Interview with Nicholas Smaligo | Philosophy | SIU

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Interview with Nicholas Smaligo

Philosophy Doctoral Candidate

How do you think the fact that you are a philosopher affected the way you perceived, experienced, and acted in the movement and—ultimately—wrote the book?

Part of being a philosopher, for me, means critically examining the ideas that are used to justify how our shared life together is ordered. It also means keeping your ear to the ground for those expressions of injustice and suffering that the ideas we have are unable to account for. This is always something that has motivated me. But I really think that my life can be properly divided into pre-occupy and post-occupy, because the Occupy movement was an event that reoriented me personally, and changed my sense of what it means to be a philosopher or even a thinking person in this world. 

When the Occupy movement erupted, I was taking a Plato seminar. After having spent a few days in the occupied Kiener Plaza in St. Louis, I returned to Carbondale to try to get "my life" back in order, catch up on my classes, etc. I remember sitting in my apartment, reading Plato's Republic, and going through the turns of thought on the nature of justice, and it dawned on me: this is what was going on up at the occupation. A space was opened up in which discussions about how the world ought to be were unfolding that felt more authentic than any class I'd ever been in, because they were being held by people that were ready to act together, to put themselves at risk together. I closed the book and got back in my car, feeling a bit like a crazy person, but also feeling like everything I'd been looking for in philosophy was happening in a space where it truly mattered.

As for writing the book, it was a struggle because it is a popular work. This means that some of the more nuanced questions raised by the Occupy movement could not be raised in the kind of detail they might deserve. But it was also helpful to break out of the style of academic writing and really try to make the ideas of Occupy, and my ideas about Occupy, available to an audience that doesn't have any background in philosophy or social movements. The feedback I've received gives me the sense that I managed to do that, and that's what I'm most proud of about the book.

Recent events seem to be further writing the history of the movement. Protesters in the so-called Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong have surprised party leadership in Beijing and Hong Kong by being a well-organized movement that does not answer to any particular party or agenda, sorts its trash for recycling, and apologizes for the inconvenience their occupation is causing fellow citizens. Sound familiar? Are they exercising what you have described as prefigurative politics—or not?

One of the most important lessons I've learned about social movements is that they do not have a linear history. You can't evaluate their impact in a straight line, because their influence turns up in all these unexpected ways and places. They reverberate; they arise to the surface and then they dip beneath everyone's awareness, only to explode again unexpectedly. 

Another important lesson is that how movements look from the "outside," say, how they're portrayed in the mainstream media, is always very different from how they look on the "inside." Often—and we saw this with Occupy—the media is unequipped or unwilling to articulate concerns or demands that fall outside of the media's own sense of what is "reasonable" or "realistic." For example, the Hong Kong protests were continually framed as "pro-democracy" protests, as if all those people in Hong Kong were out in the streets because they wanted a government just like in the United States. It’s possible that some people did want that, but there are always many different aims present. There were many people in the Hong Kong protests talking about the incredible wealth gap they are facing there—the exorbitant wealth of some versus the homelessness and poverty of others. The policies of neoliberalism (of market fundamentalism and globalization) have devastated their society as well as ours, and many young people were giving voice to that. But that narrative was left out.

Even more interesting for me is how activists in Ferguson and St. Louis have picked up tactics and slogans from the Occupy movement in order to articulate how racism persists in the United States today. Some time ago, Ferguson activists set up an occupation on the Saint Louis University campus after a 1500 person strong march led by the parents of Vonderrit Myers, a Black teenager killed by a police officer last month in St. Louis. Before activists decided to declare an occupation, they made sure to say that the problem was not just racism as it has always existed, but also the fact that racism helps maintain the power of the 1%—they actually used that language. So I think Occupy has shifted the thinking of a whole generation, and every year we are seeing new ways in which that thinking is affecting people in their struggle for freedom.

As far as "prefigurative politics" (and this concept is by no means my own invention), it means the attempt to create the kind of social relations that we want within the very process of struggling. So if we want an anti-racist, anti-sexist world, then that means that our organizations or activist crews need to practice anti-racism and anti-sexism throughout our projects. Occupy was an experiment in prefigurative politics because it attempted to publicly demonstrate decision-making structures that might replace those of capitalism and the state. It wasn't perfect, but nothing is. The real significance, for me, lies in the willingness to experiment with such grand ambitions. Most people are living within this terrible fantasy that assures them the political and economic world we have is the only or best one possible. It’s not true, and Occupy woke up a lot of people to that fact.

You have said that you don’t think you’ll be able to incorporate much of the research you did for your book into your dissertation. Why not? In which direction are you next headed? Any regrets?

As I said, the book is a popular work. There are certainly ideas within it that could be turned into a dissertation project. But having written the book, I'd like to move on from talking directly about Occupy and get to work trying to apply some lessons I've learned from it. Some of my current work is looking at the places where radical resistance was generated during the 1960s (the university, urban Black areas, the Draft, the factory, etc.) and examining how these sites were neutralized in the last 40 years. The university has been completely transformed by student debt—it is no longer a place of real learning, but a place of job training for a precarious economy. Urban Black areas have been transformed into police occupation zones, and Black male bodies into raw material for the Prison Industrial Complex. The Draft has been replaced with a mercenary army, and what is effectively a poverty draft. The factories have been outsourced or transformed by robotic production. All these sites where people were becoming radicalized [ . . . .] have all been completely transformed.

But if you look at how these transformations work together, it becomes clear that while the nature of state and economic coercion has changed, it nonetheless persists. When a working class student comes out of high school, what are their options? Factory jobs are gone. A high school grad can get a crappy job with no chance of advancement, or they can go into debt, or they can go into the military. Or they can do things that land them in prison. But no matter what they do, they feel like it is their "choice," and so they don't feel like they have a right to fight back against the system. In fact, the system has just changed the way it coerces people. It has moved from direct authority (someone in a suit telling you what you have to do) to what I'm calling the "authority of the menu." With a menu, you have a choice—but you don't get to choose what the choices are. So those in power get what they want, which is our labor and obedience, but we feel like it is our own fault because we made a choice. 

So I'm interested in trying to develop analyses that make the unfreedom of our time more clear. Our situation is terrible and urgent on so many fronts—the police/surveillance state, the prison industrial complex, the ecological devastation, the endless wars, the poverty and dispossession both within the United States and around the globe caused by transnational corporations. Our governing parties, both Democrats and Republicans, are two faces of the same corporate power. And although a lot of people know all this, the system functions in such a way that lots of people feel like their outrage is illegitimate. It isn't, and we need to make that clear so that this generation can get to work transforming the world—and we need to do it fast. 

On regrets: Occupy introduced me to the fact that there is a whole world within this one, a world of people struggling for justice, rebelling, and using their intellects in ways that are engaged with the actual process of transforming the world from below. The academy is not the place where this kind of thinking and acting tends to be happening—and a lot of academics don't realize this. The university system and the cliques of academic discipline are insular bubbles, too often cut off from the real vitality of thought. That vitality, I'm now convinced, comes not from mere reflection on the world, but from the process of trying to change it. My only regret is that it took me so long to realize this. The book is my reckoning with all that.

Nicholas Smaligo was interviewed by L. A. Brown.