Square and Circle: The Logic of Occupy


A sobering analysis of #Occupy on it’s first anniversary, by Jasper Bernes:

Why Occupy? This is the question I want to answer in what follows. I ask, in this regard, not just about the tactical or strategic benefit of the outdoor occupation, but about the causality of the Occupy phenomenon in its entirety. Why did it arise at this particular moment and not some other moment, in this particular form and not some other form? Why did the occupations unfold in the way they did? Who took part and why?

First off, the question of timing. Why now? Or rather, to put it in more pointed terms, since the economic crisis has ushered in a newly volatile and riotous age, why did it take so long? Why did Occupy erupt in 2011 and not 2009 or 2010? Did people reach some kind of breaking point, as the economic crisis worsened month by month, as unemployment came to seem a permanent rather than transitional stage, as debts became more and more unpayable, mortgages more and more burdensome? Notably, 2011 was the year in which the effects of the crisis were particularly devastating for governmental budgets, precipitating numerous opportunistic austerity programs, particularly at the state and municipal levels. But why, then, didn’t Occupy emerge as an anti-austerity movement, as observers of events in Europe since 2008 might have predicted? Why did attempts to reproduce the Madison Capitol occupation of the preceding spring fail so miserably? Is it because of the weakness of the traditional actors in such movements, such as public sector unions? Or the deep-seated anti-statism of Americans? It is certainly notable that, unlike Greece or the UK– where the capital is also the largest city, capable of generating the largest protests – most major cuts in the US are undertaken by state rather than federal governments, meaning there is unlikely to be a single piece of austerity legislation that will conjure forth a nationwide protest movement.

As we know, Occupy imagines itself as a link in a global chain of protests which begins in Tunisia, spreads to Egypt and from there to the cities of Spain, to Greece and beyond. By the time it gets to Europe and the US, this new International of protest quite self-consciously casts itself as propagated spontaneously through ineluctable processes of contagious, “viral” replication and imitation, sometimes attributed to the dispersive, participatory character of social media. In my view, “spontaneous” is simply the name we apply to those social manifestations whose causality we don’t really understand, and if one looks closely at any of these instances, one sees groups reading the direction of the historical winds and making choices based on their sense of what’s possible. In other words, there are always specific acts of will within, if not behind, any spontaneous emergence – as we learn from the text messages the rioters of Britain sent each other – and this is certainly the case with Occupy Wall Street’s original manifestation. What distinguishes it from the earlier sequence is how long it took, how much delay there is between Syntagma Square and Zuccotti Park. This is one question we need to answer: why did it take so long? And what is it that this delay measures? One answer might be that it measures the uncertainty, here in the US, about the target, the object, around which a protest movement might cohere. As we will see, this uncertainty turns out to be crucial to the course Occupy takes.

(Read more on The New Inquiry)


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