Excerpted from Jodi Dean, this article focuses on how OWS achieved ‘practical unity’ through the occupation tactic:
“The continuity of occupation has been a potent remedy to the fragmentation, localism, and transitoriness of contemporary left politics. Occupation unites and disciplines via local, self-organized, assemblies. This “unity” has not meant accord with a “party line” or set of shared demands or common principles. Rather, it’s “practical unity” as an effect of the conscious sharing of an organizational form. Unity, then, is an affiliation around and in terms of the practice of occupation. One of the most significant achievements of Occupy Wall Street in its first two months was the change in the shape of the left. Providing a common form that no one could ignore, it drew a line: are you with or against occupation?
Protest requires living bodies in the streets. Given the collapse of the institutional space of left politics in the wake of the decline of unions and the left’s fragmentation into issues and identities, occupation asserts a much needed and heretofore absent common ground from which to join in struggle. In dramatic contrast to communicative capitalism’s promise of easy action, of a politics of pointing and clicking and linking and forwarding, Occupy Wall Street says No! It’s not so easy. You can’t change the world isolated behind your screen. You have to show up, work together, and collectively confront the capitalist class. Protest requires living bodies in the streets.
Virtually any place can be occupied. Part of the affective pleasure of the movement in its initial weeks was the blooming of ever more occupations. The spread of the form spoke to the salience of its issues. Without any coordination from the top, without a national organization of any kind, people asserted themselves politically by adopting occupation as the form for political protest, occupying parks, sidewalks, corners, and squares (although not a state capitol as had been done during the Wisconsin protests at the beginning of 2011). Yet more than political symbolism, the fact that occupation could be adopted in myriad, disparate settings meant that multiple groups of people quickly trained themselves in a variety of aspects of political work. They learned specific local legal codes and shared tactical knowledge of how to manage media and police. Occupation let them develop and share new capacities.
So, duration and adoptability are key benefits of the occupation form. In contrast with the event-oriented alter-globalization movement, occupation establishes a fixed political site as a base for operations. A more durable politics emerges as the claiming of a space for an indeterminate amount of time breaks with the transience of contemporary media culture. People have the opportunity to be more than spectators. After learning of an occupation, they can join. The event isn’t over; it hasn’t gone away. Implying a kind of permanence, occupation is ongoing. People are in it till “this thing is done”—until the basic practices of society, of the world, have been remade. This benefit, however, is also a drawback. Since occupations are neither economically self-sustaining nor chosen tactically as sites from which to expand on the ground (block by block, say, until a city is taken), built into their form is a problem of scale.
In addition to these two attributes of occupation as a form, some of the decisions taken in the initial weeks of the Occupy Wall Street movement added to its ability to establish and maintain continuity. Prior to the September 17, 2011 action, activists from New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts and the artist group 16 Beaver met together to plan the event. The consensus-based approach to collective decisions in meetings called “General Assemblies” was adopted at this time (it had already been a component of the 15 May movement in Spain). Subsequent occupations followed New York’s lead, calling their meetings “General Assemblies” and basing decisions on consensus. Consensus let the movement claim an inclusivity missing from mainstream politics in that everything had to be agreed to by everyone. Participants were doing more than giving money or signing petitions—they were making decisions on the most fundamental concerns of the movement. The emphasis on consensus also meant that no group or position was excluded from the outset. Breaking with tendencies toward the specification of issues and identities, the movement worked to combine voices so as to amplify their oppositional political force. More superficially, but no less importantly, the hand-signals used to guide discussions toward consensus—upturned hands with twinkling fingers to signal assent; cross-arms to block—became a marker and practice of belonging to the movement. Common slogans, especially “We are the 99%”, also linked disparate occupations together into a common movement.
Three primary efforts to eliminate the incompatibility of Occupy with the status quo: democratization, moralization, and individualization. Maintaining and extending this collectivity, this practical unity incompatible with communicative capitalism, has been and remains a challenge, perhaps the biggest challenge the movement faces. Counter-revolutionary tendencies work with all their might to close or conceal the gap of collective desire for collectivity, for collective approaches to common concerns with production, distribution, and stewardship of common resources. In the first days of Occupy Wall Street, the mainstream media tried to ignore the movement. After the movement was impossible to ignore, after the protesters had demonstrated determination and the police had reacted with orange containment nets and pepper spray, other efforts to efface the fundamental division opened up by Occupy Wall Street emerged. These continue to try to make the movement fully compatible with politics as usual and thus un-threatening to business as usual. They work to reabsorb the movement into familiar functionality and convenient dis-functionality, and thereby fill-in or occlude the gap the movement installs. I’ll mention three primary efforts to eliminate the incompatibility of Occupy with the status quo: democratization, moralization, and individualization.”