Occupy as Form: Judith Butler

The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is sponsoring the working session “Occupy as Form” on February 10, 2012.The following is an excerpt from an essay written for Occupy Theory by Judith Butler, Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley. The rest of the text will be shared with working session participants. 
Keyword: Demands
Ever since the Occupy Movement emerged onto the political landscape, critics and skeptics have both asked, “so, what are the demands?” And in more recent months, skeptics have asked whether the movement has lost momentum since many of public sites occupied have been cleared by state-ordered police power.  Let us consider first the question of demands, and then turn to the question of where the occupy movement moves now.
If we think about this first question, we can see how firmly entrenched the notion is that political movements, if they are to qualify as “political”, must (a) be organized around a concrete and discrete list of demands, and (b) endeavor to have those demands satisfied.  For the moment, let us consider what kind of politics is characterized by such assumptions, and what kind is not.  In other words, although we take for granted that politics must furnish a list of demands that can be satisfied, it does not follow that we are right to take that version of politics for granted as some of us clearly do.  Let us think, then, about the component parts of this skeptical claim, and see which version of politics is assumed and promoted by this question.  Further, let us consider whether the kind of politics that Occupy pursues not only fails – or refuses – to comply with this idea of politics, but is actively trying to establish another one.  So let us start with two of the basic building blocks of the skeptical position: (1) demands that appear in the form of a list, (2) demands that can be satisfied.
1.) Demands should take the form of a list.  Let us imagine that the Occupy Movement were to say that we have three demands: (1) the end of home foreclosures, (2) forgiving student debt, and (3) a decrease in unemployment.  In some ways, each of these demands surely resonates with what Occupy is about, and people who are concerned with all these issues have clearly joined occupy, joined demonstrations with signs that oppose home foreclosures, unmanageable student debt, and unemployment rates.  So the list of demands is clearly related to the Occupy Movement, and yet, it would be a mistake to say that the political meaning or effect of the Occupy Movement can be understood perfectly well by understanding these demands or, indeed, a much longer list of demands.  The first reason is that a “list” is a series of demands.  But a list does not explain how these demands are related to one another.
If one of the main political points of the movement is to draw attention to, and resist, growing inequalities of wealth, then that is a social and economic reality that crosses all the specific demands that such a list might include.  But it would not really count as one demand among many.  In other words, through what language and action does one call attention to a growing inequality of wealth in which the rich monopolize increasingly greater amounts of wealth and the poor now includes increasing numbers of the population?  This point is made evident by each of the particular issues on the list, a list that could include the decimation of social services, including public healthcare, of pensions, the increase in “flexible” labour that makes workers into a disposable population, the destruction of public and affordable higher education, the overcrowding of primary and secondary public schools, tax breaks for the rich, depression of wages, and increasing government support for the prison industry.  We can make such a list, add to such a list, even become more specific about such a list, but no one item on the list can help us explain what gathers all those items together on the list.  If we argue, though, that increasing wealth differentials and inequality that emerge directly from contemporary forms of capitalism are exemplified by each of these issues, and that together they provide evidence for the claim that capitalism relies upon, and reproduces, social and economic inequalities of this kind, then we are making a claim about how a system works and, more particularly, how the capitalist system works now:  inequalities are becoming greater, assuming new and devastating forms, and  this accelerated process of  inequality remains unchecked by existing state and global authorities who have a vested interest in making capitalism work.
The skeptic might still respond with the following: “but don’t we have to work on each of these issues separately in order to make any real difference in people’s lives?  If we would all take on some one issue, we could make our way down the list, finding practical solutions for each item there.” To take this point of view, however, is to insist that the items can be separated from one another.  But if we need to know what links the items together in order to provide a solution to this problem, then our politics depends upon our asking about the systemic and historical character of the economic system itself.
Indeed, if we understand how the increasing differentials in wealth (and the accumulation of more wealth by fewer and fewer people, and the extension of poverty and disposability to increasingly larger numbers of people) follows from a particular economic organization of society, one that is geared to produce ever more acute versions of this inequality, then in order to address any of the items on the list, we have to understand the broader structure of inequality to which each item points, and we have to think about ways of objecting to that economic regime, rather than seek to make smaller adjustments to its operation.  Indeed, if we “fix” any problem on the list without addressing the reproduction of inequality, and if that inequality is being reproduced in ever more acute ways, then the list just gets larger, even as we seek to remove a particular item from it.  
We cannot fix the one form of inequality without understanding the broader trends of inequality we are seeking to overcome.  By thinking that all the items must be disaggregated, we miss our mark and narrow our vision at the expensive of both social and economic justice.  Of course, one can work on any of these items at the same time that one struggles for the end to the structural reproduction of inequality.  But that means that some group, some political articulation, has to keep attention on the problem of structural inequality.  If we think that there are adequate resources within the current economic regime to fix these problems, then, we make an odd assumption. We assume that the very system that has produced the inequality that characterizes all the items on the list can serve as the recipient of our demands.  This brings me then to the second presumption made by the skeptic’s question.
2.) Demands should be capable of being satisfied. This surely seems like a reasonable point.  But anyone who argues that demands must be capable of being satisfied assumes that there is someone or some existing institutional power to whom one could appeal to have one’s demands satisfied.  Union negotiations backed by the threat of strikes usually do have a list of demands which, if satisfied, will avert the strike, and if not, will commence or prolong a strike.  But when a company, corporation, or state is not considered a legitimate partner for negotiation, then it makes no sense to appeal to that authority for a negotiated settlement.  In fact, to appeal to that authority to satisfy the demand would be one way of attributing legitimacy to that authority.  So articulating demands that can be satisfied depends fundamentally on the attribution of legitimacy to those who have the power to satisfy the demands.  And when one ceases to direct demands to those authorities, as happens in the general strike, then it is the illegitimacy of those authorities that is exposed. This is one important implication of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s contribution to Occupy Theory.
But if those existing institutions are complicit with the economic regime that depends upon, and furthers, the reproduction of inequality, then one cannot appeal to those institutions to bring about an end to the conditions of inequality.  Such an appeal would defeat itself in the course of its articulation.  Simply put, the appeal or demand that sought to be satisfied by the existing state, global monetary institutions, or corporations, national or transnational, would be giving more power to the very sources of inequality, and in that way aiding and abetting the reproduction of inequality itself.  As a result, another set of strategies are required, and what we are now seeing in the Occupy Movement is precisely the development of a set of strategies that call attention to, and oppose, the reproduction of inequality.

5 thoughts on “Occupy as Form: Judith Butler

  • Lauren!

    Thank you Judith. Making only demands which can be satisfied certainly feels, to me, like a failure of imagination. Coming from a public education background, it feels related to our drive for ‘outcomes’ and our insistence that money be tied to measurable results. When this happens, knowing what is at stake, we set such low standards so that the objective can be met. The quality becomes so low as to negate the setting of standards in the first place.

  • scott

    The Dutch collective BAVO refers to this demand as “Today’s Blackmail of Constructive Critique.”


    “This demand for giving concrete alternatives is, of course, the standard way in which people affirm their authority with regard to a certain matter, neutralize any criticism and continue business as usual.”

    BAVO advocates that “the critic should expose the demand to propose concrete alternatives as illegitimate, unfair and ultimately a sign of the ruling order’s own impotence. After all, the existing order demands of its critic everything that it (the existing order) — with all its means and expertise — fails to do. By exposing the inappropriateness of this demand, the critic should therefore be able to project his/her alleged impotence back onto the ruling order. The latter, however, is only possible when critical actors stop playing today’s game of pragmatic post-politics and defend their right to criticize without offering any alternatives.”

    I wonder if that’s where Occupy has succeeded most, and why “the existing order” has responded with such uniformly violent repression: by refusing to articulate reformist demands while delivering what the existing order has so sorely failed to do (e.g. food, shelter, care, 19% reduction in violent crime in Oakland during the encampment, and so forth), did Occupy make visible the ruling order’s own impotence in a way that is simply unacceptable?

    It’s truly sad when the same kind of blackmail is applied within the disciplines of culture, resulting in the low artistic standards that Lauren points out above.

    I’m grateful that as arts educators we have available to us as counter-measure resources such as “A User’s Guide to Demanding the Impossible.”


  • themissinglint

    I call BS.

    For the first point on a list of demands, your rhetoric entirely avoids the clear, obvious issue: the occupy movement is made of many different objections and doesn’t agree on its demands. It seems like you are trying to hide this by taking a philosophical with the structure of lists. Worse, TO DO SO YOU ARE CLAIMING THAT THERE IS A CENTRAL IDEOLOGICAL PILLAR OF THE MOVEMENT–worsening structural inequality–which is less widely held within the group then many solid demands they could choose. Worsening structural inequality as an issue is also so vague and deep that it impossible to act on and immediately demonized by many Americans, so your position directly hurts the chances of any pragmatic reform.

    Why are you seeking to relegate such a large-scale grassroots movement to being a vague, philosophical movement? Why can’t it also directly lobby for the direct policy actions that are supported by the strong majority of its constituents, like other political groups do? There are ongoing efforts to identify exact actions that are supported by the very strong majority of occupiers; they just need to keep at it.

  • themissinglint

    I call BS.

    For the second point on satisfiable demands, I don’t believe the assumption that making demands of an organization gives it legitimacy. Police may demand that a hostage-taker release hostages, but it does not grant the hostage-taker legitimacy.

    You say that it is useless to appeal to an organization that is complicit with the provoking economic regime. This doesn’t make sense (complicit parties are the typical targets of a protest) and counter examples are easy.

    Take your first example of ending foreclosures: the Occupy movement has made positive change appealing directly to bank managers to delay foreclosures. Legislation that restricted foreclosures further would not make any of this “regime” stronger.

    Nor would the appeal itself. A clear issue like more foreclosure regulation would demonstrate a wrongness in the current system, and would be more identifiable by people in the “99%” but currently opposed to the “Occupy” movement.

    Another good example might be better legislation limiting things like credit-default swaps or other investment schemes that allow people to profit solely from others’ loss.

    More fundamentally, your arguments rely heavily on categorizing “the state” as a unified, coherent being, instead of as a group of individuals with beliefs and values even more diverse than the Occupy movement.

  • Anonymous

    Mike Davis, historian and UCR Prof, mentions the FDR final inaugural speech and its second bill of rights as template of demands for the OWS mvt that makes use of the progressive legacy of the Dems. It’s actually surprisingly relevant to a lot of “hot” issues in progressive culture and politics.


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