Why Occupy?

Neo-liberalism’s false choice

The politico-financial system which has led to the present crisis has wreaked havoc on the lives of millions. People have lost their homes, students are beholden to enormous amounts of debt, rating agencies downgrade our bonds, and unemployment remains stubbornly high –just to name a few of our ailments. But perhaps the greatest violence perpetrated by this unsustainable system is presenting itself as the only solution to the problem it was responsible for in the first place.

By Barcex (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Under the pressure of financial markets and supranational institutions, sovereign nations were forced firstly to bail-out a system on the brink of collapse and secondly forced swallow austerity measures devised with the aim of easing the markets’ fears of sovereign debt insolvency. The complex “packages” the European Central Bank is concocting to save debt-ridden countries in the Euro-zone are aimed not at reforming an unsustainable system but at keeping the show going on just as it has. We are still working within the “business as usual” paradigm, accepting harsh measures with no strings attached.

This occurs because of the false choice presented to us by our political and economic institutions, namely that there is no alternative to the neo-liberal hegemony: we must therefore choose between saving an inherently unsustainable system on the one hand, and an Armageddon of financial meltdown, chaos and anarchy on the other.

Such a false choice is nurtured by a well-rehearsed narrative: since the spectacular collapse of the Soviet Union, we are told, capitalism has remained the “last game in town”. Increasingly, more and more nations have followed Huntington’s fabled “third wave of democratization” and embraced the American model of the liberal capitalist democracy[1]. The triumph engendered by this progressive trend has led some to proclaim its universalization and to declare the end of history, for no better system could possibly be devised by human intellect[2]. The lesson is clear: there is simply no alternative to this political and financial system.

The Logics of Occupying

In the light of this situation, the American and British Occupy movements along with the European Indignados merely appear as a knee-jerk reaction to the crisis. They are portrayed as having no demands, no propositions and as a ramshackle puzzle of heterogeneous identities unable to formulate a common statement of intent. It seems essentially an anti-capitalist mobilization simply venting out its “rage against the machine”, no different from the 90s no-global movements of Seattle and Genova. However this time it’s different.

Naomi Klein has pointed out one important characteristic of this new phenomenon. While past protests against neo-liberalism have targeted periodic meetings such as WTO and G8 conventions, this time the Occupy movements are here to stay indefinitely. This means that the protest against the system is not transitory but sustained[3]. There is therefore a particular logic behind the act of indefinite occupation: it is a symbolic re-appropriation of democratic space in which to exercise our rights as democratic citizens. Reclaiming that space therefore openly challenges the false choice presented to us by neo-liberalism.

Occupy: a space for difference and social plurality

The Occupy and Indignados movements are indeed a collage of heterogeneous identities. Pacifist, feminist, gay, environmental, and all sorts of other movements have pitched their tents together in hundreds of cities worldwide. This is often seen by the media and political pundits as an inherent weakness, as it contributes to the inability of producing common statements and proposals. Yet, this is no weakness. Contrarily, it is a conscious expression of difference and has at its heart a precise message, namely that there is something fundamentally wrong with our democratic institutions: political representation has ceased to reflect  the multiplicity of identities and demands found in society. Our political delegates are distant, unaccountable, over-privileged and in many cases corrupted by the power of organized crime and/or of campaign contributions and donations from the private sector.

By David Shankbone (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The act of occupation by this multitude (I am referring to Hardt and Negri’s multitude) of social movements and private citizens expresses the discontent caused by years of government by unresponsive, dysfunctional and far-removed legislative assemblies. Occupying the public square means reclaiming a space in which diversity may be publicly expressed: a space which is not provided by our liberal-democratic constitutional orders and our representative system. The occupied public square reflects social plurality: it shows us that society is intrinsically different and plural on ethnic, political, cultural, economic and spiritual levels and that these differences have a sacrosanct right to be expressed and represented. Occupying the square provides a platform of democratic representation for difference which has been systematically excluded and silenced by the neo-liberal hegemony.

Occupy: a space for transparency

Occupying a square is also an act of openness. Inclusion and participation are the main attributes of the public assemblies of these movements. Every action, decision, thought or idea is formulated collectively and openly in the square[4]. The fact that the decision-making process is exercised in a public location and on public property is a symbolic assertion of the need for transparency in our political and economic institutions.

In this way, not only is the occupied square a democratic space in which diversity is adequately represented, it is also a space in which power asymmetries (gender, cultural, economic, etc.) are laid bare and may be denounced precisely because of its inherently open and transparent character. This is in stark contrast with the obscure, distant and unaccountable ways our governing bodies are run. It is the reclaiming of a transparent space which is not provided to us under the neo-liberal hegemony.

Occupy: as space for an alternative

Above all however, occupying the square intends to reclaim a space in which an alternative to the status quo may be constructed. This is by far the most radical and successful achievement of the movement. Its success lies not in the presentation of a fully defined new paradigm which will serve as an alternative to the neo-liberal status quo, but the demonstration that there is the need for a space in which alternative ideas may be expressed, deliberated, contested and experimented. How can any alternative to, or reform of, the present system ever emerge if we lack the space in which to express them?

Through the reclaiming of public squares the Occupy and Indignados movements have shown us that our political orders are lacking the democratic institutions and the democratic instruments through which new ideas may be proposed. They have shown us that our western democracies are in desperate need of institutions which foster participation, transparency and inclusion so that new ideas may emerge and change this system which grotesquely feeds on its own inherent contradictions.

In this light, the over-rehearsed slogan “another world is possible” does not present itself as a naïve hippie’s dream of a tree-hugging utopia, but as an active challenge to the idea that neo-liberalism is “the last game in town” and that no alternative may even exist. None of these nascent movements will propose a new economic or political system to replace this one. But they will invite us all to participate in an open, transparent and inclusive public space so that we may collectively debate, converse and construct it together through democratic deliberation and  political participation.


Ultimately, the very fact that such a movement is actually in the squares occupying indefinitely is presently the only check on the un-democratic excesses of this unsustainable system. There is no political effort on behalf of any elected government in the world (except Iceland probably) that is willing to reject the false choice of neo-liberalism – which increasingly looks more like an ultimatum. Bailouts, austerity measures and these so-called un-elected “technical governments” are giving up the hard-earned democratic rights that define us as democratic citizens: they are giving in to the neo-liberal ultimatum.

In this context, the Occupy and Indignados movements are the only mobilizations  standing up to this blatant assault on popular sovereignty and human dignity. They are the only movements which have rejected this false choice and reclaimed a public space in which people may be truly represented, where an effort for transparency reigns, and in which to collectively construct an alternative through democratic confrontation. And this fact alone, for me, has won half of the battle already.

[1] Huntington, S.P. 2003 “Democracy’s Third Wave” in eds. Dahl, Shapiro, Cheibub. The Democracy Sourcebook. MIT Press: Boston

[2] Fukuyama, F. 1992 The End of History and the Last Man. Penguin: London

[3] Klein, N. 14 Oct. 2011 “The most important thing in the world”, The Occupied Wall Street Journal [online] available @ http://occupiedwallstjournal.com/2011/10/the-most-important-thing-in-the-world/

[4] takethesquare.net 2011 “Quick Guide on Group Dynamics in People’s Assemblies” [online] available @ http://takethesquare.net/2011/07/31/quick-guide-on-group-dynamics-in-peoples-assemblies/


Filed under Indignados, Neo-liberalism, neoliberalism, Occupy Wall Street, Participatory Democracy, social movements

2 responses to “Why Occupy?

  1. Alan Hertz

    Yep. I was making many of the same points to my ethics students yesterday. Protests need not be successful in specifics in order to be worthwhile. This protest openly recognizes what is implicit in much protest: that the practical objective is a change in the climate [or the opening up of space]. In this respect, a sustained presence is very important: such changes depend on media coverage, and the media will be slow to realize that they are not merely watching hippies on holiday, that they are witnesses to the development of alternative modes of organization and thought.

    • Thanks for your comment Dr. Hertz, it is always greatly appreciated!
      I also think that the movement is speaking a vocabulary that politicians and the media are unable to comprehend. The point here is the actual exercise of democracy (through endless popular assemblies), rather than coming up with coherent theories and statements. This is a foreign vocabulary to most.
      My next post will analyse the type of democracy practised in the general assemblies and compare it to the theoretical “new” approaches to democracy such as Habermas’ deliberative democracy and Mouffe’s agonistic democracy.

      Thanks for reading my post!

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