“London burns.The Arab Spring triggers popular rebellions against autocrats across the Arab world. The Israeli Summer brings 250,000 Israelis into the streets, protesting the lack of affordable housing and the way their country is now dominated by an oligopoly of crony capitalists. From Athens to Barcelona, European town squares are being taken over by young people rattling against unemployment and the injustice of yawning income gaps, while the angry Tea Party emerges from nowhere and sets American politics on its head. What’s going on here?”
—Thomas L. Friedman, “A Theory of Everything (Sort of),” The New York Times, 14 August 2011
Roughly a month before the manifestation of Occupy Wall Street (OWS), one of America’s most preeminent neoliberal op-ed writers, Thomas Friedman, had no choice but to confront the underbelly of globalization. Despite the global entrepreneurialism fostered by internet technologies that Friedman describes in his 2005 book The World is Flat, recent popular unrest pushed him to realize that “this same globalization/I.T. revolution enables the globalization of anger, with all of these demonstrations now inspiring each other” (“A Theory of Everything” 7). A month earlier he even more precisely identified the generational outrage that steers much global protest: “it is a powerful sense of ‘baby boomers behaving badly’—a powerful sense that the generation that came of age in the last 50 years, my generation, will be remembered most for the incredible bounty and freedom it received from its parents and the incredible debt burden and constraints it left on its kids” (“The Clash of Generations” The New York Times, 17 July 2011, 5).
It says something about the current state of international unrest when even neoliberal champions like Friedman must acknowledge the vast inequalities and pure destruction wrought by global economic policies. Yet when OWS became the most recent spark among the burning global rebellions, the US commercial news media feigned ignorance of its causes and effectiveness. The New York Times writes, “The protest’s leaderless and nonhierarchical structure raises the question of how effective it can be. The demonstrators have yet to proffer clear demands and have rejected any involvement in electoral politics” (“A Protest Reaches A Crossroads” 6 November 2011, 28). Yet even a stalwart neoliberal like Friedman identified the central demand that coursed throughout protests in Tahrir Square and Syntagma Square months before the appearance of OWS: “It’s the word ‘justice’. You hear it more than ‘freedom.’ That is because there is a deep sense of theft in both countries, a sense the way capitalism played out in Egypt and Greece in the last decade was its most crony-esque, rigged and corrupt deformation, letting some people get rich simply because of their proximity to power” (“The Clash of Generations”).
Journalists’ inability to link OWS’s goals to the demands for justice championed by other global protests speaks to the myopia, mediocrity, and irrelevancy of much of US news. As Nathan Schneider writes in The Nation: “Expecting to find the usual formula of an ineffective leftist protest, they [journalists] were sent reeling by their inability to find some vague, though catchy, overarching slogan” (“From Occupy Wall Street to Occupy Everywhere” 14). As a result, US commercial news remained stuck asking questions largely irrelevant to an anarchist-inspired movement.
Part of the blame must be squarely placed at the movement’s ill-preparation for dealing with the commercial media. Schneider relates the stark media operation that OWS had patched together during its earliest moments: “At first it was mainly just one valiant, black-clad college student with no previous media experience who was assigning interviews, posting communiqués online, keeping reporters informed and, unintentionally, spreading false rumors” (17).
Similarly, when my wife and I attended visited Occupy San Francisco in mid-October no one was initially there to greet the press and curious onlookers. The rows of ramshackle placards, tables, and booths that littered the sidewalk made it difficult to identify an approachable location. Busy participants scuttled among a maze of napping homeless in their sleeping bags and sporadic outposts of guitar-and-drum circles. Finally, Rachael, a mom and member of the firefighters’ union, approached us to answer some of our questions.
That same day I attended a general assembly that was just beginning to discuss the role of media relations— three weeks into the protest. Among the whirr of a bike-powered generator that charged a car battery that powered the general assembly laptops, participants debated the necessity of a centralized media liaison and a unified media message. One man dressed in techie-black asserted: “Even if we explain that we intentionally don’t have a central message, it would be better than doing nothing and letting the corporate media define us.” The four others attending nodded in agreement.
The rather loose organization of the OWS movements has led some journalists to question its overall structure: “Is it a moment or is it a movement?” (“A Protest Reaches a Crossroads” 28). Yet this question also plagued the alter-globalization movements that crystallized during the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. During the tenth anniversary of the Seattle protests, activist Rodrigo Nunes observed: “The movement had never existed. It was a mirage, produced in a moment of hugely and rapidly increased capacity of communication and coordination, and wide-eyed astonishment at a just-discovered capacity to produce moments of convergence whose collective power was much greater than the sum of its parts” (Turbulence, December 2009, 39). David Solnit, a Seattle organizer, agreed: “There is no global justice movement. At best, ‘global justice’ is a common space of convergence” (ibid., 5).
Naomi Klein rightfully observed back in 2001 that “our activism has been declared dead before. Indeed, it is declared dead with ritualistic regularity before and after every mass demonstration: our strategies apparently discredited, our coalitions divided, our arguments misguided” (Fences and Windows 236). The critique of OWS seems to be more of the same. Commercial journalists largely dismiss actions and structures that do not easily fit into the compartmentalized worldview that journalism school and newsrooms have imposed upon them.
Yet, by all standards, OWS has been immensely successful in changing the terms of the debate within the United States. Discussions of debt ceilings and austerity have been replaced with those of wealth gaps and economic inequality. OWS has become a global meme that the Left has been yearning for over the last ten years; this is not entirely surprising since OWS, in a very different form, initially emerged from Adbusters, the Canadian culture jamming franchise that reroutes advertisements to expose their insidious assumptions and crippling psychological and physical demands.
Kalle Lasn, founder of Adbusters, has been arguing for the importance of progressive memes since the appearance of his 1999 book Culture Jamming: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binger—And Why We Must . Within it, he writes: “Memes compete with one another for replication, and are passed down through a population much the same way genes pass through a species. Potent memes can change minds, alter behavior, catalyze collective mindshifts and transform cultures” (123). Similarly, groups like San Francisco-based SmartMeme argue that activists must turn towards establishing memes in popular culture since it “is an ever-evolving, contested space of struggle, where competing voices, experiences, and perspectives fight to answer the questions: whose maps determine what is meaningful? Whose stories are considered ‘true’?” (Re:Imagining Change 19).
But the only way to successfully establish such memes is by progressive groups abandoning their dour politics of the past that were riddled with industrial age clichés and puritanical appeals of reason trumping emotion. According to Lasn, “We find in Mother Jones, The Nation, Z , Extra, The Multinational Monitor and dozens of Left-sprung books, magazines and newsletters the same old authors repeating the same old ideas of yesteryear” (118). As a result, progressives must establish newer tactics and strategies that are better equipped for dealing with a post-modern landscape.
Stephen Duncombe, one of the founders of Reclaim the Streets, has become the most recent proselytizer for progressives to adopt new media-savvy tactics. According to his book Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, progressives need to harness a politics that “embraces the dreams of people and fashions spectacles which give these fantasies form—a politics that understands desire and speaks to the irrational; a politics that employs symbols and associations; a politics that tells good stories. In brief, we should have learned to manufacture dissent” (9).
OWS, as a result, can be seen as the latest incarnation of a semi-media savvy, consensus-based, non-hierarchical movement that distinguishes itself from an older, more centralized and media hostile Left (even if this older Left exists more in the imaginations of younger activists than in historical reality). The centrality of independent media within OWS has led some within the anarchist community to lob Old Left charges that OWS focuses too much on “symbolic reclamation rather than more disruptive direct action that pushes ‘occupation’ into new territory. There appears to be greater emphasis on media attention and memes, and less on the relationships we have, the new ones we’re building, how we are changing through” (Team Colors Collective, “Lions After Slumber” in Occupy the System 10-11). But this dichotomy between media savvy and movement building overlooks how much of contemporary movement building is premised upon media production. (See my earlier PopMatters article, “Rust Belt Visions: The 2011 Allied Media Conference”, 20 July 11).