Skip to content
November 16, 2011 / J A Burrows

What is the #Occupy Movement?

The Intellectual Roots of the Occupy Movement

#occupy wall street poster

The #Occupy Wall Street movement is primarily a Dadaist expression. Dada originated out of anti-war sentiment during World War I. Participants classified it as a protest against the bourgeois nationalism and colonialism. They also saw it as a protest against intellectual conformity during wartime.

According to Wikipedia:

Many Dadaists believed that the ‘reason’ and ‘logic’ of bourgeois capitalist society had led people into war. They expressed their rejection of that ideology in artistic expression that appeared to reject logic and embrace chaos and irrationality. For example, George Grosz later recalled that his Dadaist art was intended as a protest “against this world of mutual destruction.”

Already at this point, there is a clear resemblance to the apparent chaos and disorganization of the Occupy Movement and the Dadaist Movement. However, this is only where the roots of the movement began. There is a very rich cultural and revolutionary history behind the Occupy Movement.

Situationists and the French Protests of ’68

The Avant-garde Dadaist Movement paved the way for the Situationist International group in 1957. The Situationists were primarily a restricted group of European revolutionaries spanning across several borders. The other heritage they drew from was the Marxist ideology. They were very involved in creating situations where people could experiment with alternatives to the group think of society. They created fields such as Unitary Urbanism and Psychogeography. Détournement is a particularly important practice of Unitary Urbanism.

Civil Unrest - France May 1968This group played a large role in supporting the General Strike of May 1968, in France. This strike lasted two weeks and brought the economy of France to a halt. Nearly 11 million people went on strike for the entire two weeks of the protest. This counted for nearly a quarter of nearly 49.9 million French citizens in 1968 and two thirds of the working population. The movement caused massive changes in society as a result of the total disaster it caused. Initially, it focused on educational system. Then it branched out into workers.

The Situationists called for workers to occupy the factories. They established the Council for Maintaining the Occupations. This instituted a democracy with equal voice for all participants:

The council implemented a policy of equal representation for its participants. It was described by Situationist René Viénet as “essentially an uninterrupted general assembly, deliberating day and night. No faction or private meetings ever existed outside the common debate.” It was formed on the evening of May 17, by supporters of the Sorbonne Occupation Committee.

The factory occupation was to prevent workers from being locked out of the factory. It resulted in the workers taking over and directing the factories through a democratic process.

Some may say that similarities abound between the French protests of ’68 and the Occupy Movement. Sure, they were both started by culture jamming societies. You could say they are nearly the same play from very similar organizations. Unfortunately, they were not organized in the same way and a very different intellectual history make them entirely unlike. These two events unfolded drastically differently due to many differences and concerns that may not have been thought out.

The Reality of Occupy

The Occupy Movement was started by Adbusters, a Canadian culture jamming publication and organization. It was formed in 1989, in Vancouver, British Columbia, by Bill Schmalz and Kalle Lasn (author of Design Anarchy). Adbusters describes themselves: “We are a global network of culture jammers and creatives working to change the way information flows, the way corporations wield power, and the way meaning is produced in our society.” Culture Jamming, coined in 1984, is a modern example of détournement, revived in the 1970s with the punk movement.

The Occupy Movement was inspired by the Cairo’s Tahrir Square protests, and the Spanish Indignants. The Egyptian Revolution wanted to overthrow an entire government regime. The Spanish protests have a little more in common with the Occupy Movement:

Even though protesters form a heterogeneous and ambiguous group, they share a strong rejection of unemployment, welfare cuts, Spanish politicians, the current two-party system in Spain between the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party and the People’s Party, as well as the current political system, capitalism, banks and bankers, political corruption and firmly support what they call basic rights: home, work, culture, health and education.

Notice again, there is a definite similarity of the composition of the group and the demands between the Occupy Movement and the Spanish Protests. Occupy is a group of really different people all rallying around demands that each member has. Their focus is wide and there are a diverse range of needs represented.

Democracia real YA

A grassroots movement organized in March 2011 and became known as ¡Democracia Real YA!, which apparently is also the name of the social network that was used to organize it. This organization has created a manifesto and has brought about a (broad) set of demands and became an actual political platform to operate from. The real momentum behind organizing ¡Democracia Real YA! came from a prior timeline: On 29 September 2010, labor union strikes broke out in Spain. More strikes happened on 27 January 2011, when unions in Catalonia, Galicia, and Basque Country also protested. Both of these strikes were for reasons similar to the Wisconsin Labor Strikes in February 2011 and March 2011. On 7 April 2011, 5,000 people organized a protest in Madrid around the demands of Jovenes sin Futura (Youth Without a Future). On 1 May 2011, a riot broke out in Barcelona and destroyed many businesses in the richest neighborhood. The first occupation planned by the ¡Democracia Real YA! came on 13 May 2011. Two days later, 50,000 protesters joined in and showed support. The protests have continued since (over 6 months).

Interestingly enough, the Spanish protests have also been compared to the French Protests of ’68. The similarities: both started around education and employment. Both were in countries small compared to the US. Sure, there was some unrest and an area of Barcelona was trashed, but it has not caused a whole third of the country to cease their daily activities. It has not brought Spain’s economy to it’s knees.

The Intellectual Heritage of Modern American Protests

During the period of 1954-1968, the most recent African-American rights movement happened. Voting rights and racial desegregation were brought about in the south. The Black Power Movement also happened. It sought to bring about a true relief of oppression from white Americans and a power balance with white Americans. This movement was steeped in non-violent practices.

Second wave feminism emerged during this period, too. Women worked hard to gain equality in society. Women worked to attain equal pay, and equal footing economically. More generally, women worked hard to dispel the media’s portrayal of women’s role in society. This movement was also rooted in non-violence to achieve its goals.

Parallel to the development of the Situationists in Europe, the development of Happenings came about in the US during 1957. Allan Kaprow coined the term to describe performances happening that spring on George Segal’s farm. These happenings were meant to involve the audience and draw them into the art, to interact with it and become a part of the performance itself. In Kaprow’s words, “The line between the Happening and daily life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible.” A happening depends entirely on the audience that participates. Since the audience changes every time, each performance is never the same. This idea would go on to inspire others.

In San Francisco, The Suicide Club formed in 1977 by Gary Warne (also the founder of SantaCon). This secret society involved itself in urban exploration and social exploits borrowing ideas from happenings. They started The Billboard Liberation Front (one of the first US culture jamming groups) as a result of their bridge climbing antics. They performed street theater — sometimes this involved riding the streetcars naked. They hosted elaborate games in strange places like a cemetery. They also infiltrated organizations — such as the Unification Church and the American Nazi Party.

In 1986, ex-Suicide Club members founded the Cacophony Society. According to their website:

The Cacophony Society is a randomly gathered network of individuals united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society through subversion, pranks, art, fringe explorations and meaningless madness.

This group is responsible for creating Burning Man during Zone Trip #4. One of the co-founders, Kevin Evans, conceived it as “a dadaist temporary autonomous zone with sculpture to be burned and situationist performance art.”

The idea of the Temporary Autonomous Zone, came to Hakim Bey as early as 1985 while he was studying pirate utopias. The book on TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zones) was published in 1991. The book skirts around defining the meaning of the TAZ, leaving the term as a floating signifier. Fortunately, the context of the book creates enough of a boundary around the meaning that one can grasp in intuitively. A protest, a happening, a Burning Man event, a Lost Horizon Night Market, a ComicCon, and the Oregon Country Fair are all examples of a TAZ (and happening) to one degree or another.

Hakim’s book on the TAZ begins with a section entitled “CHAOS: THE BROADSHEETS OF ONTOLOGICAL ANARCHISM”. At this point, we can see that the Situationist legacy had been united with the anarchic tendencies of the US Cacophony Society and earlier Suicide Club. Most likely the notions presented so shortly after Adbusters was founded would have been on the radar of Lasn, since Lasn is such a proponent of the anarchy of design and ideas. It would seem that much of the ideology behind the Cacophony Society would have made it into the minds of those planning the Occupy event.

What Does This Mean for Occupy?

Politically, the French protesters of ’68 failed. President De Gaulle tried to fight back with Police action. This was not met well and streets broke out with battles against the police. Fearing a revolution, President De Gaulle fled to Germany, staying at a French military base. He dissolved the National Assembly and held re-elections. His party emerged even stronger after the elections. The aftermath only included sweeping changes to French society because so much of society was effected by a fourth of France protesting.

Contrasted to the French protests of ’68, Occupy is definitely not a large movement concentrated in one area. It is not a sizable force that can recon with a cities economy, much less an entire country’s economy (maybe a neighborhood economy). Now, the Occupy movement is being confronted with police force in many states. If it were to get violent, that would be the end of the movement. Fortunately, there is a great heritage of non-violent protesting in the US. If this were not the case, the moment a violent fight broke out between protesters and cops, the movement would be dismissed and would have no political power. There is no way this movement as it stands will be able to bring about the social change the French protesters brought about through force.

Occupy may appear to be a grassroots movement, but it only became one after Adbusters manipulated the psychogeography by placing posters around the area Occupy Wall Street would happen. Unlike both the French protests of ’68 and the Spanish Indignants, it did not grow out of groups already protesting. Sure, there were union strikes in Wisconsin. Where were students already protesting about the educational system? The sentiment was not nearly as widespread as it was in May ’68 in France. There is a similarity between Spanish protesters and Occupy, the length of time occupations have been happening. Occupy has been going on for about 1/3 of the time as the Spanish Indignants, and the protests have lasted 1/3 of the time. They do seem to be very similar in action.

Occupy is seemingly artificial, not to disqualify it, but it was not an organic grassroots movement where lots of people decided to start protesting. It is an idea piggybacking on generally felt sentiments, sentiments felt very deeply by some. It was provoked, not by the government or economy itself, but rather by a culture jamming collective with a nod towards ontological anarchism. Occupy is a work of art. It is a readymade art installation and a happening. Kaprow and Duchamp would be proud.

Occupy quickly evolved into a special type of TAZ. It reminded people that there is more to life than this rat race of consumerism and capitalism. People’s belief in reality must be suspended when coming into contact with Occupy. If someone’s beliefs are not suspended, they, like many others, will probably be in conflict with Occupy. They might yell, “Get a job!”, as I heard many times around Occupy Portland. This is a city bound Zone Trip #4, the origin of Burning Man. As Matt Taibbi phrased it:

This is a visceral, impassioned, deep-seated rejection of the entire direction of our society, a refusal to take even one more step forward into the shallow commercial abyss of phoniness, short-term calculation, withered idealism and intellectual bankruptcy that American mass society has become. If there is such a thing as going on strike from one’s own culture, this is it. And by being so broad in scope and so elemental in its motivation, it’s flown over the heads of many on both the right and the left.

As Occupy stands, it cannot be sustained for long. If their sentiments are true, let them stop being a non-commissioned art installation occupying public space. It needs to get off the lawn, before too many anti-protest protests break out.

What Occupy Can Do to Be Taken Seriously

Occupy needs to realize it is a happening, a deeply heartfelt, everyday performance art gathering. It needs to realize that the needs of its actor-participants influence the outcome. The needs of its members must be met. Occupy represents a large cross section of people everywhere on Maslow’s hierarchy of self actualization (let us not delve into it being a hierarchy, just needs that people have). At Occupy, peoples needs include: physiological (air, water, food, sanitation, etc.), safety (health, shelter, clothing, employment, property, etc.), love & belonging (friends, family, sexual intimacy), esteem (to be accepted, valued, and respected), and self-actualization (morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, and acceptance of facts).

This provides an interesting strain on Occupy. It is based on volunteerism, which is a very hard way to manage social services. The strain becomes pronounced in places like Portland where Occupy Portland held a march that ended in occupation of three blocks of parks — parks where a few homeless people already slept. Some of them didn’t know what was going on, but it was “cool” that all of these people came to join them. Word of the camp spread and soon there were a lot of actual homeless people with many needs living in the camp. Even today, there has not been any funding sought out to provide mental health and drug addiction counselling to people that desperately need it.

Occupy has a real need for expert facilitation to sort out the needs of people that are a part of the movement and firmly establish groups in charge of meeting those needs. They need to be groups separate from the people with the needs, so there is accountability. There needs to be a definite schedule for meetings around these different needs and concerns, not like the currently ad hoc situation. This would allow more representation in the spokes council meetings. General Assemblies seem to be derailed because of the number of needs represented by each participant.

In Portland at least, passers by and the media have noticed the homeless people, the drug problems, and the mental health problems. Having continuing issues around these untended needs presents many issues to having a consistent and positive view of Occupy by outsiders. Finding a way to take care of these needs will improve communities and improve the outlook for Occupy.

The language of the original poster for the Occupy Wall Street gathering, “What is our one demand?”, failed to specify any specific demand(s) but rather left it up to the Occupy group to democratically decide a set of demands, or rather, needs. Adbusters left demands wide open, greatly contrasting with the origin of the Spanish protests. This needs to happen soon. Once the needs and demands are sorted out they can be used to drive powerful changes that people can rally behind.

There are so many ways Occupy could incorporate and become a driving force for local economies. By doing so, Occupy would be setting an example for others to follow. A lack of skilled workers may arise, but this really only presents an opportunity to partner with local organizations and create training programs.

The environment of Occupy’s TAZ is ripe for experimentation and innovation. Occupy needs to involve the right people and generate ideas that spread and cause measurable change in society. Once people’s needs are met and actual progress and community improvement is made by Occupy, people will start taking it seriously.

One Comment

Leave a Comment
  1. abandonculture / Nov 16 2011 3:13 pm

    I don’t think OWS can be categorised. Or if it can it shouldn’t be, because as soon as in becomes a ‘single movement’ it can be hijacked and subverted. At the moment it seems that just about everyone is portraying OWS as a movement demanding their agenda.

    Some interesting links:

    http://vigilantcitizen.com/latestnews/vatican-calls-for-a-central-world-bank/

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,186 other followers

%d bloggers like this: