The blog of the interdisciplinary journal Environment and Planning D: Society and Space is hosting a forum on the Occupy movement with contributions from more than half a dozen scholars. Here are a few choice samples.
But let me argue for a moment that what is fundamentally at stake in the Occupy movement is a claim to the future, and that the temporal imaginations of the movement are perhaps more instructive than its spatialities. There is of course an endearing spatial intimacy to a movement that seeks to challenge the predations of globally circulating finance capital. But the Occupy movement also interrupts the temporality of financialized futures. Note for example the unfolding of time that is the daily general assembly, a ritual of democracy so deliberately/ deliberatively slow that it becomes a type of unthinkable space.
Translating the Occupy Wall Street movement across the world is hardly straightforward, something those early Reforms would have understood. Geographers can only explain, perhaps rather vaguely, that contexts, places and people matter; and that translation is never straightforward. Some ideas travel better than others, and the name and focus of the indignation shifts to reflect local concerns. Perhaps we can blame those old stone men, in retrospect, for sowing the seeds of world capitalism. Perhaps we could also wonder why it took so long to recognise that women were also part of that movement, and ponder on what it means to continue to narrate heroic tales of individuals who changed the world at a time when a world movement is doing so much to avoid having leaders emerge.
“Just how many more sales managers does this country need?” is a question I often hear from my students who are about to graduate and look for suitable jobs, including academic ones. The bleak prospects of finding meaningful employment that this question conveys are increasingly related to what might be termed “negative selection,” about which I as a Professor of Philosophy hear painfully often. “You are too smart for us” is what a prospective boss tells recent graduates if the position in question is that of a waiter.
Dismantling the socialist state in the post-Soviet space and the simultaneous scaling back of the welfare policies in the United States and Europe have raised new concerns regarding patterns of exclusion and inequality and the institutions and practices that produce them. Work in many occupations has become increasingly precarious. The curtailment of upward career mobility and the increasing contingency of employment have proven particularly detrimental for young adults. Was it not accumulated frustration that led many young people to encampments all over the world? What could more powerfully show that capitalism is not able to secure meaningful jobs for the millions if not the mass OWS spectacle? To make sense of the changes that OWS promises to bring only in the light of macroeconomic tendencies is, however, too one-dimensional. One must also consider the complex interplay between cultural and subjective factors and the socio-economic structures, including the cultural predilections, imaginings, and aspirations of the young.
We had all experienced the good and the bad in the rapidly changing public culture dominated by the corporate will-to-power. Along with decent jobs, and lives that combined employment with activism, we had undergone a scary transformation: we were citizens who had become standing reserves (to use Heidegger’s term). Society (what was left of it) had become the equivalent of an industrial forest or feedlot, and our lives increasingly felt like objects to be used, squeezed, consumed, and dumped on the rubbish heap.
Taking to the streets in this wild conviviality was an affirmation of our human capacity for justice, love, spontaneity, and commitment. Lisa Peattie reminds us in her article “Convivial Cities” that conviviality—the spontaneous gathering together for purposeful activities both pleasurable and instrumental—is an essential part of civil society. Indeed, it may be that this powerfully convivial activism is starting to put the civil back into the practice of society. Out on the streets, in parks and other areas that planners had set aside for public purposes, people gather to assert the right to take meaningful action in the public eye.
The question of how to grasp, challenge, critique the mobile, abstract and invisible nature of speculative capital is as old as the futures markets themselves. In the late nineteenth century, when options and futures were standardised and first traded on a large scale within new Exchanges such as the Chicago Board of Trade, the mobile, invisible, future-oriented trading practices were likened to gambling, considered to be trading in wind, or cast as the work of the devil. As bread prices fluctuated while grain speculation proliferated, a diverse alignment of Marxist, nationalist and religious commentators condemned and challenged the speculative markets. “While a few men really buy and sell wheat [on the Exchanges],” one New England preacher wrote in 1888, “the majority of speculators buy and sell promises…. The paper contracts of the various Exchanges [involve] billions of dollars … This enormous sum of money does not represent any benefit conferred upon the community, but is absorbed by the fortunate speculators without any return whatever.” Debate on the political legitimacy of financial speculation and the morality of futures trading was rife.
I suggest that all the movements of 2011 have common antecedents and common ideological elements, in particular articulating a new emphasis on dignity, and a radical concept of democracy as a practice.
The much remarked upon use of new ICTs for mobilization and dissemination by the 2011 movements may have been unprecedented in scale, but rests on antecedents built up over the decade. The anti-corporate globalisation movement has used Internet to report on summit protests since the WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999, mobile phones generated mobilizations in the Philippines, Spain and South Korea in the middle of the decade, the Kefaya movement in Egypt used a combination of mobile phones and Internet to disseminate evidence of state brutality and the Iranian Green Movement explored the use of Twitter, Facebook and Youtube. But the interconnections run much deeper than just the ICT.
Both the worldwide demonstrations against the war in Iraq in 2003 and the World Social Forums were important vehicles of dissemination of ideas about horizontality, and about how to combine ideological pluralism with an anti-neoliberal stance. A totally new element in the vocabulary of all the movements has been an emphasis on human dignity, which is constructed as requiring fulfillment of basic socio-economic needs, treatment with respect by authorities, and participation in determining one’s fate. The flip side of this appeal to dignity is indignation. The protests are not just against unemployment, wage cuts and other austerity measures, but also about having been lied to by politicians and about different manifestations of crony capitalism.
Other contributors include Eduardo Mendieta, Stuart Elden, Justin Clemens, Cynthia Weber, and Kathryn Yusoff. See the rest of the contributions to the forum here.
For another reflection on space as it relates to the Occupy movement and its tactics, see this essay on the “human chain.”