This is a translation of the first part of an interview conducted by Amador Fernández Savater for the Interferencias blog on eldiario.es. I am translating it because for the most part I haven’t devoted a great deal of attention to the events surrounding the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, since the idea of an anniversary, didn’t really capture my attention, and what little attention I did give was toward the sort of headline stuff that crops up in information feeds, without even bothering to digest it properly. There seemed to be a lot of stuff about what Occupy ought to do next, how it ought to transform itself into something else, and, of course, why it didn’t do what it ought to have done because of what it lacked, as though it were always a simple matter of overcoming whatever the ‘lack’ was. None of which, to be honest, was of any interest to me whatsoever. If you felt similarly, you might want to read this interview. This is the first part; the second part is due to be published tomorrow so I may translate that at some stage.
Occupy beyond Occupy (I)
Begoña, Luis, Susana and Vicente have been living in New York for some years now. With barely any political experience behind them but very affected by the 15-M, they made up part of the group that made the call-out launched by Adbusters magazine to occupy Wall Street on the 17th of September 2011 and have actively participated in Occupy Wall Street during its first year of life.
Unhappy with the more activist dynamics of the movement, they created Making Worlds, a space from which Occupy might be inhabited in a different way, with different aesthetics, questions and rhythms, working around the idea-force of the commons as the axis of dialogue and research (beyond the alternative of public or private, State or market).
Begoña Santa-Cecilia was born in Madrid and has lived in New York for 17 years. She is an artist and art teacher in the Harlem School of the Arts and the Metropolitan Museum. Luis Moreno-Caballud was born in Fraga (Huesca) and has lived in New York since 2003 and teaches classes in contemporary Spanish literature and culture in the University of Pennsylvania. Susana Draper was born in Uruguay, arrived in New York five years ago and is a teacher of Latin American literature at Princeton University. Vicente Rubio was born and raised in Zaragoza, and has been living for six years in New York where he is writing his doctoral thesis on contemporary Spanish ideology and culture at SUNY Stony Brook.
What impressions did you get from the first anniversary of Occupy?
Luis. Different and contradictory feelings because there were different moments. The anniversary was set across three days. Saturday, education: self-training activities, talks and debates. Sunday, celebration: gathering in a park and a party. And Monday, resistance: return to Zuccoti Park and blocking actions in the area of Wall Street.
Vicente. The imagination regarding the anniversary was very poor to start off: a logic of the event and not the process, as if in three days you would get what hasn’t happened in a year. I don’t know.. I was only there on Saturday in Washington Square. But not much happened. It was something very internal, with ways of being together that are already ritualised: information points, assemblies etc. There was no electricity in the air.
Begoña. For me the three days story seemed problematic because everything seemed to culminate on the third day with the protest actions. That’s why on Monday I went to Zuccoti sceptical, but I came back very happy. We could only gather in the square, because an incredible police presence prevented us from moving (in fact I would say that there were far more police than last year). But in the square a lot of people got together, new and different people. There wasn’t as much anxiety as last year.
Susana. Yes, last year Zuccoti was like a drug. This time there was a lot of contagious energy, but more subtle, more serene, without so much fuss. You could really talk to other people. The drums sounded from the south as always, but they didn’t hypnotise like before. We were very happy to be there together again, showing that the movement is not dead, that we need it, we want it, and we we build it from day to day.
How was the anniversary picked up on in the media?
B. In short: “Occupy is not dead, but it has decayed”. They haven’t been able to kill it, because plenty of people went to the gatherings. But that’s what they say: it’s fading away and nothing has been achieved. Morale: without permanent structures, visible leaders and traditional demands, you’re going nowhere.
S. It’s a clinical look: alive or dead? But what is alive or dead? What are you referring to, what are you speaking about? They haven’t understood what it’s about since the beginning.
L. That’s right, but the problem is that our attention is too centred on what the television and the New York Times are going to say. You could notice it on Saturday: there was a climate of celebration but at the same time we patted ourselves on the back as if to convince ourselves that we remain alive. The narrative of the mainstream media weighs too great on the movement. We judge ourselves from that perspective and we strive to show that we are still alive and doing lots of things. We let ourselves be examined.
B. The only thing the media recognises is that Occupy has “changed the conversation”, by putting on the table the problem of economic inequality. But I wonder what conversation they’re talking about. Are they referring to the fact that the political and media agenda has widened to include another talking point for its debates and electoral campaigns? That appropriation deactivates more than anything else. What is interesting is how everyday conversation changes. For example, thinking about personal debt as a political and collective problem. That’s starting to happen.
V. We can’t confine ourselves to blaming the media. The problem is the obsession with understanding it all in terms of identity. An Occupy-identity has coagulated: the assembly or the square are symbols that get venerated and not tools that help to work for and achieve things. They are fetishes rather than open symbols under permanent construction. Whoever we start to fetishise things we ourselves become very open to being caricatured. For their part, the alternative media inflate the Occupy phenomenon in order to hold back the contempt from the mainstream media, but they keep playing in the same logic of the spectacle. There is a balloon that gets inflated and it keeps getting codified, caricatured even if this is with good intentions.
L. The difficulty is that we don’t have our own language for speaking about what we are doing and for naming an experimental and open political process that consists in living everyday life in a different way, but without becoming radically separated from society.
S. I wonder why we can’t generate our own narrative. In the meetings prior to the anniversary we were talking the whole time about the police and the media, but never about how to tell our own story. A different story, more inclusive (going to Manhattan already excludes all those immigrants who are immediately deported if they are detained). More unpredictable: why can’t we generate an event where they aren’t waiting for us? Why can’t we make a potency out of invisibility? We are responding time and again to the gaze of the Father: the police, the journalist, the State. Making efforts to respond to their own evaluation criteria, when in reality the fact that they don’t understand us is a very good sign because it means we are creating another story and we have our own criteria.
Some of us use the metaphor of ‘climate’ for thinking about the 15-M as a movement that cannot be reduced to a localised organisational structure, but rather one that affects social life in ways that are more diffuse and decentralised. Can one speak in the same way about Occupy?
V. Of course, there are numerous Occupy. The media Occupy has deflated, the brand has lost appeal for the media. For example, it plays no role with regard to the elections. It has disappeared and I don’t know if that is good or bad. There is also a diffuse Occuoy that affects other struggles and experiences as a kind of breeding ground, for example in the case of the struggles of teachers against the worsening of their job conditions that are unfolding now in Chicago. From the most active nucleus of Occupy there is now a Debt Strike getting proposed: it entails working politically with regard to this problem that determines the lives of millions of Americans in the US. And then you have the projects that came out of Occupy that work longer term and continuously. That for example is the case in New York with the Free University, the newspaper Indig-nación, with Making Worlds and much more.
B. The taboo that has been broken now is that many groups have given up the Occuoy name as it is already very codified. And you even hear voices that propose thinking about a post-Occupy. Not a next phase of Occupy, but something else.
S. We ourselves in Making Worlds no longer use the Occupy identity. We carry with us the climate, but we no longer use the name. Occupy is seeds that exist in people who lived the experience of the square and which in other contexts will become other things.
L. Occupy has been a necessary moment of separation from the party system. The possible start to a long term renewal of the political culture in this country. It is a first crack that can deepen further along. It does not affect the general situation as much as the 15-M in Spain, but It also has to be said that in the US the crisis is not striking as hard. There are sectors of society that live in a dramatic situation, but they have always lived that way. This is a very heterogeneous and fragmented society, and it is very difficult for something to affect everyone. The issue that can generate most resonance is that of debt.
Tell me about the problem of debt in the US and what people are trying to do about it.
L. First of all you have to understand the extent of the problem. In the US, sustainability of life does not only depend on accessing a job or a salary, but getting access to loans. Every person is dependent on their credit history, which records whether you are suitable for credit or not. If you want to rent a house or even buy a phone you have to present your credit history. It turns into a real obsession, the perfect way of turning people into numbers.
S. To understand it better: your credit history gains points if you are capable of taking out and paying back debts. If you show you are able to manage your debts. Whether you ask for loans and you pay them back regularly. If you are a reliable citizen who always pays on time. And better if it’s large debts, better if it’s with an American Express than with another card, of course.
V. If you don’t have a visa and you don’t apply for loans you don’t have a credit history. And not having a credit history is something very suspicious here. That is, if you don’t take out loans you are suspicious. They look at you funny when you go to rent a house, for example. Culturally it’s a radical difference. Having debts is not dysfunctional or unusual, but the most normal, logical, natural thing. Everyone lives in debt. Study debts, consumer debts.. to live in the US is to live in debt. You appear rich, but you’re really very poor.
B. The objective of Strike Debt is to politicise the problem of debt. That is, to change perceptions: it is not a strictly personal problem, but one that is political and collective. A information manual has been put together, and they are figuring out collective ways of getting free from debt, etc. The campaign slogan is very good: “You’re not alone”. A play on the phonetic similarity between “alone” and loan. The sentence says simultaneously: you’re not alone and you’re not a loan.
L. People live ashamed of their debts. The people from Strike Debt talk about how the “debtor assemblies” they organise help people to stop feeling ashamed of having so much debt. Because not only is not paying it stigmatised, but so too is accumulating a lot of it, despite the fact that we are bombarded with messages that impel us to get into debt (tonnes of letters in the mail offering you credit cards and so on).