Occupation(al) Hazards: Social Media as Resistance

[Note: this piece lays the groundwork for a more “Adjunct” focused series of essays connecting the Occupation Movement to our calls for mobilization, resistance, direct action, guerrilla tactics, and so forth re: Adjunt Action Networks. But, I want to go slow here and focus on social media. Then, Occupy Higher Education. Finally, I hope to write a follow up piece, more academic, that explores the virtual, real, and actual in Zizek, Deleuze, and, of course, Baudrillard and Virilio. I didn’t have space or reason to include these thinkers in a main stream editorial.]

18 October 2011

No one quite knows what to do with the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement and the global indignation it’s provoked. The loudest critics assume the best way to engage political activism is by framing it in advance according to some kind of use value. This is strange, especially given how “value” as it’s calculated in the capitalist system is precisely what the movement seeks to redefine.

OWS deliberately refuses to answer these charges; instead it simply moves, acts, and swarms from social media to the commons. The less familiar, the more strange; the less we know, the more we want to know. This ebb and flow is the central strength and danger of this global occupation moment.

With each passing week, thousands of people march, camp out, and speak out in the name of a universal human freedom the likes of which most of us have only read about in textbooks or watched as news stories from a broken communist promise broadcast from the 1980s. An estimated 4,000 people showed up last Friday morning (10/14/11) to block a possible eviction. They reacted to something; they acted in defense of someone. OWS therefore is some-thing.


Also, it’s difficult to understand activism that doesn’t play by the rules. The vast majority of protesters are new to activism. So, of course they are not beholden to any one way of organizing. Most adapt as events unfold. The General Assembly structure and spontaneous nature of the OWS movement allow it to welcome and engage new voices. The openness experienced in Zuccatti Park is very new to even the most seasoned activist, especially those more familiar with committees, bullet points, and “staying on message.”

What is strange about OWS, though, is the simplicity of the message—or rather, the many messages that crystallized from a single catalyst. From the beginning the goal of OWS was to protest corporate greed: “Wall Street got bailed out; Main Street got sold out.” In the era of endless, forgettable news cycles, it’s definitely strange to watch old news gain momentum and inspire so many hundreds of thousands. I’m fairly sure Obama coined that phrase a year ago: Wasn’t he raked over the coals for daring to challenge Wall Street?

It’s also hard to know exactly who’s in charge when so many different kinds of people have entered the occupation. This infuriates the main stream media, corporate elites, politicians, and Tea Party antagonists: How can so many people succeed without a leader?

From this clustering of political curiosities, a desire to know more and do more in the world is revealed. As more people reject the myth of the powerful leader and replace it with a shifting, collective, yet clearly defined series of clusters, even communists, socialists, progressives, and anarchist academics gathering at Cooper Union across town this past weekend (“The Idea of Communism” conference) were unable to speak coherently to the OWS endgame.

It’s difficult to stop the phase shifting of affinity movements. It is impossible to control a swarm. Online clusters can take down an objectionable website; hives can even infiltrate government websites. Anonymous has demonstrated its power to disrupt and engage in vendetta. Both Tea Party and OWS participant understand how this works. But, only the OWS merged the virtual with the real.

Put differently, OWS is social media come home to the commons.  In social media, all you need is an idea, a target, one agreed upon reason to swarm, and it happens. It is definitely provoked, but it is not organized. Flash mobs have leaders; they are rehearsed. But, the actual event remains deeply unpredictable. That OWS embraced the most visible, understandable, and exciting wants of organizing (social media) shows its central strength. No wonder it was invisible to the main stream media for so long.

Rather than streamline the message, it is hoped the OWS people will simply renew their commitment to the most basic principle that started it all (main street/wall street) and swarm, cluster, and hive as many time and across as many life cycles it takes to cause enough disruption of corporate service to motivate the oligarchs of Wall Street to change on their own. Without demands. Without manifestos. Without violence.

Living social media, activism that looks more like the largest performance in the history of our planet—perhaps the late French playwright Jean Cocteau can offer better guidance than any political philosopher or media pundit: “Listen carefully to first criticisms made of your work. Note just what it is about your work that critics don’t like – then cultivate it. That’s the only part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.”