Depression and OWS

I am, of course, supportive of the Occupy Wall Street sit-ins. I have had issues relating to some of it, mostly to do with my pre-existing distrust of anarchist style political organization and seeing how little it gets done while protecting the beautiful souls of the leaders who deny their leadership. As Adam has said I think it is very silly to pretend that I, or any of us, know what the hell we are doing (though Adam said it, I am sure, much more eloquently). But this is what has depressed me so much about these sit-ins. First, I think we need to get some assumptions out of the way. I don’t think this is a revolution. It’s a clearly political act, but revolutions, at least real ones that don’t just sink into a form of liberalism, are radical breaks. It seems that they involve violence necessarily. And not the kind of low-scale violence that comes from clashes with police. Revolutions actually involve taking power from those who already hold it (and this, by the way, is why I don’t think Egypt, now under a form of dual power between parliament and the military, has yet been a revolution). But, and this is the second point, just because this is a revolution doesn’t mean it isn’t inspiring or worthwhile in a number of ways. That “revolution or bust” mentality is not the root of my depression and I think it’s at least as puerile, if not more, as the anarchist techniques that bother me about the groups running OWS. So in a very popular post I suggested that if we were not hate the poor we had to refuse to hold one opinion regarding the English riots. I think that holds true in the case of OWS and what follows is more of a confession, perhaps entirely too personal, than it is a work of political criticism.

Something about this whole thing has me depressed. I’ll leave out the worries I have over the nefarious libertarian influence of the many participants with their “End the Fed” buttons. Or the all too predictable progression of what’s happening in London. Or even the fact that I’m fairly confident that all the big city mayors in the US are just waiting until the first snowfall when these sit-ins will inevitably break up. For me the truly depressing thing has nothing to do with those participating in the events, many of whom I think are probably experiencing something new and ecstatic. A kind of political joy that comes from thinking about things and talking with people and, yes, having the threat of some physical violence for doing these things (the cultural nihilism of neoliberalism has made masochism a symptom of political awakening). Every time I read or hear something optimistic about these sit-ins I’ve been struck by the yellow note of melancholia. The phrase “borrowed time” always seems to hit me. For, it seems that even if these were to bring about some kind of change, it would be too late.

I recently, out of a profound sense of boredom, started mocking a friend’s friend on Facebook. This friend of a friend seemed like he modelled his identity on a liberal straw man. For him life was all about making money and reducing all of the world’s qualities to what could be bought and sold. His kind is legion. It was his snide dismissal of everything that wasn’t constrained within the frame of neoliberalism that really got to me. Not got to me in the sense that it touched a nerve, but got to me in the sense that it triggered, like Orwell’s yellow note, this bout of melancholia. These people, who are neither optimists nor pessimists, and who have even sublimated apathy, strike me as the true political majority.

It sometimes seems to me, in these bouts of melancholia, that the only answer is to shut it all down. Tiqquin, who also sometimes get on my nerves, have a funny remark in one of their pamphlets: “I’m not depressed, I’m on strike.” Their whole notion of the human strike is surely in earnest, but it’s also profoundly funny in the same way that Louis CK is profoundly funny. They both look into the darkness and can’t bring themselves to end it. Probably because of their kids. And so they can only make jokes in order to push off the darkness a bit longer. And so the human strike, shutting it all down, doesn’t that refer to stopping the whole anthropological machine and doesn’t that mean stopping humanity? If only a planet would smash into us from behind the sun then it wouldn’t be our fault! Because either way we are on borrowed time. The biosphere is fucked and, in my moments of panic, I’m pretty sure we reached the point of no return some time back. But, I don’t see too many people pissed off about that, there has been in the last few years a resignation to the environmental catastrophe. But worse than that resignation is the fact that I have no idea what to do about it, no idea how to theorise it, and neither, it seems, does anyone else. And I’m pretty sure we’re not going to get there by consensus.

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37 Responses to “Depression and OWS”

  1. Bruce Says:

    Why is it that we crave human continuance so much? Why is it so terrible if humans just fade away? We are not that great and we are certainly not that happy. It is certainly because of the children, but we use children to prop up our own fading hopes and dreams – just like in former times we used them for our economic purposes.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’ve never seriously considered going to the Chicago demonstrations, just as I never considered goin to any of the Iraq War protests even though I felt viscerally angry about that series of events, much moreso than was the case with the financial crisis. My reason has always basically been that I have shit to do, and I don’t want to waste my time in jail, or in the hospital from being beaten up, or whatever else.

    Whenever I picture the possibility of actually attending, though, a greater truth squeaks through: the feeling I have as I sheepishly join in the protest is the same thing I used to feel as all my friends in youth group responded to an altar call. It never felt right to me to go down — certainly I was never going to be the one who went down there first — but it also felt wrong to me to stay, like I was cold-hearted or something. Look at all these people, who take it seriously, who really feel it, who are doing something about it! Why can I never be like that? And when I would sheepishly go up, it just reinforced my sense that I could never be like that. I could never feel it directly, could never get the spontenaity that was (paradoxically) demanded of me.

    I couldn’t bring myself to participate wholeheartedly, but I also couldn’t bring myself to say it was all useless bullshit. I wanted it to be meaningful, because then at least there would be something. But because I was lukewarm, I spit myself out of my mouth.

  3. Thomas J Bridges Says:

    “These people, who are neither optimists nor pessimists, and who have even sublimated apathy, strike me as the true political majority.” I agree completely with this statement; my experience confirms it. And because of the disposition of my personality (my “ontological Irishness”…just kidding) I just get angry instead of depressed.

    (P.S. I love the Louis CK reference!)

  4. Brad Johnson Says:

    Anthony, your parenthetical “(the cultural nihilism of neoliberalism has made machoism a symptom of political awakening)” — that’s a great line. I at first thought it was a typo for “masochism” though. Which could possibly work as well.

  5. Troy Says:

    Very helpful, I can’t help but think of the many biographer’s comments on Marx’s similar disposition at times after the 48ers failed. All it needs is the complementary Engels.

  6. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I was auto corrected there. Strange. But both seem to hold true.

  7. michael carrig Says:

    Whether a melancholic, a protester or a capitalist, all are describing this in such ahistorical and materialist terms. The truth of this situation was the same when everyone was quite complacent with our economy. The protesters represent middle-class self-consciousness at the present, but could acquire a redemptive valence if only they moved from generality to concrete critique. This is of equal importance to we commentators, as existential commentary reflects the generality of anarchist politics. It is self-affirmative at core and doesn’t even have the diagnostic machinery to call itself nihilism proper.

    *i apologize this is written fron a phone

  8. dbarber Says:

    I understand the skepticism, but there is something really powerful in the developments around OWS. Without waxing too poetic about TAZs and that sort of thing, it is a real achievement to claim a space, to defend it, and more importantly to speak within it. I think this is the really striking thing, the ability to express desires and affects that are not allowed in public. My experiences and thoughts in this regard probably deserve a post of their own, but bluntly put what we’re seeing are experiments driven by self-valorization. This, to me, is incredibly exciting.

  9. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I think people are confusing what I’m saying here with some kind of negative feelings towards what is happening. Someone on twitter even claimed that this was just me being a liberal. Which in that context is sort of like calling my a doodiehead. I’m fully in support of all of it, just struck by a feeling of intense hopelessness in terms of the long term political prospects. Maybe it’s good enough to have a moment though.

  10. Paul Reid-Bowen Says:

    “either way we are on borrowed time. The biosphere is fucked and, in my moments of panic, I’m pretty sure we reached the point of no return some time back. But, I don’t see too many people pissed off about that, there has been in the last few years a resignation to the environmental catastrophe. But worse than that resignation is the fact that I have no idea what to do about it, no idea how to theorise it, and neither, it seems, does anyone else. And I’m pretty sure we’re not going to get there by consensus.”
    Thanks for this, and well put. I don’t have much to say except that you seem to have encapsulated how I have felt for some time. I similarly have a positive attitude towards the OWS and similar socio-political and economic protests, while also having the “borrowed time” and “point of no return” refrains running through my mind most of the time. The best I can seem to muster is Camusian defiance in the face of the absurdity, or perhaps what Clive Hamilton has called ‘active fatalism’ in the face of acting too late. But yeah, no good idea what to do, or how to theorise it, only enough energy to keep trying (and as you note, that may, in part, be becasue I have kids).
    I stumbled over the machoism and masochism too. Both seem to work.

  11. Trevor Jones Says:

    I would recommend Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s “The Soul at Work” for a much better idea of the exchange between affective exhaustion and the conditions/potential for insurrection (not ‘revolution’). It seems to me you are saying ‘depression’ is some sort of historical substrate at the moment, and at best the current moment is some sort of ephemeral breath-of-fresh-air. The reverse is rather the truth: insurrection is the way to avoid suicide.

    The neurotic dancing around some perceived futility of ‘voluntarism’ is because you are translating everything through some sort of Leninist dinosaur understanding of how resistance ignites, grows and divides. Might I recommend you read some Alfredo Bonanno, and get back to me about ‘beautiful soul’ syndrome in anarchist thought. At least in the UK we have SWP fellow travelers like Nina Power who are politically engaged enough and can step outside the inertia and drag of residual electoralism and liberal thought remaining in ‘radical’ academia. This is American privilege at its best: pessimism as vamping on a sophomoric pseudoprofundity that thinks it transcends the real material needs of working people and the world’ poor.

    Some of us are resolute without optimism because we in the thick of the shitstorm. You, apparently, are not, but you will be soon. But hey, be sure to keep writing about ‘melancholia’, because it doesn’t feel completely out of touch and churlish after Bouazizi and Grigoropoulos.*


  12. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Wow. Trevor really takes a stand here! What against, I have no idea, since I’m clearly in support of what’s happening and offer no political critique at all in the post. Did you miss the part where I said this is more of a confession than anything else? Or did you just think that it would help bolster your resoluteness to attack someone on your side?

    But way to stand up against me and American privilege. It’s true though, I certainly am privileged to have some $60,000 worth of debt already coupled with no access to health care, a completely precarious job, and crumbling infrastructure. It’s very important that we Americans understand we’re not in the shit, like you are in the UK. Where I lived for five years. And where I met my friend Nina (who is fearless and doing important work – again nothing I’ve said here denigrates any of that! – but would probably at least have some fucking empathy for a friend’s depression). Thanks so much for educating me.

    I won’t put an asterisk because I assume you’re not a moron. Which, if it were a shared sentiment, might be the basis for having an actual conversation. Though setting aside the annoying English stereotypes about what America is would also be a good starting point. Shit is bad here and unbelievably hard.

  13. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    And seriously, when did it suddenly become a requirement to suppress any negativity for one to participate in left-wing politics? That seems to be precisely the kind of affective labor that is so reprehensible about the current regime of work. But, yeah, totally, I’m a dick for writing on my blog that, even though I’m in support of all this, I’m a bit depressed about the future.

  14. Alex Says:

    Ha, moreover, pretty funny recommending autonomist Marxist readings to this blog, considering Dan and APS have actually published on Negri, and it is a consistent interest of all participants here. Also funny to recommend Bonanno who is in the same insurrectionist current as Tiqqun – who are mentioned in the post! Maybe read for wider context next time?

  15. Trevor Jones Says:

    I simply assume you are not “in the storm” yet because apparently you can afford this modicum of depression. I’m trying to say, please get over it, because I expect better of this blog and its thinkers, and ultimately its an old conversation that frustratingly keeps appearing. Its a symptom of the lightning not yet having flashed behind the mountain.

    p.s. Am not actually in the UK, did not mean to convey that.

  16. dbarber Says:

    Anthony, didn’t mean to impute a position of opposition to ows on your part, apologies if it came off that way. I suppose my point was just that, in terms of affect, what i find really powerful in ows is the valorization of a desire that would not have to be interpellated by all of that for which we have reason to be depressed. Which to be clear is not to say “depression is wrong” — in fact i believe Bifo, in the Soul book, calls for “an idea of depression that would not be depressing.” I did, though, want to mark that I think depression, rather than being something that remains in the wake of ows, is actually what ops is taking as its object of antagonism.

  17. dbarber Says:

    that last “ops” should be “ows” — btw, the bifo quote is on p.134 of that text, and actually says “awareness” not “idea”

  18. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    What’s to afford? Was Benjamin not in the storm because he was depressed? I don’t think we have a unified idea of protest here. Adam has always been less inclined to join in than I have. I think we are united in the fact that neither of us uses these differences to attack the other. I don’t really see what the point of that would be.

  19. Craig McFarlane Says:

    My most material contribution to the Occupy movement was to give a journalism student an extension on an assignment; she was going to Toronto to interview Occupiers for a reporting assignment (or something). In my first year class, we talked a bit about Sahlin’s Stone Age Economics and the idea of the “affluent society.” I was surprised when a student said something like, “that sounds like the 1% thing.” Admittedly, I was pushing them to come to that conclusion, but it was nice that at least one of them came to the proper conclusion and shared it with the class. Unfortunately, it didn’t last: they wanted to talk about hoarding and why hoarders are crazy.

    Given my tendency to confront cops, I guess that the probability of me ending up in jail or broken is quite high. As a general rule, I’m not particularly interested in being arrested or smashed to shit–I’ve got bills to pay because I’m part of the 99%!

  20. Michael Says:

    @ Trevor — More archaic than the critique of “volunteerism” is the paranoid “you’re with me or you’re privileged” position. Many of the participants in this movement are “privileged” in any sense of the word. The rhetoric has become more a critique of capitalist ideology or the present economic problem, than of sustained poverty, which has been apparent for some time. Any soup kitchen, unemployment line or drug facility is a permanent protest, ‘occupation’, which attests to the falsehood of our current system. But unless the movement gains some traction outside of its natural identitarian divides, it will remain a repetition of ’68 politics and ’68 methods. I have gone to OccupyChicago, and watched many videos of OccupyNYC, and it is amazing that you can keep up your fear mongering rhetoric. I watched all the students coming from the suburbs to protest on Saturday evening, when no one is working, only to go back during the week.

    I think the problem is in equating capital with democracy. We need to demand better tax laws, better oversight of corporation as well as better oversight of government contributions, etc. But this has to be done through organization, thinking and finite understanding of the law. Not the ‘transformation of spaces’ or through anarchist antipolitics ‘in the thick of the shit’. Intellectuals always fall along these silly lines; they either have this intellectual practicism or an existential crisis over why they cannot bring themselves to participate. This has become a conversation over the crisis of the participants and the crisis of the onlookers. It should be about those who are yet involved and should be.

  21. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It probably helps that my reluctance to become involved is more dispositional than conceptual.

  22. adswithoutproducts Says:


    Given my tendency to confront cops, I guess that the probability of me ending up in jail or broken is quite high. As a general rule, I’m not particularly interested in being arrested or smashed to shit–I’ve got bills to pay because I’m part of the 99%

    I used to say this sort of thing all the time. With all due respect – seriously! – it’s not a good excuse. You can manage. I do. The gravity of events and not wanting to be an incredible asshole usually sorts you out pretty quickly, from experience. I always thought I’d be tempted to go a bit wrong; I’m really not in practice.

    APS –

    It’s strange, this attitude that goes “This is confessional – how do you dare critique the opinions expressed therein?” Again – with honest intention – is this some sort of residual “what’s said in the box, stays in the box” attitude, however down the line of Xtian progression you come into the game?

    If not, perhaps it’s not the right moment for that sort of confession. I’m not sure that self-reflexive stuff like this is necessarily “on our side” at this point.

  23. beatrice Says:

    anthony… i do agree that the sense of melancholy is important. the action, the manifestation, the noise and the spectacle of the protests are all incredibly significant. and there’s a kind of hopefulness – maybe a sense of revival, new energy, the forces of change – that comes with all of it. which is excellent. but for all of the people whose spirits are lifting, there’s at least one person sitting at home with a stack of noxious medical bills that she can’t figure out how to pay, or waiting to get a call about that job that she’s been waiting on for months and months and months and months. and she’s not feeling hopeful. if we forget about the struggles and vulnerabilities of those people, we’re forgetting about whatever’s given momentum to this movement of protest in the first place. i think the melancholy might just be a kind of shadow, or a ghost.

  24. bzfgt Says:

    Adswithoutproducts–your post basically boils down to “shut up and get arrested.” That is disgusting. I don’t want to be part of any movement that doesn’t allow self-doubt, depression, and apathy to be expressed. Fuck off.

  25. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    You know the worst part of doing anything intellectually with the study of religion is that every asshole thinks they know you. So, no, Michael Sayeau, this doesn’t arise out of some “Christian progression”. And people are free to critique what I’m saying here, but no one has. They’ve just called me a liberal. Or said that I was expressing American privilege. Or doing what you do best, being vaguely menacing (do I smell some cultural revolution there?). Seriously, the only useful remarks that are in some sense critical have come from dbarber. I mean, even in your remark you don’t say why it isn’t the right moment for self-reflection. Isn’t there a strange assumption behind that kind of rhetoric? One that ascribes more influence to this humble blog than we actually have? Isn’t this the same problem with thinking that everyone has to become a protester for a movement to work, forcing people who just would never be good at that sort of thing, to do it anyway? Now that is probably part of some Christian progression! So, no thank you.

  26. adswithoutproducts Says:

    bzfgt –

    You’ve misunderstood – I didn’t put it clearly enough. I meant that it’s pretty easy – even for those who tell ourselves that we inevitably will – not to get arrested. That it’s a pretty lame excuse – “I’m the sort of person who will inevitably fuck with a cop, so I’d better not go down.” I’ve used it myself in the past; it is incoherent. In other words, if way more mildly than that, I’m saying rather, “Shut up – you probably won’t get arrested.” (“Shut up” is way too strong, but just to borrow from you….)

    APS -

    Jesus, whatever… I guess I’m not sure that calling something “confessional” takes it out of the realm of critique as smoothly as you do. But perhaps it’s better that we don’t talk.

  27. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I am certain that saying its confessional does not take it outside the realm of criticism. Just no one bad offered any. By all means to not post here again though.

  28. Andrew Says:

    I swear I’m not just trying to plug my new blog here, but I made a post yesterday (not sure it was before or after yours) about feeling sad about the whole OWS, based on my experience in the Seattle WTO protests. I think we may have similar reaction, Adam. I even used the word ‘melancholy’.

    Here it is, if you are interested:

  29. bzfgt Says:

    Shit, sorry about that part, but I’m still creeped out by the “on our side” stuff (even if it is in quotes).

  30. adswithoutproducts Says:

    Twas quoting APS: “Or did you just think that it would help bolster your resoluteness to attack someone on your side?”

  31. Ross Wolfe Says:

    Occupy Wall Street has so far 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. The protestors have successfully stood their ground against Bloomberg’s attempt to evict them.

    But this victory can by no means considered final. Rather, it tasks us with the question: “Where do we go from here?”

    If this successful moment of resistance against the coercion of the State is to signal a turning-point for this movement, it must now address the more serious political problems that confront it. It is crucial that the participants in these demonstrations ask themselves where they stand in history, and more adequately conceptualize the problem of capitalist society. This requires thorough reflection and unsentimental self-criticism.

    One of the most glaring problems with the supporters of Occupy Wall Street and the “occupations” in other cities 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.

    Another problem pervasive amongst OWS demonstrators is a general lack of historical consciousness. Not only are they almost completely unaware of past revolutionary movements, but their thinking has become so enslaved to the conditions of the present that they can no longer imagine a society fundamentally different from our own. Instead of liberation and emancipation, all they offer is the vague notion of “resistance” or “subversion.”

    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.

    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. To this point, most of the protests have only expressed a sort of intuitive discontent with the status quo. In order to get a better sense of what they are up against, they must develop a more adequate understanding of the prevailing social order. 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

    Sorry for the overlong post.

  32. dbarber Says:

    Ross, I’m having fun imagining your comment being passed along via human mic’s.

  33. Here, I want to tell my friend, is the crucial distinction, between depression & melancholy « Departure Delayed Says:

    [...] a dear friend of mine has written a contentiously confessional post detailing his conflicted feelings about the current Occupy Wall Street protests filling the streets [...]

  34. Jake Says:

    On the question of theorizing the failure to do anything about the looming ecological catastrophe, I think the place to look is the way the experience of neoliberalism shapes consciousness. With the expansion of market forces, the realm of the social – over which we could have conscious control – seems to shrink, while that of the seemingly natural “laws” of the economy takes its place. The effect on one part of the population, having embraced this as an ideology, is to simply reject the necessity of any collective project at all (the rejection of scientific authority that goes along with this I find harder to explain). Most of the rest of the population might wish something could be done, but sees that collective projects are actually impossible and either despairs or decides to stop thinking about it.

    I tried to give a general explanation of the phenomenon here, and there were a number of responses from my fellows on the blog. It’s a very preliminary attempt at theorizing the problem, but I think it’s a good place to start.

    If you’re looking for hope, then, one path out of the crisis of neoliberalism (probably the best one we can try to win) could be a new social regime similar in some ways to Fordism, which seems to have had a much more robust capacity for the kind of collective projects that would be needed to deal with the climate crisis. The fact that neoliberalism is in crisis and that something different must come out of it opens up new possibilities. The problem then becomes figuring out how to take advantage of that instead of getting something worse out of it.

  35. Ross Wolfe Says:

    dbarber: After the adjourning of the General Assembly this last Thursday, a young hispanic guy (who was drunk/drugged out of his mind) was successful in hijacking the “soapbox” session, using the “human megaphone” to get a huge number of people to repeat after him: “Suck my dick!”

    They actually repeated him. I’m not kidding.

    This, apparently, was what democracy looks like.

  36. Ross Wolfe Says:

    Oh yes, and to Anthony Paul Smith, I completely agree with your dissatisfaction with the rigidly non-hierarchical organizational “horizontality.” Having attended three excruciating, mind-numbing sessions of the General Assembly now, I can personally attest to the “tyranny of structurelessness” described by the feminist Jo Freeman back in an article she wrote in 1970 on the women’s liberation movement: “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” (1970)

  37. Ross Wolfe Says:

    “Those who repeat the general, meaningless, non-committal, goody-goody desires of pacifism are not really working for a democratic peace. Only he is working for such a peace who exposes the imperialist nature of the present war and of the imperialist peace that is being prepared and calls upon the peoples to rise in revolt against the criminal governments.” — Lenin, 1917

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