Beyond Occupy: liberating ourselves from debt slavery

by Jerome Roos on September 17, 2012

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Last year we occupied the streets; the time has come to liberate them. The only way forward for our movement is to devise new forms of autonomous action.

A little over a year ago, my friend Pedro and I were sitting behind our laptops in the makeshift multimedia center at Syntagma Square in Athens. As volunteers in the Take The Square collective (the international brigades of the Spanish indignados), we had already been involved for several months in the transnational effort to build bridges between the various movements throughout Europe, putting key organizers in touch with one another, mobilizing an army of translators, reporting on important news and events, helping to coordinate international actions, and translating strategic documents of the 15-M movement into dozens languages and disseminating them across Europe.

We were already actively in touch with movements in Spain, Greece, Portugal, France, Italy, Germany, the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands, when suddenly we received an email from the United States. It was Micah White, co-editor of the widely-disseminated Canadian anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters. Something big was about to happen, Micah told us: Adbusters was about to launch the call for a Tahrir-style occupation of Wall Street and was looking for documents, information and experiences that could help with the complex promotion and organization of such a radical direct action. As we were just in the process of launching HowToOccupy.org, Take The Square was in a unique position to share some of the key experiences of the Spanish and Greek movements with the aspiring occupiers of New York — and beyond.

While my friend Pedro jumped on the news like a lion, sensing a historical opportunity to contribute in a humble way to the occupation of the very heartland of globalized finance capital, I have to admit I had my reservations. Maybe it was my Dutch soberness, maybe a misplaced movements-related sense of “eurocentrism”, but for some reason I just felt the Americans wouldn’t be able to pull off what the Spanish and Greeks had just pulled off before them. First of all, I felt that the most important mobilizing factors behind the Spanish and Greek protests (a massive debt crisis coupled with draconian austerity measures and unprecedented levels of youth unemployment) simply weren’t that clearly present in the United States. Secondly, I told Pedro with full conviction, apart from a few small pockets of resistance like Oakland, the cultural hegemony of capitalist ideology in the US would simply render large-scale anti-capitalist action most unlikely. Thirdly, and most importantly, I feared, the NYPD — which had long since been bought and sold by the powerful Wall Street banks — would never allow the occupation of the most iconic site of American capitalism. Police repression would simply make an indignados-style camp impossible.

Debt, Indignation and the New Class Consciousness 

Thankfully, my skepticism turned out to be almost entirely unfounded. First of all, the mobilizing factor of indebtedness appeared to be just as pressing in the US as it was in Europe, where popular indignation about millions of home foreclosures, multi-trillion dollar bank bailouts, sky-rocketing student debt, stagnant wages, and the total subversion of democracy by powerful corporate interests quietly drove millions of Americans to the brink of despair. As David Graeber — the anthropologist, activist and author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years – just wrote in an article for The Nation:

When we were organizing the Wall Street occupation in August of 2011, we really didn’t have any clear idea who, if anyone, would actually show up. But almost immediately we noticed a pattern. The overwhelming majority of Occupiers were, in one way or another, refugees of the American debt system. At first, that meant student debt: the typical complaint was “I worked hard and played by the rules, and now I can’t find a job to pay my student loans—while the financial criminals who trashed the economy got themselves bailed out.

This complaint was not very different from the indignation that underpinned the mass protests in Spain and Greece. As in Europe, indebtedness provided the basis for the emergence of a new class consciousness. After decades of having been told that “there was no alternative” to the massive neoliberal push for privatization, liberalization and deregulation — and actually being convinced by the vacuous argument that a rising tide would “lift all boats” and that the accumulating wealth of Wall Street would at some point “trickle down” — the people began to realize that something was amiss. With household debt as a share of GDP more than quadrupling over the course of the last half century, the subprime mortgage crisis and subsequent Wall Street meltdown of 2007-’08 finally brought home the realization that the “rising tide” and “trickling-down” was actually a deluge of debt; and that the lifeboats of social security and public services had long since been sold to “balance the budget” (or, rather, to finance an imperialist drive in the Middle East and Central Asia).

In the process, the American Dream — and the corrollary belief that everyone in the US belongs to the “middle class” — was brutally uprooted. The idea that “you are what you make of yourself” began to ring increasingly hollow as a landed aristocracy of financiers, CEOs and lawyer-politicians gradually began to take away the last-remaining opportunities of “middle class” Americans. Those who had lived the American Dream through a subprime mortgage on their dream house soon realized that the interest payments were extortionary and unaffordable. Those who had lived the American Dream through military service abroad soon realized that they had fought an imperialist war in some godforsaken corner of the planet, allegedly to spread democracy and protect the freedom of their fellow citizens, only to return home and find their houses and their democracy foreclosed upon by Wall Street. Those who had lived the American Dream through college loans soon realized that the dream jobs they had been promised upon graduation were no longer around — and that their student debt effectively enslaved them to a horribly underpaying job far below their actual skill levels.

A friend of mine in Seattle, who holds double major in political science and international law and who speaks fluent Italian and Japanese, literally ended up flipping burgers to repay his student loan. He had to postpone marrying his high school sweetheart for many years just because they couldn’t afford the wedding or a place of their own. He was the lucky one: at least he had a job and a girl! Another friend, an extremely smart young woman who did student exchanges to two renowned foreign universities and received a partial scholarship for a PhD in Philosophy at the New School in New York, suddenly saw her partial scholarship being revoked as the crisis struck. Meanwhile, her college loan and the additional loan she took out for the first year of postgrad still had to be paid, so she ended up dancing in a men’s club to be able to pay her bills and service her debt. Waiting tables simply didn’t make enough money, and the bank was threatening to seize her mother’s assets (including her trailer home) in compensation for her looming default, so she had no other choice. This extreme case highlights the fact that the profound injustice of today’s “debt crisis” (which is in reality just an elaborate state-enforced wealth extraction campaign to ensure full repayment for powerful creditors) is not far from the system of debt peonage that predominated in ancient Greece or Mesopotamia.

So “what was remarkable,” about Occupy Wall Street, Graeber points out in The Nation, “wasn’t so much the fact that the camp began to fill with so many debt refugees, but how much of their plea resonated across the political spectrum.” Indeed, the movement’s slogan — “We Are the 99%“, itself a stroke of genius from Graeber and a small group of co-organizers — helped to radically re-draw the class lines in American society. Whereas previously virtually everyone had considered themselves part of the “middle class”, and popular anger had been turned mostly against upper-middle class Liberals and members of the so-called “creative class”, the 99% slogan helped to pinpoint the exact nature of the problem: a tiny elite of creditors was living parasitically off the vast majority of Americans. And financialized capitalism, dependent as it is on the debt-based model of consumerism, simply couldn’t survive without the active participation of the state in a process of wealth extraction from the productive classes — the 99%. Blue collar or white collar; student or pensioner; black, white, Latino or Asian — it no longer mattered what side of the divide you were on: as long as you were dependent on someone else to pay you these increasingly shittier wages (and on the bank to help supplement those shitty stagnant wages with additional loans), you were the 99%. As Graeber put it, “Something clearly had changed. We had come to see ourselves as members of the same indebted class.”

The Delegitimization of Democratic Institutions

In addition to underestimating the immense popular indignation about debt, I had completely misjudged the widespread disillusionment in the US with the established avenues of political action. The Obama election campaign had managed to mobilize millions of young liberals in a kind of quasi-grassroots campaign that, on a superficial level, presented itself like an electoral insurrection of the American Left against eight dark years of neoconservatism under Bush. Obama’s election campaign, replete with its “Hope” poster in the Soviet tradition of Socialist Realism, almost made it look like America had just elected its most left-wing President ever. Obviously, nothing could be further from the truth. But the sheer depth of the sense of disappointment with this fact had taken me by surprise. The hegemony was already crumbling.

The fact that Obama hadn’t just failed to take on the powerful interests of Wall Street but was actively catering towards them quietly radicalized a generation of Americans. If even Obama, the candidate of hope and change, couldn’t put an end to corruption and corporate collusion in Washington, what hope was there for the “democratic” system? Obama’s “no strings attached” bailout of Wall Street was simply the last straw in a process of delegitimation spanning over three decades — from the dramatic deregulation of Wall Street under Reagan’s first neoliberal government to Wall Street poster boys Robert Rubin and Larry Summers and the abolition of the Glass-Steagal Act under Clinton; and from the gargantuan Wall Street bailout of former Goldman Sachs CEO and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson under Bush Jr, to the return of Larry Summers in the Obama administration and the President’s slavish signature under the farcical Dodd-Frank bill, which clearly failed to solve any of the massive underlying problems facing the country. To those still in doubt, Obama’s presidency made it absolutely unmistakable that US “democracy” was no longer a polarized two-party system; the country had long since degraded into a one-party state ruled by what David Harvey has called the Party of Wall Street.

This final delegitimization of the democratic capitalist system helped push countless disillusioned Liberals into the arms of the Radical Left. Rather than helping to reinforce the cultural hegemony of Wall Street ideology, Obama’s failure to regulate the financial sector actually completely undermined this hegemony. Luckily, a committed core of activists with experience in the Global Justice Movement was ready to seize on the historical opportunity. With the images of Tahrir Square still very vivid in the popular imagination; with the guiding principles of anarchism and its focus on leaderless direct action and horizontal decision-making firmly estalished as the political culture of the nascent movement; and with the concrete lessons learned from the Spanish indignados and their months-long occupations in over 60 cities across Spain, Adbusters’ dramatic call-to-action landed on fertile ground.

Police Violence as the Naked Essence of Capitalist Democracy

So when thousands of outraged Americans marched on Wall Street on September 17, 2011, the capitalist state (in this case embodied by the NYPD) suddenly found itself in a bind: now that the near-total hegemony of neoliberal ideology was suddenly being contested by an overwhelming mass of peaceful protesters, how could “order” and “control” be secured? Just as I had feared, the state immediately resorted back to physical force and tried to brutally repress the protests through mass arrests and unwarranted police violence against peaceful protesters. As Antonio Gramsci — the Italian philosopher and Marxist revolutionary who came up with the influential idea of hegemony — already pointed out in one of Mussolini’s prisons in the 1930s, the power of the capitalist state closely mirrors that of Macchiavelli’s image of the centaur: half man, half animal. The ruling class will generally seek to maintain its position of dominance through the human capacity to build consent among different groups in civil society; but when this hegemonic strategy fails, it can always fall back on the more animalistic impulse to maintain its dominance through physical coercion.

Completely contrary to what I had imagined, though, this state coercion — in the form of a dramatically exaggerated police response — rather than pacifying the movement, actually reinvigorated it. Of course I knew that movements tend to benefit from police brutality, both from a moral and a mediatic point of view. As I already pointed out in numerous previous pieces about the crackdown on anti-austerity protesters in Athens and Barcelona, police violence captures the headlines, thereby helping to spread awareness about the protests and portraying protesters in the benevolent position of the “underdog” (even though many mainstream media outlets still somehow manage to spin police violence against peaceful protesters). But there is something more profound at play here. What the heavy-handed police response made clear to Americans was that the state — even our “advanced” and “democratic” one — ultimately rests upon an institutionalized system of violence. As Max Weber pointed out long ago, the state, at rock bottom, is simply a “monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force” (which is precisely why the state is so crucial to the wealth extraction campaign of the banks, which rely on police assistance during foreclosures, for example). When popular consent on the legitimacy of the ruling classes suddenly disappears, even a democratic state is forced to fall back onto its dictatorial foundations. The first great achievement of OWS was therefore to bring to light the physical violence at the heart of capitalist democracy.

The brutal and utterly unjustifiable crackdown on these peaceful protesters therefore greatly boosted the movement’s potential. The rapid online dissemination of videos displaying police violence helped draw in supporters and sympathizers from across the political spectrum. In order to protect Wall Street bankers from the reputational embarassment of having to directly face thousands of peaceful protesters in front of their doorsteps every morning, the state was apparently willing to suspend the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The 700+ arrests on Brooklyn Bridge; the brutal police assault on Occupy Oakland (and the near-lethal wounding of Iraq veteran Scott Olson); the pepper-spray “incident” at UC Irvine — each and every single one of these iconic events helped to firmly dislodge the hegemonic idea of the US as a truly democratic state in the eyes of its citizens, replacing it with a critical consciousness of the profoundly violent underpinnings of what is, in effect, the world’s most powerful bankocracy.

From Peak to Decline: Did the Movement Die?

On September 17, 2011, we were watching the livestream from New York with several members of the Take The Square collective in a temporary activist headquarters in a Parisian squat. The indignados’ march from Madrid to Brussels was just arriving in the French capital, and we were there to welcome them and paralyze the city in a global day of action against the banks. Along with images from Madrid, Barcelona, London, Berlin and Tel Aviv, we were able to follow the occupation of Zuccotti Park being beamed live onto the wall. It was an exhillerating experience. It felt as if the very Earth upon which we stood was trembling. And this was only just the beginning. A month later, on October 15, millions of people took to the streets of almost 1,000 cities in over 80 countries in a global day of action called for by Spanish indignados and coordinated partly by Take The Square through the United for Global Change platform.

In the month between September 17 and October 15, the Occupy movement had already spread to countless American cities — but the actions of #15O helped the movement go global. Cities and countries that had previously seemed impervious to the “virus” of popular protest emanating from the Arab Spring and debt-stricken Southern Europe suddenly caught fire. In London, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, Cape Town, Melbourne, and even Tokyo, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, hundreds of impromptu protest camps suddenly sprang into existence. Across the world, the horizontal and consensus-based model of decision-making suddenly took hold in a bout of spontaneous self-organization that rapidly politicized and conscientized an entire generation of previously apolitical, apathetic or unaligned citizens. In the protest camps, a new modality of social life briefly came into being, based on direct democracy, direct action and mutual aid. And from Oakland to Wellington, the mainstream media suddenly started talking about the devastating impact of debt on the lives of ordinary, hard-working citizens — and the corrupting impact of the financial sector on the functioning of our democracies.

But then, as late summer finally turned to fall, the global Occupy movement suddenly seemed to disappear almost as fast as it had risen to prominence. Pundits were quick to point the finger and call the verdict: by late November, the consensus in the US and international media was that the Occupy movement had died a quiet death. Protest camps were forcefully evicted across the world — and noone apart from a handful of campers truly seemed to care enough to mobilize against these evictions. At the peak of the protests in Puerta del Sol, a sign on a wall read that “the worst thing that could possibly happen would be a return to normal”. Those passing by Zuccotti Park in New York, City Hall Plaza in Oakland, or St Paul’s Cathedral in London today could be forgiven for thinking that that is exactly what happened. A year after the spectacular siege of the global Wall Street empire, the world appears to have returned to normal. We failed to have the debt cancelled. We failed to defeat the modern bankocracy. We didn’t even manage to realize Adbusters’ reformist call for a Robin Hood Tax. Was the entire Occupy movement really just an elaborate anti-capitalist flashmob? Where the hell did we go wrong?

Occupy as a Victim of its Own Success

The unexpected answer, perhaps, is that the question itself is wrong. Instead of “failing” as a movement, Occupy actually became a victim of the unrealistic expectations generated by its own immense success. Indeed, it was largely its incredible achievement of completely transforming the popular discourse on debt, finance and politics — in the timespan of just a few weeks! — that somehow led to the belief that the movement would continue indefinitely with its massive waves of popular mobilization. But at some point even the most spectacular actions become “normalized” in the eyes of the public, and the corporate media gradually return to their daily routine of reporting on absolute nonsense. The moment fall kicked in and the camps dwindled, the movement disappeared from public view (something that was invariably bound to happen at some point anyway). The pundits immediately took this as an admission of defeat.

While such a superficial analysis was to be expected from right-wing and centrist media outlets like Fox News and the New York Times, the surprising part is that it was taken up by some of the early supporters of the movement — including the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. In the conclusion to his latest book, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, Zizek concludes that “OWS is losing momentum to such an extent that, in a nice case of the ‘cunning of reason,’ the police cleansing of Zuccotti Park and other sites of the OWS protests cannot but appear as a blessing in disguise.” But what did these skeptics and pessimists expect? A permanent encampment in Zuccotti Park? The emergence of a proto-Leninist vanguard party? The overthrow of capitalism as such? The problem with these kind of vacuous statements about the “failure” or “death” of Occupy is that their metrics of success are entirely unspecified. Leaving aside Adbusters‘ somewhat naive and reformist call for a Robin Hood tax, the NY General Assembly deliberately decided not to formulate any demands, precisely because it does not recognize the legitimacy of those in power.

This extra-parliamentary, post-statist approach to activism turned out to be much more effective than anyone following the movement from its very inception — myself included — had dared to dream. Yet it widened the schism between mainstream commentators (including Zizek) and the movement. Those who relied solely upon the corporate media for their information on the movement were fed the standard diet of confusion, denigration and belittlement so endemic to the pedantic tone but ultimately ill-informed discourse of contemporary journalism. “What do they want?” and “What are their alternatives?” were some of the most annoying questions asked by these mainstream commentators. Wasn’t it obvious to anyone willing to see what we wanted? We want an end to all the brutalities of debt-based financialized capitalism and its attendant corruption of the political process — and we are building the alternative right in front of your fucking eyes!

Creating Alternative Pathways of Political Engagement

From the very beginning, the point of Occupy was to create alternative pathways of political engagement. The occupation of public spaces was first of all an experiment: an experiment in new forms of collective decision-making and leaderless self-organization. In this respect, it would be absurd to claim that mobilizing millions of people around the world in a timespan of just a few weeks — without any centralized form of authority coordinating these actions — somehow constitutes a “failure”, just because that incredible mobilization wasn’t sustained indefinitely. The moon landing wasn’t a failure just because we refused to set up a permanent lunar base. Similarly, Occupy wasn’t a failure just because we refused to set up permanent encampments everywhere.

Secondly, the popular assemblies that were held in a thousand squares across the world served as a crucial lesson for the hundreds of thousands of people who participated in them. We should never underestimate how the Occupy movement radicalized an entire generation of concerned citizens across the US and around the world. Countless people were exposed for the first time in their lives to a genuine post-capitalist Utopia: a mini-society which radically re-constituted the norms, values and rules of social interaction and collective decision-making. Most people who participated in those efforts continue to carry this lesson with them in their everyday lives and actions. As Manolis Glezos, the 89-year-old Greek WWII resistance hero and anti-austerity campaigner told us in an interview in Greece earlier this year, “the occupation of Syntagma Square in Athens was a lesson in direct democracy — and that lesson has now gone beyond us and spread to the neighborhoods around Greece.”

Thirdly, it would be preposterous to claim that we have somehow “returned to normal”. The movement has left things: it has created an immense global network of activists and an elaborate system of communication that lives on through countless citizen-run initiatives. The sudden surge of Occupy-related Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, blogs, magazines and journals has managed to create a vast array of alternative sources of news and analysis outside of the purvey of the corporate media. Just consider ROAR: prior to the Occupy movement, we had a few hundred followers at most. It is almost entirely due to the success of the movement that a website like this now continues to attract a global readership, in the process providing a platform for young writers from Brazil to Japan to share their critical reflections on the crisis of global capitalism and provide alternative ideas for the future of the movement. Similarly, former Occupiers continue to be active in neighborhood assemblies, workplaces, guerrilla gardens, soup kitchens and countless other forums where anti-capitalist resistance can be effectively integrated into everyday life.

Fourthly, Occupy has radically shifted the “limits of the possible”. Just a year ago, it was utterly inconceivable that a mass movement of popular resistance against the capitalist system could emerge in the very heartland of the US empire. Today, after a year of worldwide protests against the neoliberal status quo, we almost take such resistance for granted. Where prior to OWS almost everyone in the US was talking about the deficit, such talk has now largely been obscured by a concern with unemployment. Surely the Republican Party continues to draw on the same old rhetoric, but few serious people still take this kind of talk seriously. Radical America has shown its face, it has roared from the top of its lungs and while the screaming faces may have temporarily retreated from the streets, their echoes continue to reverberate against the walls of power. This vast expansion in the activist “field of possibility” creates new opportunities for direct action that simply did not exist a year ago.

Fifthly, and perhaps most importantly, the Occupy movement has once and for all moved the Left beyond its 20th-century obsession with hierarchical organization and centralized leadership. If anything has died over the course of the past year, it’s not the Occupy movement but the Old Left. With all due respect for our comrades with a more statist or communist orientation, the guiding principles of the Occupy movement (which is, without a doubt, the most spectacular anti-capitalist movement to have emerged in the West since the 1960s) are thoroughly autonomist in nature. As Nozomi Hayase just pointed out in an important ROAR article, and as David Graeber has endlessly emphasized, the spirit of OWS can be traced back directly to that of the Global Justice Movement and the many anarchist-inspired mass movements that came before it. The emphasis on spontaneous self-organization, the commitment to leaderless and horizontal forms of decision-making, and the embrace of radical direct action (defined by Graeber as “acting as if one is already free”) helps to make the movement as such a living experiment in direct democracy. Labor unions and political parties were left playing catch-up as the people marched miles ahead — without any need for leaders whatsoever.

Beyond Occupy: What’s in a Name?

But all is not rosy on the Occupy front. If the movement made one strategic mistake it must have been in coining its name. While the Adbusters marketing behind OWS was brilliant (and its poster of the ballerina on top of the bull truly epic), it is always extremely dangerous to link a movement too closely to its form of action, which is by its very definition transitory. The transition of the movement from one course of action to another can therefore be taken to signify its demise rather than its transformation. This seems to be the image that OWS is currently struggling with — an issue that was neatly avoided by the Spanish indignados in two ways. First of all, the Spanish movement simply goes by multiple names, each referring to different levels of action and organization within the movement: the date of a major rally on which the protests started (15-M, for the 15th of May); the basic goal that everyone in the movement agrees is at the core of the struggle (Democracia Real YA!, or Real Democracy Now!); the popular mood that gave rise to the movement in the first place (los indignados, or the indignant); and, finally, the form of direct action taken after the initial rally of May 15 (Toma La Plaza, or Take The Square).

Secondly, in Madrid, the indignados had the brains and dignity to clear their protest camp at Puerta del Sol before it began losing its momentum. That way, the collective spirit of the popular assembly at Sol realized, the authorities would never be able to claim victory over the movement by letting it die out and eventually evacuating the remaining protesters from the square. It would also never suffer the indignity suffered by the camps in New York, Athens, Amsterdam and countless other cities, where the protest camp ended up being populated by tents without any people in them. Most importantly, however, moving away from Sol allowed the Spanish movement to decentralize into the neighborhoods — where, as Marta Sanchez has repeatedly pointed out for ROAR, an incredible amount of activity now takes place below the radar of the authorities and the corporate media.

In an interview for the first ROAR documentary on the Greek anti-austerity movement, Niki, a 19-year-old activist who participated in both the occupation of Syntagma Square and the occupation of Puerta del Sol, pointed out that “this was just a method we used; especially occupying a square with tents — it’s just a method. By itself it cannot change the world.” Similarly, Maria, who was one of the key organizers of the Syntagma multimedia team, admitted that the occupation of the square didn’t change the political equation in Greece as such. After the brutal police crackdown of June 28-29, the austerity memorandum was still voted through Parliament. The economic situation continues to deteriorate and the Greek people continue to suffer. But while some in the square held “the naive belief” that they could simply overthrow the austerity memorandum, Maria pointed out that for many activists in Syntagma that was not even the goal. The goal of the occupation was much more radical than debt cancellation alone: it was to create a new form of political life. “If there is a difference,” Maria maintained, “it is in the will actually, the will to participate.” What the “unsuccessful” occupation of Syntagma achieved — and what the worldwide Occupy movement has done in similar fashion — was therefore to help create a new political subjectivity among those who were there in the assemblies; a subjectivity revolving precisely around their identity as participants in a co-creative process, as opposed to the pacified and reified role of the voter in representative democracy.

Liberating Ourselves from Debt and Bankocracy

This brings us to a fundamentally different vision of what the future of a global people’s movement against capitalism, debt and bankocracy could look like. The Occupy movement is not, never was, and never will be about an occupation — this movement was always about liberation. At a certain level, the idea of a popular occupation invokes the image of a protest. The time has come for the movement to move beyond protest. We know the political class is rotten from within. We know the institutions of capitalist democracy are fundamentally staged against anti-capitalist ideas and interests (or, as George Carlin put it, “the table is tilted; the game is rigged”). We know that Congress and the White House have long since been bought and sold by Wall Street. And we know that this state of affairs can only be ended in one of two ways: either by seizing state power (again, good luck with that!) or by liberating public spaces that operate outside of Wall Street’s sphere of influence altogether. Such spaces are rare (if not non-existent), so rather than finding them somewhere on a farm in the countryside or on a small island in the Caribbean, we should go out and create them for ourselves — within the very cracks of the capitalist system.

Think of all the houses that are currently standing empty — and all the families who are currently without homes. Add one and one together and you start squatting. It’s been done forever. But as a mass movement you can take squatting to a whole new level. You can do what they’ve already done in Madrid, London and Oakland: liberate unused former bank headquarters or other bank property, dedicate experienced squatters to the defense of the building, and provide the space to homeless families. Or think of all those who are currently unemployed — an army of millions of them: Marx called them the reserve army of labor – and then think of all the foreclosed factories, workshops and small businesses. Add one and one together and you start producing. Like they did in Argentina during its crisis in the early 2000s, when laid-off workers returned to take back their factories and ran them as worked-owned cooperatives without capitalists — a phenomenon brilliantly displayed in Naomi Klein’s documentary The Take. The point is that there are ways of engaging in direct action that can radically disturb the very foundation and flow of the capitalist system, but that don’t involve the type of childish dependency on a political class that seems both unwilling and unable to bring about meaningful change.

The real point of our movement is to liberate debtors from the shackles of debt; to liberate workers from the uncertainty and exploitation of wage labor; to liberate public spaces from the persistent drive towards enclosure; and to liberate democracy from the sham of political representation and the claws of corporate control. If the government is unwilling or unable to do that for us, we will have to do it for ourselves. By the same token, we will need to liberate the internet from the relentless drive towards monopolization and censorship, while liberating our culture and education system from the commodification of art and knowledge and the assault on the creative commons. Similarly, we will need to liberate our environment from the destructive powers of the bio-industry, the extractive logic of accumulation and the wasteful nature of pointless debt-driven consumerism. We will need to liberate our bodies from the biopower of the pharmaceutical industry and liberate our relationship with our families and friends from the ticking of the clock and the terror of our agendas. But perhaps most importantly, we need to liberate our minds from the subtle thought-control of late capitalist ideology, replete with its reformist tendencies towards “Green”, “conscious” and “fair trade” consumerism and the great farce of neo-Keynesian deficit spending, all of which will merely shove the existential problems we face further into the future.

I remember very clearly when I was riding my bike through London a few years ago. It was the spring of 2009, about half a year after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the onset of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. It had been a long, cold and grey winter indeed. But as I spun my wheels through the City on my way to a friend, and I passed all the soulless glass-steel skyscrapers inside which I sometimes imagined zombie bankers in suits eating the brains of their customers for lunch, I suddenly caught sight of something colorful in the middle of the street. It was one of the first sunny days of the year and I saw a ray of light beaming right onto that radical little object that somehow refused to blend in with the lifeless greyness around it. As I drew closer, I suddenly saw what it was: a flower struggling to break out through a crack in the tarmack. It just stood there, oblivious to the concrete jungle of corporate greed and zombie capitalism that was gradually collapsing all around it.

As we get ready for another long, cold and grey winter, let it not be forgotten that spring awaits us at the end, and that no matter how long and deep the darkness may be, one day the sun will shine again. And on that day, after the seeds of our revolution have laid dormant for many a stormy night, let us finally break through the cracks of capitalism like millions of brightly-colored flowers, reaching out for the light that still shines upon us all. Undivided. As one.

Last year we occupied the streets; the time has come to liberate them.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Cohen September 17, 2012 at 22:27

you obviously live a charmed life Roos, flitting around Europe, having hours and hours of leisurely free time to type out stuff like this in plazas and piazzas on your surely expensive laptop, chatting with other kids on your smartphone, but on whose money? i could never afford to travel the places you go. who pays your rent and bills? your clothes, your plane tickets? i mean, how working class are you exactly? its delightful that you care so much about us ‘wage slaves’ (always nice to have that brutal reality rubbed in by idealist rich students..), but until youve walked a mile or 50 in our busted broken tired and tragic shoes,watching your children grow up with nothing, swallowing humiliation every morning, just stick to juggling psuedo sciences in the ivory towers, be thankful you had supportive middle class parents and you have a cosey job and plenty of connections, but dont stick your nose down here in our filth, it just saddens us even more than the platitudes of politicians, go be a marxy mother theresa inj calcutta if something in you needs to be charitable.
kind regards
true working class with massive chip on shoulder

Reply

Jerome Roos September 17, 2012 at 23:20

Obviously this is entirely pointless, but here goes:

Laptop: a crappy second-hand Compaq that wouldn’t even sell for $100. Smartphone: none. Student debt: 70,000 euros. Income: below minimum wage (for over three years already). Financial support from heavily-indebted parents: none. Free time: enough to write this article at night till 7:00 in the morning before getting up a few hours later to continue my PhD research on the Greek debt crisis. Who pays my bills? I do, with my meagre income from freelance writing and my research scholarship combined with a modest standard of living and abstention from pointless consumer goods. So how do I travel? Low budget companies fly around Europe for anywhere between 10 and 40 euros these days — and there’s always some squat or activist willing to offer a couch for a night.

I am the first one to recognize that I have been immensely lucky in life. But that is no reason to assume a comfortable socio-economic background — or to pander to the vacuous propaganda of the right-wing media that would depict all of us as rich spoilt brats with comfortable ivory-tower existences in some strange and comfortable middle-class realm that is somehow abstracted from the scourges of debt, austerity and unemployment.

I never claimed to be working class. I am the 99%. Besides, my interest is not in charity, especially not with someone as prejudiced as yourself (I originally wrote something a lot meaner here but I take it back). I am in this for my family and all those like us who suffer the indignity of debt. Besides, I derrive a sense of purpose and joy from the struggle that I wouldn’t find anywhere else.

Kind regards,

Jerome

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Coralie September 18, 2012 at 21:09

Thanks for the article Jerome, and for that very honest response to Cohen, I appreciate and value people like you, and got to know a few over the last couple of years, the doers and changemakers who believe in doing their bit for social change, not for recognition nor glory, just for the common good. Everyone, and I mean everyone really can do something, each to the extent of their capacity, financial means and time at hand, because if we don’t, someone else will do it for us, and not always in the right direction!!! and it all start with believing that a different world is possible, and ultimately we only have power over ourselves so starting with self-confidence and empowerment can go a long way! nothing more tragic than fatalism…

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K. September 17, 2012 at 23:27

Why does it matter where he comes from or where his money comes from? You said it yourself – you can’t afford to do what he does. Most people can’t. You seem to want only poor people to represent and fight for other poor people, yet without financial support, a full-time effort like this is impossible. Do you want people doing work like this or not? People who work 1 or more full time jobs and are raising families CAN’T do this work – would you rather that nobody do it?

People should be judged by the work they do and the impact they have on the world and not what their background is or how much money they have. If somebody has the resources to help people but chooses not to, THAT would be worth complaining about. But come on….you are complaining that somebody is able to dedicated all of their time to a good cause. That’s ridiculous! Try complaining about all the people who have the money and resources to make a difference but live completely selfish lives instead.

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Just someone September 18, 2012 at 16:17

This is the best article i’ve read on occupy by someone who has clearly experienced it from within. every sentence of it made me think: ‘Yes! that is exactly right.’

Respect

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Jason Palmer September 18, 2012 at 16:55

I think history shows you can form a political party and change things that way or via an armed revolution.

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Em September 18, 2012 at 17:10

Indeed – ‘Cohen”s comment is absurd and addresses nothing but a personal reaction/resentment. (“how working class are you exactly?” – are you for real?)
People like Roos give up the chance for security…a settled home…the building of a normal life – its not all fun, and neither is it laziness. its a lot of stress and no security and its only because of people who sacrifice in this way that we are building the international networks and dialogues that give us a chance (against the actual enemy; remember? the oligarchy that is actually responsible for your ’50 years hard work with nothing to show for it’, etc) It is not pleasant living on no money, and also without a base/safety net. The price of air-flights is a LOT less than the price of rent, you know. Those who are out there studying/preparing/communicating with an aim to change the world have put their own lives on hold to do so. There is no other choice for anyone who perceives the real urgency of the situation and is lucky enough not to have a family to support yet. Without these people we’d have no hope at all…a few have to break open the channels through which greater numbers will follow. Just because you bow your head down to economic slavery does not make you ‘true working-class’ and it certainly does not make you morally superior.
I’m writing this from the base of my own work in the poorest state of India, and thinking how laughable any of the people here would find the idea of two westerners arguing their class division. globally speaking, we as westerners ARE the 1%. if you see the whole of this reality you have a duty to fight all systems of oppression.

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Jason Palmer September 18, 2012 at 17:15

People like Jerome often think ‘why bother’ and go off and join a political movement where you get paid money, funded by unions or the rich or just give up on political protest.

The Labour party made a lot of things happen in the right direction because they were a political force, for the left, before they became more right wing, to get elected.

Why do all this protest stuff when you can join an established political movement, get given wine and nibbles and chat about policy ?

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Lorraine Marozzi September 18, 2012 at 19:07

I’d like to know if Jerome has watched the THRIVE movie which is free to view on their website at http://www.thrivemovement.com. This movie is fascinating (to me) in showing how a tiny group of families – namely the Rockefellers, Rothschilds and Morgans (and a few others) control the global economy. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend that you watch it. There’s also other information in it about the discovery of ‘new energy’ which is free but not accessible to the public due to threats to the inventors. I would like to hear what others who’ve seen it have to say about it.

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Charlie Supertramp September 18, 2012 at 20:07

Thank you for this article and thanks for the response on the first comment. Occupation leeds to liberation which leeds to sqatting. Nice conclusion! Exactly this is where we have to go. The growing number of old people without enough reccources for a good living will join us some day.

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cohen September 18, 2012 at 22:09

sincere thanks Jerome, been reading your stuff for the past year and am glad smart cats like you are at the forefront of the european barricades of this global financial swindle. i knew you were the real deal, just wanted to clarify (and for the other commenters who got their feathers ruffled by a bit of working class bitterness… wow you have a lot to learn about how to address that) . i live in sydney and certainly am not doing it tough…(yep we in the ‘west’ are the real 1%), however sometimes i see people on the left having as much antagonism toward the suffering bigoted bitter uneducated and lullified consumerist working class as they do for bank CEOs. that was just the point i wanted to make, support for the working class is great and noble, until they start arguing with you, then you put them back in their box as absurd or reactionary resentment. youre supposed to be on their side right?

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alice September 19, 2012 at 08:53

As much as I disagree with what Cohen said, his post is a great example of why what you talk about in this article is so important!

Without being too presumptuous myself (and appologies if I am come across like that Cohen), I have seen, and experienced, this kind of bitterness before but what i saw and felt was symptom of trying to scrape by everyday. I’m glad to say for myself I have learnt how to see past this, but it is took a lot of effort.

Slightly getting off track from the article but I felt I had to reply to this comment – I can spell out for you how you get to the point of leaving a comment like Cohen did! You ‘struggle’ in whatever industry, working full time minimum wage jobs whilst trying to compete for jobs in the work you actually want to do, with seemingly happy, middle class, easy-breazy kids with lots of time on their hands, money, contacts and support.

This leads to bitterness and jealously! It is literally that simple.

Because they have time and resources to put in to practice what you desperately want to do. Because ALL of your energy is gone trying to work to pay your rent/eat/sort out family problems/pay back your debts/LIVE REAL LIFE etc etc etc…..

All I’m suggesting is that this is the kind of prejudice anyone as a protester will face, and to please understand that the only important thing is THE WANT IS THERE! Cohen READ this article, he IS interested, he WANTS to help! And even though he is resentful it’s only because of his circumstances (and possibly his past experiences of protesters… which is not going to change if people leave unhelpful comments…!)

All that says is there’s a lot to fight for and one of them is freedom for him and for me and people like that to be able to not have to worry 24/7 about money etc… and learn, have time to volunteer, have support for their families, and be part of a country they want to be part of.

The response to his comment is NOT HELPFUL! You want to live ‘Undivided. As one’? I agree with Cohen’s second comment: You need to work on addressing working class bitterness cause it’s there! Thank you for a great article though.

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cohen September 20, 2012 at 16:59

Alice, great comment, thats exactly what i was saying, and to reiterate, i was playing teh devils advocate here guys as it is a serious problem for us on the progressive left, it really worries me, do not dismiss it –

Occupy was great for those who could afford a vacation in city squares, but the real challenge as jerome put it is to “liberate our relationship with our families… from the ticking of the clock and the terror of our agendas”, and somehow bring those people with heavy work and family commitments into the movement.

the other untapped demographic for us i think is ‘grey power’, those whose kids have flown the coup, they have time, they experience the financial crisis differently and can add valuable life knowledge.
its just all about spreading the info as widely as possible, as this site does, and working out realistic ways working people can become activists. basically the burden for social change neednt rest on the shoulders of the young and single.

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Em September 19, 2012 at 19:24

dear cohen (cohen 2?) – you identify people on the left showing resentment to ‘suffering bigoted bitter uneducated and lullified consumerist working class’ as a problem and i agree, i think we have all witnessed this.
alice – you make valid points about the source of bitterness and jealousy and especially appreciate your comment about time and resources being the true cause of jealousy. – actually, i think this is a useful site of understanding to point out for a shift to be made regarding our society’s general misprocessing that freedom is identical to money instead of focussing their efforts on gaining resources…such a key shift to make…we have to build the identification of, and keep time and resources as a goal to improving our lives in the western context.

i hope i am being clear in what i am saying…i just see aspects of this discourse that are troubling…i would greatly appreciate any feedback you have in the interests of the strategy which we are all involved in forming at this time.
my areas of unease are these:
1. the occupy/european-left discourse has not yet spread to include the full global context. i feel it is still maturing as an ideology in this sense.
2. indulging in the resentments under discussion here blocks the sense of urgency that we need to take action or to resist…for me an understanding of the full global context is one thing that would provide this sense of urgency and humanity that is lacking. if i sound too idealistic then i would also raise the issue that material aims and methods have their limit…as human thought does when it is not concerned with something transcendent. squabbling levels of an inflated UK middle class do not approach the reality of the situation, and so of course limit urgency. it is cutting off the nose to spite the face.
3. ‘supposed to be on their side’ – why must ‘they’ be different to ‘us’. (a personal example though this issue is of course not personal)..would my own family be called ‘working class’ then, and i am something else because i have a university degree?? a divide like this also restricts the working class from being intellectual and unashamed of it.certain levels of industry may become ‘elite’ but at all costs we should reverse the trend of a working class identity that is de-intellectualised and de-politicised. the classifications are insulting to everyone, outdated and localised. they are not helpful! this is most important, really – they are not helpful.

is it possible that, the ‘suffering working class ‘ is an outdated strain and contributes to working class being figured as a non-thinking entity just as much as the ‘ivory tower’ strain is untrue and insulting to those in identical levels of economic slavery.

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pete September 25, 2012 at 02:16

Maybe I can ad a new element to the discussion: time.

Where will we all be in say 5 or 10 years?

The working class stiff will likely still be a working class stiff; preoccupied with providing for his family.

But how about Jerome and others who are currently fighting the good fight and doing great stuff? Will they burn out – and retreat to the comfort of an upper middle class life that is still an option for them? Will they have a child – and a good excuse to accept the financial security that their family is still all too willing to offer? Will they succumb to the allure and security of an academic position that forces them to curtail their activities? Well, we don’t know.

But the issue is trust. The bitterness comes from betrayal and mistrust. Some working class stiffs know in their gut that when the going gets tough – as time passes – idealistic rich kids can always go back to daddy.

I have struggled with this issue for many years and can’t completely let it go. Most of my friends today are not working class. But I can in an instant revert to my working class roots when among working people. Its jarring; because the gulf is wide. The bitterness is sometimes deep.

By the way; I have researched very deeply the matter of PRIVATE student loans – including private Sallie Mae loans. It appears as though they have a MAJOR vulnerability similar to home mortgages. Student loans are resold and securitized much like home loans. To my knowledge no one has ever challenged the enforcability of these loans. Someone should. I have info if anyone is interested.

On the other hand if you have a federally insured student loan your only option is to move to Equador.

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Jerome Roos September 25, 2012 at 02:28

Good points here Pete, just one important caveat: there is no “rich daddy” and “comfortable upper middle class” existence involved in this particular case. Indeed, far from it. Your broader point is very well taken, though, and still just as relevant.

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