Kusha Sefat
Kusha Sefat
Kusha Sefat is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Cambridge, Queens' College.
The Green Movement's regret and OWS' red ink problem
The problem with Occupy Wall Street is that their adversaries face no real possibility of defeat.
Last Modified: 17 Apr 2012 09:48
That both conservatives and reformists have faced defeat characterises Iran's domestic politics [AFP]

Cambridge, United Kingdom - One way of assessing what the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement is capable of is to examine whether its adversaries have a chance of being defeated. OWS has generated a great deal of debate since its inception as a movement that has sought to push back against "politics as usual", to "change the dominant order", etc. 

Yet this debate has rarely touched on the political framework within which the movement assembles and reassembles itself. To better understand this framework, it would be worth comparing it with another political context, within which another movement sought to transform the dominant order - namely Iran's reformists and the Greens to which they gave birth.

This comparison is useful for illustrating the strategic situation in which each movement operates, and the chances of defeating one's adversaries respectively.

Opposing the Vilayate Fagih

In Iran, the 30-year rivalry between two primary networks of conservatives and reformists culminated in the post-election street demonstrations of 2009, in which millions of protesters participated for months. Competing inside and outside the state, both networks of conservatives and reformists have their distinctive discursive practices. 

And while conservatives in Iran have had the upper hand, both groups have always faced the possibility of permanent elimination from official politics and economic integration. This is in contrast to the situation Republicans and Democrats face in the US. 

From very early on in Iran, during Rafsanjani's presidency, the Islamic state's doctrinal foundation of Vilayate Fagih ["Leadership of the Revolution"] was questioned by a group of talented reformist strategists whose vast network crystalised around the Centre for Strategic Studies (CSS); people such as Behzad Nabavi, Mohammad Reza Tajik, and Said Hajjariyan. Kept at bay by Rafsanjani, this group came to the fore during Khatami's presidency, editing and publishing dozens of newspapers and publicly calling for the outright elimination of the Vilayate Fagih

Faced with increasing pressure, conservatives loyal to the Vilayate Fagih (for political, economic or ideological reasons) regrouped and went on the offensive. The neo-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's first election to office exasperated the struggle between reformists and conservatives.

Ahmadinejad's second election in 2009 and the street demonstrations that ensued led to the arrest of the reform movement's main strategists, whose political genesis can be traced back to CSS. 

This group had, for the first time, called for the elimination of Velayate Faghih from the constitution of the state and had the opportunity, albeit a small chance, to accomplish this during the Khatami era. They tried again by hoping to vote Musavi into office in 2009. 

Having failed to do so in both instances, they had themselves been pushed out of official politics and economic integration in the aftermath of the 2009 election and demonstrations. The fact that both conservatives and reformists had always been faced with the possibility of real defeat - permanent elimination from official politics and economic integration - characterises Iran's domestic politics.

The importance of the possibility of defeat

Conversely, Republicans and Democrats in the US system share the same discursive practices and the same patrons (eg, Rupert Murdoch contributes just as much to Democrats as he does to Republicans). Moreover, neither side has it, as its fundamental goal, to permanently eliminate the other from politics, economic integration etc, as they are indeed both part of the same network.

A symptom of this condition is that, with the exception of a small segment of elite media that caters to a minority of those in the US, politics for everyone else is presented as both a laughing matter and human drama. It becomes scandal politics or horse-race politics: who is winning, who is losing, how, why, and what is the latest gossip or dirtiest trick.

Similar to that which John Thompson observed in the United Kingdom, US political parties try to distinguish their position from one-another by rallying around, and highlighting, specific issues such as abortion, gay rights, or even taxation arrangements.

But even these differences between the two groups are firmly situated within "politics as usual", and unlike the situation in Iran, there is no contest over the doctrinal foundation of the state in the US. The result is that, while people go to the polls every four years in the US, substantive political discussions are generally absent from everyday life.

Conversely, substantive debates are prevalent in Iran within each movement's plethora of public spheres (in taxis, bread lines, coffee houses, private gatherings, religious sermons, hayats, etc). Yet these debates often lead to a mediated criticism of the state that creates a crisis of legitimacy - as a result of real competition between, and the possibility of permanent elimination of, each side.

In short, reformists created a political crisis in Iran because conservatives had a chance of losing. OWS, on the other hand, cannot create a crisis of political legitimacy in the US, because its adversaries dominate completely and are not faced with the possibility of defeat.

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Diffusion and the media

Part of the reason that the dominant US economic/political network is not faced with the possibility of defeat is that politics has primarily shifted into the realm of media, and OWS does not have access to this space. All actors and messages must go through the media in order to achieve their goals.

Yet going through this media space requires substantial financial capabilities that prevent OWS and most others from access. This is a problem. But, as Manuel Castells observes, there is a way around this problem.

Shifting toward mass-self communication (eg mobile texting, email, Twitter, Facebook, etc) breaks through the barriers of media. These communication resources were fundamental to both Iranian and Egyptian protesters. Can they be just as effective for OWS? To answer this question, we have to first understand what makes media indispensible to the process of power-making.

Communication resources are important, it seems, as they are the spaces through which discursive practices are defused. Both Foucault and Weber argued that the logic of domination, based on violence, could be embedded in discourses as alternative or complementary forms of exercising power.

Material interest, too, is in part discursively produced. That is to say, what counts as material interest is mediated through language about what interest means and what the material is. Nowhere can these discursive practices, and the capability to try to construct meaning, be better deployed than in the media space. Politics, as such, becomes primarily media politics, not because the media are the power-holders. They are much more important: they are the space for power-making. In short, they are the primary spaces through which discursive practices are diffused.

If we agree that this is the case, then Facebook and Twitter are only as effective as the discursive practices they diffuse.  Can social media be a political tool for OWS beyond its organisational function, given the movement's lack of a cohesive alternative discourse? On this point, let us go back to Slavoj Zizek’s brilliant talk at Zuccotti Park in New York, where the first OWS street protest was being held: 

"What are you doing here? Let me tell you a wonderful old joke from Communist times. A guy was sent from East Germany to work in Siberia. He knew censors would read his mail, so he told his friend: 'Let's establish a code. If a letter you get from me is written in blue ink, it is true what I say. If it is written in red ink, it is false.' After a month, his friend gets the first letter. Everything is in blue. It says: 'Things are wonderful here. Stores are full of good food. Movie theatres show great films from the West. Apartments are large and luxurious. Beautiful women are ready to have an affair. The only thing is, there is no red ink.' This is what you are doing here, you are starting to create that red ink."

Creating 'red ink'

This sober perspective on where OWS stands points to the enormous task that lays ahead of the movement. The OWS has none of the reformists' capabilities. Iran's reformists had a strong foothold within the state and had created vast economic networks driven by control over Iran's oil money during the reign of Rafsanjani and Khatami and, more importantly, they had their distinctive discursive practices.

Despite these capabilities, they still failed to achieve most of their political objectives. While OWS may have "awakened people" and "showed them that others are in the same boat", their adversaries are not faced with the possibility of defeat - not even one bit. In other words, OWS has no chance of winning. To achieve some form of potency, OWS can do precisely what Zizek suggested. It can take on the extremely difficult task of creating the red ink.

In so much as we agree that an alternative discourse is the first fundamental step for OWS, I have a word of caution for OWS activists whose involvement with the movement stems from their lived-experience of dealing with poverty, police brutality, etc, along with the lower middle class that is now being pushed down to the ranks of the proletariat. Be wary of those whose activism stems from their abstract understanding of your problems. We have seen many of these activists (such as Marxist millionaires and privileged ideologues) join the movement and become, in many instances, its de facto spokespersons.

While their hearts are in the right place and they can articulate your problems brilliantly, they do so with blue ink. This is because they are the extension of the very system they want to overthrow. On this point, I am often reminded of what MIA said about Lady Gaga. That maybe she is not as radical as she thinks she is. The same producers that continuously pump out top hits, the same studios that have mastered hit making, the same PRs that have transcended marketing, the same venues that have made superstars, and the same labels that have bankrolled it all, have been behind her all along.

Similarly, the same top elementary/middle/high schools, the same Ivy leagues, and the very same sources that bankrolled it all have produced some of our most firebrand activists. But remember that, through no fault of their own, they are the Lady Gagas of politics. Of morality. 

Never relinquishing their credit cards, never refusing to deploy their enormous cultural capital, their sympathy for your problems, while real, stems from an abstract world, a world that could never produce an alternative discourse - the red ink.  

Kusha Sefat is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Cambridge, Queens' College.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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