I haven’t paid particularly close attention to OWS but one argument constantly resurfacing in debates caught my interest – because I found it strange. The argument appeared in many forms but basically ran like this: the people of OWS are all in general against the same thing, but what they are for, the alternatives they have in mind are so diverse and multiplicitous that their protest can never work. The assumption here is that a protest cannot be successful or effective when the unity of the group is negatively founded (i.e. what we are against); rather, there must be a universal goal that they can all be for. I suspect that this is simply another attempt by secularism to assert its claim-to-be-a-universal and I submit that this is epistemologically violent. (See Daniel Colucciello Barber, “Epistemological Violence, Christianity, and the Secular,” for more on the violence of particulars-that-claim-to-be-universals).
Enter transcendent ideal/hope and the value of particularity (both for renunciation and imagination). “The relevance of a transcendent ideal is sometimes that of the unmasking of idols. There are times when a society is so totally controlled by an ideology that the greatest need is that someone simply identify a point where he can say a clear no in the name of his loyalty to a higher authority. [This is not a Kantian moral authority, in fact, precisely the opposite because Yoder’s transcendent ideal consists in particularity, namely the the hope in Jesus, and not another universalism]. […] The imperative of denunciation of idolatry is not conditioned by our immediate capacity to bring about an alternate world. Many times the nonconformist or the conscientious objector are the ones who discover new and creative social solutions. But the obligation to refuse conformity is independent of the capacity to project better solutions.” The validity of the “no” of OWS is not dependent on the unity of the 99% on a universal alternative. Their unity consists not merely in their resounding “no!” but in their unspoken agreement for engagement, discussion, and imagination both within and with other particularities. The “no!” creates a liminal space in which particularity is made present (rather than somehow homogenized in the “no!”). And the creative resources for social change will therefore be different in Vancouver than in New York City, different in Oakland than in Winnipeg. There is no one OWS “for,” nor should there be. That would be a replication of the same system we already have, the one we are revolting against.
All quotes from: John Howard Yoder, “Christ, the Hope of the World,” in The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical, ed. Michael G. Cartwright (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1998), 205. Emphasis is the author’s own except the bold.