Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Occupy again, occupy smarter

Overnight, the New York police smashed up Occupy Wall Street's main base in Zuccotti Park, fulfilling their traditional role as the armed wing of the hegemonic élite.

It's to be expected: the occupation is simply the latest in an American tradition of dignified subaltern camps: it's a more middle-class version of the Hoovervilles of the 1930s, in which thousands of people erected shanty towns in parks and waste grounds, for shelter and protection, but also to make visible the effects of the Depression. No doubt some of them were dystopian hell-holes, but many were vibrant, egalitarian, racially harmonious, leftwing communities which posed a challenge - perhaps a threat - to the status quo: which is why many were violently razed to the ground by the authorities.

This is always the way. OWS was in many ways a carnivalesque space, in Bakhtinian terms: tolerated by the authorities for a period as a safety valve, then shut down when it showed signs of offering a serious alternative to the current system. The challenge is to avoid being tamed, or silenced, while offering more than a brief breathing space for those excluded or revolted by the system.

Where now? I think the various occupations should start drawing on the lessons of the late 1980s-1990s roads protesters. In the UK, this was the strongest and most successful of the countercultures: travellers, crusts, ravers and eco-activists successfully led governments on a merry dance around the country. Draconian laws and tabloid thunderclaps demonstrated the real threat to the Establishment posed by a mobile, creative, strategically clever, fluid and above all disdainful group. I'm no fan of rave, New Age Bollocks, the Levellers (the band: I admire the Civil War group) or dreadlocks, but the sheer weight of heavy-handed legal and police action demonstrated government's failure to comprehend their opponents' tactics or beliefs. It's hard to evoke the public mood of the time: on one side scruffy E-necking ravers who managed to combine fierce idealism with dedicated pursuit of hedonism. On the other, the shrieking newspapers, hysterical tabloids and a police force which treated the travellers like plague-spreaders.

My favourite group was Critical Mass: radical cyclists who got together once a month or so in major cities to cycle really slowly to demonstrate that our urban planning was both dangerous and inhuman. I only managed to join them once or twice, in Birmingham, but it was a wonderful feeling. It's still alive, but the edge has gone. Perhaps I'll get back to them. Other favourites: the wonderful, crazy ways in which road-building was halted and sometimes even defeated, and the Guerrilla Gardening movement: turning concrete into jungle.

The travellers and ravers used to defeat police planning by only announcing locations at the last minute, passed on through temporary phone numbers picked up by eager participants cruising the M25 waiting of the word: Twitter is the ideal successor. It all ended when the rave side of things came to dominate - the individualism of these mobile parties, and the drug aspect, made it an ideal situation for the entrepreneurially-minded amongst them to commodify the scene by reducing it to commercial events, and the energy was inevitably lost.

But Occupy can still learn from them. They can harness the decentralised, fluid, fast-moving aspects of the Summer of Love: they can be one step ahead of the authorities, they can stress the theatrical aspects of protest. Pop up unexpectedly with a dramatic action, then melt away, only to coalesce somewhere else.

One of the things I regret about the British education system is its total silence on the country's brilliant history of rebellion and protest: the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, the Civil War, the Diggers, the Levellers, the Pilgrimage of Grace, the Monmouth Rebellion, the Luddites, Captain Swing, the Rebecca Rioters, the Chartists, the NUWM, the Jarrow March, the Suffragists, the Radical Clubs, CND and Pugwash…, the Miners' Strike and all their supporters… the list is endless. Let's recapture that irreverence, that refusal to blindly accept what we're given.


Celestial Elf said...

Totally agree about the lack of British education over democratic resistance creating positive change.....
With a call to Occupy the arts and thus change a culture by its orientational values,
thought you might like my machinima version of A Christmas Carol

chriszanf said...

I didnt realise that the junction just outside Morley college in Lambeth was guerilla gardening.