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An Extraordinary Protest Just Disappeared

By Nancy Fraser

Occupy Wall Street seemed to be a promising form of critical activism, until it ended abruptly. Philosopher Nancy Fraser attributes this to the activists’ unwillingness to form a political party.

GEJ: Can we see thinkers as part of a process of social struggles? Can this be something that begins with the critical theorists who identify the problem, and continues with students and activists who go to Zuccotti Park, Puerta del Sol, etc, and raise awareness of the issue, and look for a solution?

Nancy Fraser: I don’t believe that individual thinkers and philosophers create solutions out of their heads. We are the beginning point, we are groping together in a conversation that includes a significant number of critical thinkers and activists, and the intermediaries in between. I am an armchair activist, I am not a real activist, but a philosophy professor, and spend most of my time reading and writing. There are moments when I join demonstrations, but I am essentially a public intellectual. There are however other people who understand themselves primarily as activists, and there are people who do both, who work in left-wing publishing or the arts, work for non-profits or NGOs who are trying within their own frameworks to work on an agenda. So there is a wide range of people, who are contributing to this project of trying to understand what the hell is happening and what could constitute a “solution”.

But this talk about solution sounds to me too much like policy talk. I have respect for the people who do policy thinking, but that’s not what I do, I do diagnosis.

I think we are dealing with some really big questions that are not yet at the level of having anything you could call a solution. One big question is whether or not there is a solution that we can envision. There are two possibilities: it is either a transition to a different post-neoliberal form of capitalism, or it is a transition to something you would call post-capitalist. But with the history of an existing communism I think we really have a lot of difficulty saying what a desirable form of capitalism would be. And at the same time there might be very good arguments that you really cannot fight global warming within a capitalist framework. That should come up at least as a question.

Hillary Clinton can crack the glass ceiling, but only because there are going to be low waged, racialised women who are there sweeping up the shards of glass she has broken.

And if it’s true, how do we envision a post-capitalism that is not marked by all the obvious deficiencies of the forms of communism and socialism that have historically developed? These are the kinds of questions that interest me.

Now, almost four years after the start of the protests in Zuccotti park, what do you think of Occupy Wall Street? What have they achieved?

We see a movement, that emerged with such a creativity, and that was capable of – in a very short time – attracting very broad support, including in a country like the United States, which is otherwise saturated with neoliberal common sense.

And there is a big mystery here that I have a hard time understanding, namely: How did a movement that started out so well, leave so little behind? Once the encampments were demolished and the occupiers were evicted from the spaces that they held, very quickly all the air went out of the balloon. For a time politicians like Obama tried to use a rhetoric that in some ways was a pale echo of some occupy rhetoric, and that showed that inequality was a problem, and thematised things that were otherwise rarely talked about in the United States. But this was just talk.

The occupiers themselves – for a transitional period at least – did relief work after Hurricane Sandy caused serious hardships for the people living in coastal Brooklyn. So in a sense that segment of the former occupiers were kind of doing grassroots social welfare work, work that was quite depoliticised. But in the meantime, I think, a very charismatic, promising and extraordinary outburst of protest and critical activism sort of just disappeared.

I would make a contrast to the formation of Podemos in Spain: it comes out of similar protest movements, but has taken another step in forming a political party, in developing an organisation, in trying to offer some institutional thinking. US Occupy was dominated, at least in terms of the core activists, by committed anarchists with a kind of suspicion of organisation, of programmatic thinking. The last thing these people would want to do is form a political party. And I think this partly explains why there is nothing left of it now.

I don’t want to idealise Podemos, who knows what is going to happen to them in the future, but their activity does indicate a greater level of seriousness in thinking about how you can unite rather broad masses of people who are opposing the present system and the way that it operates, and want to change it. Podemos shows how you can take those energies and consolidate them and make them accumulate and go somewhere instead of just an explosive outburst that then collapses and is gone.

You said Occupy was dominated by committed anarchists, but many political symbols – such as Obama posters – were also present in Zuccotti Park which implies that some people were expecting the solution to come from a political organisation.

You need to distinguish between the hardcore backbone of the protest, which was a group of rather young students, recent dropouts and recent graduates; and all the people, myself included, whose imagination was captured by this, and who felt an affinity with it. This latter group may have spent some time in the park itself and joined the marches; it included some significant fractions of New York City trade unions, teachers, nurses and elements with links to the Democratic Party. But the core of the organisers didn’t want anything to do with the party. This is something very typical for the successor movements of the New Left: they rightly rejected the idea of a Leninist party, and now largely operate in the terrain of social movements. They are quite uncomfortable in thinking about how movements relate to parties.

I am sympathetic to this attitude. To me Obama at this point is just a celebrity facade, by and large his rhetoric of hope was just rhetoric to win office.

The politics of Europe is again somewhat different from that of the US. You have a landscape of political parties and we have a two-party-system where the Democratic Party is as much owned by Wall Street as the Republicans. It has a somewhat more progressive face on the so called “value issues”, like marriage equality, but it’s very much the party of finance and corporate capital. It is very hard to form a third party here, and there is always this issue of whether you can function on the left-wing of the Democratic Party or if you need to be on the outside, and that complicates the situation. Nevertheless, if you are serious about deep, structural change, you need to think about questions of organisation.

You have worked a lot on the question of how women, members of the LGBTQ community, migrants, and other marginalised members of society can participate in society. Do you think the current protest movements like Occupy, Indignados, etc. were inclusive enough to involve them and to let their voices be heard?

I can’t say too much about the Indignados, not having been directly involved, but I would say that in general this is always an uphill battle. Every social movement is going to tend to privilege certain voices and marginalise, or even silence, others. Some people have more voice and more access to resources. That’s, I think, just built in. Therefore it’s always necessary for marginalised groups to make special efforts to organise within broader movements in which they are participating. So I would say, as a feminist that every single movement, whatever it’s doing, must have a feminist caucus within it, to make sure that gender concerns don’t get shoved off to the margin, but get the centrality they deserve. I think the same is true for LGBTQ constituencies, migrant constituencies, and so on. Whatever the struggle is, it has to be raged simultaneously against an external enemy and against internal lines of dominance and subordination. I can’t tell you how successfully or not that has been negotiated within European protest movements, and I am not even sure what to say about Occupy in the United States, but there certainly were such caucuses who were trying to push these issues.

I think there is at least some improvement in the awareness that there are internal hierarchies in oppositional movements, nowadays there is an understanding of the issue of intersectionality.

In a 2013 article in the Guardian you’ve argued that the second wave critique of sexism was “supplying the justification for new forms of inequality and exploitation” and feminism’s ambivalence has been resolved in favour of “(neo)liberal individualism”. How can movements avoid being captured by a destructive ideology, as in the case of feminism and neoliberalism?

I’ve been very influenced by a fascinating book by Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello “The New Spirit of Capitalism” which makes an argument which at first may sound very counterintuitive: they argue that the success of “flexible project capitalism” or what I call neoliberal financialised capitalism has actually succeeded in its ideological struggle in part by recuperating or co-opting strands of the new left emancipatory thought. They didn’t really talk in the book about feminism that’s my addition to this line of thinking, but you can identify the same idea when you look at the discourses of hegemonic feminism, or liberal feminism in our days. An example is the metaphor of cracking the glass ceiling: Hillary Clinton can crack the glass ceiling, but only because there are going to be low waged, racialised women who are there sweeping up the shards of glass she has broken. This is the sort of thing I have in mind when talking about the dominant, neoliberal feminism, which is focused on meritocratic advancement, career open to talent. This feminism is really part and parcel of the new form capitalism, and is used to legitimate it, and to give it a veneer of emancipation. Another example of it would be the global bruhaha around microcredit in the global south that is empowering women. I have tried to develop a theory of provocation that tries to show the ways in which liberal feminism has become wrapped up in legitimating this new form of capitalism, rather than being genuinely critical of it.

Whatever the struggle is, it has to be raged simultaneously against an external enemy and against internal lines of dominance and subordination.

And you ask whether the same is true for other movements that we think of as emancipatory movements, and I would say, absolutely, yes. I give you two examples: one is LGBTQ movements that have focused a huge amount of their energies in recent times on military service and marriage equality. The refusal to let gays and lesbians serve in the military is certainly a form of discrimination and heteronormativity, as is the limitation of marriage to a man and a women. Those are legitimate issues, but that they become the centre of a whole struggle is truly problematic. It suggests again a certain normalization and corporatisation of a movement, rather than any structural critique of a society.

The other example is related to the Green movement and has to do with the emergence of Green finance, “greenwashing” and marketised forms of environmentalism. There are important sections of the Green movement that are co-opted into this, that you can do business through the creation of carbon-trading and believe that marketised forms of environmentalism can solve the problem. That’s also a form of neoliberalisation of a movement that, in my view, should be an anti-capitalist movement.

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An Extraordinary Protest Just Disappeared

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