Lessons from Occupy: Name the enemy

Linda Martín Alcoff, Professor of Philosophy, City University of New York

Contributed by Linda Alcoff CUNY
February 22, 2012
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Lessons from Occupy: Name the enemy

 

 

  Linda Martín Alcoff, Professor of Philosophy, City University of New York

 

 

Naming the enemy has, heretofore, been considered impolite, and impolitic. One mustn't exclude, target, or commit class war. Anyone can be an ally; trot out Warren Buffett or George Soros. Postmodernism has dedicated itself to rooting out all forms of thought that exclude, denounce, or express moral certitude, worrying (understandably) about where such judgments might land and who might get scapegoated, remembering the fate of Robespierre, himself a Professor of a Revolution who helped create the machine that murdered him. Postmodernists pine for a theory, a language, a politics that won't turn on itself and cannot be coopted, and they think this will come by refusing to condemn, exhort, or name names. The problem is, of course, that this is another form of absolutism, and it is often delivered with moral certitude. And no theory can solve all of the potential pitfalls of a movement by simply hewing to the correct meta-form. Political strategies can only be corrected in the same place they arise: in the street.

 

It is an interesting fact about the Occupy movement that it has decided to be impolitic, to name names. And it is beyond dispute that naming the 1% has felt made us feel powerful, and has made them feel nervous.

 

Although there have been recurrent debates over its exact numerical reference, the 1% is in reality a metaphor for the enemy, not meant to be statistically precise. By this term, the enemy is named, not as the mere rich, but as the mega rich, the super rich. All the more galling, then that they have amassed this mega-wealth from nurse aids in for-profit nursing homes and from seamstresses who work for piece rate and from taking the tops off mountains and from buying poor people's homes to build luxury housing at 300% profit and from clipping coupons on wall street. These are the billionaires, and billionaireses, whose wealth and power is beyond our imagination. And yet, it does not require any conspiracy theories to understand how they came into being, just the capacity to count. The point of naming them is really to isolate them and eventually liquidate their possibility to exist, and to reproduce.

 

By naming them we can begin to imagine nationalizing, or localizing, their assets. They know this, which is what makes them nervous. We can begin to discuss ways to liquidate their political power, to remove them from boards of trustees that manage our education and boards of directors that direct our natural resources, including our labor. They don't need to be directing.  There's some nice abandoned housing in East New York they could have all to themselves after we turn their mansions into schools and hospitals and halfway houses and museums that showcase the era history has left behind. In truth, this class has done nothing for us, we don't need them.  They need to pay their debts and start living an honest life.

 

By naming the enemy, Occupy Wall Street has also refuted the existing claims about who the enemy is. The enemy is not "the government" or the welfare cheaters or rural whites or southerners with pickup trucks or people who own guns or Jews or Muslims or devout Christians or people who live in New York City or socialists or Snooki. The enemy is Donald Trump and the Koch brothers. And their lawyers.

We should take a lesson from this bold rhetorical form that has resonated so well with the public and inspired so much action. A worry about naming the enemy endangers our ability to name the problem.  And unless we name it, it will be misnamed once again.

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