When the Occupy Wall Street movement erupted on 17 September 2011, I happened to be reflecting on my remarks for the upcoming International Herbert Marcuse Society conference. By the time the conference convened on 27 October at the University of Pennsylvania, the encampment in Zuccotti Park was well-established and similar encampments had emerged in hundreds of communities around the country. On the opening day of the Marcuse conference, there were over 300 tents in the plaza outside Philadelphia city hall.
The organising theme of the conference – "Critical Refusals" – was originally designed to encourage us to reflect on the various ways Marcuse's philosophical theories push us in the direction of a critical political practice located outside the proper realm of philosophy, but nevertheless as anchored in philosophy as it is in a will to transform society.
So, while we were certainly prepared to ponder the connection between Marcuse's philosophical ideas and his association with the movements of the sixties, we were struck by the serendipitous affinity of the theme with the emergent Occupy movement. As presenters arrived in Philadelphia, we repeatedly expressed our enthusiasm about the confluence of the Wall Street and Philadelphia occupations and the conference theme, which seemed to us to emphatically enact the 21st-century relevance of Herbert Marcuse's work.
I don't know whether any of us could not have predicted that on the second day of the conference, the plenary audience of more than 1,000 would be so riveted by this historical conjuncture that almost all of us spontaneously joined a night march, which wended its way through the streets of Philadelphia toward the tents outside city hall. At the site, I reflected aloud – with the assistance of the human microphone – on the differences between the social movements with which we have become familiar over the last decades and this newly-grown community of resistance.
In the past, most movements have appealed to specific communities – workers, students, black people, Latinas/Latinos, women, LGBT communities, indigenous people – or they have crystallised around specific issues like war, the environment, food, water, Palestine, the prison industrial complex. In order to bring together people associated with those communities and movements, we have had to engage in difficult coalition-building processes, negotiating the recognition for which communities and issues inevitably strive.
In a strikingly different configuration, this new Occupy Movement imagines itself from the beginning as the broadest possible community of resistance – the 99%, as against the 1%. It is a movement arrayed from the outset against the most affluent sectors of society – big banks and financial institutions, corporate executives, whose pay is obscenely disproportionate to the earnings of the 99%. It seems to me that an issue such as the prison industrial complex is already implicitly embraced by this congregation of the 99%.
Indeed, it can be persuasively argued that the 99% should move to ameliorate the conditions of those who constitute the bottom tiers of this potential community of resistance – which would mean working on behalf of those who have suffered most from the tyranny of the 1%. There is a direct connection between the pauperising effect of global capitalism and the soaring rates of incarceration in the US. Decarceration and the eventual abolition of imprisonment as the primary mode of punishment can help us begin to revitalise our communities and to support education, healthcare, housing, hope, justice, creativity and freedom.
The Occupy activists and their supporters have brought us together as the 99%. They call upon the majority to stand up against the minority. The old minorities, in effect, are the new majority. There are major responsibilities attached to this decision to forge such an expansive community of resistance. We say no to Wall Street, to the big banks, to corporate executives making millions of dollars a year. We say no to student debt. We are learning also to say no to global capitalism and to the prison industrial complex. And even as police in Portland, Oakland and now New York, move to force activists from their encampments, we say no to evictions and to police violence.
Occupy activists are thinking deeply about how we might incorporate opposition to racism, class exploitation, homophobia, xenophobia, ableism, violence done to the environment and transphobia into the resistance of the 99%. Of course, we must be prepared to challenge military occupation and war. And if we identify with the 99%, we will also have to learn how to imagine a new world, one where peace is not simply the absence of war, but rather, a creative refashioning of global social relations.
Thus, the most pressing question facing the Occupy activists is how to craft a unity that respects and celebrates the immense differences among the 99%. How can we learn how to come together? This is something those of the 99% who are living at Occupy sites can teach us all. How can we come together in a unity that is not simplistic and oppressive, but complex and emancipatory, recognising, in June Jordan's words that "we are the ones we have been waiting for."