Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Occupying Wall Street: "Don't be afraid to say 'revolution'"

Posters at the Zuccotti/Liberty Park Occupation (source: demotix)

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 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': "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 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:
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 achived here, in what to me is a really powerful image which visualises the diversity of folks involved...

Screen Grab from We are the 99% website

The action on the ground is being 'organised' through 'NYC General Assemblies'. These Assemblies are facilitated through an on-line networking tool, which those 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 Together website is collecting and disseminating information about occupations taking place in other parts of the United States.

And those who tweet could follow: #OccupyWallStreet

For some reporting on events, The Guardian in the UK has published a few articles reporting on what is going that are worth a look: check this one from September 21 for a bit of an introduction to what has been happening, and this page which collates all their reporst and articles on the protests.

Keeping up with all mass occupations and protests happening across the world over the past 12 months would be a full-time job in itself! But here's a few thoughts-in-progress ...
First: some thoughts on neoliberalisation and these movements. In 2009, at the height of the Global Financial Crisis, Australian Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd penned a long article in which he sought to pin the crisis on the failures of neo-liberalism. "Off the back of the current crisis," he said:
The time has come ... to proclaim that the great neo-liberal experiment of the past 30 years has failed, that the emperor has no clothes. Neo-liberalism, 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 noted in his book Constructions of Neoliberal Reason published some months before in 2008, "neo-liberalism" 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 neo-liberalisation 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 GFC, and it would indeed appear as though the crisis of neoliberalism has given rise to further experiments in ... well, neoliberalism. 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' (thank you Mark Purcell) 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 in places like Seattle, Washington, Melbourne and Prague? What the two share has been an emphasis on horizonal 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, a explicit subjectivity, as well as parading their diversity. And that's significant. As ever with such movements, some onlookers and participants are frustrated 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 accomodated 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 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 current issue of City (15.5), Eduardo Mendieta has argued that there is 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.
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 wonders 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.   
Having just watched this video of Cornell West 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'!!" :-)


  1. Kurt, Kurt!
    1) What do you think of the occupy sydney thing and should it be taken as seriously as the wall street protest?

    2) Is there a difference between libertarianism and neo-liberalism?

    3) Is it really a re-invention of neo-liberalism? Or is more like the powerful trying to work out how to slowly own us all again and seeing what they can get away with?

  2. Hi Kurt,

    Great post (and great blog, generally!) - I like the evocation of Ranciere here....
    I'm wondering about the different levels at which this protest lives (and this might be one of its main differences from events/protests like the UK Uncut demonstrations, or S11 in melbourne etc etc): in that it can be followed as a hashtag on Twitter, or viewed through websites and screen grabs and blog articles etc - such that it has a virtual life which is different from the physical manifestation in Zuccotti Park (and other locations in other cities) but which is not ineffective by reason of its virtuality ie that the virtual life of the protest exists virtually as much as it does in that section of urban space? Indignation that can be sensed online as much as when one attends the event? (Obviously virtually indignant bodies can't be injured in the way that material bodies can, if the police arrest or 'move on' the protesters, however...)

    As far as the material protest goes (its manifestation in a particular space), I'm heading to NYC next week, and will be heading to Zuccotti Park as soon as I can...

    Once again, nice post....



  3. CapnSilver, thanks for the comment! In order, and in brief...

    1. I was down there on Saturday for the first General Assembly, and support what the folks involved are doing. I think there are some important differences in the US/Australian context at the moment that will make it hard for the Sydney efforts to generate as much political impact and momentum, but am gonna write on this more shortly...

    2. Neo-liberalism, contrary to popular belief, has never been an all-out attack on the state, either philosophically or in practice. This is a big issue, but here's neoliberal economist Milton Friedman on this important point (quoted in Jamie Peck's 2008 book on Neoliberalism):
    “[The] fundamental error in the foundations of 19th century liberalism [was that it] gave the state hardly any other task than to maintain peace, and to foresee that contracts were kept. It was a naïve ideology. It held that the state could only do harm [and that] laissez-faire must be the rule… . A new ideology must give high priority to limiting the state’s ability to intervene in the activities of the individual. At the same time, it is absolutely clear that there are truly positive functions allotted the state. The doctrine that, on and off, has been called neoliberalism and that has developed, more or less simultaneously, in many parts of the world is precisely such a doctrine. [In] place of the nineteenth century understanding that laissez-faire is the means to achieve [the goal of individual freedom], neoliberalism proposes that it is competition that will lead the way. The state will police the system, it will establish the conditions favorable to competition and prevent monopoly, it will provide a stable monetary framework, and relieve acute poverty and distress. Citizens will be protected against the state, since there exists a free private market, and the competition will protect them from one another.”

    3. Feels 'neo-liberal' to me ... although I'm not that hung up on giving it that label, more important is to note some shifts towards more punitive regulation of labour and public sector cutbacks in the wake of the GFC in many places.

  4. hey Alison, thanks for your comment too, really interesting. Like you, I reckon the combination of bodies co-located in a place and the mediation of identities and claims here is powerful, and provokes a real challenge to those of us interested in cities and media. But would be interested to hear more on how you see that shifting from previous protests ... do you mean that the on-line/virtual component here is less directly tied to supporting the physical protests, but is a strategy of representation that exists alongside the protest and has an important life of its own?

    Anyways, will look forward to hearing all about your visit to NYC!

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