Occupation Nation

Recently, the Washington Post ran an editorial by Ed Rogers called “OWS is over.” Writing that the movement “never constituted any class, or even a sub-class, to begin with,” Rogers argues, “It is possible the OWS movement will infest public space again. But they won’t be forming the core of Obama reelection rallies – or at least he hopes not.  Only the most marginal Democratic officials would appear in close proximity to an OWS assembly.”

If indeed Occupy Wall Street has failed to become a force in the political mainstream, it is because mainstream politics, and not the movement, is failing to constitute any class or even sub-class (unless that sub-class is the very rich). Rogers is probably right that OWS will “infest” public space again. And if OWS does not form the core of Obama’s re-election campaign, it would be for the better. By placing political agency back into the hands of ordinary people, as opposed to those of the politicians who largely ignore the people, the Occupy movement has launched a radical critique of the entwinement of American democracy and its vastly stratified capitalist system.

Jeffrey Sachs, in an address to the Occupy Wall Street People’s Forum, put it simply: “In 1980, the top 1 percent took home 9 percent of the household income. Now, the top 1 percent takes home 23 percent of the income. The top 1 percent of wealth holders has more wealth than the bottom 90 percent of this country. The top 0.01 percent - that's 12,000 households - take home 6 percent of the household income. That's more than the poorest 20 million in this country.” As Sachs additionally notes, these statistics are not entirely new. The neoliberal policies that fuel this culture have been steadily cultivated since the time of Reagan, who cut taxes on the highest income bracket from around 70 percent down to 30 percent, while simultaneously increasing Cold War defense spending.

These neoliberal policies were further cemented under the Clinton administration. With the passage of NAFTA, corporations raked in more and more profit as their liquid capital extended into untouched global markets, and increased outsourcing to newly exploited labor pools to swell the ranks of the unemployed. President Obama’s continuation of economic policies developed by Reagan and Clinton, as well as his escalation of military policies introduced by the Bush presidency, has catapulted the federal debt into the stratosphere. On this trajectory, Obama’s imposition of new austerity measures is yet another shameless attack on the poor; an all-too-logical repercussion of these historically ensconced programs of massive military spending, economic deregulation, and tax-cuts for the rich.

While questions of wealth, privilege, and power have been kept in relative silence by – among other factors – a political climate polarized by popular illusion and sensationalist media, the Occupy movement is helping those who have been wronged by the upper echelons of capitalist society to have their voices heard. In the wake of the economic crash and the government bailouts, millions of Americans lost their homes and savings, and yet it was the corporations that had their debts absolved. In response, the Declaration of the Occupation, approved by consensus by the General Assembly at Liberty Park on September 29, reads, “We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice and oppression over equality, run our governments. We have peaceably assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known.”

The movement that started in New York began small – around a thousand people gathering in the financial district on September 17, mobilized by calls from Adbusters, Anonymous, and various local organizers.  When the protest was blocked from occupying Wall Street itself, about 200 people settled down for the night in nearby Zuccotti Park, between Broadway and Liberty Street. There was a strange energy in the air – a small flickering fire that had to be kept alive. No one knew what to expect, but everyone felt as though this was where he needed to be.

Zuccotti Park had been in a state of constant evolution since its inception when, on November 15, the police pressured a dramatic remodeling by violently evicting the “occupation.” Now all the previously cared-for places of the park are gone: the kitchen that fed 1000 people a day, the media tent, the people’s library, the multiple hospitality and information stations, the sign garden, and the meditation space. The destruction of so much material and invested time is saddening. Almost 5,000 books were thrown away. The violence and secrecy of the police intervention – a three-block radius around the park was completely blocked off to even the press while the raid was occurring – served to demonstrate the desperation of officials who felt threatened, and who consequently endowed the movement with new energy and immediacy. What was designed to extinguish the fire instead served to further fan the flames. In the immediate aftermath of the raid, the OWS media team responded, “You can’t evict an idea whose time has come.”

That time has been coming for a while. While the Occupy movement certainly represents a new beginning in the history of anti-capitalist struggle, its success depends on the re-activation of deeper currents of resistance. In its legacy, Occupy Wall Street reflects the 2011 summer occupations of European cities like Athens and Madrid in response to the debt crisis, as well as the worldwide G8 and G20 protests that began in the late 1990s in response to neo-liberal economic practices. Perhaps most pivotally, OWS takes inspiration from the Arab Spring, when newly mobilized mass gatherings confronted some of the most oppressive dictatorships in the world simply by occupying public space. The popular uprising that overthrew Argentina’s corrupt and debt-ridden government in 2002, as well as the resistance of Indian townships throughout the past decade against the intrusion of corporate giants like Coca-Cola and Monsanto, also charge the history of the Occupy movement. People across the world have been forced to engage in anti-capitalist resistance for years to maintain their livelihoods and dignity.

The spirit of the movement has already manifested itself in a wide network of occupations internationally. There are currently close to 3,000 occupied cities, and the movement has found allies in a variety of ongoing political struggles around the world. The idea of occupation has been sown and its fervor is growing globally – not just as a political tactic, but also as a metaphor for political, social, and economic engagement. The raid on Zuccotti Park, an attempt to uproot the center of a center-less movement, only encourages the continued dispersal of the movement, paving new streets for real democracy.

As Rogers’ Washington Post editorial continues, “If … the American dream is to work hard and play by the rules to achieve success, the OWS-ers are doing neither.” The Occupy movement encourages us to ask what kind of success we imagine when the rules of engagement are inherently flawed. This movement isn’t only about holding politicians or finance capitalists responsible for the damage that has been done. The problems that have developed in the rise of global capitalism are so systemic that it is difficult, if not impossible, to pin the responsibility on anyone in particular.  Such is the work of industrialization, compartmentalization, and bureaucratization, stemming from the unrelenting division of labor that is capitalism’s triumphant paradigm. To differentiate those who supply from those who demand is an impossible riddle; in the reign of advertising and finance capital, supply and demand have now become interwoven in a stream of displaced debt.

As a result, the language of “demands” has proven meaningless. A person cannot demand something from a system he can no longer trust with his money or energy. The global capitalist machine is relentless in its search for profit, and the blank silence of the values it imposes is tearing apart our most meaningful social bonds. To extract ourselves from this mainstream of anonymous products and even more anonymous labor requires a radical kind of re-evaluation.

To occupy is to create a sanctuary against the advances of and exploitation status quo. It is to create a space of resistance and creativity protected by the presence of our own bodies. And this is why, although some have been calling this movement “revolutionary,” it is different from the image we usually conjure of forlorn and anarchic specters of riots and burning buildings. This is a revolution in the consciousness with which we guide our daily lives, a revolution to re-instill hospitality and community in our spaces and our relationships, a revolution to replenish the wells of human feeling and mutual appreciation. As economist Charles Eisenstein framed the alienation in modern society, “We don’t really depend on the gifts of anybody, but we buy everything. Therefore we don’t really need anybody. Because whoever grew my food or made my clothes or built my house, well if they died, or if I alienate them, if they don’t like me, then it’s OK, I can just pay someone else to do it.”

In re-occupying our spaces, we can begin to pay back the gifts that countless invisible others have given us.  We can weave webs of community, hospitality, and support, investing our energy in each other, rather than in a rigged system.

My friend Mizél, who I met in the earlier days of the occupation and who has been staying at my place ever since the police threw away all of his possessions during the raid, gave me an important piece of wisdom: “Don’t think of what to do, think of how to do it.” You don’t have to radically question what you’re doing, reject your role in society, or move to an “Occupied Location” to be a part of this movement. In focusing on the “how” instead of the “what,” we don’t need to leave the places or things we love to “occupy;” we simply need to learn to love them more flexibly, leaving room for others.

In that flexibility and in its recognition of difference, this movement hopes to unify and non-violently confront arbitrarily imposed divisions, whether they are social, political, or economic. Unfortunately, the mass media, including pundits like Ed Rogers, have been quick to mask the signifier “Occupy” with the image of transience and criminality, portraying a movement composed solely of “rambling stoners, malcontents, and Grateful Dead camp followers.” The New York Post was particularly full of this kind of intolerant hatred on the day after the raid: “One man marched around the park, evidently forgetting that he was holding the hand of his young daughter. He hurled abuse at sanitation workers stationed inside Zuccotti. Earlier, these same workers had cleaned up the filth and disease that scum like him left behind.”

While occupying together is certainly about learning to share space (even with “scum”), it also is about questioning the categories into which we tend to place those different from ourselves. We can live more responsibly towards each other by deconstructing those prejudices and by recognizing who we might be inadvertently treating as inferior through our complicity in a system rigged against so many. In an era in which power has retreated to its skyscraper-castles, and violence into the act of monetary exchange, now is the time for us to find our place again.  What does it mean to occupy? That text will be written by all of us.