Think Local, Act Global

Is “We Are the 99%” an Empty Signifier or a Global Brand?

Contributed by Mobina Hashmi Assistant Professor at Brooklyn College
November 16, 2011
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Occupy Lives, Occupy Live

The Tea Party’s claim to speak for the silent majority is now a distant memory, replaced by Occupy Wall Street’s slogan “We are the 99%” which lays its own claim on the voice of the people. Like the Tea Party, OWS too points out the disempowerment of the people by powerful institutions, but, the similarity evaporates almost before it registers. While one can imagine people being members of both movements or agreeing whole-heartedly on certain economic reforms, OWS and the Tea Party construct “the people” as a civic, social, or political subject in a crucially different manner.

From my position on the political outside of the Tea Party, its genealogy, allegiances, debts and allies seem comfortably clear: libertarians, nativists, white ressentiment-ists, conservative Republicans, and a sprinkling of others who found it the only tent willing to grant them refuge. Looking at Occupy Wall Street from the political inside, as someone hailed by their message, I find it harder to identify its genealogy, allegiances, debts and allies and, thus, find it harder to figure out who is addressed by the claim, “we are the 99%.”

The obvious question (channeling Hazel Carby here 1) is to ask what “you” mean by saying “we” are the 99%? The claim is incredibly powerful, all the more so, for its grandly sweeping inclusiveness that equally hails the homeless person on the street and the successful plastic surgeon who brings in a high six-figure income each year. And, here is where it becomes tricky, because the 99% is clearly not a descriptive title as much as it is an invitation to identify with a particular political orientation. So, even though it technically includes the newly-minted Ivy League graduate now working for Goldman Sachs, it really doesn’t want her as she is. Similarly, the Occupy encampments have had to make their sometimes-tense, often tricky, and intensely scrutinized negotiations with those whose existing encampments have been occupied.

How do “we” respond to the call of “We are the 99%”? Who feels uneasy and who feels recognized? Who has to adapt and who feels at home? Does it spring from a sense of outrage at what was done to “us” or what has been done to “all of us” for so long? Do “we” take up the placard because “this has gone too far” or because “this has gone on for too long”?

Even with a deep appreciation for the hard work of committing to participatory, consensual democracy that is the centerpiece of Occupy, I find it difficult not to bring up questions of race, gender, class, nationality, politics in a self-reflexive moment about the positionality of the subject “we are the 99%.” It is tempting (and, largely, fair) to respond to these questions by variously pointing to the diversity of the movement(s), by claiming that now is not the time, or by saying that “we” are addressing these issues already in an ongoing dialogue. But, I would suggest that it is exactly these still-uncomfortable questions that must be the starting point for coalition and not the alliances sought out or bridges built after a political subject has begun to coalesce. It would be nice if the “we” did not start off as a renegade splinter group from the hegemonic.

In the long interregnum between social movements in the USA, the whole point of political and cultural theory was our obsession with “difference,” specifically with the temporality of difference—the deferral of race, gender, class, sexuality, religion, nationality etc. etc. in the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s liberation movement, the anti-colonial movements, the gay rights movement etc. etc. The “fierce urgency of now” never quite applied to all of us. In our discussions of post-modernism, post-structuralism, post-Marxism, post-colonialism, we talked about intersectionality, about the impossibility of parsing out difference except in carefully circumscribed analytic ways, about the pernicious narratives of entry into world history, about embracing agonistic multiplicity rather than consensual unity, about the reversibility of power and the necessary recognition of privilege, about learning to listen as well as speak, and about different ways of speaking and being.

And then, suddenly, in the euphoria of the Arab Spring and the hope of the American Fall, “we” became hopeful that change might actually happen, that the people whose voices can actually be heard might start saying things “we” could agree with. And, with a tinge of anxiety that this phenomenon, this moment might be more a soufflé than a sturdy loaf of sourdough, we are reluctant to open the oven door even to take a peek at what might be baking inside. But, then, what did we learn from those decades of theory if not that theory and practice are inseparable, that what seems natural and organic is cultural, that there is no anteriority to practice, that affect is not apolitical, that coalition cannot be built on deferral, that politics cannot be read off the body? Yes, there are all kinds of people participating, but, equally, yes, there are separate interest groups and websites emerging for people of color. How do we understand this? Yes, it is incredibly exciting to finally once again, see a popular critical awareness of the social cost of corporate capitalism after so many years of fighting the culture wars. But, as others have asked, how do we move forward without losing the insight gained from the struggle on the terrain of culture?

In the call to Occupy Wall Street, the intensely-local signifier (a few blocks in lower Manhattan) points to a vast and vastly complex global financial-industrial-political system. How is the globality of Wall Street understood and refracted (mirrored?) by Occupy Wall Street? The anti/alter-globalization movement exhorted us to “think global, act local” while corporations had, in an instance of practical theoretics par excellence, been practicing “think local, act global” by localizing global brands and gaining our consent to their global regime.

The success of the Occupy/We are the 99% movement has been its decentralized incarnation across the country. But, I want to ask, is “We are the 99%” an empty signifier à la Laclau & Mouffe 2, or is it a global brand à la Jay-Z selling Occupy T-shirts? Can the radical indeterminacy of the signifier be sustained in the face of local demands? Can it keep from collapsing into a global brand that carefully manages local instantiations? If “the 99%” differ globally, or even nationally, what then might bring them together in a universal demand? A structural demand for equitable distribution of resources? A demand against hoarding? A demand for transparent governance? A mode of living and being in common? Or, maybe, is it localism (of an ecological variety) that can sustain the global? In forging a complex unity, ironically Occupy/We are the 99% might work better as a global brand than as an empty signifier since the former neatly sidesteps the problem of incompatible local desires. On the other hand, Occupy/We are the 99% as a brand runs the danger of ignoring the fundamental lesson that the role of privilege is to join andsupport, not build and lead.

Alternately, to think of Occupy/We are the 99% as an empty signifier forces us to continually ask who “we” are and to interrogate the adequacy of Occupy/We are the 99% as a signifier. As the accounts from Occupy Oakland, Occupy Atlanta and (un)Occupy Albuquerque demonstrate, all politics is local. Are the 99% in Oakland the same as the 99% in New York? Or, even, are the 99% in West Harlem the same as the 99% in lower Manhattan? Going global, would the 99% in France want the same thing as the 99% in Malaysia?

Despite the many maps showing (un)Occupy movements across the United States and the world, is the whole world really watching? Or are people engaged in their own long-standing struggles for economic justice, political freedoms and social equality? To give a random, but hopefully illustrative example, did the 2006 election of Evo Morales in Bolivia (a modest victory in the grand scale of things) even register with most Americans? Was it not a political moment to celebrate and cherish? The public acknowledgment of inspiration and indebtedness to Egyptians and Spaniards is heartening, but I still feel uneasy reading the casual use of terms like “the revolution continues worldwide” [my emphasis] on the banner of www.occupywallstreet.org.  It begs the question of the kind of global imagination we see in the Occupy movement.

bell hooks’ careful unpacking of the slogan, “the personal is political,” points out that “if the personal and the political are one and the same, then there is no politicization, no way to become the radical feminist subject.” 3 I agree completely with those who argue that the power and beauty of Occupy Wall Street lies in the becoming of political subjects, in flexing our political agency, in occupying public space and rediscovering the body politic, in refusing the separation of spheres of human activity, and in living and feeling community—basically, in insisting the personal is political. In the face of this, the rigidity of formalized demands comprehensible in the existing political frameworks is, indeed, an unnecessary foreclosure of what might be baking in the oven.

However, as hooks points out, to recognize the possibility of performing differently, of noting a different trajectory for political subjects, of valuing the myriad ways of being embodied subjects, of remembering that the political is deeply personal does not disrupt this process, it simply keeps the space open for this process to expand indefinitely. For example, in the midst of this moment, can “we” keep in mind what the Comrades from Cairo said as they gently reminded Occupy that they have joined “years-long struggles by people and popular movements” and reassured them that “we are all watching one another now, and from Cairo we want to say that we are in solidarity with you, and we love you all for what you are doing.” Ask yourself, how the “we” in that statement fits in with the “we” in “we are the 99%”?

In the foregrounding of demands to eradicate unfair student debt, is there room to also fully acknowledge the debt owed (most recently) to students, workers, and citizens in North Africa and southern Europe? Why not call the movement American indignados?Is it possible to avoid asking to what extent the 99% in the United States are part of the global 1%? This is not simply a rhetorical question to highlight obvious disparities. Rather, it is my hope, my utopian impossible demand, my vision of social justice that the American revolution not take place first in America.

  • 1. Hazel V. Carby, White Women Listen! Black Feminism and the Boundaries of Sisterhood, in Black British Cultural Studies: A Reader, eds.Houston A. Baker, Manthia Diawara and Ruth H. Lindeborg, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) pp. 61-86
  • 2. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 2001)
  • 3. bell hooks, Feminist Politicization: A Comment, in Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (Boston: South End Press, 1989), p. 106
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