The story is told by a narrator who is a lawyer and employs Bartleby as a copyist. As time goes by, Bartleby begins responding to requests with the phrase “I would prefer not to”. Eventually he withdraws completely from any work, remaining a strange silent presence in the office. He seemingly survives without work or money or a home. The narrator tolerates him for a while but eventually after failing to persuade Bartleby to leave (“I would prefer not to”) moves offices to escape him – only to find later that Bartleby has died in prison after refusing to eat.
Most recently the story of Bartleby came to prominence during the Occupy Wall Street movement for Bartleby’s use of passive resistance, an obvious parallel to the tactics used by the occupiers. Bartleby ‘occupies’ the narrator’s offices on Wall Street calmly but firmly refusing all requests that he work and confounding all the narrator’s requests to either work or leave. Bartleby’s actions have been seen as an exemplar for political action, challenging those in authority over him without expressing any concrete demands, seemingly exactly the pattern followed by Occupy.
Is this passive approach effective? In the story, the narrator relocates his business to escape Bartleby, and as far as we can tell continues to run a successful law practice. Bartleby’s resistance leads however to his imprisonment and eventual death. Whatever his grievance, it doesn’t seem to have been addressed. Similarly Occupy Wall Street was eventually evicted without seemingly having achieved much that’s tangible. Perhaps the moral we should be drawing here is about the limits of passive resistance. Both Bartleby and Occupy create disruption that is initially difficult for the authorities to know how to deal with. But eventually the system adapts and neutralises the threat.
I’m not convinced by this explanation however. If this is supposed to be about politics, then it is almost entirely absent from Melville’s story. Indeed the narrator passes a demonstration for the mayoral election on the street but ignores it, rushing on to his next meeting. It is difficult to believe that Bartleby is making a principled stand against, well, anything really. He simply prefers not to. His refusal is rather a failure to undertake the work required by his employer. This is however a more radical position. Bartleby is challenging the fundamental relationship of capitalist society, that of waged labour. He withdraws dramatically from the market economy – but still seemingly works on his own terms. He continues to copy, but refuses requests to take on other tasks. It is not the occupation of neutral space that is significant (as it was for Occupy) but the radical withdrawal from his employer’s authority. The lesson to be learned is a far more active and aggressive one than that of passive resistance taken by Occupy.
In other words, there really is no substitute for effective action which targets the core economic structures of society. Now that’s something for the modern left to reflect on.