On September 17, 2011 a mass of protesters descended upon New York City. Backed by Adbusters, an international “not-for-profit, reader-supported, 120,000-circulation magazine concerned about the erosion of our physical and cultural environments by commercial forces” centered in Vancouver, British Colombia, (“About Adbusters”), the protesters set up shop in Zuccotti Park. Why? According to their initial call to action, drawing inspiration from the Arab Spring and the protests in Tahrir Square in Egypt, these protesters “set up tents, kitchens,” and “peaceful barricades” in order to urge President Obama to form a commission “tasked with ending the influence money has over representatives in Washington” and to persistently cry out their one united demand. The call boldly exclaims, “It’s time for DEMOCRACY NOT CORPORATOCRACY” (#OCCUPYWALLSTREET). And the demand that will bring this change about is…what exactly?
One of the key issues raised by critics of this movement is it that there is a lot of ambiguity surrounding what it is they actually want. Another problem seems to be that no one knows who exactly to attribute as a leader with the Occupy movement. This leaves us with the question of how exactly to represent this group. As a group looking to change the workings of our economic power structure, how exactly does Occupy Wall Street actually factor into our economic power structure? How is it represented in said structure? Is it something that stands a chance of altering power structures? In order to better understand these aspects of Occupy, it would be helpful to delve deeper into ideas of power and representation.
Louis Althusser dealt with these very issues in his writings, addressing them through the idea of interpellation, which will be discussed in detail below. This is an idea that lends some insight into the workings of social production and individual representation within those dynamics, but there are some issues with it as Althusser originally conceived it. In order to gain a firm grasp of Althusser’s theory and how it can help us understand the workings of Occupy Wall Street, we first need to examine the workings behind interpellation. Then, we need to look at the criticisms of interpellation, the ways in which Althusser’s own views regarding it may have changed, and some outside critical perspectives to reach a more well-rounded conception of interpellation’s relevance to the Occupy discussion. Finally, the understanding gained in the previous sections will be applied to the Occupy Wall Street movement, using criticism of its demands (or lack thereof) and structure. It is my hope that by the end of this analysis that the Occupy movement and its structure will be seen as a force for social change that, in the Althusserian terms to be examined, is more than just a product of the dominant ideology.
Interpellation, or hailing, is the idea that an individual’s identity is only truly affirmed by the recognition of others within context. Althusser asserts that this mode of recognition renders individuals as subjects as opposed to unique selves, subjects to the given social and ideological contexts under which they are being recognized (Althusser, 1357). The term “ideology” here reveals the larger role this subjugation plays in society. Building off of Marxist ideas, Althusser’s concept is based on the base/superstructure model of economic production, in which the “base” represents the means of production and the superstructure represents the institutions and practices build upon said means. In more Althusserian/Marxist terms, everything within the cultural and varyingly ideological “superstructure” is dependent upon the economic “base” relationships between the workers and those that control production “in the last instance;” the superstructure cannot stand without the base. In order to keep this relationship going, the superstructure needs to reproduce the conditions under which the working class is willing to work. Althusser states that “there is ‘relative autonomy’ of the superstructure with respect to the base [and] there is a ‘reciprocal action’ of the superstructure on the base” (1338; italics mine). For this class structure to persist, the working class, must feel that they are not being oppressed by their management or the ruling class.
In order for the ruling class to keep economic production moving in the base, certain roles are played by two different types of apparatuses within the superstructure: the Repressive State Apparatus (RSA) and Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs). The RSA consists of the branches of public control handled by the ruling class, or “State,” which include the police, military, courts, prisons, etc. They are “repressive” because they use some form of violence or punishment. These are aided by the ISAs, which are more private institutions such as religion, education, political parties, family, culture, etc; these broad ideological influences reinforce our modes of thinking on a daily basis (Althusser, 1344).
Althusser recognized that the ISAs impart the workings of the system, and feasibly complacence with the system, to children (the future producers and controllers). This lead Althusser to deem education the “foremost” ISA:
It takes children from every class at infant-school age, and then for years, the years in which the child is most “vulnerable,” squeezed between the family State apparatus and the educational State apparatus, it drums into them…a certain amount of “know-how” wrapped in the ruling ideology (French [in French-speaking societies], arithmetic, natural history, the sciences, literature) or simply the ruling ideology in its purest state (ethics, civic instruction, philosophy). (1346-7)
To Althusser, most teaching efforts “contribute to the maintenance and nourishment of this ideological representation of the school,” thus rendering the edifice of education as seemingly natural and vitally useful (1348). This confluence of structures then prepares students for their role as part of the working force keeping society moving. Given that the ruling ideology prevails throughout a society, influencing everything from the base up, individuals within the system, from menial workers to the students in the school environment just described, are then “always-already subjects” to the ruling ideology (Althusser, 1357).
In his text The Rise and Fall of Structural Marxism, Ted Benton gives readers a look at the development of Althusser’s ideas and a series of critiques of them. His ideas concerning ideology and interpellation are of particular note. Within his coverage of these criticisms, he touches on the strict determinism that the concept seems to suggest. Benton suggests that the representation present in interpellation is “necessarily imaginary,” that “the ideological interpellation of subjects serves the reproductive requirements of the system only if the subjects live their subjection as if it were freedom and self-determination” (italics mine). This exposes the relationship as outlined in Althusser’s initial proposition as rigid, constricting. Benton continues by showing that, along this line of thinking, there is no true unity among the subjugated: “the unity of these [of the subjects and of the ISAs] is a functional unity given by the ideology of the ruling class” (185). This seems to run on the assumption that the dominant ideology is perpetual and that there is no room in the system for oppositional representation. It also seems to assume that everyone in a given class is going to behave or respond to this ideological representation in the same complacent way.
While this may indeed be overly deterministic, it does bring up an interesting point in regard to perceptions of ideology. According to James Kavanagh, “when ideology dominates social reproduction, the process becomes indeed much better for the dominant class.” He suggests that subjects in such situations would be much more likely to acquiesce to the ruling class, and would show dissatisfaction in ways which could be easily punishable by the RSA (violence, crime, etc.), while those in control went about their business. In such a model, Kavanagh imagines that each person in a society carries a mental picture of how society should look, and what their place in it is (309). With this image and ideology secured, Kavanagh states that “the distinctive effect of ideology is not theoretical but pragmatic, to enable various social subjects to act (or not act), within the limits of a given social project” (314). Here we see ideology spreading two different messages: one to placate the working class, and another to reassure the ruling class.
It could be that such complacency brought on by ideology is one of the necessary conditions for such means of social production to continue. But does such a model truly deny the possibility of oppositional representation? Stephen Greenblatt argues that while ideology and culture establish certain boundaries and restrictions, they also establish the possibilities for action:
If culture functions as a structure of limits, it also functions as the regulator and guarantor of movement. Indeed the limits are virtually meaningless without movement; it is only through improvisation, experiment, and exchange that cultural boundaries can be established. (228)
Althusser clearly establishes a sense of boundaries in his ideological theory, but it makes the boundaries seem rigid and impassable. Greenblatt here seems to shed a bit more light on the idea of boundaries through the idea of improvisation, showing that it is action and play that truly determine the nature of boundaries. It shows the reality that it is impossible for every person, every subject, in a class to adhere to strict behavioral uniformity simply for the sake of economic production. There is variance amongst subjects and the cultural artifacts they create, thus giving the social boundaries more fluidity than in Althusser’s initial formulation.
Another point of contention brought up by Benton comes from the more revolutionary side of Althusser’s theory. Like Marx, Althusser was of the opinion that the only way to truly dispose of an oppressive ruling class and its ideology is to eradicate every last trace of it. Benton raises the point that “the subversive pretensions of Marxism fit it all the better to recuperate rebellion and disruption and facilitate the imposition of ever more totalitarian forms of order” (175). This, actually, is an observation which Althusser himself eventually made. During strikes and protests in France during May of 1968, Althusser was a member of the French Communist Party (PCF). As the events were drawing closer to an end, Althusser broke off from the rest of the PCF, as he believed that the direct they were taking would result in a power structure no better than that in place under Charles de Gaulle. According to Benton, at this time Althusser started to abandon some of his previously held ideas. He declared that the “idea of a ‘vanguard party’ is wildly impractical and undesirable,” and could potentially “lead to doctrinal purity and consequent political marginalization.” Furthermore, taking a cue from the feminist movement of the time, he began to see protest movements as entities which could interpellate others based on “shared conditions of oppression and/or exploitation in society which are nevertheless not reducible to class” (Benton, 165-7). Here Althusser breaks away from the base/superstructure social model to address oppression outside of a strictly economic context; there is certainly still a hierarchy being represented, but it is based on “oppression and/or expoitation…not reducible to class,” such as gender, race, and age. The idea of his party simply becoming the new oppressors did not sit right with him.
At this point, Althusser tried to push for significant changes within the PCF, as well. Perhaps most notably, he suggested that the Party switch to a horizontal system of information dissemination: “There must be full and free opportunities for open debate in the Party – this means, among other things, abolishing the vertical separations in the party organization, especially between workers and intellectuals” (Benton, 168). This is perhaps one of the most radical suggestions that Althusser could have made during this time. It would require everyone in the PCF to recognize each other on a level playing field, each having access to the same information and possibly having an equal say. In such a case, the recognition of interpellation becomes less about subject position in relation to the ruling ideology, and more about subject position against the ruling ideology and suggests the possibility of dialogue with ruling decision makers; remember that the PCF was repositioning itself with the ruling class during the time that Althusser was making this objection.
This brings us back to Occupy Wall Street. Horizontalism is, as Sarah Jaffe says in her article on the strengths of Occupy while quoting Marina Sitrin:
a level space for decision making, a place where one can look directly at the other person across from you, and discuss things that matter most to all of us – we decide the agenda. Horizontalism is more than just being against hierarchy, or people having power over others – it is about creating something new together in our relationships. The means are a part of the ends. The forms of organizing manifest what we desire; it is not a question of demands, but rather a manifestation of an alternative way of being and relating. (qtd in Jaffe, 1)
This issue of a horizontal structure is of the utmost importance in distinguishing the operations of the Occupy movement with those of mainstream social hierarchy. Jaffe provides an example of how our dominant and pervasive use of hierarchical structures influences our thinking. After the incidents surrounding former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, one of the boys that benefited from Sandusky’s charity—now a grown man in the military—expressed his shock and disappointment in his former mentor. He went on to say that he has lost faith in his parents’ generation in terms of leadership ability, and proposed that someone else step up to take the wheel. Instead of suggesting a different form of decision-making, he jumped immediately to hierarchy with a new figurehead. Jaffe contrasts this incident with the sexual assault that took place in the Occupy Wall Street encampment. When people in the camp realized this had happened, there was no set authority figure to turn to within the movement. Thus, “the problem had to be dealt with by a variety of people rising to the occasion to try to provide for the survivor, control and monitor the perpetrator, and create systems to deal with future incidents.” A number of protestors took the survivor to the police to press charges, but the police seemed to be more concerned with her affiliation with OWS (Jaffe, 2). Juxtaposed to the Penn State incident, this exemplifies the action possible in a cooperative horizontal power structure; “[f]or the occupation to be successful, we need to transform into a culture that never passes the buck” (Byrne, qtd in Jaffe, 2).
While it may seem that this movement cannot possibly function as a body of consensus with so many people, it actually manages to do so with fluidity. According to Jaffe, the camp holds a General Assembly (GA) to make decisions and organize tasks, and these GAs “consist of whomever is there at the time” (Jaffe, 3). This is indicative of the leaderless nature of the movement, but “leaderless” seems to be a misnomer. Jaffe prefers to refer to the movement as “leader-full,” because of the way anyone can shift in and out of this decision-making body (2). Jaffe points out that the feminist movement tried similar tactics in horizontal structure, as mentioned above while discussing Althusser, but that certain personalities just took over the role of “spokesperson” and became more of a perceived authority in the movement than they should have been (3). However, Occupy Wall Street has managed to avoid such problems through “the reliance on face-to-face and peer-to-peer networks and working groups [, which] creates space for lots of leaders to emerge, but only ones that work as network weavers rather than charismatic bosses” (Sifry, qtd in Jaffe, 4).
Despite accounts such as these in which Occupy’s structure is better understood, there are still questions and criticisms being raised that target the movement’s lack of a cohesive demand. The idea of “democracy, not corporatocracy” mentioned above seems to count as a loose demand, but it is a very broad one. And article from The Economist provides an example of just such a criticism:
This time too [as with other protest movements in the past 20 years], some things are familiar: the odd bit of violence, a lot of incoherent ranting and plenty of inconsistency. The protesters have different aims in different countries. Higher taxes for the rich and a loathing of financiers is the closest thing to a common denominator, though in America polls show that popular rage against government eclipses that against Wall Street. (Leader)
In another piece in The Guardian, Karen McVeigh shows a divide within the Occupy Wall Street camp. One of the working groups within the camp seems to prefer majority rule to the consensus model that has been built up. One member of this divergent group claims that “this is an open movement,” and that such schisms are just the nature of debate. He adds, “We are inspired by the uprisings in the Middle East. They had one demand: that the regime must go. Not everybody is behind them but that's what debate is” (Arena, qtd in McVeigh).
There are problems with both of these critiques. One that addresses both the Economist and protestor Arena and the demands group is that the lack of specific leadership and demands truly is a strength for the movement because of its decentralized state. While there is the main encampment in Manhattan which serves as a media focus, there are countless other Occupy protests persisting; Leader acknowledges that it is present in other countries. Jaffe emphasizes this as in her discussion of the “leader-full” structure of the movement. She points out the key figures standing against some of the Occupy protests that have received national attention: Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York, Mayor Jean Quan in Oakland, and Chencellor Katehi of the University of California at Davis (3). Each of these specific Occupy sites has its own local goals and focal points, pursued in the fashion of horizontal democratic consensus. It is possible that establishing more specific demands than the pursuit of a non-hierarchical form of democracy could compromise these local concerns as well as the overall democratic efforts. By switching to a majority system, Occupiers would be disenfranchising other Occupiers, thus dividing the movement. If it did not divide the movement, it would at least lessen the unity through consensus that we have seen to a sort of functional unity, such as Althusser’s initial conceptions for which interpellation was criticized.
In regard to the claim made by Arena for choosing demands, in which he hearkens back to the inspiration of Tahrir Square, it must be noted that taking a cue from another movement does not equate these two movements. The events in Egypt were, as Arena pointed out, aiming to overthrow the incumbent regime—which was an arduous and bloody affair. The Occupy movement, up to this point, has been non-violent. I feel that the consensus model of decision-making is a large part of this, as it lessens the tensions amongst the protestors. By taking as many voices and opinions into consideration as possible and building consensus from it, the movement creates a stronger sense of unity, thus likely lessening the chances of violence amongst themselves.
So what would Althusser say about Occupy Wall Street? As a “leader-full” leaderless movement functioning and making decisions on its own, how would this movement fit into his conceptions of class relations? It should be noted that despite Althusser’s change in views in 1968, when he began to look away from the traditional base/superstructure social model, his repressive and ideological structures still have some merit. While the goals of these apparatuses might not simply be to keep social production going “in the last instance,” they are still entities that influence us on a daily basis. In the case of the Occupy movement, there is always the issue of police altercations, bringing OWS into head-on contact with the RSA. However, by adhering to their horizontal community structure, they have managed to turn the tables to an extent. Every time the police arrest a “leader” of the Occupy movement, another simply slips into his or her place. And so long as the police continue to treat protestors in a dehumanizing manner, such as placing a rape survivor’s political affiliations before her rights as a person, they will neither be recognized favorably by the Occupiers nor the mainstream media. Given Althusser’s reconception of interpellation with oppositional subjectivities, Occupy Wall Street seems to act as a solid defiance of the ruling American ideology. It manages to function as a decision-making body on its own peacefully, while not actually breaking United States law, thus making attempts to break it down seem vindictive, even tyrannical. By recognizing each participant as having equal power, OWS recognizes the ways in which the current ruling hierarchies do not truly empower its lower constituents. Had Althusser went through with his call to action for a horizontal movement in the PCF, perhaps things would have worked out differently for the Party, and perhaps it would have looked something like OWS. So is Occupy Wall Street, in Althusserian terms, a product of its social/ideological background. Yes. But the ways in which it highlights injustice in American democracy, experiments with the workings of democracy legally, empowers those in oppositional subject positions, and peacefully clashes with the ruling class, it actually operates as an effective means for social change. It remains to be seen how much change will actually come from the dialogue the Occupiers have opened up, but I think Althusser would be optimistic.
Adbusters Culture Jammer Headquarters. “About Adbusters.” Adbusters. Web. Accessed 5 Dec 2011.
Adbusters Culture Jammer Headquarters. “#OCCUPYWALLSTREET.” Adbusters. Web. Accessed 5 Dec 2011.
Althusser, Louis. From “Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatus.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Leitch, Vincent B, ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010. Print.
Benton, Ted. The Rise and Fall of Structural Marxism: Althusser and his Influence. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984.
Greenblatt, Stephen. “Culture.” Critical Terms for Literary Study. Lentricchia, Frank, and Thomas McLaughlin, eds. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2006. Print.
Jaffe, Sarah. “The Power of Occupy Wall Street Is Not Just What They’re Doing, But How They’re Doing It.” AlterNet. 29 Nov 2011. Web. Accessed 5 Dec 2011.
Kavanagh, James. “Ideology.” Critical Terms for Literary Study. Lentricchia, Frank, and Thomas McLaughlin, eds. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2006. Print.
Leaders. “Capitalism and Its Critics: Rage Against the Machine.” The Economist. 22 Oct 2011. Web. Accessed 5 Dec 2011.
McVeigh, Karen. “Wall Street Protestors Divided Over Occupy Movement’s Demands.” The Guardian. 18 Oct 2011. Web. Accessed 5 Dec 2011.