Robert van Krieken

Research, writing, translation

Robert van Krieken - Research, writing, translation

The Occupy Movement

These are my thoughts on the Occupy movement, for the revision of the Sociology textbook published by Pearson:

Culture jamming and Occupy Wall Street 

One of the oppositional movements referred to by Klein is culture jamming, described by Christine Harold (2004) as a world-wide political movement which ‘seeks to undermine the marketing rhetoric of multinational corporations, specifically through such practices as media hoaxing, corporate sabotage, billboard “liberation,” and trademark infringement’ (p. 190). Most often this is done through changing an advertisement to reveal what the protestor sees as the true meaning of the ad (sometimes referred to as ‘subvertising’), but also includes other forms of protest, art and political action. The Canadian Adbusters Media Foundation, founded in 1989, describes itself as “a global network of artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students, educators and entrepreneurs who want to advance the new social activist movement of the information age”. publishing the activist anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters (http://www.adbusters.org/) has been a prominent player, organizing evgents such as ‘Buy Nothing Day’, ‘Digital Detox Week’, ‘TV Turnoff Week’ and ‘Occupy Wall Street’. Its founder, Kalle Lasn, defines culture jamming as “is the art of creating a new kind of cool” A guiding concept is the importance of aesthetics in influencing how ordinary people think, and this has been mobilised by Adbusters ih the hope that the protests which emerge will “somehow change the power balance and make the world into a much more grass-roots, bottom-up kind of a place rather than the top-down Wall Street mega-corporate-driven system we now have.” (cited in Yardley, 2011)

Adbuster activities are strongly organised around the concept of the ‘meme’: a unit of cultural transmission, imitation or replication that spreads from person to person within a culture (see Dawkins 1976, The Selfish Gene). Attacking logos is appealing for culture jammers because it is very effective. Modern corporations may not rely on particular workers or factories to make their products (they can easily move production somewhere else), but they do rely on the positive appeal of their logos. Companies such as Nike, Shell and McDonald’s have been the subject of quite effective campaigns that have provided their logos with less appealing associations than those promoted by the companies. For example, the Nike swoosh has been dubbed the ‘Swooshstika’ and associated with very poor pay and conditions in the Third World factories where the company’s products are largely made. Shell has been linked by its critics to the 1995 execution of the Nigerian Ken Saro Wiwa by the Nigerian Government. Wiwa had campaigned against Shell’s operations that had damaged the land of the Ogoni people of the Niger delta. Some culture jammers hung dummies from Shell logos at petrol stations with the slogan ‘Shell Kills Ogoni’. Klein is, however, aware of the limitations of this sort of resistance to globalisation. It might inconvenience particular multinational companies, but the ‘conduct of the individual multinationals is simply a by-product of a broader global economic system that has steadily been removing almost all barriers and conditions to trade, investment and outsourcing’ (p. 422). When one company loses business because of the bad publicity that it has received, another company that may be little better is usually the beneficiary. For example, Adidas has benefited from campaigns against Nike, although, as Klein argues, it has followed similar exploitative employment practices. Furthermore, anti-branding campaigns can do little to embarrass companies that do not rely on brands—for example, mining companies and steel factories that have poor safely records but no brand image. Despite its limitations, Klein believes that the anti-branding, culture-jamming movement has laid the foundation for wider global social movements. It has drawn attention to links between politically repressive regimes, the exploitation of workers and the activities of corporations and brands. As such, it has stimulated the development of broad coalitions between different campaigners. This has been evident in the various types of protests at meetings of world leaders and organisations of economic globalisation such as the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank p>Culture jamming and Occupy Wall Street

One of the oppositional movements referred to by Klein is culture jamming, described by Christine Harold (2004) as a world-wide political movement which ‘seeks to undermine the marketing rhetoric of multinational corporations, specifically through such practices as media hoaxing, corporate sabotage, billboard “liberation,” and trademark infringement’ (p. 190). Most often this is done through changing an advertisement to reveal what the protestor sees as the true meaning of the ad (sometimes referred to as ‘subvertising’), but also includes other forms of protest, art and political action. The Canadian Adbusters Media Foundation, founded in 1989, describes itself as “a global network of artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students, educators and entrepreneurs who want to advance the new social activist movement of the information age”. publishing the activist anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters (http://www.adbusters.org/) has been a prominent player, organizing evgents such as ‘Buy Nothing Day’, ‘Digital Detox Week’, ‘TV Turnoff Week’ and ‘Occupy Wall Street’. Its founder, Kalle Lasn, defines culture jamming as “is the art of creating a new kind of cool” A guiding concept is the importance of aesthetics in influencing how ordinary people think, and this has been mobilised by Adbusters ih the hope that the protests which emerge will “somehow change the power balance and make the world into a much more grass-roots, bottom-up kind of a place rather than the top-down Wall Street mega-corporate-driven system we now have.” (cited in Yardley, 2011) Adbuster activities are strongly organised around the concept of the ‘meme’: a unit of cultural transmission, imitation or replication that spreads from person to person within a culture (see Dawkins 1976, The Selfish Gene).

Attacking logos is appealing for culture jammers because it is very effective. Modern corporations may not rely on particular workers or factories to make their products (they can easily move production somewhere else), but they do rely on the positive appeal of their logos. Companies such as Nike, Shell and McDonald’s have been the subject of quite effective campaigns that have provided their logos with less appealing associations than those promoted by the companies. For example, the Nike swoosh has been dubbed the ‘Swooshstika’ and associated with very poor pay and conditions in the Third World factories where the company’s products are largely made. Shell has been linked by its critics to the 1995 execution of the Nigerian Ken Saro Wiwa by the Nigerian Government. Wiwa had campaigned against Shell’s operations that had damaged the land of the Ogoni people of the Niger delta. Some culture jammers hung dummies from Shell logos at petrol stations with the slogan ‘Shell Kills Ogoni’.

Klein is, however, aware of the limitations of this sort of resistance to globalisation. It might inconvenience particular multinational companies, but the ‘conduct of the individual multinationals is simply a by-product of a broader global economic system that has steadily been removing almost all barriers and conditions to trade, investment and outsourcing’ (p. 422). When one company loses business because of the bad publicity that it has received, another company that may be little better is usually the beneficiary. For example, Adidas has benefited from campaigns against Nike, although, as Klein argues, it has followed similar exploitative employment practices. Furthermore, anti-branding campaigns can do little to embarrass companies that do not rely on brands—for example, mining companies and steel factories that have poor safely records but no brand image.

Despite its limitations, Klein believes that the anti-branding, culture-jamming movement has laid the foundation for wider global social movements. It has drawn attention to links between politically repressive regimes, the exploitation of workers and the activities of corporations and brands. As such, it has stimulated the development of broad coalitions between different campaigners. This has been evident in the various types of protests at meetings of world leaders and organisations of economic globalisation such as the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank.

The
Occupy Movement

The most recent example of culture-jamming is the Occupy Wall Street action, which came to broad public attention on 17 September 2011, when protestors occupied Zuccotti Park in New York’s Manhattan district. Their first choice had been 1 Chase Plaza, the location of the ‘charging bull’ sculpture incorporated into the poster for the event, but police had come to know of the event and had fenced that area off, so the protesters turned to Zuccotti Park, which was privately owned, requiring a request from the owner (Brookfield Office Properties) for the police to clear it. It was eventually cleared on 15 November 2011. It had its origins earlier in the year in the initiatives of the editors of the Canadian anti-consumerism magazine, Adbusters, Kalle Lasn and Micah White, Inspired the Arab Spring uprising and tapping into increasing anger about both the effects of the GFC and how it had been handled , they registered the OccupyWallStreet. Org website, and the #occupwallstreet twitter tag, had their art department create the event’s poster, and created the slogan ‘We are the 99%’.

Lasn’s aims include a 1% Robin Hood tax on all financial transactions, restoration of the Glass-Stegall Act and its barriers between investment and savings banking,
bans on specific types of high-frequency trading, overturning of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United case, which blocked a ban on corporate spending in US
elections, along with a Presidential Commission aiming to end the influence of money in politics, and prosecution of the investment bankers and financiers who
engaged in fraudulent activities such as betting against investments they had themselves recommended. In practice, however, the Occupy movement attracts
people with a broad range of political objectives – it is heavily influence by anarchist political ideals such as the eradication of both capitalism and the
state, ‘horizontal’ and participatory forms of democracy (Sitrin 2012). As Marinia Sitrin stresses,

The question for the future is not how to create a plan for what a better country will look like, but how to deepen and broaden the assemblies taking place and how to enhance participatory democracy in the process. (p. 75).

The ‘Declaration of the Occupation of New York City’ accepted by the “General Assembly” in Zuccotti Park on 29 September begins as follows:

As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their neighbors; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments. We have peaceably assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known.

It then goes to provide a list of all the issues anyone could be concerned about today, including: mortgage foreclosures, cruelty to animals, student loan debt, outsourcing, manufacture of faulty products, monopoly media control, oil spills, encouragement of oil dependency, and the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction. The list ends by stressing that ‘These grievances are not all-inclusive’. Critics have observed that it is difficult to generate effective political action from such a hetereogenous cluster of concerns. The San Francisco Chronicle, an early supporter of the movement, came to the conclusion that the movement’s tactics “have been a disaster for its cause . . . . It needs leaders, it needs structure, it needs discipline” (San Francisco Chronicle 2012).

Critique of Occupy

There are also a number of critiques of the Occupy movement and its real contribution to social and political change. First, the Occupy movement presents itself as opposed to neoliberalism and often to capitalism itself as an economic, political and social system, but it is possible to see the relationship as being more complex. Alasdair Roberts, for example, points out that there are a number of ways in which ‘the neoliberal project made it possible for the anti-globalization movement to
thrive’. Neoliberalism, argues Roberts, cleared away many of the existing forms of resistance to corporate power, particularly unions and the labour movement.
This aspect of the impact of neoliberalism on politics significantly increased the audience for the protest events organised by groups like Adbusters. The technologies used so effectively by the Occupy movement to spread its ideas world-wide are also a key feature of neoliberal globalisation, since powerful
computing and communication technology was a central element of the globalization of finance, corporate organisation and production processes.
Neoliberal approaches to organisational structure and dynamics also followed many of the ‘horizontalist’ principles of the Ocuppy movement, pursuing ‘flat’
organisational structures and direct involvement of workers in the organisation’s design and dynamics. It is true that the supposedly more democratic structure of
contemporary enterprises usually obscures the real power relations in the organisation, but at a cognitive and cultural level, there are many similarities between the fluidity of Occupy practices and those encouraged by the neoliberal enterprise. In this respect they can be seen as the flip sides of the same overall development.

Second, there are many observers who feel that anarchist principles of political action simply do not work effectively. By definition they are open to disruption by hostile individuals and groups. In claiming to be opposed to power relations, no mechansisms are put in place to constrain powerful individuals or sub-groups, which simply smuggles in other bases for power relations which are then allowed to operate ‘invisibly’.  Byrne (2012, p. 400) quotes one observer saying that the
municipal authorities did the Occupiers an ‘unintentional favour’ when they cleared Zuccotti Park, in that it masked the actual failure of the experiment in
horizontalist democracy. What is also extremely problematic about anarchist politics is the refusal to enter into political alliances with the groups attached
to different political perspectives – either you’re with us or against us. Todd Gitlin refers to the movement’s “co-optation phobia” (Gitlin 2012, Location 1569). However, effective political action in complex large-scale societies always require some degree of political compromise and alliance-formation.

Third, although the Occupy movement is strong on critique, precisely because of its openness and fluidity, it is incapable of settling on any particular political program or course of organised action beyond its own protest events. There is no alternative model for how an economy, a national state, or a global economic and political system should be designed and managed.

Nonetheless, despite the concerns about a lack of clear focus, or the efficacy of anarchist political strategies, it is fair to say that the Occupy movement has helped to shift the critique of globalisation towards that of increasing inequality in all parts of the world, within as well as across countries, an unsustainable
level of consumption, the (dys)functioning of capitalism as an economic system, and the deficiencies in the functioning of democracy in an increasingly globalised world.

Category: Sociology

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  • Huw Phillips says:

    Excellent analysis. For my mind, the significance of the Occupy Movement lies not in its ability to achieve its aims (which are much too diverse to be of immediate political, social, or economic utility or practice), but in its ability to create a legitimate space from which to critique the project of neoliberal capitalism. For this reason, it was with great hope that I watched the events unfolding across the cities of the world since late 2011. The consequences of the Occupy phenomenon will not be found at the sites of protest, but in the long-term discursive changes that can spring from the act of radical protest that occurred throughout city squares across the world.

    10 September, 2012 at 08:39

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