The other night I was speaking with a friend about whether or not the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protesters would “be able” to present a unified goal in a similar way that the Tea Partiers are now known for their limited government agenda. The question he put forth revolved around the ability for OWS to move forward from their “we are the 99%” critique of wealth disparity towards concrete solutions and specific outcomes.
During our discussion, I was struck by the similarities between the
tactics and criticisms of OWS and the freegan activists I worked with in
New York City. Like OWS, freegan strategies and actions exemplified
their criticisms of the status quo as oppressive, inequitable and
unsustainable. In 2007 and 2008, I conducted fieldwork with freegan
activists for my dissertation “‘A Revolution We Create Daily’: Freegan
Alternatives to Capitalist Consumption in New York City.” Freegans are
critical consumption activists working to limit their impact on the
environment, consumption of resources and participation in the
capitalist economy. The ethnography examines the goals, tactics and
organizational structures of the movement, exploring where freeganism
fits within the larger context of United States consumer, environmental
and direct action movements. Freeganism in NYC is a product of and
reaction to an overly commodified society that celebrates spectacle
while struggling with a vacillating relationship to difference.
Postmodern is a complicated term to use: it (falsely) implies a break
with a modernism and a linear progression of history. Although there
are a variety of “postmodernisms,” use of the unified term suggests that
there is one, simple definition. What we mean when we talk about
postmodern can vary if you talk about architecture, art or social
theory. Saying something is “postmodern” from a theoretical standpoint,
is to say that it embraces and celebrates difference, complexity and
contestation. It rejects that there is necessarily one metanarrative
that describes or can solve all social issues.
Postmodern anthropology is a social theory of context,
positionality and power which understands that world views are products
of their history and experiences, not essential natures. Postmodern
theory emphasizes, Richard Appignanesi et. al writes,
“the local and particular as opposed to modernist universalism,”
(pp116) arguing that knowledge is a construction of power that functions
as a commodity— what we know and how we know it serves the status quo.
Freeganism, like postmodern theory, is a reaction to the “postmodern
condition,” the highly commodified, a-historical, spectacle driven,
technological, economically globalized culture. It’s helpful to view
actions such as the freeganism and OWS through this postmodern lens
because they are articulating a response to inequality and the status
quo, and because their direct action tactics embrace multifaceted,
public responses to their critiques of capitalism. These movements (or
attempts at movements) are a postmodern activist response to economic,
social and political frustrations that rally a diverse range of
concerns. They inherently embrace difference and thus multi-messaging.
Embracing multiplicity and the potential contradictions is one of the
postmodern aspects of direct action social movements. People have
multiple identities and moments have numerous, equally legitimate,
interpretations. In For What Tomorrow…A Dialogue,
Jacques Derrida, considered the father of deconstructionism, talks
about the term “différance” to challenge the idea of difference being
inherently oppositional. He writes: “political choices are often
determined by gradations rather than by clearly defined oppositions of
the type: I am this or that. No, I am this and that; and I am this
rather than that, according to situations and the urgencies at hand….différance
is not an opposition, not even a dialectical opposition; it is a
reaffirmation of the same,” (pp21-22). The term dialectical is used here
to refer inherent logical inconsistencies. He’s saying différance is not really about difference at all but rather about recognizing the sameness in situations and people.
In many ways, this postmodern différance is liberating; it is not
based on a fixed identity, but rather is fluid and allows people to
participate in a variety of activities. On October 27th,
1,484 out of 1,607 members of the General Assembly of the Occupy Oakland
movement approved a general strike and day of action November 2nd.
While the strike calls for participants to meet in downtown Oakland and
includes plans to shut down the Port of Oakland in order to “blockade
the flow of capital,” the resolution also states:
are calling for a general strike, we are also calling for much more.
People who organize out of their neighborhoods, schools, community
organizations, affinity groups, workplaces and families are encouraged
to self organize in a way that allows them to participate in shutting
down the city in whatever manner they are comfortable with and capable
This can be read as a call for more legally daring action, but it
is also an opportunity for those more moderate “99%” to participate in
other ways. The language “are comfortable with and capable of” indicates
solidarity with all levels of participation. In another posting, they
write: “Occupy Oakland
recognizes that not all workers, students and community members will
feel able to strike all day long on November 2, and we welcome any form
of participation which they feel is appropriate. We urge them to join us
before or after work or during their lunch hours.” A plurality of
causes is an integral aspect of postmodern activism and embracing
various levels of participation is a vital step towards maintaining an
inclusive, equitable social movement.
What this means in terms of creating concrete outcomes isn’t clear
yet. It doesn’t mean that, like other groups, OWS won’t eventually
concede a unified goal. The Oakland General Strike, which calls on
groups to shut down banks and corporations, is just a step towards
participants trying to figure out what they’re just society looks like.
This column also appears in the online edition of Anthropology News, the official newspaper of the American Anthropological Association.