Reply to Craig Calhoun


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I have more agreements than disagreements with Craig Calhoun, but instead of boring the reader with consensus, I'll accentuate the negative, emphasize a couple of themes, sound a crescendo here and an arpeggio there, and see where the divergences might take us.

First of all, the cross-national element is surely important if for no other reason than that it mattered to activists just as their own versions of cross-national communication and action animate global capital. The psychic rewards of feeling that a movement is riding global currents are considerable. In Occupy, the sense that the global zeitgeist had taken a sharp turn became, in its own way, a cultural force. Whether or not something palpably global actually ‘sparked’ actions, such beliefs framed the moment, the sense of the possible, the meaning of events and reactions to them. When Americans felt inspired by what happened in Egypt or Madrid, well then, they were inspired, and the inspiration mattered – ‘objectively,’ we might say. When people feel solidarity, the feeling, however abstract, however exaggerated, however misleading in some ‘objective’ sense, becomes, up to a point, a social fact – a cascade of inspiration. In the minds of American activists in particular, this cascade acquired a theme – the perception that ‘people everywhere’ were disabused of wrongheaded authorities, bankrupt political classes, and plutocrats, and were ‘rising up.’ A decade after 2001, ‘the year of the towers’, came 2011, ‘the year of the squares’, as Anthony Barnett put it.1

‘Up to a point.’ But what is the sticking point? There is no way to tell with any precision. The activist imagination takes flights – romantic flights, as Calhoun rightly says. Without doubt, the intellectual scramble of apples and oranges (not to mention blueberries and even, on occasion, rotten cantaloupes) brings satisfactions. Romance is the great oversimplifier. In early 2011, Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, for example, were autocracies. In Spain and Greece, left-leaning parliamentary governments proved gravely incompetent and/or flagrantly corrupt. The USA was, and remains, a battered, embattled, semi-democracy. In each of these countries, and all the more in their concatenation, the sense of what the uprisings meant and what opportunities they opened up was and remains deeply contested. The problems, opportunities and risks differ immensely. In the light of the Islamist upsurges in Egypt and Tunisia, and civil war in Syria, the mythic version of ‘Arab Spring’ that loomed large in the activist imagination of 2011 has not endured. Did ‘the people want the end of the regime’ signify a social fact or a collective wish? The ‘meaning’ of the Arab Spring, and the Greek and Spanish insurgencies, is far from firm. It trembles in the cultural air. It is emergent, and it may well be emergent for a long time.

Analysts who come along to categorize and analyze should be sure to remember that the abstract commonality that ‘links’ the various phenomena – whether social moments or movements – needs to be challenged and reworked. It cannot be taken for granted that because activists feel solidarity means that this solidarity can, or even should, be sustained, or that solidarity is best experienced through tactical or strategic emulation. For example, in the late 1960s, elements of the American New Left made a huge category error when they assumed that a guerrilla movement, having stumbled into power in Cuba in 1959, now offered them anything exemplary, or signified that American imperialism was on its way to oblivion. ‘Two, three, many Vietnams’, Che Guevara's slogan, not only drove American radicals to distraction but proved a disaster for guerrillas in Africa and Latin America. On a smaller scale, the emulation of French événements of 1968 at Columbia or Berkeley by jamming the techniques and performances of Paris into a much different American context was often less a shrewd deployment of movement resources than a mechanical imitation – a robotic rejection of ingenuity in the name of solidarity. One is reminded of Marx's devastating comment on the propensity of revolutionaries to dress up in hand-me-down costumes.

With the danger of mechanical reproduction comes the danger of self-intoxication. As Calhoun writes,

the participation of a crowd encourages the sense of being a part of something bigger than oneself, of acting not just as a small minority of the population but as ‘the people’. Yet this also encourages the illusion that one has found much wider support than perhaps one has. (Calhoun 2013: 31)

I recall a demonstration in Berkeley inspired by the French événements during the spring of 1968. Telegraph Avenue filled up. Traffic was blocked. Trash cans were pushed into the street. Barricades were built. There was a collective euphoria. The riot police showed up. Over a loudspeaker the commanding officer read out the traditional order to disperse, which begins in no uncertain terms: ‘In the name of the people of California… .’ The crowd yelled back its defiance: ‘We are the people!’ But if ‘we’ were ‘the people’, who were all those other people living nearby – the largely white and suburban majority who had elected Ronald Reagan governor, had carved out their advantages, and craved a stability in which they could retain those advantages, and harbored intense resentments against rival claimants? Only in an intoxicated rapture were ‘we’ in fact ‘the people.’ ‘We’ were some of the people, but far from most of them. However fervently we insisted, ‘we’ could not transform ourselves into ‘the people’ through a performative speech act, even a collective one. I think of these intoxications, and the fervour of misassessments that surround them, whenever demonstrators chant ‘The people united can never be defeated’, a platitude which is almost always a tautology, since the unity of a people, however theoretically conceivable and emotionally urgent, cannot be willed into existence.

The misjudgment that ‘we’ are the people – or that, through the transformative force of sheer affirmation, ‘we’ are somehow on our way to becoming them – makes for misfortune. Crowds have a taste for the feelings of the moment. Inspired by tastes of authority, networks within the crowd claim the magical power of wishing, or couch their wishes as ‘vanguard politics’, as in the case of the Black Panther Party. In either case, the will to believe is a powerful force, as William James recognized. But the will to believe is hardly all-powerful. Movements may erupt on the strength of their performative power – thus the sit-in, for example, which enacts a desired future not by making a demand on the authorities but by creating it with the means at hand. But once movements are launched, they need to maintain contact with their strategic intelligence. They need to be able to discern the relative strengths and weaknesses of various forces in the polity – opposition, neutrals, and others – and figure out how to optimize their position. The ability to think out these assessments is a considerable resource. Just so, the lack of it is a deficiency.

All movements have to work out a proper relationship between the expressive impulse and the strategic act. In Occupy, during the fall of 2011, expressive acts and strategic purposes operated in tandem. By remaining nonviolent and playful, in fact, the movement even seemed to have squared the circle – its deployment of the expressive was strategic. The inner core of Occupy Wall Street intuited this, and their intuition was accurate. Indeed, for a while there was a happy by-product: Occupy's disdain for formal demands averted fissures over what any such demands ought to have been. Anarcho-syndicalist horizontalism not only supplied the movement with esprit and fueled the occupations as recruitment hubs but translated into reformist pressure on the political system. An outer movement of union and organization members was able to work out a largely healthy circuit of cultural exchange and mutual self-education with the inner core in the camps. For a while, then, Occupy's inner movement was able to avert the danger that Calhoun pinpoints as ‘almost built into occupation as a tactic’ – that it would eventually divide ‘the mobilization from key potential supporters’. So the camps were able to thrive as anarchist achievements – at their best, little cooperative commonwealths in action, or as Calhoun writes, occasions ‘to perform “the people capable of spontaneous order” ’. Simultaneously, they were launching platforms for a host of activities that communicated the movement's thrust to a larger public. Without doubt, as Calhoun says, ‘Occupation gave the movement a more cohesive identity than the diverse ideologies of its members could do, including not least a visual identity to outsiders.’

But the movement's ability to perform multiple duty was predicated on the vitality of the encampments, and indeed on their ability to endure. As for the first, the rigours of anarchist self-policing proved difficult to sustain in a movement that refused to limit individual action. With or without the help of agents provocateurs, criminality erupted. Violent confrontations, however triggered, undermined Occupy's appearance of moral elevation. Broadcast images of repellent actions served to weaken popular support. Such problems might conceivably have been susceptible to self-generated solutions. But these the authorities would not permit to develop. They felt responsible, as Calhoun says, to other constituencies. Their bottom line, so to speak, was a refusal to relinquish governmental control over popular assembly. They reclaimed public spaces by force. Expelled from the public domain that it had made its own, Occupy was thrown back upon the electronic communications that had helped usher them into the camps in the first place but was no longer sufficient to sustain momentum – especially during a campaign year when many activists, even some who were disaffected from politics as usual, turned their attention to the elections. The networks that had been able to function face-to-face, for weeks, proved unsustainable.

Finally, what is the place of critical and reconstructive thought in whatever extensions Occupy may develop? This is underexplored territory. I agree with Calhoun on the limits of direct expression and performance as such, and the place that ‘print-mediated public argument’ needs to occupy. Here, for all the achievements of this remarkable movement, its intellectual shortfalls deserve closer inspection. The weakness of Occupy's university-based dimension is particularly puzzling. Even what is at this writing one of the prime continuations of Occupy – the ‘Strike Debt’ sub movement – is more interested in direct action to undermine debt than in pressing toward an intellectual reorientation in the field that, waving its fetish of self-regulating markets, escorted the global economy into catastrophe. Little Occupy energy has been channeled toward attempts to challenge and reconstruct economics (better understood as political economy). Occupy was right to hammer at the political collusion that has stoked up inequality for decades. But to continue its impact on the culture it also needs to inspire more ambitious intellectual work. I confess I am unclear why so little of this work has been undertaken and publicly debated. While economics departments and business schools have been central to recruiting, justifying, and shoring up an electronic economy of capital flows unleashed from underlying value, the intellectual challenge to the fantasy of self-regulating markets is underdeveloped. Is this because, once the markets recovered, so many elite students have been once again tempted by the siren song of careers in finance? Whatever the reasons, the extraordinary wildfire of derivative markets and other forms of financialization that wrecked the global economy in 2008 retain hegemony. Governments assure us that the requisite reforms are in place but there is reason to doubt that even the new regulations suffice.

The Occupy of 2011 was both a ‘brand’ and a stream, and the stream, as Calhoun reminds us, emerged from, belonged to, and flowed into a wave of movements. From this wave there will likely come other waves, as well as hiatuses, rivulets and contrary waves, both long and short. None of them are predictable. None of them will be free of Occupy's dilemmas of expressiveness and strategy, or its other predicaments.


  1. 1

    Anthony Barnett, ‘The Long and the Quick of Revolution,', 16 December 2011,