Time magazine has just named ‘the protester’ as its person of the year. Alongside the historic protests in the Middle East, the Occupy! movement can claim much of the credit for the upsurge in global activism. In New York, Oakland, Madrid, London, Athens and many more cities and towns across the world, activists re-claimed public space not just to protest against an unjust economic system, but also to show that a different way of living is possible.
In the first of a series of guest posts by Pluto authors looking at the significance and meaning of the Occupy! movement, Malcolm Miles, author of Herbert Marcuse: An Aesthetics of Liberation, considers the relevance of the critical theorist Herbert Marcuse:
In Petrograd in October 1917 the call was to clear out the liberal centrists and install a soviet-based state. In San Francisco in 1967 it was to make love not war. In Paris in 1968 it was to occupy the universities. Today, in hundreds cities, it is to Occupy! – take over public space in resistance to the triumph of globalised capital. Even in Totnes, where I live a reclusive life, a town said (by Lonely Planet) to be twinned with Narnia, and described by recent graffiti as ‘the town that never wakes’, there is a small Occupy camp near the town’s market site.
Faced with the excess of capital’s self-interest and irrationality, taking over space has become a new equivalent to the older call to take over the means of production. Occupiers are criticised for not having a political programme, but this misses the point: which is to be there among others, which for those who are there is likely to be transformative, and the memory of which will linger after the tents are removed (either by force or voluntarily). As in presence at the barricades in Paris, or in anti-roads protest camps in the 1990s, what matters is not the shifting of policy (desirable but not going to happen yet) but the creation of a new, non-instrumental mind-set. I think this is what Herbert Marcuse had in mind when he wrote An Essay on Liberation (begun in 1967 and revised during in 1968, published by Penguin in 1969).
Marcuse sees the angry youths, and observes the fitting presence of the jazz pianist at the barricade. He writes of a qualitatively different society which is articulated in a new sensibility. He sees in art and literature a capacity to interrupt the status quo, to make a break from routine in which new insights might be glimpsed, if as yet only half shaped. After 1968, he tends to withdraw to a more aesthetic stance, where art’s autonomy is its critical space. But in 1967-68 there was a moment of hope and perhaps there is one now. Politics will not be quite the same after it, and occupying urban public spaces emphasises the redundancy of representational politics when the state has abdicated its responsibility to promote the public good and the common wealth. But how does a new mind-set evolve?
Marcuse never quite says how, but I think he asks questions which are relevant today, and does so in a way which retains resonance. Capitalism is even more mindlessly destructive now than in the 1960s; it seems to enter a death-phase, and will take the world with it via climate change. The options for resistance are limited. A life of voluntary simplicity and low-impact consumption is one. Culture, too, can lend visibility and voice to those who seek alternatives. And there is being there, refusing the trash offered by the system, and realising that a creative aspiration is always there. Re-reading Marcuse reminded me of hope while not denying the nearness of despair.