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PORTSIDE  March 2012, Week 1

PORTSIDE March 2012, Week 1

Subject:

London: Taking Down the Tents

From:

Portside Moderator <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

[log in to unmask]

Date:

Thu, 1 Mar 2012 01:16:43 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (112 lines)

Taking Down the Tents

Phil Edwards 
29 February 2012

http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2012/02/29/phil/taking-down-the-tents/

All sides seem to agree that the Occupy London Stock
Exchange protesters are leaving undefeated. The cathedral
authorities stress that although 'tents and camping
equipment' have been removed from the vicinity of St
Paul's, 'ideas and protests' are still welcome. One
protester described the eviction as 'an opportunity for us
to move sideways and be innovative and creative'.
 
But in London, as elsewhere, as the campers have had to
move sideways, Occupy will have to find another way
forward. It isn't the kind of protest in which an
achievable goal is linked to a symbolic nuisance, so that
when the authorities see reason everyone can go home. Its
demands have been much bigger, and they've been backed by
the continuing physical presence of people obstinately
taking up space. In this respect it's much more like the
Greenham Common peace camps, or Brian Haw's one-man
encampment in Parliament Square, than a traditional
demonstration or sit-in. Their current position recalls
the experiences of the Situationist International, a group
the Occupy movement has often been compared to, not least
by Adbusters, which issued the original call to occupy
Wall Street last July.
 
Founded in 1957, the SI didn't seek converts;
situationists didn't have an ism, any more than violinists
or physicists. A situationist was someone who contributed
to the construction of situations: a deceptively bland
phrase which stood for a revolutionary transformation of
society and everyday life, uniting Marxism with Surrealism
and taking them onto the streets. Initially working in
art, architecture and film as well as political theory, in
1961 the Situationists took a decisive political turn,
ruling that art could only be anti-situationist, and that
the path to the construction of situations lay through
wildcat strikes and workplace occupations.
 
After May 1968, and the only wildcat general strike in
history, the situationists hit difficulties. Political
work had been favoured on the grounds that situationist
artists had merely contributed to the spectacle of
artistic radicalism. But if the only revolution worth
working for would be carried out by workers transforming
their own daily lives, and if the workers had just been
defeated and gone back to work, then what? Oppositional
activism would simply contribute to the spectacle of
political radicalism - a criticism that has been levelled
at Adbusters too.
 
If both radical art practice and radical political
activism are irredeemably compromised, what can be done?
Sometimes, perhaps, the answer is not much. Guy Debord,
the only Situationist present at both the group's founding
and its dissolution in 1972, wrote in 1967 that
revolutionary critique must 'work among the irreconcilable
enemies of the spectacle, and admit that without them it
is nothing'; in between times, it 'must know how to wait'.
 
And how we would know the enemies of the spectacle when
they reappeared? Essentially, by their negativity. In 1979
Debord wrote that the workers of Italy
 
can be held up as an example to their comrades in all
countries for their absenteeism, their wildcat strikes
that no particular concession can manage to appease, their
lucid refusal of work, and their contempt for the law and
for all statist parties.
 
Debord identified the keynotes of the long wave of protest
that traversed Italy in the 1970s, peaking in 1977:
intransigent physical presence (or recalcitrant absence),
refusal to identify with any established political party,
protests with no single demand. Putting forward 'ideas and
protests' wasn't the point; the Italian 1977, like May
1968, was a fertile source of slogans and publications,
but that wasn't what the movement was for. The point was
to be there: to assert the identity of the movement and
its opposition to the status quo by the force of physical
presence.
 
Cutting away the ground from beneath Occupy is a real
blow, and it won't be redressed by reasserting the
movement's ideas in less confrontational ways: indeed,
this would tend to return it to the much more manageable
world of the pressure group. Occupy wristband, anyone? The
movement's enemies may have understood its strengths
better than it does itself.

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