Creating Technology for Social Change

Pre-Occupied With Occupation: Habermas, Prefigurative Politics, Effective Protest Center

This past May I presented a thesis abstract proposal to the review board of the Dynamic Media Institute at MassArt that focused on how dynamic media may elevate the level of public discourse in our country. My feeling at the time was that the media’s penchant for polarized debates, combined with social media’s weak-tied, high-speed nature left us without the means for substantive, civil debate—political or otherwise. How serendipitous, then, the fact that a public protest movement, centered around political and economic discourse, popped up just as I was gaining a stronger understanding of the theories behind civic participation via Intro to Civic Media.

I was intrigued by the process adopted by the Occupy movement from the get-go: I was not familiar with formal consensus processes, though I knew that the concept of consensus itself was of great relevance to my overall curiosities. Thus, when it came time to determine a semester project, I sought to gain a greater understanding of the role of the individual within the consensus process: specifically, how someone resolves what they believe to be the best course of action with what is eventually agreed upon by the larger group as a whole. As I began to perform interviews at Occupy Boston, I realized this was a significantly more complex question than originally considered.

The challenge I faced immediately was where to find examples of this resolution. It became clear that interviewing a multitude of protestors was not going to be possible (due to time and availability constraints), nor would it necessarily be that relevant to my project. Instead, following the progress of the movement, combined with sporadic interviews along the way, would provide most valuable.

Using this method (of observation without a fully immersive experience), I was able to note an increasingly singular focused discourse within and surrounding the movement that focused on the physical encampments themselves. This began with an interview on the first night of the protests, September 30, with a member of the group who expressed her amazement in the functional nature of consensus process. A week later, I spoke with someone who began to express concern of making sure what was decided in the camp was reaching those not living there. [Audio excerpt here] By the end of October, however, the news media, the government, and internal deliberations had begun to focus primarily on the logistics and considerations on living in the camp. [Audio excerpt here]

For instance, health inspectors from the city stopped by to observe how food and sanitation issues were handled. The Boston Police Department arrested a number of protesters as more tents were pitched on neighboring patches of grass. Local news organizations called out allegations of thievery and vagrancy. Various media outlets raised questionsof how the protestors would make it through the winter, how they would continue to feed occupiers at Dewey Square, and what daily life was like for those living in the tents. Additionally, traditionally supportive media outlets were urging the protestors to move on and local government was becoming defensive.

Internally, nearly all of the general assemblies during the week of October 24 focused on considerations related to winterization and how to take care of those living in the camp. One particularly contentious exchange occurred during the GA on October 27. The following is copied directly from the Occupy Boston General Assembly Minutes from that evening:

Participant 1 (the gentleman with the objection to process): When everything is going well, I don’t speak up because everything is going well. When things aren’t going well I get into a fury because I want things fixed. I’ve been in a tent for weeks; I haven’t showered or shaved or washed my hair. There are people on the ground who consider themselves the real occupiers. They call GA the circle jerk of pod people and they don’t like you. We’re laughing about it on the ground, but a lot of people are pretty damn unhappy.

All of this began to indicate to me that perhaps the movement was becoming distracted. I wasn’t exactly sure how to put my finger on the source of distraction as a specific struggle, however, until I saw a blog post on by Boston Occupier UnaSpencer. During a November 28 general assembly, Una took part in a GA discussion related to the exclusion of an alleged “dangerous” individual from the community, one who had threatened to hurt other members in the past.

“The proposal would have resulted in denying this man access to Occupy Boston resources such as food, tent space, clothing, etc. Though it was clear that many people were afraid of this man…[and he] made clear that he does not respect anyone who sees things differently from him and does not support the consensus process…27% of the people present would not support expelling him [meaning the required 75% consensus to expel was not reached].”
Una struggled with how her community could block, via previously agreed upon consensus process, an effort to increase the safety of everyone within it. This, it seemed, was the struggle I had been curious about from day one.

I decided to email Una to ask her to tell me more about it. She wrote back an extraordinarily well considered and insightful note. In it, she detailed a specific struggle within the movement between those who see camp as an “exemplar society” and those who see it as “protest center.” This would be the struggle around which I would frame the rest of my paper.

Once I had determined this struggle (wrongly deeming it a “dichotomy between Occupy-as-movement and Occupy-as-occupation—more on that later), I sought out a lens through which to analyze the movement and how to resolve this internal debate. I realized that a movement governed by consensus deserved a critique through the eyes of a consensus theorist and moved forward with a review of Jürgen Habermas’ public sphere theory and a number of his contemporaries’ work as well.

That any contemporary movement would perfectly fit the Habermasian model of the public sphere is virtually impossible. The political, economic, journalistic, and social environments in which Occupy participates miss many requirements of a Habermasian sphere (the existence, for instance, of a highly commercialized press). But the fact that a consensus based process of discourse has arisen to allow private individuals to debate issues of public interest, devoid of political influence or explicit governmental participation indicates that Habermas’ theories are a relevant lens for this use case.

Nancy Fraser has argued that Habermas’ sphere was not only unrealized, but idealized. She envisions an environment where many competing spheres—ones that are more inclusive than Habermas’—work to explicitly affect public policy. Thus, her model finds relevance among Occupy as the concept of “the 99%” makes its way into political discourse (in the form of both rhetoric and legislation, such the recent change in New York State’s tax laws, accredited to Occupy’s influence). The movement’s attempt to include marginalized groups such as women and people of color also acts as a similarity, though Occupy has certainly been criticized for not practicing this inclusion fully (one interviewee noted that the “progressive stack”—wherein women and people of color are given priority over others when preparing for proposal presentation at general assembly—hadn’t had much opportunity to be used, “if only because those groups, ironically, don’t really have proposals [to bring to general assembly]”).

Finally, a review of John Rawls’ philosophies on public fairness and justice indicate a strong connection between this philosopher’s writings and the movement itself. In terms of process and space—where the Occupy discourse is taking place—however, discrepancies arise. Specifically, Rawls’ rather curious definition of “public” refers to only governmental and “quasi-governmental” venues, including political campaigns and the act of voting. Non-governmental connotes everything else which is non-private. As such, Rawls may have objections to Occupy’s use of, what he would consider, non-public space to execute decidedly public discourse.

I’m running out of room here to explain why I eventually chose Habermas to help resolve the struggle, but in general, his more basic conceptualization of the public sphere provided the most logical lens for me. I then used his philosophies on universal pragmatics—that all arguments can be boiled down to a shared normative assumption in order to allow the unforced force of the better argument to surface—to recommend a course of action for the Occupiers. Positing that each Occupier’s search for social justice and economic fairness is driven by a normative assumption that humans want more of what is good, not what is bad when considering each decision they make, I suggested that the focus taken off “Occupy-as-occupation” and placed on “Occupy-as-movement.”

The mistake I made at this point was assuming this was the right dichotomy to tackle. What I failed to consider was that Occupy-as-movement was actually made up of a number of “strategies,” among them the occupation. This became clear once I was introduced to the concept of prefigurative politics: the theory that you must “be the change” you wish to see. In a prefigurative Occupy, as original Occupier and life-long protestor David Graeber puts it, “You’re creating a vision of the sort of society you want to have in miniature.”

With prefigurative politics on the mind, I reframed my argument. Rather than presenting an A vs. B dichotomy, I presented a struggle to keep Occupy prefigurative and relevant, while addressing a number of its main critiques: that it lacks diversity, that it lacks a list of demands, and that it is preoccupied with physical encampment. Left over, however, from my original argument, was that the physical encampment was actually blocking the movement from addressing the other two issues. Not only because the media’s, the government’s, and some internal members’ reaction to the camps were distracting from the overall movement, though. Physical encampment was also making it more difficult for minority communities to participate. Additionally, logistics planning and other camp related discourse was taking up the time for and attention paid to what Graeber called “spaces where people can talk about questions like [what the movement would like to accomplish].”

Fortunately, I believe moving past the focus on encampment is something that can be accomplished via the same consensus processes suggested by Habermas. Just as I was writing this, however, the Boston Police Department was taking care of this. Evictions were occurring, arrests were made, and the Dewey Square camp was no longer.

In the end, I think this is a good thing for the movement. Already, general assemblies have moved to Chinatown—a neighborhood one could argue is more accessible, or at least closer to, the types of communities whose economic strife is being addressed by the movement. Additionally, there is no more talk of winterization or what to do about physically abusive individuals within the group. Instead, protest actions and community outreach is being planned.

Overall, this project took a great deal out of me. I had never tackled anything with a scope such as this paper’s. But I’m extremely glad I did. I learned a significant amount about Occupy, protest movements in general, and how political theory may apply to them. I also learned much about how the application of political theory to movements should occur, as that is not something you learn in business or art schools. Most of all, however, I’ve gained a stronger understanding of what types of struggles may pop up as social change is being sought—as well as how those struggles may be resolved.

Click here for a PDF of the final paper.