Abolish Writers: On Pseudo-Celebrity and Occupy

Bhaskar Sunkara

A piece has been making the rounds on the internet this morning and I can’t help but comment because it centers on Malcolm Harris, a former writer for my magazine, Jacobin.

Mark Ames’ polemic, Malcolm Harris and the Occupy Swindle,” fingers Harris as an exemplar of the commodification of Occupy Wall Street and the half-baked grad school anarchism” to which some in the movement adhered. It’s the kind of takedown Ames does well, but he fails to see the bigger picture here.

To Ames, the damning piece of evidence is a letter, sent on Harris’ behalf, to someone affiliated with Occupy Redlands (and later posted to a public Occupy Redlands forum).

Much of the anger stirred up by Ames’ piece seems to be rooted in the fact that the e-mail was pitched to an Occupy group, but nevertheless quoted a sizeable speaking fee.

There was a certain culture around Occupy that put the movement on sacred ground. Efforts by individuals to personally benefit from the self-consciously non-hierarchical movement were admonished. In keeping with this spirit, none of the editors of the Verso/​N+1 collection or any of the similar ones that emerged from left-wing presses received any compensation. Tidal, the Occupy Gazette, and the Occupied Chicago Tribune remain completely volunteer-run efforts, as well. I don’t share some activists’ pious disdain for the messiness of operating in the real world. Even insurrectionists who explicitly reject working within the system have to rely on it to eat, after all. But in the context of Occupy, those tendencies were justified.

It pained me to see aging mediocrities like Todd Gitlin who were hardly even observers of the protests cash in through lucrative book deals, while others worked tirelessly sustaining the movement.

But the story here is more complex than Ames’ essay and the attached letter would suggest. Harris isn’t in it for the money — he produced plenty of work for free, including the Jacobin post cited, was active in the movement and has a rather insane and odious, but pretty explicitly political agenda.

I simply cannot imagine a scenario where he would take money from an Occupy group.

The agent in question also happened to be Harris’ editor at the New Inquiry, who worked for the college market at The Lavin Agency at the time of the letter’s writing and denies Harris’ involvement in what she claims to be an industry-standard pitching process. There’s no evidence that Harris was under contract, requested the solicitation, or received any money for speaking on Occupy. His most prominent speaking appearance was probably at a debate I hosted last October and not only did he do that for no pay, all the proceeds were donated to OWS.

As for the agent, she was merely doing her job, which involves pitching Harris as one of hundreds of potential speakers to dozens of outlets. There is no scandal there — perhaps just miscommunication.

But there is still something to this story beyond tabloid drama and the clash of personalities.

Though he recognizes Harris’ self-aggrandizing behavior as destructive, what Ames misses is that the real story here isn’t about money, but rather the creation of pseudo-celebrity personas around Occupy and the use of social media capital in ways that aren’t often productive or compatible with collective struggle.

It’s a, let’s say petty bourgeois,” tendency that commentators are all guilty of to varying degrees, myself included. Writing, after all, is an isolating, alienating thing. A writer without personality, without voice, without the impulsive need to provoke, is not someone worth reading. More important than money for mere sustenance, writers making public interventions compete with each other, mediated through personas constructed for attention with varying degrees of honesty. Ames’ Conquest of Cool-esque argument, which focuses on selling out” for monetary gain, seems to skim over these wider motivations.

Yet being an effective cadre of a political struggle should bring out traits diametrically opposed to the (gendered and distinctly male) construct of the writer that I describe. This isn’t necessarily a problem for those who merely report, and report effectively, broadcasting information to the general public. But Harris, through his infamous Radiohead prank and other such actions, assigns himself an individual agency unbound to any collective will.

We simply need movements strong enough and commentators committed enough to subordinate their egos to the altar of mass struggle.

The long-term solution is clear. Abolish writers.

Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @sunraysunray.
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