23.11.11

Occupy the streets: highlighting the subversive need for a shared reality of values and demands

Following the latest demonstrations around the 'Occupy the Streets' movement, I will explore some of the ideas and questions that have emerged in connection with the Occupy Melbourne. For many reasons that I hope will become apparent as the article unfolds, the following comments do not refer to the actions that took place in other parts of the world.


Poster by Occupy Melbourne,
http://occupymelbourne.org/media/posters-flyers
A few days ago I watched a documentary on Gene Sharp’s works and the alleged role of his book, “From Dictatorship to Democracy” in the success of national struggles for democracy around the world. Sharp discussed the “power of people to change the world” using nonviolent methods. Crucial in Sharp’s message was the key role of planning, strategy and carefully selected demands without which, he claims, nonviolent struggles cannot succeed. The notion that “improvisation will bring greater success is nonsense,” according to Sharp.[1] However, planning, organisation, supported by a clear purpose, were not salient features of the Melbourne Occupy the Streets demonstrations.[2] According to some, a level of organisation took place spontaneously. But, why do I think of Gene Sharp’s ideas in the light of the Occupy movement? 

The sentiments of dissatisfaction and impotence for example, towards corporations that abuse the environment and threaten people’s wellbeing, were captured by the Occupy movement. The dissatisfaction is real and the need to express it legitimate—this much came across. The movement in Melbourne succeeded in attracting attention and in gaining the support and sympathy of the general public. However, it lacked the strategy, planning and purpose that Sharp is talking about.

When I asked some of the occupiers about the reasons why they rallied, most expressed different views and described their own aspirations—their little piece of paradise, which varied from, down with capitalism to legalising gay-marriage. All very good, but (as many others from all sides of politics expressed) I found it difficult to find the connecting thread among all that. The question then is: should there be a connecting thread or shared demand? According to the occupiers, it was the diversity of views that made this movement important. The Occupy Melbourne movement described their aspirations in an ‘unofficial’ statement as, a just an equitable society.

Consequently, one should not have been too puzzled by a purpose(s) that seemed to have been deliberately chosen to remain vague and generally summarised as an opposition to greed. Greed, a too nebulous a notion to be definitely shared, or opposed by anyone. Certainly, the demonstration was free and inclusive; presented as a dislike of something that most are happy to dislike—something like being too cold. Yes, most people do oppose greed, even if only in theory. Besides, when the price of a fancy water bottle, a trendy bicycle, or those many gadgets constantly popping up could feed a family somewhere else for a month, where does greed begin or end?

As I tried to write my concerns and suggest that the deliberate vagueness may actually be symptomatic of the system that Occupy the Streets was opposing—a system that makes of the role of analysis and critique a sophisticated form of entertainment—I came across an article by Prof. G. Hage and Dr G. Hoffstaedter about Occupy Melbourne. Coincidentally, the article described and then rejected many of my concerns by saying that:
What needs to be appreciated above all is that the very idea of formulating a 'demand', of saying what one 'wants' or expressing what one 'is on about' involves shared values, shared perspectives and a shared language which really amounts to saying a shared reality. But it is precisely the non-existence of this shared reality that the more sophisticated movement is emphasizing through its mythical 1 per cent/99 per cent divide.

This is perhaps where the most radical and innovative dimension of the Occupy movement lies. It points critically to capitalism, but for all that, it is not formulating a demand within it or against it. Rather than being anti-capitalist the core of the movement can be characterised as a-capitalist.[3]  

While the article points out to the idea that the occupiers are, in fact, expressing within the parameters and in a manner established by the system they are opposing—the  capitalist system—Hage and Hoffstaedter’s argument focused on the appropriateness of the idea of multiple ‘realities’. I share their interest in ‘reality.’ Indeed, I have recently explored this notion with regards to architectural education. However, it is their conclusions that worry me as they claim that,

… this alternative reality [that of the occupiers] does not propose itself as primarily an anti-capitalist reality. It is not aiming to replace or to fight it. It is merely aiming to come into existence.[4]

What I found both interesting and disturbing is the claim that what the occupiers are asking for is ‘a new reality’, not necessarily a shared reality, arguing also that “A reality does not make a demand. Nor does it say what it wants.”[5]

Yes, the realities discussed by Hage and Hoffstaedter are complex perceptions of things.[6] The system that the demonstrators oppose (some at least), has created some appalling conditions—real conditions that we al know too well. So, why are we not demanding to change those conditions? Right now, locally, people in detention centres are being administered sedatives to combat the depression resulting from sometimes years of incarceration, this situation involves children. This is one of many concrete expression of a regime that has lost its humanity—a good reason to oppose the system and to demand tangible change.
Issues such as these do not need superimposition of ‘many realities.’ While different perspectives may assist to understand the problem, I tend to agree with Bruno Latour when he suggests that the breaking up of reality into individual perceptions of it interferes with our ability to act. This he calls “The Crisis of the Critical Stance.”[7]

The lack of a unifying demand—or in other words, the multitude of ideas and aspirations that would not amount to an unifying purpose—reminded me of what Sharp referred to as atomising. Atomising (not different from the ancient tactic of dividing to conquer) is a strategy used by antidemocratic regimes all over the world in order to subdue their opposition. Results are achieved through repression, censorship discrimination, fear and also physical mechanisms, such as apartheid (schools, buses, public spaces) and walls to separate communities. Today, as we have seen in China, this can be somewhat achieved by controlling the Internet. But, in countries such as Australia, these conditions are subtly imposed by other means.

Poster by Occupy Melbourne,
http://occupymelbourne.org/media/posters-flyers
In societies enduring direct repression, the demise of opportunities for dialogue (media control, illegality of gatherings and political parties), consequently of collective accord and agreed demands, are symptomatic of the oppression. We, in Melbourne, gladly and paradoxically see this lack of collective accord and agreed demands as an expression of freedom. In both cases, the result of atomising is to prevent consorted action that would see change of the existing conditions.

Gilles Deleuze make an interesting assertion, whereby spatial control, associated to production, has been relegated to the Third World and financial forms of control are now the principal instrument of control in affluent societies, “Man is no longer man enclosed, but man in debt,” he claims.[8]   

Not only our views of the present conditions—of what really matters and of the purpose of our complaints—are internalised and undiscussed, but so are its reasons, even if these are the same reasons for each one of us. It follows then that, as Hage and Hoffstaedter claim, the occupiers’ main drive was the “rejection of the idea that it is normal to live in a social system that is so unresponsive to one’s needs and that induces so much daily tension if not suffering.”[9] I would again like to push the boundaries here a bit to say that our suffering may not be as great as someone else’s, and I would exemplify this by repeating the case of those children in detention centres in Australia. As a society, we are all at fault because we are allowing this to happen in our own, allegedly democratic, law obeying, affluent and civilised country.  

Concrete issues such as these—as opposed to open-ended ones (greed)—require us to take a stance, to know who we are and what we want to change. Stances force us to take responsibility. They are humbling because we may be wrong and we may have to accept the consequences of it.

Taking a clear stance would indeed be challenging for any regime, particularly for a system that relies on creating the conditions that ensure our perpetual state of disengagement and of adolescence—egocentric and uncritical.[10] Entertainment, shopping, casinos (including playing Monopoly with the ‘stock market’), an obsessive focus on food, restaurants, hero chefs, travel and the ‘right’ to afford all we want—all keep us too busy to reflect, to evaluate, commit and take a position—too busy to grow-up. In this, architecture takes on an active role by creating the settings:

At children's hospitals, patients become explorers, ''embarking on a journey to recovery,'' while new housing developments imitate historic or imagined small-town life (if at quadruple the density). In short, every place, every product, every service and event in the experience economy becomes themed, as though it were part of an endless carnival.[11]

It should not be regarded as a coincidence that we have one of the highest C02 emissions per capita in the world—the carnival comes at a cost.

How can we bring all this fantasy, these ‘realities’ down to earthly concerns? How is it that the real needs of the 90% (locally and globally) are not directly addressed in the Occupy demands. Where were the detention centres, the poverty ridden indigenous communities, with little access to decent housing, health clinics or schools? Why cannot we articulate these demands? Are these too concrete, or too real for comfort?

In sum, there are at least two possible consequences to the lack of planning in a nonviolent movement. We may loose the battle—that is almost certain if we are to trust Sharp’s experience. Another possibility is that we may succeed, because a sector within (or outside) has done the planning and adopted a strategy—their purpose, we can assume, is clear. This is dangerous, we may find ourselves under conditions that we never aspired to, or imagined. Back to Gene Sharp, he cites historical evidence showing that unplanned change can lead to worse forms of tyranny.[12]  Sadly, some of the most current struggles are also offering examples of this.
   
Locked away  is one of the macabre Angels-Demons sculptures, symbolic of the city's carnival state. The city square is now orderly empty after the Occupy Melbourne demonstrations. Photo by me. 
I anticipate that this article might raise questions about my own stance. I will try to briefly address them here. I support the opposition to the current state of affairs; I support ‘occupy the streets’, locally and globally. I think that lack of clarity, strategy, and purpose in the movement denotes lack of reflection and commitment to the issues at hand and I suggest that in this regards, we are a product of the system we oppose—a condition whereby we feel unable or unwilling to judge, decide and most importantly, to take responsibility. I suggest that in order to achieve change we need to step out of the state we are in. That as professionals of the built environment we have a great deal to contribute and to do this, we will need to articulate our demands.  

I have often being faced with the same questions I have posed here in regards to Architects for Peace. Peace—what a term! What does it really mean? I understand the reasons for that question—a question that I often asks myself. Except that when Architects for Peace was established, peace was considered a concrete, if not a subversive demand.

Naturally, the urban professions have a narrower set of concerns when compared to those prompted by the Occupy movement. However, these demonstrations and occupations have taken place in the ever shrinking and increasingly controlled public domain—our professional domain. There is much that we can say about the struggle for change, about the stances that we need to take and defend. I will finish by citing Benedikt who says that, “To revive architecture’s value, we, as architects, need to identify publicly and quite specifically which irreducible human needs architecture serves and how it does so.”[13]


Beatriz C. Maturana
Architects for Peace, November 2011


Notes

[1] Ruaridh Arrow, "How To Start A Revolution,"  (TVF International, 2011). Documentary shown on SBS Australia, 15 November 2011.
[2] Ghassan Hage and Gerhard Hoffstaedter, "Occupy wants what Occupy is: another reality," The Drum on ABC News 24  (14 November 2011), www.abc.net.au/unleashed/3665204.html#.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] I am aware that the authors may not agree with my simplified description of ‘realities’, which on top, uses the term perception—but that is what I think. From an architectural perspective, Michael Benedikt has suggested that ambivalence with respect to reality is the result of the market and its economics rules. Here, the experience of reality, of significance (which is the quality that underpins and connects architecture to people’s lives) and authenticity (“which is the authority that comes with being real in just this way”)—are under threat. Michael Benedikt, "Reality and Authenticity in the Experience Economy: The New Experience Economy Challenges How We Judge What is Real," Architectural Record 189, no. 11 (November 2001): 1.
[7] Bruno Latour and Catherine Porter, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (New York; London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993), 1-10.
[8] Gilles Deleuze, "Postscript on the Societies of Control," October 59 (1992). Thanks to Soledad Maldonado for pointing out this article to me.
[9] Hage and Hoffstaedter, "Occupy wants what Occupy is: another reality."
[10] Observing pre-school children and their depiction of the world around them, Piaget asserts that as children grow, they become more aware of a ‘common reality’, and their “the egocentric shells that formerly defined their world begin to break.” Yi-Fu Tuan, "Realism and Fantasy in Art, History, and Geography," Annals of the Association of American Geographers 80, no. 3 (1990): 436.
[11] Benedikt, "Reality and Authenticity in the Experience Economy," 2.
[12] Gene Sharp and Albert Einstein Institution (Cambridge Mass.), From dictatorship to democracy : a conceptual framework for liberation, 2nd printing. ed. (Boston, Mass.: Albert Einstein Institution, 2003), 73-75.
[13] See Michael Benedikt, "The Ghost of Gresham: Economics, Architecture and the Progressive Loss of Designed Value," in TAKE 5: Looking ahead: defining the terms of a sustainable architectural profession, ed. Paolo Tombesi, Blair Gardiner, and Tony Mussen, TAKE (Manuka, ACT: The Royal Australian Institute of Architects, 2007), 77.

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