The struggle for democracy: occupations, horizontality and political narratives after the events of 2011, European political science: 14 March 2015

European political science: 14 March 2015

Alot of ink has already been spilled on Occupy movements. Since the new wave of protest movements attained a global dimension in 2011, aca- demics and activists have focused on their demands, their organization and their political implications. Yet, today, over 3 years after the events of 2011 – when it might seem that the occupations of public squares and the people shouting ‘We are the 99 per cent’ have disappeared – there are still unexplored questions in need of addressing. The three books under review here – Occupy: Three Inquiries in Disobe- dience, The Democracy Project: A His- tory. A Crisis. A Movement and They Can’t Represent Us! Reinventing Democ- racy from Greece to Occupy – attempt to confront these questions. They include questions such as: How can we address the whole Occupy movement as well as the plural and differentiated experiences within it? What kind of political vision do they entail? Should it be considered as an ephemeral, isolated occurrence or as belonging to the long wave of global – though locally grounded – anti-capitalistic and radical democratic protests? What are the relationships between these move- ments and the State and the institutiona- lized political parties?

Within this context, these books repre- sent three singular – albeit comple- mentary – ways of addressing the Occupy phenomenon and, more broadly, the horizontal politics involved. Belonging to different disciplines, such as social movement studies and political theory, anthropology and visual culture analy- sis, these books introduce the reader to the various perspectives that scholars are using to analyse the protest move- ments that have spread throughout the world, particularly since 2011. Moreover, the authors use different methods in their investigation, combining first-hand ethnographic accounts with different theoretical approaches, such as eco- nomic and discourse analysis, or histor- ical and theoretical reflections about the nature of democracy and its contempor- ary mutations.

The temporal distance from the begin- ning of the events allows the authors to reflect on the events and to delve further into their political and social conse- quences. There is no doubt that as the books were inspired by similar concerns, and, as they all share common features, they deserve to be read together.

The recently published They Can’t Represent Us! Reinventing Democracy from Greece to Occupy by Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini is an illuminating por- trait of experiences of horizontal politics in the last decades. Venezuela, Argentina, Spain, Greece and the Occupy move- ments in the United States are the exam- ples the authors focus on and the cases on which they base their political reflections. Through a remarkable set of interviews, Sitrin and Azzellini offer numerous exam- ples of ‘laboratories of democracy’, horizontal community and political pro- jects around the world. Indeed, allowing the voices of activists and movement organizers to be heard is one of the most notable contributions of the work – both methodologically and theoretically. They take a stand and bring into light the cen- trality of concrete, lived experiences.

More generally, by linking the Latin American examples to the more recent events in Europe and the United States, the authors argue that there is a common trend of rupture of the neoliberal order, a breach that connects the so-called Cara- cazo of 1989 – which gave birth to the Bolivarian process – the Argentinian uprising in 2001 and the Occupy move- ments of 2011 and 2012. What these phenomena have in common are precisely the means that ordinary people have to embody the project of real democracy: spaces to test alternative forms of political organization and non-hierarchical ways of decision making.

If, as Sitrin and Azzellini state, ‘ “They don’t represent us” has emerged as a powerful slogan in mobilizations all over the world’ (41), there is no doubt that the aim of the book is to endorse the idea and the practice of direct democracy: a con- crete form of democracy based on effec- tive people’s sovereignty, egalitarianism and direct participation of citizens, beyond the limits of electoral and repre- sentative politics (47). Puerta del Sol, Syntagma Square and Zuccotti Park are, among others, the contemporary sites of massive occupations that sanctioned the renewed critique of both capitalism and political representation. From this point of view, and as many authors have already argued, the year 2011 constituted a rupture (Gitlin, 2012; Zizek, 2012).

Similarly, in his The Democracy Project: A History. A Crisis. A Movement, David Graeber argues that the events of 2011 marked a before and after in the recent history of protest movements, and parti- cularly in horizontal forms of decision making. Moreover, being directly involved during Occupy Wall Street (OWS), Graeber sees in it a renewed rejection of the poli- tical and economic structures of power. He is convinced that what needs to be con- tested is the global neo-liberal elite that has managed to ruin the middle class with crushing debt, generated devastating booms and busts in the economy, and ultimately changed the way in which we conceive democracy. Since financial capit- alism has kidnapped democracy, Graeber argues, it follows that new spaces of free- dom and popular dissent are to be cele- brated, because real democracy is almost entirely formed by these elements.

While the book starts with the events of 2011 – the first two chapters are dedi- cated to the origins and the success of OWS – its general aim is to offer a broad reflection on democracy, its profound anarchist roots and the contemporary strategies for political change. Within this context, OWS is a radical, popular strug- gle to change contemporary form of co- opted democracy. General Assemblies and horizontality are the concrete ways to embody this attempt. Moreover, The Democracy Project: A History. A Crisis. A Movement is a book also intended as a practical device for occupiers and other activists involved in horizontal move- ments. The fourth chapter is entirely dedi- cated to solving concrete issues of General Assemblies and occupation as well as offering guidelines for how to manage the challenges of consensus. ‘It’s not a question of building an entirely new society whole cloth. It’s a question of building on what we are already doing, expanding the zones of freedom, until freedom becomes the ultimate organizing principle’, states Graeber (295).

Although Graeber does not detail the new free and democratic society to be aimed for – here there is surely a defi- ciency, common to every anarchist posi- tion, in the definition of freedom – he is concerned with the conditions that would enable us to discover the chances of an alternative to the current state of affairs. Having spent a number of years partici- pating in protest and anarchist move- ments, Graeber is able to reflect on the internal functioning of the Occupy move- ment, as well as on the broad con- sequences it has. Thus, if OWS was successful, Graeber argues, it was pre- cisely because it changed people’s minds, opening the individual and collective poli- tical imagination for future perspectives. This social and cognitive transformation is also, according to Graeber, the common horizon where OWS coincides with the Arab Spring: they are both germinal waves of new democratic possibilities. Despite the lack of empirical proof in sup- port of his anarchist proposal for a genu- ine democracy – Sitrin and Azzellini’s book, based on a sort of laic ‘liberation theology’, is more grounded in evidence – Graeber’s book has the merit of opening a new path for social imagination in political theory, which is too often discouraged.

The Occupy movements, and to a lesser extent the Arab Spring, are also at the centre of Occupy: Three Inquiries in Dis- obedience by W. J. T. Mitchell, Bernard Harcourt and Michael Taussig. Although the book may at a first glance seem a collection of heterogeneous approaches, the different routes used by the authors to address the OWS phenomenon give a broad picture of the movement. In parti- cular, the three authors focus on the link- age between the 2011 protests and the political concept of disobedience.

In his ‘I’m So Angry I Made a Sign’, Michael Taussig develops a narrative of the lived experience of Occupiers in Zuccotti Park in the autumn of 2011. Slogans and mottos of everyday people participating in OWS are at the centre of his analysis. The new physical and moral language used by occupiers in Zuccotti Park is what Taussing highlights as one of the major novelties: ‘Dear Mr President. This is what Hope looks like. Signed, the 99 per cent’; ‘We are in this for Life’; and ‘Wake up America. Be like Egypt’ – these are among the slogans shouted in Down- town Manhattan (39)

While Taussig locates the originality of OWS in the use of moral language and in the occupation of public space, W. J. T. Mitchell, in his ‘Image, Space, Revolution’, focuses on the link between these notions and the 2011 political change around the world. Specifically, Mitchell is interested in emphasizing the role of images, media and art within the context of the events of 2011. ‘What images emerged as the most potent and memorable?’ is the first ques- tion Mitchell poses (94). And he goes on to ask, what is the reason for success of occupation, the specific form of dissent? And, are the Arab Spring and Occupy movements comparable?

2011 was indeed a year of change throughout the world, a revolutionary year in many Arab countries. Borrowing from Hannah Arendt’s definition of revo- lution, Mitchell acknowledges that there is no possible comparison between the Arab Spring and OWS. Essentially, their aims were different: the change of dicta- torships in the case of Arab countries versus the opposition of OWS to the reduction of democracy by financial capitalism (95). Nonetheless, Mitchell claims that OWS and the Arab Spring share a new use of public space: they were a ‘dramatic performance of the rhetoric of occupatio’ (102) that was expressed in the first place as a radical sign of disobedience. In that context, Mitchell affirms that occupation ‘has taken on a new meaning: the reclaiming of public space by masses of disenfran- chised people; the peaceful, nonviolent seizure of places in an effort to provide a new beginning; a foundational space for justice, democracy and equality’ (105). The revolution in Arab countries as well as the Occupy movement, then, trans- formed the empty space of squares and streets into a ‘sign of potentiality, possibility, and plenitude, a democracy to come’ (112).

Bernard E. Harcourt locates the poten- tial of OWS in its ‘disturbing’ and ‘threa- tening’ nature. By calling into question the consolidated idea of ‘American democ- racy’, OWS contributes to the opening up of new horizons in the practices of political action, first and foremost through a new form of dissent. Indeed, Harcourt links the Occupy movement to the concept of poli- tical disobedience. Disobedience, and particularly civil disobedience, has long occupied a central focus in political and social sciences. In spite of that, Harcourt suggests that OWS inaugurated a new form of dissent. Disobedience has become a radical ‘political’ opposition that, rather than aiming to expand established rights or increasing the institutional protection, expresses the rejection of the legitimacy of the existing order (46–47).

As a whole, Occupy: Three Inquiries in Disobedience is an extensive vision of the complex features of the tumultuous events of 2011, in which people mani- fested a radical refusal of the political and economic status quo. While different from the more in-depth analyses of Graeber and of Sitrin and Azzellini, these three short essays give the perfect summary of the whole Occupy experience: a mix of ideas, concepts, images, desires and poli- tical passions that, as these authors argue, mark a political and cultural turn- ing point in the idea of political structures and organizations, as well as in the rela- tionship between the political and the economic spheres.

However, ideas of horizontalism, anar- chism and direct or participatory democ- racy leave many burning questions unanswered. There appears to be a gen- eral tension between the operation of the movements – and their theoretical defence – and the institutionalized response: Can autonomous and horizon- tal movements really represent an effec- tual alternative to the representative democracy and the capitalist system? Even if it is true that, at the moment, Occupy has largely failed its objectives (after all, austerity measures are still the only policy implemented by many gov- ernments), political theorists neverthe- less have the right – and the duty – to explore the contradiction of the present, and to foreshadow future political hori- zons. What is certain is that the events of 2011 were an example for the later an References ongoing attempts to use public spaces for experiments in democratic orga- nizing – from the turmoil in Turkey, to the protest in Hong Kong known as Occupy Central and Occupy Democracy in London. A quote from Albert (2014: 144) perfectly summarizes the spirit of the wave of protests: ‘the right response to the difficulty of social revolution is not doubt that it can happen, but persis- tence in making it happen’.

Albert, M. (2014) Realizing Hope: Life Beyond Capitalism, London: Zed Books.
Gitlin, T. (2012) Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, New York:

Zizek, S. (2012) The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, London: Verso.

About the Author

Paolo Cossarini is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the Autonomous University of Madrid. His researches focus on modern and contemporary political thought, populism, democratic theory and the role of emotions in protest movements.

Departamento de Ciencia Política y Relaciones Internacionales, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Ciudad Universitaria de Cantoblanco, 28049 Madrid, Spain

doi: 10.1057/eps.2014.46; published online 19 December 2014

Books reviewed:
The Democracy Project: A History. A Crisis. A Movement
David Graeber (London, Penguin, 2014), 326 pp., ISBN: 978-0718195045

Occupy: Three Inquiries in Disobedience

William John Thomas Mitchell, Bernard E. Harcourt, Michael Taussig
(Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2013), 130 pp., ISBN: 978-0226042749

They Can’t Represent Us! Reinventing Democracy from Greece to Occupy Marina Sitrin, Dario Azzellini (London, Verso, 2014), 250 pp.,
ISBN: 978-1781680971

European Consortium for Political Research:

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