Our language has not yet caught up with the political phenomenon that is emerging in Zuccotti Park and spreading across the nation, though it is clear that a political paradigm shift is taking place before our very eyes. It’s time to begin to name and in naming, to better understand this moment. So let me propose some words: “political disobedience.”
New Terminology for an Old Precept
Occupy Wall Street is best understood, I would suggest, as a new form of what could be called “political disobedience,” as opposed to civil disobedience, that fundamentally rejects the political and ideological landscape that we inherited from the Cold War.
Civil disobedience accepted the legitimacy of political institutions, but resisted the moral authority of resulting laws. Political disobedience, by contrast, resists the very way in which we are governed: it resists the structure of partisan politics, the demand for policy reforms, the call for party identification, and the very ideologies that dominated the post-War period.
Occupy Wall Street, which identifies itself as a “leaderless resistance movement with people of many … political persuasions,” is politically disobedient precisely in refusing to articulate policy demands or to embrace old ideologies. Those who incessantly want to impose demands on the movement may show good will and generosity, but fail to understand that the resistance movement is precisely about disobeying that kind of political maneuver. Similarly, those who want to push an ideology onto these new forms of political disobedience, like Slavoj Zizek or Raymond Lotta, are missing the point of the resistance.
Articulating Anger or Simply a Meaningless Outburst
When Zizek complained last August, writing about the European protesters in the London Review of Books, that we’ve entered a “post-ideological era” where “opposition to the system can no longer articulate itself in the form of a realistic alternative, or even as a utopian project, but can only take the shape of a meaningless outburst,” he failed to understand that these movements are precisely about resisting the old ideologies. It’s not that they couldn’t articulate them; it’s that they are actively resisting them — they are being politically disobedient.
And when Zizek now declares at Zuccotti Park “that our basic message is ‘We are allowed to think about alternatives’ . . . What social organization can replace capitalism?” ― again, he is missing a central axis of this new form of political resistance.
The Illusion of Making Money
One way to understand the emerging disobedience is to see it as a refusal to engage these sorts of worn-out ideologies rooted in the Cold War. The key point here is that the Cold War’s ideological divide — with the Chicago Boys at one end and the Maoists at the other — merely served as a weapon in this country for the financial and political elite: the ploy, in the United States, was to demonize the chimera of a controlled economy (that of the former Soviet Union or China, for example) in order to prop up the illusion of a free market and to legitimize the fantasy of less regulation — of what was euphemistically called “deregulation.” By reinvigorating the myth of free markets, the financial and political architects of our economy over the past three plus decades — both Republicans and Democrats — were able to disguise massive redistribution toward the richest by claiming they were simply “deregulating” when all along they were actually reregulating to the benefit of their largest campaign donors.
This ideological fog blinded the American people to the pervasive regulatory mechanisms that are necessary to organize a colossal late-modern economy and that necessarily distribute wealth throughout society — and in this country, that quietly redistributed massive amounts of wealth to the richest 1 percent. Many of the voices at Occupy Wall Street accuse political ideology on both sides, on the side of free markets but also on the side of big government, for serving the few at the expense of the other 99 percent — for paving the way to an entrenched permissive regulatory system that “privatizes gains and socializes losses.”
Poverty Levels are at an All Time High
The semantic games — the talk of deregulation rather than reregulation — would have been entertaining had it not been for their devastating effects. As the sociologist Douglas Massey minutely documents in “Categorically Unequal,” after decades of improvement, the income gap between the richest and poorest in this country has dramatically widened since the 1970s, resulting in what social scientists now refer to as U-curve of increasing inequality. Recent reports from the Census Bureau confirm this, with new evidence last month that “the number of Americans living below the official poverty line, 46.2 million people, was the highest number in the 52 years the bureau has been publishing figures on it.” Today, 27 percent of African-Americans and 26 percent of Hispanics in this country — more than 1 in 4 — live in poverty; and 1 in 9 African-American men between the ages of 20 and 34 are incarcerated.
It’s these outcomes that have pushed so many in New York City and across the nation to this new form of political disobedience. It’s a new type of resistance to politics tout court — to making policy demands, to playing the political games, to partisan politics, to old-fashioned ideology. It bears a similarity to what Michel Foucault referred to as “critique:” resistance to being governed “in this manner,” or what he dubbed “voluntary insubordination” or, better yet, as a word play on the famous expression of Etienne de la Boétie, “voluntary unservitude.”
It’s Time for a REAL Change
If this concept of “political disobedience” is accurate and resonates, then Occupy Wall Street will continue to resist making a handful of policy demands because it would have little effect on the constant regulations that redistribute wealth to the top. The movement will also continue to resist Cold War ideologies from Friedrich Hayek to Maoism — as well as their pale imitations and sequels, from the Chicago School 2.0 to Alain Badiou and Zizek’s attempt to shoehorn all political resistance into a “communist hypothesis.”
On this account, the fundamental choice is no longer the ideological one we were indoctrinated to believe — between free markets and controlled economies — but rather a continuous choice between kinds of regulation and how they distribute wealth in society. There is, in the end, no “realistic alternative,” nor any “utopian project” that can avoid the pervasive regulatory mechanisms that are necessary to organize a complex late-modern economy — and that’s the point. The vast and distributive regulatory framework will neither disappear with deregulation, nor with the withering of a socialist state. What is required is constant vigilance of all the micro and macro rules that permeate our markets, our contracts, our tax codes, our banking regulations, our property laws — in sum, all the ordinary, often mundane, but frequently invisible forms of laws and regulations that are required to organize and maintain a colossal economy in the 21st-century and that constantly distribute wealth and resources.
In the end, if the concept of “political disobedience” accurately captures this new political paradigm, then the resistance movement needs to occupy Zuccotti Park because levels of social inequality and the number of children in poverty are intolerable. Or, to put it another way, the movement needs to resist partisan politics and worn-out ideologies because the outcomes have become simply unacceptable. The Volcker rule, debt relief for working Americans, a tax on the wealthy — those might help, but they represent no more than a few drops in the bucket of regulations that distribute and redistribute wealth and resources in this country every minute of every day. Ultimately, what matters to the politically disobedient is the kind of society we live in, not a handful of policy demands. Φ
Bernard E. Harcourt is chair of the political science department and professor of law at The University of Chicago. He is the author of several books, most recently “The Illusion of Free Markets: Punishment and the Myth of Natural Order.”