Occupy Wall Street: Sharing reflections on a fifth anniversary (7)

Theorising social movements is a hazardous adventure; even more so when these movements reject “representation”, which can be taken to include “theoretical representation”.  Without anyone being able to speak “for” or “on behalf of” Occupy, for it lacks leaders or representatives, the movement can only be heard “through the coordinated voices of assembled discussion and potential consensus – through the general assemblies”. (53: Bernard E. Harcourt, “Political Disobedience”, Occupy: Three Inquiries in Disobedience)  Theory in this instance is thus radically fragile, trapped between a need for external perspective and imaginary and, may I say, ethical identification with the movement.

An experiment in theorising Occupy (libcom.org 23/10/2011) …

On Immanence and Occupations

The occupations have provided a space for us to find each other and to have the conversations necessary for dynamic and mobile political forms to emerge. They are as much a process of deterritorializing public space as they are a process of becoming-collective. In this text the author introduces vocabulary and frameworks of thinking for understanding the occupations which aim to aid the occupations in their elaboration and growth.

by Ian Alan Paul, 10/20/11

“At stake here is the formation of a group or collectivity, or simply a practice, that does not become merely a smaller state machine, but also that does not dissipate (become chaotic). This is the production of a machine that can follow the vectors of deterritorialisation, can operate on the line of flight, but does not become a line of abolition or disappear into a black hole … In each case it is the production of an assemblage, a practice, or simply a life, that operates with different spatial and temporal coordination points to the state, we might even say operates in a different reality” (Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari, Simon O’Sullivan, p. 90)

As I write this text, 231 public spaces are currently being occupied across the globe as part of the #Occupy movement. It was only a few weeks ago that capitalism as a world system paradoxically appeared both obsolete and irreplaceable, as markets tumbled and yet no viable alternatives were being articulated by the global left. In this ground, the occupations took root and thoroughly deterritorialized[1] this geography, changing our perspective of the world while reminding us of what in a way was always collectively possible. Inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and North Africa, and then again by the revolts in Greece, France, Spain, and the U.K., a few hundred people occupied the heart of financial capital in New York and began the process that is now actively setting roots across the globe.

Now that a month has passed and the occupations have established a homeostasis to some degree, this text is an attempt to both describe the work taking place within the occupations and also to propose ways of thinking which I hope will aid in their elaboration and growth. The occupations have emerged as an imaginative experiment in collectivity, solidarity, and horizontality, and the multiplicity of possible futures for the occupations remain beautifully undetermined and open (one of the movement’s many strengths). However, if the occupations are to perpetuate themselves and collectively move to challenge power, a thin route must be traversed between dissipation and cooptation, between collapse and capture. The struggle will be to keep these liberatory practices alive in the face of repression and recuperation.

Lines of Flight

The occupations’ power has largely rested in their newness. This is not to say that the occupation-form is new itself, or that the current struggle is not entangled with the many struggles for liberation that have come before it. Indeed, many have already pointed out and examined the histories of “occupation” in North America, radical at some moments and devastating at others.[2] Rather, it is as if the emergence of the occupations has made the current historical moment seem open and flowering with possibility. The entire situation became new in the moment that the enclosure of what was imagined as possible expanded and unfolded.

What has been made abundantly clear is how contained our imaginations were before this moment, and how many of us had come to expect nothing more than the status quo of crisis and austerity. Indeed, the occupations have provided the world with a moment of defamiliarization. The limited horizons of our imaginations before the #Occupy movement have been ruptured by the continued life of the occupations themselves, and as a result we are able to collectively say and dream much more – the discourse has opened up. This process of sending things into motion and opening pathways to new potentialities can be described as taking the form of a line of flight.[3] The lines of flight present in the occupations should not be thought of as acts of fleeing or deserting from the current system, but rather as a process of collectively remapping our shared realities, lives and futurities. By conceptualizing the occupations as being potentially composed of many lines of flight flowing in common directions, we can begin to think through how to magnify and multiply their potential to set in motion further deterritorialization.

Binaries and Multiplicities

Following these lines of flight, we must be careful to not be captured in the binary logics of the current structures of power. The dangerous temptation is to be either for or against a political party, to be a part of this group or another, to be for or against an initiative. As soon as the occupation movement becomes fixed within a binary logic (us/them, for/against, inside/outside), the horizon of that movement and line of flight becomes fixed. One of the main strengths of this current movement is that it remains radically undetermined while simultaneously increasing its potential for horizontal collectivity and action. It is generative rather than oppositional. In order to avoid capture, participants should aim to escalate the generative capacities of the occupations while avoiding binary oppositions until binary conflict becomes unavoidable or forced.[4]

The urgency declared by the mainstream media for clear and quantifiable demands from the occupations persists because those in power wish to make the occupations rational and legible. As soon as the movement becomes about this single issue or that single demand, the occupations position themselves only to negotiate, and the possibilities and potentialities of the occupations collapse into this single plane. Similarly, it is likely that the full range of political parties will attempt to capture the momentum of the occupations by provoking them into solidarity or conflict. Such provocations aim to recuperate the occupations and must be resisted. It is obvious to those of us in the 99% what the movement is about, and it need not be parsed in simple demands for the occupations to continue to proliferate.

The occupations have provided a space for us to find each other and to have the conversations necessary for dynamic and mobile political forms to emerge. They are as much a process of deterritorializing public space as they are a process of becoming-collective. They are not a space of representation in the sense of the political, but are rather a space of production in which people from diverse contexts and situations can both articulate their desires and produce the collectivities necessary for struggle. In this way, the occupations have been successful thus far in transmitting their collective desire for transformation without having to narrow the scope of or flatten that desire. We should ensure that the complex multiplicity of our desires and needs remain intact, and if any demands are to be made that they reflect the impossibility of the current structure’s ability to remedy our grievances.

Images of Thought

The occupations should be thought of not as a thing that we inhabit, but rather should be understood as a set of practices and relationships that we decide to engage in. When the police sweep away, attack and even dismantle the encampments, the collective behaviors of the occupation have the potential to persist in the everyday lives of the participants. This is illustrative of how the occupations are radically centered on questions of immanence, or in other words are concerned with what they do in the world rather than what they are. The occupations are defined not by their qualities but rather by their capacities, and as such the practices of the occupations have the potential to expand beyond the physical spaces of the encampments.

The current occupations have been so incredibly inspiring not only because of their resounding yell of ‘No!’ in rejection of the current political and economic structures, but also because of their clear cry of ‘Yes!’, expressed in the collectivity and horizontality of the practices of the occupations themselves. These cries have obviously resonated with a multitude of people of across the globe, and we must continue to look to ways of amplifying and transmitting them. The democratic form of the occupations speaks more loudly against the systems of oppression than any single demand ever could, and we should organize to allow these forms to permeate more and more of society. Furthermore, the occupations continue to develop practices of thinking the world differently, and finding ways of spreading these modes of thought is of great importance.

The lifespan of the occupation movement is wonderfully unpredictable, but we should not make the mistake of assuming that they will perpetuate themselves indefinitely. Forms of organization must emerge which are capable of outlasting the initial cycle of uprising if any of the gains are to be held. What is learned and experienced in the occupations must have mechanisms for transmitting these new forms of knowledge to people who did not participate directly. Similarly, participants of the occupations must develop structures for continuing the logics of the occupations after the encampments themselves have ended. Whether this means attempting to federate the occupations, establishing larger democratic structures for planning future #Occupy actions, or even constructing yet to be imagined models of organization remains unclear. With this being said, the form that the #Occupy movement must inevitably stratify itself into must be decided and articulated from within the general assemblies of the occupations themselves. If this fails to happen before the initial wave of struggle subsides, all that will remain after the dissolution of the encampments is recuperation.

The Questions of Collectivity

If the occupations are to become more than an action and instead a prolonged collective struggle, we must question what collectivity can mean to us in the imagination of the occupations. How are we to account for the very real differences within the 99% while also affirming the shared experiences and collectivity of the struggle? [5] Where do we as occupiers come from and what histories do we bring along with us? How do we envision solidarity amongst the 99%? The current participatory and open form of the occupations both make these questions unanswerable but also necessitates that we continually ask them.

As groups such as “Occupy the Hood” have made more than clear, the occupations exist in a history of exploitation and violence and need to respond to these histories in their actions and analysis.[6] It is important to first acknowledge that the struggle of the occupations cannot remain a struggle against a single hierarchy (namely, a struggle against capitalism or a class-based struggle), but rather must begin thinking about how they are situated in a heterarchy (a system of many overlapping and at times contradictory power systems). This will mean taking into account not just the global economic powers, but also the racist, patriarchal, heterosexist and colonial systems which are also present both within the occupations and outside of them.

We must develop ways of aligning the trajectories and velocities of the many potential lines of flight present in each of these structures of power if we don’t want to simply escape one system to find ourselves trapped in a multiplicity of others. The struggle to overthrow just a single manifestation of oppression will always keep the others intact. Furthermore, we should conceptualize power as something that is simultaneously above us and between us. Irreconcilable differences exist between the participants of the occupations, and the productive activity of the occupations must reflect and address these differences in the way they choose to organize, dream and act.

And perhaps most importantly, we must ask the hardest questions that we can ask of ourselves, namely what would have to pass for us to overcome the current structural forms of oppression and violence. Not only are there systems to be dismantled outside of the occupations, but we must also deeply question our own behaviors, assumptions and ideals within the occupations themselves. The predominant discourse has seemed to center on the structural inequality generated by financial capital. Other voices within the occupation movement have declared that police are the primary obstacle to overcome. What I hope that I have made clear is that the movement must be much larger and more ambitious than either of these single trajectories. If the movement becomes captured in just these smaller fights, they will have lost much of what was so promising about the occupations – their unboundedness. We must develop new theories and ideas concerning the material, ideological and social systems that oppress us and imagine new compositions and formations which can combat these systems. The movement of the occupations must be keenly aware of the necessity of generating new concepts which we can use to dismantle systems of power.

The struggle for liberation will be a much longer fight than any of us can anticipate and is likely a project without end. Fortunately for us, the horizontal and directly democratic forms of the occupations provide us with the tools to generate liberatory forms of knowledge and experience that have the potential to transform not only the participants of the occupations but also all of society. Let us count this first month of the occupations as simply the beginning of something much larger – something unpredictable and undetermined and with unknown potentials and capacities. The occupations, in all of their immanence and uncertainty, offer us a moment of rupture – let’s follow it and see how far the tear will go.

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[1] “Deterritorialization” was a term used by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari to describe the process in which things become undone and decontextualized, allowing for new meanings and desires to be generated in the place of old ones.

[2] Letter to Occupy Together Movement, by Harsha Walia,

[3] Michel Foucault describes lines of flight in his introduction to Anti-Oedipus,: “Withdraw allegiance from the old categories of the Negative (law, limit, castration, lack, lacuna), which the Western thought has so long held sacred as a form of power and an access to reality. Prefer what is positive and multiple, difference over uniformity, flows over unities, mobile arrangements over systems. Believe that what is productive is not sedentary but nomadic.”

[4] In Of Stones and Flowers by John Holloway and Vittorio Sergi, they explore how events such as attacks from police on demonstrations often results in binary encounters, where the protestors and police become mirror images reflecting each other’s actions and shutting out other possibilities.

[5] Whiteness and the 99%, By Joel Olson

[6] ‘Occupy the Hood’: Including all of the 99%, by Jesse Strauss, Al Jazeera English

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