Posted by: captainfalcon | October 24, 2011

OWS Redux

I’ve now visited Occupy Wall Street twice. I’ve talked to a few people, listened to a General Assembly, and observed the milieu. My sense is that OWS’s raison d’être has been widely mischaracterized. (Also that its raison d’être and its symbolic significance have been conflated.) I think the reason it exists is just that it is a great community to be a part of. As in: if I were a countercultural oddball, I would want to be nowhere else.

Here’s a day in the life. Get out from under your tarp (TARP? – no, tarp); spend some time thrilling with other people about how you’re encamped in the middle of New York City; get some free food (with a smile); fall in with a group who shares your modest peculiarities (wants to knit the day away, or likes talking about fracking a little too much, or is deeply into walking around without shoes on); wander out to the fringe where people are holding signs (evincing commitment to a hodgepodge of different sentiments) and maybe chitchat with passersby; return to join in the General Assembly; more free food; more companionship (possibly find love – to channel my Paglia for a moment, the place has a bit of an erotic charge to it); rinse (or not) and repeat.

It’s commonplace that modern life does not afford easy opportunities for these sorts of connections or feelings of membership and inclusion in a mutual enterprise. It is equally commonplace that people value them highly. OWS is one of the few scenes where this rare and valuable good is on offer. It’s why people go down there.

What does this say about what Occupy Wall Street “means”? Maybe not much – something’s meaning is distinct from why it exists. And there are various more or less craftsmanlike ways one can integrate my elucidation of OWS’s persistence conditions into a story with broader social or political significance. You might say, for example, that predicated as it is on compassion, sharing and mutual goodwill, OWS is a living, breathing example of the social goods that can be conferred by an egalitarian society. A less elegant integration is to focus on the signs and say that it therefore “stands for” a widespread discontent with certain aspects of our society.

The first of these stories may be true, the second is well on its way to making itself true (as more and more people come to believe it). But it is a mistake to think of these stories as about the people of OWS, because what they are up to is hanging out and having fun. This means that criticizing OWS because its members aren’t thoughtful, organized advocates of a political point of view amounts to holding both the people of OWS, and OWS the abstraction, to standards that don’t actually apply.



  1. Woodstock in the City (with less acid and more condoms)

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