Professor of Political Science Jodi Dean recently authored an article “Occupy and UK Uncut: the evolution of activism” that appeared in The Guardian (United Kingdom). The article also ran in the opinion section of the Qatar Tribune on Jan. 2, 2013.
In the article, Dean discusses the evolution of the Occupy Movement to include Occupy Sandy, which she explains as “a relief effort organized by Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protesters to assist the victims of the hurricane,” as well as the efforts of UK Uncut, a group whose focus, she says is “on finding alternatives to austerity.”
“Where Occupy Sandy has been an efficient prosthesis for a community crippled more by capitalism than by a hurricane, UK Uncut has become the strong arm of a state too weak to enforce its own laws. Their activities, like those of Occupy Sandy, can be seen to maintain a system rather than challenge it,” writes Dean.
“Both movements are embedding themselves deeper into society. Instead of jumping from issue to issue or rising up only to sink back down, they are building solidarity. They’re organising for a longer struggle, finding ways to create spaces for debate within a broader commitment to collective, egalitarian solutions. The challenge they face is how to grow without becoming instruments of the systems they contest,” she later continues.
Dean has been with the Colleges since 1993 and also serves as the director of the Fisher Center for the Study of Women and Men. She received a B.A. from Princeton University and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University. She is a past recipient of the faculty award for scholarship. Dean is also the author of a wide-ranging body of work including “Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies” (Duke 2009) and “Blog Theory” (Polity 2010).
The article as it appeared in The Guardian follows.
Occupy and UK Uncut: the evolution of activism
The challenge these movements face is how to grow without becoming instruments of the systems they contest
Jodi Dean • December 26, 2012
Earlier this month, Occupy Our Homes engaged in anti-foreclosure actions across the United States. In Atlanta and Minneapolis, activists helped families occupy vacant bank-owned homes. In Sacramento and Detroit, groups protected residents from eviction. In Philadelphia, Chicago, and St Louis, demonstrators protested against foreclosure. Thousands took part in these actions, yet coverage was restricted to local media outlets. Why did the protests get so little attention?
Declining public interest in Occupy doesn’t account for it. Occupy Sandy, a relief effort organised by Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protesters to assist the victims of the hurricane, was covered. Prominent stories in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Huffington Post presented Occupy Sandy as a new, improved version of OWS.
Occupy found its stride, they suggested, when it shifted its attention to mutual aid. Effectively using Amazon’s gift registry as well as Facebook and Twitter, Occupy Sandy demonstrated that overstrained municipal budgets and decayed public infrastructure did not mean the end of community. Communities could help themselves. They could fix what capitalism broke, without forcing capitalism itself to change. The media’s rebranding of Occupy went so far as to turn Occupiers into agents of the police, safe and friendly watchdogs helping to prevent looting and crime in areas still without power.
Occupy Sandy gained the attention denied to Occupy Our Homes because it replaced militant Occupy! with “do-it-yourself” Occupy. Feel-good mutual aid displaced attention from the underlying contradiction between public housing and private utilities onto the quick fix of digital media. Occupy Our Homes, on the other hand, confronts the system with its failures – predatory lending, homelessness, and empty bank-owned houses. The problems it addresses can’t be solved by rolling up our sleeves and getting involved; they require political solutions.
Mutual aid is not the only innovation enhancing the mainstream popularity of formerly radical activism. Another is chasing tax-dodgers, a campaign pursued by UK Uncut. From a US perspective, the puzzling aspect of UK Uncut’s focus on finding alternatives to austerity is its resemblance to the current Republican party line. Republicans also want to pursue tax-evaders, close loopholes, and enforce the tax code. UK Uncut does the government’s work for it. Like Occupy Sandy, it takes over services left undone by a government concerned more with protecting finance than serving the people.
Where Occupy Sandy has been an efficient prosthesis for a community crippled more by capitalism than by a hurricane, UK Uncut has become the strong arm of a state too weak to enforce its own laws. Their activities, like those of Occupy Sandy, can be seen to maintain a system rather than challenge it.
Viewed from another perspective, however, the tactical shifts suggest a different evolution of radical activism. Occupy Sandy’s mutual aid connected the hurricane to a critique of capitalism for failing to provide infrastructures adequate to the needs of an urban population in a changing climate. It has used its access to the community as an opportunity for consciousness-raising. Similarly, UK Uncut links its attack on Starbucks and Google with a larger analysis of the connections between profits for corporations and cuts for people. It channels anger at corporations’ failure into an exposition of the deeper unfairness of the system itself.
Both movements are embedding themselves deeper into society. Instead of jumping from issue to issue or rising up only to sink back down, they are building solidarity. They’re organising for a longer struggle, finding ways to create spaces for debate within a broader commitment to collective, egalitarian solutions. The challenge they face is how to grow without becoming instruments of the systems they contest.
These are the challenges that have long confronted radical political parties. Too many on the left construe co-optation in terms of an iron law demonstrating the inadequacy of the party as a form for radical politics. But this is a failure of imagination, an inability to see how the vanguard activists in Occupy and UK Uncut are developing not just new tactics but also new approaches to organising. Adapting to an environment where constant change ensures that everything remains the same, they approach actions and demonstrations as components of a larger struggle requiring critical research, discussion, analysis and planning as well as the training of activists, organisers and even leaders. Their work is the work of parties: not the mass parties of electoral democracy, but the responsive and revolutionary parties of the previous century.