made by members of this same age demographic, it actually makes quite a bit of sense.

A cursory glance at the list of past True Life episodes turns up titles like True Life: I'm a Gamer, True Life: I'm a Street Racer, True Life: I'm a Textaholic, True Life: I'm a Fanboy, and the hyper-meta True Life: I Live Another Life On the Web. For more than a decade, the show has served as a virtual smorgasbord of lifestyle choices available to MTV's coveted demographic. What ties the individuals documented in each of these episodes together is that they are identified on the basis of what they do with their free time and what they do or don't spend their money on. Many OWSers—and, unfortunately, many on the left in general—take these same kinds of personal lifestyle preferences and imbue them with political significance.

In the case of the run-on-the-banks idea, it is not what you spend your money on that is important but which financial institution you put your money in. Still, the logic is the same as both establish "consumer" as a constituency for political action. Unsurprisingly, the idea has apparently caught on among Occupiers. November 5 has been declared "Bank Transfer Day." Despite sharing many basic features with Huffington’s "Move Your Money" campaign, Kristen Christian, a 27-year-old art gallery owner from Los Angeles has taken credit for "Bank Transfer Day." Given what we know about the politics of many in this movement, however, it was to be expected that they would arrive at a similar idea independently. Christian notes of her brainchild:
It's not people taking their money and burying it under their mattress. It's shifting the money to a company people respect the practices of. It's like, if you don't like Wal-Mart's practices, shopping at a local grocery store instead.
It's a sad statement on the total ideological triumph of neoliberalism when exercising the only power neoliberalism has to offer you—your power as a consumer—is trumpeted as resistance. A more just and more equal society cannot be realized simply by choosing to buy different pieces of flair. Creating a tent-utopia might make you feel better about yourself, but it is utterly irrelevant to the political struggle against neoliberal imperatives.

In 1995, the influential libertarian socialist Murray Bookchin decried the pernicious effects of lifestylism within anarchism in his important polemic Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm. He summed up the contradiction of this kind of politics nicely:
Lifestyle anarchism, in effect, turns out to be an additional mystifying bourgeois deception. Its acolytes are no more 'autonomous' than the movements of the stock market, than price fluctuations and the mundane facts of bourgeois commerce. All claims to autonomy notwithstanding, this middle-class 'rebel,' with or without a brick in hand, is entirely captive to the subterranean market forces that occupy all the allegedly 'free' terrains of modern social life, from food cooperatives to rural communes.

Capitalism swirls around us—not only materially but culturally.
The grasp of lifestyle politics on leftwing thought and action has only tightened in the years since the publication of Bookchin's essay. Aided by the decline of a well-organized anti-capitalist left, it has now become one of the few modes through which isolated self-identifying leftists feel they can express themselves politically.

At a moment when the widening wealth disparity in this country couldn't be more glaring, perhaps it’s time to completely purge from our politics the narcissistic fantasy that the personal choices you make about how to live your daily life are anything more than that.

Eric Augenbraun is a freelance writer and blogger based in Philadelphia. His work appears occasionally in The Guardian and Philadelphia Weekly. He also blogs about baseball at The Good Phight and NotGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter.


  1. It's not constructive to dismiss withdrawing one's money from a big bank and taking it to a credit union as a meaningless exercise.

    The author is ignoring a fundamental distinction between those institutions.
    While it's true that credit unions are more likely to seek profit by reinvesting the extra money by lending it to big banks than they are to aggressively seek to lend more within the community, it's disingenuous not to mention that the profits they make are reinvested into the credit union (and by extension, the businesses in the community it serves, many of which are locally owned), rather than exclusively lining the pockets of utterly elite shareholders of the bank (and by extension the executives and shareholders of the corporations supported by their cutthroat, shortsighted fuckspree).

    While we all know that small businesses have a completely trivial impact on the economic system as a whole despite their vast numbers, localized and fairer lending to community residents is much more likely to come from local, member-owned banking institutions than from the churning maw of the big banks.

    The different incentive structures are not trivial. At the beginning of this year, my wife and I had a Chase account. The bank sent all of its account-holders a letter notifying us of new fees "to cover the costs related to new laws regulating debit cards". The fees were a completely obvious gouge against low-income customers like us. Anyone with an average monthly balance of less than $2000 would be charged $10 per month unless they received at least one $500 or more direct deposit monthly into the account.

    It was a naked attack on the bank's vulnerable customers, and recognizing it for what it was, I went in to close my account. When I explained why, I was directed to a guy who had literally been trained to convince me that "all other banks are going to do this within a month, including credit unions." Of course he was full of shit, because there is no meaningful incentive for a local, member-owned bank to do something so shortsightedly horrible.

    For people like me and my family, the choice to extricate ourselves from a large bank was not a trivial exercise in consumerist false choice, it was a necessary response to an outrageous threat from a cancerous capitalist behemoth, and the kind of institution we switched to is incomparably better for any person who is not making money by playing with money.

    Fuck Ariana Huffington. But she's right about switching banks, even if it's for the wrong reasons. In terms of managing to survive day to day in a capitalist society that is not going to be won over in the immediate future, choosing the (far) lesser of two evils does make an impact, and a run on Chase and the other banks would spur much more substantial change than the deliberations of the Port-O-Potty committee.

  2. Well written, well said.

  3. @Zavalza

    I take your point about the big banks being assholes to their customers, and I agree that it sucks. My critique is more directed at the fanciful notion that you moving your money constitutes a step towards the wholesale societal change that OWS claims to want and that we actually need. I think the fact that banks are gouging their customers is absurd and it shouldn't happen and people are right to be outraged. It would be great if running on the big banks actually got them to reverse some of these policies, but as I noted, even small banks and credit unions end up lending their money to big banks.

    The war against the banks can most effectively be fought in the realm of politics, not in the realm of the personal choices you make as a consumer.

  4. And yet BoA backed away from the "new" $5 fees because ... we elected 270 awesome progressive House members? Or because enough people threw a hissy fit via their personal consumer choices? I do find myself agreeing with a lot of the post's argument, but there is something to be said about tactics/first steps/etc. Action has to come from somewhere. I support OWS in a general way, but I find myself thinking more along the lines of: ok then, let's elect people who share these values and will work and fight for them. See: Party, Tea. So ultimately, yes, altering personal consumer choice isn't going to ban all hand guns and impose a financial transaction tax and build $6 billion abortion complexes, but, ultimately, such actions are part of the amorphous blob of People Are Upset And Umbraged And Shit from which more long-term, cohesive victories are made.

  5. You seem to think that by "politics" I mean "electoral politics," and I think that kind of speaks to the problem. The realm of political possibilities on the left today has basically been reduced to electoralism, lifestyleism/identitarianism, and goalless action for action's sake. What is needed is a class-based activist protest politics that can fight for basic reforms--particularly legislative reforms--but also concerns itself with thinking through some of the larger questions about the role of the state, the ideal social order, etc.

  6. zavalza makes augenbraun's point perfectly. what we're really really upset about is banks charging fees? man the fucking barricades! meanwhile, in the real world, politicians threaten to eviscerate medicaid, food stamps, civil rights protections, environmental regulation, and so on. but who cares about shit like that when it's trendier to complain about just how hard it is for navel-gazing twerps like us?

  7. I'm a different Anonymous than above...

    Eric: this is a well thought out and convincing article. So far I have found that as an individual non-wealthy and non-charismatic person, my ability to effect change is limited. Moving my banking from Bank of America to a smaller local bank is better than nothing (Zavalza said that well enough), and it's all I know to do at this point. But you have shown me the light. I believe that you are right when you say it's pointless to "resist" in the neoliberal fashion. So...

    "What is needed is a class-based activist protest politics that can fight for basic reforms--particularly legislative reforms--but also concerns itself with thinking through some of the larger questions about the role of the state, the ideal social order, etc."

    That sounds like electoral politics combined with academics writing papers to me. Think tanks and academics influence politics by legitimizing viewpoints so a candidate can say "if elected I will do X and it will have effect Y." Protest politics, even if I could afford to take time off from work, have been rather well neutralized unless they go to extremes. Remember the "free speech zones" around the conventions in recent years? No media exposure is generated except to deride and other the protesters. OWS is the exception that proves the rule: it has worked because there are so many and they have been demonstrating for months.

    Perhaps you could start by defining what you mean when you say 'politics' if you don't mean 'electoral politics'?

  8. I feel like this article is begging to be connected to Zizek's (animated) speech on charity within capitalism:

  9. @eric
    Sorry, I realized I meandered a little off topic. I agree with you. Of course a small victory over bank fees is akin to a victory over a few termites while leaving the timbers teeming. I just wanted to point out that the difference between banks and credit unions is not insignificant.

  10. "Perhaps you could start by defining what you mean when you say 'politics' if you don't mean 'electoral politics'?"

    I think Utah Phillips explains the difference pretty well here:

  11. Great article. One thing I'd like to add: there are plenty of people on the left who would not consider themselves "anti-capitalist," but who dislike corporate welfarism, sympathize with the OWS movement, and want to support it. As you might expect, those people (myself included) are disappointed by those who are less interested in clear political grievances and more interested in urban Burning Man.

  12. Look, I'm doing what I can for so many maladies - cancer, muscular dystrophy, heart disease, cleft palates, starving children (foreign and domestic), and so on - one paper [heart/smiley face/shamrock/balloon/rainbow-cloud/whatever-shaped] placard at a time.

    There's gotta be a vending machine solution to this whole mess. Just tell me where to put my spare change and fix it!

    Has any organization claimed purple horseshoe-shaped placards?

  13. Is the power of the consumer the only power being exercised by OWS? I think not. Instead, it seems as though the concept of lifestyle politics is applied in a pretty ham-fisted style here.

    The point of the bank account closures is that it is a collective action (and increasingly so), rather than an instantiation of "the choices of individual consumers". This notion of collectivity, in fact, is part of the entire foundation of OWS, which is far more oriented towards organizing than you seem willing to admit.

    Beyond that, it is only a single direct action in a string of them (there is a general strike occuring in Oakland at the moment, in case you haven't noticed).

    Beyond that, it is a part of a larger process of coalition building with even broader collective activity in mind.

    This criticism only works if you isolate this particular action and caricature it by placing it within a particularly facile interpretation of lifestyle politics. I credit you for your hackle-raising wielding of Arianna Huffington, though.

  14. "Is the power of the consumer the only power being exercised by OWS?"

    No, as I noted in the article, there is a segment of OWS that is attempting to think politically and don't see the encampments as ends in themselves. These people tend not to be die-hard campers and they tend not to spend all that much time at the camps at all because their views don't have much traction among the die-hards who, as I noted, are primarily concerned with maintaining the encampments.

    Re: the Bank actions-

    The whole point I'm making is that just because a group of people all decide to exercise their power as consumers in unison doesn't mean this action isn't undergirded by the logic of lifestyle politics. I addressed the questions of whether this can really accomplish much and whether it represents an effective politics in the article and I covered how this model can draw out a certain number of self-selecting participants but is ultimately anti-solidaristic. But if, as you say, the whole point is that these bank actions are being done collectively, then this strikes me as basically about the self-affirmation and catharsis of the participants more than a facet of a coherent political strategy.

    Re: organizing and OWS--

    I've spent a great deal of time down at the encampment here in Philly and I've followed the happenings in other cities very closely. I have yet to see or hear about any meaningful plan to do concerted organizing among people who don't consider themselves to already be activists/on the left.

    I'd be curious to hear your definition of "organizing," because this is another one of those words on the left--along with "politics"-- that seems to have taken on a meaning far different than what it used to mean.

    Re: the Oakland general strike--

    It sure would be nice, wouldn't it? The reality is unfortunately a bit less sexy than what you're hearing. Some workers have been participating, but union support for the thing is less than overwhelming. Take SEIU (oakland's largest union, for example):

    "Note: SEIU Local 1021 reached out to SFist, they wanted to make sure it's clear that the union is supporting the strike, but is not officially asking members to strike. Rather, they encourage members to work with their employers to get the day off to participate."

    Declaring a general strike doesn't make it so. They take months, and sometimes years of organizing to come to fruition, which is kind of my whole point.

  15. Your claim that these bank actions are anti-solidaristic is simply not very compelling (relying, as I've said, on a decontextualization of the actions), and your easy slide into account-closures as lifestyle politics is a far cry from what Bookchin was militating against, especially if you take into account the strategies of movement writ large.

    No one, of course, can help how these actions "strike" you, but given that you seem to be decidedly against the protests, your interpretation of these particular actions as self-affirming is not especially surprising. As I've stated, you magnify these particular actions in order to forward the lifestyle politics claim, and your defense of it here is, in my opinion, a flimsy one.

    As far as unions go, it is much of the same thing. In your Guardian article, after admitting that you expected the movement to fizzle out (this was at the end of September), you state,

    "In all probability, Occupy Wall Street will achieve no measurable political change; the best-case scenario for participants is that they will leave Wall Street with wind in their sails...These protests, though, will continue to draw from a relatively narrow pool of self-selecting participants. And without any clear definition of goals or constituency, without organisation of a leadership structure or an attempt to form coalitions with established movements, they are likely to skew towards a voluntaristic politics of 'witness-bearing'... without more support and links like this, they risk remaining isolated from the broad class-based movement that is needed to alter the shape of the American political and economic terrain – a movement that can unite the 99% against the 1%, to use their supporters' formulation."

    Yet now, when these movements have continued to grow in size, when labor unions and other organizations like Jobs For Justice and The National Committee to Defend Public Education, have in fact come out in pretty ample support across the nation, you change tact.

    At my occupation, we've had these groups, the local IBEW, the Teamsters and other labor representatives, immigrant rights organizations, and homeless advocacy groups come and show support and/or join forces. Your claim that "union support for the thing is less than overwhelming" is yet another instance of goalpost-moving after the occupations have shown themselves to be interested in reaching out to pre-existing organizations. It seems like you'll simply dismiss anything short of official endorsement.

    Forget the magnitude of the Oakland rally yesterday (as well as the national shows of solidarity by other occupations, another detail that flies in the face of your attempts to frame this as a movement predicated on individualism)

    You ask me what organizing is. For my occupation, it has been outreach to local social justice/labor/anti-deportation/public education/anti-racist/anti-sexist organizations, as well as door-to-door canvassing and teach-ins at Universities aimed at articulating a clear list of shared grievances, tactical concerns, and logistical problems. Above all else, it means figuring out how to best move forward. Coordination with other Occupations and an ongoing dialogue with the media about the political platform we're constructing is also critical.

    This is a makeshift movement, and there are plenty of valid criticisms that might be fruitful for those of us who are involved yet not totally naive about the difficulty of creating a durable, inclusive political movement.

    Your critiques, however, are largely dismissive (The MTV bit is laughable. Really.) and seemingly borne out of a desire to have your initial prognostications regarding the movement proven accurate. It might seem unfair to infer so much, but given how you seem to understand the internal logic of those who are closing their bank accounts, I don't feel too badly about it. What am I missing? What does organizing mean for you?

  16. I think Grams nails it. Your whole life-style politics shtick is pretty ludicrous when you consider the OWL movement is inspired by desperate people losing their jobs and their homes, and/or worrying like hell about their futures and how they're going to pay off student loans. That's all a bit lifestyle limiting, even with cell phones.

    You dismissively imply they're in the park because they like camping. But the fact is, they mostly aren't experienced campers, and there are a lot of them, so a topic like where to put the porta-johns, which you find BORING, is a rather salient public health and safety issue to the people who are -- ah . . . CAMPING there.

    I've been wondering for years why there aren't any protests. Now they're happening and you find them lacking in YOUR kind of politics.

    OWS is a genuine organic grass roots movement. Of course its goals are nebulous, and its politics nascent. At this point, it might not even about politics. It's about crying out in anger and frustration. Now, it is at the very early stage of what could possibly become a political movement in some way that will be less offensive to your delicate sensibilities.

    This article is less a critique of OWS than an exercise in auto-ego massaging, aka intellectual masturbation.

    But since OWS doesn't exist to satisfy you, go right ahead.


  17. - mistakes inference for implication
    - objects to assumptive generalities by making same for own argument
    - "ego-massaging"
    - "masturbation"
    - ownage sarcasm w/capitalized "YOUR" (lol "YOUR" PROBLEM)
    - ironically cheery send off

    (checks "bad post bingo card")
    hey, you won!

  18. It is instructive that the reflexive anti-bank response is 'move your money' rather than, say, 'nationalize the banks.' We're never going to get past neoliberalism until we understand just how much it shapes every part of our lives, most importantly the way we think.

  19. SS: I don't know why you can't imagine pursuing two goals at the same time, e.g. walking _and_ chewing gum.

    I would like to do something somewhat akin to "nationalizing the banks," that is, I would like to forcibly separate post-1999 big banks into commercial and speculative divisions, and at the same time I would like people to stop letting themselves be abused by the rude policies of the personal banking divisions of these big banks. I can't achieve the first goal of repealing Gramm-Leach-Bliley overnight; that will take legislation, and legislators will have to be pressured by public clamor into supporting such a repeal, against the focused desires of banking lobbyists. On the other hand, if I still had a big-bank checking account, I could do something by Monday afternoon to materially further the second goal.

    What's more, the two work in parallel. As I mentioned before, the general public would have to make a highly audible commotion to convince any legislators to vote against potential big campaign donors. Obviously one guy closing his BOA or Wells Fargo or Chase checking account isn't going to impress a congressman. But maybe a half-million citizens all closing their BOA or Wells Fargo or Chase checking accounts the same week could show that congressman that he might have something to lose, specifically the next election, should he side with the banks rather than with me and my allies.

  20. "OWS is a genuine organic grass roots movement."

    Jesus you think you could have fit a few more synonyms for 'authentic' in that sentence? Your "movement" is a culmination of hipster douchiness writ large (on an ipad, of course). A leftist Tea Party, but even more irritating and less likely to affect any sort of change.

  21. Just a note to readers: the man who wrote that last comment did so from Canada, home of universal health care and a far more equitable tax base.


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