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Escalating the Spectacle

Two protestors stand at the Inner Harbor on Tuesday as part of Occupy Baltimore.

Observations from Chris Westcott.

To a passing observer, the recently launched Occupy Baltimore action looks like what any grad student parrot of Zizek might call an occupation without the occupation. It has the feel of an occupation specially ripened for the consumer, with all its pleasures but none of its messy consequences. No factories, offices, schools, or rowhouses commandeered. No barricades erected, nor bulleted lists of demands plastered on doors. No attempts made to paralyze the everyday operations of power. Its greatest challenge to authority has been its tent-free encampment in a 24-hour public park—something only discovered to be unlawful after the selection of the space. The greatest sacrifices most have made are of warmth and time.

At this moment, what is being occupied? Two things for certain. First: leisure. Many occupiers shuttle from one occupation another. They fill the 5-9 hours with collective action, then return to their jobs as usual. Still more supporters merely tab between occupations, giving their hours of online dawdling at work and at home over to the cause. A few plan vacations, sick days. The unemployed—the 17% who instead of salaries earn debt, whose skills have been abandoned to leisure time—now begin to reoccupy themselves.

Occupied leisure allows business to go on as usual but attempts to seize part of private life. Cooking light, crafts, entertainment, and daily media feeds are pulled from the home and thrown together in the park, where they become directed by a cooperative spirit. Suddenly, opinion has a face. Facebook feels tangential. To their surprise after years of general dormancy, occupiers help themselves, together, in public. It may appear to some that the world itself has begun to change. But what makes occupied leisure anything other than a Renaissance festival for the most impotent commune-ism of the 60s? To pose this question honestly is not to fall in with the media’s ritual mockery of politicized youth but rather to seek the historical force and direction of this politicization.

If the Occupy movement is an occupation of leisure, it is much more an occupation of spectacle. Its most brilliant slogan (“We are the 99%”) captures the sublime feeling of statistical supermajority, which today takes its most familiar form as the count of semi-anonymous Internet “hits.” #Occupy has gone viral, and its encampments exist to generate the content that keeps the hits coming. It is a telling irony that the media reaction to the movement has thus far been that the movement lacks content. The content proper to it has in fact been precisely the spectacular content of reproduced assent that the popularity mill of social media, TV news, and political commentary all share.

Spectacular occupation, for all of its new-media penetration, still places its hopes in an old pattern of escalation. The task of short-circuiting the spectacle of accumulating Facebook “likes” and translating discontent into action currently lies the hands of authority, whose illegitimacy is supposed to reveal itself in oppressive control tactics and suppression of basic demands. Occupiers come armed with camera-phones; they obey laws not merely because they believe in peaceful protest but because they await prime footage of police plodding over their innocence, to be posted as links and broadcast to new followers. Or they await similarly blunt attempts by officials and bankers to speak power to truth. Recent events tell us that nothing fills the streets like injustice streaming live; nothing catalyzes choice and action like direct and urgent repression.

These are things US officials know well. The advanced subtlety of homeland security and widespread techniques of accommodation, diversion, and false choice (the creation of phony crises, the relabeling of remote-controlled war, and so on) are specially designed to prevent meaningful escalation, peaceful or otherwise. As the extralegal war-making and lucky-pierre economic maneuvers of this administration have adequately proven, one cannot count on power’s lack of cunning or suppose that transparency can by itself expel injustice. Standing on the liberal high ground of legality in the defensible space of McKeldin Park is not likely to generate the necessary momentum. New means of nonviolent escalation—ones that carry beyond the easily-neutralized project of voting with your Tweet—must be found.

Since many will take issue with the idea that a nonviolent and rights-based movement waits for violence and illegality to become real, let’s approach things another way. What was striking about the planning that took place in Baltimore in advance of Tuesday’s encampment its sense of urgency. Consensus had it that the occupation must begin as soon as possible. Allotting less than 48 hours to plan the initial occupation, the two general assembly meetings rushed headlong through stacks of comments as it set about getting the practical details of encampment in order. Action and logistics were all. Debates about positions and goals were to be postponed until after the encampment was in full swing. In this way the Occupy movement threw out the book on successful organization around goals.

Forced urgency was its power. But now that the encampment is real and people are asking what it’s all about, urgency has started to relax. Marches, outreach efforts, legal and infrastructural projects still race ahead, but the discussion of goals moves slowly and with the painstaking caution of those who have time to spare. As the chants of Banks got bailed out, we got sold out! indicate, there is a close link between the uncertain temporality of the occupation (Why now? And for how long?) and the uncertainty of its goals. A bailout that was difficult for many to identify as unjust in 2008 when policy remained unsettled has taken its abysmal course; but now pundits can also tell us that the average taxpayer “made money” on the bailouts. Is the occupation a protest against the bailout? Certainly not. Nor would it likely be satisfied if it were possible to simply undo the bailout.

“What are you protesting? No one seems to know,” says Erin Burnett on CNN. To which the occupation replies (as it has to the police), Who are you protecting?What or who: the present uncertainty about the grievance and the adversary is the Occupy movement’s most important trait. It is only to be expected, not because there is much learning and debate to do within the movement but because there really is no single grievance. Few are willing to speak for others, but many are beginning to speak for themselves. The disparate concerns they voice are real. The general unwillingness to subsume these voices stems not from a lame unwillingness to step on toes but rather from an appreciation of their specificity.

Many of the more vocal have tried to name the adversary “corporate greed.” The outrage fueling their claim can hardly be questioned. Greed, however, is a moral issue and can only be condemned as a mortal sin or as anti-social behavior. Those who are weary of the concept of sin must ask whether the self-interestedness of our 1% can truly be regarded as anti-social in a society bound to capitalist accumulation. What seems anti-social from one angle appears too big to fail—socially indispensable—from another. And this bifocal incongruity runs deeper than any of us recognize. It can be seen in the paradoxical increases to military spending amid cries to reduce the deficit. Or the constant demand that consumers get out there and spend, but not at the expense of your savings accounts and credit ratings. How many others come to mind?

To repeat, the Occupy movement’s lack of definite goals is its most important trait. By founding itself upon concrete sentiments and a common sense that something must be done, it stubbornly includes all those whose stake is in our common destiny. To these, it holds forth the hope of self-definition unmediated by media squawk or the usual cramped fields of political discourse. By not selecting among grievances or regulating goals, the movement also reopens the vital discussion of how its voices might be related in systems, processes, and surprising complicities in relation which even they are not innocent. In line with this, the resistance to general goals takes due stock of the relations of power needed to achieve them. Whether and to what extent they imply one or more of the branches of government, or unions, or lawyers, or anyone but the Occupy movement—this remains, brilliantly, up in the air.

All signs suggest that there can be no One Goal for the Occupy movement. There appears to be no greater threat to the movement’s integrity than hasty attempts to define such a goal. Already a crack is developing around this issue. If left to grow, we may expect to see things split into at least two camps. One, the inevitable majority, would achieve its destiny as the equal and opposite reaction to the Tea Party “movement” (a symmetry, however strained, that the Occupy movement has wisely already started to dissect). The other, minority fraction might pursue an emboldened and embittered anti-capitalist line. At best, such a split would reproduce the logic of fellow-traveling that proved so destructive in America’s last real wave of popular momentum on the Left: the activities of a small, dedicated core would be watched with uncertain interest by the overwhelming thousands on Facebook. Worse scenarios hardly need to be rehearsed. Suffice it to say that it is bound to be as defeating for occupiers to merely demand a tax on the rich as it is to declaim, as one facilitator did before a general assembly on Tuesday, we are anti-capitalist.

The Occupy movement in its present state is entirely transitional. This is suggested by its present focus on logistics, its emphasis on dissemination, and its overall lack of specificity. Thus, we are returned to the question of escalation. Can the movement make its transition? What is needed if waiting for violence will not work and neither violence nor the naming of a goal is an acceptable answer? To what will it transition?

There is a world of room for responding to these questions. Real responses will take shape in action and in consensus decision-making. One can expect that they will involve developing new modes of long-distance and dispersed participation in tension with the social media platforms that have until now proved so important to the movement. No doubt there must also be a concerted effort to open the movement beyond its current demographics, which in Baltimore are particularly uneven. At the same time, the movement’s developing relationships with unions, lawyers, police, and government officials will need to be constantly questioned and reformulated with great care.

Above all, however, we can speculate from whatever truth there is in the above that the very idea of occupation must be expanded. As the many grievances and goals now abstractly coordinated as the Occupy movement find greater articulation, they must force the movement to rearticulate what it means to occupy. Beginning with the local and the concrete, multiple demands call up the possibility of multiple occupations. The future may thus see a return to occupations in the older sense, a dispersed and ongoing series of sub-occupations with exact locations and determinate demands. Such actions, which interrupt the gap between occupied work and occupied leisure and which temporarily short-circuit the spectacle, remain singularly successful in the direct remediation of injustice.

The return of occupation to factories, offices, schools, and rowhouses need not mean the abandonment of the occupation that started in the parks. Information, decision-making, and action must still be coordinated if the Occupy movement is to keep from dissolving into rogue or defenseless fragments. Its infinite unfulfilled demands can only find lasting expression in a coordinating whole. If some idea of a general assembly—and in the Occupy movement as a whole, many of these—cannot be dispensed with, it will be crucial to discover new, more efficient and more secure means of coordination and inclusion. The consensus decision-making strategies so far employed with relative success represent an important first step, but only a step. One senses that the problem being faced here may be the most urgent one. Its difficulty many be seen as sufficient reason to selectively steal from every available source, from the tactics of Wall Street itself to the secure openness and elective strikes of non-groups like Anonymous.

What is needed more than anything is ongoing internal research and discussion. To this end the movement will need to continue to cultivate journalism and opinions, hopefully in a format occupiers will read to engage with. Outrage alone can unite, but it can also undo. Whether the Occupy movement makes good on any speculations offered here—or even whether these speculations have any truth—is much less important than concerted self-reflection and debate.

But after all, it’s getting cold. Maybe it’s time to start moving inside.


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