Three thoughts on #Occupy

At a time when a banner reading Katalipsi! (Occupied!) flies from the Greek Finance ministry, here are three thoughts on the proliferating calls to #Occupy!:


Wall Street

I’ve not been to Wall Street. I don’t have to. Though separated from New York by an ocean, half a planet and a different political culture (one in which it is significantly less scandalous to talk about the obvious and total failures of capitalism), I can browse through any number of digital echoes and recordings, each with varying degrees of fidelity and spin. What has been most striking about the media reports from Wall Street is that – if you stripped away the inconsequential affect and incidentals – they really could have been written by anyone with an internet connection.

This leads to the usual overhasty generalisations about the role of the internet and rapid distribution of callouts, data, plans, images, videos, plots, analysis, complaint, trolling and information that attends social movements. The obvious issue here is that these things don’t really transmit ideology, analysis or demand, they simply foreground the ease with which the method can be replicated. This method-as-meme is doubtless linked to the prominence of internet communication between activists and interested onlookers; its proliferation also speaks to a new interconnectedness felt by the disenfranchised, whether in New York, London, Barcelona or Athens. But as DSG point out in that link, the success or failure of a method is if it catches the zeitgeist, if it is passed between and above all replicated by a growing multiplicity of consumers.

Let’s lay this out clearly: the internet makes it possible for images, text and vehicles of ideas to be replicated instantaneously and without expending raw materials in the replication – i.e., if I were to give you a manifesto, a poster or a book, I do not need to give away my copy to do so. Any object is replicable without diminution of the original. Hence, I can propose #OccupyLondon, #OccupyLSX, #OccupyTheMoon, and those ideas might be taken up with greater or lesser intensity within the digital fluxus, depending on how quickly they strike the desires of others.

But what does it mean to propose #OccupyX? On some level, it’s clearly an incitement to organisation, i.e., to move from online assent to physical occupation. It also clearly draws a link between the Wall Street example and occupations elsewhere, the spirit of Tahrir being the most obvious example. But the difference between the digital callout and replication should be obvious: physical manifestation requires the use of finite physical resources, as well as numerous less quantifiable factors, such as the goodwill of the state, the tactics of the police, and the energy or organisation of activists. Those to one side, the #OccupyX! imperative demands a replication of particular features of its most prominent American example. These are the most identifiable:

  • A move in the target of occupation. Unlike in Tahrir or Barcelona, Wall Street has served to move the focus of occupation from nominally public spaces to targets intimately linked with international financial capitalism. While retaining the strategy of placing under contention the notion that streets and parks are public spaces – hence, let the public return to them, as they are all we have left – Wall Street adds the intuition that there are very obvious enemies.
  • A horizontal organising structure. The inheritance of the anarchist, anticapitalist and environmentalist movements, the horizontal organising structure is now taken as the de facto mode of organisation for popular social movements. The model of the daily general assembly as authorising body is also taken for granted.
  • A minimalist programme making no explicit political demands, preferring to lay emphasis on the function of the ‘new space’, the meetings and discussions that happen in it, and the physical fact of occupation as constituting a demand in itself.
  • A desire for popular generalisation of the occupation. This distinguishes it from encampments designed to bear witness or shame a space, such as the small line of tents in Parliament Square in London. Thus we see the increasing involvement of organised labour in the Wall Street demonstrations, and the gradual massing of people to the camp.

Minimalism & the 99%

There’s nothing perfect about these hallmarks. I’d obviously choose the side of the occupiers over any rightwing critique, or indeed the lunatic feathering of the chains displayed by the American left. That #OWS has captured the sympathies of many is no doubt due to the totally moribund state of the American left, and demonstrates just how tenuous and easily broken the trance of passivity and inaction is – at least, briefly. But it’s doubtless true that the lack of articulated political, anticapitalist critique or demand has served to build this into a movement where many feel welcome.

Why is this happening? What happens when the fact of economic disparity is so glaringly obvious that it impels action, and yet those impelled to act are emerging from a totalised system in which anticapitalist analysis is non-existent, in which alternative models are held to be either unreal or simply impossible to imagine? Either one’s reaction is to kiss and feather one’s chains, and laud them as the way things should be, or it is to ask the question who is responsible? The question can be answered in two ways, and it depends on whether you see the current situation as capitalism-gone-wrong or capitalism in its full and typical operation. If the former, you will seek for those who have perverted the otherwise perfectly equitable situation, if the latter you will usually answer along the lines that the action of the capitalist class is always to exploit the working class.

It is the former, perversely, I am interested in. These are the people who are responsible for the propagation of the ‘99%’ meme, who have picked it up and run with it. Claiming, in brief, that the super-wealthy 1% have accumulated a vastly disproportionate amount of wealth, and have done so by extorting, legally and less legally, the rest of society, it is a complaint that demands some kind of redress. It suggests personal culpability on the part of the 1%. That’s not something I’d seek to diminish – I don’t believe that the super-wealthy are any less conscious of the means by which they appropriate their wealth than the rest of us. But the lure of blaming inequalities on the agency of the 1% (i.e., proposing a critique centered purely around their moral culpability) leads to a convenient elision: that capitalism structures social relations. Capitalism does not have its headquarters on Wall Street. It is not an ogre that dwells behind the crenellations of the Bank of England. In other words, the question of work, of wage and the extraction of value from labour remains crucial.

But these are well-trod criticisms. What interests me is that the minimal programme of 99%ism – that it is so attractive and so immediate a rallying cry. No doubt some of this is to do with the liberating sensation that one doesn’t need a fully fledged theory of political economy to take part in action. It’s diffuse groups with similarly minimal programmes that have been peculiarly successful here, too – especially UKUncut. Like many, I share a disquiet that hesitancy to voice radical critiques of wage labour and capitalist culture (because we’re scared of spooking the horses) means that these minimal programmes will find themselves as acting, essentially, as parliamentary pressure groups, articulating basically cosmetic and reformist demands. The worst outcome of 99%ism could well be a response to one of its structuring logics – that there are some bad people in the 1%, that they have behaved badly, and that once they’re suitably chastised, we can all go home and return to normal.

That’s certainly a threat. There are other ways to branch out from 99%ism, to extend its logic more rigorously, to use it as a basis to insert other conversations – just as here, too, we might suggest that the actions of UKUncut don’t so much demand a return to the status quo ante but demonstrate that even that is no longer recoverable. From there, we might talk about the brief interlude of a postwar social democratic settlement, the incoming realities of resource scarcity, the way that demands from and action by workers won what little we have – and how, in a period of increased precarity and diminished militancy, it’s all vanishing from under our feet.

The unthought & the margins

Finally, briefly, a touch on two things. One is what you might call the ‘unthought’ of the Occupy! movement – that accretion of dogmas, reflexes and given truths that it inherited from the various activist movements that preceded it. Some of these are good things, doubtless (trying not to make meetings full of over-talkative windbags, trying to avoid co-option or recuperation of the movement, trying to ensure people are not stressed to their wits’ ends) others either lacking or simply quixotic consequences of subcultural creeds (prioritising meditation spaces over, say, a crèche) – but they emerge, to a greater or lesser extent, without much articulation of why they’re necessary, as reflexes. An example might be the general assembly, which pops up as the base unit for organisation – but something which can hinder smaller, autonomous action, can lead to a tyranny less of structurelessness than blandness, and a paralysis in which a move to the centre, to the less militant option, is always given priority. These are precisely the problems of the unthought – without clarity about what a general assembly is supposed to decide, supposed to be for, what remains within its purview – it becomes a repository for all of the contentious and irresolvable conflicts of opinion between those who would like a movement to speak with a single voice. No movement does that, of course.

The second thing: margins. The Occupy! movement is in many senses marginal: its recovery of public space as occupied rather than transitory, its critique from the margins of the city and economy, its insistence that it is the return of the marginalised, and the marginal status (student, unemployed, precarious worker) of many of its key actors. One of the key autocritiques that any political movement should generate is about marginality – about the way in which activists, especially, will lock themselves into an ultramarginalised and ultimately ignored subculture. But it is also true that margins replicate widely. We already see cracks and fractions emerging in the discourse of the movement – the tension between, say, anticapitalists and liberals, between advocates of direct action, or confrontation, and ultrapacifists, between communists and hippies. To paper them over is a recipe for disaster. But marginality also configures the protest’s role to the state – and I think here particularly of Wall Street, and of an essay by Félix Guattari, of which I am very fond, called ‘The Proliferation of Margins’ [.pdf], in which he writes:

Integrated world capitalism does not aim at a systematic and generalized repression of the workers, women, youth, minorities… The means of production on which it rests will indeed call for a flexibility in relationships of production and in social relations, and a minimal capacity to adapt to the new forms of sensibility and to the new types of human relationships which are “mutating” here and there (i.e. exploitation by advertising of the “discoveries” of the marginals, relative tolerance with regard to the zones of laissez-faire…) Under these conditions, a semi-tolerated, semi-encouraged, and co-opted protest could well be an intrinsic part of the system.

It is that last sentence which I think should be understood by those occupying, though it is not simply about physical space, but mental and intellectual orientation as well. Any space in which the state tolerates your presence inevitably doesn’t hurt it that much: we saw what happened when the occupation really did try to take on Wall Street proper. Indeed, you may become a token brandished by liberal democracy to prove its plural tolerance of all kinds of dissent – which ‘you wouldn’t get in Iran’ etc. In these moments, margins are essential. What are the margins you can push at that make the situation less simple to predict, that render it more complex? How do you make the conversations had in Zuccotti park transmit from the outskirts to elsewhere, to those people you work with or study with who wouldn’t have dreamed of coming down to the occupation? How do you avoid recuperation? How do you open up margins everywhere? I don’t pretend to have the answers to these questions, but I certainly have some ideas. I think we live in times in which more things are suddenly looking rickety and contingent than solid, and I think that’s exciting. I’d like to have that conversation, and I look forward to acting on it. I hope some of you will join me.