Ghost Stories

Transcript of a talk I gave December 10th, 2011, as part of an Occupy event entitled “Economics Justice, Economic Resistance.”


I want to begin with two stories from the first weeks of the Occupy protests in New York City.

Think first of CNN’s Erin Burnett, who, in her segment “Seriously?!”, which covered Occupy Wall Street at Zuccotti Park downtown, asked the question, “What are they protesting?” What did she decide? That “nobody seems to know.”

Or, to use our favorite whipping boy, Fox News, look to the outtakes from their show “On the Record.” The Occupy interviewee, dogged with the question of how he wants the protests to “end,” artfully finds ways to refuse the question. His response? “As far as seeing it end, I wouldn’t like to see it end. I would like to see the conversation to continue.”

By now, I’m sure we have each come up with our own way to respond to this feigned ignorance. Some try to add to the seemingly endless list of demands. Others gesture to the Trotskyite desire for a permanent revolution. Even others try to simplify things down to a few key points.


Today, I would like to propose something much more profound:

We need to learn how to tell ghost stories.

Consider a conspicuous absence in labor history of Black workers in Jim Crow South. At first blush, it seems justified: there is a surprising lack of historical accounts of Black economic resistance “at the point of production” – ie: collective organization of Black workers within a formal structure like a union. But when we look closer, there was a whole network of collective resistance that intentionally avoided the strategies of outspoken, formal organizations preferred by white workers at the time.

Let’s look to the words of a frustrated employer remarking on the “servant problem” in the South

the washerwomen…badly damaged clothes they work on, iron-rusting them, tearing them, breaking off buttons, and burning them brown; and as for starch! — Colored cooks, too, generally abuse stoves, suffering them to get clogged with soot, and to “burn out” in half the time they ought to last.

Southern Whites were ready to blame such problems on Black inferiority. What Whites dismissed as unreliability and ignorance offers an indirect perspective into forms of resistance hidden from the eyes of their White employers. This resistance is often ignored by traditional working class history, but it plays an important part in what English labor historians had long called the “moral economy.”

The moral economy is describes the economic consciousness of working class people, as they face the humiliation of everyday work. Before the eighteenth century London, dock workers had the right to dip into tobacco cargoes for their personal use; farmers had access to “common lands of grazing and gathering wood”; shipwrights, caulkers, and other laborers in the shipbuilding industry took home leftover “chips” of wood. For years afterward, workers continued to take things from work. However, through commiseration with the legislature, merchants and magnates were able to make every one of these practices illegal. In response, workers continued the age-old practices, but now under the threat of unemployment, jail, deportation to the “New World,” or the gallows.

Jim Crow South is no different. Though, due to the nature of the work undertaken by Black workers, the “moral economy” was set on a different terrain. One Southern domestic worker declared, “We don’t steal; we just ‘take’ things — they are a part of the oral contract, exprest [sic] or implied. We understand it, and most of the white folks understand it.” To which one employer put, “When I give out my meals I bear these little blackberry pickaninnies in mind, and I never wound the feelings of any cook by asking her ‘what that is she has under her apron.”

The moral? Workplace theft is a strategy historically employed to recover unpaid wages and/or compensate for low wages and mistreatment.


What is it that makes strategies like pan-toting and slowdowns effective? They are partially, if not completely invisible. And when the bosses get wise, workers have to conceal or lie, or risk compromising the whole strategy.

Consider studies of tabacco workers in North Carolina. There was gendered division of work where men would pack baskets of tobacco, and women would stem the tobacco. If the black female stemmer couldn’t keep up, the men supplying the tobacco would pack the baskets more loosely. And on the factory floor, where sitting and talk were generally banned, women would sometimes break out in song. Why is this significant? Because “Singing in unison not only reinforced a sense of collective identity but the songs themselves — religious hymns, for the most part — ranged from veiled protests against the daily indignities of the factory to utopian visions of a life free of difficult wage work.” (Kelley)

These concealed actions can be compiled into a “hidden transcript” of resistance not meant to be seen or understood by employers. Think of knocking on your boss behind his back, or writing obscenities about the company on a bathroom stall.

It’s time for more ghost stories. We need to look to the stories that hide in the shadow. Shadows that heighten that which could not withstand the sharp tongues of public scrutiny. For, if dark lacquerware can draw out the ‘depth’ of previously dull soups, and architecture, which to a western eye would be simplistic, but conveys a strong presence through slight variation in hue and significant gradations of shadow and indirect light; then, what are the ghost stories we can tell about the resistance that hides in the shadows, today?

Do you do what philosopher and literary critic Michel de Certeau calls “wigging,” a complicated form of workplace resistance in which employees use company time and materials for themselves (e.g., repairing or making a toy for one’s child, writing love letters). One might imagine the beautiful example of a domestic who seizes time from work to read books from her employer’s library. Then you not only take back precious hours from their employers but resist being totally subordinated to the needs of capital, while taking back the body you’ve leased to your employer, and spends it on yourself or your family.

What would this mean for us? First, we should continue the Occupy practice of ignoring legislative victories. And firm up our refusal to sum up the movement in terms of policy changes, even those as important as “getting money out of politics.” Second, we need to stop describing the movement in the bureaucratic terms of the police and party managers who care only about clarity of organization, collective identity, and the ability to mobilize masses. Lastly, we should find out new ways to form informal networks of solidarity that help us win back our dignity, respect, and freedom.

So I leave you with a question, tonight: how do we forget about “telling it straight” and start to tell ghost stories about Occupy?



Douglas Rushkoff, October 11, NYT, “Think Occupy Wall St. is a phase? You don’t get it”

Robin Kelley, “Shiftless of the World Unite!”, Race Rebels

10 thoughts on “Ghost Stories

  1. An entire industry exists, particularly of the left, which maintains its consistency in the perpetuation of traditional skin deep fragmentation, and who would likely ascertain, arising from the basis and background to the proposition as presented, an attempt to transpose, or more accurately to transfer conditions and methods from certain eras into yet another pot, where the dominant voice appropriates and negates the original form as a result. The act of accepting this as a consideration reveals a guiding hand according to the contemporary language of the greater and lesser victim, and those who see a role for themselves within the paradigm of the victim whether they’ve earned it or not. I think the individual act, flowing toward a collective action, should preceed dialogue because dialogue presuposes a level of trust that frankly has to be earned due to its nearly universal absence. Everyone begins an auxiliary cop who must shed the accoutrements as they go.

    1. I would vehemently disagree.

      Race discourse and race history do not perpetuate racialization. Racialization has much more to do with inter-generational transfer of wealth, and structural elements, than with the language we use to describe it.

      Consider these simple statistics from a July Pew report, ( ):
      *The divergence between the wealth of median black household vis-a-vis white households in the US is worse than it has been in three decades.
      *The median white household has fifteen time (15x) the wealth of the median black household in the US.

      Now, consider the argument that “speaking about race perpetuates racism”. Isn’t that the “colorblindness” position advanced during the culture wars of the 90s, which has become the new common sense? Additionally, how would “not speaking about race” ever hope to combat the new forms of racism that Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has labeled “racism without racists.”

      Fortunately there is really good work in the field of ‘materialist race theory’ that has utilized neo-Marxist materialism to elaborate on this important site of power. The three most important works are probably Omi and Winant’s Racial Formations, Harris’s “Whiteness as Property”, and Robinson’s Black Marxism.

      And, as parting remarks, I should note that I advocate a metaphysics of difference rather than equivalence. This is a deeply anti-imperialist ideology which would never accuse ethnic studies of “opportunistic overplaying of difference.”

  2. Language is always an important element when it comes to the process of decolonization, which I believe stands the best chance for success when it begins in the mind before anywhere else. The colonized mind is likely to arrive at a point of praxis or even theory with divisive tendancies from the outset, and it is from there that the theory behind the active sentiment becomes suspect, notwithstanding the fact that the burden with respect to the un-learning curve belongs nowhere else except with the unracialized subject. This is what I refer to regarding the high dundgeon of some elements of the left, which I might have been more explicit with in my statement. It would seem that in certain racialized experiences, when the unracialized subject is steeped for a time in anti-racial analysis, one becomes an expert on the subject like a reformed smoker. I see it as an area for caution when talking about lived experience and how it might be put to use within another devised context. The question is in how to avoid the pseudo-professional charge of appropriation upon the theoretical background. How to build trust to begin with within a given latitude, in order to overcome and move beyond the position we’re starting from as a prerequisite to starting a conversation within another. I saw it as a detail within the lucidy of the post.

    1. I think there are some spots of agreement that can be found between our positions, but there are some major points of contention, too.

      I am confused as to what an “unracialized subject” would be.

      Neuro-cog studies like “The Doll Test” (, “The Police Officer’s Dilemma” ( ), and “The Racial Mind” have shown that our racializations are coded early (think early childhood development), subconsciously, and have wide-ranging effects. Even things like mirror-neuron response shows a differential empathy. Lynching photographs and the kinds of subjective responses embedded through regular viewing of televisual media are a common medium of transmission. To state it another way: to be social in modern society is to be racialized.

      I do also understand the problem of reinscription of fundamental difference. This comes from the silly “you can never understand me” charged, almost always followed by political paralysis. Or, as I like to call it, the “inception problem”, as depicted in the movie by the same name. The question, of course, is how do we engage in politics without succumbing to such disabling critiques?

      A possible solution is presented in the talk above. Jettison clarity, transparency, and understanding. Consciousness raising or popular education follows the dumb epistemology of “speaking truth to power” that is inappropriate to our current context. The way to “mobilize” people, if mobilization is what is called for rather than de-mobilization, is no longer through civil society, forming a disciplinary enclosure (such as a club or a party), or even identity (as in encouraging people to confess/declare things about their ‘selves’). We live in an age of cybernetics, networks, and affective biopolitics. You incite-induce through pleasure, pain, protocol, and payment.

      Given that model for politics, I would agree that racialization must be mediated in a radically different way than it is currently. But as a diagnostic, I think material critical race theories and sociologies are the shit.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s