Occupy Wall Street in context

Here is a really interesting analysis of the participants and supporters in the Occupy movement, by Ruth Milkman, Stephanie Luce and Penny Lewis, providing both sociological and historical context: Changing the Subject: A Bottom-Up Account of Occupy Wall Street in New York City.

Demonstrative Theory

Current events ‘out there’, in the streets no less, have been an occasion for the rehearsal of various theoretical standpoints on the meaning of democracy and the status of politics. Some writers have presented recent politicizations of public space as models of a purity of political action consisting of the expressive presence of bodies in space, as confirming both that this is all that is left politically and that this is what is most proper to left politics (a shout-out here for my old friend Andrew Merrifield, who provides a most eloquent variant on this theme in the latest New Left Review). I’m in no position to evaluate or assess the contours of these movements (there is no Occupy Swindon movement, nor do I expect there one to be anytime soon), but there is something about this sort of interpretation that doesn’t quite ring true for me.

There are some interesting blog discussions sparked by a piece at Critical Inquiry’s new blog site on Occupy Theory. What this piece raised for me was the question of how far one thinks of theory as essentially an interpretative device, used to give meaning to an event or events; or how far one thinks of theory as a hypothesis generating machine, something that raises questions about an event. There is a new site at Possible Futures that does some of this latter sort of theory work, including essays by Saskia Sassen and Craig Calhoun (newly announced as the next Director of the LSE – what a great appointment). Calhoun’s piece, for example, raises some interesting questions about how policing of protest has changed time. At TomDispatch, Rebecca Solnit has a piece about the Occupy movement in the US connects with longer traditions of civil society and non-violence movements, and this reminded me of arguments about the idea of the US in particular as a ‘movement society’ – there are interesting generational effects at work behind these protest movements which deserve more attention.

The fascination with the occupation of real space also surely needs to be put in the context of how this form of ‘presencing’ reverberates through other spaces, including mediated ones (it was all kicked-off by Adbusters, remember), but also through time, and above, there is the vexed question of how this moment of protest (not just the Occupy example, but also the return of street protest in Egypt) interacts with the sequencing of electoral cycles. Given the likely geographical dynamics of the 2012 US Presidential election, for example, it is interesting to speculate on how far the populist sentiments expressed by the Occupy movement will be articulated in the coming year, and by which side. Sidney Tarrow had an interesting little piece in Foreign Policy a month or so ago, on OWS as a ‘we are here’ movement akin to the women’s movement, the point being about the long-term effects of this ‘event’. Tarrow and Doug McAdam also have an interesting piece on the relationship between social movement scholarship and electoral studies, from 2010, but which is rather prescient in light of recent events in the USA – one of their points is that analysis of movements tends to be overly movement-centric, and underplays the role of electoral politics in generating and orienting non-electoral, non-party mobilisations, campaigns and protests: this point appears to be well supported by the resurgence of protest in Egypt these last few days, as Mariz Tadros argues at the IDS blog, in which the relationship between street mobilizations and elections is central.

Keep Mrs. Honeyman right out of sight

A week of protest, demonstrations, rioting, flash looting, vandalism and violence across towns and cities in England has been another occasion for the expression of instant opinion and analysis by academics and intellectuals.

The president and vice-chair of the British Sociological Association (BSA) made a public claim for the relevance of sociology in the wake of the riots, primarily on the grounds that sociologists know that ‘crowds are not rational’. Really? Since when? A peculiar claim indeed, one which seemed to conflate ‘emotions’ with ‘lack of reason’, and invited us to regress a hundred years or so back to Gustave Le Bon, and running counter to a wide range of social science that has spent decades demonstrating  precisely the opposite.

The Mandy Rice-Davies Award for this week goes to Zygmunt Bauman, for whom these events were all a symptom of rampant consumerism – actually a widely shared view amongst much of the commentariat, from left to right. David Harvey developed the extended analogy between the ‘feral rats’ doing the looting and ‘feral’ bankers and capitalists going unpunished for their crimes in bringing about global financial chaos. An analogy which, one might suppose, did not really throw much explanatory light upon last weeks’ events at all. Saskia Sassen and Richard Sennett discerned a general sense of cynicism born of inequality as laying behind the riots.

Some commentators were keen to insist on a link between these events and the Coalitions’ agenda of austerity and cuts – but the link was only presented as a ‘context’, which rather begged the important question about how the relationship between contexts and conditions on the one hand, and actions and events on the other, is actually meant to be mediated. A number of people alighted upon an academic paper which finds a correlation between fiscal austerity and social ‘unrest’, in order to shore up the argument that there was a link between rioting and cuts.

Much of the commentary I have seen has suggested that ‘the right’ is keen to deny any and all causal analysis of these events, invoking pure criminality and mindless irresponsibility. This seems to be wrong-headed, and probably continues a long-standing failure to credit the post-Thatcherite right in the UK with having a quite well-developed social theory of our contemporary malaise. There are various sorts of causal accounts on the right – from Peter Oborne, whose account alights upon inequality and unaccountable elites in a way that easily resonates in fact with various left narratives, to the lunacy of David Starkey’s claim that the riots happened because ‘whites have become black’, and not in a good way. In between these positions, there is of course the prevalent Tory position, which invests heavily in ‘culture of poverty’ style arguments, focussing on family structures, moral failures, cultures of entitlement, and the like. There is a whole strand of social thought and research informing this style of analysis of course, and it is on this terrain, like or not, that the politics of academic analysis on these issues is likely to be fought. What these classically conservative narratives have going for them, of course, is that they specify and identify mechanisms, and potential objects of intervention, which mediate between broad structural processes and observable patterns of group behaviour and individual action. It is this ‘pragmatic’ emphasis that is missing in the grander narratives of consumerism, neoliberalism, feral capitalism and the like which emanate from the left, and which makes those critical narratives politically weak – consoling in their own way, for sure, but not really identifying practical paths of action, beyond general calls either for revolution, solidarity, or to rally round and ‘take responsibility’.

Somewhere amongst all this, I did happen upon some more informative contributions, although these tended to reinforce the sense that academics are better placed to think slowly through events rather than squeeze them into their pre-existing frames. The ESRC did a better job than the BSA by publicising the work of David Waddington and Clifford Stott on the complex dynamics of policing and public (dis-)order – work that explicitly counters the sense that rioting is ‘irrational’. Society and Space re-posted a series of academic analyses of policing and urban unrest from different historical and geographical contexts. And Paul Rogers drew attention to a recently published analysis of the dynamics of urban rioting and community reconstruction in Bradford from 2001 to 2010 which also seems pertinent going forward.

None of these examples reflected directly on events of last week, but each seems to promise more by way of understanding the causes and conditions and possible consequences of those events than much of the more instant reaction. Above all, each of these examples draws into focus the intricate roles of policing in contemporary democratic politics – another issue which, it seems to me, much of the theory-left has consistently failed to think through, happy to think of policing as merely an instrument of state control and oppression, a version of ‘the repressive state apparatuses’. This week has crystallised the issue of ‘cuts’ to the public services more acutely than ever before, certainly, but not because the cuts stand as a background condition or cause. Rather, it is because the consequences for the public order, in the broadest possible sense, of shrinking the resources and recalibrating the organisational structures of agencies charged with protecting and sustaining public life have been so starkly dramatised. In terms of both funding issues but also of principles of accountability and independence, policing has suddenly become the central terrain of debate and contestation around which the shape of public life is likely to be shaped in the next few years. And it’s good to remember that it’s when the call is to “start assembling the boys from the fort” that things start to get really worrying.

What do ‘media’ do?

Following my post on the reporting of events in Egypt, Alex Marsh sent me a link to this think-piece by BBC correspondent Paul Mason, Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere, which seeks to draw some general lessons from recent protest events in places as diverse as Greece, Ireland, North Africa and the UK. The piece has since been published in The Guardian, and has attracted some attention, not least as indicative of a BBC policy of encouraging journalists to engage in more detailed discussions via blogging.

Mason’s piece treads between a focus on ‘technology’ and a more interesting discussion of some of the sociological aspects of this range of events – the emphasis on the role of young, relatively highly educated people is surely correct. There is an inevitable journalistic emphasis on the newness of all of this, and the default assumption remains that this is really a story about how ‘technology’ transforms the conditions of political action. The geographer Tim Unwin has a list of various reports that address what he himself calls “the agency of mobile ‘phones and the use of social networking environments over the Internet” in shaping political upheaval in Tunisia, Egypt,  and beyond. His last comment is important: “Much research needs to be undertaken on the real role of ICTs in these ongoing political processes.  What seems apparent, though, is that many participants do indeed believe that these technologies are helping them achieve their objectives.” A certain view of the potential of digital communications is no doubt an important part of the ‘spontaneous philosophy’ of contemporary activism. Likewise, Mason’s think-piece refers in passing to how “activists have read their Chomsky and their Hardt-Negri”. I’m not so sure this necessarily means “they have a better understanding of power”, but in so far as it is true, it does certainly mean they are likely to have a particular, well-formed view of how power operates, for better or ill. But it seems to me that both of these aspects of activist self-understanding – of ‘communications’ and of ‘power’ – are more interesting if they are understood as internal dimensions to this form of organisation, without requiring anyone to affirm the ‘objective’ validity of either of these views of how political action unfolds. The focus on the importance of new media in much of this reporting and commentary allows a narrative framing in which politics is rooted in a generalised but unformed sense of ‘grievance’ rooted in ‘poverty’ and ‘oppression’ which is then given expression by new communications opportunities – Manuel Castells neatly summarises this narrative in his comments on all this.

In short, there is a particular concept of the mediating work that ‘media’, old and new, perform in much of the commentary on the role of social media and digital technology in contemporary politics – they can be ascribed so much importance by virtue of being attributed a merely mediating function. Amongst other things, what disappears from view from this perspective is the different practices that different communications technologies help to configure – twitter and facebook are playing different roles in contemporary events in the Arab world to that played by Al-Jazeera. While much of the commentary out there is about how new media changes how politics is done, my sense is that the real imperative behind much of this kind of commentary is the attempt to understand the changed conditions under which news is made, and indeed, the changed conditions under which academic expertise about complex situations can be articulated in real-time (and there might be interesting elective affinities between certain self-understandings of activism and the focus of media reporting on individualising effects of new media).

For an antidote to some of the more detached commentary on events in Egypt and Tunisia, there are some interesting debates going on amongst anthropologists, which provide much more depth of understanding than is found in much of the technology-focussed discussion. There are a couple of more circumspect reflections on the role of media in these political eventsOne of these pieces makes the point that the focus on the new mediums of political change is a recurrent feature of reporting and commentary on these types of dramatic political events: “This is an evergreen story…The interest that’s focused on social media now, ten years ago was focused on web portals, before that it was focused on email and list-serves, before that it was television.” And in this respect, there is an interesting archive of reportage and commentary on the protests around the contested Iranian election in 2009, described by some as a ‘twitter revolution’, which two years on is an interesting case-study of how the global news narrative of politics as technological expression unfolds and then unravels over time.