Organizing for Occupation against the political economy of Percents

A much shortened version of this appeared in the OCCUPY GAZETTE, issue #4


What kind of person, confronted with an outburst of song, stands up in order to huddle around an auctioneer at the front of a public court-room, hurriedly nodding and gesticulating their way through a bidding process (‘$50,000’, ‘$60,000’…) for a ‘property’ that represents a poor crash-stricken Flatbush based family’s foreclosed-upon home? What kind of person ignores the brave chorus ‘Listen, Auctioneeeer! All the people here are telling you to hold all the sales right now’ for the purposes of competing cravenly, up-close and personal with other speculators, for a bargain currently-inhabited four-bedroom? Well, it’s a very ordinary kind of person. It isn’t “the 1%”, in case that’s what you were thinking.

You don’t see rich, besuited persons sitting in the front pew, snapping up those ‘clouded titles’ and the various ‘rights of redemption’ represented by home-losers’ unsettled taxes or unpaid bills. Inside the paneled confines of the weekly foreclosure auction (3pm til 4pm, or usually, 3.15 when sales are already over), one theater of the King’s County magistrate’s court on Adams street, in downtown Brooklyn, ‘the public’ sits to witness the transfer of property rights from one person to another, or vulture-like, to get in on it themselves. The type of transfer is a little complicated, divesting people usually absent – uninformed by the courts, or by the banks prosecuting their breach of promise, that their homes will be sold that particular day – of the collateral used for the mortgage they took out long ago, before the economy crashed, at a bank.

We’re going to survive, but we don’t know how, listen, auctioneer”. The King’s Court police officers take loudly singing protesters out in handcuffs, while the traders attempt to get their business done in an improvised sign language. (I urge you to look up what you can of these scenes on YouTube.) Leaving court, those civil disobedients are thinking something like this: We’ve just tried to impede the profit-motivated divestment of somebody’s home, because the right to a home should be enshrined in law, forbidding eviction, certainly at the behest of a bank that organized brutal mortgage terms with the person in the first place, in a climate of record bank bonuses, intense working-class suffering, and stunning homelessness. But noticeably, those whomOrganize for Occupation[1] is hindering, in the most direct, theatrical sense, are not Brian Moynihan and Vikram Pandit. They are, instead, long-suffering court functionaries and hard-bitten small-time real estate investors, Italian, Chassidic, Russian, and African American: ninety-nine-per-centers, every one.

Should this be a “problem” for us, activists ponder to themselves, leaving the court? Does everyone already secretly know how perplexing ‘99%’ is, in practice, even as a stand-in for class analysis? Ultimately, is there no real diversion of impact ‘because capitalists are capitalists’ (‘Mom and Pop’ flavored or otherwise), and, as the extraction of surplus is orchestrated by much fatter cats, must one grin over any ‘collateral damage’ to the smaller reactionary wheeler-dealers? This Moratorium Now campaign of O4O’s is certainly nothing politically out of the ordinary if it seems to have to bother a lot of ‘ordinary’ speculators in order to ‘throw bodies on the gears’ the foreclosure industry, and almost any campaign appears to involve battles against foot-soldiers and functionaries of accumulation, rather than CEOs and Congressmen. The Yes Men – who have been training activists at Cooper Union’s mobile ‘Yes Lab’[2]this Spring – are an interesting exception, and seem able, by contrast, to penetrate the inner sancta (witness their recent press-release as Bank of America: ‘Today, it’s time to acknowledge that our bank isn’t working – not just for the market, but for the people, our real customers’).[3]

When capitalism is working, it hurts people; but when it has ‘crashed’, it hurts people – if possible – even more. Groups figure out how to act on this paralyzing reality in time, for themselves, but much could be learned over a shorter period of agonizing navel-gazing, in my opinion, if we listened a bit more humbly to the likes of Grace Boggs, Drucilla Cornell, and Laura Whitehorn. Occupy Wall Street is a network like any other, beguiling some previously existing campaigns to merge with it, opening its spokes-council structure to them, and yet also keeping others separate. There are many who want to focus on tenants’ and neighbors’ struggles. O4O, with its own inspiring and autonomously arrived at strategy for strong community squatting drives and resistance to owners’ foreclosure, stands apart from OWS. Yet newcomers to New York can sometimes participate in Organize for Occupation actions without realizing that they aren’t actually doing an ‘Occupy’ action. Which means, of course, that they are. The spectre is haunting Bloomberg, that’s for sure. And this paradoxical fungible specificity, which we see in our deeds, hints at what it might mean to fuse the particular with the universal, dialectically, over the course of this ominous century. Ninety-nine-percentism in itself is a naïve distributionalist mental sketch containing a superficial, populist have/have-not dispensation, and that is all, but in practice it becomes a dream of a new universalism – that “impossible and necessary object”[4] – a far more dangerous and thoroughgoing antagonistic thing.

The ‘public’ is now widely thought about through a lens labeled ‘the 99%’, thanks to some rebels in the USA having dreamed a dream about Wall Street late last year. The figures that circulated widely were vivid, but really, they were like any other figures. They told us that one-hundredth of the population possessed two-fifths of its common wealth. Or that one-hundredth of us accounted for a quarter of all income. One hundredth of us? No, no: a hundred percent of them were like that. Statistics – infamously – do funny things. It’s not just that they create containers labeled ‘us’ and ‘them’. They foster communist desires, without providing the theory of relationality, of exploitation, and of history, which might empower them. They invite the imagination to picture the scene, colored in by those vivid, shamelessnumbers, and to counter-imagine another scene in juxtaposition to it, as though the fact that numbers only go up or down indicates the possibility that the picture be drawn entirely differently – someday soon. What if every hundredth of America possessed and controlled an equal share – a hundredth, in fact – of wealth and income? As of now, there are 313,398,536 people in America according to What if each single one were equal? Every one of us would ‘control’ about 0.00000000319% of the wealth in that case. And that would be very very useful indeed to know. Would it not?

The South African constitution (2.26), backed up by the department of Human Settlements, enshrines the right to have access to adequate housing. If this were not so, to keep the faith, you might be forgiven for saying it’s high time housing was abolished as a human right. I began with a scene of intense ugliness, in which a gaggle of desperate people vied to snap up the tragic loss of another, invisible, desperate person, right in the cultural capital, or ‘big apple’, or ‘gateway’ to the United States itself. I’m often a dour old crank, but truly, the singers burst spine-tinglingly out of their pews in ones and twos, brimming with that Che Guevaran emotion, love. A crisis of legitimacy was successfully created for the bourgeois court, by the means of our courageous serenade. At Left Forum, John Holloway said, ‘We are proud to be the crisis of capitalism’; that was the feeling, there.

In the USA, and for Empire, the human ‘right’ serves to define the human in relation to a shifting perimeter of right-less-ness, beyond which only debt defaulters (and other animals) exist. Opponents of revolutionary politics here are wont to say that enshrining obligation instead of right, and commonsinstead of property, couldn’t possibly work. Suddenly they are the ones talking about the finitude of the planet, and the serfdom of being equal, and the scarcity of actually available houses in which families could have the right to live. After all “everyone wants to be in the ruling class” but not everyone can be. (Pity that. Can you show me why? Go on: on a piece of paper?) Nope. Bring down capitalism, and it would only grow again, because it’s in our nature to want to be the best we can be. So say the people who are particularly fond of the liberal notion of right. It goes: ‘You have the right to the house. So buy a house!’ But we say that the particular right of any group or agent to a house is necessarily a universal right. Indeed, when they say “our nature”, they mean theirs. “Being the best you can be” here means coalescing plentiful ‘dead labor’, private capital, around the idol of your ego. What if, instead, it were in the nature of the state to mediate its own redundancy, to help us become who we really are?

But that’s not a very good campaign. Talk like that, and you turn intoZeitgeist, horror of horrors. No, fighting the man is currently a scatter-offensive, pragmatic, skillful, universal, and particular. Like UK Uncut in Great Britain, which coagulated in order to expose corporate tax evasion within the new climate of budget cuts, welfare slashing, and austerity, at the twilight of the five-year-long activities of a very powerful, anticapitalist and anti-state, climate justice direct action network (the Camp for Climate Action), Organize for Occupation finds itself in a position where it is defending private property and inconveniencing petty entrepreneurs (or, in UK Uncut’s case, playing tax collector to the individual business and inconveniencing ordinary shoppers). It is probably right that a certain uneasiness should attend our political explanations of this messiness, this two-pronged struggle, for transitional public welfare, on the one hand, and for the ultimate destruction of the paradigm which makes welfare necessary, on the other. Like with almost anyrevolutionary group, the puertorriqueñ@ Young Lords,[5] for instance, the intervention is at the point of accumulation by dispossession: at the place of public robbery, eviction, hunger, or pollution, at the place where people are going (this in 1969) without breakfast, garbage collections, or TB testing.

The creditor in this dispute racket – i.e. the publicly bailed-out bank – dispossesses someone’s, probably a Black family’s, current home, but doesn’t want a house, nor to have to evict anybody itself. What can a bank do with a house, after all: it certainly can’t cook and sleep and shower and eat in it? Thank goodness then, that homes themselves are basic currency, by the grace of the market. The bank then profits from the re-conveyance of the ‘fee simple’, that is, the sale of various rights and remnants pertaining to the deeds or the mortgage, usually to individual middle-class petty real estate traders physically present in court, and ostensibly only to make good what it originally, poor righteous bank, was owed originally, by the long-time payers of debt and interest, who eventually had to give up.

In order for this solemn court of redemption and right removal, this tossing of a tarnished ‘title’ to the private ‘masses’ by the judiciary, this cruel farce of public expropriation, to carry on, it has to make sense to most people that some people shall have houses, because they have deserved them by the sweat of their brow, and that others do not, and shall not. Indeed, our minds must be firmly made up on this, because 2.8 million property-owners in the US received a foreclosure notice in 2010, then, three-and-a-half million in 2011 alone. Meanwhile Amnesty International estimates that there are 18.5 million vacant homes, and 3.5 million homeless. Most of us agree that some people don’t deserve homes.

Everybody lives, don’t they? Just about? But of course, there is living, and then, there is bare life, life on the street that makes us feel sick to be American, sick to the stomach at the quiet holocaust that is market democracy, sick in the way that Gandhi must have felt when he said ‘Western civilization? … I think it’s a very good idea’. And there is life like that advertised at Point One Per Cent (.com), which has broadly the same effect, really:

Luxury: the feeling you have when every feeling you have is taken care of.

.1% may not seem like much, but to us, it’s everything. We’re a branding, marketing and strategy consulting firm, and our name refers to the wealthiest .1% of the population, a group we’re dedicated to understanding and reaching. We know how these consumers think, how they live, and what they respond to, and we translate these insights to help companies create an aspirational pull for their brands. A Point One Percent brand is held in the highest regard. … It’s a big world, and we’re the absolute experts on .1% of it.”

I think this quotation I’ve pulled speaks for itself; I wish only to suggest that as .1% is so very close to 0, those of us committed to the impossible and necessary political object, the universal, might fruitfully pay POP LLC a visit at 200 Varick Street, Suite 606, the West Village.

Comrades, I never introduced myself. I came to New York, and all its ‘terrible beauty’, its cyborg sleeplessness, in late August 2011 (just in time for the call to converge on Wall Street). I came from a rich British university town that was full of seven-hundred-year-old buildings and bicycles. The summer nights in urban Britain shortly before then had been lit up as the theater for the riotous rage of dispossessed youths of color, whose rippling, looting, fire-lighting response to the police shooting of unarmed black man Mark Duggan in north London terrified the ruling class’s media (i.e. all of it) into unanimity with a punishing, ordering, animalizing mainstream discourse. The Left failed to do anything about it, and failed, moreover, to act to change the fact that the August riots bore no explicit link to the anti-austerity politics powering the mass mobilizations of the previous ten months (in particular in November and in March). The Londoners and Brummies and Glaswegians were not rioting to save the National Health Service – the loss of which, to the neoliberals, by the way, is like a well of sorrow, right inside the chest cavity. I am now not in Oxford, instead, in New York. Both conglomerations, however, feature populations of indentured servants, non-citizens, sub-citizens, and unemployed black people, those employed to do the worst work, if that, and all, seemingly, remote from class consciousness. More unarmed and crimeless black men have been shot, or indeed executed, by the state. Dear reader, all I want to say is, though so many have said, before me, that what gets done to black people’s bodies, and their homes, will not stop until we stop it, until the black is human and her right is universal. I am frightened, but next time, you will see me on the streets.

If each of us had free access to the commons, ‘income’ and ‘wealth’ would fall away as statistically measurable concepts. Work would carry no wage, commodities would become things, and families could form at will. One would witness a giant exodus of quantity as it disappeared back into liberated quality. And the apotheosis of the historic part, of those who had always had ‘no part’ in politics (to use Rancière’s idea), would do away with the need for politics in its totality, we would merely administer our communes, share according to ability and according to need, and the last would (all) be first on earth. No percentages, in the classless society. OK. Perhaps I am not really such a wild-eyed millenarian. My desire for communization – like many people’s in the constellation Occupy! – is first and foremost a desire for the return of politics, and if there must be politics in perpetuity, as we figure out and figure out all over again how to live together on the earth, so be it. The point is that we have too lung suffered in the grip of the neoliberal anti-politics machine. If by writing (in the Journal for Occupied Studies, on the ‘odiousness’ of the word ‘occupy’, I sounded critical, well, the better I hoped to convey my relief, and my gratitude, for the returning of politics to the public space.

[2] The Yes Lab

[3] Whose bank? Our bank! The Yes Men explain their prank on BofA

[4] Laclau (2000:58.)

[5] The Young Lords were a revolutionary movement for socialism and Puerto Rican independence. The Latina@ Education Networks Service maintains a website entitled Palante (the Young Lords newspaper’s name) here: