Occupy: The Protest Machine
Although the many members of the global Occupy movement do not know what system (or anti-system) might eventually replace capitalism in Western society, they are determined to vocalise their disgust at capitalism's continued injustices. Some are blazé about the lack of alternative and simply say, "Whatever happens, capitalism has to go - or be fundamentally altered." It's important to understand this missing link in the chain between action and consequence - the protesters have as many different versions of a desired outcome as there are protesters. Be wary, then, of predictably insufferable write-ups by Guardian columnists who claim the movement will, or has already, instigated "real change".
However, the tenacity of the movement has certainly cemented their collective determination into resilient protest; resilient both to actual attempts at dispersal and questions over the legitimacy of a suddenly tangible expression of contempt for the ruling ideology of the first world. The Occupy protesters continue to congeal in large numbers at landmark sites in world cities, visibly voicing their consternation at a system which privileges a wealthy minority but which now fails to provide for the indigent. Capitalism has, they claim, turned previously egalitarian and prosperous states into plutocracies.
"Occupy is a 'machine movement' - an embodiment of inevitable entropic disillusionment, figured in the victims of an unjust system, which simply collects and crystallises as that disillusionment grows"
The Occupy movement, partly because it does not labour to ascribe to itself any particular political ideology, may be loosely termed 'socialist'. However, to do so clouds the true nature of the protest, which seems more general than that; more rooted in the intrinsic fears of numerous out-of-work or disaffected Europeans, whatever their erstwhile political standpoints. In this sense, Occupy has a refreshingly democratic air. It is a peaceful, but rigid movement, which wants to appear as unlikely to budge from its position as the very so-called plutocrats it opposes. Another way of interpreting Occupy is to depict it as something of a "machine movement" - an embodiment of inevitable entropic disillusionment, figured in the victims of an unjust system, which simply collects and crystallises as that disillusionment grows. The protest as anti-machine within the machine; a performed and gradually expanding mass, is an identity crucial to Occupy, for reasons which I will shortly explain. They want to appear as the ineluctable debris of a degenerating structure which has, many must accede, until recent decades provided access to opportunities for even the most needy in society. One photograph of a makeshift placard I saw read, "We are the true currency," an assertion which strikes at the heart of the perceived problem: that human beings have been systematically marginalised by 21st Century capitalism.
The implication is, of course, that today opportunities for personal advancement which once existed have been eradicated or withdrawn as societies have placed ever greater emphasis on the importance of financial markets and trading as the "engine room" of boom and bust economies.
Another good metaphor for the situation was supplied by Paul Mason, writing for the BBC. He described our current scenario as crippled by "economic permafrost" (a term he borrows from HSBC's economics team) and noted that the protesters' largest complaint was that the media "is ignoring them and does not understand them."
Mason's point, with which I wholeheartedly agree, is that the media and many political figures have failed to engage with the protest because the protest - whether it really achieves such or not - attempts to situate itself outside a realm where current media organs and politicians are relevant. In this sense, there is an overtly anarchic edge to Occupy, which might seem obvious to some, but which is actually quite a subtly expressed feature of a movement that has by all accounts not (yet) progressed to a more aggressive form of anti-capitalism. Mason goes on to make an important point by saying, "this communal, negotiated, networked life [embodied in the protests] already exists in people's heads as a result of the rapid adoption of social networks and networked lifestyles." This certainly helps to define the physical activity and organisational methods of the protestors, which I see as analogous to the self-correcting decay of a failing system, but let's be clear that social media did not - and I'm tired of saying this - foment the protests by some arbitrary stimulus. Social media has, however, certainly assisted the fermentation and character of the precise form of action. This, I feel, is Mason's point and it is therefore quite accurate. The Cyborgology blog has a post which brilliantly encapsulates this feature of the protestors in situ. The author of the post, Sarah Wanenchak, relates what happened when director Michael Moore, bereft of a microphone or some other technological means of amplifying his voice, came to address the crowd gathered at Wall Street:
"Moore didn't need access to a bullhorn. He spoke in short bursts of words, and the crowd around him repeated them at the top of their lungs. In this way-slow and fragmentary and not always entirely understandable, but loud nevertheless-the message spread. Using what has been dubbed "the human microphone", the participants of #occupy have given speeches, held meetings and reached consensus, and spread important information. Working together, they've built a workaround."
What happened here happened in front of prophets, kings and emissaries for millennia. (The limitations of the medium being memorably satirised in Monty Python's The Life of Brian, 1979). However, note the inclination to appropriate technological metaphors to the contemporary instance of this phenomenon, which is seen as apposite and fruitful; not entropic. Those metaphors aren't simply casually adopted - as you can see from the tone of Wanenchak's post, they electrify the story and galvanise the human relay as a hyper-efficient, ostensibly machine-like structure but with human values at its core. This is also why the 'Anonymous' meme has been appropriated by the mask-wearing members of Occupy who also describe themselves using collective terms like "the 99%" or simply "the people". But it is that synthesis of man and machine to which so many people are blind - it is easy to see one aspect at play, but not necessarily both. The protesters are derided by some as "unthinkingly" machine-like and robotic while others deny that they have any significant mechanistic attributes at all but are rather an unadulterated expression of outrage against injustice. Neither view would be completely accurate.
It will be fascinating to see where and how Occupy develops; whether the grey goo of public outrage at the mishandling of our economic systems will amass to truly revolutionary proportions and somehow overturn the picture of the world as we know it, or whether the movement will in fact be short-lived; unable to sustain itself within a society in which those it hopes to challenge fail to even flinch at the sight of thousands of disgruntled citizens defending the meritocratic, egalitarian values in which they believe.
In thinking about this confluence of human values, I was reminded of the stirring speech made by Charlie Chaplin's humble barber at the end of Chaplin's Nazi-satirising triumph The Great Dictator (1940). The barber, mistaken for fascist dictator Adenoid Hynkel, implores the people of 'his' empire to resist the mechanising influences of technology and the mental atrophy which fascism and devices seem to provoke in people. But the suddenly insightful barber, who calls for unity and good will to all as oppose to aggression, racism and prejudice, observes that the brilliance of modern machines can be used to advance - and amplify - "the goodness in men":
"Greed has poisoned men's souls; has barricaded the world with hate; has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost. The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men; cries out for universal brotherhood; for the unity of us all."
If these words could be as apt at any time other than the outbreak of WWII, it might presumably be at the moment when motivated members of the public congregate to protest the failings of an economic model which has failed to deliver on many of its promises. Thousands have accumulated to descry the microscopic minority of the rich and powerful who consolidate their control of the masses through cumbersome, profit-hoarding business; through ineffectual politics; and through the weary reductionism of a hyper-real media. Importantly, people's embrace of a techno-socialist ideal lies at the heart of their movement both in terms of the idea and the means by which that idea is brought gingerly into reality. For a technologically enlightened populace, Occupy wants desperately to be understood as a product of the "goodness in men" and as a sign of capitalism's imminent disrobing. The movement's lasting failures or successes will determine whether or not that will actually happen.
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