People know the rich don’t care whether they live or die.
People know the rich don’t care whether they live or die.
Alternet ran an article last week titled “What Really Caused the Implosion of the Occupy Movement: An Insider’s View“. Multiple people asked me to write up a response here. I already wrote a retrospective article for the site a couple months ago, which you can read here, but I do have some comments on this article.
The first part that struck me was that it’s encouraging people are still thinking about OWS this far on. There was a sense as soon as maybe a year and a half later of OWS as something that had completely flashed out; that was going to have its effect on the populace, an undeniable effect if nowhere near the full one that was desired by the occupiers, and become an invisible source of cultural vernacular left to etymologies and dry historical books sold or at least priced and placed on card tables at the Left Forum in smaller quantities each ensuing year.
But the underlying grievances that fueled OWS have only been exacerbated since the encampments were broken up and the starting pistol for the second wave of postmortems after the hasty ones scrawled off in the immediate aftermath may have begun with this article.
The article itself is very much in the style of OWS and particularly the “leadership”, the people who had a definite craving for sitting through long planning meetings, the people who academically couldn’t call themselves leaders but would insistently remind people such to make sure any listeners would know they’d pondered the possibility. I quote:
I’m a leader, and people know it, but no one says it. It’s a strange feeling. I’m not the only leader, of course — there are many. In this room, we’re a wide range of people. Some of the folks go back to the Global Justice Movement, but most of us have met in the middle of the whirlwind, building the kinds of relationships you can only build in crisis or struggle. Some of the room is seasoned and experienced, some very new to this type of thing, but all of us have demonstrated leadership early on (some before the thing even really started) and come in with lots of relationships. Between us we lead a number of working groups, drive some of the major mass actions, play formative roles in much of the media being pumped out, and more.
There’s not a lot of talk about tactics or the nitty gritty of organizing and of course, as I pointed out in my memoir of the movement Every Time I Check My Messages, Somebody Thinks I’m Dead, there was a distinct sense of a split in the park between the people actually running the day to day operations of the park and the people who seemed to think they were running the park operations who were in fact in meetings constantly. Some very important work was done in these meetings, yes, but a lot of what went on was overly theoretical. I stopped going to Info group meetings after two or three of them because nothing was getting done that was important to running the info kiosk at the front; the number of people working the table was always small enough where it was easier to make decisions on the ground with whoever was present and in the case of the info table, most decisions were pretty common sense and because all volunteers weren’t spending equal amounts of time there, any group decisions couldn’t quite account for the finer points of moment to moment operation.
Author Yotam Marom’s analysis in the article hits some of the major issues. Yes, the occupation had no coherent endgame. Yes, the anarchist principles on which the park was organized created problems both of accountability of the people who were, if not leaders, at least in far more privileged positions regarding the financial windfall of the park and still have not released the open books that were supposedly kept of the park’s finances (looking at you Finance and Accounting Working Groups). If I ever met Yotam I don’t remember it, though his description of meetings in apartments sounds like the side of the park, or, perhaps more accurately stuff that wasn’t in the park, that I purposely avoided. The appeal for me was the liveliness on the ground and the almost fully functioning city that arose out of donations and people willing to sleep in public.
The major errors I see in Marom’s breakdown of what went wrong are mostly in omissions. Marom, like most of the people who were going to meetings, missed half the occupation, the half that still exists in small pockets, the public imagination. Because OWS had no endgame, I feel hesitant to call it a success or failure; it clearly wasn’t meant to create a new political party in the US, state eviction from the park was pretty much a foregone conclusion from day one; what was surprising was that we were able to hold the space for as long as we did so we could engage the public in radical politics and break open the sense that the entire US political spectrum ran from Democratic Candidate on the left to Republican Candidate on the right and that the failings of capitalism weren’t the fault of the larger population but of an incredibly small elite-the 1%. This got across to the people who were ever going to pick up on it. Marom makes the mistake of presuming the best possible end result of OWS would involve it extending beyond the benefits of the seized public/semi-private space that were used for outreach to establish the counter-narrative.
This is gonna sound like heresy to the more self-serious folk in the Occupy diaspora, but OWS was the park(s). That was the strength and the thing that meant it wasn’t gonna last forever. There are literally hundreds, possibly thousands of left organizations in the US plotting this thing or that thing that exist on the internet or in small meeting groups. These things exist kinda like Jane Austen book clubs in the larger scheme of things for the most part; people with like interests can meet and indulge themselves away from the public eye. This isolating aspect of the left is unfortunate, but then the functional far left in the US has been decimated repeatedly in ways that the far left in countries in Europe hasn’t. This, however, creates a problem with public outreach. There isn’t a sense in most far left organizations or meetings that the people who show up to meetings have any place there besides to listen to the people with more free time and/or a more obsessive interest in the subject lecture at them. OWS, because of its nature as a pop-up town, gave the people who weren’t verbal intellects or frustrated academics shit to do and a place within the functioning whole; there was a sense of actual community and of something being accomplished. We may not have been able to pay people but we at least were able to offer the dignity and benefits of identity that come with feeling as if the work one is doing isn’t pointless. That was a major component that is missing from all other left organizations that I feel has been left out by the people who were at the meetings all day.
I have said before and I will say again, psychologically what was going to dominate the main OWS encampment if the police hadn’t come was the sense of paranoia the left had at encountering its own relevance like an unexpected blind date, a mounting paranoia that was only partially justified. Some people stepped into the light of sudden relevance with the awkward leap of not having seen a slightly larger drop while descending stairs. The differences between what was wanted by the differing parties and the growing value of Occupy as brand (a growth that has largely dissipated in the interim) would draw in the vultures. Small time hustlers saw crowds and confused tourists who weren’t sure what to do with their vague misgivings about the establishment than to throw money at appropriately branded tchotchkes, not revolution; people who otherwise would’ve had little shot at professions in fields like journalism saw their opening; there are far more of these in America than committed anarchists, communists, or less specifically defined “organizers”. The US, at least at this point in time and probably at least since the end of WWII and earlier, is a community of individuals hoping to “make it”, dominated by an aspirational ideology with an interchangeable center for a culture that exists after sincere belief in the relevance of ideology.
One line in the article seems to suggest a mountain of issues that Karom never quite unpacks fully but that someone like Slavoj Zizek could have a field day with; perhaps the thing that makes the otherwise well written article feel unsatisfying is the sense of something rote and unexamined, a hole covered over with a makeshift thatch rug of explanation. The line:
“We race to prove we are the least privileged, because this is the only way we can imagine being powerful.”
The paragraph surrounding it mostly restates/develops this thesis. The thing left unexamined, probably necessarily: the performance of empathy that revolves around the creation of intellectual portraits of what constitutes victimhood, part of the heart of the left as currently constructed, the thing that creates its basis to claims of moral agency, is of course a Gordian knot. It can’t allow for success without the building block of hipocrisy insofar as any success would diminish the victim identity that the legitimacy of the initial action was founded on.
It’s Christianity through the lens of Nietzsche with all the problems Nietzsche pointed out in The Genealogy of Morals, what Marx would’ve called a contradiction at the heart of Christian morality. The moral fall narrative that accompanies the seizure of power has to be lived in order to make the necessary political changes; the seizure of power is a means of framing debate that seems to supercede other considerations. Power divorced from any other elements, artificially isolated as though it were in a lab, exists most effectively as a tool of aggression against the optimism and notions of egalitarianism that might exist in the minds of the populace. The action of revolution, of establishing the system that will organize everything when this system collapses into turmoil, is being thrown around like the hot potato it is. We haven’t seen enough of history to know the plan to implement but have seen enough to know the early explorers tend not to live very long or end up having to borrow money to buy potatoes as Marx did.
What will the morality after the Christian-Nietzschaen epoch resemble?
…much of what the dossiers call Pirate Prentice is a strange talent for-well, for getting inside the fantasies of others: being able, actually, to take over the burden of managing them…It is a gift the firm has found uncommonly useful: at this time mentally healthy leaders and other historical figures are indispensable. What better way to cup and bleed them of excess anxiety than to get someone else to take over the running of their exhausting little daydreams for them…to live in the tame green lights of their tropical refuges, in the breezes through their cabanas, to drink their tall drinks, changing your seat to face the entrance of their public places, not letting their innocence suffer any more than it already has…to get their erections for them at the oncome of thoughts the doctors feel are inappropriate…fear all, all they cannot afford to fear…
-Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
At the beginning of his magnum opus Histoire(s) du Cinema, Jean-Luc Godard states his goal: to present a history of all the films that were never made. Over the hour of the first installment, his own chanting voice layered over itself with tape effects suggesting a religious chant melting is paired with snippets of popular songs and dialogue from movies played over snippets from these and other films, stills of historical events and famous paintings. These images fade in and out of each other, blink back and forth rapidly. Sometimes they’re held in stillness. They sometimes cut to images of Godard himself poking at his typewriter or thumbing through titles on his bookshelf. Other times they cut to patches of black blank screen.
As the film progresses, the importance of the title makes itself apparent-sandwiched between history and cinema is the “s”. The parentheses around the “s” are just as important; they present it simultaneously as a letter we can see and the implication that it isn’t actually supposed to be there; a speculation made concrete by the conjuring power of the language, be it a typed phrase or the space between the images in the film reel. The unreachable sublime object that forms the center of the title the same object being reached at throughout its run time. Images mired in context are brought into the space of dreams; what was the Brechtian device of distancing in the avant-garde structuralist cinema becomes in fact the very space of the immersion of dreams. And as we know, the operations of dreams far exceed the strictures of the pleasure (of their) principle(s).
In the weeks and months after the Zuccotti Park uprising was suppressed by the storm troopers, rumors and excited proclamations still abounded. I got a phone call saying tents were going to be set up in Bryant Park that December; excited I shared the news only to arrive at the same ice rink, the same giant library steps, the same little shops with the same conspicuous trinkets, the same Bryant Park I’d always known, and in the these presences I saw only the lack of tents. I wandered a bit. On a bench I sat and stared at the excessively well dressed couples lazily gliding on the ice long enough for my mind to begin the actual wandering I’d come for.
These proclamations distanced themselves as echoes do. Eventually they stopped altogether. And so the repression begun by the police in the space of the physical had to be completed by the Occupiers in the space of the mind. Further calls of a reemergence were soon met by other activists with angry chastisements made in the guise of practicality or “being real” that it wasn’t going to happen. Underneath this anger sat, of course, the fear of another heartbreak. The many onlookers, some of whom had sent money or visited the Occupation, who had seen it the entire time as a space to watch from a distance in which they could once again be freed to daydream their long repressed daydreams of the possibility of something else, repeatedly asked and continue to ask in confused tones “Where did it go?”
Occupy was the “s” in the parentheses. And in the hasty essays which have since and continue to be piled into the lumpy monolith of the digital left, we see, etched into its surface, tessellated images of a couples’ dance between the possibility of the parenthesis and the frustrated enclosure of the redaction. And we squint; we want to see what these dancers that have so mesmerized us look like, to ponder their faces like those of Hollywood actors or those well-manicured suburban lawns of boys and girls in the catalogs, to wonder if they’d like us or what we’d chose faced with the possibility of rejecting them, secretly secure the odds are against us ever consummating that horrific encounter with their actuality. While squinting sometimes the faces look familiar. Punch and Judy perhaps? But which is Punch? Which is Judy?
Is it naive to consider the revolution any differently? And so, to those who ask of my prior anecdote, “Why didn’t you bring a tent yourself?”, therein lies both your answer and my evasion. And in my evading, I must ask whether the stigma on the evasion is performed with the proper weight.
All that has taken the mask of the practical has led us here.
And so I keep squinting, writing the histories of all the revolutions that were never made.
Sometime ago a small publication appeared, a pamphlet, apparently written for the needs of those who undertake cultural trips through Europe – of whatever use such a brochure could possibly be. It offered a concise catalogue of artistic festivals during this particular summer and the autumn as well. The reason for such a scheme is obvious: it permits the cultural traveller to divide his time and to seek out that which he thinks will be of interest to him – in short, he can plan his trip according to the same principle which lies behind the organization of these festivals: they are all embraced and controlled by a single comprehensive organization. Inherent in the idea of the festival, however, and of the artistic festival as well, no matter how secularized and weakened it might be, is the claim to something unique, to the emphatic event which is not fungible. Festivals are to be celebrated as they come; they are not to be organized only from the perspective of avoiding overlapping. Administrative reason which takes control of them and rationalizes them banishes festivity from them.
-Theodor Adorno, “Culture and Administration”
Calling out around the world
Are you ready for a brand new beat…
What exactly was Occupy Wall Street?
It’s been almost four years.
The culture at large seem to have forgotten it insofar as they knew it and those who knew it have repressed it insofar as they couldn’t forget it. The Wikipedia page captures nothing of what it actually was. The excited buildup, the community, the seeming realization of the left in the framework of a Millhauser story-the ones about buildings and amusement parks that grow to almost encompass the entirety of the world til a jealous God burns them to the ground out of spite-everything antithetical to formal histories, lost in the encyclopedia’s protocol whole Earth but present in Zuccotti Park, a town that popped up overnight, a place I could call home that just as soon disappeared while I was sleeping…
The only adequate form to convey what it was might be a love letter, a love letter written by someone young enough to know better than to know better. In writing my memoir of my time there, I stumbled into composing such a letter; my mind kept circling around the park and the women I’d briefly dated whose retrospects were still clouded by magic. For a 22 year old given to the matryoshkas of memory they were the park in miniature and the park was them, in the shared briefness of my association and in the possibilities they suggested by the enormity of the negative space of time before and after their presence, wide open fields where an over-active imagination can skip and curse. I eventually realized my mental relationship to these women was unhealthy and reading those portions of the book now brings on cringes. But the specter of Zuccotti remains and a better metaphor has yet to come to me.
It called out for love letters and all we got were journalists. Many of the journalists refused to go especially far into the park for fear the residents were “dirty.” Many non-journalists refused to explore the park because the people were “dirty.” At the time this annoyed me. Now, having been out in the world a bit more and having had many unfortunate dealings with these kinds of journalists, I wish I could smell enough like garlic to ward them off without the attendant collateral damage.
The past might be tainted by the indiscretions of the self-proclaimed leadership; the Justin Wedes’, the shadowy self-seriousness of the Media and Accounting work groups that eventually tried to seal themselves off as an administration over the gloriously ordered chaos of the park itself by renting office space, who took a lot of the money and never accounted for how it was spent. But these things don’t seem to bother me much; perhaps I can separate the opportunists from the other aspects of the park because the opportunists generally acted like pompous dicks when I had to deal with them at the Info Table. It was a movement that denied leaders and claims to leadership, that defined itself from the bottom up; the petty actions of an avant-party too chickenshit to call themselves such doesn’t seem especially relevant to the larger story.
The experience of the park itself was America more than America ever realized itself as America; everyone co-existed with common cause but not under the umbrella of a false cordiality or superstructure of capitalism; there were numerous arguments but that’s because it was a place where you could actually argue with people. It was frequently compared to the Tea Party because the possibility of something not contrived by the moneyed was a threat to anyone too afraid to imagine there could be something that could work on anything besides the rationalizations on which they’d constructed their banal existences.
It took me a while to readjust to the outside world afterward. Society outside the park ran on carefully polite presentations of mutual disinterest between people who’d probably rather not have anything to do with each other, who denigrate as “not realistic” anything that stands in the way of their uninspired grabs for small amounts of power and the comfort of ignorance.
Ye shall know them by their call: “Get a job you fucking hippies!”
I’d try to describe what it was like to be there but it was like describing a UFO landing. Except because it was on the news so much, the listener was put in the uncomfortable position of not being able to write me off immediately as being crazy. In the park boomersplaining, wherein the generation that sold us out tried to explain how to protest, was present but it was recognized for the cynical garbage that it was and is. On the outside, the boomers have (some of) the money; the boomers remembered their failed revolution as simply an excitement of their youth to be written off with long condescending monologues reinforced to the level of unconscious conspiracy. They’d never wanted more from the world than tiny versions of themselves to reassure them on major holidays they weren’t going to die alone. Like they took the nonsensical Keynesian reassurances that “the market will come back around”, they took the privilege of the unprecedented economic opportunity of the time and place they were born as false legitimation of the rightness of their imparted “wisdom.”
This may seem like an unfair generalization. Not all boomers boomersplain, but then not all men mansplain either.
The promise of a world devoid of this bullshit, where the vapid cruelty of a narcissistic populace could be confronted head on by anyone willing to sit in a park and display the will to resist in whatever means they could muster or contribute, difficult and contentious as it sometimes was, paranoid as it often got, as unkempt and sprawling as it ended up, despite the eventual heartbreak of a brutal and coordinated crackdown by the powers that be that was cheered on by the blowhards, was the beauty of Occupy Wall Street.
I suppose it’s testament to the success of Occupy Wall Street that as late as 2013 there are still filmmakers using the “Occupy” brand as a form of deceptive advertising. “Occupy Love” by the Canadian documentary filmmaker Velcrow Ripper, was released in late 2012. It made a brief appearance in my Twitter feed, got a few reviews on Occupy related websites, and promptly disappeared. Perhaps it’s because the few people who actually saw Occupy Love went in expecting a film about the occupation of Zuccotti Park, and came away feeling duped. Sure, Occupy Wall Street makes an appearance, but it’s more of a cameo, the big star Velcro Ripper gave a few minutes of time so he could put the name on the marquee.
So does Occupy Love work on its own terms?
The central idea of Occupy Love is that the earth is in a state of crisis, that the exploitative and violent nature of not only capitalism, but of hierarchical, “vertical” civilization in general has destroyed the world economy and profoundly damaged the environment Since it threatens, in Ripper’s words, to “turn the whole world into a global ground zero,” the only thing that can save us is its negation, a “non-hierarchical” movement equally as powerful. The global and environmental crisis, he maintains, has to be “transformed into a great love story.” Eros has to confront Thanatos. Love has to banish the death instinct.
Occupy Love presents the global protest movement that began with the Arab Spring in 2010 as the “great love story” that may eventually save the world from what Bell Hooks describes as the “dominator culture.” What all of the various protests and encampments have in common, Ripper argues, what ties the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street to the Indignatos in Spain is their non-hierarchical form of organization, the fact that they revolution not as a political party or set of demands but as a “process.” It’s a compelling argument. It’s probably what a lot of people in Zuccotti Park in 2011 believed themselves.
But I think Occupy Love fails, and fails badly. I actually don’t like writing this. Velcrow Ripper seems like a nice guy. He seems earnest. He seems like he put a lot of work into Occupy Love, and I agree with much of what he says. But I won’t lie to you. The film bored me out of my skull.
I guess the best explanation as to why Occupy Love is so crushingly dull is that Velcrow Ripper violated his own ideals. Occupy Love is a “vertical,” hierarchical documentary. As we watch him travel the world and ask the question “how can the global crisis become a great love story?” we realize this film isn’t about Occupy Wall Street or the Arab Spring. It’s all about Velcrow Ripper. What’s more, although there are some decent interviews with Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein and Rebecca Solnit, what’s the point of a film about radical, horizontal, anarchistic democracy when elite intellectuals get more time than the movement’s rank and file? There’s too much slow motion, too much ponderous music banging us over the head with the idea that “something important is going on here.” There’s too much voice over narration.
I was excited when I saw the first few minutes of Occupy Love. Ripper is walking across the Brooklyn Bridge on September 17th, 2011 to film Occupy’s first day, and I’ve seen precious little good footage of the rally at Bowling Green. At long last, I thought, I’d get to see the original march around the bull. I’d get to see the original occupiers burn money on the steps of The National Museum of the American Indian. But I was disappointed. Ripper jumps right to Zuccotti park, and, as far as I can tell, the footage he uses isn’t even from Day 1.
Later on, we do get some very good documentary footage of an arrest, of the young woman who had her breasts groped by the police in the iconic news photo. We see how violent it the arrest was, just how many cops jumped her. But then Ripper spoils it all by misidentifying the address. He tells us it was at 12th and University, and implies, mistakenly, that it was footage of the pepper sprayings when, in fact, it took place an hour earlier near Broadway. That kind of sloppiness about events I witnessed myself made me mistrust the coverage from Egypt and southern Europe.
If I’m reluctant to attack Occupy Love because Velcrow Ripper seems like a nice enough guy, then I’m even more reluctant to attack Assault on Wall Street because I’m afraid the director might beat me up. Ewe Boll, who’s widely considered to be the worst filmmaker alive, is known for challenging his critics to boxing matches. I suppose I’ll have to risk it. I have to warn people. Assault on Wall Street was recommended to me by a friend, who hadn’t seen it, and, since I always like to have something in common to talk about, I decided okay. I’ll check it out. Maybe it will be an entertaining B-movie about the occupation of Zuccotti Park. At the very least I hoped for an interesting revenge drama against Wall Street. After all, who wouldn’t want to see a maniac with an AR-15 walk into the offices of Goldman Sachs and go Sandy Hook Massacre on some dirtbag bankers?
Don’t waste your time. Boll actually succeeds in making mass slaughter at an investment bank look dull. I think I fell asleep before the last shot was fired.
Then there are all the little details. Everything about this film rings false. There isn’t a single good scene in the whole 98 minutes. It’s nominally set in New York. Boll even flew out to Brooklyn and Queens to get some footage on the J-Train. But nothing about the offices of the Wall Street scumbags who cheated the hero — a block headed armed security guard and combat vet named Jim Baxford — out of his life savings looks like an office in Manhattan. It all looks like some sterile office park in New Jersey, or, to be more specific, suburban Vancouver, where most of Assault on Wall Street was filmed. And Jim Baxford? It’s New York. At least give the guy an Irish or Italian name.
Baxford’s friends, played by old B-movie standbys Michael Pare (the hunk from Streets of Fire looking puffy and old), Keith David (the black guy from They Live) and Edward Furlong (the kid from Terminator 2) all seem out of place. Furlong plays another rent a cop. David and Pare play New York City Police officers. In what might be the most ridiculous scene in the whole movie, Pare gives a long speech about how much he hates Wall Street. “We spend all day busting homeless guys,” he says. “But the real criminals are on Wall Street.”
Come on Ewe. I’m even half prepared to fight you over that one. If you’re going to make a film piggybacking off Occupy Wall Street, don’t make a member of the NYPD sound like a sympathetic liberal. While it’s theoretically possible a New York City police officer might say something like “all the real criminals are on Wall Street,” it’s a lot more likely that he’d be making racist jokes or talking about “those mutts in Zuccotti Park.”
Just about the only thing I like about this film was the actress who played Jim Baxford’s wife, Erin Karplunk. I don’t know if she’s a good actress or not, but she was really cute in an “I’m a Canadian somewhere in Vancouver pretending I’m in New York” sort of way. I can see why Baxford would go on a bloody rampage against the bankers who robbed them of the money for her cancer treatments. Hell, she’s so cute in a “beautiful dying girl” sort of way that seeing her slit her wrists in bed under the covers (then break open a plastic bag full of red food dye to make it look like she bled to death) made me want to walk into Lloyd Blankfein’s office with an AR-15. It’s not like you’d need an excuse anyway. But the payoff, the shooting spree on Wall Street, is so bland, so emotionally uninvolving, and so poorly staged, it just left me pissed off. It’s not even a good Steven Seagal knockoff. Part of it had to do with the filming locations. Once again, we’re obviously in Vancouver. Part of it was the lack of a real budget. I suppose Boll couldn’t afford costumes for more than 5 riot cops. But, for God’s sake, this is New York. If a serial killer were on the loose in downtown Manhattan killing Wall Street bankers, I don’t think he could get away with target practice under the JFK Expressway (some highway in Canada trying to look like the JFK Expressway). The whole city would be an armed camp.
I also hated the actor who played the hero. He kills probably 100 people and never even breaths heavily or breaks a sweat. Come on. We’ve all scene Daniel Day Lewis. When you kill someone and you don’t have any emotions to connect to to make it look real, at least indicate. At least breath heavily to make it look like you’ve got some heightened adrenaline. This actor was so flat and affectless, I half thought he was a cyborg.
About two thirds of the way through Assault on Wall Street, the hero is walking past the Flatiron Building. He looks inside. He sees the corrupt Assistant District Attorney who had earlier revealed himself to be in the pocket of the bankers. He waits. Then he confronts him. DA Scumbag (I forget his name) has had a little too much to drink. He turns to leave, and walks right onto Broadway into the path of a speeding taxicab. For a moment, I felt a brief surge of emotional satisfaction. Who doesn’t want to see an in the pocket of Wall Street ADA get drunk and play in traffic. Boll even shot the scene on location. It’s the real Flatiron Building. Then Jim Baxford escapes. He turns, runs into an ally, and comes out on the other side, in Vancouver.
I couldn’t stop laughing.