Epistemology of Dissent
Marta Bashovski is an assistant professor of Political Theory at Campion College at the University of Regina, Canada. She teaches courses in the history of political thought, contemporary political theory and the politics of knowledge. She likes questioning assumptions.
Understanding Occupy Wall Street
On September 17, 2011, a group of people calling themselves “Occupy Wall Street” gathered in Zuccotti Park, in Manhattan’s Financial District. They had arrived to protest growing economic inequality after the 2008 Financial Crisis, an event caused by predatory lending and excessive financial risk-taking by bankers, which had led millions of people to lose their homes and jobs. The group intended to stay in the park indefinitely. By the end of 2011, Occupy Wall Street had spread to 951 cities in 82 countries—with 600 encampments in the United States alone—and had transformed into the broader Occupy movement (Wikipedia, 2021).
While the Occupy movement was driven by many slogans, the most well-known was We are the 99%, a slogan intended to distinguish the vast majority of people from those holding disproportionate wealth and power—that is, the ‘one percent’. Hundreds of thousands of images of people holding signs telling their stories of economic struggle and ending with the phrase “I am the 99%” circulated online. Their stories described living on tiny incomes and with massive debt, working multiple jobs to support families, unable to plan for the future.
The encampments in Zuccotti Park and in other cities started food distribution centers, libraries, and teach-ins, featuring well known activists and academics. The Occupy movement was leaderless and organized in ways that looked different from other protests and revolutionary movements. Each encampment operated on a consensus politics model, where decisions for the functioning of the group had to be agreed upon by everyone and using a specific process.
Because of its leaderlessness and organizational structure, the Occupy movement appeared distinct from other recent protest movements, like the 2002–03 movements against the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the 1990s movements to disrupt and shut down meetings of intergovernmental economic organizations like the World Trade Organization, the G7, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. These earlier movements had specific aims and goals—they were against war, and against the economic consequences of neoliberal globalization. Activists wanted to influence authorities to take specific actions. By contrast, Occupy Wall Street had no particular set of demands or goals to start with. They simply declared their opposition to economic inequality. The initial call to gather in Zuccotti Park, made by the Canadian anti-consumer magazine Adbusters in July 2011, simply stated that the aim was to “make a better America.” Adbusters also called on people to articulate—together—“an uncomplicated demand” (Adbusters, 2011).
Because Occupy Wall Street refused to make specific demands, had no central leadership structure, and did not address a particular political authority, the media and politicians did not know how to describe the movement. Even though most media coverage did not criticize the Occupy movement’s claims about growing economic inequality, many journalists argued that the Occupy encampments were not revolutionary movements because they did not have a specific program or plan of action. The New York Times, describing the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park, wrote that that the movement’s cause was “virtually impossible to decipher,” with demands “for nothing in particular to happen right away” (Bellafante, 2011). Many journalists, like those writing for the Los Angeles Times, discussed a growing call—from politicians and the public—for supporters of the Occupy movement to articulate “specific tangible goals,” “specific demands,” or “a message” (Susman, 2011). At the same time, reporters admitted that “the very nature of Occupy Wall Street has made [the] task [of making demands] difficult” (Grossman, 2011).
Occupy supporters argued that the broad, leaderless structure of the movement, expressing discontent with economic inequality, was itself the message. The fact that Occupy operated by creating encampments that occupied public space, included their own political structure, and offered food, healthcare supplies, and libraries, was key to the movement. Some activists within the Occupy movement also refused to make demands because they didn’t want the movement to specialize or splinter. They preferred to remain the 99%, rather than “become a political party” (Grossman, 2011). In other words, participants in the Occupy movement did not want to mimic or join existing forms of political activity, like political parties. Instead, it was important to them that their activities in the encampments model the politics they believed in.
Journalists and politicians struggled to understand the Occupy movement because the forms of political activity Occupy participants engaged in were unfamiliar. They did not fit the categories usually used to describe social movements and protests—categories associated with making demands of political authorities, having a political agenda and a defined leadership, and seeking specific reforms or revolutionary change. Put another way, the language or concepts needed to understand Occupy did not exist in the lexicon about social movements. Occupy was therefore outside of the epistemology—the ways by which we know a thing—of social movements.
The Occupy movement presented an epistemological challenge because it was of a different kind than those that came before. It challenged the epistemology of dissent—those concepts, categories, and languages through which we understand how people oppose or resist existing political authority. As the Occupy movement shows, new languages and concepts are always being articulated through political action, so the epistemology of dissent is also always changing.
What are epistemologies? How does the concept “epistemology of dissent” help us to better understand how we experience the appearance of new kinds of protest or resistance to political authority?
How would you explain the term “epistemology of dissent” to someone else?
The example of the Occupy movement was used to describe a case in which an event did not match the form it was ‘supposed’ to take, which made it difficult to understand. Can you think of another example in which something like this happened?
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