by Brer Fox
The movement that began in New York this September is rapidly spreading to cities across the country, and it has now reached New Orleans. As Mao Tse-Tung used to say, “A single spark can start a prairie fire.” Indeed. Perhaps this feels truer in 2011 than it did in 2010. And it certainly feels truer now than it did in 2009, 2008, and most of the other years that many of us can remember. This Occupy Wall Street movement has characteristics distinct to the U.S. situation, and the permutations which it is taking in each specific location have even more distinct features (the U.S. is not Tunisia, and New Orleans is not New York). However, there are deep continuities amongst all the movements around the world which are part of the dramatic upsurge of 2011—the third year of the greatest crisis of global capitalism since World War II.
This unfolding is both frightening and exhilarating. As we observe and participate in it, we must take time to ask big questions, and to articulate basic realities of our situation, no matter how obvious they may seem to those of us who have already developed radical perspectives of various kinds. It is necessary to do this in order to deepen our own understanding, as well as to shape the incredibly-important realm of discourse. Especially if this movement grows to a significant size, there will be a struggle to determine the truth of this historical moment. And you probably do not have to be convinced that there are powerful forces in our world which are not sympathetic to mass popular upsurges (and, let’s face it, to the mass of the world’s population itself).
For this reason I am taking the time, right now, to reflect on a basic characteristic of all these movements: They all, of course, involve occupations. We should take a philosophico-critical step back and think about the concept of occupation and what it implies.
So what about this word/idea/practice, occupation? Sometimes to occupy can simply mean to be in a position or in a location. But a fundamental sense of the word which is pertinent here is to be in a position or location to which one does not belong. When we say that the U.S. occupies Iraq, for example, we mean that a foreign country has extended its presence in a territory which is not its own. It is an alien force operating there. Similarly, a popular mass of people occupying a building, a square or even a city are an alien force. In the sense of the word which is relevant here, it is clear that people cannot occupy something that already belongs to them. It must, therefore, belong to some other.
This is precisely the kind of language that Marx uses in the section entitled Estranged Labor in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. In describing the fundamental nature of the proletarian situation, Marx says:
If the product of labor is alien to me, if it confronts me as an alien power, to whom, then, does it belong? To a being other than myself. Who is this being? […] If the product of labor does not belong to the worker, if it confronts him as an alien power, then this can only be because it belongs to some other man than the worker.Though the world has changed immensely since 1844, it is still clear that the proletarians of the world do not own their own labor, or the wealth which they create collectively on a vast scale in bourgeois society. They are compelled to toil, and the surplus they produce is stolen by a small elite. In the language of the Occupy movement, the proletarians belong to the 99%, and make up its greater part.
By extension of these facts, it is also clear that the world in general does not belong to the 99%. More and more of life is privatized, from ideas to genetic code to the water supplies upon which we all depend. In the wake of the current global crisis of capitalism, the U.S. government has bailed out incomprehensibly-huge banks but has done almost nothing for the majority of the population. On the contrary, governments around the world have imposed austerity measures on the mass of their populations. And there is not a ray of light on the horizon – at least not coming from above. (Some analysts of the capitalist world system, like economist Minqi Li, believe that capitalism has run out of the space that it once had to maneuver, and that something like the class compromise exemplified by the welfare state is no longer possible, even in the most “advanced” capitalist countries.)
In short, it is clear that this is not our world. It is someone else’s. It belongs to the 1%.
As this movement develops, we should keep in mind the profound yet simple fact that we do not occupy what is already ours. The very language and mode of the movement (the logic of occupation) demonstrates that, irreducibly, our cities, our towns, our streets, our homes even, are not ours. Everything that we see around us is not ours. If BP can poison an entire ecosystem, then even our bodies are not ours. We can’t change any of this within the framework of existing society. A generation is awakening and can feel it.
Isn’t it all absurd and horrifying? Aren’t universities supposed to be for students? How is it that students can occupy buildings on a campus? Shouldn’t those buildings already be theirs? How can we occupy the cities that we live in? Shouldn’t those cities already be ours? How can we occupy the places where we work? We’re the ones who keep those enterprises going!
It should nauseate us that we have built a world that isn’t ours. It’s a disgusting fact.
We are the vast majority and we are the creators of wealth, yet the world belongs to some other. In this society we are a part that is not a part. Or we are a part that is just a part (in the sense of a replaceable cog). We are apart.
Now let’s think about this. In the contemporary United States (and, I believe, in many other countries) there is an intensification of the contradiction between a relatively “native” proletariat and foreign proletarians who are coerced into entering the country by global capitalist development (NAFTA etc.) and are then illegalized. In the mainstream political discourse they are named as alien, yet are essential to the functioning of the existing set-up. They are a part that is radically not a part. Their humanity is denied in countless ways.
Their situation is, of course, different from that of the more “native” proletariat. They experience particular forms of oppression and exploitation, which are nevertheless part of a continuity that extends through the experiences of the mass of the population.
The Occupy movement shows, however, that as soon as the native proletarians attempt to affect politics in a real way a strange homology between the two camps comes into view. We are all revealed as aliens in our own land. And we are all, increasingly, illegal.
The proverbial black youth in an inner city knows what it is like to be alien and illegal. And yet they were born here.
In San Francisco, lawmakers recently attempted to illegalize sitting and lying on sidewalks. Who would be affected here, the 1% or increasingly broad strata of the 99%?
In New Orleans, right now the authorities have begun enforcing ordinances that prevent ordinary people from putting up flyers around the city. They brutalize and arrest Mardi Gras celebrants who parade without a permit. They stuff us into the cells of Orleans Parish Prison like Sanderson Farm chickens © crowded into little rows of cages.
The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, but everywhere we turn we see more walls. Where can we go to express ourselves or experience something that is our own, except in the recesses of our own minds with headphones blocking out the world around us – a world that is in every essential sense not ours? Where can we feel free to move and love how we want to love?
This great drive to occupy that is sweeping the country is a direct reflection of our existential situation. And it’s not a good one. We are aliens and we are illegal.
But at the same time it is clear that this society cannot go on in the same way. The world that we know is finished, though it continues to stumble forward like a cartoon character who has stepped off a cliff and has not realized that s/he must fall. This is a time to think about the future, and imagine the possibility that society can be organized in an entirely different way. We must, paradoxically, return to where we have never been before. In this movement, when we chant, “our streets,” “our bridge,” “our city,” what we must mean is that these can be ours, and that they will be ours if we take them. These statements are performative, in the sense used in linguistics. We are instating a reality, or bringing it into existence.
But to make this a reality is no simple matter. To a large extent we need a revolutionary politics that we have not got. It is not just that much of the theory, strategies and tactics of the existing Left(s) is inadequate to our present world situation (and in many places the “Left” can barely be said to exist). Even more fundamentally, perhaps, politics are not simply “detachable.” I.e., they are not transhistorical totalities that can be conjured up from the past (much less from out of nowhere), ready to be put to work in the present.
On the contrary, effective politics—politics whose real existence is the practice of masses of people acting on a real, contemporary situation—does, in fact, have an organic relationship with that contemporary situation. Rest assured, I believe that we desperately need Emma Goldman, Bakunin, Marx, Gramsci and Lenin today. (Feel free to accuse me of schizophrenic eclecticism.) But those revolutionaries helped to create a living politics in their own time, even as they drew upon already-existing currents of revolutionary thought.
It is up to us now to create our own living politics. And we should aim high. We need intellectual modesty, but it is also a time for big ideas, that is, for politics which are guided by an incredibly radical vision of a different kind of society. Now is not the time to orient ourselves to making little changes to the status quo. We must start at the beginning again.