Lately, I find myself having a recurring conversation.  The people and the places change but the basic premise stays the same.  I meet friends whom I haven’t seen in some time, I ask them how they are, what they’ve been up to.  They shrug. “Nothing” they say.  They are either unemployed or working in an area divorced from that of their training, part-time in a bar perhaps.  These are people from a wide variety of backgrounds; qualified carpenters and electricians, science and engineering graduates, graphic designers and academics.  When I tell them I am working I suffer from a vague sense of embarrassment, as if I somehow cheated and escaped the recession that we are all embroiled in.   I know in reality this is not the case.  I am also caught up in the noxious landscape of austerity.  I may not be as victimised as some others but I am not immune.  I am the 99%.

This very savvy tagline is of course that of the global Occupy movement, which is also currently taking place in various cities across Ireland.  In one sense, this is a piece of inspired branding.  But the critique underlying the statement is also significant.  This stands for a number of things, but I will mention just two.  Firstly, it stands for the increasing concentration of wealth within fewer and fewer hands (the 1%).  Secondly, it aims to mitigate the possibility of a protest movement being divided and conquered by effacing internal differences under an umbrella banner (the 99%).  Occupy is a movement that incorporates multiple peoples and perspectives, political aspirations and pessimisms. It unites under a very simple principle; that the system as it currently stands is not fair and something needs to change.

All this is very commendable.  It is an inspiring sign of our continued capacity to seek a more socially just society.  But as my internal optimist wrestles with my eternal pessimist, I find myself wondering what protest can still achieve in the increasingly democracy-starved society we live in.

It is a society of spectacle.  Postmodern culture, particularly as channelled through the auspices of the internet, has multiplied the voices through which any event is represented and exploded the cacophony of perspectives through which it is read.  This has had the effect of bringing important new modes of analysis, such as gender, race, and sexuality, to bear on society, but it has also eviscerated the stability of fixed categories.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  However, as postmodern sensibilities have been sucked into consumer culture one of the outcomes has been the creation of a society that passively engages with media, politics, and culture.

JG Ballard, in the last few novels he published before he died, captured this very well.  Books such as Millennium People and Kingdom Come present a society deadened by the bland permissiveness of consumer culture, wherein meaning is refracted through so many halls of mirrors that all we are left with is the mode of representation standing for nothing but itself.  Under this veneer of boredom, Ballard sees a society dreaming of violence, unconsciously searching for meaning through the visceral experience.  But in a consumer culture divorced from meaning, the violence that erupts takes the form of consumerism; violence as spectacle, violence as the experience economy.  “Look at the world around you, David”, proffers one of the characters in Millennium People, “What do you see? An endless theme park, with everything turned into entertainment. Science, politics, education – they’re so many fairground rides”.  The society of spectacle pushed to its logical endpoint.

Advertising slogan from JG Ballard's Kingdom Come, by Harper Collins Design Team

When I look at the world around me I see a lot of truth in this statement.  Political discussion in Ireland at the moment sees minor points of policy debated, while any major changes are precluded by the intractable system the state operates within.  The politicians argue, points are scored, and nothing changes.  Because, ultimately nothing can change if the locked-in system precludes it.

Within this post-politics, protest also has its place.  After all, everything is permissible, all points of view, all arguments.  In such a liberal climate, Zizek argues, we do not necessarily elevate the platform of discussion but rather everything gets reduced to zero, to an inchoate mush of jostling consensus, the only agreement the agreement to disagree.  This has the tendency to reduce politics to a mannered debate contest, pretty in discursive eloquence and nuance but with rules that are set in advance.  As we have moved into this post-political society of the consumer spectacle, the response by governments to protest, at least in the Western world, has been simply to ignore it.  Whereas in previous eras protest was frequently quashed or at least elicited some sort of response from those in power, now marches and demonstrations are tolerated without comment.  This strategy is not incidental.  Governments now know that in the majority of cases the best method for dealing with spectacles of dissent is to allow them to happen, to allow protest groups their fifteen seconds in the spotlight of information overload. Governments then ignore the issues these protesters raise and to get back to the neoliberal business at hand, safe in the knowledge that the spectacle will dissolve again into the informational mush.

This had also been, up until recently, the response to the Occupy movement.  In the early stages of Occupy Wall Street, there were some cases of police brutality, which were widely publicised and help politicise and popularise the movement.  But following this, as the movement spread viral-style across the US and Europe, on the whole the response from governments has been pretty tight-lipped.  Presumably, it was hoped that the Occupiers would soon run out of steam and their cause would be forgotten as another took its place in the spectacle spotlight.  However, despite tacit attempts to fragment the movement and to undermine it simply by attrition, the protesters have been tenaciously holding their ground… literally.  Last month, across the USA there appears to have been a crackdown on Occupy protesters, which Naomi Wolf writing in The Guardian suggests could only have been orchestrated from higher levels of Government.  She attributes this sudden flexing of state power to the congealing of a number of succinct demands on the part of the Occupy movement relating to financial transparency, which has the potential to make some elected representatives look pretty bad. While a similar crackdown has not happened in Ireland, there were rumours that the Occupy Dame Street protesters were to be hit with a court injunction for erecting a temporary structure.  But whatever the immediate impetus for these crackdowns, it seems to me that the Occupy movement has reached a certain critical mass in spatial and temporal terms that has taken the option of simply ignoring it away from governments.

Protester at Occupy Dame Street

This certainly suggests that the movement is having a political impact, does not necessarily mean that anything has been changed… at least not yet.

The computer scientist Jaron Lanier in his book You Are Not a Gadget describes a process he terms ‘lock-in’.  Lock-in describes what happens when particular programmes, despite their limitations, become the standard, and because it proves impractical to change or dispose of all the software and hardware that has been developed using this programming, the technology remains stagnated through its basic underlying architecture.  Lanier uses the example of MIDI, a programme that represents musical notes.  When developed in the 1980s, MIDI offered a very crude way to represent music digitally – it could represent the rather static expressions of a keyboard but not the transient expressions of a saxophone for example.  What perhaps started as a first step towards digital musical expression became widely used and, thus, became locked-in.  Thirty years after its inception then, MIDI remains the standard scheme to represent music in software, to the ultimate detriment of musical expression.  This occurs, Lanier suggests, because while it is easy to build small programmes from scratch, it is extraordinarily difficult to change existing larger programmes.

I think that lock-in offers a good metaphor for role of the state in terms of the current crisis.  For the past thirty years, nation states have been programmed into a mode of neoliberal thinking.  This mode of thinking is now to a large extent locked-in.  We can see this in the response of nation states to the financial crisis.  This crisis was brought about by an excess of neoliberalism – an all too optimistic faith in markets and the retraction of state oversight and regulation – but the solutions being proposed use the same neoliberal architecture as their foundation.  Like MIDI does to the musical note, these solutions diminish democracy so as to make it compatible with the limitations of the neoliberal programme.  Moreover, nation states do not stand in isolation, but are routed into global political and financial systems.  Thus, the ‘big’ programme gets bigger.

If the neoliberal project is the cumbersome ‘big’ programme, Occupy is the ‘small’ programme.  For the participants, it is a joy no doubt to watch it grow and flourish.  But the greater challenge for the group is to influence the architecture of the ‘big’ programme.  This is no small feat.  There is a lot at stake in the status-quo.  This is partly, as Marxists rightly suggest, because powerful interests exert political influence in order to retain or enhance their position in the system.  But it is also, I think partly down to a lack of political imagination.  The system stays the same because our leaders can’t imagine what it would be like to create something different.  There is a broad consensus calling for reform, but the programme is so big and so many interests are involved that these reforms become more and more inconsequential and we are left with lock-in.  Leaders are interested in fixing the bugs in the programme, not changing the underlying architecture.

But this is hardly reason to resign ourselves to a neoliberal future.  If the current trajectory continues we can only hope for further encroachments on democracy, deepening inequality, and the next crisis waiting around the corner.  This is an important junction to insert the possibility of alternatives.  But this is likely to be a long-term project.  After all, we are dealing with thirty years of neoliberal programming which we can’t expect to simply disappear overnight.  To those people who critique Occupy for their lack of defined alternatives, I would say, give them a chance.  Despite the way in which history is generally conceived through things like Hollywood movies, change does not happen abruptly.  Change occurs gradually through fragmented actions that coalesce into moments in which transformation seems to crystallise, although this is often only apprehended after the fact.  Occupy is one part of this process wherein alternative trajectories are being put forward.  Its’ very public face means that it plays a significant role.

One of the major pitfalls that Occupy potentially faces is that it will get locked-in to existing structures.  Having reached the tipping point where the movement can’t simply be ignored, Occupy are in the difficult phase of trying to turn the initial flurry of discontent into something more sustainable.  Part of this is creating a programme of succinct demands.  Another part is steering a difficult course between the rocks of public opinion and political discourse in search of a position of ‘legitimacy’ upon which to extend the movement’s reach.  This journey is precarious because it relies on the same fickle media/public machine, which inasmuch as it can be permissive of multiple perspectives can also be mobilised in intensely moralising ways.  We saw these two facets in action during the recent presidential election in Ireland.  The candidates’ characters were routinely assassinated, which clearly had a decisive influence on the outcome of their campaigns.  At the same time, this was treated by most of the public (perhaps rightly) as entertainment akin to the X-Factor.  This dual aspect of media culture is perhaps baffling, but ultimately is something that public figures and groups have to contend with.  Hence, Occupy’s policy of no drink, no drugs, and no violence on site.  Clearly there are many sides to this policy, including making the occupations safe environments, but one aspect of it is certainly an attempt to mitigate the usual suspects of negative press that are levelled at protesters.

Map of Areas Effected by Rioting in London August 2011

We saw this type of media backlash during one of the other major political moments the occured recently in this part of the world; the UK riots in August 2011.  I was astonished how readily much of the media and the public were willing to dismiss the riots as opportunism devoid of any political content.  As the results of a recent study involving 270 interviews with people involved in the riots suggested, while opportunism played a role a motivating factor for many involved was “anger and frustration with the way the police engage with communities”.  Without condoning the form of protest the rioters took, it is ludicrous to view these events as apolitical.  In a sense, the UK riots are akin to Ballardian dystopian projections, the logical and frightening endpoint of a society of burgeoning inequality drenched in consumer culture and idolatry of wealth.  I was therefore also surprised to read an interview with musician Billy Bragg (a supporter of the Occupy movement) in which he suggested that “there was no ideological framework behind these riots”.  I can sympathise with his point of view in that he clearly sees the need for organisation if any movement truly wants to see change going forward.  However, I think it is shortsighted not to see the politics implicitly embedded in such a spontaneous eruption of action.  Whether coherent or fragmented, intended or not, the mere fact that enough people felt enough discontent to riot for days on end makes this act political.  If the system we live in is broken, then we should be looking to all corners for the signs of its manifestation.  If we don’t at least pay attention to the uglier mobilisations of protest, learn from the cautionary tales they might teach us, we may find ourselves back in the mannered setting of the debate contest where discussion and dissent are on the table but real change is not.

I do not intend to be critical of Occupy here.  I have been heartened by the movement and found a lot to admire in the aspirations and determination of the protesters.  This piece is written in solidarity.  I hope the movement is here for the long-haul.  I hope they can both literally and metaphorically come in from the cold.  I hope they can retain their multiplicity of identity while moving an agenda forward that challenges the locked-in mode of neoliberal thinking.  I hope they do this in combination with the other voices that move broadly in this direction.  I hope…

Cian O’Callaghan