Sunday, October 2, 2011

Occupy Wall Street and the State of Exception

On Friday, September 30, 2011 the United States announced it had legally murdered two US citizens without due legal process in Yemen. The following day, the police kettled and arrested 700 anti-corporate protesters who were marching peacefully on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. Seemingly unrelated and spatially distant from each other, these events nonetheless reveal that the US citizens taking to the streets to challenge the capitalist looting of the commons are also confronting a state that has just declared that it can assassinate, without recourse to courts, citizens deemed hostile to the state.

The Bush administration's abandonment of due process to torture and assassinate non-citizens, allegedly because of the “exceptional” nature of the war on terror, is well documented. Obama has now extended this principle to US citizens by suspending the Fifth Amendment, the one that says “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Further, Obama seems to have ordered to put an end to the torture and rendition of suspects under Bush so that those suspects could be executed. This is an extraordinary turning point, for the murder of citizens without due process of law is now decreed legal. The same way that for George Orwell the clearest examples of authoritarian double-speak under Big Brother were the slogans “war is peace” and “slavery is freedom,” now the motto under the Bush-Obama paradigm is “ignoring your constitutional rights is legal.” As Giorgio Agamben has argued, this state of exception also defined the Nazi state, which in its twelve years of existence was under a constitution suspended by Hitler in the name of defending the German nation. The political regimes of North America and Europe seem to be moving in a similar direction, ruled by constitutions that are recurrently suspended because the state of the exception, as Walter Benjamin once argued, is no longer the exception but the rule.

“Imperial sovereignty means that no point of space or time and no element of the bio-political tissue is safe from intervention” (Tiqqun, Introduction to Civil War, p. 157). The bio-political tissue of US citizens was never safe from imperial intervention, yet this intervention was at least partly regulated. In the 2007 film The Bourne Ultimatum, a secret CIA program is shut down, and its directors prosecuted, when Jason Bourne revealed that its hit-men had assassinated US citizens without due process. The movie, and its message of accountability for state terror, represents a paradigm of the past. The last obstacle that put limits to the reach of imperial death squads, US citizenship rights, has been declared void. Now the bio-political tissue of every single human being on the planet can be destroyed with impunity through an executive order based on classified evidence.

This de-facto dissolution of the distinction between citizens and non-citizens also means that the very nature of the global geographies under imperial sovereignty is shifting. In extending the reach of the state of exception, imperial formations are also creating globalized political subjects that are equally vulnerable to state terror irrespective of nationality. While imperial violence continues being racialized and directed largely at non-white bodies, we are moving toward a paradigm of sovereignty in which all human bodies on the planet are potential expressions of what Agamben calls “bare life,” bodies that can be killed without breaking the law.

This is a somber reminder that the protesters on Wall Street are challenging not only corporate America but also a state that has fully embraced the regular use of death squads in the name of national security. As we know all too well, in the imperial order of things the difference between non-violent activists and terrorists is often a question of language and labels, as was apparent when Joe Biden argued that Julian Assange is a “high-tech terrorist.” But the official announcement this past Friday that the state of exception has entered a new political phase also confirms what the Occupy Wall Street protesters have been saying all along: that ordinary US citizens have been reduced to a disempowered underclass whose democratic rights are recurrently overrun, and made meaningless, by the hijacking of the political system by corporate power. And that they have been inspired by similar protests in Egypt and Spain reveal that they see themselves as part of a global multitude striving for universal forms of justice. The same way that the state of exception tends to equalize all humans as potential targets irrespective of their citizenship, the protesters on Wall Street are responding in kind and embracing a more universal political subjectivity, embodied in their slogan "We are the 99%."


  1. One of the most glaring problems with the supporters of Occupy Wall Street and its copycat successors is that they suffer from a woefully inadequate understanding of the capitalist social formation — its dynamics, its (spatial) globality, its (temporal) modernity. They equate anti-capitalism with simple anti-Americanism, and ignore the international basis of the capitalist world economy. To some extent, they have even reified its spatial metonym in the NYSE on Wall Street. Capitalism is an inherently global phenomenon; it does not admit of localization to any single nation, city, or financial district.

    Moreover, many of the more moderate protestors hold on to the erroneous belief that capitalism can be “controlled” or “corrected” through Keynesian-administrative measures: steeper taxes on the rich, more bureaucratic regulation and oversight of business practices, broader government social programs (welfare, Social Security), and projects of rebuilding infrastructure to create jobs. Moderate “progressives” dream of a return to the Clinton boom years, or better yet, a Rooseveltian new “New Deal.” All this amounts to petty reformism, which only serves to perpetuate the global capitalist order rather than to overcome it. They fail to see the same thing that the libertarians in the Tea Party are blind to: laissez-faire economics is not essential to capitalism. State-interventionist capitalism is just as capitalist as free-market capitalism.

    Nevertheless, though Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy [insert location here] in general still contains many problematic aspects, it nevertheless presents an opportunity for the Left to engage with some of the nascent anti-capitalist sentiment taking shape there. So far it has been successful in enlisting the support of a number of leftish celebrities, prominent unions, and young activists, and has received a lot of media coverage. Hopefully, the demonstrations will lead to a general radicalization of the participants’ politics, and a commitment to the longer-term project of social emancipation.

    To this end, I have written up a rather pointed Marxist analysis of the OWS movement so far that you might find interesting:

    “Reflections on Occupy Wall Street: What It Represents, Its Prospects, and Its Deficiencies”


  2. Another great essay Gaston (sorry for the missing accent), what a pleasure to read; sharply analytical and depressingly convincing.