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So that’s the one thing I haven’t heard anyone talk about in relation to #Occupy yet - the role of location. There is a slightly awkward compromise within the movement between saying “we are not protesting - that would be to place ourselves in the position of petitioning inferiors; our gaze is focused within, where we are building our own parallel structure of governance” …and doing all that outside the Stock Exchange building in Wall Street.
The bifurcation has become clearer to me looking ahead to OccupyLondonStockExchange this weekend. Frankly, it’s not as good a location. It is not an easily recognisable place, it doesn’t have the same iconic resonance as the frontage of the Wall Street SE [update: turns out being kept out of Paternoster Square was the best thing that could have happened to the occupation - St Paul’s is a far better backdrop, with the added bonus of being on the private, police-proof land of a cheekily supportive Church], and it is in a rather awkward part of town; small streets, filled with traffic, ‘policed’ by a notoriously partisan force (blimey, I just googled ‘City of London Police’ to see if I could get a juicy quote - I wasn’t expecting their own website to be quite so explicit about their purpose and loyalties: “The world’s leading business and financial centre demands a bespoke police force, which is equipped to protect and support this unique environment, and to meet head-on the policing challenges it represents.”) - not to mention the fact that the Summer riots remain a recent (and easily evocable) memory for many.
But this is not so much a criticism as an observation of opportunity. Historian of land reform Jo Guldi’s recent post raised the question of how it was “that marches in the street, so powerful in eighteenth-century Europe, became in the twentieth century a permanent carnival of the dispossessed with limited power to change public opinion.”
To me, part of the answer must be that power was no longer embedded in the physical reality of the street as it had been. For an C18th urban populace, to see a movement in control of the streets of the city was tautological to its being in power; the street was, after all, where society - trade, news, community, flows of capital and politics and information - happened. But, with the shift towards a more virtualised world, where such flows take place across a variety of prosthetic media, the loci of power are now largely in the realm of the spectacular.
As Debord had it: “The efforts of all the established powers since the French Revolution to increase the means of maintaining law and order in the streets have finally culminated in the suppression of the street itself.” This is true both in terms of physical geography, as transportation and communication technologies have dissipated the condensed populations of the cities’ cores, and psychologically, as we have spent increasing amounts of time in the virtual realms of print, wireless and screen. [The city has become an less-than-real environ: apolitical passers-by can be seen looking blankly at street actions, as if wondering why huddled groups of people would be out in the cold, grey, dirty streets when they could be at home taking part in the real world of colour, sound and meaning existing in the output of the broadcast media.]
Thus, there has been a tendency to mock movements which take to the street as somehow primitive or atavistic - the attempts of mainstream media pundits to summon up spectres of 1970s trade unionism or 1960s hippiedom whenever faced with a politically motivated street action are too numerous to merit a hyperlinked example.
Thus, too, the attempts through the 1990s and 2000s to break from the stultifying inherited traditions of ‘how political street action works’ - the defanged labour march, with its hi-vis marshalls and needlework branch banners giving way to the deliberately carnivalesque*, the uncontained, the wittily disruptive; all of the ‘out-of-the-box’ attempts at guerilla ontology that constitute modern-day frame-breaking.
Clearly, the Occupy movement has had the sustainabililty, the heft, the size and the growth (and is responding to a crisis so large even the MSM can’t entirely ignore it) that the profound radicality of genuinely convivial street action has finally become legible to a larger number of people.
And part of this symbolic resonance stems precisely from the fact that so much of our worlds do not take place in the realm of real, human, face-to-face contact - to take over the streets is now radical not because it is to seize the power that exists on the streets (although, of course, in the ultimate analysis, physical control of territory remains the sine qua non of political authority), but precisely because the streets have become a vacuum of meaning.
But the fact that so much of the energy and momentum of the Occupy movement has so far been concentrated in symbolic locations does not mean that the movement is reliant on continued spatial supremacy. At some point, the occupations will either be ousted, dissolve, or become a new fixture of the political status quo (like poor, courageous Brian Haw camping out on Parliament Square in protest against the Iraq War for ten years).
But the energy need not dissipate along with the control of a symbolically effective location - the period of encampment in spatial reality can serve as an inital anchoring phase; what comes next is the translation of the principles and values of the movement along all of the virtualised conduits and networks of spectacular power. And that’s when things will start to get really interesting…
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