Two years have passed since Occupy changed the fate of western politics by showing the world what happens when a group of average American citizens exercise their constitutional rights in public (without asking permission or buying an exemption). What followed was a sort of apocalyptic revelation of the actual state of union in the days of late capitalism.
It has become clear since its inception that what Occupy revealed by its activity has been revealed prematurely. We still live with a semblance of free press, a nominal right to assemble, a symbolic tip of the cap to Habeas Corpus… But these are shadows of the freedom that we assume is alive and well at the center of our Republic. What was revealed was also premature in that it had almost no place to resonate within our cultural psyche. I remember reading twitter feverishly during the Gestapo style raids of Occupy camps. I remember watching videos of peaceful protesters being rounded up by riot troops in full body armor. I remember seeing terrified protestors screaming their names to bystanders as they were dragged away other uniformed citizens. I could not reconcile that truth with the fact that life for most of us was relatively normal.
To sum up: Occupy has shown us a prophetic vision of the near future, and it seems that the time to come to start to figure out what it means.
In a time characterized by every shade of verisimilitude, occupiers forced politicians and their police forces to tell the truth.
- There is no freedom for the lower classes
- There is no freedom for dissenters
- There is no guarantee of due process
- There is no right to remain silent
- There is no right to peacefully assemble
- There is no protection against unlawful search and seizure
These so called rights are nothing but the pretense of an economic model that demands inequality in order to function. The genius of Occupy is that it showed these truths of the nascent capitalist fascist state to be self-evident.
But the question remains: What are we to do with this vision of the future (which is already here)? Let’s pursue this question with a quick recap of what took place.
“The revolution will not be televised.” This was one of the many and sundry Occupy memes displayed on signs and mentioned in social media. Typically, these signs were not captured by the MSM (mainstream media).
But the failure of journalists goes far beyond just missing the opportunity to report on ironic signs. The story among occupiers has been that the cameras and reporters pulled up stakes and cut the feed before the riot police show up to do their riot police thing. These allegations from many Occupy collectives ring true when one considers that these days the news is geared more toward entertainment (i.e. it exists to generate ad revenue) rather than information.
This revolution–for Occupy cannot be called anything less than that–remains largely invisible to most who don’t use social media, or don’t personally know people who occupy. Even when the local news decides to “tell the story” of Occupy, reporters seem to locate the least eloquent persons imaginable. Thus the stereotype of young/lazy/entitled/ignorant has become something of a constant misunderstanding of Occupy.
I cannot put it more simply that to say that this characterization is an extravagant and carefully constructed lie. If you think that occupiers are lazy or uncommitted, consider sitting peacefully through a tear gas attack, or surviving freezing weather after the police confiscate your tents, blankets, etc.
Occupiers have, to this point, displayed an astonishing level of non-violent restraint and courage. So far they have faced ridicule, cold, rain, snow, abuse, tear gas, rubber bullets, sound cannons, unlawful arrest, and entrapment. These “stupid kids” have withstood efforts by political groups and marketers to co-opt the movement. And perhaps most importantly, they seem to have a sense of the importance of just such a movement at this point in history.
When I attended my first Occupy Seattle protest, I didn’t know that I would also get to witness a failed attempt by then Mayor McGinn to co-opt the emerging identity of the Occupy movement. The infrastructure of the moment was drenched in irony. The news cameras were pointed toward the north end of Westlake, focused not on the occupiers, but on the podium and rally leaders. The difference between Occupy and formal American politics was immediately apparent.
The rally had equipment, PR connections, and talking points. It is worth noting that while the rally was taking place, Occupy proper was having a meeting at south end of the square. They were using a human microphone to express concerns about safety and to make sure that everybody had a voice. Not surprisingly, the human microphone of Occupy was being drowned out by the megaphone chants of the union-led rally.
The juxtaposition of old politics with the emerging politic were in stark relation here. One group was shouting for congress to act on their behalf. The other was acting on their own by actively challenging the boundaries of existing law, and demanding that they had the right to act on their own behalf.
It should not be lost that Occupy has claimed a right to common spaces–a right that has been denied by city, state, and federal representatives. All should take notice. The common has been dissolved into the private, and the private belongs to those who control vast quantities of capital.
I don’t think that it is grandiose to say that, at its heart, the Occupy movement is a polemic against the untenable ethical stance of Western Capitalism. These ethics create a profound cognitive dissonance among consumers. We have tried to drown it out, but the anxiety has become pervasive.
Insofar as occupiers have become aware of that anxiety–which takes the form of political, social, and economic disenfranchisement, a declining job market increased school, food and medical costs and the ballooning of individual debt–they are a univocal entity whose purpose is the expression of that anxiety.
In every aspect of life, they suffer the practical alienation of the individual in America today. Habeas Corpus has been trampled by the Patriot Act. Money has been declared the equivalent of free speech by the highest court in the nation. The right of citizens to peacefully assemble has been questioned, violated, and questioned some more. Their capacity to approach the government for a redress of grievances has been diluted by all of the above, and so, they have been left with no other option than to occupy the commons (which have been taken from them) with their bodies whose legal right to which has also been taken from them.
This act (of occupying the commons) turns out to be harder to ignore than their vote. Indeed, the Occupy movement has decided to solve the problem of western capitalism with the very thing that it has threatened to take from them: their bodies.
And the occupiers have started to answer the question of how we should live together not simply by thinking about it, but by actually living together. Occupy together. Another thing that should not be lost in the endless punditry is that they are in the process of solving the problem of western capitalism, not with abstractions, but with their bodies.
It has become clear at the dawn of the 21st century, that there are many things that the capitalist machine can do. In the opening paragraph of Capital, Marx suggested that the world has never seen a more productive economy than the capitalist mode of production. Looking back on the last 100 years I am inclined to be less generous than Marx.
Yes, capitalism is a powerful means of structuring the political economy. Capitalism accomplishes this by shaping the infrastructure of human culture around the production and circulation of capital. And we are finally starting to grasp the unavoidable ramifications of this.
In its simplest terms, capitalism has brought about a world where one thing is true. We have never been better at turning the world into trash and cash. In fact, at no point in history have we had more trash and more cash than we have today. And to what end? Have we even bothered to think about the outcome? Well, occupy is living it. And it’s our loss if we haven’t taken notice.
One way of measuring our capacity for ethics (at least in part) is by paying attention to what we do with our excess. What does it say about us that the disparity between the wealthy and poverty-stricken has never been greater? If we have learned anything in the august years of western civilization, it is that capitalism as we know it cannot shape a world worth living in.
Marx and Heidegger wondered about whether or not the modern industrial apparatus could be re-appropriated for other purposes than serving the capitalist mode of production. We are at a place in history when we can answer begin to answer that question. The material and ideological apparatus of capitalism cannot be made to do anything other than alienate those who labor in it and pollute the area surrounding it. This is not a function of the technology of the factory; rather, it is the tragic result of the shape of its purpose.
The modern industrial apparatus was constructed to exploit a labor population, exploit the environment, and produce massive amounts of stuff. The factory (and its offspring) has accomplished these things at rates never before seen in the history of human being.
Zizek has spoken eloquently about the need for people to reclaim their commons. This is an essential act, and it is something that Occupy has attempted in the court of the real. It is my contention however, that there is a more fundamental and iconoclastic activity for us. We must also begin to shape our culture and its economy around life rather than capital. It is precisely this conversation that has become available as a possibility in the wake of what has been revealed.
The occupy movement was founded on the radical notion that our rights, our interests, and our power are derived not from the abstraction of capital or some rarefied notion of political process, but from our very presence to each other. By defining it in this way, occupy has reclaimed the ontological foundation of politics. Occupy has reduced the conversation to an intelligible exchange that exists between objects.
In the wake of this movement, serious questions emerge for the rest of us. What will we do with our excess? To whom do the commons belong? How can we live together without exploitation being the fundamental definition of relationships?
No, the revolution will not be televised. And no, its outcome will not be immediately apparent. But the dialectic has already been set in motion. What remains for the rest of us? Simply this, to try to do justice to the possibilities that have been opened up for us.