Occupied by Occupy

Joost Winter, October 21, 2011

‘All movements go too far’ — Bertrand Russell

From the moment I first heard about the Occupy Wall Street manifestation onward, I have been strongly intrigued by this new ‘Occupy’ movement, but by now, it is also starting to scare me a bit. I have been attending Occupy Amsterdam from the first day onward, and even before it started I already took part in the large online meme surrounding the Occupy Together movement. The day before Occupy Amsterdam started, I spread a number of posters on the streets of Amsterdam, with texts such as ‘History starts now’ and ‘Be the change you want to see’, and from the beginning onward, I was terribly excited about this new movement that was all but ignored or misunderstood by the ‘old’ media. It was wonderful to see a movement emerge that seemed to be devoid of the cynicism ubiquitous in our current society, and that again seemed to take the notion of improving the world in a nonviolent way seriously.

To me, the premises of this movement seem to make make perfect sense: the capitalist system to which we are used has largely become a burden, and, facing both a financial crisis and an energy crisis, the time is well due to rethink this system. Unfortunately, traditional world politics is facing terrible difficulties in doing so, and seems to have a hard time approaching the issue at hand from outside the existing socio-economical system. The occupations that are now emerging all over the world essentially attempt to provide a counterculture, in which the system can be rethought freely, without being corrupted by the traditional political, social and economical power structures.

The first couple of hours on Saturday, at Occupy Amsterdam there was an immense diversity of people: people from the Labour Party and Socialist Party, squatters, hippies, far-left groups including anarchists and people from the International Socialists, the Zeitgeist movement, as well as some firm believers in conspiracy theories involving the Bilderberg group, chemtrails, or 9/11 cover-ups. And a lot of unaffiliated people, some of whom had clear and coherent views, but also many who, indeed, didn’t really seem to know what they wanted, or who lacked a clear message. A merry lot of widely different people. There was someone about to start a hunger strike, as well as someone who walked all the way from Oslo to Amsterdam, without carrying or using any money. There was music, dancing, and a very open atmosphere in which people easily approached other people they never even had seen before. And, this being Amsterdam and all, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that quite a bit of weed was consumed here.

During the evening, I attended the first General Assembly. It was strange and overwhelming. The ‘human mic’ habit (one person says a few words, then the entire group repeats it, and so on) does, somehow, tend to induce a type of trance-like experience. This also goes, to an even stronger degree, for talking through the ‘human mic’—having the group around you repeat your words gives you a feeling of strength. Still: the first part of the Assembly almost entirely consisted of talk about practical matters. One of the first proposals was that, because we shouldn’t come across the wrong way (I suspect the idea behind that was ‘we do not want to appear as a regular far-left demonstration’), we should ban smoking, drug usage, and perhaps even alcohol. I thought this was ridiculous. Even stranger to me was the fact that this proposal was almost accepted, until I spoke up against it. After this assembly, one guy told me that he wanted to get his word through in the assembly, but that he couldn’t and even got palpitations because of the tense atmosphere.

The only night I stayed at Occupy Amsterdam was the night from Sunday to Monday, the night before our action at the stock exchange. I stayed in an open tent with 15 people, which also was used as first aid tent, and all night long there was free and unforced dialogue between many of the people there, most of which never even met each other before. People talked about their lives, their political and other views in an atmosphere of what seemed to be complete openness. There was no debate, people didn’t try to convince each other of anything, but instead there was dialogue, and real sharing of thoughts. On the walls of the tent texts such as ‘stay curious’ and ‘be the change you want to see’ were written, while the stock ticker with the red numbers and letters was scrolling all night long, with the ‘Casino Beursplein 5’ banner on top of it. It seemed like a scene from a film and definitely something very special. When, on Monday morning, I arrived back at home, it seemed like weeks had passed since the start of the occupation—as a result of the overwhelming amount of new experiences, the strangeness and beauty of the situation, and everything else that happened in the two days prior to it. It wasn’t just me. Many of the people present truly shared the same feelings about the situation.

On Monday, the difficulties during the assembly continued. This time, the most heated point of discussion was the question whether or not to allow symbols of political parties and organisations. Some people, especially a group from the International Socialists, were quite keen to be able to wear their political symbols. Other people believed that, especially because we do not want to be ‘claimed’ by any political party or organisation, we should try to minimize or even banish (‘away with that shit’, as someone said) the presence of political symbols at the occupied square. In the end, somehow it appeared a consensus was reached (I actually didn’t follow exactly how: during the Assembly I was under the impression that another consensus was reached than the one actually reached), to the strong dissatisfaction of some, not to have these political symbols. Which again was strange, and in my opinion likely to compromise our wish to actually reach out to the 99% of the population.

Over the next few days, I mostly went to the Occupy Amsterdam square during the evenings, trying to follow the general assemblies. The occupation actually grew—despite the rain and even a hailstorm at the site—but gradually the positive atmosphere from the beginning seemed to have shifted into something more faux-positive—a forced positivity, as if some type of self-deception was present here.

The general assemblies tend to be very straining, and at times became quite emotional. Some people feel unhappy about the ‘human mic’ format, but simply do not manage to seriously address this criticism during the assemblies. This format at times seems to be a mantra, leading to situations that are even comical: when one woman tried to object against people repeating her words, even her ‘Please do not repeat me’ was faithfully repeated in choir by the group. Despite the emphasis on ‘real democracy’ and ‘openness’, many aspects of the General Assemblies appear vague and there seems to be a distinct lack of transparency. I often have the feeling that a lot of the people involved are unable to actually get through what they want to say, whereas other people, more actively involved, have a much easier time receiving their turn to talk.

I know a bit about altered states of consciousness. Being ‘in’ Occupy Amsterdam, for many people inside the movement, seems to be an altered state of consciousness. People are devoting all their free time to this movement—when not present at the square, they are probably busy keeping up to date with the movement on Facebook and news sites, and the behaviour of many people involved seems to be quite different from their usual behaviour. The situation is almost exactly as described in the following fragments from Ken Knabb's The Joy of Revolution:

A radical situation is a collective awakening... In such situations people become much more open to new perspectives, readier to question previous assumptions, quicker to see through the usual cons... People learn more about society in a week than in years of academic ‘social studies’ or leftist ‘consciousness raising.’ ... Everything seems possible—and much more is possible. People can hardly believe what they used to put up with in ‘the old days.’ ... Passive consumption is replaced by active communication. Strangers strike up lively discussions on street corners. Debates continue round the clock, new arrivals constantly replacing those who depart for other activities or to try to catch a few hours of sleep, though they are usually too excited to sleep very long.

Now, on a first reading this might sound fantastic. But phrases like ‘collective awakening’ should perhaps at least raise a few eyebrows. Of course, the strange thing here is that this is a group without leadership, and indeed, all communication is more or less horizontal. So, this can’t be a dangerous sect, can it? But where do we draw the line between a free and open protest movement, and something less innocuous—especially if this less innocuous aspect manifests itself as some kind of non-hierarchical groupthink, rather than as traditional hierarchical power structures?

The structure of Occupy Amsterdam is generally open, but to really have a clue what’s what and who’s who, you do need to devote a lot of time and attend workgroups—ideally several ones at the same time. Some people definitely have a feeling they are being marginalized, and do not feel that they are represented by the General Assembly. Despite the slogan ‘we are the 99%’, there is a clear barrier between people inside the movement and those outside—already witnessed by the contrast between the unawareness or at best confusion among the public at large, and the absorption and devotion of those actively involved in the movement. (However, there still are several gradations in between, depending largely on the level of involvement.) Furthermore, although this movement strongly emphasizes ‘not to be political’, it still does appear to have (so far unrealized and unclear) political ambitions. My experience is that, most of the time, whenever someone or a group claims to be ‘non-political’, there is at least something fishy about it.

Several people have already noted or suggested some ‘hive mind’ (or perhaps ‘flock mind’ would be a more accurate description, better reflecting the leaderless nature of the movement) aspect to this movement, and philosopher Lieven van Cauter even called it a ‘synchronous intelligence’ in a Dutch Radio interview on NCRV’s Casa Luna. Now, that is not something you usually hear of protest movements, and I think it is a bit scary indeed. I now know how it is to be inside this, and it did indeed feel like a bit of deindividuation and, indeed, like merging into a larger whole. Here it is also noteworthy to mention Anonymous, a leaderless collective involved in hacktivism, and its relationship to the Occupy Together movement. Anonymous has been described as

the first Internet-based superconsciousness. Anonymous is a group, in the sense that a flock of birds is a group. How do you know they’re a group? Because they’re traveling in the same direction. At any given moment, more birds could join, leave, peel off in another direction entirely. — Chris Landers, Baltimore City Paper, April 2, 2008

Anonymous has already been a catalyst in the Arab Spring of earlier this year (see for example this article on Al-Jazeera), and from the very beginning on also has been seeking involvement in the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Together movements. The ‘flock of birds’ structure that characterizes Anonymous also seems to be strongly present in the occupations that are being held worldwide, as is the notion of a ‘leaderless collective’. My personal view here is that, while a very interesting phenomenon, a critical look at it is definitely in place. However, such a critical approach may be difficult, as there seem to be no large-scale precedents of similar movements in history. Hence, it is imperative that we, when trying to understand this new movement, resist the temptation to pinpoint it in old categories.

Maybe my most strange (and surprising) impression regarding Occupy Amsterdam, over the last few days, is that of a near-absence of the type of courting rituals you would expect in any group of mostly 20-something young adults. Somehow, the entire notion of sexuality seems to be pretty much absent: I have seen just one couple kiss each other, on the first day, and nothing else of the kind afterwards. Quite unexpected really for a movement which some have called a kind of ‘hippie revival’. A possible explanation for this would be that people have become so occupied with the Occupy movement, that even the notion of sexuality seems to have become temporarily irrelevant.

On Thursday night, I talked to a group of anarchists, who shared many of the above feelings. Being not exactly people to hide their thoughts or to talk in euphemisms, they went as far as calling the ‘human mic’ habit ‘this Hitlerjugend thing’. Of course, this goes quite far, and it is definitely not a comparison I would call justified, but it does reflect some of the sentiments present on the square.

I think people should take this Occupy Together movement quite seriously. It is very viral: just watch the Facebook page of anyone involved in the movement. And it is even growing against the odds. During two days of severe rain, the camp in Amsterdam actually managed to become larger: I can only explain this by pointing towards the devotion and intoxication of the people involved. It is something that does aim to truly affect the world. It wants to change the world and is serious about this. Some media have compared the occupations to the cosy atmosphere found at music festivals, and described the occupations as ‘just a bunch of young people having fun’, but in doing so, they bypass the devotion and seriousness of the people involved completely. It’s definitely not a joke, nor just another pastime of a generation of hipsters with an iPhone, and neither is it a normal protest action. Although this is what is emphasized to the outside, it does not even really seem to be about the world of banking and finances at all. It may be something akin to spontaneous anarchism in practice. But there may also be unclear or vague power structures that are not obviously present for the observer—exactly the type of thing the Occupy movement claims to avoid. I still do not truly know what the Occupy movement is. It is something very strange indeed.

If I should ever notice that this movement really starts to exclude, or somehow (even non-forcingly) brainwash people or rob them of their individuality, I’m out. I know where my allegiances are, and they are not with any movement. Instead, they are with radical honesty, with nonviolence (both of which I'm still a beginner at), with fairness, community, nature, a healthy sense of distrust towards authoritarianism, and, last but certainly not least, with individuality, individual expression and individual diversity. I was hoping to find outlets for these aspects of my life view in the Occupy movement. But, to be honest, I am not sure anymore if Occupy Amsterdam is something for me, or that it is able to offer these things at a cost that is not too high. But still... the last week was hectic, strange, and at times amazing, and I suspect that I gained some worthwhile insights and new friends during the period. And it is still intriguing to see whether this global movement somehow is able to effect changes in the world and the system we are now a part of. For one, I think that the global Occupy Together movement should not be underestimated. So far, the movement is still elusive and difficult to pinpoint, and often very much misunderstood in especially mainstream media.