In Review: OWS, The Ground Zero Occupation

I think that the form of Occupy Wall Street expresses its content, as Scott Beck showed in his earlier post on the occupation. I observe, further, that the way people use social media contributes to this form, as does the setting of the occupation. And I believe deliberating about the movement and connecting the debate to other political, social and cultural activities are keys to the democratic contribution of the movement to broader politics in America and beyond.

Jenny Davis in her post last week makes cogent points about the role of social media in social movements in general and in Occupy Wall Street in particular. Her key observation is very important. Digital activism is not only a means to the end of embodied social action. It also is an end in itself, a new type of politics that can make the previously hidden visible and can contribute to what she calls “the zeitgeist,” what I would prefer calling the prevailing common sense. I would add that it can constitute a space for free action, a public, a point made by Judith Butler in a recent lecture. This is especially telling as David Peppas and Barbara note in the two comments to Davis’s post, because the occupation doesn’t have a simple meaning or political end. The act of protesting, as well as the act of posting, makes the world look differently, and looking at the world differently is what is most needed at this time, to face up to stark social realities that have been ignored and develop the capacity to act on this. It is interesting how the way this happens is structured by social media actions, no longer a monopoly of the mass media, while the power of the movement, is quite material. It’s embedded in a specific geography and its link to political culture.

The place of the occupation in an important way contributes to its power. Situated in lower Manhattan, the New York Stock Market and the World Trade Center have been symbols of advanced capitalism and American economic power in the global order and have been actual centers of the order. And, thus, to my mind, Occupy Wall Street is the ground zero social movement.

Ironically, mine is first of all a “pedestrian observation,” based on very particular experience. In recent weeks, I walked around the area on the tenth anniversary of the attack with my friend, Steve Assael, who survived the 9/11 attack, including a stroll on Wall Street. And last week, I walked and observed the very same area when I went to take a look and to support the occupation at Zuccotti Park, passing by the site of the so-called Ground Zero Mosque as well.

Because it is at the symbolic center, the media are paying attention to OWS. A relatively small social demonstration is capturing global attention, exciting political imagination. In the U.S., apparently the Tea Party has met its match. A report yesterday indicates that Occupy Wall Street is more popular than the Tea Party. Occupations of public spaces are spreading around the country, and, as the old slogan goes: the whole world is watching. Occupations are going global, eminating from ground zero to London, Seoul back to Los Angeles and Washington D.C. and many points in between.

They have been watching in Gdansk. I was surprised by the interest in the Occupy Wall Street demonstration when I lectured there, and surprised and pleased to read that an important figure from that city, indeed the city’s most important historic figure, Lech Walesa, the leader of the Solidarity Trade Union, is planning on coming to NY to support the occupation.

As reported in an unlikely source, The New York Daily News:

“Walesa has warned of a ‘worldwide revolt against capitalism’ if the Wall St. protests are ignored.
They are protesting the ‘unfairness’ of an economy that enriches a few and ‘throws the people to the curb,’ he said in a recent interview.

‘That’s why union leaders and capitalists need to figure out what to do, because otherwise they will have to contend with a worldwide revolt against capitalism.’ ”

The news is spreading through mainstream media and publications. But I think it is also important how social media are spreading the word. I don’t read the Daily News. It’s the American classic tabloid, similar to Murdoch’s NY Post, though not as bad. I got wind of the report through a friend’s (Elzbieta Matynia’s) Facebook page. The world is watching the world as mediated by our friends and our interpretation of things. As Davis observes:

“This sharing, of course, is rarely (if ever) done in a neutral manner. Rather, Tweeters and Facebookers accompany shared news stories and web links with commentary that reveals a particular bent, or interpretation of the content. The content is therefore not just made visible, but impregnated with meaning in a web of social relations.”

The Ground Zero occupation is leading to a global response. An articulate critique of the global order of things is being expressed in simple bodily presence and demonstrating expressions, capturing the attention of the world that is watching and acting upon what it sees, with the potential of changing the terms of public deliberations. Those who are concerned about jobs, inequality, global warming and much more have found their voices and are making visible their very real concerns. Indeed, I believe, in the U.S., the Tea Party has been directly engaged. Both OWS and the Tea Party reveal the power of the politics of small things. In this sense, they are quite similar, but there is a major difference. OWS is grounded in the reality based community, while much of the Tea Party concerns are based on fictoids, as we have been observing here at Deliberately Considered over the last year. As an unreconstructed enlightenment partisan, I think this suggests the long term power of the newest development on the global stage. As I observed in concluding my comparison between OWS and a social movement in South Korea, the candle light movement, a candle is, indeed, being lit.

  • Ross Wolfe

    Occupy Wall Street has so far been successful in enlisting the support of a number of leftish celebrities, prominent unions, and young activists, and has received a lot of media coverage. The protestors have successfully stood their ground against Bloomberg’s attempt to evict them.

    But this victory can by no means considered final. Rather, it tasks us with the question: “Where do we go from here?”

    If this successful moment of resistance against the coercion of the State is to signal a turning-point for this movement, it must now address the more serious political problems that confront it. It is crucial that the participants in these demonstrations ask themselves where they stand in history, and more adequately conceptualize the problem of capitalist society.

    Though Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy [insert location here] in general still contains many problematic aspects, it nevertheless presents an opportunity for the Left to engage with some of the nascent anti-capitalist sentiment taking shape there. To this point, most of the protests have only expressed a sort of intuitive discontent with the status quo. In order to get a better sense of what they are up against, they must develop a more adequate understanding of the prevailing social order. Hopefully, the demonstrations will lead to a general radicalization of the participants’ politics, and a commitment to the longer-term project of social emancipation.

    To this end, I have written up a rather pointed Marxist analysis of the OWS movement so far that you might find interesting:

    “Reflections on Occupy Wall Street: What it Represents, Its Prospects, and Its Deficiencies

  • Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

    The motivations for taking part in the Occupations around the world and how they are interpreted are multiple. Many observers and political actors are now discussing what it really means or how it must develop in order to be successful. Support Obama or oppose him. Develop a clear critique of capitalism, as Ross Wolfe argues, or recognize that the task is to reform the political economy in ways that benefit the majority and not the privileged few. The meeting of diverse points of view and debates about them, it seems to me, is the great accomplishment of the movement, letting a thousand flowers bloom and in the process, perhaps, successfully broadening and reinvigorating democratic debate.

  • Alissa

    The recent “Citizen’s United Decision” equates money to speech. I find that hard to swallow. so, The vocality of movements like Occupy Wall Street reminds us of two critical aspects of our first amendment rights: free speech and free assembly. No matter how big the super-pacs get, no matter how enormous the donations, no matter how much Washington is like NASCAR in a suit—there is no substitute for real speech.

    Perhaps it’s not radical enough, but one way that I am turning my speech into action is through the “Get Money Out” campaign to constitutionally amennd “Citizens United.” There’s more substance to this movement than Russ Feingold’s Progressive’s United.

    And while our efforts may seem like nothing more than another lobby campaign, or merely a bandaid–in the face of our “prevailing social order,” bought-government, and for-profit healthcare…. “Get Money Out” is a movement promoting the voices of living, breathing citizens, and turning our voices into legislative action. It’s certainly a start.

  • Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

    Alissa’s comment is an important addition to mine. The issue is both about free debate and encouraging multiple forms of action, thickening democracy as a result. Get Money Out is an important idea and action, others are worth exploring and promoting.

  • Scott

    My impression is that OWS cannot be typified as “anti-capitalist,” one of the reasons being is that it is better to let “a thousand flowers bloom” than alienate those in the movement that strongly support reforming the market economy and those that would prefer to eliminate it. Thus, interpreting the movement as being “anti-capitalist” reflects more the motivations of the interpreters than of the interpretees. The beauty of OWS is that at this point whatever your grievance is, it shall be heard and that has maximized participation.

    Lech Walesa is correct in saying, “They are protesting the ‘unfairness’ of an economy that enriches a few and ‘throws the people to the curb.” Capitalism needs to be saved from itself again, not through bailouts but through actual reform.

    Yet the system has not successfully been reformed by politicians, which to me is an indication that the US political system, not just capitalism, is in need of serious reform as well. This is perhaps the greater issue, at least for me: that is, restore democracy by getting the money out of politics (I’ve signed the petition!), and seperate corporation and state. Politicians cannot be trusted to do this, which is why people throughout the US, and the world, have taken to the streets.

  • Michael Corey

    My sense is that OWS in addition to whatever it actually happens to be at given points in time, it also functions as a screen upon which aspirations and fears from all perspectives can and are projected. I suspect that what it is was on day one, it is something different today, and will be something else as time goes by. Clearly, there is frustration, and wide ranges of things participants are against. What participants are for is not quite as clear; and I’m not aware of its specific, actionable proposals.

    The form of OWS seems to be changing as time passes. It is becoming more organized and structured. Its relationships with outside interest groups and institutions are shaping it as it matures, particularly as it garners more resources and outside influences. It seems to be moving through organizational development very rapidly, and it isn’t clear what the end point will be.

  • Scott

    That the end point isn’t clear is certainly a concern, and I wonder when the time will come to convert numbers into power (or perhaps numbers themselves are a form of power). Yet it isn’t for any single person to decide when that shall be, and what particular action will be taken, perhaps as a direct action or alliance, but a matter to be decided by the GA. For right now, it seems OWS is gearing for the long haul, at least judging by the statement “We’ll stay until change comes” and the organizational development of “permanent structures” in the park that can shelter the campers from worsening weather.

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