The Occupation of Common Sense: From Neoliberalism to Radical Democracy

By Tristan Smaldone
2016, Vol. 8 No. 01 | pg. 2/2 |

Hegemony Versus Desertion

There is a long tradition of single-issue emancipatory movements in the United States, which have progressed through the logic of identity politics (Rehmann, 2013), such as the labor movement, the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, and more recently, the LGBT rights movement. Without downgrading the social or political achievements made by various democratic progressive movements, there may be a certain degree of inadequacy in the logic of identity politics when addressing the full compass of the modern neoliberal condition. In Laclau’s grammar, identity based movements operate under differential logics, drawing on social distinctions that “assume the representation of an impossible whole,” becoming empty signifiers. What he proposes is an equivalential logic, as found in Gramsci’s theory of hegemony that attempts to broaden the emancipatory potential of democratic movements (Laclau, 2005, p. 73-74).

Breaking from the essentialism and structural determinism found in orthodox Marxism, which reduced the character of the ‘social’ to relations of production, Gramsci reconceived the political ‘struggle’ as a plurality, both including and reaching beyond class belonging (Laclau, 2005, p.57). As a foundation for hegemonic constructions, Gramsci placed primacy on the ‘spontaneous feelings of the masses’, feelings which inform a ‘common sense’. However, he warned that ‘common sense’ might be manipulated by any assortment of leading ideological institutions and apparatuses. Therefore, in order for ‘common sense’ to become ‘good sense’, it needs the mediation of informed intellectuals who can both make it coherent and provide conscious leadership towards a more ‘organic’ ideology (Gramsci, 1999, p. 198-199).

As previously demonstrated, neoliberal ideology produces its own ‘common sense’ both institutionally, through a broad field of social and political interventions, and subjectively, through perpetuating a myth of solipsism that replaces sociality with entrepreneurial competitiveness. Following the financial crisis, the ‘feelings of the masses’ tended to be polarized into two ‘common senses’, as articulated by Jan Rehmann.

The predominant neoliberal version is that…the government is driving the country to ruin by spending too much, in particular for the wrong people, namely the urban poor, blacks and other minorities, as well as ‘privileged’ unionized employees… A second layer manifests itself as awareness of the income polarity between rich and poor, which is seen as unsustainable and morally scandalous (Rehmann, 2013).

In times of struggle the ‘common sense’ of the masses, through a process that Gramsci calls a philosophy of praxis, may be translated into a neoteric and organic ideology that accommodates shifting needs and values (Gramsci, 1999, p. 421). He uses the term ‘organic’ to indicate the materiality behind the formation of this type of ideology, as opposed to the Marxist variety of ‘false concioussness’, which functions to hide true relations. Organic ideology is a specific and transparent political construction, which attempts to unify the vast complex of an indignant multitude into a collective will, referred to as a ‘historic bloc’ (Laclau, 2005, p. 57). The ‘bloc’ is unique in that it is a provisional construction, in similar form to Laclau’s people, with a constitution that is always transmutable.

According to Gramsci, in order for a ‘historic bloc’ to become hegemonic, or counter-hegemonic, it needs to be integrated into various state apparatuses. The connection between civil society and political society requires the mediation of vanguard political parties (Gramsci, 1999, p.12). In this way, there is a vertical gradation from the needs and desires of the masses upwards and through the bureaucratic functioning of the state. Here, a point has been reached in the theory of hegemony where it is no longer congruent with the empirical workings of the Occupy movement, which wholeheartedly rejected the idea of vanguardism.

State-centric theories of social movements such a Gramsci’s hegemony have been called into question by ‘New Social Movement’ theory, which emphasizes horizontalist organizing that does not recognize the authority of institutional politics. This visioning of social movements assumes a ‘duel power’ formation, paralleling rather than engaging with institutional authority. Within this paradigm, the communication of central demands is viewed as validating a dependence on hierarchical authority. The strategy therefore, is limited to cultural rather than political change (Kang, 2013, p. 60-74). The duel power paradigm is applicable to the encampments of Occupy, which aside from many practical difficulties involving safety and sanitation, were established as temporary anarcho-utopian enclaves, at least partially withdrawn from the functions of the State.

In short, hegemony involves a degree of agonistic engagement with political institutions in an attempt to either change or replace them. It is more reactionary than revolutionary, although it does not inherently exclude the latter. Horizontalist social movements, which engage in a form of political desertion, can also be conceived as either reactionary or revolutionary in their goal of radical discursive and cultural transformation. While these transformations may be exactly what’s needed to initiate a counter offensive against the impoverishing effects of neoliberalism, its important to consider carefully what the ramifications of this approach necessitate in the absence of institutional politics. Furthermore, the issue of practicality is a vital.

Hardt and Negri have promoted a strategy of desertion that attempts to reclaim ‘depotentialized’ subjectivity from the custody of neoliberal ideology. Their apolitical plan of action is nebulous and lacking in feasibility. To begin, the authors suggest that people should default on their bank loans, leaving behind all private ownership, and entering instead into strictly communal relationships. Secondly, they suggest a gradual abolition of prisons and military, resulting in what they refer to as ‘real freedom and security’. Their third suggestion is to bring an end to all normative structures and institutions, including any form of parliamentary representation (Hardt & Negri, 2012, p.33- 45). At this point in their theoretical projection, the state would have withered away, leaving neither a private nor public sphere, but only an openly accessible ‘commons’. Within the commons, decisions would be made directly by democratic assemblies, organized into decentralized micro-federations, not dissimilar to the Occupy encampments (Hardt & Negri, 2012, p. 89-96).

Riding the inspiration of the global protests of 2011-12’, Hardt and Negri have forecasted their vision of a world to come rather than offering useful guidelines for praxis. Despite the idealism of the desertion approach, there are some noteworthy attributes to the non-hierarchical organizing of Occupy that are both practical and promising. For instance, the innovative approach of the General Assembly manifested as an impressive level of democratic inclusiveness in discussion and decision-making. Essential to this process, was the use of hand gestures that allowed the temperament of the crowd to be easily and effectively communicated. 8 The ‘progressive stack’, was another method employed in the General Assembly to limit the privileging of dominant demographics and to encourage diversity. Through the ‘stack’ system, people whose voices have been historically suppressed, such as women and people of color were given preference to speak in the Assembly (Welty et al., 2014, p. 28-30). While these examples illustrate a degree of maturation in inclusive and direct democratic pluralism, the practice was confined to the microcosm of the encampments. Out of the absence of intentional vertical integration comes a real potential for political cooptation, a point that Gramsci himself forewarned.

The term ‘passive revolution’ was used by Gramsci to describe the diffusive effect that leadership can have on mass social movements. A hegemonic movement, which ascends organically from a plebian ‘common sense’ up through the bureaucratic functionaries of the state, may become innocuous if leaders or leading groups appropriate the sentiments of the masses without providing the intensity needed to satisfy their demands (Gramsci, 1999, p.105). Certainly the populist message of Occupy has since become an opportune reference in partisan electoral politics. People from the institutional Left have sympathized with the movement, including Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid, among many. Others have run campaigns entirely constructed around the symbolic order of the 99%, without being officially endorsed by the movement (Malone & Fredericks, 2013, p. 207-210). An Occupy affiliated group called ‘People for Bernie Sanders’, who are rallying behind the Vermont Senators 2016 presidential campaign, have provided perhaps the closest example of an official Occupy endorsement, thus far.

The appropriation of Occupy’s populist message by many of those on the institutional Left has rendered the movement vulnerable to neutralization and overdetermination, as measures of its success become interwoven with the fate of political candidates. Nonetheless, the increasing recognition of populist agonism by political leaders indicates an unavoidable and arguably desirable upward mobility of radical hegemonic discourse in ‘post-crisis’ US politics.

Countering Neoliberal Hegemony

An outline has been sketched in the proceeding pages that show the ascendency of neoliberal constructivism, from its ideologues to its discursive grip on the modern citizen subject. Through critical analysis, problematic principles and myths of individualism have been divulged, culminating with an argument that social relations are axiomatic in the constitution of subjectivity. Given the constitution of the individual is non-autonomous and transmutable, the essentialization of social groups also becomes problematic, rendering the tension between the particular and the universal seemingly insoluble. This ontological dilemma not only calls into question the coherence of political bodies but also the possibility for ‘collective wills’ to form into democratic alliances capable of maintaining, simultaneously, individual liberties and social equality.

With these complications in place, the task became how to reconceive the notion of democratic community in a way that preserves the heterogeneity of its elements. The concepts of Hardt and Negri’s multitude and Laclau’s people were explored side by side with a radical imaginary created within the discourse of the Occupy movement. It is clear that while certain components of both onto-political theories are applicable to Occupy, neither completely encapsulate the ethos of the movement. While Laclau’s political construction of a people works well to describe the antagonistic frontier created between the 99% and the 1%, Hardt and Negri’s apolitical multitude parallels the desertion strategy employed during the movement’s initial encampment phase.

The Occupy movement is a prime example of prefigurative politics, woven between somatic and quasi-transcended space. In the imaginary register, the movement’s performative, symbolic, and aesthetic features established a unique unity without telos, making it communicable at multiple sites and various times. Corporality is fundamental to the abstract continuity of the imaginary. Only through the agonistic interaction of subjectivities, which challenge, inspire, and strengthen one another’s concioussness, can affect evolve and transmit effectively. Whether the sense of continuity is produced within a public space or a withdrawn ‘liberated zone’, there is promise for its subversive potential within the process of social displacement provoked by neoliberal privatization, ideology, and discursive isolation.

Although representational democracy was deserted in favor of direct democracy by the movement, as declared in the New York City General Assembly’s, ‘Principles of Solidarity’, there was unanimity in the decision to brand the occupation and its sympathizers with the ‘floating’ 99% signifier. This discursive unity heralded a particular ‘common sense’ that continued to be refined through daily interactions between occupants and through the official meetings of the General Assembly. It was a ‘sense’ that organically evolved from genuine acts of communion, community, and leadership building, which displayed to the world, what is being compromised by dissociative neoliberal conditioning. However, without inferring a normative ethical position that can inform political decision-making, ‘common sense’ risks becoming a docile construct.

To conclude, by illuminating the solipsistic constructivism of neoliberalism- the delusional center of its discourse, its vulnerability is revealed. Yet, this critical exposure is limited in the absence of an organic ideology that reconciles the estrangement of the citizen subject from the democratic ethos, and allows for political affirmations to be made. Hindering such an ideology is the disillusive melancholia of postmodernity, the lack of optimism or belief in foundations, universality, and objective norms, which has created aporias for the re-thinking of sovereignty and democratic decision-making. Against this tendency towards cynicism, Laclau writes, “The moment of the decision, the moment of madness, is this jump from the experience of undecidability to a creative act, a fiat that requires its passage through that experience” (Mouffe, 1996, p. 54). The creative act to which he refers is a radically conceived constructivism. It is the idea of hegemony, an ephemeral compromise between relativity and universality, one that remained slightly out of reach in Occupy. What did transpire in the encampments, however, was a rupture in the discursive armor of neoliberalism, a beginning if nothing else, of a passage through the madness.


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1.) In a 1987 interview for Woman’s Own magazine, Margaret Thatcher stated: “Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families” (Keay, 1987).

2.) On the eve of economic recession in 2006, George W. Bush gave a press conference where he stated; “we must also work together to achieve important goals for the American people here at home. This work begins with keeping our economy growing. … and I encourage you all to go shopping more” (New York Times, 2006).

3.) Lacan describes transitivism as when “a child who beats another child says that he himself was beaten; a child who sees another child fall, cries. It is by identifying with the other that he experiences the whole range of bearing and display reaction” (Lacan, 2006, p. 92.).

4.) The Occupy Wall Street ‘Principles of Solidarity’ were as follows:

1. Engaging in direct and transparent participatory democracy;

2. Exercising personal and collective responsibility;

3. Recognizing individuals’ inherent privilege and the influence it has on all interactions;

4. Empowering on another against all forms of oppression;

5. Redefining how labor is valued;

6. The Sanctity of individual privacy;

7. The belief that education is a human right;

8. Making technologies, knowledge, and culture open to all to feely access, create, modify, and distribute (Cherniavsky, 2014).

5.) This parallels the Fruedian distinction of the instincts, eros and thanatos; the life-drive and the death-drive.

6.) The Demands Working Group actually proposed three official demands that passed the 90% consensus threshold at General Assembly meetings. 1.) “We the 99%, call upon our elected representatives to oppose censorship, and reject the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act.” 2.) “We urge the people of states, localities and general assemblies nationwide to demand the implementation of electoral reforms and begin a series of bold new experiments in democratic self-government, from the bottom up.” 3.) “We are calling for an Amendment to the Constitution to firmly establish that money is not speech, that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights, and that the rights of human beings will never again be granted to fictitious entities or property” (Kang, p. 80-81, 2013).

7.) A complete list of Occupy Wall Street Working Groups can be found at

8.) Many of the hand gestures used by the Occupy Wall Street movement originated in the Quaker tradition of consensus building (Welty, et al., 2013 pg. 28).

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