Occupy Climate Change!

 Climate Change, Occupy Wall St, sustainability, Visual Culture  Comments Off on Occupy Climate Change!
Dec 212011

Occupy climate change! Why? Because the transformations that Occupy seeks in social and economic life are the same as those needed to sustain conditions suitable for human and non-human life on our planet. So the phrase “occupy climate change” is correctly understood to mean “the political economy of sustaining the biosphere and the cultural imaginary.” This hybrid form might be called “prosperity without growth,” a way of life that promotes the greatest collective well-being without raising either fossil fuel consumption or standard models of gross national product.


Occupy COP17

Rural Women Association demonstrate at Occupy COP 17

The official UN climate change talks held in December at Durban (South Africa), known as COP17, maintained the status quo, undertaking merely to begin setting an emissions framework in 2015 to take effect in 2020. Like the police so much in evidence these days, such governance says to us “move on, there’s nothing to see here.”

In response, indigenous and first nation peoples  joined with climate and social justice activists to occupy the convention. Barely mentioned in mainstream US media, the Occupiers issued a statement read at Liberty Square, New York, on December 3, Global Climate Justice Day: “The same financial, corporate and political institutions that caused the financial crisis are poised to seize control of our atmosphere, our forests, our agricultural lands and water. We will fight for our survival and not allow the elite to enter into a suicide pact for future generations.”

It is both striking and ironic in a humorless way that Brookfield, the owners of Zuccotti Park/Liberty Square, are also planning the pipeline to bring Canadian tar sands oil to the US, an action that NASA scientist James Hansen has described as “game over” for the atmosphere.

Tar Sands banner at Occupy COP17

The one percent tells us that climate is a future concern, but the present must be devoted to public austerity and private profit. We retort: climate change is here, it is now, and it is the action of the one percent.

Climate change is here: the climate system is planetary in ways that humans are still learning to understand. While current predictions show that those most responsible for emissions, such as the US and China, will not be systemically affected as much as Africa and the Pacific Small Island Nations, no one is escaping the rise in intense weather events.

During Hurricane Irene, it emerged that a storm surge of only four feet over normal highs would inundate lower Manhattan. The effects of the gradual sea level rise caused by climate change render such high intensity events likely to be annual, rather than once a century. Soon, the only way to occupy Liberty Square will be to swim.

Climate change is now: 2010 saw the single greatest rise in warming gas emissions in human history. The International Energy Authority, big oil boosters in the ordinary way, have calculated that, because of new power plant construction already underway, we have until 2017 to stop the increase in emissions. The rhetoric across US politics that climate change is something we should worry about for the sake of our children or even grandchildren is, then, disastrously misplaced.

Paradoxically, the moment of eviction is the perfect time to occupy climate change. The more that our ideas, rather than our encampments, are the center of the movement, the more they need to think about the connections between the local and the global. It’s estimated that there will be some 250 million climate migrants. Across the Pacific Small Island States from Kiribati in the West to Tuvalu in the South and the Carteret Islands in the East, people are already abandoning islands and settlements.

The island of Huni, split into two by rising sea levels

Some are flooded, others made uninhabitable by the salination of the soil. We stand for their right to occupy their homes, the places where they choose to be, just as we support the right to occupy the commons.

Indeed, the political invisibility of climate change within the current system, even as the actual consequences of ongoing climate change become more and more apparent, is the refusal to accept that the planetary majority has an equal claim to the right to existence. This is the first claim in the Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth made at Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2008 by the World People’s Conference on Climate Change as part of their campaign for the “decolonization of the atmosphere.”

The failure of the UN process has led to the perception of an emerging climate apartheid, in which a small minority both generates the plurality of emissions and suffers the least consequences from the resulting climate change. That is to say, it’s not a question of “making” climate change a political issue: it already is one, embedded in the patterns of global underdevelopment and oppression.

The standard developed nation mainstream reaction to such events is a ‘more in sorrow than anger’ shake of the head: and then we carry on, there’s nothing to see here. What Pacific small islands, developing nations, indigenous peoples and the global majority living on less than $2 a day have long known is that for the abstract form of finance capital we are all, to cite the Micronesian activist Juan Aguon, “disposable humanity.”

Now, after the evictions, we need to turn around, to see that the space we are contesting is an island and the waters are rising. The refusal of the global one per cent to recognize the existence and relevance of such claims is not a denial or a delusion but a political strategy and a choice. As so many have come to realize, the last best hope is the global occupy movement. It’s the G 7 Billion not the G 20 who can make the changes necessary to sustain the biosphere. No election, no cleverly worded document, no demand, no image will forestall this decision to press on regardless. It’s up to us now: then again, it always was.

NOTE: a slightly different version of this piece was published in Occupy!

The Force of Law #OWS

 counterinsurgency, Occupy Wall St, Visual Culture  Comments Off on The Force of Law #OWS
Nov 162011

For the past few days, Occupy locations have reverberated to the sound of the force of law. I mean this literally. I was awakened at 3.30am on November 15 by the sound of what I think were helicopters above lower Manhattan. The combination of police barricades and the closure of the subways meant that no one could get closer to the eviction of Zuccotti Park. Even the airspace was closed, not to prevent the Occupy air force from deploying but to keep out the news channel helicopters. Once again, we are reminded to “move on, there’s nothing to see here.”

The eviction created a new hybrid by categorizing political protest as a health and safety issue, and then responding to it with the weapons of counterinsurgency. The OWS site  was suddenly flooded with klieg lighting, blinding those trying to sleep. From the Twitter feed, email and later news accounts, it’s also emerged that Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRAD) were used to disperse the crowd with painful sound blasts. The LRAD was developed as a weapon of counterinsurgency after the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 by al-Qai’da and is now mounted on certain NYPD vehicles. After a set of legal maneuvers, the park was opened to the public, with the stipulation that no one can sleep there. The result was that “anyone found lying down and even a few of those who tried to sleep sitting up were woken by security guards for Brookfield Properties.” The private corporation now has its own security force on the streets of New York, rendering Zuccotti into the latest outpost of Baghdad-Kabul Inc., the 60 billion-a-year cash-fest for private security firms. In the business pages today, Brookfield just sold a building in New Jersey for $377 million: the realtor took out a congratulations ad.

Clearing a way for Brookfield

In short, we have a full range of counterinsurgency tactics being deployed from noise and light violence to sleep deprivation and the now infamous destruction of books.

Reverting to its standard deference to counterinsurgency, the New York Times described how:

The mayor and his advisers had grown fed up with their inability to police the park, with complaints about noise, disruptions to businesses and odors, and with a leaderless movement that they just could not figure out how to deal with.

Never mind that recent articles had shown there were more complaints about the noise from Ground Zero building work than from Zuccotti. Or that most of the failings here are on the city side: an inability to police must not be tolerated.

A few miles northwest of Zuccotti is the Cardozo Law School where Jacques Derrida delivered his epic essay “The Force of Law” in 1989. Reading an early essay by Walter Benjamin Critique of Violence (1921), Derrida pointed out that it is only in English that one can speak of “enforcing” the law. Both writers showed that law is, in the last analysis, only force but that it does everything it can to sustain what Montaigne long ago called “the mystical foundation of authority.” It is that claim to authority, the ability to determine the relation between the sayable and the visible, which I have called visuality.

NY Times photo showing klieg lights in action

If this deconstruction is what one might expect from Derrida, his conclusion pushed beyond the scholastic definitions of “politics” and “theory” to show why Occupy is perceived as a threat to the state that requires counterinsurgency tactics. Developing Benjamin’s assertion that a general strike is “the right to use force”–which is not at all the same as violence–on the part of labor in the same way that the state claims the right to enforce law, Derrida asserted:

There is something of the general strike, and thus of the revolutionary situation in every reading that founds something new and that remains unreadable in regard to established canons and norms of reading that is to say the present state of reading of what figures the State, with a capital S, in the state of possible reading.

For Bloomberg, the New York Times and the other mediatic apparatus of the one percent, Occupy is and remains unreadable so it must be eliminated as pollution.

Asserting at his press conference that the decision to evict was “mine alone,” Bloomberg sought to restore the authority of the State for his one percent class. His comment made it clear first that he wished to be regarded as the heroic leader, justifying his claim to authority; and that he had simply decided in the manner of King George and consulted no lawyers or other functionaries, let alone the lonely occupant of the White House, who once again missed his opportunity.

Bloomberg’s action was then a classic admission of failure, the failure to understand and communicate. In an indication of the absurdity of it all, the simple tent has now become the latest purported weapon of insurgency, banned from Zuccotti–but not Union Square, where a large tented holiday market is up until December 25. Tents were even banned from sale anywhere near the Occupy London site at St Paul’s Cathedral. Today the City of London Corporation filed an eviction notice to Occupy London, specifically indicating that “the Orders sought will not prevent lawful and peaceful protest in this general area and is directed at the tents and other structures.” Serious legal debate is being pursued relating to the right to bear sleeping-bags.

When the veil was banned in France, the performance duo Niqabitch parodied the ban by wearing a niqa with miniskirts.

On the N17 demonstrations, and thereafter, let’s wear tents in whatever way we can.[UPDATE: 12/5/11] This idea was obvious to many and “bring a tent” has become part of Occupy rhetoric. However, the police have turned even this apparently humorous effort to “wear a tent” as the opportunity for violence as this video from Occupy Melbourne shows:

The violation of her right to privacy is emphasized by her repeated assertion that “this is not consensual.” As Laurie Penny puts it:

It’s the sense of ritual humiliation that’s truly chilling. It’s the pointlessly brutal demonstration of who is weak and who is strong in this game, and the grim, sour humourlessness of it all.

Benjamin understood the general strike to be different from an ordinary strike “in the determination to resume only a wholly transformed work, no longer enforced by the state, an upheaval that the strike not so much causes as consummates.” In this way, most of the strikes cited by Rosa Luxemburg in her 1906 pamphlet on the general strike were local, spontaneous actions. These strikes were “general” not because everyone took part but because their aim was a general transformation and renunciation of domination. Benjamin saw this vision of revolt as not being violent but rather as “deep, moral, and genuinely revolutionary.” The right to look. The invention of the other. Or even, as Arundhati Roy put it today to OWS, “the right to dream.”


“Mic check!”

General assembly, sparkly hands, consensus, concern, temperature check, block, process: this is the vocabulary and embodied performance of occupy theory. Each word has an equivalent embodied gesture, which is the means of indicating how you’re feeling about a proposal: fingers up for feeling good, horizontal for not sure, down for against.

The strongest sign is raised, crossed arms for a block: an ethical or safety concern over a proposal that might cause you to leave the movement. Proposals are “consens-ed” by facilitators so that a clear majority approve. It’s not always quick but it is always interesting. It’s occupy theory.

Don’t make the phrase into a noun: it’s not a theory of occupation. Occupy theory is what you do as you occupy. It is the process that has become in some sense the purpose of the direct democracy movement, known by its signature instance Occupy Wall Street, or #ows.

There have been a variety of star theory people come to Zuccotti Park, where Occupy Wall Street is based, and to Occupy Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village from Zizek to Spivak and Andrew Ross. Given the performative nature of occupy theory, it’s not surprising that—to judge from the Twitterstorm and Facebook frenzy—it has been Judith Butler who best captured the moment.

She presented a set of demands for the impossible, echoing the Situationist slogan “Be realistic: demand the impossible.” Seen in printed form, in which the line breaks represent a pause for the “human mic” that has become a signature of the movement, Butler’s talk is a prose poem.

So what is this occupy in occupy theory? While occupation of public and private spaces is a long tradition of industrial protest movements, there have been concerns from indigenous and Palestinian groups about the term “occupy.” In New Mexico, they have neatly re-rendered the term as “(Un)occupy.” So somewhere between occupy and un-occupy—or more exactly oscillating between them—is occupy theory. It’s the latest version of what I have called the “right to look,” which is at once the invention of the other and the consent for the other to invent you.

The first claim of the right to look is the right to existence, the right to be seen to exist. The people posting on “We Are the Ninety-Nine Per Cent,” a collaborative blog, have used the webcam format to have their stories told and made visible. These assembled self-portraits together present a set of claims. The individual self-photograph transforms a data point within the statistics of debt, unemployment and insurance disaster into a person. This person is not performed for the sake of pity or charity but as a constituent member of the emerging “people.” As Rancière has put it, “a ‘people’ of this kind is not an assemblage of groups and social identities. It is a polemical form of identification that is drawn along particular lines of fracture, where the distribution of leaders and led, learned and ignorant, possessors and dispossessed is decided.” That is to say—we are the ninety-nine per cent.

Nor is the performative expressed by “Occupy Wall Street” quite as simple as it seems. The occupation is not on Wall Street but round the corner at Zuccotti Park. Named for the director of Canadian conglomerate Brookfield—the company hoping to bring tar sands oil to the U. S.—Zuccotti is occupied because it is a private-public park, a zoning variance that has the requirement of permanent public access to a generic piece of urban landscape in exchange for extra height to a building or other such one per cent goodies. Much as New York City Mayor Bloomberg is itching to expel the occupiers—and he may yet succeed in finding a way—he has no legal recourse at present. Washington Square Park, as city property, is always closed between midnight and six a.m. so the occupation there cannot be permanent. Occupying is being done in the variant space between the security-regulated public commons and the deregulated zones of the neo-liberal private market.

This suggests by extension that one reason that Facebook and Twitter have proved so oddly instrumental in the global “movement of the squares” from Tunis to Manhattan is their private-public status.[1] Both are private companies, but committed to being online without interruption worldwide, whereas a public company like Google has been willing to self-censor in China. Google then found its own private-public zone of variance in Hong Kong. These spaces are clearly not the “state of exception” of which so much has been heard of late. Perhaps it could be that these are spaces in which people struggle to preserve that everyday life in which citizens ordinarily may be active. To be clear, I am not arguing that market forces preserve liberties: to the contrary, it’s the fact that these spaces force regulation on the market that gives them a variant form.

The concerns of the occupations with food, cleanliness and above all their own process suggest that, as in Tahrir Square, a new form of public-private institution is emerging within the occupation itself. Here those occupying reclaim the public space as private in the sense of domestic. Disputes must be resolved “peacefully” in the language of Tahrir, or by “consensus” in that of OWS. As was reported from Tahrir, OWS is a place where you don’t feel afraid. It’s oddly easy to talk to complete strangers, which I never do in New York, or even to speak at the General Assembly. The repetition of your words gives you time to think, keeps it to the point and is strangely reassuring. For some it feels like church—I wouldn’t be able to comment! The confirmation of the domestic nature of occupying comes in the justifications now being advanced to end it: the occupiers are messy and their music is too loud. Not for the first time, authority presents itself as a parent. In the self-aware fashion of the modern teenager, OWS refuses to fight on these terms.

There is, of course, another way to read “occupy theory,” which would suggest that we should occupy whatever theory might be. Insofar as “theory” has become a default set of readings used in scholastic fashion in the curriculum, as many whisper that it has, perhaps some occupation is in order. Ironically, much of the canon was produced in response to the failure of the last such planetary pushback in 1968. Perhaps theory should have been pre-occupied for a long time with what this occupation has turned out to be. I don’t find myself overly worried about that any of that now. As we occupy theory, we’ll find out what it is that we need to learn.

[1] An idea that occurred to me in response to excellent papers by Lisa Nakamura, Mobina Hashmi and John Cheney-Lippold at the #2011ASA in Baltimore.

OWS #Oct15

 2011 moment, Occupy Wall St, Oct 15, Visual Culture  Comments Off on OWS #Oct15
Oct 152011

Right Here All Over (Occupy Wall St.) from Alex Mallis on Vimeo.

Alex Mallis


United for Global Democracy

Occupy London Oct 15

Occupy Sydney Oct 15. Credit: Marianna Massey


Occupy Rome Oct 15


Occupy Ottawa Oct 15


Occupy yourself.

Occupy your ideas.

Occupy your body.

You are too big to fail.

© 2012 For the Right to Look Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha