“We are not commodities” – debating the future of occupy

Comments by Elvin Wyly (Canada), Kurt Iveson (Australia) and Peter Marcuse (USA) on the future of the global Occupy movement:

‘We're not commodities’, by Elvin Wyley. OccupyVancouver.

‘We're not commodities’, by Elvin Wyley. OccupyVancouver.

“Unfuck the World”

Images from Occupy Vancouver, October 15, 2011. Photo: Elvin Wyly.

Images from Occupy Vancouver, October 15, 2011. Photo: Elvin Wyly.

Is the profanity of the f-word justified in public and scholarly discussion of our present circumstances? Yes. There’s no doubt that the profanity of global inequality and injustice merits the word. Such sentiments, it would seem, have expanded beyond the foaming-at-the-mouth Leftist nut-cases like me to the broad center. Even a few policy-oriented economists are learning to swear when it’s necessary to make a point. Not long ago, Christina Romer stepped down as Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, after a tough tenure spent fighting the conservative orthodoxy of Republicans in Washington, DC working to preserve class power and structures of inequality. One of her first media appearances was a short interview on Bill Maher’s Real Time, in which he opened with a long recap of all the evidence of an economic disaster that rivals the Great Depression of the 1930s. Bill then turned to Romer, and said, “so, with all that, can I ask you, how fucked are we?” Romer seemed to smile, blush, and cry all at the same time, as she considered the human meaning of all those economic indicators. In a split second she decided not to mince words, and her voice rose in a melodic judgment: “Pretty darned fucked!”

Another world is possible. We can unfuck the world. We must. Occupy.

From Kurt Iveson’s blog

5 October 2011

(1) There’s been lots of discussion in the media about the risk of ‘debt contagion’ over the past few months. It would seem that mass protest against austerity is contagious too. For several weeks now, a protest camp has occupied Zuccotti Park, around the corner from Wall Street, in New York City. The occupation has inspired several other similar actions in other US cities. It has taken explicit inspiration from the occupations of squares and parks in Tunis, Cairo, Madrid, Athens, London and elsewhere that have been underway over the past 12 months.

Today, on the same day that thousands went on strike and marched in Athens (2) against austerity measures, several unions joined the Wall St occupiers in a march through New York City, which Anjali Mullany of the New York Daily Post tweeted as a ‘game changer’ (3): “The energy is thru the roof & the message is united.” (We’ll see if it’s a game changer, but it’s certainly a good excuse to post some resources and reflections on what’s going on.)

The Occupy Wall Street website (4) contains useful information about the occupation. It is self-described as the “unofficial de facto online resource for the ongoing protests happening on Wall Street”, put together by an affinity group involved in the protests. On that website, Occupy Wall Street is described as a:

“… leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We are the 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%. We are using the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to achieve our ends and encourage the use of nonviolence to maximize the safety of all participants.”

We are the 99% is a website where all sorts of folks are uploading pictures of themselves, holding up some words about why they are fed up with the status quo. The explanatory text on the website (5) reads:

“We are the 99 percent. We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we’re working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent.”

The thumbnails of all the pictures and messages posted so far are also archived online in one big mosaic, in what to me is a very powerful image visualising the diversity of people involved.

The action on the ground is being ‘organised’ through ‘NYC General Assemblies’.(6) These Assemblies are facilitated using an online networking tool, which the people involved describe as:

“…an open, participatory and horizontally organized process through which we are building the capacity to constitute ourselves in public as autonomous collective forces within and against the constant crises of our times.”

As the actions spread, the Occupy Together7 website is collecting and disseminating information about occupations taking place in other parts of the United States.(7)

Some thoughts on neoliberalisation and the protest/occupation movements

In 2009, at the height of the Global Financial Crisis, Australian Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd penned a long article (Rudd, 2009 8) in which he sought to pin the crisis on the failures of neoliberalism. “Off the back of the current crisis,” he said:

The time has come … to proclaim that the great neoliberal experiment of the past 30 years has failed, that the emperor has no clothes. Neoliberalism, and the free market fundamentalism it has produced, has been revealed as little more than personal greed dressed up as an economic philosophy.”

But as Jamie Peck (2010, 9) noted in his book Constructions of Neoliberal Reason, ‘neoliberalism’ was never a unified suite of ideas and practices that had once ‘succeeded’ and was now ‘failing’. Rather, said Peck, there were only ever on-going processes of neoliberalisation which took the form of evolving (and often contradictory) responses to specific situations. For Peck, the history of these processes of neoliberalisation has been a history of “failing forward”, by which he means that “their manifest inadequacies have – so far anyway – repeatedly animated further rounds of neoliberal intervention” (p. 6).

Two years down the track from the global financial crisis, and it would indeed appear as though the crisis of neoliberalism has given rise to further experiments in neoliberalism. The Rudd Government’s own response to the crisis is a case in point. A large proportion of its stimulus measures took the form of cash payments to individual consumers. And where stimulus funds were earmarked for infrastructure projects such as school buildings and roof insulation, this took the from of subsidies to private sector contractors. Around the world, we are seeing the imposition of varying degrees of ‘austerity’ by conservative and social democratic governments alike, featuring sizeable cuts to public services and public sector jobs and aggressive attacks on unionised labour. The stark contrast between this new austerity and the publicly-provided ‘aidez-faire’ (Purcell, 2008 10) which propped up the financial sector two years ago in order to reset a rotten system is starting to look like the straw that broke the camel’s back for growing numbers of people.

Second, in places like Syntagma Square in Athens and Zuccotti/Liberty Park in New York, I wonder if we are seeing some mutation in the political subjectivities that are being produced by those contesting the new austerity? People are coming together as ‘the indignant’, ‘the 99%’. Does this represent something different to what we saw happening in the last round of major protests against neoliberal capitalism a decade or so ago in places like Seattle, Washington, Melbourne and Prague? What the two share has been an emphasis on horizontal networking and coalition-building across diversity, informed by critiques of hierarchical forms of institutionalised politics and political organisation. But in the recent protests, it seems to me there’s been a more explicit attempt to give these movements a name, an explicit subjectivity, as well as parading their diversity. And that’s significant. As ever with such movements, some onlookers and participants are frustrated (11) that those involved have no agreed proposal, no unified set of demands. But perhaps the point is that they have a different kind of claim, one that cannot easily be accommodated within existing political-economic structures of decision-making? Is the claim here that “we” (the indignant, the 99% … the people?) are not being taken into account in the existing order, which exists for the benefit of the few not the many? That we no longer want to play the part we have been allocated in that order? Is this what Jacques Ranciere (1999, 12) would call “the inscription of a part of those who have no part”?

Third, I think it’s pretty significant that in New York, this movement is camped out just a couple of blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center. In the previous issue of City (15.5), Eduardo Mendieta argued that there is a perverse relationship between the US Government’s response to the events of 9/11 and the unfolding economic crisis:

“What is striking about this decade of economic decline is that the very state of security, the paternalistic state that assured us that it would protect the “homeland” was simultaneously engaged in the de-regulation of the economy that would result in successive waves of economic crisis. In a fascinating reversal, the more citizens were monitored, disciplined, spied on, and put under surveillance, the less the economy has been regulated.” (Mendieta, 2011, p. 408)

In light of this, the occupation of an urban space which was sacralised in repressive homeland security efforts and the wars on terror by people gathered together now as victims of economic insecurity is surely significant. Could that same space be made to work for another kind of security, another form of democracy?

In the same issue of City, Nasser Abourahme wondered if the ‘Arab Spring’ might mark the beginning of our era’s end? Subjugated Arab peoples have asserted their own subjectivity and vision of democracy, “appropriating the very discursive resources of the imperial war-machine” that launched wars in the Middle East in the name of ‘democracy’. The fact that this movement of Arab people has inspired a movement in the very country that launched those wars is also cause for hope. Nasser concludes:

“The spirit of a time is how we as subjects articulate and signify temporality, imbibing it with signs, symbols, material practices, images that are perceptible, intelligible and correlate to actual experience; the onus, then, is on us all to symbolically re-order our perception of emerging time – the time that is appearing. A new era is on the horizon, but only insofar as we take the line of flight towards it.” (Abourahme, 2011, p. 439).

Having just watched the video of Cornell West10 addressing the NYC General Assembly in Zucotti Park on September 27, I want to say “right on!” to that! Like Prof West says, “don’t be afraid to say ‘revolution’!!”

Peter Marcuse’s Blog

11 October 2011

Occupy Wall Street – Character, Strategies, the Future

(13) Will the Occupy Wall Street movement continue to grow? I think that is the wrong question. It cannot “grow” in the sense of enlarging the area it occupies, staying longer and longer and refusing to leave. There is simply no space available where it is now in New York, the weather in winter will make it simply a test of endurance, it is more than can be asked. But there are alternative forms by which it can show its strength: marches, timed occupations, rallies, continued effective solidarity and networking. And refinement of claims, clarification of interpretations, pin-pointing of objectives and targets of non-violent action and exposure.  The attached argues that four alternative futures confront the movement:

– Dissolve
– Be co-opted
– Focus on specific immediate reforms
– Go for non-reformist reforms
– Push for revolution.

The strengths and weaknesses of each are analyzed, and they are not mutually exclusive. But the “non-reformist reforms” seems the most productive. In any event, its future will hinge on the extent to which it maintains its three defining characteristics:

– the common thread in the analysis of the underlying nature of the problems with which it is concerned, symbolized by the 1%/99% formulation;
– the bringing together of multiple diverse interests and viewpoints in a mutually supportive and trusting human social context; and
– the commitment to action, to exploring, physically as well as intellectually, the available avenues for implementing their desires, overcoming the obstacles they face, moving towards a better world.

Immediately, tactically, imagination may suggest a variety of new approaches to immediate action. Since continued limited occupation of a restricted site poses major problems as the sole center of the movement, imagination and spontaneity can be looked to provide alternatives to reflect the growth and wide popular support of the movement. Some possibilities are mentioned below. The following spells out the argument.

There is a deep unease in the country, and internationally. People are dissatisfied, and are suffering. Their specific complaints have to do with jobs, incomes, housing, education, war and peace, corruption, the environment, health care, the role of government, cultural norms, injustice, discrimination, inequality. Underneath are strong if often inchoate feelings, ranging from despair to insecurity to broad discontent with things as they are, unhappiness at the direction in which they are going. And those feelings are leading to active resistance, demands for change finding their expression more and more in communities and work places, and very visibly on the streets of our cities.

Where does the Occupy movement fit into this picture? Where might it go, in the immediate future and in the long run, the big picture?? Will it disappear after its brief moment of fame? Will it end up co-opted, perhaps pushing the Democratic Party a bit to the left, joining a range of movement-type players in the political game? Might it split up into a variety of single-issue organizations, pushing certain specific reforms, lingering as one or more lobbying groups? Will it press for the most far-reaching “non-reformist reforms” feasible reforms within the system, non-reformist reforms, hoping they will lead to deeper system changes? Or will they produce a dramatic change in power structures, a revolution?

In the big picture, cooptation seems to me not be a big danger for happy and for unhappy reasons. Happily, the participants in the Occupy movements are smart, alert, aware, quite sophisticated, some quite experienced, and know who is on their side and who isn’t. Nor can they be so easily bought off, without starting on the very road they wish to go, with some fundamental changes in the economic, political, and social system. Less happily, they are not (yet?) large enough in numbers or power to constitute a threat that must be bought off; so far, the 1% may feel that between the police, the weather, the passage of time, the power of the media, they have nothing serious to worry about. Ben Bernanke may express mild sympathy for the movement, but he is not likely either to win it over or to join it himself. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is circulating petitions declaring “I stand with the Occupy Wall Street protests”; such support can be welcomed, as long as a distance is kept.

The pressure to whittle down the movement to one for specific reforms is one that is significant, but the discussions thus far seem increasingly to be aware of the pit-falls of that direction, the dangers of converting a mass popular movement into an enterprise in legislative drafting, political forecasting, tactical positioning. Occupy is seen by most of its participants and supporters not as a set of pressures for individual rights, but as a powerful claim for a better world, a real alternative, to what exists; not a set of subsidiary rights in the city, but a claim to the right to the city, to the world produced by the 99% and now claimed by them as their own.

Non-reformist reforms are an appealing goal, but not one that is easy to define or pursue.  How does one tell a reformist goal from a non-reformist one? Is opposition to charter schools, or more funding for public schools, reformist, or more? Is renegotiating mortgages with principal forgiveness reformist, and if not, what more should be demanded? Are living wage jobs on the one side and a millionaire’s tax of 5% enough to move towards real equality, or a way to prevent greater redistribution? Is providing subsidized insurance for the ill or injured a step towards universal health care, or an end point of reform? Are requirements for transparency and public participation in planning moves towards real democratic control of the future of cities, or a way to avoid changes in the way they are actually built and managed? Are the differences matters just of degree, and when does quantity turn into quality change? Are small reforms way-stations towards larger, less reformist ones, or simply attractive dead-ends? These are not easy questions to answer.

Unfortunately, the question of revolution seems easier to answer – in the negative. Under what circumstances a revolution might in fact take place is a theoretical question that has been subjected to extensive debate, but whatever the answer, those circumstances do not seem to exist today. The positions of power of the 1%, their control in the economy and in government, their command of the media, the power of the consumerist way of life, the dominance of its ideological supports in nationalism and the Protestant ethic, are too great, technology too firmly in control, despite contrary independent forays.

Strikingly, the question of power is rarely raised in discussions within the Occupy movement, at least to one listening from the outside. Yet, push their claims far enough, ask what in reality is needed if they are to be met, and the question of power looms large. But the very organizational ethos of the movement militates against confronting that fact; the movement is against hierarchy, against controls, for discussion and debate and openness, against decisions made through the exercise of power – with a deep desire to see the form of organization within the movement, rejecting all use of power, applied to society at large. Anarchists are clear on the point; non-anarchists are not, and their views vary widely. The role of government as such, of the state, is involved; it is a tricky question, which the tea party, for not entirely unrelated motives, has answered one way, a way clearly unsatisfactory to most, yet a clear sense of the alternative is yet to be developed. Revolutions involve a major shift in who exercises power, at least initially, and the Occupy movement is not at the point where it sees itself needing to address that problem frontally. And it is probably right; revolution does not seem to be on the table as things stand.

If that analysis is right, non-reformist reforms end up as the only way to go, and I believe the Occupy movement in fact reflects that position. Look at the various formulations, placards, interviews, demands, manifestoes that have come from it, and you will see claims for justice, equality and freedom in many spheres, but not demands for this reform, that bill, such and such a tax, this or that change of regulation – although these are often components of claims that are made.

Looking at the role the Occupy movement plays within the general framework of the opposition to the status quo supports this conclusion as to the primacy of non-reformist reforms. The Occupy movement has, as already stated, three key characteristics: first, it perceives a common thread among the disparate criticisms, crudely represented by the formulation “for the 99%, not the 1%,” with conflict inevitable as the 1% resist the claims of the 99%; second, it brings together with a deeply felt broad dissatisfaction with specific criticisms of the prevailing order and in a mutually supportive and culturally rich environment; and third, it sees non-violent but direct action as a necessary means to implementing its claims in the face of the resistance of the 1%.

On the first point, the common thread, there is less else happening. Many of the groupings mentioned above lack an analysis of the causes of the defects that campaign against, or tend to place the blame on secondary factors: the media, the election laws, continuing racism, lack of regulation, etc., without probing the deeper structural issues dividing the 99% from the 1% that Occupy sees as the underlying issue. More on this below.

On the second point, the bringing together: the effort is not unique. A number of other movements have similar aims and composition: the international Social Forums, the loosely-organized “anti-globalization” network, the Right to the City movement, National Peoples Action, union and labor–community coalitions and workers’ centers, MoveOn, Restore the American Dream, and many others.

And on the third point Occupy is virtually alone, and this, perhaps, is why it has so quickly and so dramatically gained such widespread support, has been welcomed as at long last representing a Springtime on a par with the Arab Spring, and on a scale and in a manner approaching that which is felt necessary to match the scope of the problems of our times.  “Occupying” is a dramatic physical action, widely recognized, with positive national and international resonance, and will plausibly remain an appropriate hallmark of the movement.

Looking at the immediate future, however, the Occupation faces some uncomfortable truths. One of course is the weather; New York City is not Cairo, and the possibilities of sustaining an effective outdoor 24/7 campaign are more than daunting. The participants in the movement are no doubt already deeply in discussion as to how to address this issue, and they will decide for themselves how far and how long they can go. It may be wise to change strategy according to a specific timetable, rather than turn the occupation into a test of physical endurance.

One possible alternative might by for Occupy to replace its physical locational focus with a more temporal one: to meet, to occupy, only during specific hours or days of the week, perhaps not always at the same location, with other locations strategically chosen.  Or it might join with other occupations to establish a presence in Washington DC, where the capital grounds or the mall might offer opportunities.

Another logical possibility might be finding locations that locally can be occupied consistently regardless of weather. That would be an entirely different approach, looking, for instance at Convention centers as spaces where General Assemblies might be convened, or other public halls or meeting places. Perhaps marches to strategic destinations, rather than focus on a single stable place of occupation, might work: marches to the headquarters of specific banks, specific firms, specific institutions, specific agencies: Trump projects, Wal-Mart, Goldman Sachs, the Federal Office Building, might be effective. But those decisions must be made by the participants themselves, and made with the same imagination and resourcefulness that has characterized their actions thus far. Outsiders can well see themselves as supportive, indeed as admiring, of what Occupy and its participants have so far accomplished, and help them do what they themselves in the end decide to do. They have earned our confidence so far.

What academics, professionals, writers, artists, intellectuals can do is another matter.  One of the three essential characteristics of the Occupy movement is the presence of a common thread running through the claims of its diverse participants. That common thread, more formally put, is an analysis of the causes of the conditions with which they are concerned.  1%/99% summarizes that analysis, but only in the most symbolic way. Just who is on each side of that division, how clear the lines are, what the dynamics of the relationship between the sides is, what the tools/weapons each participant uses, how the strength of each is and how each is constrained, just what needs to be changed in the big picture and how incremental changes can lead to or possibly detract from the desired result – these are all questions on which research, the lessons of history, the analysis of each problem, causes and effects, opportunities and blockages in the struggles – these are the issues on which academics and intellectuals (for not all intellectuals are academics!) can contribute. This is, in a larger sense, among what we are supposed to be doing.

A few examples: in housing, is the problem of foreclosures  and more broadly affordability on or regulating the giving and availability of credit, or are there underneath that problems of speculation, of the treatment of land and housing as commodities to be allocated by the market, of private landownership? In health care, is the problem the monopoly position of the big pharmaceutical companies, the restrictions of patent law, the high profits of insurers, the inefficiency of hospitals, or is it the private nature of the health system, the funding of care and treatment on a pay for services basis, the need to see health care provision as a public responsibility to be provided publicly like police and fire protection, paid for out from public, social, funds? On questions of jobs, is the problem encouragements to private enterprise to create jobs, or is it the assumption that what is to be produced is what can be sold for a profit rather than what is socially needed, with public provision an appropriate and major part of a healthy economy and private provision relying on profit based on low wages undesirable? In governmental taxation and land use policy, is encouraging decentralization and competition among communities a solution to uneven development, or does it aggravate the problem and require national solutions?

And in all such cases, and generally in any matter of public policy, should we not expose who benefits and who loses, and what the respective power positions are of the 1% and the 99% in producing the results that are being questioned? Having made that analysis, is there not a need to propose measures and actions that will begin to address the injustices thus exposed, looking to immediate reforms that go in the direction of addressing the larger problems thus exposed – “non-reformist reforms”, whose specification is hardly an easy matter? And that being done, is it not appropriate to politicize the results, become directly engaged in the messy processes of putting proposals into effect, of becoming directly involved in the popular struggles that are involved, joining with those most directly affected in common actions trying to produce an alternative, a better, world? “Expose, propose, politicize,” might be one formulation of what academics and non-academic intellectuals can contribute if they wish to support the Occupy movement.

The growth and effect of the movement will depend, not on how many bodies occupy a specific place for a specific time this winter, although where feasible that can help, but on the imagination with which it takes up the task of exposing the ills of which it complains, formulating the claims it makes, and developing strategies to move towards their implementation. Its allies, in a supportive role, can be a big help.

Editorial to City, Vol. 15 Issue 5; see contents list below

Contents list for Issue 15.5

Editorial

Kurt Iveson and Peter Marcuse, Pages 499 – 508

The neoliberal political–economic collapse of Argentina and the spatial fortification of institutions in Buenos Aires, 1998–2010 Themis Chronopoulos, Pages 509-531

A conceptual history of livability Dutch scientists, politicians, policy makers and citizens and the quest for a livable city Harm Kaal, Pages 532-547

Assemblage and Critical Urban Praxis: Part Three

Introduction Dan Swanton, Pages 548-551

Putting ANTs into the mille-feuille Michele Acuto, Pages 552-562

Assemblage and the politics of thick description Katharine N. Rankin, Pages 563-569

Hard-wired experience Sociomateriality and the urban everyday Hillary Angelo, Pages 570-576

What can an assemblage do? Seven propositions for a more strategic and politicized assemblage thinking Bertie Russell, Andre Pusey & Paul Chatterton, Pages 577-583

Template urbanism Four points about assemblage Fran Tonkiss, Pages 584-588

Ten Years After 9/11: Part Two

Introduction Kurt Iveson, Pages 589-590

The war on teenage terrorists Philly’s ‘Flash Mob Riots’ and the banality of post-9/11 securitization Vanessa A. Massaro & Emma Gaalaas Mullaney, Pages 591-604

Endpiece

Is it all coming together? Thoughts on urban studies and the present crisis: (24) Whose space is this time? Insurrection, politics –– and ‘magic’? Bob Catterall, Pages 605-612

Notes

  1. Originally posted on Kurt’s blog http://citiesandcitizenship.blogspot.com/2011/10/occupying-wall-street-dont-be-afraid-to.html, also on http://www.city-analysis.net/2011/10/12/occupying-wall-street-dont-be-afraid-to-say-revolution/
  2. See 6 October 2011, “Thousands rally against Greek austerity”; The Sydney Morning Herald, http://www.smh.com.au/world/thousands-rally-against-greek-austerity-20111006-1la8q.html
  3. See her Twitter account: http://twitter.com/#!/anjalimullany
  4. Available at: http://occupywallst.org/
  5. For some powerful testimonies and images, visit http://wearethe99percent.tumblr.com/
  6. See: http://nycga.cc/
  7. The Guardian has also collated a lot of reports and resources on the Wall Street Occupation here, for further reading, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/occupy-wall-street
  8. Rudd, K. 2009. ‘The global financial crisis’. The Monthly , February, available at http://www.themonthly.com.au/monthly-essays-kevin-ruddglobal-financial-crisis-1421
  9. Peck, J. 2010. Constructions of Neoliberal Reason , Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  10. Purcell, M. 2008. Recapturing Democracy: Neoliberalization and the Struggle for Alternative Urban Futures , Routledge: New York and London.
  11. …need to describe youtube video here, but having problems streaming it now.! UPDATE LATER http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=jRCEWp0G7yg#!
  12. Rancière, J. 1999. Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy , Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  13. See his blogs online at: http://pmarcuse.wordpress.com/2011/10/11/occupy-wall-street-character-strategies-the-future/

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