In a recent Rolling Stone article, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the OWS Protests,” Matt Taibbi offers a revised estimate of Occupy Wall Street, now in its third month. He argues that contrary to those on the right and left who want Occupiers to find a message and stick to it, OWS is on the right path without a precise message: What Taibbi now realizes is that the Occupations provide “a forum for people to show how tired they are not just of Wall Street, but everything… People don’t know exactly what they want, but … they know one thing: FUCK THIS SHIT! We want something different: a different life, with different values, or at least a chance at different values.” Now, he argues, “I get it. People want to go someplace for at least five minutes where no one is trying to bleed you or sell you something. It may not be a real model for anything, but it’s at least a place where people are free to dream of some other way for human beings to get along, beyond auctioned ‘democracy,’ tyrannical commerce and the bottom line.”
Taibbi gets it half right. Occupations’ refusal to agree on a single movement message is not simply a negative national and global “FUCK THIS SHIT!”—though it certainly is that. Their collective denial of the punditocracy’s demand for a coordinated central message is at the same time a positive embrace of something Taibbi vaguely references at the outset of his piece without analyzing. Referring to the Occupation’s “energy” and its “obvious organic appeal,” Taibbi captions as an ancillary effect something participants have embraced as the central affect of the Occupy Movement: its production of public happiness. In this precise sense, time at your local Occupation is not just a way to take the drive through and flip the bird. More effectively, it’s a way to begin reclaiming democracy for the citizenry, by participating in the project of local Occupation self-governance. Because the Occupy movement prioritizes the power produced locally and face-to-face by Occupation decision-making general assemblies, they have prioritized public happiness—the production of political power among local actors through consensus decision-making—over a more conventionally strategic message for corporate-controlled media and “democracy.”
Public happiness has a proud if occluded history in the annals of US democracy. Enshrined in Jefferson’s resonant phrasing in the nation’s Declaration of Independence, the “inalienable right” of all to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” have long been scanned—incorrectly—as Jefferson’s rhetorically elegant revision of Lock’s formula for the role of government to secure life, liberty and property. In this reading, Jefferson manages to instill property—a dead thing—with the loft of spiritual value. Thanks to Jefferson’s rhetorical elegance, its pursuit is both what confirms individual “liberty” and makes America strong.
This, as many have argued (to little notice and less effect) profoundly misunderstands Jefferson. More careful scholars have called attention to how Jefferson’s phrasing invoked a “Greek and Roman philosophical tradition in which happiness is bound up with the civic virtues of courage, moderation, and justice.” As historian Carol V. Hamilton summarizes her point, these “are civic virtues, not just personal attributes.” Along similar lines and in far greater detail, historian Garry Wills, in his monumental study of the Declaration, Inventing America, has analyzed the intellectual and philosophical bases for understanding Jefferson’s phrase: as a “scientific basis for measuring distributable quanta of public happiness,” a moral concept grounded in Frances Hutcheson’s philosophy of benevolence, “a political concept making for predictable laws of human behavior” and as “a sentimental basis for human life” (386).
Somewhat more surgically, Hannah Arendt parses Jefferson’s enigmatic phrase by turning to Jefferson himself, noticing that he had raised the concept just two years earlier in a 1774 essay: “Our ancestors… possessed a right, which nature has given to all men, of departing from the country in which chance, not choice, has placed them, of going in quest of new habitations, and of there establishing new societies, under such laws and regulations as, to them, shall seem most likely to promote public happiness” (Thomas Jefferson: Rights of British America, 1774. ME 1:185, Papers 1:121) Hannah Arendt pursues the importance of this quickly-forgotten (and frequently re-forgotten) concept:
If Jefferson was right … they must have been prompted even then by some sort of dissatisfaction with the rights and liberties of Englishmen, prompted by a desire for some kind of freedom which the ‘free inhabitants’ of the mother country did not enjoy. This freedom, they called it later, when they had come to taste it, ‘public happiness,’ and it consisted in the citizen’s right of access to the public realm, in his share in public power—to be ‘a participator in government affairs’ in Jefferson’s telling phrase … The very fact that the word ‘happiness’ was chosen in laying claim to a share in public power indicates strongly that there existed in the country, prior to the revolution, such a thing as ‘public happiness,’ and that men knew they could not be altogether ‘happy’ if their happiness was located and enjoyed only in private life. (127)
At Occupations across the US and the world, people are experiencing their right of access to the public realm, their right “to be a participator in public affairs”—in the public that Occupations are making together. As such, they are retaking democratic participation for the people, and the “happiness” they discover in this process is a positive good, one that rejects not just the privatization of US politics but of life and value more generally.
In this sense, the message that Taibbi summarizes—FUCK THIS SHIT!—echoes the revolutionary idealism of American colonists. From the forms of public deliberation, assembly and action and that drove citizens to take on England, they learned from and seized upon the public and collective “happiness” of citizen democracy as a graspable alternative to the power of empire. OWS, contra Taibbi, is indeed a model: for democratic revolution. And so for those participating in Occupations across the US and the world, the more central message is the medium: a decision-making process that offers not just a “dream” but routine access to citizen power; to a collective, public self-determination that speaks back to the uneven distribution of private, individual fulfillment offered by corporate power; to the creation of laws that apply to rich and poor alike; to a process of self-government that won’t settle for a “happiness” that benefits merely the 1%, but insists on the good of all.