Composing the Public: Location and the 1%
by Adam Robbert
Around this time tomorrow, Occupy Oakland protestors will again take to the streets, adding a further layer to the development of the OWS movement. November 2nd will mark the day that –in yet unknown numbers– Oakland and other Bay Area protestors moved from demonstrations and encampments to general strikes and student walk outs.
Not only is the aim to strike (and strike to the streets), but further, to blockade access to the Oakland docks, a key shipping port on the West coast (it is the nation’s fifth largest port if my information is correct). In what is now the trademark OWS style of communication (e.g., it is distributed, anonymous, and multiple) the following instructions have been sent out to various Bay Area OWS affiliates regarding tomorrows action:
Stopping the flow of capital at the docks is symbolically important on 11/ 2 because of a shipment due from EGT, an international grain supplier with ties to wall street and anti-union sentiments. Historically, mass movements have closed the ports several times since 1984, at that time in solidarity with anti-apartheid struggles. And as part of the memory of a national wave of strikes, the General Strike of 1946 in Oakland shut down all businesses except pharmacies, grocery stores and bars providing free beer.
Oakland and the Bay Area have a rich history of activism and I do not need to repeat the various actions which Bay Area citizens have participated in in the past hundred years here. My aim is different. My aim here is to deploy thought forward into the entangled mass of protestors, strikers, unions, shipping ports, government representatives, and picket lines that will collect tomorrow afternoon. This task necessitates a confrontation with the now mythical signifier — the so-called “1%.”
Have we, as philosophers, social scientists, and political theorists, thought the concept of the 1% adequately? I’m not sure that we have, and its inverse, the “99%” remains on equally shaky grounds. My reasons for suggesting this has to do with what today we can call location. What is location? Location is the sustained collectivity of actions that situate any actor. It is also a parodoxical notion in that, far from being an idea that can be situated on a map, location is a shifting and elusive mass that gives and takes power depending on context.
Location cannot be found with a GPS satellite, only some of its elements are metric and quantifiable, the rest belong to a gnarled and shifting bank of identity, access, proximity, networks, and perceptions. Location is a spectre, hanging within and around the individual, constellating her actions, abilities, and powers. Social scientists will sometimes approach the problem of location with the term “socioeconomic status.” Neither social status nor economic status alone can accurately contextualize (and we should note that contextualizing is not the same same as explaining) the weight of location on an individual. Donna Haraway calls this practicing a mode of “situated knowledge.”
So what does location have to do with the 1%? What does it have to do with the 99%? It goes a bit like this. The concept of social agency is butchered when it is reduced to the monetary metrics of capital and tax brackets. Why? Because income doesn’t adequately tell the story of agency. Why is it important to understand this? Well, because different constituencies within the “99%” — though perhaps economically collapsable into a single category (opposed to the 1%) — are nevertheless blindsided by ignoring social capital alongside of economic capital.
Social capital has to do with the networks one is able to participate with; the schools, institutions, insurance programs, amenities, and other resources people have access to (or are permitted access to). I am a good self-study in this respect. I come from a solidly middle-class family. I paid for the whole of my education through work and student loans (alright I confess, mostly loans). I entered the job market at the end of last spring, and, given my choice of vocations, it is unlikely that I will ever be a part of the “1%.”
But I am unsatisified with this assessment precisely because, through attempting to quantify my social status, a large part of my social agency is removed from the picture. I am highly educated (for better or for worse), and this education has provided me the opportunity to start my own business, work my own hours, and to define the parameters by which I choose to participate in, and receive, the benefits of the marketplace. This is not true of everyone in the 99%, its not even true of many members of the 99% that make more money than I do.
Now, to be sure, this is not a question simply of more or less access amongst individuals — being more educated is by no means an across the board measure of increased social agency, many people (smarter than I) have soared past my ability to create social change, and have fewer degrees than myself. Thus rather than approaching location in terms of a simple hierarchy of increasing magnitude, I approach location ecologically insofar as location depends upon a multitude of human and nonhuman actors — some of which are simple objects like this laptop, others of which are massively distributed entities such as the wi-fi network I find my laptop having readily available access to. Still others of these networks are not physical in any traditional sense, but are rather situated within a subtle ecology of knowledge that transforms the individual’s ability to travel through the networks of society.
The point is that, by situating social agency ecologically, the concept of the 99/1% binary appears to appeal to the same notions of an identity composed by the metrics of markets that the OWS movement itself seeks to transform. I’m not against it as a heuristic device — slogans galvanize and empower movements. But I feel like I wouldn’t be doing my job as a public intellectual if I didn’t at least raise this point: by quantifying differences economically, social stratification is distorted in harmful ways.
Let me return, then, to the concept of location and the 1%. Tomorrows strike (itself precipitated by the well-documented clash between protestors and police in downtown Oakland last week) has surely increased the rhetoric among many wings of the Oakland movement. THIS news article, for example, highlights some of the more extreme rhetoric being passed around in some circles:
Some demonstrators, however, calling themselves the Oakland Liberation Front, have distributed fliers condemning pacifism and calling for “the complete annihilation of capitalism.”
“Are you a pacifist?” the flier is headlined. It goes on, “How dare you even ask for nonviolence, when violence has already been used by the police?”
How is this at all helpful? Further, how does this not completely destroy the complexities of a highly intricate, and complicated scenario? My appeal to location in this post has been largely in response to the continual formation of unhelpful, oversimplified binaries in US politics. This is as true of republicans and tea party activists as it is of the above condemnation of pacifism. Extremists group together like a sewing circle and we would be wise to slow down the action of such groups to reveal the complexities of the new public that is struggling to emerge.
What we need, I think, is an entirely new social imaginary, the composition of a new public that takes location — as it manifests ecologically — seriously. I would forward that the conditions for the possibility of a serious democracy lie neither in binaries nor in unities, but in open collectives. The public sphere, in order to function democratically, must embody a singular plane of activity, but this singular plane is likewise an open collective, and seldom should we ever seek to ensnare it within a unified whole.
Slovoj Zizek has been extolling the need to rethink capitalism. We face two undesirable versions of capitalism in our future, he argues. One follows the current neoliberal model in the West, continually distorting social and ecological spaces to the point of exploitation and destruction. The other follows the Chinese model and links capitalism with authoritarian, centralized government (and also ends in social and ecological exploitation).
We need to compose a new public to address the problems of economic exploitation, ecological devastation, and psychological emaciation. A key place to start might be to rethink a simple idea like location, and thereby avoid the negligent othering that seems to be on the rise within certain elements of the OWS movement.