Pondering the Decline of Occupy

First off, you should all check out my book on the Occupy fall. It’s funny, quick, and people seem to like it so far. Check it out.

My good friend from Occupy and all-around terrific lady D posted this to Facebook today and it evinced some thoughts I feel like sharing. D wrote the following status:

realized from watching livestream that OWS has splintered so badly, it is hurting itself. how very sad. nobody thought to take care of each other. now we can all watch the demise of our movement on livestream while terribly sleep-deprived kids talk about nonsense and violence. Sad.

A series of comments followed, from which I’m only going to post D’s since the rest while not malignant or bad or anything, weren’t especially substantial.

Comment 1: ouch is right. those poor, sleep-deprived kids. the organizers lead them to a place then abandon them.

Comment 2: the organizers lead an action and if it doesn’t work out well, they leave and do something new. we’re creating a wake of destruction. homeless folks are worse off because we’re around. they have fewer places to sleep. damn.

Comment 3: They need young leaders.

These are well articulated but fairly common criticisms. I think she’s right about the organizers, who in my experience retreated to the office space as soon as it was opened up. The office space is closed now, and as far as I can tell they haven’t been at the subsequent encampments, first at Union Square, currently at the Federal Building on Wall Street itself. They’ve been busy planning for May Day and planning actions and marches. This is a good, but at the risk of kicking something while it’s down, not enough, and I would currently consider OWS to be in an advanced decline (I can’t speak for other Occupations, though I went to Occupy New Haven last week and it looked like one of those movies that starts after the bomb already dropped. The guy who put himself in front of the bulldozer during the attempted eviction gets my eternal kudos though.)

So why did it fall apart?

I’m extremely tempted to put most of the blame on Bloomberg and Ray Kelley and DHS for their organized eviction of Zuccotti Park. This certainly didn’t help, but to look for an all-encompassing explanation in this seems untrue to my personal observations. Things were splintering in the park long before the eviction. Why was this?

Many will point toward hired agent provocateurs (AP’s) and undercover police (UC’s). Again, these don’t help, but they also don’t encompass why it would congeal so much. My personal thesis is that the park allowed a lot of people with very strong political views to clump, and same way soured milk comes out in unattractive chunks only to finally drain in the sink, this made for a tense atmosphere filled with many misconceptions based on almost entirely social epistemologies. As Thomas Pynchon writes in Gravity’s Rainbow:

SAKALL: Vell, ve’re both seeing him. That means he’s real.
RATHBONE: Joint hallucination is not unknown in our world podner.

The mob mentality will frequently mistake the mentally ill, those with serious anger problems, and the insistently eccentric with AP’s and UC’s. I’m not especially concerned with any social persecution toward these individuals this might cause-if you’re throwing chairs at meetings or screaming you’re going to kill anybody that comes by, AP or UC is irrelevant-you’re inhibiting the encampment’s ability to do what it’s supposed to do and you should be removed. However, I am concerned how this enhances the perceived power of the outside forces or creates myths of innateness in human nature that make activism seem futile and ridiculous. To use Pynchon’s terminology again, we need as good a “we-system” as a “they-system”.

Commenting on D’s post, I wrote:

The invisible ethos of the culture sank the thing. The quick self-destruction and the relationship of protests to the culture at large reminds me a lot of what DF Wallace wrote about parodies of TV in the essay “E Pluribus Unum”, the vaguely postmodern solipsism that seems to repeat itself at large. DFW writes “What explains the pointlessness of most published TV criticism is that television has become immune to charges that it lacks any meaningful connection to the world outside it. It’s not that charges of nonconnection have become untrue. It’s that any such connection has become otiose. Television used to point beyond itself. Those of us born in like the sixties were trained to look where it pointed, usually at versions of ‘real life’ made prettier, sweeter, better by succumbing to a product or temptation. Today’s audience is way better trained, and TV has discarded what’s not needed. A dog, if you point at something, will look only at your finger.”

I continued:

Applied to Occupy, we run into a rut-we need mass support, and mass support means TV. We need people out there doing things, and we need them all to have a solid enough sense of an outside world to sense that there are consequences to their actions and what those consequences might be roughly. We need them to come in, not know each other, and be able to trust that everyone is at this level of awareness and that they act outside a social solipsism (be it a dreamscape where everything points to Trotsky or a dreamscape where everything points to Bakunin.) To have an entirely open membrane and expect this is noble but iffy in execution.

To connect on these points, the solipsism points to the applicability of the DFW paragraph.

I tried to articulate the idea forming in my head to my friend Justin in a chatroom. I put a – for each new message.

-The thesis I seem to be heading towards is:
-Pynchon speaks of “they systems” and “we systems” when he’s cataloging increasingly ridiculous conspiracy theories.
-My sense is that Occupy is riddled with too many “they systems”.
-(paranoia in the sense psychologists use it, that the subject has organized reality into an overly coherent but false system and thinks everything is connected)
-“they systems” because they conceive of a monolithic other, become inherently social solipsisms-they gather people who refine and then accept as dogma the notion of what “the other” is and usually either say this other has to be a) socially negated, or b) reversed in power position in the social order
-Not necessarily extremist or cultish though most visible in these forms.
ex.: RCP, trotsky-ites, ghandians, etc.
-Black Bloc apologists, seeing an external threat (Chris Hedges), congeal and become more insular, the exact opposite of what I think Hedges wanted
-Deep Green Revolution is turning into this
-instead of the standard cult organization around a charismatic leader, the group defines themselves by a usually monolithic “they” that grows to have mythical powers the more the “they” is spoken about and the less they socialize outside the group
-They see forces in occupy suggesting other ideas as a threat to their agenda and a threat to the mass of humanity because of the perceived apocalyptic powers of their personal monolithic bogeyman
-Each faction grows more extreme and isolated, fearing every other faction in occupy is shortening the time for them to act by offering some sort of threatening critique
meanwhile most of the factions are actually working in the terms of the culture at large without realizing it, using the urgency of their mission to begin rationalizing unethical activities like hoarding/siphoning money from the general fund or grabbing at any sliver of perceiving social capital or attention
-(the decolonize movement seemed to be the first group to start doing this in Zuccotti)
-each “they system” is a solipsism at heart-creating a unified consciousness in members that necessarily simplifies their perceptual categories of organization
-and in order to maintain the “integrity” of such a group, has to spend most of its time proslytizing while necessarily remaining separate from actual structures of power for fear of compromise (local government etc.)
-their nature becomes like that of memes or amoebas-recreation for its own sake, and they lose political effectiveness
-the community mirrors the nature of internet communities and becomes a cocoon and therefore an escape and not a viable communal solution
-radicalism becomes a means of branding, activism becomes a means of gaining fame and “street cred” (think Ward Churchill)
-for the needy personality, the group needs to be radicalized so that the audience and social capital is consolidated for commercial or social gain

My thought this morning was that the initial power of Occupy, and the way it marked a radical historical shift, was that it was an organization cohered around specific grievances and not an ideology or teleology.

Anyone have any thoughts on this?

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4 Responses to Pondering the Decline of Occupy

  1. jonjost says:

    Yes, I have some thoughts. One, is that whatever happens now or in the future, Occupy did a major service in raising the matter of the income/wealth disparity which exists in America (and elsewhere). It didn’t use the word “class warfare” though the 1% promptly did. In today’s America to have shifted the national political conversation from how to slice and dice the social commons in the name of “privatization/capitalism” to questioning the extreme wealth of the 1% and the relative poverty of the bottom 30% and those in the middle. Two, in the face of a corporate controlled mass media, Occupy was able to puncture through, despite the clear opposition and disdain of that media, which is of and for the 1%. This again, was a major achievement – if only to point out the political bias of that corporately owned and controlled system. Three, Occupy was confronted by the combined forces of a nationally coordinated police/military attack executed in the service of those 1%ers again. In that it exposed the essential police-state which underlies American society.
    So I wouldn’t be so glum, nor would I write off Occupy so quickly. Its members, as is normal in such movements, were young, inexperienced, and hence vulnerable to all the usual forces which array themselves against such phenomena. Whether Occupy is able to recover and mount, say, an effective May 1 event, or not, it has already served America well. If those involved will now mature through their experiences, and can form a viable (and much needed) political opposition to the American tweedle-dee-tweedle-dum system without being co-opted or disillusioned, I can’t guess. Certainly my generation (’60’s) did not succeed. I hope yours does.
    jon jost http://www.jonjost.wordpress.com http://www.cinemaelectronica.wordpress.com

  2. bigblotbob says:

    Thanks for the thoughts Jon. I don’t think I wrote this post as well as I could have. The questions I think I was trying to answer now in retrospect were “where do we find an organizational model when the ideological/teleological ones don’t seem to have worked?”, “why did I feel like it was fissuring some time before the police eviction?”, and “how do I assimilate the Judith Butler critique of 2nd wave feminism I just read (Gender Trouble, where she basically said their failing was in trying to define “woman”) into my reading of OWS?” I’m not sure I came to a satisfactory answer on any of these counts, though some of the stuff floating around in my head became a bit more coherent for my having written it down.

    That it needs to reformulate is a sentiment I agree with wholeheartedly. I wouldn’t say my feelings writing the piece were especially glum-I felt like I was ambling toward a breakthrough, though one that necessarily wasn’t that enthusiastic about the current dominant modes of reading the culture (Marxist/Feminist/Neoliberal/Anarchist.) I thought some sort of reversal, crystallized in language, could give means to a more functional Occupy. The best I could come up with is the note about organization around grievances vs. organization around ideology. I’m going to keep chipping away at the thing in my head. I feel like looking backwards as a guide is going to reach its limitations, so something new has to be formulated. What? I’m not sure yet.

    And yes, we did accomplish a lot and should be proud. Maybe this has already created the mass-scale theatrical presentation necessary to create the shift in cultural norms we wanted and I’m just spinning wheels. That would be awesome.

  3. bigblotbob says:

    To reformulate my big question again, how do we get the dog to look at the thing the finger’s pointing at?

  4. bigblotbob says:

    To reformulate another time, how do we even figure out what the finger is pointing at?

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