‘OH! Pleasant exercise of hope and joy!’
So William Wordsworth famously invoked the romance of the French Revolution. ‘Reason’ seemed a ‘prime Enchantress’, going forward not in ‘favoured spots alone’ but across ‘the whole earth’. The ‘inert’ were ‘roused’, and ‘lively natures rapt away!’
No-one would seriously equate the storming of the Bastille in 1789 with the first encampment in lower Manhattan, 2011. Still, the emotions of enthusiasts do bear some comparison. And why not? In the middle of September last year, barely 2000 people gathered in New York’s financial district; of these, only a hundred or so slept overnight in nearby Zuccotti Park. By the end of the year, residents of more than 1500 cities across the earth had taken possession of streets or squares. Kinship was declared with the democratic uprisings of the Arab Spring. New technological forms, such as Twitter, Facebook and Pastebin, were used to coordinate and inform. Though at first dismissive, the commercial media was eventually forced to pay attention. Suddenly, there was a new movement and a new tactic; an old verb had acquired a new meaning.
The apparent novelty of the movement has impressed many observers. Some have suggested that the Occupy campaign expresses ‘unprecedented solidarity’; others have identified ‘tactical innovation’, and, even more boldly, a ‘leaderless’ challenge to ‘existing models of social movements’. But the frequent reach for historical comparison by participants and onlookers would seem to signal continuity at least as much as interruption. The campaign that began in New York has been compared with Gandhi’s Salt March, the rebellions of the1960s, the American Revolution, the industrial strikes of the Great Depression, the Situationists of France, feminist consciousness-raisers, and the anti-nuclear and anti-capital protesters of the early 2000s.
On the other hand, the very profusion of comparators also indicates the inexactness of any particular antecedent: in drawing from so many sources, this campaign really must be something new.
The Occupy movement does not simply repeat the past. Rather, it represents the rediscovery of three lessons drawn from earlier radical campaigns: the beginning of a public conversation; the naming of an enemy; and the remaking of democracy. Its attention to these matters connects the movement with a radical past. But its fresh perspective also serves to disturb the present, and thereby to promise a different future.
The significance of the movement stands out most starkly against the background of recent history. In the three decades from the later 1970s, the power of business has been extended and confirmed. Regulations that constrained predatory behaviour have been removed, new restrictions on the organisation of labour imposed. Government provision of social goods has increasingly given way to the market; citizen needs have been subordinated to new opportunities for profit acquisition. The trade unions and labour parties formed to defend the interests of workers have often been collaborators in this process; when opposed, they have been mostly ineffectual guardians of the collective interest. Relative shares of national income have become progressively less equal. In 1980, the richest 1 per cent of Americans received 10 per cent of national income; in 2007, it was 23.5 per cent. This group’s average yearly income is $1,530,773, and they hold 39 per cent of national wealth.
Though Australia has so far escaped the most recent global crisis, the underlying retreat from equality is nearly as marked. In the middle 1970s, the wealthiest 1 per cent of Australians earned less than 5 per cent of national income; at the beginning of the new century, it was more than 9 per cent, and by 2006 it was more than 10 per cent. These were the most unequal distributions since the early 1950s.
It is a great and terrible transformation, and it has been justified with a battery of jargon: ‘flexibility’ and ‘reform’; ‘competitiveness’ and ‘responsibility’. Mandated apparently by a remorseless and impersonal logic that brooked no dissent, the agents who drove these changes, and who were enriched by them, mostly disappeared from public view. Once the ubiquitous embodiment of gross, unmerited accumulation, the symbol of ‘Mr Fat, the Capitalist’ was supplanted by new celebrations of financial wizardry. The term ‘elite’ was increasingly used to describe the lover of a café latte, not the servant of mammon.
In the act of occupation, protesters found a means of interruption. In seizing the land around the citadels of high finance, they demanded attention. In refusing to vacate, they created a new forum for discussion. Within makeshift camps, occupiers attempted to share their experiences and to define their aims: ‘I see people talking. Everybody’s talking, man, and I can talk, too.’ Holding placards and posting blogs, they reminded their fellow citizens of the hard and bitter facts of economic inequality. This was not a simple appeal for government action; it was an intervention with the capacity to change the nature of political debate. The same process was evident across the globe, but perhaps members of Occupy Melbourne put it most clearly:
Why are you doing this? We are reclaiming public spaces in the interests of free speech. We are challenging the assumptions that this societies [sic] mode of existence is the only way of life. We are looking to engage people in this dialogue and develop better communication between people. We are empowering people to voice their concerns and express their ambitions.
‘We are the 99 per cent, claim the members of the Occupy Movement. This is far from an adequate class analysis. But the very starkness of the declaration dramatises the profound inequalities of wealth and income that now define our world. Though the massiveness of the Ninety-Nine necessarily contains great differences in wealth, opportunity, and experience, it is marked also by a commonality of pressure and disappointment, of anxiety and fear. At a dedicated website (http://wearethe99percent.tumblr.com/), hundreds of anonymous people hold up personal statements that testify to these facts: “I did everything they told me to” (November 17); “Sometimes my family can’t afford to buy groceries” (December 31); “I know that there are other people who have even less than I do, and that makes me sad” (January 3); “I was almost debt-free when I was struck by a major medical crisis” (November 30); “my children, my friends lost their jobs” (November 21); “Scared for the future. Scared for the present” (December 24). The terms “jobs” and “debt” recur most frequently. Even across differences, common experiences can be discerned.
Confrontation with so many life stories indeed moves one to consider experiences shared at least as much as differences in origins and trajectory. It also draws attention to that small fragment who have benefited most from the transformations of the last few decades: ‘I work brutal hours for a wealthy misanthrope … The miser begrudges me even a lump of coal to warm my fingers as I toil’ (6 December); ‘It’s NOT fair that only the 1 per cent can afford to go to Hopkins, Yale, Rutgers, Harvard’ (5 January); ‘I wonder how much time the 1 per cent really spend counting their lucky stars?’ (3 January); ‘I would like to address the “1 per cent”: Greed is NOT good … You will kill yourself trying to preserve that which must die.’ (6 December); ‘The 1 per cent had the first half of our lives. We’ll not give it the rest.’ (28 November); ‘The one thing we all have in common is that we are the 99 per cent that will not longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1 per cent.’
It is a common relationship with the most privileged that helps to define the collective experience of the vast bulk of society. The movement’s media tells us that it is the 1 per cent who ‘control the magnitude’ of national wealth, and who colonise ‘formerly democratic institutions’. It is this tiny fraction that is ‘writing the rules’ of an ‘unfair global economy’. They are ‘the important ones’, and their actions ‘affect’ the rest of us. In the statement of these basic truths, the Occupy movement establishes a new solidarity. It recovers, too, the renewed possibility of a politics that serves common social needs. This is the creation of a new ethos of the mass.
The imagination of a collective condition is necessarily slow and exploratory. The formulation of joint remedies is a process bound to be even more protracted. If the Occupy movement is in part a revolt against the current form of ‘democratic institutions’, then it requires also an experiment with alternative means of self-rule. The absence of leaders is perhaps the most obvious feature of the movement; the presence of autonomous actions its most exciting complement. This is a ‘participatory’ as opposed to a ‘partisan’ democracy. At general assemblies, occupiers seek consensus on aims and actions. Anyone may speak. In a series of simple movements, they signal assent and dissent; in the discovery of common viewpoints, they establish the grounds for direct action; in proliferating web posts, they strive to express personal truths. This is what democracy ‘really looks like’, protesters tell the people of the earth.
The quest to develop a new form of collective cooperation has not been without conflict. The growing size of the campaign has put pressure on direct participation; factions have threatened the harmony and operation of collective debate. Seemingly endless meetings have wearied many; the precise meaning of ‘consensus’ has itself become the object of dispute; the state’s repressive force has provoked profound disagreement over how best to respond. No-one should expect a short experiment in collective cooperation to solve the most wicked problem of how we might come to best rule ourselves. But if the Occupy movement does not have all the answers, then it has at least begun to pose the most important questions. Whether the movement persists in this or another form, it has already made an important historical contribution. In the coming months it is our own pleasant exercise of hope and joy to join in the debate that ‘Occupy’ has begun: not in ‘Utopia’ or ‘some secreted island’, as Wordsworth reminds us,
But in the very world, which is the world Of all of us, – the place where in the end We find our happiness, or not at all!
Thanks to Cam Binger for research assistance.
An earlier estimate of more than 900 cities is offered by Stephen Gandel & Nate Rawlings, ‘Spotlight’, Time, 31 October 2011, vol. 178, no. 17.
Gandel & Rawlings, ‘Spotlight’.
Sean Scalmer & Murray Goot, ‘Elites Constructing Elites: News Limited’s Newspapers, 1996-2002’, in Barry Hindess & Marian Sawer (eds), Us and Them: Anti-Elitism in Australia, API Network, Curtin, 2004, pp.137–159.
A point made by McKenzie Wark.
Sean Scalmer Sean Scalmer teaches history at the University of Melbourne. His most recent book is The Little History of Australian Unionism (Vulgar Pres).
© Sean Scalmer
Overland Occupy – special online supplement 2012
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