There's still 98% to go

Occupy has won more minds than hearts among the public, and that includes scholars and students, says Sunil Manghani

December 22, 2011

Credit: Marcus Butt

The Occupy movement is a disparate yet articulate protest movement directed against economic and social inequality. Although it has not rushed to make demands, it has galvanised support with the slogan "The 99 per cent", referring to the concentration of wealth among the top 1 per cent of income earners. As a meme, "Occupy" has propagated far and wide, but it does not appear to have gained as much traction as one might have thought among those at university. This is not 1968. Like structuralism then, the mass of students today are not taking to the streets.

Occupy Wall Street came to an unglamorous end in mid-November, and the clock is officially ticking for the camp outside St Paul's Cathedral in London. One protester I met in the "Information Tent" at St Paul's was pragmatic. All the tents, he explained, would be removed as soon as the court ruling decreed. But I was also told that the idea of Occupy will remain steadfast.

During a lecture, I wrote on the board "#ows", the Twitter hashtag then circulating in relation to Occupy Wall Street. I asked if anyone recognised it. Out of some 60 media undergraduates - many of them Twitter users - not one knew. And even when told, a less-than-excited murmur rippled through the room. Despite a number of high-profile scholars lending support to the Occupy movement, little interest has registered across the other 99 per cent of the university population.

I took a group of university students to visit the St Paul's site. One student - in jest - expressed more interest in visiting the area of London associated with the reality-TV show Made in Chelsea. Another was most excited to hear that the social theorist Manuel Castells had recently visited. I can't help thinking that it is the "theory" behind Occupy that is the wider preoccupation. Nicholas Mirzoeff, the US-based scholar and Occupy activist, has penned a thought-provoking blog entry on "Occupy Theory". Emphatically he urges us not to turn "theory" into a noun. It is not a theory of occupation that he wants. Instead, he argues: "Occupy theory is what you do as you occupy. It is the process that has become in some sense the purpose of the direct democracy movement." Yet, it feels like there is something conceptual about Occupy. Like John and Yoko's bed-in, Occupy is edgy but in the end is it all just a bit of an act?

For me, the penny dropped on seeing a video clip of Judith Butler addressing the crowds at Wall Street in October. Butler, an undeniably smart theorist of our times, exhibits real presence and was able to say all the right things. But the devil is in the detail. In her hand she held an iPhone, from which she read off her rousing speech. It might seem churlish to pick on such a thing, but arguably the detail is symptomatic of the real problem. Are we already too far colonised by our own ways of thinking about change such that we have only a pick-and-mix experience? Are we too preoccupied with our privatised interests, our self-fashioned identities and risk-averse lives? We might well think of Francis Fukuyama's pesky thesis of an end of (ideological) history, suggesting how ideological resolution manifests as "liberal democracy in the political sphere combined with easy access to VCRs and stereos in the economic". Of course, the economic argument might still play out another way. There is talk of deepening financial straits, even of a lost decade. The protests to date have perhaps been a mere preoccupation, with Occupy 2.0 yet to come.

The uprisings witnessed in Arab countries have been cited as an important point of reference for the Occupy movement. But in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and elsewhere, people have taken to the streets because of a desperate need to overturn an undemocratic occupation. The Arab Spring is concerned with the right to occupy a central place in the political system, whereas the Occupy movement seems to take up a position on the fringe. If we were to imagine recent events as contemporary art, the Arab Spring might be a Tracey Emin: gritty yet faltering; brazen but honest. By contrast, Occupy - at least in the UK - would be a Rachel Whiteread: the (out)casting of a negative space.

Writing in this vein will be taken as an attack on Occupy. This is not my point. I hold sympathy with the idea of/to Occupy. But, if it is to be more than a faint echo of the Arab Spring, if it is to be more than nostalgic for the heady days of Theory, if it is to be more than a Twitter trend and, crucially, if it is to connect with tomorrow's generation, it must prompt an overthrow of our preoccupations. It is not only the wealthiest 1 per cent who stand in the way. And it is unlikely that the camping-out of another 1 per cent will bring about change. We need to ask more searching questions of the remaining 98 per cent - which, of course, means all of us.

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