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The Occupy Movement and Spatiality

December 2nd, 2011 by David Kronemyer · 1 Comment

The Occupy Movement has had an important and beneficial effect in focusing social attention on disparities and inequities in resource deployment and consumption, and I strongly support it.  One of the main features of interest about it is its concept of spatiality.  Inherent in the concept of “occupy” is a kind of territoriality – that is, one is occupying something, most likely a plot of land as yet unoccupied by vertical architecture, ideally situated in an urban or academic center in order to engender maximum media exposure, This paradigm, however, entails several consequences.

1. There are significant historical precedents for occupying grounds by way of protest, particularly by consensus-mediated, populist movements.  The Bonus Expeditionary Force encamped for a period post-WWI in Washington, D.C.  Several decades later the Poor People’s Campaign encamped in Resurrection City on the Capitol Mall; I vividly remember visiting Washington in 1968 and witnessing this first-hand.  In 1969 the Indians of All Tribes movement occupied Alcatraz Island, and Berkeley students/hangers-on/homeless occupied People’s Park.  I vividly recall both incidents, seeing as how I was a student at Berkeley at the time.  Egyptians now occupy Tahrir Square.  When a labor union goes on strike it in effect establishes a cordon around a territory, thereby occupying it.  In the news recently, a woman was so defensive of her occupied space at a Wal-Mart store that she pepper-sprayed rivals for it, all the better to acquire desirable bargains when the store opened on so-called “Black Friday.”

That being so, the occupy movement fundamentally is unlike its counterpart, the “tea party” movement, which is ideological, not territorial.  Concededly, participants in the original Boston Tea Party temporarily occupied a ship with tea on it.  Rather than off-loading it from the ship, the better to enjoy its delicious flavor, they (apocryphally) pried opened the boxes containing it with hatchets and poured it into the Boston harbor.  This is a minor caveat; persons who now identify with the tea party movement can carry on their activities anywhere they happen to be situated, and are not confined to a specific geographical location.

2. As Robert Ardrey wrote in his now ancient 1966 book The Territorial Imperative, an intrinsic feature of human nature is attachment to a certain territory, preferably on an exclusive basis.  Territorial disputes have defined human existence since the dawn of civilization.  Often these disputes are rooted in competition for scarce economic resources.  Parties frequently cite historical precedents, such as “we were here before you were.”  Sometimes (maybe often, perhaps always) they simply are the product of naked aggression, such as “we want what you have.”  The archaic Israelites were told by their God that it was their destiny to destroy Jericho and occupy Canaan.  Early in its history, the U.S. established the “Monroe Doctrine,” proclaiming much of North America as falling within its “sphere of influence,” thereby occupying it.  Germany occupied territories during WWII, such as Vichy France, with disastrous outcomes.  Germany’s pretense was that certain territories belonged to it historically; it was part of their lebensraum.  Ordinary persons living within their curtilage, however, were unable to exercise previously enjoyed rights, and frequently were deported to concentration camps, thereby losing all of them (and perishing in the process).  By contrast, the occupiers (the Germans) could (and did) do whatever they desired in the occupied land.

The only concept of ownership, which has endured throughout history, is “you own something if you can defend it.”  Legitimating ownership by virtue of “being there first” doesn’t guarantee a territorial claim, unless one can protect it in the present as belonging to one’s tribe.  Means of protection include diplomacy, economics, religion, and all of the other forms of cultural persuasion that have evolved over time.  Clausewitz stated, “war is the continuation of policy by other means.”  Hence the disruptive, physical confrontations between occupiers and the state, broadly defined.  These conflicts are inexorable, here and everywhere.

At a deeper level, occupying space is a consequence of being a person.  The human body takes up space.  It projects itself into space (and vacates it) as it moves about.  Its artifacts (dwellings, tools, objects, works of art) all require space within which to situate themselves.  Space, and ecological forces acting within it, in turn defines the outer parameters of the human body and the limits within which it is constrained.  Gravity, tidal motion, barometric pressure all transmit through space.  The universe is expanding into space.  The Afro-cosmologist Sun Ra sang, “Space Is the Place.”  In this sense, persons associated with the occupy movement simply want to transfer the quadrant of space they already occupy, into another adjacent zone of space.  Once a person is dispossessed from a space – this might happen to an occupier as a consequence, say, of getting arrested – then it once again is vacant.

3. This tension between spatiality and ideology perfuse the occupy movement.  Taking over a public park is not likely to effect significant social change, and just creates a nuisance.  Similarly, occupying a university lecture hall makes no sense; as the Berkeley philosopher John Searle has observed, it is a peculiarly nihilistic demonstration that protests an economic good (that is, an education) for which one already has paid (via tuition).  Occupiers are inherently disruptive towards productive enterprise as it traditionally takes place in their zone of occupation.  A strong argument can be made that, regardless of ideology, these types of occupations are self-defeating and contra to the movement’s stated objectives to improve the lot of the disfavored 99%.  The occupiers are “thinking locally and acting locally,” as opposed to Bill Clinton’s admonition to “think globally and act locally.”

It would make far more sense to occupy the lobby of a bank, a courtroom, a legislative session, or other space of cultural productivity, which creates more of a polemical statement directly related to the movement’s ostensible purposes.  Or, at Berkeley, students might protest prospective tuition increases and the way in which the U.C. admissions process now has become incentivised to accept out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition.  On margin, these entrepreneurial rents are mainlined straight into the U.C. system’s budget, rather than being diffused through an increasingly convoluted state allocation process.

4. Another unfortunate consequence of this confusion is that the energy and efforts of the occupy movement are amorphous.  The protest movements of the late-1960s and the early 1970s coalesced around the draft and the insidious, intimidating nature of the military-industrial complex.  In contrast, this new generation of protestors can’t even decide exactly what it is they’re protesting about.  There is no spokesperson; there is no consensus as to what causes are espoused; there isn’t even agreement on what happens next.  This is not mere happenstance.  Rather, it’s a fundamental consequence of the decidedly agrarian, barter-oriented, hunter-gatherer, subsistence-based organization of the movement itself.  The Los Angeles city government even attempted to co-opt the Occupy LA movement by trading its present encampment for a plot of farmland, far away from any center of urban activity.

It per se is impossible for an autochthonic spokesperson to emerge in such a milieu; one might say, each participant occupies his or her own respective space, which typically is a flat, horizontal piece of ground.  Unlike industries with organizational structures, there are no hierarchies, vertical architectures, superstructures or infrastructures.  While this might be conceptually apropos, particularly for a fundamentally anarchist agenda, it fatally handicaps the movement from achieving any sort of critical mass towards a real-world objective.  To the extent one is articulated, it is practically unrealizable, either because it is poorly defined or impossible to achieve.  For example, “free all political prisoners” is devoid of any operational content.  Even if it could be assigned a functional meaning, there is no scenario under which it is likely to occur.  This incoherence facilitates turning the movement into a gigantic party, with all sorts of homeless people, protest tourism, hangers-on, etc. who are there simply for the spectacle, without endorsing any genuine grievances.  This is a fundamental difference between 1960s protesters versus the occupy movement; they are so different they probably wouldn’t even be recognizable to each other.

5. As a student at Berkeley during the late 1960s – early 1970s, I believe I have standing to say that the current round of Berkeley protests particularly are disturbing.  I still remember the sweet smell of tear gas wafting over the campus.  Berkeley has a long and honorable history of social protest, going as far back as the Free Speech Movement of the late 1960s.  As naïve as that was, at least it articulated an ethos, whereas now there is a dearth of critical thinking.  Freshly scrubbed students, who typically have lived sheltered lives surrounded by books, are surprised to see something vital and alive occurring right in front of them.  It is ready-made, off-the-shelf.  It facilitates social interaction, promotes a sense of in-group identification, attracts attention and differentiates the impressionable student from his or her previous family environment. They become mesmerized by these real-world enactments, featuring colorful metaphysicians such as Zachary Running Wolf.  It can’t be a coincidence that the occupy movement, at least on campuses, has coincided with their influx.  Protests like the occupy movement are fashionable and even sexy – unlike genuinely substantive legislative work, which is hard and thankless.

In the meanwhile, defenders of the status quo never have been better organized to confront protest.  Cross-jurisdictional agreements between the Berkeley campus police and neighboring police forces facilitate the arrival of law enforcement personnel, who are not adequately trained in the nuances and dynamics of dealing with protests and disturbances in an academic setting; witness the viral video of policemen beating demonstrators with clubs outside of Wheeler Hall.  And of course the shocking video of policemen casually dousing peaceful seated protesters with pepper spray from U.C. Davis.  I am reminded of the way the U.S. military now uses private contractors, not only for logistics and infrastructure, but also for security and actual fighting activity.  I also am reminded of the concept of “shock and awe,” popularized by our country’s on-going wars in the Middle East.  The theory being that with a huge (and sometimes secretly-arriving) police presence, one can overwhelmingly intimidate demonstrators before they have any kind of opportunity to organize a response, assuming they could do so, to begin with.  This presence also facilitates surveillance and sousveillance, both inimical to principled exercise by the citizenry of their legally sanctioned rights.

For these reasons, I am concerned that, despite its laudable concept, the occupy movement is destined to be short-lived and will amount only to an historical curiosity.  Or, perhaps, it is destined to be long-lived; as ineffective ideas never seem to go away.