On Fear, Theory, and Acting Anyways

It has been through my participation in Occupy that I’ve first come to feel my citizenship, not in the narrow national sense, but in a broader sense of intentional political subjectivity in the world. Through my adult life I’ve voted, marched, worked for an economic justice NGO, and read/written/thought about capitalism in particular during my PhD and its immediate aftermath. But the sustained political Q & A that participation in Occupy has demanded of me – what does it mean not only to recognize the systemic and historical character of our economic system but also to act on it, daily? – has engendered in me and others I’ve spoken to a certain experience of embodied citizenship that I hadn’t felt before. This embodied citizenship feels neither radical nor fringe. Rather, it feels self-evident and minimal, as in, oh! this is what citizenship feels like.

And yet, just as I begin to feel like a citizen, I’ve suddenly (in some circles) been branded a radical. Just when it begins to feel like what I was doing before was an extreme form of disengagement, I am told that what I’m doing now is extreme. Perhaps naively, this has been a shock. The first time I feel like a citizen coincides with the first time I’ve been called a radical; the first time I’ve chosen to enact the politics I’d come to know theoretically, I’ve been called extreme. This moment also happens to coincide with my first forays into the academic job market, and it has been desperately confusing (frightening, frustrating, maddening, incredulity-producing) to imagine that my work with Occupy might be a liability in that effort.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about fear, because I have a lot of it, not only (in fact not even mostly) related to my desire to be employed, but also because actually confronting contemporary forms of capitalism in an effort to change them is scary. This fear has also made me think about what might be called the facile courage of theory, a phrase I pose gently as someone who loves critical theory and continually strives to learn from it and contribute to it. However, it is simply not as scary to participate in a workshop on Capitalism and Crisis, or to teach Marx and J.K. Gibson Graham, as it is todisrupt an auction of foreclosed homes or to stand up to police when they tell you you cannot hold a sign on the importance of the separation between investment and commercial banking in public space.

In Occupy circles and beyond, my expression of this fear is met with various responses, some of the most trenchant of which point to the ways in which my particular forms of fear emanate from privilege. Not only am I privileged to have something to lose professionally, but more importantly, as a white woman from an upper middle class family, I canchoose to put myself in the way of a foreclosed home auction; I can choose to engage a policeman who is telling me I’m breaking a law when I clearly am not. My family home has not been foreclosed upon. The police don’t stop me when I walk through Harlem. I agree with these responses, and at the same time I insist on the importance of my fear. I insist first because this fear is widespread among people who agree with what Occupy is doing but may not be participating. I insist second because this fear has both tactical and theoretical implications for revolution.

Insistence 1: This fear is widespread, and tells us something about attenuated citizenship today

For communities already targeted by the police, rapacious lending practices, and cycles of odious debt, the barriers to entry into direct action-oriented citizenship are high. The consequences of arrest are greater, the violence of incarceration often more brutal, the resources to be accessed from friends and family often scarce. This is discussed ad nauseum in OWS, as it should be. (Graeber also has an excellent discussion of this in his book Direct Action, p.241–>). Less discussed, however, is the fear of reprisal for those less-precariously positioned. If the Taylor Law, no-strike clauses, and the Taft-Hartley act inhibit forms of strike that used to be central to mass activism, it is difficult to find an analogous set of laws, clauses, and acts that inhibit even discussion of alternatives to contemporary economic doxa among those implicated in carrying out its excesses. And yet, many are oddly silent. And those who aren’t silent are afraid.

Many of the bankers and former bankers, bank analysts, private equity managers, economists and economics professors, former hedge-fund quants, Wall Street traders-turned freelance writers, tax specialists, small business owners, and math PhDs, who make up much of the weekly participation in the OWS AltBanking working group are afraid to use their real names, and studiously avoid the press when it comes to their OWS work. When I ask why, most reply that they’re still interested in working in their respective industries, and they’re worried about being discredited through their relationship to the movement. Arguably, the general tone of media coverage on Occupy justifies this fear, but misrepresentation aside, what exactly would they be discredited for? For discussing financial reform? For trying to figure out what really happened at MF Global? For imagining a public option credit card with a .99% interest rate, or filing an amicus brief on the pending, disastrous mortgage settlement? These are the sorts of tame, wonky, utterly reformist conversations that take place in this working group (although we did come up with a great debt jubilee sweatshirt for May Day.) In other words, it seems that even the act of working collaboratively on financial reform outside “respectable” channels becomes a liability. Those citizens arguably most empowered to make certain kinds of incremental, short term change possible are terrified of being “outed” as OWS-affiliated. As the editor of this blog put it to me, “the fear of experts in bringing their expertise to bear against the systems that certify and empower them is a provocative case study.” Indeed–a provocative case study in the radical attenuation of citizenship in relation to particular forms of contemporary capitalism, producing a world in which embodied citizenship itself oddly seems radical.

Insistence 2: Tactical & Theoretical Reasons to take Fear Seriously

In Direct Action, Graeber talks about “contaminationism,” the idea that “the experience of freedom is infectious, and that anyone who takes part in a direct action is likely to be permanently transformed by the experience and want more” (211). The specific idea of freedom at work in direct action is the (often momentary) insistence that repressive and unjust forms of authority do not exist, and people can and should organize themselves as they see fit, whether into a spontaneous street party full of music and puppets, or into the kinds of mutual aid we see across the country’s occupations: free health care, libraries, food. There is certainly a deep thrill to these and other forms of direct action, the feeling (in another of Graeber’s images) of tearing holes in a capitalist fabric; holes which, if we tear enough of them, might eventually connect into gaping openings. But, at least in my very short experience with this form of action, in addition to the thrill there is also fear. Or more precisely, there are also meaningful forms of hesitation and ambivalence, not least because “what participants experience as profound and transformative often looks, from the outside, as peculiar at best–at worst cult-like or insane” (211).

This all feels like a long way of saying that I didn’t understand what revolution might mean until I confronted it with my body. Not revolution itself, but the actions, processes, thoughts, and subjectivities required to get there. Those are frightening at least in part because they ask us to move beyond the comfortable forms of nuance and compromise in which we academics dwell in our reading, writing, and teaching practices. This fear comes from leaving the comforting folds of theory to walk out into the stark commitments of direct action, and to embody, at least momentarily, the certitudes and assurances that seem easy to write about but much more threatening to enact. Let me say it again: in my experience, critiques of capitalism are easy to write in an essay, but become tentative and scary in other comities of practice.To end then, what does it mean to act anyways?

What does it mean to commit with fear? With the misgivings that the action isn’t perfect? On the other hand, what does it mean to stay in the realm of writing and critical thinking until you can figure out the perfect action? Just as I will continue to read and write theory despite the trenchant critiques of ivory towerism, so too will I continue to take daily direct action against forms of economic and social injustice, despite the trenchant critiques that that action didn’t work, or, that idea is too reformist. I also say to those who are engaged in the movement primarily through theory, thank you, and also, please join usPlease act anyways. There are many of us theorists within the movement whose intellectual certitudes are challenged daily by the vagaries and failures of practice. Let’s embody theory and citizenship side by side.

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