Occupying Wall Street/It’s Kicking Off Everywhere

Occupying Wall Street

Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football reviews two instant accounts of 2011’s Year of Protest.

There’s not much doubt that for the foreseeable future 2011 will be remembered as the ‘Year of Protest’. When a mainstream magazine like Time selects ‘The Protester’ as their cover-story 2011 Person of the Year then something of significance is clearly happening. Though whether the last twelve months will in the long-term come to represent anything as significant as 1989’s fall of the Berlin Wall or 1968’s extraordinary mix of Paris, Prague and Vietnam is probably too early to judge.

However what can be claimed already with a degree of confidence is that the organisational forms of protest in 2011 changed decisively. Certainly if we are making any kind of comparison with those led by a traditional ‘Bolshevikised Left’ these were protests that looked very different in the manner they were organised.

The aspirations of those that had always preferred to organise horizontally and cut out the middle man vanguard party have been realised via a mix of the internet, smartphones, twitter, facebook, flickr and more. This is a culture of dissent that is deeply distrustful of leaders and takes producing a movement that has the evolution of forms that are participative and pre-figurative as one of its founding principles.

This is an approach epitomised in the West by the Occupy Movement, chronicled in the instant journalism of Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America written by the Writers for the 99%. This is activist authorship at its best. Messy, from the frontline, loyal to the ethics of the movement in its form, written up by those who took part almost as soon as the action comes to some sort of an end. The detail is impressive, the basis of the various affinity groups, the spreading of the message across New York, the courage in the face of brutal policing. There is a real sense of a making of community, but also the divisions that would on occasion erupt.

The writing is perhaps most powerful when it records the processes of the General Assemblies that provided the forum where the Occupiers would decide how to take their action forward, and the ways this provided a powerful degree of loyalty to the group from all those involved. Yet at the same time the account also reveals the potential weaknesses of these kinds of protests.

It could appear that the effort put into maintaining a semi-permanent encampment with the accompanying infrastructure which included a kitchen, library, yoga and meditation classes could turn the action inwards. There is a degree of the self-referential here but the saving grace remains the incredible impact of the Occupy movement. From one park in New York other actions, first across America, then across the World were inspired. Some were small, but others much larger, such as in Oakland, which involved not only thousands but sparked a localised General Strike. This is the real achievement of Tahrir, Spain’s Indignados and Occupy; not one solitary action, however high profile either on Wall Street or on the steps of St Paul’s, but its capacity to inspire and replicate.

For an outstanding account of the causes and effects of this capacity look no further than Paul Mason’s Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions. Rather modestly in the introduction Paul Mason insists of his superbly analytical book “Don’t file it under ‘Social Science’: it’s ‘Journalism.’” If this is to suggest he lacks a grand theory then the author does protest too much. Not only does the reportage provide a travelogue of resistance taking in Egypt, London, Spain, Greece, America and the Philippines he examines why it’s happening too.

Paul Mason connects, with admirably vivid writing, the form and content of group horizontalism protest mixed with networked individualism to the demographics of protest. His argument, framed by a compelling explanation of the economic crisis, is that the core of the 2011 protests world-wide was formed by graduates with little or no positive employment prospects and thus not much of a proper stake in the system. A generation, sometimes described as the ‘precariat’, is thus emerging with all the social skills, time, courage and most of all the cause, to revolt. And thus out of the global austerity emerges a hopeful vision of the future.

This is an optimistic reading many will want to embrace and Mason’s writing will certainly propel his readers towards that conclusion. Two nagging doubts remain though. Firstly, while some of the generation he describes will resist, surely there is also the possibility that others will grimly submit to any low-wage and insecure work they can find. There is never any guarantee that unemployment and poverty will create the conditions for resistance, never mind any shift to the left. Anger in itself is not enough. And secondly, how durable will 2011 prove to be? The 2010 student protests against the tuition fees hike are already a fairly dim and distant memory. The 2011 public sector unions’ strikes are heading towards some kind of settlement which we all admit is well short of a victory. In Spain and Greece despite the protests their governments remain in power and have shifted to the right, not the left. While in Egypt it is the Muslim Brotherhood that have proved successful in Egypt’s post Tahrir elections, their Islamism much less of a problem to the protesters than their cautious reformism.

Neither of these doubts should detract from the appeal of Paul Mason’s account. That’s the point: we desperately need the optimism and enthusiasm that the movements he describes project. The Italian Marxist and Communist Antonio Gramsci once famously wrote of moments of crisis as when the old is dying and the new is not yet ready to emerge. At this juncture according to Gramsci ‘morbid symptoms’ appear. For the past twelve months those symptoms have been effectively challenged by something else, the senseless beauty of resistance. To help shape what comes next, right now 2011’s protests deserve our unreserved celebration.

Mark Perryman

Paul Mason - Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere

The Substantive Columnist Mel Gomes’ e-book Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to download from Amazon and Smashwords. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.