The metaphor of “occupation” strikes me as a provocative one not only for what the activists in Manhattan and elsewhere are doing, but for what they are struggling against.
Some, and perhaps many, of these are people without traditional “occupations,” so they are occupying themselves by re-occupying the public spaces that have been occupied for too long by the values, habits, and appeals of the Occupation Force — the whole industry of slogans, gestures, come-hither looks, sales pitches, jingles, hooks, nods and winks (backed up by policies, and ultimately by laws and policing) that keep us steered into the spectacle of Politics-as-Usual-and-Consumption-Above-All.
The point is that we’ve long been occupied by an Occupation Force as powerful as any this planet has seen.
But I wouldn’t push the metaphor too far: thinking of the Occupation as a foreign force has its limits. For one thing, it conflates capitalism with foreignness with “bad” — which is not only inaccurate (geographically, for us North Americans), but which rubs up against the love of otherness that bohemians, cosmopolitans, and broad-minded people in general have struggle to valorize for centuries. For another thing, the Occupation (as Foucault demonstrated) is something that comes from us. That’s what gives us the power to take it away, to reoccupy it, to deflate its power over us. It is immanent, just as is our power to reoccupy the spaces It’s come to fill.
As for naming this Occupation Force, that’s not straightforward either. The Left would call it “capitalism,” and I concur that it’s a variant of it. The right would call it “government,” which conflates too many things and misses the point, to my mind; while anarchists might split the difference and call it “the capitalist state,” and I concur it’s a variant of that as well. It is something that spreads through populations with their willing consent, and even their enthusiasm. It captivates us with its allure, its glamor, its spectacle — and with its more mundane benefits, from penicillin to washing machines to cell phones. That means that it gives us things we desire, and that therefore we need an analysis of desire to understand it better — which is why Buddhist psychology and metaphysics make a useful companion to critical analyses of capitalism.
But it is also better than old-style imperialism — the simple imposition of The Rules by The Man — isn’t it?
Oliver Belcher’s overview of the genealogy of Occupy Wall Street very nicely situates the OWS movement with respect to the Old (and classic) Left, the 1960s New Left, the identity politics of the 1970s and 1980s, and the anti- and alter-globalization activism of recent years. His reading list is as good a place to start as any. Kathleen Massara’s reading list is a bit more specific to a working-class internationalism. There are other angles by which one could approach the movement; the Chronicle of Higher Ed‘s, for instance, overemphasizes one or two strands of it (notably the David Graeber one; see this reply here).
But it helps to remember that OWS was launched by a call from Adbusters, that glamorous anti-glamor magazine, hipness parading as the killer of hipness, crusaders for the liberation of our “mental environment” through rebranding it with new slogans and images. And it helps to recognize that OWS is still primarily a media event — mediated by YouTube videos, blogs, and social media and by the anticipation of, response to, and diffractory use of mass media coverage.
It’s true that when you go out into the public space of streets, tents, parks, bodies, and billy clubs you commit yourself to physicality and to biopolitics in ways that are qualitatively different from anything that internet/media activism and hacktivism might call for. But there’s room for theorizing the relationship between these two spaces of critique — the mediaspace of global reoccupation and the urban territoriality of it. (We’ll leave the rural out for the time being; but not for long, since without land and agricultural activism, neither of the other two would be able to feed themselves for very long.)