Occupy: Results and Prospects




The global flare of mass protests, cumulating in the Occupy Wall Street movement, has naturally been accompanied by a flurry of activity and analysis on the part of the left. While it is surely impossible to give a precise formula that can explain the “leap” in consciousness that is the essential ground for a spontaneous movement as such, there is little doubt that the protests of the Arab Spring, the Indignados and the Occupations taken together mark an astonishing historical moment. Indeed, in terms of the spontaneous character, the breath of its global extension, and its temporal velocity, it is the first of its kind. It would appear that the neo-liberal purgatory of the last thirty years may be coming to an end as the predominate ideology of capitalism shows signs of collapse. While responding to an ever deepening and devastating crisis, the protests have revealed the broad contours of emerging police states everywhere as well as their own astonishing potential for resistance that one could only dream of a short time ago. A definitive analysis is of course impossible while the movement is continually unfolding, not only because of the appearance of new forms of struggle but also because of the heterogeneous and decentralized character of the protests. However, it is essential to attempt an analysis, not in order to instrumentalize the movement as is the modus operandi of the vanguardist-left, but rather to help give shape to a new social imaginary as participants in the struggles, to push towards a revolutionary reconfiguration of human relationships and to disrupt the inevitable dialectic of recuperation on the part of capital.

Infinitely Fast and Ponderously Slow

It is the critical convergence of two temporalities that help define what is unique in the current movement: the light speed of micro-communication---first revealing its importance in the Arab Spring as a mode of spreading and coordinating the protests—coupled with the slow corporality of communication and decision-making through the General Assemblies. These protests have been without a doubt the most well documented protest movement in human history, calling into question Gil Scott Heron’s 1971 assertion that the “revolution will not be televised.” Nearly every meeting, every march, every expression of protest as well as every police reaction is documented by the plethora of cell phones and micro-video cameras. Not only documented but transmitted, quite often in real time, not by the corporate media conduits but by the anarchic spontaneous networks of the protesters themselves. The ability to transmit first-hand accounts of every detail of the movement at light speed around the globe means that everyone is a potential John Reed or Victor Serge. These first-hand accounts are crucial in circumventing the ideological filters of media capital. This is not merely a modern means of “revolutionary propaganda.” The commodification and production of meaning has been a vital part of the total subsumption of labor to capital for decades now. By stepping outside of this circuit and producing meaning autonomously with the tools that capital itself has provided, the Occupation Movement is prefiguring the seizure of the means of production, which, in the case of digital tools and the internet, capital seems helpless to prevent. The Internet and digital communication generally, are today the essential medium of all financial transactions. Any attempt to restrict it or close it down to prevent the spread of the protests—as was the case in Egypt—also disrupts the unrestricted flow of capital.

But the light-speed of digital communication is curiously juxtaposed against the corporality of decision making that one finds in the Occupations’ mode of organization and in particular the General Assemblies. The taking of a public square--Tahrir, Syntagma, Puerta del Sol, Zucotti and hundreds of others--alone is not a challenge to power. The challenge is what is symbolized in the action. The holding of a space, the physical occupation itself, is in fact the opening salvo in the battle for the social imagination not a military standoff. A public space open to all, yet ostensibly outside of the control of financial capital, engenders a dynamic and vital social fluidity. In addition, there is something extraordinary in the holding of a space. While a public space is not a point of production, and an occupation does not stop the flow of capitalist activity, an action of this nature not only demands a coordinated strategy and tactics to hold the space but particular modality of cooperation for living in (occupying) the space together. It is in this sense that the Occupations resemble a modern Polis as a self-governing urban locus. To have a voice in the Occupation, one must be physically present, one must be an occupier. That is to say, one must first position oneself against the concentration of financial power in solidarity with those standing near. It is in fact among the most exciting features of the Occupations, the appearance of voices that have long been silent, everyday voices that may lack a sophisticated political jargon but nevertheless find ways to express themselves, eloquently at times, with voices that often astonish by what many would describe as an awakening. At its best, we might suggest that the physical occupations momentarily break the domination of the abstract social relationships imposed by capital, replacing it with real, corporal and human relationships that can only emerge autonomously in a moment of conflict. Capitalism itself is largely defined by its control of time; by stepping out of the abstract rhythms of capitalist time, the Occupations seem to instinctively anticipate the pre-articulated feelings for human emancipation.

This movement is auto-formative. The anarchists, the councilists and the autonomists of every sort can only find confirmation for their insight into the depths of creative energy that tends towards and emerges from self-organization. Indeed, the movement has found its voice, not in an abstract political program, but in the very form of self-organization itself. The people’s-mic, for instance, so well documented by now, may well have originated out of necessity during an early demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge (the police ban on the use of megaphones forced a form of choral communication to reach the entire demonstration) but it has come to symbolize the unitary voice of a community in formation. It is curious to see the people’s-mic used even when it is not necessary to communicate. Obviously, its function serves to create a sense of solidarity and not simply to transmit words. The voice, when used in chorus, appears as a primordial sound of the human unity. Furthermore, this mechanism slows communication, removes it from the frenetic attack of the media-sphere and enables the organism to absorb, ingest, analyze and feel the act of communication as a creative unfolding rather than as a victim of the continual information bombardment that permeates everyday life. The power of moments like this should not be underestimated; it is a mechanism that makes even the smallest voice vital. This has nothing to do with cheers and jeers and endless chanting of political rallies that function only to manipulate crowd psychology. The insistence by the occupiers on the horizontal mode of organization is a critically important element that keeps the Polis open and dynamic, making a virtue out of its heterodox nature. It is one of the principle characteristics of the Occupations that they remain radically undetermined as a uniquely generative movement rather than one that seeks to manifest a future that is pre-figured theoretically. This dynamic gives the movement an explosive character that can respond immediately to a continually shifting political-consciousness.

Ideology and Class Composition

Any analysis of the Occupations insofar as they express new modes of opposition to capital must be placed in a more general context of shifting ideologies as well as the physical re-composition of labor since the 1970s. This context is specifically the waning of the Fordist concentration of industrial labor and the global hegemony of neo-liberal ideology. Since the 70s a re-composition of labor has occurred: through the decentralization of the industrial factory across vast networks of out-sourced and fractalized production, relying more and more on part-time precarious work; in the formation of the significant presence of cognitive workers who work through digital information flows; in the proletarianization of the consumer as a functional part of the production process(1) . In a word, we have witnessed the proletarianization of planetary life. The most insidious feature of these developments is the infinite race of capitalism towards a form of hyper-production, speeding well beyond any physical capacity to consume such products, while simultaneously expelling labor from the process itself through its irreversible technification. Today there is no rational solution to this crisis within the framework of capital other than capitalist self-destruction. As the crisis deepens, capital will be forced to destroy its productive capacity to the point that it can reestablish the equilibrium necessary for a future round of expansion. Such destruction comes at the price of mass poverty and war. Therefore, to understand the social composition of the Occupations one must consider the way in which the proletariat has everywhere been recomposed through causalization, extended into the technical sector and redefined as productive-consumers. No longer can we speak of the unemployed for instance, as a standing reserve army of labor serving market fluctuations or simply instrumentalized to depress wages. Increasingly the unemployed are the proletarianized mass of humanity who will never be employed.

The ideology that has accompanied this decentralized fractal form of labor is of course neo-liberalism with its mantras of deregulation, of freeing the markets, of turning each worker into an entrepreneur, of dismantling the welfare-regulatory state, the financialization of all aspects of culture and its justification of wealth concentration through the “trickle-down” effect. Ideologically, the occupation movement is a direct response to the failure of neo-liberalism, defining its own counter-solutions by the precise contours of the neo-liberal agenda: reinstating regulations, de-financialization of culture, job security, the expanded role of the state in education, medical care, welfare, work-programs etc.; more generally the redistribution of wealth through state interventions. This is the principle ideological division that the Occupations have posited, yet it would miss the point entirely if it were not understood that the Occupations have in fact opened an infinitely richer field of discourse not trapped in the neo-liberal/social democratic divide.

It is quite difficult to generalize about the social or ideological composition of the occupations for the simple reason that they are highly localized and heterogeneous. The initial call for the Wall Street Occupation was characterized by a left-populist anger against financial corruption and the concentration of wealth, with the initial participants spanning reformist and radical politics, anti-corporatist and anti-capitalist positions. The social compositions in various locations, New York, Oakland, Portland and Toronto, etc., all have local specificities. One finds a various mix of libertarian-anarchists, New Agers, social democrats, proponents of monetary reform schemes and even Tea Party participation. During Occupy Phoenix for example, a right-wing militia group appeared armed and in full uniform ready to “protect” the rights of the protesters against state repression in defense of the First and Second Amendments.

We can understand this peculiar mix of protesters as an expression of the changing composition of labor, from what were once clear identities of the industrial working class, to the generalized proletarianization of life. While this opens a vast field of resistance, it is perhaps more difficult initially to locate the source of the crisis within the capitalist mode of production itself rather than the more visible problem of wealth distribution upon which the Occupations are presently focused. The broad and heterogeneous nature of the Occupations is perhaps both the weakness and the strength at this point in time. On the one hand it opens a significant possibility of positing the crisis as generally systemic, yet also opens pathways to potentially dangerous neo-populist solutions to the crisis. We should not forget that the National Socialist in Weimar Germany also demanded an end to “debt-slavery” while asserting the dignity of the worker against the financial capitalists. A 1926 Nazi election poster reads in part:

The strangely contemporary sound of these words should be a warning of just how important it is to expose any and all statist solutions to the crisis. In the end this may prove to the question of life and death.

Occupy Oakland Rally

The Dialectics of Recuperation

There is a curious inversion that has appeared by way of the Occupations, an inversion of the anticipated linearity that characterizes most classical workers’ struggles. More typically the development of struggle is from the concrete specificity of the workplace to the abstract generality of the social critique, from the factory to the public meeting, from the strike committee to the workers’ councils etc. In the case of the Occupations the movement has been reversed, from the general to the specific, from the social critique in the public space to the specific effect of the capitalist’s crisis, from Zucotti Park to the occupation of foreclosed homes in Brooklyn, from Occupy Oakland to walking pickets with striking workers at American Licorice Co. in Union City. It is perhaps this dynamic that is the strongest defense against channeling the movement into reformist, statist and populist pathways. It is an organizational dynamic that should be defended at all costs. A dynamic whereby the individual struggles--the strike for instance, the occupation of a foreclosed home—are then brought back to the public occupation to clarify the relational context through the open confrontation of ideas. Preserving the Occupations of the public space as a forum of resistance and an experiment in self-organization is the essence of what makes this movement dangerous to capital.

There are three principle modes by which the movement can lose its revolutionary potential, three modes that are always working together in ever changing configurations, sometime as well-planned strategies by the managers and technicians of power and others that emerge through the unconscious internal habits of a lifetime dominated by capital: police repression, organizational domination and ideological saturation. The dialectical interplay between these three modes has no other function than to direct the movement into the safe polarity as defined by the neo-liberal/social democratic framework and to ensure safe organizational obstacles against autonomy.

The Internet is now filled with thousands of images of the police brutality that has accompanied the Occupations. The savagery of the response has been instructive, indicating how the repressive arm of capital perceives the Occupations. Moreover it has become clear that in the U.S. the state was well prepared to confront the occupations in a centrally coordinated manner through the Department of Homeland Security. With the use of high-tech surveillance, crowd control, intelligence, tear gas, percussion grenades, electric prods, pepper spray, the police have shown an enthusiastic willingness to use all levels of force and violence both legal and illegal. The ever present threat of police violence functions not only to intimidate the protesters directly but moreover to create a perception of an inescapable aura of violence as a “mood” of intimidation to foster a sense of futility for any real challenge to state power. Police violence serves, in any case, to channel the movement towards traditional and containable pathways as defined by the established system of choreographed oppositions.

But police violence alone could not possibly halt a movement once it has taken hold of the social imagination--as demonstrators in Egypt have recently shown--more powerful tools are called into play, tools that work precisely on the consciousness and habits of the protesters and on the proletarianized masses more generally, that is in the tools that are formed by the organizational and ideological structures of capital itself. The horizontal organizational form of the General Assemblies-- jealously defended by many of the Occupations--is an autonomous structure that has an essentially generative quality, one that is a perfect form for the Assembly as a Polis: to develop ideas, to analyze, assess, propose and indeed to imagine ever new pathways for tomorrow. But the horizontal form, cumbersome and slow as it is, will be forced to confront organizational structures that are highly bureaucratized and rigidly hierarchical (vertical), whether trade unions or political parties. We are seeing precisely this development between the Occupy Oakland and the ILWU in Longview. The pressure to submit to the hierarchical form will not come only from the clash of organizations but will more likely come from any list of fixed demands made by the General Assemblies. Such demands, if focused on the legal structures of consumer protection and wealth distribution—election reform, Glass-Stiegel, etc. --- would invariably shift the organizational focus onto a purely reformist terrain that would move towards the instrumentalization of the movement. The Occupations would cease being autonomous, generative and open to become narrow conduits positing goals that would require strategies of organizational command.

Resisting police violence and organizational subordination is a dynamic that always operates within an ideological field that is continually shifting, but in the end, it is the ideology that determines the outcome. It is crucial to identify the principle ideological formations that specifically limit the autonomy of the movement and channel it into pathways that are easily isolated or into any number of reformist or more generally statist solutions to the crisis. Broadly speaking the ideological field is defined by the neo-liberal and social democratic polarity, between the unregulated free-market and the state interventionist regulated markets. One defines the other. How these forms function in practice is quite different from their ideological function. One posits strong state intervention while the other weak intervention. In practice however, both require an ever-stronger state to maintain the rule of capital, especially in times of deepening crisis. The deregulatory policies of the neo-liberals do not mean a world with less rules but rather the unmediated and absolute rule of money. While the social democratic solutions seek the preservation of capital in the mediation of social life directly through state forms, both ideologies posit the state as a neutral locus of power, exogenous to the economy.

However, the modern state, in all its forms—neo-liberal, social democratic, or the state “socialists” of a bygone era—is a structure that grows directly out of capitalist social relations. Foundationally, the modern state functions: to guarantee the sanctity of the contract between autonomous subjects, to mobilize or to subjugate the masses to support existing property relations (whether private or socialized), to guarantee the credit-worthiness of the currency and to monopolize violence as an extra-economic mode of expansion and protection against external and internal threats, including camping in a public park! To put it another way, the existence of the state is the rule of capital. Its mission is to rationalize and protect the unimpeded extraction of value from living -labor and all this entails. The essence of every reformist scheme is the belief that the state can impose its will over and above the economy to regulate its way out of the crisis. It is one of the vital functions of the pro-revolutionary left to expose the “genetic” structure of capitalism in order to demonstrate the inevitable appearance of ever more devastating crises. The state, in its very form, is the locomotive of this development and its self-destruction. The powerful reformist tendencies that seek to direct the Occupations towards “achievable goals” through legal reforms, serve to elevate the aura of the state with the de-facto aim of rationalizing exploitation.

But the statist ideologies, including numerous minor varieties of populist and state “socialist,” are not the only presence in the Occupations, most especially there is a significant presence of anarchist, at least within the OWS in New York and Occupy Oakland. The anarchists have played a significant role in protecting the open horizontal form of organization has created a forum for the self-clarification of the movement and a framework for the material manifestation of such clarification. However, a significant number of the participants, perhaps most, are not protesting as the outcome of a crystallized oppositional ideology. Most, it seems, participate because of a sense of anger, rage, disgust, or a more generalized feeling that enough is enough; it is time to collectively stop the “dictatorship of money.” The ideologies of these protesters more typically take the form of habits of thought that are tied to the material-organization of social life by capital. The willingness to place ones body before a line of faceless riot police is an indication of the extent that these habits of thought are no longer adequate to explain the lived reality of daily life. It is in the direct experience of participating in collective opposition that one discovers alternative visions and possibilities that lay beyond these habits and outside of statist solutions to the crisis.

What is to be Done?

The Occupations have posited once again the ever-present paradox for pro-revolutionaries. How do we participate in a movement that has not yet posited revolution as its self-conscious goal? In what way do we affirm the daily struggles and singular fights while asserting that only a revolutionary transformation of all human relationships can reverse the planetary self-destruction that capitalism proposes? Let us be clear. We do not believe that there exists a way out of the crisis within the framework of the capitalist domination of society. The universe proposed by capital is a total universe with the power to absorb, ingest and metamorphose everything that is fed into it. It reduces everything to a single negotiable currency. All existence is conceived as a set of exchanges making no distinction amidst the wealth of difference. Every existence is commensurable with every other in the capitalist field of vision. That which cannot be reduced as such is at best rendered impotent and irrelevant, at worst violently repressed. It is a world where everyman has his price and time is money. Within this universe there is no room for life.

The Occupations, in their own unique ways, with a thousand different voices, have stood up and demanded life. Through their voices and by their actions, they are positing another world from between the cracks that have appeared in the unfolding of the current crisis. It is a human world that steps out of the cash nexus, where if one “assumes Man to be Man and relationships to the world to be human ones: then you can exchange love only for love, trust only for trust, etc. … Everyone of your relationships to Man and to nature must be a specific expression corresponding to the object of your will of your real individual life.” (Marx 1844) This is the rejection of the calculating abstractions that reduce each individual to a mass of raw material for economic expansion. It is also a rejection the subordination of each singular being to the abstract theoretical architecture and algorithms of an administered life. There is an instinctive understanding that is manifest in the Occupations, an understanding that the integrity of the individual can only really be protected collectively in the struggle against all that debases him.

Pro-revolutionaries who envision a world of communist human relations should understand the Occupations as a critical moment of self-realization. It should be among the first tasks to defend the autonomous generative character of the General Assemblies as an essential crucible to explore and develop new visions of human relationships, as a forum of resistance. It should be the relentless task of communists to critique the evolution of capitalism, demonstrating its inescapable trajectory towards crisis, a trajectory that is coded into the very structure of capital. It should make every effort to encourage all tendencies to link the general Occupations to specific struggles at the points of production and distribution in order to challenge capital at its functional core. Pro-revolutionaries must make clear the impossibility of all statist or reformist solutions to the crisis whose demands will succeed only in strengthening the rule of capital by reinforcing the illusion of the neutral state. But, equally, pro-revolutionaries must support all those immediate demands that emerge in the struggles that do not depend on the better regulation of capital, that do not ask state intervention, but are demanding, in so many ways, that capital relinquish its power to those who are demanding life. Capitalism yields nothing without a fight!

A movement of this nature must grow and develop or fade. It cannot remain stationary. At some level we can say that the provisional victory of the Occupations, against all odds, is the battle for the social imagination. The political discourse is shifting, and if the Occupations were to finish tomorrow the reverberations of what has been accomplished, like thunder, will not soon be forgotten.

B. York


Notes 1. The best example of a productive/consumer would be the social networks—Facebook, Youtube etc. When one uses Youtube as a consumer one is simultaneously creating the content for the necessary expansion of production. The social networks would not function if the consumer were not at the same moment a producer. Such functional relationships are extending well beyond the social networks.


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