The Place Is The Thing: Notes on the Occupations

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The ‘Occupy’ movement as Hamlet, this and the new significance of place in the internet age.

Elsinore Castle. © Futuraprime @ flickr.com

The curtain rises on the battlements of Elsinore. A troubled student prince is summoned to hear his father’s ghost declare that he was murdered by poison poured into his ear whilst sleeping, and that his killer now sits upon the throne. The prince’s soft, superficial mother has welcomed the killer into her bed with unseemly haste in an apparently desperate attempt to maintain the status quo. The tormented prince seeks to establish the usurper’s guilt through re-enacting the death on stage — “the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” Soon after the killer’s guilty reaction, the prince comes across the King apparently engaged in prayer and at the mercy of his sword. Agonisingly, Hamlet decides not to kill him whilst he is praying. A sound from the audience causes Hamlet to look up. The man in 12C stands up, coat in hand, and jabs an angry finger at the prince. “Oh come on! I know what you’re going to do. You know what you’re going to do. So why not just do it and stop wasting our time? I mean, this is only Act III. Are you really going to subject us to yet another two acts of this “to be or not to be” moping? Some of us have lives to lead, you know. Oh, do stop crying. Get a move on — by delaying the inevitable you’re only making things worse for yourself.”

The man may have a point. However, if the prince were swift to act then he would be a very different Hamlet, and the play would have a fundamentally different character. We might suggest that the man has misunderstood the nature and significance of the play.

Whilst it might strain credulity to imagine the prince of Denmark carrying up a “We are the 99%” placard, the Occupy movement bears some similarities with Hamlet‘s plot, imagining the likes of Goldman Sachs as the usurper Claudius. A boom-time prosperity has been destroyed, with the murder weapon being the debt our ears were sweet-talked into by people who were well-aware the debt package was pure poison. With stunning haste governments stepped in to bail out the banks, attaching few conditions in an apparently desperate attempt to maintain the status quo.

The new, unelected Prime Minister of Italy, the new, unelected Prime Minister of Greece, and the new, unelected President of the European Central Bank are all former Goldman Sachs men, of all things. Attempts by the outgoing Greek PM to hold a referendum on whether to accept the onerous conditions of its latest bailout, and attempts by the outgoing Italian PM to hold early elections were slapped down in a clear subordination of democracy to the perceived needs of the markets.

And to what an extraordinary degree politics follows the dictates of the financial system! Despite bond-rating agencies such as Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s having been revealed to be unable to tell the difference between a sub-prime loan and a US Treasury bond — or rather in some cases rating the former as safer than the latter, even now; despite Standard & Poor’s downgrade of the USA’s credit rating apparently being based on a numerical error of two trillion dollars; despite their objectivity being questionable due to their being paid by the issuers of the debt (i.e. the banks) to rate their debt; and despite the rating agencies having long systematically made decisions on the safety of sub-prime loans that are both utterly ludicrous and also coincide precisely with the interests of the banks that pay them– despite all this, governments seem to be prepared to cause massive amounts of pain amongst their citizenry in order to stop the bond-rating agencies writing a letter ‘B’ rather than a letter ‘A’.

Government policy in many countries currently seems to be rather nakedly focussed on keeping a relatively small number of hugely wealthy investors happy at the expense of the broader population, yet many of these hugely wealthy investors might have been utterly ruined had governments not stepped in to prevent hubris from turning into nemesis. It was an astounding act of jiu-jitsu — governments saved a financial system that was completely paralysed and on the brink of death by taking on the disastrous debt themselves, and in so doing made themselves so weak that they feel forced to slavishly follow the dictates of that financial system. Unsurprisingly, this may lead to the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor.

Occupy Wall Street. © DoctorTongs @ flickr.com

It is not surprising that the Occupiers have decided that something is rotten in the state of their world; it is also not surprising that as yet they seem to have no fully-formed agenda, since the previous generation has seen such a faith in markets that, unlike before the Great Depression, there was little attempt to develop alternatives in case the neoliberal method break down. This, effectively, has been the last generation’s sage wisdom:

“There Is No Alternative. This is the only game in town. Everything has been done, all interesting possibilities worked out. These possibilities are now available, pre-packaged on the shelf for your contemplation, selection and consumption. You may find new ways of ironic contemplation; you may juxtapose your selections in enjoyable ways: this is creativity. Sit back and enjoy the End Of History. How could you be dissatisfied? Be reasonable — you have an iPod. How could you be dissatisfied?”

Given that this position now seems rather short-sighted and complacent, for those who have been in power over the last generation to criticise the Occupiers for a lack of concrete proposals also seems to be an implicit admission of their own lack of foresight and creativity. The Occupy movement is a stinging rebuke to their sage wisdom:

“There Is No Alternative? There Is No Alternative?! Who cares! The point is to make one!”

As such, the Occupy movement’s breaking of the taboo surrounding The Only Game In Town is to be welcomed, even if some of the participants’ ideas occasionally may seem to have an ‘antic disposition’. It is surely a relief to find, in a culture in which the universal panacea is often taken to be ‘confidence’ (for example when the then President of the European Central Bank declared that “confidence is the key factor today [2010]“), groups of people committed to thinking deeply about how society could be improved, and a determination to create a better alternative.

After the rains © Chris Haile

Moreover, in drawing attention to levels of inequality the protestors perhaps have identified the key cause of the crisis. Many wealthy institutions and individuals have rather more money than they can realistically spend, so of course much of it gets put into investments. However, the stagnant or slowly-growing median wages in many developed countries has so impaired consumers’ spending power that it is difficult for those investments to become profitable. Since investing in a particular stock will in itself cause that stock’s price to rise, and since investments are often held for a short period of time, there is a temptation for investment monies to ‘chase each other’, inflating a bubble in which every participant believes they are clever enough to pick the right time to get out. The tech bubble of the late 90s burst, and we were spared many of the consequences through the effective inflation of the real estate bubble through suppressing interest rates. Over the long term the economy may rebound through the increased spending power of middle classes in developing countries in the same way that Western economies eventually rebounded from the Great Depression through the increased spending power of their workforces. However, I fear that unless levels of inequality can be markedly reduced we may be in for more bubbles; and that the current policies of austerity that increase inequality may be contributing to a future, larger crash. To have such enormous quantities of investment money sloshing around the system without being able to find profitable homes seems as dangerous as having enormous quantities of water sloshing from side to side of a ship’s hull.

Even if it’s criticised for lacking a concrete programme for change, then, the Occupy movement is doing a valuable service, and the familiar critique (“Proper protestors know what they want to change, they get together and march and then they go home at the end of the day. By camping out in the middle of the city you’re just wasting time and resources and being a nuisance to those of us who make the economy run. Don’t you lot have jobs to go to? Oh, do stop crying”) is misplaced.

As a tactic for making their dissatisfaction public, occupations of significant public spaces are a clever choice. By appropriating such spaces the significance and glamour of those spaces may ‘rub off’ on the movement. The longer they are there, the more woven into the cultural history of that place they will be. Yet if the authorities wish to remove these settlements that most definitely lack planning permission then their task is complicated by their proximity to the objects of the protestor’s opposition, such as Wall Street or the London Stock Exchange. Removing the protestors is easily construed (rightly or wrongly) as unmasking official support for such financial institutions. If the eviction of the protestors involves brutality (caught on camera and uploaded, naturally) then the protestors stand to gain public sympathy and the authorities to lose legitimacy.

'Sunday in the Park, pepper sprayed,' referencing the UC Davis protest. © JoeinSouthernCA @ flickr.com

I wonder if, in effect (if not necessarily in intention) the Occupations perform a similar function to Hamlet‘s play-within-a-play: the significance is not the play in itself but the reaction it may induce that may serve as proof of guilt, and the significance of the Occupations is not the protests against the financial system (sincere though that undoubtedly is) but the reaction it may induce from the political authorities. The danger for them is that a misjudged eviction will seem to reveal the degree to which the authorities are intertwined with established yet discredited financial institutions, and thus cause a crisis of legitimacy within the political system, just as the Occupation on the land of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London caused a crisis of legitimacy within the Church of England.

On this basis the reluctance of many protestors to create petitions, campaign for particular laws to be passed or campaign on behalf of particular political parties or candidates might seem clearer: to them the political system is rotten, and their point is both to provoke reactions demonstrating just this — “The place is the thing wherein we’ll catch the conscience of the King.” — and to hopefully demonstrate that another kind of politics and another kind of society can work.

To stress, I’m claiming this may be an effect rather than an intent in many cases, and certainly the anger against the bankers is no staged work of dramatic fiction. Neither am I claiming that all protestors have such Shakespearean intrigues in mind, for the Occupation tactic is consistent with a general cultural shift.

This shift is towards greater importance being accorded to proximity and live, rather than digital, experience. That place has become more important just as the digital revolution seems to be making it in many ways irrelevant can be seen as paradoxical, however I’d suggest it’s exactly what we should expect. For the digital revolution has caused incomprehensibly vast amounts of information to be accessible at trivial cost, and it seems true that whatever is ubiquitous, abundant and trivial to obtain also becomes very cheap in terms of the value we place upon it.

The music industry, for example, once concentrated on selling physical media to extremely willing paying punters and used concerts as cheap adverts for albums. Since the widespread recognition of how free and easy it can be to produce perfect copies of songs, many of those previously-willing paying punters have showed real reluctance to pay anything for songs, and in reaction the music industry has shifted focus to what is not ubiquitous, abundant or trivial to obtain: costly concert tickets offering the chance to see the star live and in person. The cost of concert tickets for established stars has increased dramatically during the ‘download era’, and it may well be that the high cost is in part welcomed by the concert-goers upon the basis that they cost so much that it signals that all who buy a ticket will be passionate fans who collectively will create a special, intense atmosphere at the concert.

© givikat @ flickr.com

Something similar has perhaps happened to public political discourse. Once opportunities to express political opinions in public were precious, the prospect of finding someone that agreed with your deepest convictions was a rare and thrilling one, and the chance to vote once every four or five years was something of superlative importance. The digital revolution has given anyone who can set up a Twitter account the ability to expound their every opinion to the world, the infinite ability to set up niche political forums has created countless internet ‘echo chambers’ wherein it’s difficult to find people who do not agree with your deepest convictions, and we may be asked to vote on something-or-other multiple times per day. The expression of political opinions has been devalued by its ubiquity and trivial ease.

And so in reaction we have a new valorisation of a politics that is not ubiquitous, abundant and trivially easy:  a type of politics fundamentally tied to a limited, geographically-particular patch of land; a type of politics in which the point is not to force your own, individual opinions on others but to try to create new ideas that would not have been created by any one person; a type of politics which welcomes without political preconditions everyone who wishes to protest, and relishes ensuing debates that are a world away from the internet echo chambers; a type of politics which eschews internet political discourse’s ‘+1000/troll’ dichotomy wherein so many posts are either lauded as heavenly truth or the work of suspicious provocateurs, in favour for deep engagement with the views of others; and a type of politics that, having seen the results of so many internet polls compromised by some popular, partisan website sending floods of its readers to vote in a suggested way, endeavours to achieve consensus rather than a mere majority.

None of that is ubiquitous; none of that is abundant; and none of that is easy. It is therefore not surprising that it is being accorded a new and high importance in this internet age.

Therefore the Occupation movement is not merely Shakespearean intrigue but a genuine expression of a rising popular culture. Many Occupations currently seem to be on the retreat, being turfed out of site after site, raising questions about whether the movement can survive its loss of connection to particular sites. Without the campsites I think the movement loses part of its charm to participants: the campsites function analogously to expensive concert tickets in that the commitment required to camp out at the Occupations signals the prospect of a special, intense atmosphere being created.

However, insofar as the Occupy movement is the product of far-reaching anger at the financial sector, and insofar as it is a reaction against internet political culture, then the movement will surely not evaporate but find some ways to express itself. Unless internet political culture changes drastically then it will not be on the internet (where, in any case, it would be extremely easy to ignore), and, though every week seems to bring news of multiple Occupations being brought to a close, I suspect we have not seen the last of the Occupy tactic. Not by a long shot.

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