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The Imagination of the Occupy movements

By Jia Hui Lee

The Occupy movements have received heavy criticism from both the right and left for their lack of coherence, leadership, and goals. At Harvard, criticisms of the Occupy movements are exceptionally strong among students. Crimson staff editorials and featured opinion pieces on the Occupy movements have mostly represented critical views that characterize the movement as “disjointed,” “misguided,” and “ignorant.”

These criticisms exemplify a distinct lack of imagination, based on a narrow interpretation of social movements that strictly privileges telos, or outcomes. The insistent need to constrictanalyses of the global Occupy movements within a value-system rooted in efficacy and outcomes has completely missed the point.

In their narrow focus on telos, these criticisms have glaringly neglected the physical act and process of occupying spaces in cities across the United States and the world. Lisa Duggan, a professor of social and cultural analysis, has observed how the American public has shrunk in the last 40 years. In her book, “The Twilight of Equality?”, Duggan notes how the last few decades have seen the rise of neoliberalism, a term that describes a processcharacterized by the transfer of decision-making and wealth distribution processes from the public to individual corporations. This has resulted in a “shrinking public,” in which state spending on social services is drastically slashed while spaces for democratic debate and cultural expression continue todiminish.

Against this backdrop, the Occupy movements challenge the trend of the “shrinking public” by physically reclaiming and rejuvenating public and private parks.

Even if efficacy is not the privileged category of analysis, the Occupy movements do certainly have very significant and tangible effects. Even by teleological standards, their bodily participation in a social movement has considerably opened up a public for Americans to debate issues of income inequality and democratic participation. The Occupy movements have thus activated a public sphere for having crucially important discussions.

One could argue that thesurge of mass support for Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008 was a form of a rejuvenated public sphere. While this is true, the participation of Americans in Obama’s presidential campaignremained conservative in the sense that it is restricted to an electoral process under the influence of money politics and corporate interests.The Occupy movements, however, are instead imagining a more ambitious alternative that will significantly and thoroughly change how politics is done through their direct participation in the public.

By making their claims legible, their presence visible, and their frustrations threateningly palpable, the protestors are sending a strong message that there needs to be discussions around social inequality, that there should be more public participation in those debates, and that the current system needs to change.

While it is unclear what this change may look like, there is really no rush to gain clarity. In fact, the Occupy movements have impressively been able to restrain from sacrificing critical thought and reflection to the political injunction to act. They have instead provided a space for new collaborative possibilities and for finding and forming different allies in the process of building the 99 percent. In the meantime, reports and findings are being released that continue to highlight rising income inequality in the United States, the disproportionately generous bailouts of large corporations by federal governments, and the close ties that exist between these governments and hugely profiteering corporations. All of these—the Occupy movements argue—are at the expense of the majority of taxpayers who have had to confront rising costs of living and unemployment.

Much of the reporting on the Occupy movements, like most of its criticisms, has uncritically measured the value of the movements by their efficacy and outcomes. Many of the news reports and opinion pieces, including The Crimson’s, have used language that imply this value bias. This is not to say that protestors in the Occupy movements are not critical. Since the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street protests, movements in different places have critically questioned and reflected on their representation and inclusion of people of color, women, unions, students, the homeless, and indigenous groups. Certainly, there are many ways in which the Occupy movements could be improved, and indeed protestors and supporters have treated these challenges with an impressive amount of self-reflection and consensus building.

The mainstream media, as a result of its teleological focus, has rarely covered these complex and conscientious discussions of difficult but important matters. Additionally, criticisms of the movement by Harvard students have rigidly confined their analyses within strict binaries of right and left, conservative and liberal, Democrat and Republican, effective and ineffective. In these, there exists a distinct lack of imagination that would allow for a more productive examination of the movements. Such an examination must recognize the movements’ unique contingencies and their setting of new trends and precedents within this historical era.

The Occupy movements are unprecedented in that they rely on a host of new technologies, diverse demographics, and several strategies of protest. The fact that the movements were able to ignite conversations across the globe about the need to confront gaping income inequalities and a global financial system that is mostly favorable to the rich says something about the Occupy movements. What that something is remains to be seen.

I am concerned that student voices most represented at Harvard have been too quick to dismiss the Occupy movements. These evaluations have thus far mostly foreclosed imagination and eschewed nondualistic thinking. In spite of the fact that some of us at Harvard may have our minds already made up about the Occupy movements, I hope that others will continue to imagine possibilities for social change, even despite the odds.

Jia Hui Lee ’12, a Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies concentrator, lives in Leverett House.

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