the instinct for power in the Occupy movement

The Occupy protestors have no instinct for power. The police and their respective politicians, with the historical advantage, are well aware of this lack on the part of the Occupiers. And the aspiring police and politicians of the Occupy movement manage the revolt while others sit idly by and convince themselves otherwise. We worry about maintaining wholesome images for media representations that are instrumental to the ruling class. In altering or masking oneself for the most “on point” production, many are seemingly leaving their goals behind. All this is under the guise of pragmatism, when these practical protestors cannot even keep up with the last media fabrication.

The “practical” protestor responds to an allegation by confirming fallacious terms with their own actions. They then think of how a given issue, one that the police and their bureaucrats care about in such a noble manner, can be addressed. The lives of those in power are made a little easier as their work is completed by protestors they previously thought were so unreasonable. This is perhaps the most easily read occurrence of the self-defeating, self-management of which Occupiers across the nation are guilty.

That the self-policing Occupiers perpetually “need” to be engaged by conscious anarchists shows how short-sighted they really are. For the former, the spectacular marches are satisfying enough, as other elements are held back by the rat-wheel of teach-ins and skill-shares. The practical protestors are unwilling to think in terms of power because they truly have no desire for radical change, let alone a revolution. With mixed success, the Occupy protests have limited themselves to self-contained dead-end issues (“we should be able to do this or that or else we will fight for that allowance”). Boredom is counter-revolutionary, yet its ubiquity has only led to a new set of slightly ameliorating hobbies for many. The Occupy protests at least signify a social shift that was much needed, though – people are finally utilizing the public space that was slowly stolen over time. Will Occupy’s grandest achievement vaguely be the reintegration of the public square into our lives?

George Lakoff linguist and political theorist was one of the more exciting developments for the soft left in the U.S. because he was able to think in terms of power. Lakoff explained that political discourse for the right was very strategic – words used consciously reflected mental frameworks that played into voters’ psychology. He was looking to elevate the position of Democracts in terms of representation. Truthfulness is not necessarily held in high regard, with a focus placed on positioning in relation to the most powerful frames. “Do not use their language.” Lakoff writes, “Their language picks out a frame–and it won’t be the frame you want.” Lakoff’s writings, although superficially irrelevant to those who reject electoral politics, illustrate how strategically authorities are thinking in terms of representation. There are some very common frames used in relation to the Occupy protests which include terms like “outside agitators,” “professional anarchists,” “violent protestors,” “health and safety issues,” and one can imagine more being fabricated and employed in the future. How do we escape these frames? We must think in our own terms.

Recently in Oakland, when an internal report reflected the statistic that crime had diminished by 19%, Oakland Police Chief Jordan wrote an email to Mayor Quan’s office. In the letter, Jordan noted the strategic inopportunity of such a statistic: “Not sure how you want to share this good news… It may be counter to our statement that the Occupy movement is negatively impacting crime in Oakland.” Suddenly, past instances of stories, fed to the media by police, show themselves for the tools that they are in the hands of the state. The predictable and fallacious façade of superior moral judgment of Jean Quan and the OPD beautifully unravels before our eyes.

Lakoff believes that the act of revealing facts is not enough to change anyone’s mind. The line goes that if the left could only learn to stop using the language of the right, then conservative power would lose the reinforcement it gets from being bashed by liberals (by using the former’s terms). However, engaging in this sort of rhetoric war limited to party politics is a failed endeavor from the beginning. We can in part understand how this back and forth is limited by examining the shift in world power to hegemony.

Under hegemony, power is internalized by all who exist within such a network of power. This concept was first developed by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci to describe a spectrum of power relations – involving both the creation and preservation of asymmetrical interdepencies. Through these dynamics of power, “[d]ominant ideological streams must be… reproduced in the activities of our most basic social units,” writes Cultural Studies theorist James Lull. Counter-cultural resistance is often absorbed and recycled into a reinforcement of such a power. The 1960s counter-cultural movement, for example, was quickly subsumed under a mountain of profitable psychedelic commodities and their respective lifestylisms – more of the same old shit covered in patchouli scented shampoo and Jim Morrison posters. Yet this is an unstable relationship – one that can at once “be actively won and secured [or] lost” (to quote some second-hand Stuart Hall, via James Lull; emphasis added). “Hegemony fails,” Lull writes, “when dominant ideology is weaker than social resistance.”

It does not take too far of a leap to imagine how Occupy protestors are complicit in reinforcing delicate balances of power. Some individuals at protests believe it is their mission to discipline others: with their tactics assuming the form of threats, physical violence, rhetoric, modeling of moral behavior (ex. scrubbing off graffiti), or snitching to the police. Regardless of the work that has been done, an acknowledgement of a diversity of tactics and solidarity among occupiers has yet to be completely fostered.

We live in a world in which the public often takes the news of blatant corruption with a wry smile and a weary shake of the head. OPD’s email conspiring with Mayor Quan – which should be considered not as an exception but the status quo – will probably scandalize the public for a moment, but it will not necessarily alter the trajectory of the Occupy movements (just as the globally prevailing orders of capitalism and imperialism did not come to a grinding halt due to thousands of Wikileaks).

The need for strategy in terms of media representations might doubly apply for activities in the streets. Actions speak louder than words. Police think in simple terms. If they are outnumbered and overpowered, they will back off. Yet the police will take any power granted to them – no matter the numbers at a demonstration. If the police can get away with giving out citations for irrelevant “offenses,” then they will if it proves fruitful (getting people to be dissuaded from protesting, for instance). A street protest establishes its own stage and boundaries that make up a territory. Police will do what they can to subvert and reorient these boundaries. What if we made it our goal to reappropriate such a tactic? We could ask ourselves how to best subvert the territory of the police. Here is where spontaneity and creativity both prove useful.

A powerful exercise would be to pay attention to the movements of both the protestors and the police. What short-term goals could we set for this action? What gets people arrested? What gets police to go away? How do we increase our autonomy, if only temporarily? A similar set of questions might apply for our interactions with the media. What terms are best suited for our current purposes? How is the media not important in relation to our actions? Can we counter anti-Occupy media fabrications with some of our own? All of these thought experiments will prove
useful in developing a positive resistance.

The instinct for collective empowerment must be cultivated. Problems faced can be positive if we are able to learn from them. This requires an active acknowledgement of as much of the picture as we possibly can be aware of. We cannot reduce ourselves to tiny windows for action and thought. The Occupy protests should incorporate a wide sampling of human experience in order to strengthen its own position. The tactics will develop only if we are willing to think critically about context and possibility. Let us not limit ourselves, but find new pathways that have yet to be discovered.