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  • Occupy and the 99%How do its participants understand Occupy politics?
  • Jacob Mukherjee (bio)

Do participants in the Occupy movement see themselves as part of a unified collective, or as, the leadership of an oppressed socio-political group or class? Or is it a movement that unites diverse political identities in the pursuit of broad common values? This essay is an attempt to answer these questions, and to reflect on the different ways in which UK Occupy participants understand themselves. Jodi Dean has written that:

Now we appear to ourselves - we say ‘we’, even as we argue over who we are and what we want … Because of Occupy Wall Street, we have been able to imagine and enact a new subject that is collective, engaged, if, perhaps, also manic and distractible.1

One of my aims in the research that informs this essay has been to establish the degree to which activists’ own assessments of the movement conform to Jodi Dean’s view.2 But I have also found that the political and strategic approach of social movements is not always the result of participants’ considered political understandings, and a second aim therefore has been to look at some of the internal movement dynamics and broader contextual factors that help produce an ‘Occupy politics’ - a politics that it is possible that few individual members would consciously embrace.

Clearly, Occupy did establish a repertoire of recognisable slogans and practices. For example it came to be identified with a set of distinct organising practices and slogans, including hand gestures, general assemblies, consensus decision-making and references to ‘the 99%’. (Much of this was drawn from preceding decades of social movement struggle, particularly the radical environmental, global justice and social [End Page 68] forum movements of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.) The adoption of this repertoire by protesters around the world seemed to show that a unified political identity was being created. But Occupy’s message was less clear. Its refusal (or inability) to articulate a single set of movement demands has made it difficult to precisely analyse its politics. In some ways it presented something of a blank canvas, onto which assorted supporters and critics could paint whatever they wanted to see.

Writers from a libertarian or anarchist perspective have enthusiastically claimed Occupy for their tradition. The movement’s focus on democracy is portrayed as a disavowal of a unified ideology or collective subject: participants are empowered to produce their own critique of capitalism in line with their particular political identities. The determination to create ‘utopian’ or ‘liberated’ spaces, the commitment to ‘horizontal’ methods of organising, and the resolute refusal to engage with established power structures, mean that a line can be drawn that links Occupy to 1960s libertarianism, the anti-nuclear movement, radical environmentalism and the alter-globalisation movement. The ‘open source’, flexible nature of the Occupy message, and the movement’s networked form, are seen as strengths which have allowed Occupy to translate itself into different contexts around the world. The central concept within this discursive framework is ‘participatory democracy’, represented by the Occupy ‘general assembly’ and its consensus decision-making processes. The lack of a single set of Occupy ‘demands’ and the movement’s commitment to self-representation are also celebrated by the libertarian school.3

An alternative account frames Occupy as a failed revolutionary movement. According to this line of argument, the strategy of occupation should be seen as a militant assertion of popular power in opposition to global capital, rather than an attempt to establish temporary autonomous zones. The concept of ‘the 99%’ against a tiny global elite has successfully drawn attention to the inequality and class division upon which capitalism depends. As Jodi Dean has written, it ‘transform[ed] a statistic into a crime’ (CH, p218). This account casts Occupy activists as a reluctant vanguard, able to mobilise millions but unwilling to embrace the leadership role this implies; the failure to develop a programme and create permanent institutional forms have been seen as fatal weaknesses (CH, pp 229–32, 237–9). The preoccupation with consensus and horizontalism - praised within the libertarian discourse as important exercises in liberation - are criticised by the revolutionaries as...


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pp. 68-80
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