I have seen many countries. Of one thing I am firmly convinced: Universal destruction or universal brotherhood awaits us. Yevgeny Yevtushenko1
Remembrance of revolutions past
Like the Russian poet, I, too, have seen many countries, and it is my understanding of the cataclysmic events in the country where I was born which provides me with an introduction to these comments on the Occupy Movement. The Iranian Revolution of 1978 serves as both an example of a grassroots civil insurrection that overthrew an entire political system, as well as a warning about the idea of ‘universal brotherhood’ being subverted by religious particularism and sectarian chauvinism.
I was three years old when widespread popular uprisings across my native land, led by university students, oil refinery workers and seminarians, toppled the regime of the anti-Communist US-backed ‘Emperor of Oil’, Mohammed Reza Shah. I remember hearing the Farsi rendition of the banned Chilean socialist anthem ‘¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!’ (‘The people united will never be defeated’) on my dreamy young chapee – ‘Leftie’ – cousin’s small tape recorder while being babysat at my aunt’s place in Tehran. I also vividly recall the romanticised image of the impossibly handsome early twentieth century revolutionary, Mirza Kuchik Khan, the founder of a short-lived secessionist socialist state in northern Iran, on an imposing poster above my cousin’s bed. The Latin American song’s stirring melody and the Persian freedom fighter’s defiant glare would haunt me for many years – and they are still with me today.
My cousin and the other Leftists in our extended family were understandably jubilant when, after months of fierce street battles between Molotov-cocktail hurling radicals and the Shah’s tanks and commandos, the abhorrent despot and his family bowed out and left the country on 16 January 1979. To many a Leftist’s dread and disappointment, however, two weeks later, the ultra-conservative Shia religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini and his henchmen returned from their European exile. They lost no time in organising the Pasdaran militias that would soon terrorise the Left, beat the nation into submission to Islamic law and launch a devastating war against Iran’s Sunni Arab neighbour, Saddam Hussein of Iraq.
The purpose of this is not to paint the tumultuous backdrop of the early years of my life. My intention here is to emphasise that the original Iranian Revolution of 1978, prior to its being ruthlessly hijacked by Islamists, was, in the words of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, ‘an authentic Event, a momentary opening that unleashed unprecedented forces of social transformation, a moment in which “everything seemed possible.”’2 That one such possibility was a theocracy was a disaster; but the tragedy does not in any way invalidate the power and authenticity of the event that succeeded in deposing an unjust ruling class.
And more than thirty years later, as I watch Leftist radicals and activists take to the streets of the major cities of the country that I now call home, and as I’m angered by Lord Mayors and Chief Commissioners of Police dispersing the protesters with brute force, I cannot help but wonder if I am not once again bearing witness to an ‘opening’, a moment of irreversible ‘social transformation’, this time in one of the wealthiest centres of the so-called democratic, capitalist West.
Another protest movement?
I’d like to examine the Occupy Movement (OM)’s capacity to recall and, in due course, perhaps revive the revolutionary spirit and actions that brought down the Shah in Iran, the Tsar in Russia and Louis XVI, Charles X and Louis Philippe I in France. I’d like to address the question that may have occurred to many observers of OM: is this a feeble, ephemeral gathering of aimless malcontents, or the earliest stage of a historic sequence of events with the aim of rupturing the capitalist system?
According to one common perception, OM is simply a protest movement, comparable to (rather ineffectual) anti-war rallies during the outbreak of the so-called War on Terror and similar, according to Naomi Klein, ‘to the movements that sprang up against corporate globalization at the end of 1990s.’ Klein is, of course, the activist and author whose earlier works chronicled and, in some cases, informed the so-called anti-globalisation movements. As such, she is certainly fit to make such a comparison. Yet many other important radicals and organisers of past and existing protest and civil rights movements have come to view OM as an entirely new phenomenon.
The seasoned US activist Angela Davis, for example, believes that past social movements ‘appealed to specific communities – workers, students, black people, Latinas/Latinos, women, LGBT communities, indigenous people’, whereas ‘[i]n a strikingly different configuration, this new Occupy Movement imagines itself from the beginning as the broadest possible community of resistance – the 99 per cent, as against the 1 per cent.’ The writer and filmmaker Michael Moore, who has described OM as ‘one of the most remarkable movements that I’ve seen in my lifetime’, believes that OM ‘isn’t a movement in the traditional sense’ as ‘it hasn’t followed the old motifs that we’re used to.’ According to a speech delivered at Occupy Wall Street, Žižek – who has described the 2003 protests against the US invasion of Iraq as a futile, even counterproductive ‘spectacle’3 – believes OM is not ‘a harmless moral protest’ but an event that has provided us with ‘the very language to articulate our unfreedom.’
Before exploring OM’s crucial, perhaps central articulation and slogan – ‘We are the 99%’ – I’d like to highlight the significance of what Davis has described as OM’s rejection of identity politics – that is, the advocacy of a variety of causes associated with ‘specific communities’ – in favour of the demands of a single, unitary ‘community of resistance’, a concept similar to French philosopher Alain Badiou’s notion of a metapolitics in which ‘each and every singularity is to be treated collectively and identically.’4
The anti-corporate campaigns of late 1990s were openly diverse and distinctly incoherent. Their participants ranged from those protesting against the treatment of sweatshop labourers in specific developing countries to environmental and anti-nuclear activists, animal rights advocates and champions of the rights of indigenous peoples. According to Klein, ‘the mass protests in Seattle and DC were a hodgepodge of slogans and causes;’5 a series of decentred and in many cases disparate campaigns that did not converge ‘into a single movement’6.
Today’s OM, on the other hand, is clearly a far more focussed and collective entity. According to Davis, it is a ‘congregation’ in which ‘we come together in a unity that is not simplistic and oppressive.’ As a participant in Occupy Nashville told the British journalist Gary Younge, ‘it’s really exciting to be part of this bigger group that comes together in a common space with a common goal.’ This unity and commonality, as a key characteristic of OM that radically differentiates it from protest movements of the last few decades, has been best expressed – or, in Badiou’s sense of the word, named – by the slogan ‘We are the 99 per cent’. It is a motto that signifies, as Rosa Luxemburg would have it, ‘the political mass action of the millions’ or ‘the independent action of the broadest masses’; a phenomenon which, according to Luxemburg, ‘must sooner or later break forth into a period of revolutionary struggle for State power.’
‘We are the 99 per cent’
Based on my personal experience of attending Occupy Melbourne, the current movement is not about to graduate into a militant struggle for political power anytime soon. Its Australian participants are, by and large, urbane and polite progressives for whom authentic, confrontational revolutionary action may seem unfathomably terrifying and inconceivable.
The sixty or so protesters who gathered in the Melbourne City Square on 6 November 2011 to listen to informal lectures on democracy and human rights as part of the evening’s Occupy Melbourne were as non-violent as possible. Despite the previous day’s notorious police assault on a peaceful young female demonstrator for being provocatively dressed as a ‘tent monster’, that protesters were neither fearful of further police violence nor consumed with anger and a desire for retribution. The small but engaged and visibly cross-generational gathering was instead a lively workshop of ideas and conversations about the movement’s ambitions, directions and possibilities.
One of the speakers, the writer and thinker Justin Clemens, introduced the French philosopher Jacques Rancière’s notion of dissensus to the discussion. Many agreed that consensus, either as a democratic ideal or as a practical strategy in organising oppositional groups, poses many problems; but most agreed to be respectful and agreeable in expressing their views about the politics of disagreement. This was, in other words, a far cry from what the Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle has called a ‘rabble’. I cannot picture any of the well-behaved people with whom I shared the ground in front of an enormous Christmas tree on that chilly evening arming themselves with petrol bombs and plotting the violent overthrow of the West’s ruling elites.
But this assembly did not feel like a routine gathering of hobby activists either. Although – at least at this particular event – conversation outweighed action, the words being spoken, if not the tone with which they were voiced, struck me as refreshingly, unquestionably radical and uncompromising.
When one person queried if the movement should veer more towards environmentalism and address our reliance on fossil fuels, a greater number argued that global capitalism was the reason for current environmental crises and that the movement’s first and foremost task should be to resist capitalism as such. The majority seemed rather weary of concerns such as identity politics, human rights and religious intolerance. One person’s complaint about another’s ‘classist language’ went ignored as the group continued to argue about the most effective ways to subvert capitalist hegemony.
Clemens believes that the movement’s language is ‘noteworthy’ due to ‘several linguistic peculiarities.’ According to Clemens, the term ‘occupy’ itself evokes the universalist, internationalist ideals of past revolutions, and contradicts the postmodernist indeterminacy and diversity of recent protest movements:
Occupy is a universal that calls for a particular. To designate its particular manifestations, the word is hitched to a place-name, the name of a town or city: Occupy Wall Street, Occupy London, Occupy X… Certainly, not every place is as significant as every other: New York has played a key role due to its proximity to Wall Street and the media-dense situation of the US. But Occupy also implies that the occupation of any place equalizes all places. Wherever we occupy, that place is our place. Occupy is at once an injunction to take (the) place, and a declaration that this is already the case, that this place is already ours.
The term ‘occupy’, in other words, universalises the premise of localised action, and inverts the commonplace adage, ‘Think globally, act locally’. And, as Clemens has noted, crucial to any form of global action is the emergence of a plural agent, of a ‘we’ which, according to Žižek, could ‘contribute to bringing a collective subject into existence.’7
‘We are the 99 per cent’, perhaps OM’s best-known slogan, is a powerful invocation of such a collective subject. According to Adam Weinstein in Mother Jones, the slogan began life as a ‘simple little idea’, as the title of ‘just another blog among millions.’ The blog was created by New Yorkers ‘Chris’ and Priscilla Grim in late August 2011 to attract publicity to Occupy Wall Street. According to Chris, the initial idea was to ‘get a bunch of people to submit their picture with a hand-written sign explaining how these harsh financial times have been affecting them, have them identify themselves as the ‘99 percent’, and then write ‘occupywallst.org’ at the end.’ The response to the blog was much greater than anticipated:
On September 8, the first day [Chris] started publishing submissions, there were five posts. Less than a month later, the blog was posting nearly 100 pieces a day: from the 61- year-old who lost her job and moved in with her kids, to the husband of a college professor on WIC and Medicaid to support an infant daughter, to the fifty-something couple living on tossed-out KFC, to a bevy of youths pummelled by student debt and too poor to visit a dentist.
I am much less concerned with this blog’s popularity or the number of submissions it has received (and continues to receive) than I am with its ability to provide a virtual space for an assemblage of voices and stories that acts as a united front – as a ‘we’ – against capitalist ideology. I am moved by the undeniable, at times shocking truths conveyed by these accounts of deprivation and inequality, but the most striking aspect of the words and images posted on the blog since the beginning of the movement is their authors’ readiness to use the exact same visual format – that is, a photo showing a piece of writing, held in its author’s hands, which includes the phrase ‘We are the 99 per cent’. This uniformity breaks with the liberal bourgeois values of originality and individualism – the cornerstones of most previous protests and civil rights movements in the West – and brings into public consciousness a potentially transformative force: a collective that identifies itself as an openly oppositional majority, the politically and economically disempowered ’99 per cent’ against the ‘1 per cent’ ruling class.
In this context, the mathematical accuracy or otherwise of these percentage figures is of no significance. What is crucial is that the phrase and those who have made it theirs at various OM rallies and actions around the world are calling into being what Badiou would term ‘an inexistent’.8 An example of this ‘non-existent aspect’ is the unrecognised political power of workers prior to the revolutionary upheaval of the Paris Commune in 1871. Before the historic event, the parliamentarian ruling elites in the West had assumed that workers would remain forever excluded from direct involvement in politics; but the sudden, unplanned occupation of Paris by the city’s working class militias (initially, and perhaps ironically, armed and mobilised by the rulers themselves to fight foreign invaders) opened the way for the emergence of something that would’ve been deemed impossible beforehand. According to Badiou, the Central Committee formed by the Parisian militants comprised ‘yesterday’s inexistent workers, brought into a provisionally maximal political existence as the consequence of an event.’9
In my opinion, the blog and the slogan ‘We are the 99 per cent’ express a desire for a similar event; an event that would bring into political existence those who are deemed as the inexistent elements of today’s capitalist societies. As one of the creators of the original blog has said of the people who have submitted their words, ‘they want to let others know that they’re out there, that they exist, that their problems exist.’ And this passion for coming into being in a system that has condemned so many to nothingness demands ‘the destruction of what legitimised this inexistence.’10 What OM is calling for, in other words, is a rupture in the system that has authorised the exclusion and destitution of so many in so-called democratic nations. What is being invoked here is, in short, a revolution.
The people have spoken
I’ve been arguing that, although in its current state, OM cannot be described as a revolutionary uprising, it cannot be seen as yet another ephemeral, postmodern protest movement either. Even if the movement’s local manifestations may not always take the form of a visible public demonstration – as can be seen in, for example, Occupy Melbourne’s decision ‘to adopt a strategy of decentralisation’ – the movement has, among other things, expressed a strong and sincere desire for a revolutionary transformation. But will this desire turn into militancy and, perhaps, a drive for an actual uprising?
My answer to this question cannot be emphatically positive but nor can it be negative. As a poet and a writer, I am understandably fascinated with the slogans and the language of the movement, but I believe there is something profoundly and startlingly revolutionary about much of this.
As any student of history knows, revolutions are not the sole result of a people’s desire for change. The Iranian Revolution of my childhood, for example, occurred, in part, as a reaction to the brutalities of the Shah’s secret police and his servitude to US imperialism. But the revolution would not have happened without the people realising that a regime as cruel and malignant as theirs was beyond reforms or improvement. The people decided that they wanted an end to the Shah’s power over their lives. I believe OM hints at a similar decision having now been made by a great many citizens of the capitalist west.
1. Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Bratsk Station (trans. Tina Tupikina-Glaessner, Geoffrey Dutton and Igor Mezhakoff-Koriakin), Sun Books, Melbourne, 1970, pp. 149–50.
2. Slavoj Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes, Verso, London, 2009, p. 114.
3. Žižek, Living in the End Times, Verso, London, 2010, p. 326.
4. Alain Badiou, Metapolitics (trans. Jason Barker), Verso, London, 2006, p. 150.
5. Klein, Fences and Windows, Flamingo, London, 2002, p. 19.
6. Klein, Fences and Windows, p. 16.
7. Cited in Jessica Whyte, ‘The long night of the Left is drawing to a close’, Overland, issue 204 spring 2011, p. 23.
8. Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis (trans. David Macey and Steve Corcoran), Verso, London, 2010, p. 203.
9. Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, p. 221.
10. Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, p. 225.
Ali Alizadeh’s collections of poetry include Ashes in the Air (UQP, 2011), short-listed for the Wesley Michel Wright Prize, Evental (Vagabond, 2011) and Eyes in Times of War (Salt, 2006). He also writes creative non-fiction, drama, fiction and criticism. He holds a PhD from Deakin University and is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Monash University.
© Ali Alizadeh
Overland Occupy – special online supplement 2012
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