Occupy, Anthropology, and the 2011 Global Uprisings

Introduction

Occupy Wall Street burst spectacularly onto the scene last fall with the take-over of New York City's Zuccotti Park on September 17, 2011, followed by the rapid spread of occupations to cities throughout the US and the world. The movement combined mass occupations of urban public spaces with horizontal forms of organization and large-scale, directly democratic assemblies. Making effective use of the viral flows of images and information generated by the intersections of social and mass media, the occupations mobilized tens of thousands around the globe, including many new activists who had never taken part in a mass movement before, and inspired many more beyond the physical encampments themselves. Before the wave of violent police evictions in November and December of 2011 drove activists into submerged forms of organizing through the winter, the Occupy movements had already captured the public imagination. Bequeathing to us potent new memes such as the 1% (those at the top of the wealth and income scale) and the 99% (the rest of us), Occupy provided a framework for talking about issues that have been long obscured in public life such as class and socio-economic inequality and helped to shift the dominant political-economic discourse from an obsession with budget deficits and austerity to a countervailing concern for jobs, equality, and economic fairness.

In other words, prior to Occupy, much of the populist anger stemming from the 2008 financial crisis in North America and Europe had been effectively channeled by the Right into both an attack on marginalized groups—e.g. immigrants, people of color, Gays and Lesbians—and a particularly pernicious version of the already familiar critique of unbridled spending. This was especially so in the US where the Tea Party tapped into the widespread public ire over the Wall Street bailouts to bolster a far-reaching attack on "big government" through a radical program of fiscal austerity. Of course, the debt problem was a consequence rather than a cause of the crisis, the result of deregulation, predatory lending, and the spread of highly complex financial instruments facilitated by the neoliberal agenda of the very people who were now seeking to impose budgetary discipline (see Financial Crisis Hot Spot).

However, the contributions of Occupy are not exclusively, or even primarily, to be assessed in terms of their intervention in public discourse. The Occupy movements are also a response to a fundamental crisis of representative politics embodied in an embrace of more radical, directly democratic practices and forms. In their commitment to direct democracy and action the politics put into practice in the various encampments are also innovative prefigurative attempts to model alternative forms of political organization, decision making, and sociability. This turn is crucial: while neoliberalism has been endlessly critiqued it seems to live on as the only policy response—in the form of austerity—to the crisis neoliberalism itself has produced. The need for ethnographic accounts of this prefigurative politics, and its attendant challenges and contradictions, is especially urgent given that Occupy has refused official representatives and because occupiers have extended democracy beyond formal institutions into new spheres of life through a range of practices, including the collective seizure of public space, the people’s mic, horizontal organization, hand signals, and general assemblies.

Inline_figure_four_razsa
Maple Razsa, "Occupy." July 7, 2012.

It is also important to remember that Occupy was a relative latecomer—if a symbolically important one—to the social unrest the global crisis and policies of austerity have provoked. Cracks in the veneer of conformity emerged during the 2008 rebellion in Greece, where students, union members, and other social actors, galvanized by the murder of a fifteen year old student, took to the streets to challenge the worsening economic conditions (See Greece Hot Spot). Students were also among the first wave of resistance elsewhere with protests against budget cuts and increased fees in California, Croatia, the UK, and Chile. In the US signs of wider social discontent finally surfaced during the Wisconsin uprising in February 2011, which included the occupation of the Wisconsin State House in opposition to Governor Scott Walker's attack on collective bargaining for public sector unions under the guise of budgetary discipline (cf. Collins 2012). As in Wisconsin, the widespread circulation of images from the Arab Spring continued to spark the intense feelings of solidarity, political possibility, and agency that ultimately led to the occupation of Wall Street. From the pro-democracy marches in Tunisia in response to the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi to the mass occupations of Cairo's Tahrir Square in opposition to the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, the Middle East uprisings, imbued protesters with the sense that dramatic political transformation was possible even as subsequent events have indicated that actual political outcomes are always ambivalent and uncertain (see Arab Spring Hot Spot).

Inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and responding to the working and middle class casualties of Spain and Europe's debt crisis, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Madrid on May 15, 2011 and occupied the Puerta del Sol square, sparking a wave of similar mobilizations and encampments around the Spain that would become known as 15M or the movement of the Indignados. Indeed, the combination of mass public occupations with large-scale participatory assemblies provided a template that would be enacted in Zuccotti Park, in part via the influence of Spanish activists residing in New York. That summer a similar movement of Israeli youths sprang up in Tel Aviv, using tent cities and popular assemblies to shine a light on the rising cost of housing and other living expenses.

Finally, in response to an August 2011 call by the Canadian magazine AdBusters to occupy Wall Street in the spirit of these 2011 Global uprisings, activists occupied Zuccotti Park after being rebuffed by the police in an attempt to take Wall Street itself. The occupation initially garnered little media attention, until its second week when images of police repression started going viral, leading to a surge in public sympathy and support, and ever growing numbers streaming to the encampments themselves each time another protester was maced or a group of seemingly innocent protesters rounded up, beaten, and/or arrested. Occupations quickly spread around the US and other parts of the world, generating, for a moment, a proliferating series of encampments physically rooted in local territories, yet linked up with other occupations through interpersonal and online trans-local networks. Following the evictions in the US last fall, local assemblies and working groups have continued to meet—hosting discussions, planning actions and campaigns, producing media, and building and modifying organizational forms—even as the Occupy movements prepared for their public reemergence in the spring through mobilizations such as the May Day protests and mass direct actions against NATO in Chicago and the European Central Bank in Frankfurt.

Additionally, each of these uprisings has diffused through the widespread use of social media, reflecting the mutually constitutive nature of embodied and online protest. The use of social media, in particular, has allowed the Occupy movements, as in other recent mobilizations, to penetrate deeply into the social fabric and mobilize many newcomers who have never been active before in social movements. At the same time, these emerging "logics of aggregation" within the Occupy movements have resulted in a more individualized mode of participation and a form of movement that is more singularizing (e.g. the way the 99% frame can obscure internal differences) and more dependent on the long-term occupation of public space than other recent movements (Juris 2012). A particular set of tensions and strategic dilemmas have thus plagued the Occupy movements, including a divide between newer and more seasoned activists, the difficulty of recognizing and negotiating internal differences, a lack of common political and organizational principles beyond the General Assembly model, and the difficulty of transitioning to new tactics, strategies, visions, and structures in a post-eviction era. In short, activists are now faced with fundamental questions about how to build a movement capable of actually transforming the deep inequalities they have attempted to address.

In assembling this Hot Spot on Occupy we have invited contributions from anthropologists, ethnographers, and activists writing on the above themes: the mass occupation of public spaces, directly democratic practices and forms, the use of social media, the emotions and emerging subjectivities of protest, as well as the underlying political critiques and contradictions that have arisen in the movement. Similarly, in light of the global history we outline above, the range of other social movement responses to the current global economic crisis, as well as the ongoing links between struggles in the US, Europe, Latin America, and North Africa, we have been careful to include contributors conducting research beyond the US in countries such as Greece, Slovenia, Spain, Israel, Argentina, Egypt, and Canada. In so doing, we insist that Occupy must be understood in a global rather than a populist US-centric framework.

Our collaboration on this Hot Spot—which emerged from conversations around our articles on Occupy in the May 2012 edition of American Ethnologist (Juris 2012; Razsa and Kurnik 2012)—also reflects our scholarly and political commitments, as well as those of our contributors. First, it was our priority to invite scholars and activists who are directly involved with these movements rather than adding to the abundant armchair punditry on Occupy. These contributions also reflect recent trends in anthropology with respect to the growing practice of activist research, militant ethnography, public anthropology, and other forms of politically committed ethnographic research, which are taking increasingly institutionalized forms with Cultural Anthropology "Hot Spots" like this one, “Public Anthropology Reviews” in American Anthropologist, recent interventions in American Ethnologist on "Egypt, Wisconsin, and Occupy", as well as Current Anthropology “Current Applications.”

In addition to providing an ethnographically and analytically informed view of and from various occupations and kindred mobilizations, this Hot Spot thus provides another example of how anthropologists are making themselves politically relevant and are engaging issues of broad public concern. Given these shifts, together with the progressive inclinations of many anthropologists and the ubiquity and inherent interest of Occupy, it should come as no surprise that so many anthropologists and ethnographers from related fields, including those within and outside the academy, have played key roles in the Occupy movements and their precursors in countries such as Greece and Spain. Indeed, in their post Carles Feixa and his collaborators refer to anthropologists as the "organic intellectuals" of the 15 M movement. As many of the contributions to this Hot Spot attest, a similar case might be made for the role of activist anthropologists within Occupy more generally.

As the contributions below make clear, our emphasis on participatory and politically committed research does not imply a romanticization of resistance or a refusal to confront the contradictions, limits, and exclusions of social movements, especially along axes of class, race, gender, sexuality, and citizenship. Given the disproportionate, though by no means exclusively White, middle class participation in the US Occupy movements, such critical perspectives are essential. Each of the following entries thus combines thick ethnographic description on the part of anthropologists, ethnographers, and activists who have been directly involved in the Occupy movements or other instances of mobilization during the 2011 global uprisings—either through engagement with one more encampments and/or the themes addressed by Occupy—with critical analysis of one or more of the issues outlined above.

Notes

[1] Occupy has thus addressed many of the same themes and drawn on many of the organizational practices associated with the global justice movements of a previous era, even as it has resonated more strongly with domestic national contexts of the Global north. 

[2] The people’s mic is a form of voice amplification whereby everyone in listening distance repeats a speaker’s words so that others situated further away can also hear (See Garces, this Hot Spot).

[3] For example, in the U.S. local encampments created "Inter-Occupy" groups maintain ties with other occupations, while twitter feeds, listservs, websites, and other digital tools were used to communicate and coordinate more broadly. See our digital resources page for additional links.

References

Collins, Jane. 2012. "Theorizing Wisconsin’s 2011 Protests: Community-Based Unionism Confronts Accumulation by Dispossession." American Ethnologist 39 (1):6–20.

Juris, Jeffrey. 2012. “Reflections on #Occupy Everywhere: Social Media, Public Space, and Emerging Logics of Aggregation.” American Ethnologist 39 (2):259-279.

Razsa, Maple and Andrej Kurnik. 2012. “The Occupy Movement in Žižek’s Hometown: Direct Democracy and a Politics of Becoming." American Ethnologist 39 (2):238-258.

Essays

Prefigurative Politics

Marianne Maeckelbergh, Horizontal Decision-Making across Time and Place

Chris Garces, People’s Mic and ‘Leaderful’ Charisma

Philip Cartelli, Trying to Occupy Harvard

Public Space

Zoltán Glück, Between Wall Street and Zuccotti: Occupy and the Scale of Politics

Carles Feixa, et al., The #spanishrevolution and Beyond

Dimitris Dalakoglou,  The Movement and the “Movement” of Syntagma Square

Experience and Subjectivity

Jeffrey S. Juris, The 99% and the Production of Insurgent Subjectivity

Diane Nelson, et al., Her earliest leaf’s a flower…

Maple Razsa, The Subjective Turn: The Radicalization of Personal Experience within Occupy Slovenia

Marina Sitrin, Occupy Trust: The Role of Emotion in the New Movements

Strategy and Tactics

David Graeber, Occupy Wall Street rediscovers the radical imagination

Kate Griffiths-Dingani, May Day, Precarity, Affective Labor, and the General Strike

Angelique Haugerud, Humor and Occupy Wall Street

Karen Ho, Occupy Finance and the Paradox/Possibilities of Productivity

Social Media

Alice Mattoni, Beyond Celebration: Toward a More Nuanced Assessment of Facebook’s Role in Occupy Wall Street

John Postill, Participatory Media Research and Spain’s 15M Movement

Critical Perspectives

Yvonne Yen Liu, Decolonizing the Occupy Movement

Manissa McCleave Maharawal, Fieldnotes on Union Square, Anti-Oppression, and Occupy

Uri Gordon, Israel's “Tent Protests:” A Domesticated Mobilization

Alex Khasnabish, Occupy Nova Scotia: The Symbolism and Politics of Space

***View the Digital Resources page for additional content***

Posts in This Series

Participatory Media Research and Spain’s 15M Movement

The Movement and the “Movement” of Syntagma Square

Humor and Occupy Wall Street

May Day, Precarity, Affective Labor, and the General Strike

Occupy Trust: The Role of Emotion in the New Movements

Digital Resources for "Occupy, Anthropology, and the 2011 Global Uprisings"

Occupy Nova Scotia: The Symbolism and Politics of Space

Israel's “Tent Protests:” A Domesticated Mobilization

Fieldnotes on Union Square, Anti-Oppression, and Occupy

Decolonizing the Occupy Movement

Participatory Media Research and Spain’s 15M Movement

Beyond Celebration: Toward a More Nuanced Assessment of Facebook’s Role in Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Finance and the Paradox/Possibilities of Productivity

Humor and Occupy Wall Street

May Day, Precarity, Affective Labor, and the General Strike

Occupy Wall Street Rediscovers the Radical Imagination

Occupy Trust: The Role of Emotion in the New Movements

The Subjective Turn: The Radicalization of Personal Experience within Occupy Slovenia

Her earliest leaf’s a flower…

The 99% and the Production of Insurgent Subjectivity

The Movement and the “Movement” of Syntagma Square

The #spanishrevolution and Beyond

Between Wall Street and Zuccotti: Occupy and the Scale of Politics

Trying to Occupy Harvard

People’s Mic and "Leaderful" Charisma

Horizontal Decision-Making across Time and Place