Critique of OccupyWallStreet's Tactics as a Brand

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Jodi Dean:

"The movement brings together a variety of groups and tendencies—not all of them compatible. Many in the movement see that as Occupy’s strength. They see Occupy as an umbrella movement capable of including a multiplicity of interests and tendencies. For them, “occupy” serves as a kind of political or even post-political open source brand that anyone can use. Because occupation is a tactic that galvanizes enthusiasm, they suggest, it can affectively connect a range of incompatible political positions, basically working around fundamental gaps, divisions, and differences. The mistake here is not only in the effort to ignore multiple incompatibilities; it is also, and more importantly in the evasion of the real antagonism that matters, the one that connects the movement to its setting—class struggle. “Tactics as brand” neglects the way occupation is a form that organizes the incompatibility of capitalism with the people and emphasizes instead a flexibility and adaptability already fully compatible with capitalism. I’ll say a little more about this.

Reduced to “tactic as brand” or “tactic as generator of affective attachment,” occupation responds in terms of communicative capitalism’s ideology of publicity. Communicative capitalism announces the convergence of democracy and capitalism in networked communication technologies that promise access and equality, enjoin participation, and celebrate creative engagement. Occupation understood as a tactic of political branding accepts that promise and demonstrates its failure. Communicative capitalism promises access? To whom and where? It promises access to everyone everywhere but really means to enhance and enable capital’s access to everything everywhere. The Occupy movement demonstrates this by occupying spaces that are ostensibly public but practically open only to capital; the 99% don’t really belong. Similarly, communicative capitalism promises participation—but that really means personalization; better to do as an individual before a screen and not a mass behind a barricade. And, communicative capitalism promises creative engagement—but that really means user-generated spectacular content that can be monetized and marketed, not collective political appropriation in a project of resistance. So the Occupy movement accepts the promises of communicative capitalism and demonstrates the contradictory truth underlying then. The resulting disturbance—pepper spray, riot gear, eviction—reveals the incompatibility at communicative capitalism’s heart.

At this point, the tactic of occupation is compatible with the system it ostensibly rejects.

Yet these demonstrations of contradiction rest uneasily against the acceptance of the promises of communicative capitalism. Like communicative capitalism, the movement also valorizes participation, creative engagement, and accessibility. One of the ideological features of “tactics as brand” is the idea that Occupy is an idea, practice, term accessible to anyone. And then there is equality. In the circuits of communicative capitalism, the only equality is that of any utterance, any contribution to the flow, whether it’s a critique of economic austerity of a video of baby kittens. Here, too, the movement can get reabsorbed as ever more informational and affective content, something which may appear on one’s screen, and be felt as good or bad before an image of the next thing pops up. At this point, the tactic of occupation is compatible with the system it ostensibly rejects. The same holds for the movement’s rhetorical and ideological emphases on plurality and inclusivity. They merge seamlessly into communicative capitalism and thereby efface the economic crisis at the movement’s heart. It’s already the case that there are multiple ideas and opportunities circulating on the internet. It’s already the case that people can hold events, form digital groups, and carry out discussions. People can even assemble in tents on the sidewalks—as long as they are in line for event tickets or a big sale at Wal-Mart. Communicative capitalism is an open, mutable field. That aspect of the movement—inclusivity—isn’t new or different. It’s a component of Occupy that is fully compatible with the movement’s setting in communicative capitalism. What’s new (at least in the last thirty years) is the organized collective opposition to the capitalist expropriation. Particularly in the face of the multiple evictions and massive police response to the occupations, the movement faces the challenge of keeping present and real the gap, the incompatibility, between occupation and the ordinary media practices and individualized acts of resistance that already comprise the faux-opposition encouraged in everyday life.

Occupation installs practical unity where there was fragmentation, collectivity where there was individualism, and division where there was the amorphous imaginary of the public.

Thus, it is necessary to consider the gap between occupation and its politicization, that is to say, between occupation as a tactic and occupation as a form operating in a determined setting. The political form of occupation for us depends on its fundamental, substantial component of class struggle as what connects it to its social setting. In this setting, occupation installs practical unity where there was fragmentation, collectivity where there was individualism, and division where there was the amorphous imaginary of the public." (