OCCUPYING A NON-PLACE
by Ewan Morrison
The Occupy Movement, as I write this in March 2012, exists in (according to Wikipedia) “over 95 cities across 82 countries, and over 600 communities in the United States”. Six months on from the initial flash of activism in New York, hundreds of thousands of people, it is claimed, globally, are continuing to occupy areas within their cities, despite attempts by governments to remove and displace them. Against the picture that the mainstream media attempt to paint of a movement in decline there are plans for widespread co-ordinated “actions” around the world in May, and plans to “re-occupy” Zuccotti Park, where the Occupy Wall Street movement first started. The postings on Adbusters demonstrate the ethos and ongoing energy of the movement. In the last week people have posted: “The Internet is a critical mass tool to reach the masses” – “THE FEELING OF GOING OUT TO A PROTEST IS AWESOME” – “This is only the beginning”. The credo is that the new internet social media coupled with street demonstrations and “occupation” are a powerful new political force – “It’s brought out a lot of issues that people are talking about. … And that’s the start of change.”
Occupy protest 6 months anniversary ends with police sweep (Daily Telegraph)
Who would want to question such idealism, such a growth of collective hope? Who can contest the root causes behind the movement – the inhumanity of the global banking system and the growing gap between rich and poor. We are the 99% and we, in our many countries are changing the face and the future of politics. We want to believe this; it makes us feel good, to sweep away decades of cynicism, to be part of a growing global movement.
But the Occupy Movement is failing and is ultimately going to collapse. And this is not because of some external oppressive force: the CIA or MI5, or the Police, but because, at it’s foundation, the entire project is flawed.
I say this as someone who sympathises with the issues that protestors are attempting to raise; as someone with a long history in left wing engagement and as an ‘angry victim’ with a toxic mortgage. I absolutely agree with the need for change, but at the same time I sense that the Occupy movement is marching into some vaguely imagined future, blind to the immense history and failure of such attempts in the past. The Occupy Movement is attempting to live in a politic and a space that no longer exists.
I do not arrive at this conclusion glibly but on the back of serious evidence. I cite the example of the catastrophic failure of the OM in my own city. The Glasgow ‘incident’, or ‘catastrophe’ is the Black Swan in the supposed unity and social relevance of the OM project. Glasgow is the ‘local’ exception that cannot be swept under the carpet in the name of some greater hypothetical ‘universal’ unity.
Glasgow Occupy Protest Camp in Kelvingrove Park, January 2012.
I walked through the Kelvingrove park in Glasgow this week – a large public park run by the city council department of land and environmental services – and I looked out at the grassy space where the Glasgow Occupy movement ended its protest eight weeks before. The area has now been returned to it’s former use as a dog walking spot, and no single trace remains of the fenced encampment that the Occupy protest inhabited in their twenty or so tents for over a month through the hard months of winter.
This park was their second ‘site’ as they had been moved on from their first, by the council. Formerly, from October to December 2011, the Occupy protestors had been camped in George Square: a plaza, an area of publicly owned land, within a hundred yards of the City Chambers – the site of local government. There is no stock exchange in this city, but the fact that the protestors were not aiming at a finance industry target, but at local government, was not the reason for their failure.
Glasgow Occupy protest Camp, George Square Glasgow, November 2011.
There had been a controversy that reached the tabloids, which involved the rape of young woman who had been taken in by the campers. Stories report that she was homeless and a drug user, others state the naiveté of the Occupy protestors, who gave the woman a place to sleep. Others say that having a camp of tents in the middle of a city with one of the highest rates of violent crime and drug addiction in Europe was just asking for trouble.
Back in January, as I walked round the encampment in the park (three miles away from the first location) I saw a sign that had been put up: hand painted on tarpaulin. It said: “we respect women”. And I thought how terribly easy it was for ‘accidents’ to make the headlines and re-set the agenda of the OM. The encampment in the park suddenly were asking the populace and the press to understand that they had not facilitated a rape. Their other hand- painted signs which decried the current state of capitalism – ‘Greed is not good’, ‘We are the 99%’, were obliterated by the fact that they had put others in harms way; that they had failed to understand that a circle of tents in the middle of the city would invite crime and abuse from the passing populace, who did not share their views, who did not believe that another world was possible, who sought, as perhaps the bankers have done, to exploit all vulnerability for their own gain. In their second location in the park, the protestors were asking a handful of joggers, some toddlers on swings and the trees for forgiveness.
And we can overlook this fact, this rape, and say that it was an unfortunate and accidental event; one that the tabloids, furthering their right wing agenda, used to their own ends, to defame and discredit what it perceived as left wing activists. But the violation took place, and the OM in Glasgow were naive enough to think that their ideals would protect them from the contingencies of social reality. They were, more than in part, to blame.
Defenders might say that it was merely a case of the wrong place at the wrong time; they might add that this isolated event did not discredit the entire OM. But they are wrong; the act showed precisely what is wrong with the movement and why it is doomed to fail: The OM, globally, is in the wrong place at the wrong time.
We have seen images of people like Occupy before – in Paris ‘68 and Woodstock and the Civil Rights Movement. Occupy, in its mindset, is replaying the last breath of a revolutionary alternative to Capitalism from forty years ago. It is worth noting that many of the Occupy movement are the children of the once radical baby boomers; that there is some nostalgia involved here in a movement that quotes Martin Luther King and Gandhi; that expounds passive, non-aggressive resistance in the same breath as ‘Revolution’. It is as if the children of the hippies and Maoists had taken to the streets to re-enact the dreams of their parents. Only this time they have done it globally and virtually, through Facebook, Youtube and Twitter; their heads full of images of dreams that were not even their own, images of revolution in hi-resolution, a replay, a sequel, a mash-up with a retro soundtrack. And it is not surprising that they mistake images for reality. Since 1968, the world has been colonised by images, as the critics of the time such as Guy Debord warned it would be. The revolt of 2011/12 is the Society of the Spectacle with the children of the revolutionaries re-enacting their parents failed revolution, Karaoke style – a circulation of repeating images, played out on the global non-places of the portable internet image screens of capital.
The wrong time at the wrong place. A virtual revolution is not a real one. And how many of these rebels really believe in the radical alternative to capitalism that their parents did anyway? How many would fight for a socialist Command Economy – really the end point and only radical alternative to laissez faire capitalism and the one that is expounded by the Zeitgeist movement – an Internet movement very popular with Gen Y and Occupy Protestors. How many of these protestors went through the decades of questioning that their parents did – those socialists who had to admit that their dream of a planned economy led ultimately, in the 20th century, to Pol Pot’s Cambodia and the gulags of The Soviet Union. How many would be able to argue for how their plan for the restructuring of an entire economy would differ from these tyrannies? How many would be able to articulate whether they were fighting for revolution or reform, and would understand that the one, by definition, contradicted and was the enemy of the other? How many have actually studied politics; how many were even involved with unions?
In this world of first time protestors, this world of non-places, ahistorical events and global corporations – the images of ‘change’ and ‘revolution’ are removed from their referents. Amnesia is part of this image-saturation culture, and so young protestors do not know, have forgotten, or were never told what revolution is FOR. They think that protest, in itself, will magically result in some abstract notion of undefined ‘change’ because they see on their smart phones images of themselves which match with images of revolt from the past. They feel like they are the stars in a remake, without any understanding of what the original was about. They get bored after the explosions and riots die down, when it comes to the question of what a better society might actually be and how and if it could and should be structured.
The Occupy Movement famously shies away from any structural plan for change. It opposes the idea of any one singular agenda. It is, as a result, nothing more than a catchment area, an enclosure for people who have such differing agendas and issues as taxation, gay rights, feminism, union laws, pensions, Trotskyism and ecology. It sees its lack of an agenda and lack of concrete political demands as its strength, as a symbol of liberalism – it believes in the possibility of a new, slightly different, multifarious, everything.
The Occupy movement occupy a fantasy from the past, removed from history or consequences, a very generalised idea of the idea of progress through self-expression; a really very naive notion of liberalism – if we just all get together and talk about what we need, we are sure that there will be some kind of solution. Of course it all fragments into a cacophony, but the unifying ideal is self-expression, and this is a very American idea. And this is the American problem. Only now, as Occupy moves round the world, America is yet again colonising global minds.
In all of this talk of talk of freedom, the one thing that is not grasped is place. With 300 differing ideas of freedom, a focus needs to occur, so a place must be found. Call it Wall Street, call it a city square in Glasgow. Occupy have created this idea of place as way to anchor their own confusion.
But the places these protestors attempt to occupy are the wrong places. They do not have any effect on the workings of Capital, and Capital has made sure that that is the case. Such protests have only momentary reality in that they can have a presence in the press, as images. The problem for the Occupy movement, is a philosophical and temporal one – based on an outdated concept of “sense of place”, one that Capital does not recognise. Capital has no place to occupy, it is ever shifting, between spaces; moving round the globe. Billionaires like Soros and investment banks like Goldman Sachs, have moved capital through currencies and destroyed national economies in mere milliseconds.
So pitch a tent in a park in protest. Scream, I am here, I am not moving!
What is a place now anyway? When streets in every country are lined by the same multinational corporations and their brand logos and identities appear in schools and hospitals; when the same malls, with the same designs and products occupy the same cities in Pitsburg, Geneva, Mumbia, Rome, Islamabad, Moscow.
In none of the “95 cities across 82 countries, and over 600 communities in the United States” do and did the protestors actually occupy a stock exchange. Even if they did, what would it mean to occupy such a place? A stock exchange is now little more than a meeting place for traders, it could uproot and relocate anywhere within minutes. But still the Occupy movement cling to the false idea that they can interfere with global trading by getting closer and closer to the ‘corridors of power’. A hundred yards away, a mile.
In New York, the protestors have been moved further and further away from any space in which they could momentarily interfere with global markets, and now they have bought the delusion that the second position they were moved to – the publicly owned Zuccotti park, is now their new radical goal for ‘re-occupation’. After many months of protest there is not one single thing that protestors can claim has been their positive effect on the flows, the ups and downs of global capital. If anything the US economy has rallied during the time of protest. In the UK, we are this week witnessing the government agree on a drop in the level of taxation by 10% for the 1%.
The Occupy movement makes the same mistake that Umberto Eco pointed out in the 1970s: that the ultra left ‘terrorist group’ the Brigade Rosso made in kidnapping individuals and bombing banks and corporate buildings. They assumed that Capitalism was like Feudalism, that there was a ‘head’ – ‘a Capo’ to decapitate; that they could ‘strike at the heart of the state’ and that that state, had a location and a face. Eco, was right then, at the very start of globalisation, and his truth is harder to bear now. Where is your target? There is no head, there is no heart, and the state is not the problem or the target. Power has now moved way from a centre, a head, a building, a location. Power exists precisely in the ability to move, without warning, the threat of abandonment that it imposes on us. $45 billion leaves your country in a nanosecond. People that are tied to a place are powerless.
Global capitalism does not exist in a place but in the cloud – the digital cloud. Capitalism now is algorithms and computerised bets, money printed on the back of debts, on derivates based on speculation. Where is the place that you can tie any of this down to? The Brigade Rosso would have bombed the stock exchange, but now trading would have continued just down the road in Starbucks.
The Occupy Movement is in the wrong place at the wrong time. People can be wrong, millions can be. The intentions of the Occupy Movement are worthy, but they, in protesting in the way that they do, entrap themselves not just in police cordons but in the past. The occupy movement is occupying dead history. A past in which places counted for something.
The hippies have returned, with their alienated desire to belong, pitching their tents not against the capitalists but against the forces of nature. Protestors who faced a long hard winter, then a bitter frosty spring somehow believed themselves to be fighting against derivative traders. But in the end they were fighting against muscular endurance, against snowflakes, hunger and leaking tent walls.
And the Occupy protestors get it wrong in another way. A way that has been wrong since the sixties. They believe that information in itself will change things. If they can just protest long enough and get enough media attention then their message will get through in the end, others will be converted to the cause. And so they chant and make slogans and try to express what they feel and to win the media to their cause.
And all the time they do this capital moves, silently, unspoken. Billions of dollars, effecting millions of lives.
Images floating in the cloud
The wrong place at the wrong time and the wrong understating of what language is and who expresses it and who sees it, and what effect it will have.
Ironically, the Occupy movement clings to this outdated idea that they can spread their word and that others will join. And they do this with the belief that if they keep their idea wide and open enough; if they don’t tie it down to specific demands, which might be too radical and so would dis-encourage others in joining them, they will achieve a critical mass. But this is a mass that is so wide as to be completely uncritical. And so the OM encompasses ecologists and gay rights activists, there are people in their fifties who have lost their homes through toxic mortgages and people in their twenties who can’t get a first job. Everyone is angry but for different reasons. Their common belief is that if they stick together and stick it out they will become an image of resistance, that will then inspire others to join.
Images dreaming of being images in the non place of media
Whether we like it or not, whether we resent it or not we, in the rest of the world look to America for guidance, for trends. Over decades we have learned that what happens in America comes to us eventually. We even clamour to be the first ones to accept it. Disco, Hip Hop, Job deregulation, Union Bashing, Free markets.
Our places, our countries are already ‘Occupied’ by the American way, they have built the infrastructure of our cities and towns. They won’t let protestors occupy their banks, their malls, the retail districts, so all that is left is common land and churches (as it was in London). In Glasgow the protestors ended up in a tree-lined glade owned by the local council, three miles from the retail centre and the banks.
Occupy Wall Street carries the failure of its declaration on its shoulders and passes it on round the globe, in that Occupy Wall Street never occupied Wall Street. Occupy London ended up in the grounds of a Cathedral.
The misunderstanding of where is to be occupied, and what the purpose of this act of human endurance actually is, is now a central problem for the movement. As philosopher Slavoj Zizek said to thousands on his visit to Occupy Wall Street – ‘don’t think about this as a stance and a story that you will tell your grandchildren.’ And he was right, he meant, don’t become nostalgic for an event that is happening as you enact it – prepare for it to escalate into revolution, don’t stand around taking photographs of yourself making peace signs. Rebellion as gesture which leads to nothing, which you accept as doomed, but which you take part in so you can say ‘I was there’, is a pathetic waste of energy and generational hope, and potential. ‘Don’t fall in love with yourselves.’ was Zizek’s warning.
The Occupy movement must become more than a virtual ‘stand up and be counted’ this must become more than a virtual petition. All to easily Occupy has become two things: a thing that you LIKE on Facebook, and a personal self-improvement/endurance test in a tent. Neither of which have any effect on the flow of capital.
What place then should be occupied?
It is a non-place. Not Glasgow or Moscow or Pittsburg or Tel-Aviv. We must remember, from the 70s, the phenomenon of ‘Capital Flight’ – whenever a country or area becomes radicalised: whenever it stands up for the rights of its populace, its unions, the multinational corporations and banks take flight. This was the very phenomenon that led to the collapse of the labour party in the UK and to the birth of Neo Liberalism and New Labour – the fear of flight of billions overnight; this, the force which drives governments into conservative reforms and austerity. “Capital flight”. If you introduce social reforms and if you tax the rich, we, the corporations and traders, will abandon your country, we will no longer occupy it.
So how do you fight this?
The Occupy protestors think they can win this battle by information, by telling the world what they want, but in so doing they sell themselves on the same market as commodities, on information and speculation, they enter and maintain the non-place of global information.
To information we must then posit silence. By silently taking money away from the banking system, by not telling them what we are doing, by simply acting; by not asking the media to represent us, or diluting a message to fit, but by sinking below the radar.
Capital does not occupy, it abandons, that is its threat and its power. To overthrow it we too must abandon, not occupy. We must abandon the non-places that Capital has colonised our countries with and invest in rebuilding real places once again. We must move our money to local credit unions, to local commodities and jobs; to circulation with local people. We must take what little we have and invest it in the places we inhabit and we must abandon their places, their malls and streets, their stores and banks. This is how we occupy. Not by pitching a tent on a piece of land and saying Here I am, count my number. But by silence, secrecy and abandonment. Rebellion must ape the capital it follows and subverts. It is no longer a question of stand up and be counted, but of remaining uncounted and letting others count the cost of your actions. The time of tents is over, and now something as ever-shifting as secretive and as potentially destructive as Capital itself must emerge.