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Questions raised by the [possible] end of Occupy Toronto

Now that Occupy Toronto has collapsed, at least temporarily, under the weight of its contradictions, I cannot help but be reminded of a post I wrote months before the #occupy movement was even proposed regarding the politics of affirmation.  In that post I argued that it is often easier to understand what we are against than what we are for and that the latter understanding, though harder to grasp, was the only thing that could lead to a revolutionary movement.  For while it is one thing to reject capitalism, or even worse symptoms of capitalism, it is quite another to grasp and organize a movement directed by a post-capitalist politics.  Clearly this entire occupy movement, while being in some ways an expression of anger against what many of us want to reject, is hampered by its inability to propose a productive politics.  In fact, those most dedicated to "occupy" as a movement have gone to great lengths to assert a politics of pure negativity: "we don't like the 1% and that's the only position we need to uphold."

But with Occupy Toronto no longer occupying its chosen site, evicted peacefully after trying to fight for its existence in court, I cannot help but wonder whether it can or should continue to exist as a movement in this city.  If the movement was all about demonstrating its rejection of "the politics of the 1%" by camping out in a park, then what can it express without having a site to occupy?  I am reminded of how Nick Dyer-Witheford recently argued that occupy could only fail as a movement as long as it remained within its occupying sites rather than moving to sites and circuits of production.  For at the sites of occupation it can be nothing more than a movement about camping out, expressing anger together, and thus doing nothing entirely productive when it comes to the existence of the 1% at which its anger is aimed.  What can it be without the praxis it has possibly fetishized?  Without a place to camp, to hang out with others who have also been drawn to the movement, it is nothing.  The marches that originated and terminated from this camp site, after all, did not possess agendas and aims any different from the agendas and aims of other organizations who have and will continue to organize these types of demonstrations, without any need for a camp site, in the future.  Indeed, many of these marches were partially organized by these other groups!  So if "occupy" is to survive in Toronto as a movement that is more than just a fetishized name it will have to find another camp site.

And yet Occupy Toronto left its site, the only concrete thing that provides it with an identity, without significant fuss.  Peaceful protests, legal battles, and ordered marches aside, the Toronto "occupiers" did not respond to their eviction in the manner of Oakland: their exit was so peaceful that both Toronto's right-wing mayor and the chief of pigs congratulated them on their behaviour.  Having complained about the [non-]organizers' understanding of the police before, I think it is worth questioning the potentiality of a movement if it can be congratulated by the police and a reactionary civic leader.  A movement generally unable to even recognize the structure behind the symptoms it rejects might not be a movement that we want to survive––at least not in its current form.

Interestingly enough, however, something of a productive politics emerged during the process of eviction.  Instead of arguing that they were involved in a significant protest, when they went to court to fight the injunction the representatives of Occupy Toronto's defense was that they were building a new community.  This was clearly a political rather than legal argument: no sane judge in this bourgeois system, regardless of how left-leaning s/he might be, is able to endorse an argument about building a new community on "public" property.  There is no possible way to even legally argue for this position: under the rules of capitalism, communities are not claimed but owned, and without permits and contracts and capital you have no right to build anything, let alone a community.

But this glimmer of a productive politics should cause us to wonder about the supposedly "new" community Occupy Toronto was trying to build.  This was not a squat action organized by an anti-poverty organization where the most destitute organize to claim an abandoned building: the primary occupiers' class position was of the type that allowed for camping out for the sake of camping out––a hippy tent city, not a squat designed to attack private property.  Nor was this community sustainable on its own terms; it was heavily subsidized by sympathetic organizations, including unions, that made sure that, for example, there were porta-potties to manage the occupiers' waste.  A community that did not know what its meaning as a community rejecting capitalism was, a community that was unable to exist by its own terms as a community because it was in some ways reliant on public union funding: this was the only politics that Toronto's #occupy managed to affirm.  These were the politics of a movement that some have been declaring, without any proper philosophical understanding of the terms, world historical and revolutionary.  In many ways I feel this frenzied rush to uncritically embrace the the political expression of this movement represents, yet again, the myopia of the left at the centres of capitalism.

Thus, as Occupy Toronto collapses I am reminded again of all the overly excited and unsober declarations that the entire movement's staunchest defenders have been making since its inception.  When I was in Europe for a conference, I had to sit through a plenary where a member of the USAmerican ISO yelled at the audience about the importance of the #occupy movement.  And when I write yelled I mean this literally: he was even interrupted by an audience member and asked to "stop yelling at us"––a request that, despite an applause of agreement, he chose to ignore.  According to this man, the "occupy" movement was the most revolutionary movement in the world.  In fact, he went so far as to argue (while yelling) that, just like in the 1960s, America is showing the world how to do revolution.  So many of our suspicions about the American exceptionalism behind this movement was partially confirmed in that statement.  How precisely was America even close to having the most revolutionary movements in the 1960s?  Vietnam's revolutionary war against the US, the Cultural Revolution, May 1968, guerrilla movements in South America, urban guerrilla movements in Germany and Italy and Japan, decolonizations struggles following the Algerian Revolution at the end of the 1950s––judged against these revolutionary processes, America was far from "leading the world" in revolutionary struggle.  And the most revolutionary struggles in 1960s USAmerica––Black Nationalism, indigenous self-determination––happened despite America: these were movements aimed against the very existence of America as America; these were also movements that were inspired by the above non-American struggles.  But according to Mr. ISO, the US led world revolution in the 1960s and is now leading it again in these occupy movements.  Some people in the crowd, representing a far more international audience, were clearly disappointed by this analysis; some wanted to hear about struggles outside of the US and were utterly bored by the obsession with #occupy that had nothing to do with the revolutionary imaginations of their contexts.

None of this is to say that I agree with the evictions, or think the #occupy movement should just die, but to argue for more clarity and perspective in how it's approached.  As much as we like to believe that demonstrations at the centres of capitalism matter more than armed struggle in the peripheries, we need to have a far more global perspective: yes I know that a nascent Trotskyism that is very popular at the centres of capitalism might have us believe that revolutionaries at the centres must lead revolutionaries at the peripheries, but maybe it is time to have the sort of global perspective that causes us to realize that this position is quite literally eurocentric.

Maybe we also need to ask whether the #occupy movement in Toronto could do anything productive within its own boundaries: if it is nothing but a camp-out that is only barely a squat, and has demonstrated its inability to articulate a politics beyond speaking of building a [subsidized] community, then should it survive according to its own logic?  And maybe it is time to ask the very marxist and very materialist question: what goals has the #occupy movement as a whole accomplished, aside from prolonging its existence as a massive protest camp-out––the cliched proof in the pudding which should matter according to those of us who call ourselves historical materialists.  These aren't questions, again, that argue for ignoring the movement but simply, as I have been doing since it began, understanding the movement according to its own terms.  And often I feel that those of us who are leftists tend to fail when it comes to understanding movements according to their own internal logic.


  1. It certainly is easier to say what you're against than what you are for. The Occupy (and particularly Occupy Toronto) seems to be a movement that's kindof in love with itself (a sentiment that I'm borrowing from someone else). If it is going to exist as a movement - which I;m not entirely convinced it can at this point - there needs to be some substance behind the action. I've certainly never advocated for a heavy focus of theory over practice, but I think that a clear articulation of goals/objectives/purpose or whatever you want to call it needs to happen.

    Actually, it's interesting that you mention squatting. I'm not sure if you've read this article - I just came across it last night:

    Apparently the "occupy" people have taken to squatting. I think this is actually interesting, not because of the squatting itself, but because it seems that anyone can engage in any kind of action and say that it's part of occupy. For me this speaks again to a lack of clarity and a lack of leadership.

    I will be interested to see where this goes...

  2. Thanks for the comment, xtina: no I never saw that article. It does show an interesting development but, if they're going to squat, what are the political reasons for this squatting? To build "a new community" or, as OCAP used to organize radical confrontational squats back in the day, to claim housing for the homeless? These are a bunch of petty bourgeois folks squatting for the hell of squatting for reasons that, as you noted, speak of a lack of clarity.

    Funny that you mentioned it being in love with itself. I remember how, by the second or third week, it was pretty much being directed by the "love is the movement" folks, definite neo-hippies (which speaks again to its petty bourgeois ideology), who would give you hugs whenever you entered the park and speak of everyone "loving each other", yoga, silent marches, and appropriated indigenous traditions (which was slightly annoying considering that AIM at one point had a contingent there).

  3. Love IS the movement. Totalitarians are not welcome. Wanna see my collection of healing crystals?

  4. When you say that Occupy Toronto was being directed by "Love Is The Movement" people, what do you mean? Are you using that as a way to say hippies, or is there something more to it? I've noticed that many of the people who took control of Occupy have tattoos that say this phrase- does this indicate a particular group or organization?

    1. *Directed* probably wasn't the most accurate use of language, but since it was in the comment section and not the article itself I'll blame this possible syntactical error on the comment medium. But the "love is the movement" people were not an organization per se but, really, just a loose affiliation of neo-hippies with quasi-anarchist politics but in a peacenik neo-reformist sense. There was a rebellion (in the most extreme "anarchist" manner) of being seen as an organized movement amongst those who were most invested in Occupy Toronto (we are all individuals, not a group, and don't necessarily have the same ideology) but, at the same time, this "love is the movement" slogan and random hippy practices represented the normative ideology of those who ended up being most prominent in occupy.


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