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One Year After Occupy

A year on from the Occupation of Zuccotti Park on September 17, 2011, Mark Fisher considers a new possibility in the October issue of Dazed & Confused... imagining a brave new world after capitalism

Slavoj Zizek’s latest book, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, begins with the Persian concept of war nam nihadan, defined as “to murder someone, bury his body then grow flowers over the body to conceal it.” Zizek argues that, in relation to 2011’s efflorescence of militancy (Occupy Wall Street, the Arab spring, the English riots etc), dominant ideology achieved a war nam nihadan. “The media killed the radical emancipatory dimension of the events,” he writes, “and then threw flowers over the buried corpse.”

After the febrile atmosphere of 2011, this year has indeed been a moment of reaction and restoration. In the UK, the jingoistic festivals of the Diamond Jubilee and London 2012 fulfilled their ideological function perfectly. The antagonism of the riots, the student protests and Occupy London Stock Exchange was forgotten in the name of a spurious national unity. But as Zizek is quick to point out in The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, it is only a phony peace: the crisis of capitalism which led to 2011’s momentous series of events has by no means gone away. The new normal is only a temporary holding pattern before antagonism once again interrupts the social field, this time in a more shattering way.

The task now is to neither buy into the dominant media story that nothing really happened in 2011, nor to lapse into dewy-eyed admiration for what Zizek calls “the sublime beauty of uprisings that are doomed to fail.” The romanticisation of failed revolts is a bad habit that the left needs to kick. What is needed is a clear-eyed assessment of why 2011’s militancy was contained and neutralised. Failure can be redeemed if it feeds into a process of learning which will yield more effective strategies.

“How do you occupy an abstraction?” Theorist McKenzie Wark’s question gets right to the heart of one of the problems with the Occupy model of anti-capitalism. Capitalism is neither physical nor does it reside in a particular place. So while the sight of people gathering in a single space may generate a certain emotional charge, it will yield little strategic benefit if that space is not crucial to the operations of capital. As writer Ewan Morrison argues in “Occupying a Non-Place”, a thoughtful essay for the Bella Caledonia website, “Occupy Wall Street carries the failure of its declaration on its shoulders and passes it on round the globe, in that Occupy Wall Street never occupied Wall Street. Occupy London ended up in the grounds of a cathedral.” Morrison’s ultimate solution to this impasse, however, is one familiar in anti-capitalism: “We must move our money to local credit unions, to local commodities and jobs; to circulation with local people.”

This tendency towards localism is reactionary and counterproductive; while there is widespread discontent with capitalism, there is no similar urge to remain confined in local communities. Greg Sharzer’s No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change the World is an incisive, careful demolition of anti-capitalist localism, but the drawbacks are summed up best in Jodi Dean’s brutally elegant slogan-meme, “Goldman Sachs doesn’t care if you raise chickens.” As well as being ineffective, the return to the local is logistically impossible. M Night Shyamalan’s The Village is a dreadful film but a powerful parable about what would be necessary for localism to work: a combination of authoritarianism, radical disconnection from the wider world and mythological dissimulation.

Part of the problem with Occupy was that it was not clear whether it was a prefiguration of a new mode of anti-capitalist social relations or a protest directed towards the rulers of the current order. The protest model is a consoling fantasy which covers over the terrifying fact that there is no one ultimately in control of capitalism who could grant the protesters’ demands. Even if they wanted to, the world’s most powerful capitalists couldn’t abolish capitalism. Occupy’s neoliberal critics have pointed out that the movement remains fundamentally negative: it is against capitalism, but what is it for? While there’s something cheap about this dismissal, it does point to a major problem within anti-capitalism as a whole. Thirty years of what I have called “capitalist realism” – the view that capitalism is the only possible system – have led to a catastrophic deterioration of social imagination. If there is as yet no positive, modern alternative to capitalism being either practised or proposed by Occupy, then this is true of anti-capitalism in general. The old state-socialist models are dysfunctional and discredited, but nothing new has replaced them. If it is expecting too much to demand that Occupy come up with a fully working vision of post-capitalism, it is important never to lose sight of the fact that this is the goal. Occupy’s ultimate importance may be that it was a start to the process of rebuilding social imagination. Before 2008, we couldn’t imagine an alternative to capitalism. But Occupy showed that we can now at least imagine imagining it.

If occupying parks or the grounds of cathedrals does nothing to disrupt the functioning of transnational capital, then one strategy would be to block the hubs which virtual capitalism still depends upon: container ports or airports, for instance. Yet it’s possible – and perhaps necessary – to take an entirely different perspective on this. In contrast to the emphasis on disruption and interruption, Alberto Toscano argues that it might be better to ask, “What aspects of contemporary capitalism could be refunctioned in the passage to a communist society?” The question then becomes: how could a high-speed rail system or an electrical network be rendered not useless, but useful, in what would clearly need to be a thoroughly redefined conception of use? There are a number of merits to this suggestion. Libidinally as well as strategically, the transition into post-capitalism will require the development of systems that are as globalised, virtual and abstract as those of capitalism itself. Thinking of ways in which the current systems of communication, distribution and production could be liberated from capitalism automatically shifts us from an anti-capitalist stance to a pre-communist one. Instead of seeing capitalism as a system that works all too well, we can then apprehend for what it is: a system that routinely fails to deliver on its own promises, that is shot through with inefficiencies, and that massively squanders the potentials both of the technological apparatus it relies upon and of the “human resources” which it exploits and overworks. Rather than offering some drearily reactionary return to the local or the pre-capitalist, we can see capitalism as a barbarism which blocks the passage into communism. Instead of asking people to forget technological modernity, we can argue that post-capitalism will offer everything that people currently get from airports, supermarkets and coffee bars, but in new, improved and as yet unimaginable forms.

To mark the anniversary, protesters will later on today gather near the New York Stock Exchange. Similar marches and rallies will take place 30 cities all over the world.

Text by Mark Fisher. This text appeared in the October issue of Dazed & Confused

Mark Fisher blogs as K-PUNK and is the author of Capitalist Realism, published by Zero Books

Mobile phone image of Occupy Vienna from October by Thomson & Craighead, 2012, courtesy of the Carroll/Fletcher Gallery