The shape of occupation

“The assumption that what currently exists must necessarily exist is the acid that corrodes all visionary thinking.” – Murray Bookchin

There is something significant in how the forms of collective action and the underlying ethos of the Occupy movement have been misunderstood and misrepresented. For critics, there’s something deeply discomforting about the conceptually slippery and seemingly unprecedented nature of Occupy and it invokes a reactionary fervour to prematurely categorise and dismiss. For many would-be supporters, it is simply an opportunity to assert their own agendas – to interpret this emergent, grassroots phenomenon through their own ideological lenses of liberal democratic reformism, old-school Marxism or even, in some cases, tinfoil hat conspiracy theories. Occupy, however, continues to elude easy capture by the usual terms of analysis and debate even as it engages with familiar topics like service delivery and economic inequalities, and it is precisely here that its real power lies.

From the eclectic nature of participants, whose sheer diversity of age, race, class, gender and opinion undermines everyday notions of what ought to constitute affinity or solidarity, right through to the prefigurative, leaderless ethic that seems to emerge so naturally in the interactions of all those who engage it, Occupy remains a conundrum for anyone who insists on describing it in the language of left or right, social democratic or neoliberal, socialist or capitalist, reformist or revolutionary. It is a  fundamental challenge to the hegemony – the very reality – of these a priori terms and categories, a call to extend the range of social and political possibilities beyond arbitrarily imposed limitations.

This is more than a simple appeal to creative solutions or ‘out of the box thinking’. As linguist and political analyst Noam Chomsky observes, “the smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”

In other words, by forcing us to push beyond the parameters of acceptable debate if we are to understand or meaningfully participate in it, the Occupy movement affords us an important opportunity to disrupt the seemingly unassailable edifices of economic and political power at their very ideological foundations and, by extension, to pose a serious challenge to their legitimacy. At their best – and perhaps this partly explains the remarkably far-reaching resonance of the call to Occupy -  the spaces this movement opens up, spaces bearing a remarkable resemblance to what Hakim Bey once called temporary autonomous zones, encourage each of us to become active participants in the creation of a new shared terrain that reflects the prefigured values of equality, solidarity, liberty, mutual aid and consensus. These values manifest so freely and naturally in our interactions within these spaces that it’s hard not to wonder why ‘normal’ social relations are structured so differently – why competitive individualism, alienated consumption and dull resignation to the powers that be comprise, for far too many of us, the majority of our distracted waking hours.

And it is in this, perhaps, that we can begin to get a sense of why so many people from so many walks of life have come to feel so deeply, viscerally connected to Occupy: it is a recreation of the real community we have all but lost, a powerful reminder of our shared being, our togetherness on this fragile planet. It is a call to join in a vital conversation about where we – as individuals, as communities, as a species and as one small but highly consequential part of a once-thriving, now severely threatened bio-community – should go from here.

While this conversation might still sound dissonant to some, full of rhetoric and confusion and bearing the scars of many thousands of years of hierarchy and oppression, borders and wars and the whole grey spectacle of modern life, if we listen closely we can just about make out the subtle harmonies and delicate melodic counterpoints, the shifting tempos and complex rhythms and even, if we concentrate just a little harder, the very first and faintest suggestion of a vast crescendo.

It is hard to pinpoint the exact beginning of this endlessly rising canon of occupation, but we know one thing for sure: we are finding our voices.