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Occupy a narrative

One year on, the Occupy movement is but the shadow of its former self. Whatever happened to the 99%?

James Rose
11 October 2012
OWS protesters mark one year anniversary of the movement. Demotix/Scot Surbeck. All rights reserved.

OWS protesters mark one year anniversary of the movement. Demotix/Scot Surbeck. All rights reserved.

Recently, the first anniversary of the founding of the Occupy Wall Street movement passed more or less silently. Since the heady days of late last year, the momentum appears to have dissipated for the wider people's movement launched in New York's Zuccotti Park and broadly known as the “Occupy Movement” - dissipated to the centrifugal force of its own decentralised structures. In Sydney, outside the Reserve Bank building, where a hardy band of activists had set up the local chapter, I was told when I visited and left a donation late last year that they were there “for good”. Within a few months the hoardings and tents had been replaced by the usual clacking of office-workers' feet, flying litter and that feeling of CBD alienation that such city enclaves evoke. What happened?

At the level of change, very little. The system remains, producing pollution of various forms and loads of money for a small elite. The banks, the creators and main profiteers of the complex derivatives markets that became deadly ballast for the world economy, charge onwards. The market, while not racing ahead as it has in the past, still defines us, its numbers like our social code, informing us about how successful we are, how big we've become. But the Occupy Movement was not about changing that overnight. The fact that it didn't try to became a perceived weakness. Occupy critics found this patient and shapeless approach an easy target. The movement's apparent lack of policy ideas, it's unwillingness to become institutionalised and it's dislike for ideology and political categorisation were soon shredded by those who represented a counterview, or who were just too ignorant to question the status-quo. But being amorphous is smart. The established structures which house the prevailing economic and social organisational models are unlikely to be taken on in any significant way by a competing wall of ossified ideals. This is not a confrontation of ideologies and there's no point in replacing one concrete wall with another one – unless you like concrete. What you have to do is to become water. You work on the foundations. You remain flexible and supple. You operate just like the Occupy Movement has.

This is the difference between the Occupy Movement, which seeks to engender a new power relationship and broader political avenues with a long-term perspective, and extremists like the Tea Party in the US or fascists in Europe who seek to co-opt power and use its power for their own narrow ends and myopic agendas. The Occupy Movement's tack is not just strategically adept. It is also appropriate. Change doesn't always need to be radical and overnight. For change to work, the mass of people need to feel the new space it has opened, to allow themselves to breath in it. Radical overthrow of any system, even a nefarious one, often leads to no good. Gradual change, history has shown, works in the interests of the majority.

But the Occupy Movement has made mistakes too. It hasn't worked to communicate its purpose and its message. It has allowed itself to be too elusive. It's all very well to be like water, but water is only noticed when you're really thirsty. And there's a lot of people in the world who aren't often that thirsty – for change, that is. Evidence of this fact can be found in Marianne Maeckelbergh's recent article. It is apparent that the movements are subjected to the severe corset we call political theory. The need to label the Occupy Movement as something which fits Ms Maeckelbergh's earnest categorisations attests to an abiding fear of chaos, even among those who may otherwise appear to support the movement. Whether the Occupy Movement is anarchist, leftist or an example of horizontality is neither here nor there, at least for most of the much fought-over 99%.

But this is what happens in a communications vacuum; commentators both anti- and pro- feel obliged to label and box any given movement. This is dangerous. When you occupy a space, even a non-physical one, it's the boundaries as much as the issues at the core that are vital. An occupation has to stop somewhere and those limits can then be used to contain, and to stop any interaction between activists on the inside and whomever remains on the outside. Boundaries of definition, those that shape a movement from the outside and manipulate its outward appearance become walls of differentiation.

The Occupy Movement effectively occupied a space that was already occupied, by far better resourced, well-entrenched and better organised occupiers – banks, big business, government, the media etc. When the protesters moved in, these long-standing interests simply moved to the edges, set up barricades and searchlights and made it a prison. They occupied the occupiers - even if some of them were trying to help. This led the media, for instance, to dissolve the movement in the language of the present, not the future. To continue the analogy, they used concrete to explain water. This is how the institutions of power and the language of political labelling could shape and define the Occupy movement, against its will. In using these expressions the movement was diminished to something that could be easily packaged. And this has marked the apparent death of the movement, because Occupy, by definition, can't compete in the world it seeks to replace.

As we see with Ms Maeckelbergh's arguments, even those presumably seeking to encourage and support the movement, who have studied its manifestations and met its human embodiments, can stunt its growth by tagging it with a descriptor. Widely, one year on, the movement is largely characterised as a sort of professional activism, when it is clearly made up of ordinary people and was more than a tilt at the windmills of power. It is cast into a binary opposition of anarchism vs. control with the established powers, when it is seeking to make a better system, not to have none. It is shaped as a destructive movement, when it is clearly looking to help create something new and workable.

But it is also the Occupy movement's obsession with being undefined that allowed its ideas and critiques to be ghettoised; caught in the prison of negative perception. The narrative was not as strong and as powerful as those that were used to oppose them. And, in this world of 24/7 media – even in the context of quick fire social media – narrative is vital. If you lose the battle of narratives, you lose, period. Human beings are narrative driven mammals. It's how we learn and understand our world. If anyone wants to speak to a wider audience, he will need a story, not po-faced terminology from the annals of political history. In the context of the Occupy Movement, this means a detailed and on-going program of critiquing the established system they seek to replace, ultimately articulating a new culture. It means the movement needs to personalise the problems they identify, give them a face and a voice. It needs to show the world the movement is not an activist clique working for the 99%, but that it is the 99%. It needs to develop a history, to set itself against a backcloth of those that have gone before, not in a way that attempts to manufacture some kind of linear progress, but in a manner that confirms its place on an eternally shimmering historic matrix and refers to various nodes freely. And, it needs to have a better media strategy, to speak to the majority of the world that doesn't spend its life hunched over a Facebook account, a Youtube channel, a Twitter hashtag feed, a smartphone or indeed a compendium of political ideas. It needs to speak the language of the street, not of academia, politics or even recognised theory.

The Occupy Movement has to have an emotional character, something that joins the dots of truth or fact with visceral markers. That has to be its story, a story that draws you by the heart first and the head second. Without a narrative the Occupy Movement isn't speaking. It's censoring itself. It needs to tell its stakeholders its story and to use that to develop new terms, a new lexicon for new ideas; a sort of Shakespearian approach to global change. It needs to speak more widely. The world is clamouring for a compelling narrative.

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