#10 – The Changes in Occupy and the Right to the City

Blog #10 – The Changing Character of Occupy and the Right to the City

I. The Historical Roots of Occupy and the Right to the City

Both the Occupy movements and the Right to the City movements, two of the most active and most influential nation-wide groupings in the progressive urban arena today, spring out of deep dissatisfaction with things as they are.. That system is broadly known as capitalism. Capitalism is an economic system, with social, cultural, and political aspects, that has produced rapid technological progress, major material benefits, and been accompanied by new social and cultural patterns. But capitalism has also been accompanied by with many severe drawbacks, initially inevitable as the system developed, but no longer necessary. Alternatives are feasible today; another world is today possible, in which the full development of each and all individual’s capacities is set as the goal of social organization, replacing the profit motive and the accumulation of wealth as the driving force of the society.

The contradiction between the existing and the possible has surfaced periodically over time, in the anti-colonial struggles, in working class organization, in artistic expression, in human behavior in everyday life. It came together a one articulate burst in the explosions of 1968. Three sources of frustration with the existing can be distinguished: the materially exploited, the socially and politically oppressed, and the intellectually and culturally discontented. Fundamental structural change seemed possible, even revolutionary change. There is today no objective reason why poverty needs to exist, why inequality stunts the development of some and enriches others beyond use, lets some groups oppress others, sanctions wars and violence to resolve disputes; the system is today capable of creating would have been a utopian a hundred years ago. That fact is an objective one; and its recognition might have objectively led to an explosion such as that of 1968, but reaching much deeper and more broadly. Yet the subjective conditions that were also necessary for it to find expression were not adequate; the power of those who might be the agents of change towards a different society were not powerful enough to overcome the strength of the forces sustaining the status quo. The system still delivered the goods, at least widely enough to prevent broad resistance. The situation did not develop as those prominent in the movements for change had hoped. In short, revolution did not occur, the power of the movement abated, protest and resistance remained, but revolution did not take place and is not today on the agenda. Thus the underlying impetus for revolutionary change that had flowered in 1968 remained underneath, but its concretization in revolutionary change was off the agenda.

That the spirit of 1968 has continued and is part of the DNA of the Occupy movement and the Right to the City movements in following years can be seen from some of their slogans:


What both Occupy and Right to the City wanted was—even if the word was not often used—revolution [note to pm: resist the temptation to capitalize!). What to call it, retaining both its historical meaning but avoiding the shock of its initial reception in the public sphere, could be called other things, blending the process with its desired outcome (a distinction deserving further comment):

“Major change” or “structural change” or change“ affecting the totality of a social complex ”or “outside of the established framework
“Another World” but that might mean many different things;
“Progressive change,” or “social democracy” – But the terms seem to induce an eyes=glazed-over indifference among the larger public;”
“Socialism” – a plausible formulation if taken in its essential rather than really-existing meaning, but withmuch to much baggage needing unpacking to be useful in most discussions; or, from a socialist, to avoid the bagage:
A system with “such dramatic change that it can no longer be regarded as capitalism.”
“Transformation” – a rather bland term, but useful term precisely because of its generality. It can be given concrete meaning as the totality of those changes in individual components of the system but not fully effective without changes in the system as a whole, that are transformative, contributing to transformation.

In what follows the terms “revolution” and “transformation” are used interchangeably.

I. The Objective and Subjective Conditions for Transformative Change

S0: since 1968, at least, objectively, the situation is ripe for transformation. The contradictions in the system are manifold, but the subjective forces are inadequately mobilized. Within the existing relations of power, those who are objectively potential agents of change are not subjectively dedicated to marshaling their power to achieve that change, and those among them who are nevertheless thus dedicated face the subjective unreadiness of others as a present objective roadblock to progress. In one formulation, “…contradictions do not explode by themselves,” contradictions only produce change when there are agents of change with the desire and the ability to catalyze that change.

But there is a problem here: agents desiring change may well have that desire, but not the ability to bring it to fruition. Objectively, the class forces supporting the essential status quo may be too strong, have advanced technology of repression at their disposal and be willing to use it brutally in many countries (Libya, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, etc.). In technologically further developed societies they can still produce the goods well enough so that, while the forces of resistance may be allowed to manifest their unrest, they are prevented from getting the support necessary to overcome the ideological and social and economic weapons, as well as the brute force, at the disposal of those in power.

What do social forces do when they want revolution, but the time isn’t ripe for it?

Henri Lefebvre and Herbert Marcuse, in over-lapping but not identical ways, gave expression to the dilemma in the context of 1968:

H. Marcuse, in 1969.:

One can rightfully speak of a cultural revolution, since the protest is directed toward the whole cultural establishment, including the morality of existing society? There is one thing we can say with complete assurance: the traditional idea of revolution and the traditional strategy of revolution has ended. These ideas are old fashioned. What we must undertake is a type of diffuse and dispersed disintegration of the system.

H. Lefebvre in 1970:

The massive involvement of those affected would alter this state of afairs [the blockage of the exploration of the possible.] Would it enable those thoughts and projects to cross the threshold before which they seem to hesitate [pm-the threshold of revolution?] Possibly. But that involvement has never taken place. .. there has been no trace of any political movement—that is, the politicization of the problems and objectives of “construction.”

Guy Debord already in 1967 for the Situationists:

[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.

II. Transformation

The concept of transformation can indeed be seen as an updating of the concept of revolution, in a post-socialist, post-Fordist, urban and one-dimensional world.

“It may be ruled out that immediate economic crises of themselves produce fundamental historic events; they can simply create a terrain more favourable to the dissemination of certain modes of thought, and certain ways of posing and resolving questions involving the entire subsequent development of national life”.

“transformation”, … in everyday political language mostly involves a process of restructuring of society over long periods of time and in the midst of tedious disputes, [with] an additional aspect: subjectivity.

In concrete terms relevant to the future work of Occupy or Right to the City groups, this means several realizations:

1. Immediate goals must be seen in long-term perspective, linking “tedious disputes” to fundamental broad objectives;
2. A wide variety of tactics must be considered must be considered in conjunction with each other, ranging from dramatic and militant protest to influencing legislative and electoral decisions and attention to public relations on a continuing,
3. “Internal “education and organization must have a prominent place in all campaigns for change, linking the immediate and the transformative goals of action;
4. “External” education, of those who objectively have in common the experience of exploitation, domination, and exclusion, but do not subjectively link their experience to the nature of the dominant social structures, is vital, if the objective relations of power which are to be changed to permit transformation;
5. Clarity must be achieved in the understanding and analysis of the causes of those common negative experiences, perhaps using the recognition of the meaning and functioning of capitalism as its centerpiece, the framework for most detailed analysis.

III. The Multiple Lives of Occupy and the Right to the City

What the various Occupy and Right to the City movements have done while waiting have taken quite diffused and dispersed forms, have politicized the problems they saw in quite varying ways over time and space. So varying, indeed, that one might speak of quite different manifestations of each, , leading quite different lives, different targets, different organizational forms, different spatial forms, much so that one might almost speak of the three different lives of the Occupy movement and the three different lives of the Right to the City movement, roughly appearing in chronological order but very much overlapping and simultaneously active.

While the two organized movements with roots in 1968 discussed here , the right to the city and the Occupy Wall Street movements .both reflect the underlying impetus for change, the congealed demands of the exploited, the oppressed, and the discontented, they have not replaced earlier similarly based movements: those of the working class, the anti-colonial, the anarchist, the communist, the urban social movements, the pro-democratic. But these two are the most active and interesting today; in any event, they are the ones discussed below. .
A. The Right to the City movements.

The web site of the Right to the City Alliance provides the following history:

Right to the City was born out of desire and need by organizers and allies around the country to have a stronger movement for urban justice. But it was also born out of the power of an idea of a new kind of urban politics that asserts that everyone, particularly the disenfranchised, not only has a right to the city, but as inhabitants, have a right to shape it, design it, and operationalize an urban human rights agenda.

In the realm of ideas, a key resource and touchstone is “Le droite à la ville” (Right to the City) a book published in 1968 by French intellectual and philosopher Henri Lefebvre. In the sphere of human rights, this powerful idea was adopted by the World Urban Forum and elaborated into the World Charter of the Right to the City in 2004.

Building from this powerful idea, international principles, and forward looking grassroots organizing, the Right to the City Alliance was established in January 2007.

We can already trace the three elements of the Right to the City in the formulation.

1. Right to the City One: The ideological concept.

Historically, going back to in its current meaning, developed in 1968 by Lefebvre and popularized in the demonstrations in Paris and other cities. In Lefebvre, the city, the urban, is seen not as the existing, but as the alternative content in a new society, perhaps implicitly assumed to be socialist in Lefebvre’s somewhat undisciplined writings. There is by now an enormous literature on this, with many open questions as to precise meaning. Common to most understandings is that the term “city” is used, not to mean the existing city, but as a synecdoche, a metaphor, for a society implementing an idealized vision of what urban life could and should be, that “right” is taken as a moral claim, not a legal proposition.

In this usage the right to the city is a “cry and a demand,” a slogan that legitimates and ties together many concrete demands but is not limited to them, but envisages a revolutionary change in what current cities are. Lefebvre does not pay explicit attention to the means by which the city he speaks of would be brought about. When he speaks of an urban revolution, he is speaking of the transformation of society from an industrialized to an urbanized contour, not a set of actions that would produce a further change. The right to the city is a slogan that has caught on, and is used as a framework for much of the activity covered by Right to the City Three.

2. Right to the City Two: the liberal version.

Here the slogan becomes an abstract statement of theoretical human rights, as in Declarations of the Rights to the City in the World Charter and other international conferences. It includes an assembly of separate programmatic immediate realistic goals, seen as achievable and enforceable with the prevailing systems of law and governance. It has a potential to assist in bringing together at an international level, many complimentary campaigns and organizations, but it is only thinly linked to Right to the City One.

3. Right to the city Three: Alliance of Individual Issues.

The use that reflects the existing practice, urban social movements/organizations banding together in a Right to the City Alliance, an assemblage of specific diverse groups, ranging from the homeless to GLBT, to welfare recipients, to public housing tenants, etc., addressed by more or less militant action but within the system. The transformative nature of the demands made may or may not lie in the background, but the view that the problems are caused by common characteristics of the system is nevertheless shared.
B. Occupy

“Occupy,” as the term is used by the various groups using it as part of their names, has very different meanings: the word “occupy” in “Occupy Wall Street” means one thing, in “Occupy Los Angeles” another in “Occupy Brooklyn;” it means something else again “Occupy Everything;” in “Occupy Wikipedia” something other than in “Occupy police., or in “Occupy Peace, or in “Occupy the System.”.” The only definition that would permit its substitution for the term in each usage would be: “Actively Engage in Changing _______” But it can have an ambiguous meaning: Liberate a foreclosed home, or occupy a factory in a sit-in, as well as Occupy the West Bank to displace its occupants. It is used here in the sense of the original Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City, as liberatory in a progressive direction. (see Occupy One below.) Of course the Occupy movement is not a formal body and has many and divergent positions within it, but I believe the discussion below reflects the predominant voices and views.

Schematically, then:

1. Occupy One: Class Targeted Discourse.

Wall Street as symbolic of the ruling elite, l% if not just income. Wall Street as representative of the ruling elite, seen as in conflict with the 99%, rejecting compromise/consensus seeking solutions. . Aimed at raising consciousness, affecting the discourse, getting picked up by others e.g. in election campaigns, and eschewing specific concrete “demands” and programmatic goals in favor of principled positions. Seeking transformation in the social structure as a whole. Thus far, avoiding direct dealing with issues of power and real-politik.

2. Occupy Two: Physically Take Over Spaces.

Literally, occupy spaces, originally those directly sympbolic of and/or locted in the heart of the beast, as in Zuccotti Park, or Oakland. The expansion of this approach to site occupation to explore the uses of public space in particular, and to focus on the democratic aspect of arrangements for the provision and use of public space, is consistent with Occupy One, but something of a dilution of its confrontational and class-related aspect., dealing with much less than the systemic whole of the former. But It can lead to what I have called a fetishized conception of space.

3. Occupy Three: An Umbrella Function.

All Occupy groups have been very open and supportive of other campaigns that they see as moving in the same direction as their own broad vision. This includes both campaigns with immediate and limited goals, e.g. picket lines at anti-union employers, as well as less immediate goals, as in in Occupy Los Angeles, , or Occupy the Economy, or Occupy Columbia, or Occupy Production. Here Occupy has by and large subordinated its transformative approaches to the immediate needs of the action it is supporting.

4. Occupy Four: Occupy as Process.

From the start, Occupy groups have been very conscious of their internal procedures of discussion and decision-making. Occupy spatial encampments are seen by their participants as models of what democratic processes would be. The General Assemblies, at which all members can speak and vote, with instant voting by show of hands and hand gestures, with 90% majority requirements and attention being given to the varying strength of individual objections, are all seen as prototypes of how a society as a whole might operate. Attention is not, however, to my knowledge, focused on how such techniques might be carried over into actual governmental or organizational procedures outside of the encampments.

IV. Conclusion: Evolution to Revolution?

While each of the forms of the Right to the City and the Occupy movements co-exist with each of the other forms, there is a pattern of development that becomes apparent. It runs from a full-blown commitment to social transformation to more narrowly focused attention to specific sectors of the existing structure in need of change to a practice in which immediate campaigns for reform are supported theoretically as parts of a comprehensive attack on the whole but in practice become increasingly ends in themselves. In the process, the historical current of deep dissatisfaction remains underneath all developments, but the sharp focus on the critique of the existing system, of capitalism, moves to the background, is subject to co-optation, is split up into multiple separate issues, the common source of each reflected more in individual practical actions than in ideological analysis and consciousness.

In general, the movement can be seen as being objectively in the direction of transformation, but its subjective focus becomes dimmed in the face of the apparent impracticality of successful attack on the system as a whole. The fact of this subjective weakness becomes a part of the objective reality confronting the movements, and of necessity influences their shorter-term practices and goals. While achieving certain important rights in the city, ensuring the democratic occupancy of effective public spaces in cities, moving the public discourse to greater concern with issues of inequality and participatory democracy, are important goals in themselves, they are not the ultimate goals that inspired these movements in their early days.

That development is then a logical, if not inevitable consequence of the real historical situation in which the participants find themselves, in which the objective conditions for transformation, for revolution, initially seem to be present, but in which immediate transformation, the likelihood of revolution in its classical sense, undercuts that real potential and seems to become a utopian chimera. Piecemeal evolution, abandoning the possibility of a wholesale transformation, seems the only sensible answer to the problem to the constraints of historical reality. A complete transformation from one explosive manifestation, the traditional view of revolution, certainly does not seem to be in the cards. Is evolution to revolution, transition to transformation, possible?

There is, I believe, increasing recognition of the need to confront this situation within the movements themselves, and to consider alternative paths ahead. In the next blog, #11, some possibilities are explored.

Author: pmarcuse

Just starting this blog, for short pieces on current issues. Suggestions for improvement, via e-mail, very welcome. pm35@columbia.edu

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