Still Occupied: The Wall Street protests one year later

Last fall I visited Zuccotti Park numerous times between its initial occupation on Sept. 17 and when it was violently emptied in the middle of the night by New York City police officers on Nov. 15. After that event I resolved to return two days later to walk with Occupy Wall Street as the movement attempted to close down, or at least delay, the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange. Outnumbered and overpowered by the police, the attempt failed, of course, and over 300 people were arrested. In the past year more than 7,600 arrests have occurred during Occupy-related events nationwide.

This past month I traveled from the Midwest for the one-year anniversary of the occupation of Zuccotti Park and a movement that despite many premature obituaries has continued to thrive. The movement, of course, is more than the sum of its direct actions or the reactions it induces in some. Occupy activists call attention to the economic alienation and deprivation in contemporary capitalism by creating communal spaces of solace and loudly exercising their voices against an unjust state of affairs. Visual records from the movement—young men and women in assemblies, each waiting their turn to speak, marching in streets with banners, chanting, engaging in civil disobedience and then (usually) being met with police violence—have reintroduced images of mass protest and solidarity to the public eye.


Alienation Today

Many young people today face “no future,” a phrase used in the late 1970s in Great Britain and in the Autonomist movement in Italy to describe a life stamped with perpetual debt to the state or to banks, with little hope of ever escaping this economic and psychological stranglehold. A scarcity of jobs, accompanied by mailboxes loaded with bills totaling the principal and interest owed on debt, results in stress, apathy, disappointment and powerlessness.

In contemporary society people have become passive subjects at the hands of finance, the media, the state, the police and by what the philosopher Michel Foucault called “biopower,” meaning the entire apparatus of modernity in which our bodies are constantly scanned, surveilled and most importantly, managed for profit. The artisans of capital have created a false idol of the human person—that we are what we make, that we are our debts and that we are something to be managed. Biopower and the invisible hand of the market measure human worth solely on their own terms—whether we are in “the black” or “the red” in the game of monetary accumulation.

Throughout the anniversary weekend I noticed civilians passively observing Occupy activities. This seems consistent with the alienation alluded to above. We have, within technological modernity, become strangers to ourselves. On subways, buses and sidewalks, we push past one another, tuning out our world with smartphones, iPods, tablets, Kindles—any technological apparatus that can form a virtual barrier between us and the natural world. But this need for perceptual isolation is foreign to human nature. We are not here only to watch, as if life were simply unfolding in front of us as a spectacle, beyond our power to influence at any level other than the details of our everyday life. This phenomenon is part of what Occupy seeks to address.

Modeling Solidarity

Those who first gathered in lower Manhattan on Sept. 17, 2011, and have continued their efforts throughout the last year, want to create (the term prefiguration is used) a different model of living in which we are no longer treated as merely passive subjects to be acted upon by the nearly-invisible forces of financial capital. Those who resist this subjectification, those who insist that it is their world as much as the state’s or a bank’s, are met with apathy or outright opposition. Resistance may seem pointless; Margaret Thatcher often said there is no alternative.

But there is: solidarity. Within a religious or secular context, this involves formerly atomized individuals coming together to recognize each other as more than what dominant ideologies reduce us to. Occupy calls everyone to reclaim the possibility of communal experiences in which real human recognition—social relations which predate the rise of capital—becomes possible again. Religious institutions, working on behalf of those who are marginalized and often discarded entirely by capital, must summon those in politics, finance and policing to re-examine their conscience, their role in oppression, their participation in the misery biopower inflicts upon the weak and the poor, who often sit beside them in communities of faith.

Through the general assemblies, the “spokes councils,” the celebration of Rosh Hashana and the implicit trust and solidarity placed in total strangers, participants in the Occupy anniversary observance were reminded to re-appropriate their lives from those institutions seeking to reduce them solely to economic subjects. To conceive of life in a different fashion—to resist this subjectification, to be free of the “self” imposed upon us—is radical in the truest sense of the word. It is a re-examination of our roots. We need to reclaim what has been ceded by our willing or unwilling consent, by zip ties or even by our own chains.

Into the Unknown

In After the Future, the Italian philosopher Franco Berardi writes that he must act “as if” better things were to come. In the face of contemporary cynicism, apathy and despair, he explains he must continue to fight, even with no alternative in immediate sight. “I must resist,” he writes, “simply because I cannot know what will happen after the future, and I must preserve the consciousness and sensibility of social solidarity, of human empathy, of gratuitous activity.... Just in case, right?... I must resist because this is the only way to be in peace with myself.”

If we are to love others, we must first begin to love ourselves. The recent anniversary reminded us that our isolation, anomie and atomization—all created by the power of capital with our consent—need not be the future. As the media remain obsessed only with arrest numbers, the Occupy movement demonstrated once again the solidarity and love that long predate capitalism and have resurfaced both here and abroad. As the demonstrators’ placards in Madrid and Lisbon read on Sept. 29, we can say no.

The first anniversary activities of Occupy left their mark on those members who were present in New York, and emphasized a key message of the movement: Get rid of oneself. This echoes what St. Paul wrote to the Colossians: “Take off the old self…and put on the new self” (3:9-10). We should adopt the type of life that Berardi envisions—one of empathy, free activity and fraternity. Refuse to be subjectified. To resist in this way—to take to the streets with the willingness to be opposed by police, passersby and family—is to stand as a witness against what we have falsely learned to value in our consumerist society. Most important, this witness acts as a sign of what may come. This will never please skeptics, critics or supporters of our ancien régime. It should, however, say something to those familiar with visitations and incarnations, and what those events prefigure. We are called to point to something infinitely more valuable than wealth, toward a life and a time that can come. Some might ask, “Why witness, why protest?” To echo Berardi: Just in case, right?

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Robert Helfman
5 years 2 months ago
This is a good article. I think one may find links with the novels of social upheaval and change of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. From a Christian mystical perspective there is a poignancy, a sense of urgency expressed in the Occupy movement that has prophetic implications for the coming reign of God as prophesied in the Old and New Testaments.
Comparing this with Russian Orthodox mysticism is possible when the philosophical implications as expressed in this article are placed in the context of history. There is really nothing new happening here: the serfs are the contemporary poor, the wage earner barely able to get by, the members of the ever-shrinking middle class. The difference between our present dilemma and Czarist Russia is only a matter of degree and the social forces enabling oppression.
It would be inspiring to hear more voices from the Christian community in support of the issues raised by the Occupy protesters, (I know of some) as the survival of our Constitutional Republic depends on a just balance of social and material goods; the transcendent implications for the Kingdom of God from the Christian perspective include justice for the poor and freedom for the oppressed.
Many feel that a concern for social justice betrays the importance of Holy Church; it is my view that to love your neighbor you must engage the society in which he or she lives and hold it accountable for its sins of ommission and commission. This can be done in a civil way consistent with a lifestyle that might be compromised by more vocal dissent. It is only necesssary to introduce new ideas to change the discussion. One needn't join protesters in Zuccotti Park to be inspired by their example and carry the torch for enlightened social change into the religious and political arena through more conventional forums and polity.
Atul mishra
5 years 1 month ago

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