October 29, 2011

Fragments from an Occupation

Posted below is a collection of concerns, questions, and reflections generated by a recent round-table on the global occupy movement that took place at the University of Alberta. I was involved in planning the event and I'm still hoping that I'll be able to post a recording of the discussion on this site; for now, I've assembled some thoughts (my own, as well as those of other participants) both on the movement more generally and on its current manifestation in Edmonton.

Although a significant action took place today (a march calling for governments to introduce what's been nicknamed "the Robin Hood tax") and our camp at the corner of Jasper Ave and 102 Street is still functional after nearly two weeks of occupation, there has a noticeable decline in participation, both at a day-to-day level (a small number of volunteers are doing all the work to maintain camp infrustructure) and at our regularly held general assemblies. There are ongoing discussions about the future of the downtown camp: none of us are so naive that we think this can continue (at least in its current form) through an Edmonton winter. There have been also been an increasing amount of concerns regarding the homeless individuals who frequent the camp, many of whom are intoxicated or seeking a fix. Thankfully, most of us are of the opinion that the participation of the disenfranchised is just as (if not more) important to this occupation as our own, not least because they had been "occupying" this harsh and unwelcoming environment well before we arrived with our tents. However, many of the problems that currently plague the camp are due to decreased involvement and attendance, and so it is all the more imperative that we think through ways of continuing what we've started that don't sacrifice momentum but are still realistic about the movements material limitations.

It's with those immediate concerns in mind that I turn to some reflections that emerged from last week's discussion at U of A.

First, the global occupy movement is based around local attempts to build permanent zones of autonomy that stand in contradiction to the processes of capitalism that determine our lived condition. Proof of this contradiction can be seen in the violent responses from the state in places like Oakland, Rome and elsewhere.

Unlike the many institutions of collectivity that have become complicit with or have developed out of Western capitalism, the occupy movement is not interested simply in the performance of community and actively resists its commodification. As has been noted, the movement is characterized by a strong negative impulse which draws it into opposition with the political-economic apparatus as it functions today; people are increasingly recognizing that our system has enabled the consolidation of wealth and power by an indifferent upper-class. Despite the reactionary criticism perpetuated by mainstream media outlets, the movement has a clear target in its aim.

There is a conscious effort to privilege local struggle while recognizing its relationship to and solidarity with the larger global struggle. Here in Edmonton, we have begun most of our meetings with an acknowledgment that we are living on Treaty 6 land: once a place of flourishing for the Cree, now a place of alienation and embarrassment for many indigenous peoples due to the first occupation of this land by British settlers. Can we understand our current occupation as a conscious effort to reorient ourselves to a land that was never ours to begin with? Are we participating in the prolongation of colonial structures, or opposing them with and on behalf of the disenfranchised? Does the language of occupation (which has drawn fire from numerous participants) not reflect and produce the very logic of private ownership that we oppose? In addition to the creation of new forms of social relation (not premised on capital), it is also up to us to imagine new possibilities for discourse and representation.

Perhaps one of the most important characteristics of this movement is that it has proceeded without any serious acknowledgment of what today falls under the name “politics.” Our choices in the political establishment offer no substantial choice or change, but instead give us slightly different ways of maintaining untenable lifestyles. In short, the official institutions that claim to embody our democracy have been treated as the ineffective sideshow that they are.

It has been pointed out repeatedly that there is a frustrating lack of collective demands. Our unwillingness to identify or hand over specific demands arises from a fear that those demands will be perverted and co-opted by the powers we seek to oppose. This is certainly a weakness of the movement, but it is also one of its great strengths. Many of the social movements of the late twentieth century had their basis in identity-politics and, consequently, were grounded by an axiom of equilibrium that sought to establish a basic equality of rights among exclusive groups. Such movements were therefore mobilized by a certain degree of self-interest that could easily be put into the service of capital; it seems, in contrast, that the global occupy movement is mobilized by a collective hunger for justice that looks beyond individual needs, not to some universal projection of identity, but to a universal that is necessarily open, but is equally opposed to privatization.

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