Occupied with Class: The Middle Class in the Occupy Movement
By any measure – unemployment, foreclosures, the rise in food stamp dependency, homelessness,etc – the US middle class has taken a beating over the last several years. And although I'm always hesitant to start an essay off by quoting Zizek, I haven't heard a better metaphor for both the current economic situation and the shock many Americans feel at what they see as the death of the “American Dream” than the iconic scene recounted by Zizek of a cartoon cat walking over a cliff who proceeds confidently for several paces into thin air before pausing and looking down. Seeing the gaping chasm beneath him, it is only then that he begins to fall.
After three decades of neo-liberal attacks, much of what we consider middle class life is really debt. That is, it is a fantasy, a placeholder filling in for the stagnation of wages that was the '80s, '90s, and '00s. Many other anarchist and Marxist authors have pointed this out (David Graeber and David Harvey come to mind) but it's interesting how the entire language of debt and crisis has shifted over the years of the Great Recession. While today the media discusses it in terms of austerity, sovereign debt and debt to GDP ratios, early on there was a lot of talk of underwater mortgages and massive credit card debt owed by individuals to financial institutions. Briefly this popped into the media consciousness, as the sheer scale of resistance forced the media to pay attention to the rapidly spreading underground debt refusal. People walked away from houses, mailed the keys back to the bank, and stopped paying on their credit cards. Just as now the occupy movement routinely violates capitalist notions of public and private property, then there was a similar rejection of commonly held relationships and debt culpability. Whereas before default and bankruptcy had been shameful in the popular consciousness – with bankruptcy services ads run late at night or sandwiched between afternoon talk shows - all of a sudden everyone was doing it.
In 2009 the New York Times reported that six percent of credit card debt had been written off by banks. Faced with a population in revolt, banks and collection agencies were offering large discounts to customers willing to pay something – anything – of their outstanding balance. Many of my friends and I participated in this silent strike, netting massive discounts on the debts we had run up over many cash-strapped years. For most of us, it wasn't just that the debts had gotten too high to maintain, but also that credit card companies had engaged in a series of interest rate increases, often for petty reasons or no reason at all. Just like the balloon payments and interest rate hikes on millions of mortgages, our credit cards were designed to encourage us to miss payments, to accrue fees and, when it came down to it, to keep us paying large payments for life on even modest debts.
In my own case my interest rate jumped from around ten percent to 34.9% for no reason at all. It was at that moment that I joined the millions of Americans who had come to the obvious conclusion that, even if we wanted to, we couldn't repay our debts. That decision, for the fist time, put us and the banks on the same page. In an odd congruence, we couldn't pay it off and, given the jacked up interest rates, the banks obviously didn't want us to either. Interviewed in that same Times article, Don Siler, chief marketing officer at a major collection firm said, “You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip. The big settlements just aren’t there anymore.”
In September of 2009, Ann Minch of Red Bluff, California posted a video to Youtube announcing her debt strike as a call to action nationally. "There comes a time when a person must be willing to sacrifice in order to take a stand for what's right," she said. "Now, this is one of those times, and if I'm successful this will be the proverbial first shot fired in an American debtors' revolution against the usury and plunder perpetrated by the banking elite, the Federal Reserve, and the federal government." Many have forgotten, but Bank of America interceded directly in her case, fearing the implications of the debt revolt breaking out into the open.
This was a time when the first bailout was fresh in everyone's minds. In 2008, following the collapse of the banks and a popular revolt that scuttled the first attempt at a bailout, the ruling class suspended politics during the height of the presidential campaign in order to flood the financial institutions with taxpayer money. John McCain and Barack Obama put both their campaigns on hold and flew in a panic to Washington, forcing a highly unpopular recapitalization bill through Congress, complete with threats of martial law, collapse, and social upheaval. It was at the peak of a historic election in which the first black president stood on the verge of victory, riding on promises – believed by many very fervently – of hope and change, that the American ruling class revealed itself for all to see as a monolith, united in its objectives, and willing to dispel the mirage of partisanship in defense of its wealth and power. This lesson was not lost on people, emerging later in the occupy movement's denunciation of party politics.
In many ways, as I look back on those early years of the crisis, it seems to me like those quiet, often individual and isolated acts, perhaps mentioned briefly to friends and family, and negotiated through a tactic of refusal, were the true precursors to the Occupy movement. Millions participated, even as they held onto the fading hope that Obama would deliver the change they thought he promised. These people – middle class people primarily – had believed with some justification that the system would respond to them. Indeed, even though power clearly resides with a very small capitalist and political elite, the middle class in America is the foundation of almost all political and economic argumentation. All mainstream political arguments must refer back to this mythical and broadly-defined group at some point. The American ruling class depends on this fecund soil of middle class identity and ideology to reproduce the mythology and propaganda that maintains the system overall, and of course the economy and the profits that go with it. It is the middle class that votes and consumes.
But for thirty years the middle class had been reduced to a photoshopped image quite unlike its former robust self. Debt had replaced wage growth. Home prices and credit card debt rather than real assets made up its balance sheet. The suburbs, once a vast retreat to safety and “normalcy” for the mostly white middle class, began to show signs of collapse. Like mushrooms, one after another “for sale” signs and foreclosure stickers spread through the car-friendly neighborhoods. The official unemployment rate (always an undercount), doubled in the eleven months between April 2008 and March of 2009. Overnight the foundations of the middle class vanished for tens of millions of people. What once seemed like a solid foundation was revealed to have been rotting for some time, as Americans found themselves crashing towards the basement in what had seemed like an impossible reversal of fortune.
It is in these conditions of 2008 and 2009, when the dream of Obama's Hope and Change had ended and the crushing reality that politics would not respond to the drowning-not-waving middle class, awash in a sea of red, that we see the formation of what would become the Occupy movement. While anarchists are right to point to predecessors in the student occupations of 2009, and in the anti-globalization movement before that, these are merely the origins of the form of the movement, not the origins of the movement itself. In those movements the general assemblies, spokescouncils, occupations, and horizontalism have their origins, and the points of cross pollination between the young occupy movement and those movements are obvious. But the occupy movement itself had its birth in the crisis, in the moment of the cartoon cat looking down after walking off the cliff. It is a movement with a varied composition, which ranges from homeless folks to students to anarchists to workers, but more than anything else it is a movement of a middle class that is rapidly re-proletarianizing, with a collapsing standard of living and failing job prospects. In the process, it is finding itself in unfamiliar territory surrounded by unfamiliar landmarks and neighbors.
Nevertheless, vestiges remain of the many biases and privileges that came with middle class status in the US, and these contradictions play out in the occupy movement in ways that we can identify. In particular we see these assumptions – primarily reflected in the bourgeois belief that the system ought to respond to middle class people – play out in arguments around nonviolence, the police, and questions of perception and imagery. Right now, as we enter what may be the end of the beginning of the occupy movement, we see the formerly middle class working out its new identity in public for all to see, contradictions and all. It appears schizophrenic, asserting at the same time both what it sees as its fundamental right to protest, to be heard, and to have its grievances ameliorated, and at the same time finding itself open to new radical ideas and tactics. All this while also facing down a system that clearly not only no longer responds to them but actually sends against them the very same jack-booted thugs that the middle class supported as they cast their ballots for one law-and-order president after another in the last three decades.
We can lay out a few significant features of this middle class state of mind that have come into play in the occupy movement, at least as I encountered it in Phoenix (OPhx). First, as I said above, is a real sense that the system ought to respond to their demands. That, when it doesn't, the system is broken. Obviously, this simplistic view ignores the process of exclusion and dislocation central to the functioning of the system. Nevertheless, this is the view. Likewise, there is a desire for respectability, for conformity to normal bourgeois conventions, for example politeness, and a particular kind of attire. This desire also often manifests as a rejection of certain affiliations, and an insistence on maintaining or creating a particular image. Another feature of this ideology is a desire for order and an adoration of the police. Finally, one of the most important elements of the middle class view is the tendency to treat its view of the world and its experiences as normal, and to impose hegemony on the movement based on this view.
These are points of conflict in the movement not just because of the ideas that form “middle class-ness”, but also because likewise participating in the broader movement are poor people, homeless people, and political militants -- primarily anarchists-- who have quite different experiences with cops and politics, and who envision different constituencies as the optimal target audience for occupy actions and propaganda. Beyond this, “middle class-ness” in the US is anchored to whiteness, and this has caused conflicts whenever white middle class occupiers have attempted to treat their experience as normative rather than specific and exclusionary, especially around questions of policing, incarceration and justice. This makes the occupy movement not only contested terrain, but one in which the formerly middle class participants seek to impose their dominance over the rest of it. Always lurking in the dark recesses of the middle class consciousness is the idea that politics ought to be the property of the responsible classes, and rubbing up against these other populations has been the root of many of the conflicts in the early days of this movement.
An occupier speaks with a member of a NSM front group.
All in all, middle class occupiers are in conflict with themselves. They operate generally within the safe confines of middle class ideology, but their class position has collapsed. The question is how this conflicted identity will play out. With no recovery in jobs or incomes on the horizon, and therefore no way to reconstitute itself, is the emergence of a working class or other non-middle class identity inevitable? Will interaction with radicals, anarchists, poor and working class people, as well as people of color (who may challenge many of the basic values of whiteness that constitute middle class-ness) lead to a radicalization, or a rush to defend the formerly privileged class position? Obviously many downwardly mobile occupiers long for a return to the good old days of the American dream. Meanwhile, the system and all likely political candidates seem wedded to austerity in one form or another. A political response that would satisfy them all seems improbable.
Within the occupy movement, at least its Phoenix derivation, the middle class tendencies played out in a variety of interesting ways. Nonviolence, for instance, was always deployed ideologically and never defined. Most people who used the term “nonviolence” with regard to the movement seemed to move interchangeably between “nonviolence”, “nonviolent”, “peaceful”, “pacifist” and various other terms, treating them as if they all referred to the same thing. Some did this consciously (politically) and some seemed to be operating out of the generally privileged and anti-historical narratives of political movements that middle class people use to mythologize struggle. Cartoon versions of Gandhi and King got trotted out regularly, stripped of historical context or even political content.
Given its lack of definition, the demand for nonviolence was therefore applied almost exclusively to militants, and never to police. Militants are considered to be dangerous because they do not adhere to the ideological and poorly-defined nonviolence of the middle class occupiers. As a result of our refusal to toe the line, we are treated as if violence is our preferred method of struggle, or even our default setting. Our presence is perceived as dangerous. Indeed, the participation of anarchists in OPhx was and continues to be a source of much fear and debate, something police have exploited on several occasions.
The debate about the importance of nonviolence has a few main elements. One is the false history of social change that is so important to the middle class (people who value stability and predictability above all else). The collapse of their class position has turned them into disturbers of public order, and yet at the same time, they value order and civility as hallmarks (or psychoses) of their suburban lives and democracy. Tied into this is the belief that the system would and should pay attention to them if only they could make their case clearly and non-offensively. For this reason, violence is not only perceived by the middle class as disruptive and ineffective, but also as poor strategy. This is reflected in almost every discussion about nonviolence, as the most common refrain “it looks bad on tv”. We are not to appear like thugs, like criminals, like we are out of control or not respectable; all loaded language that points to middle class perceptions and fears.
At one point during the first mass arrest at OPhx, occupiers (sitting on the ground as riot cops encircled them) began to chant “We love you!” and “We are peaceful!”, “We are nonviolent!” at the cops, as if invoking an incantation of middle class desperation. In a real way what they were saying was, we are not a threat and we are playing by the rules. This is the old identity expressing itself. But it's coming up against a hard new reality. Many of these people had likely never been on the business end of a riot suit, much less been arrested.
Imagery and perception played out along the terrain of class as well, with many middle class occupiers exhibiting a near obsession with how their fellow occupiers portrayed themselves. In the days before the actual attempt to take over the park that was initially targeted for occupation, a Reddit post circulated online which caught the attention of the middle class elements within OPhx. The post advocated that occupiers dress well, in suits and other office- or church-appropriate attire. Supporters of this position claimed that if we looked good, we would attract more people and that we would also look sympathetic in the media. In this way, form was valued over content, which probably isn't surprising for a class that has had the foundations of its ideology yanked out from under it.
In the same way that it was alleged that if we appeared respectable we would be successful, the assumption was that if we looked bad (like poor people or unemployed people or like people who had been foreclosed on) then we would lose the support of the media and therefore of the American people. Dirty clothes and torn t-shirts, attire (including signs) that evoked anarchism, radicalism, or homelessness, or a down-trodden or downward trajectory were repeatedly singled out for being inappropriate.
At the same time, middle class occupiers treated their assumptions about who was being appealed to and who would be offended or attracted by certain attire or messaging as a given, a natural fact beyond dispute. In a real sense, they were talking about their former selves, or perhaps their former employers. The idea that perhaps a movement of the excluded and disempowered might not want primarily to target middle class people made absolutely no sense to these middle class occupiers, and their ideal presentation bore a striking resemblance to a job interview.
In a media world, driven by the consumption of the middle class, the middle class naturally has its own image reflected back to them over and over all day. Middle class-ness is treated as normal and correct and even as large sections of the middle class found itself abruptly and increasingly poor or working class, the ideology continued, like sensations from a phantom limb. Likewise, the point that the media itself was owned by the 1% and as such had no class interest in portraying the movement positively (a fact that had been clearly borne out up to that time by the coverage), was rejected wholesale by middle class participants, despite the fact that they themselves broadly felt disappointed and disillusioned by the media. For the current and former middle class occupiers, the movement was as much an appeal to conscience as anything else and the main vehicle for that appeal, initially, was the media.
Beyond this was the attempt by occupiers to impose on the movement a rigid, hetero-sexual, anti-subcultural, and white suburban set of standards, mimicking not so much the promise of the consensus-based general assemblies that had excited them from far-off Zucotti Square, but instead functioning more like the neighborhood or homeowners associations that stifle all threats of diversity or difference in the far-flung outer developments, now collapsing and emptying at an astounding rate. This even though their class position had changed drastically, even if they no longer lived in those suburbs or had that good job and access to the easy credit that had made it all possible. This raised the inevitable question of just what kind of change these people wanted? Was it a break with the old order – the failure of which had been the motivating factor for so many participants in the first place – or was it to replicate or shore up and reconstitute the old middle class life so many had believed they enjoyed in the decades before the crisis? Was the occupy movement to be the gravedigger or the defibrillator of the current order? How deeply had middle class occupiers interrogated the realities of middle class suburban life?
Whatever the answer to that question, OPhx inevitably came into conflict with the police, who were another point of extremely heated debate. At the beginning and to this day (though less so now than then), a large majority of people have clung to the notion that cops were part of the 99%.
In order to discuss OPhx and the cops we have to temporarily accept the idea of the 99%, which I think most anarchists believe is a clumsy and inaccurate way to approach class composition of society. Many in the occupy movement are in serious danger of reifying what is merely a sometimes useful, albeit limited, tool, and this comes out nowhere more obviously than how they talk about cops. In a way, however, it makes sense that in the US, where almost everyone thinks of themselves as middle class, when a class analysis finally broke through to popular consciousness it would be ridiculously broad, almost uselessly so. Either way, since “the 99%” was the terminology being used, the discussion remained largely stuck within it and vulnerable to its many limitations.
Early on those political militants, working class people, and people of color who had altogether different experiences and perspectives on the police, came into direct conflict with those largely middle class people who asserted that “cops are part of the 99%”. In an echo of the conversation about image and perception, middle class occupiers asserted that if we looked respectable, the cops would treat us that way. Or if we were polite, the cops would have no reason to attack us. Indeed, looking good, using good language, and mouthing the movement's poorly-defined mantra of “nonviolence” were used not only as some talisman of protection, but also repeatedly deployed as criteria for singling out the dreaded “violent provocateurs” who haunted the dreams of middle class participants, agitators they believed were always ready to infiltrate and disrupt, thus making the movement “look bad” and leading inevitably to failure. The further one strayed from these core values, the more likely it was that one would be attacked as an infiltrator. Thus, these three criteria were used to reinforce middle class hegemony over the movement.
People who pointed out that the cops themselves were violent, and that our relationship to the police was dictated not by our behavior, appearance, or language but by our relationships to power and capital, or that police were generally right wing reactionaries who would dislike us no matter what we did or acted like, got attacked themselves for being violent. That is, opponents or even mild critics of the police were labeled violent for maligning the police or remarking on police violence. This bizarre reaction was perhaps natural given the fact that most middle class people's contact with cops up until their participation in the occupy movement was limited to getting tickets, asking for directions at public events, getting directed in traffic, getting help after a crime, and generally being made to feel safe and protected.
Therefore, police were not perceived at all as violent, but rather as well-meaning members of the 99%, just doing their jobs, and only prone to violence when provoked by people who deserved it. With seven million people in prisons or jails or under state supervision at any particular moment in the US, only the head in the sand NIMBYism of the middle class could insist to a movement of the formerly middle class that a small armed gang that puts so many 99%ers in jail every year was part of the 99%. And, naturally their weak analysis of the police led to consternation and surprise amongst middle class occupiers each time the police broke with the presumed social contract and resorted to violence and arrests against those perceived socially as undeserving of such treatment.
So the question remains. What will become of the formerly middle class occupier? Many contradictions have yet to work themselves out. It seems natural that a shift out of the comfy middle class wouldn't come without its problems. Will the second phase of occupy, with the election looming ever closer, display a more nuanced and advanced understanding of American capitalism, politics, power, class and resistance? One of the most inspiring things about the occupy movement is its willingness to transgress conventional protest tactics in surprising ways (even as it reinforces others), its willingness to be disruptive and take over public and private space and its (so far) rejection of the dominant politics. It shows a lot of potential to being a creative, critical and confrontational movement moving in a general trajectory that ought to make anarchists happy. But will the former middle class occupiers, ejected so summarily from their positions of privilege, find a new identity that reflects their new conditions, or having wakened from the dream briefly, will they instead seek to roll back over and recapture the comforting fantasies of days gone by? Right now they are in a sense doing anarchism without anarchism. But is that good enough?