Occupy: the marauding Starbucks of radical protest
Events in Turkey confirm that imposing the conformist Occupy brand on every global protest only helps to confuse and contain them.
There is a profound irony to the Occupy movement: it is stuffed with the sort of people who despise globalisation, who loathe what they see as capitalism’s imposition of sameness around the world, yet it has itself become a brutally globalising force, nuking local nuance from radical protests and spreading political sameness.
It has become the Starbucks of radical politics, swallowing up local conflicts and uprisings and spewing them out as Yet Another Occupy: Occupy Athens, Occupy Melbourne, Occupy Dublin, and now Occupy Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey. In a globe-conquering move that will have even the most successful corporation boss turning green with envy, the rich white kids of the Western-born Occupy movement have created a situation where virtually every radical upheaval in the world feels the need to transform itself into an Occupy franchise, into an offshoot of this monolithic political creature.
Turkey provides a good example of how ubiquitous the Occupy brand has become. There are many complex reasons behind the uprising of largely middle-class urban youth in Istanbul and other parts of Turkey. It might have started as a small-scale protest to protect Gezi Park from being built on, but the authorities’ extraordinarily heavyhanded response to the protests, and the protesters’ decision to fight pitched battles with the police, reveal that there’s far more going on here than a squabble over a park. The uprising has revealed some deep fissures in modern Turkish society, between its moderate Islamist rulers and its secular youth, and between urban and rural populations. However, rather than getting to grips with these political specifics and the historical juncture in modern Turkey at which the uprising has occurred, outside observers have instead played what Foreign Policy calls a ‘name game’, choosing to ‘brand’ the whole thing as ‘Occupy Istanbul’.
Foreign Policy is right to flag up the striking ‘Turkish protest name game’ currently being played by non-Turkish observers and also within Turkey itself. (Notably, the Turkish president Abdullah Gul has played his hand in this game, insisting that the protests are ‘more Occupy than Arab Spring’.) FP says it is wrong to try to squeeze the Turkish protests into a particular political box, to brand them with a readymade radical label, because actually the protests have – or at least could have, if they were allowed to – a dynamic that is specific to the current Turkish experience. It frowns upon those who claim the Turkish protests are like ‘May 1968 in France’, and those who talk of a ‘Turkish Spring’, and those who describe it as ‘a return of the Occupy movement’. What is really striking is how creepingly victorious this latter hand in the protest name game, the branding of Turkey as ‘Occupy Istanbul’, has been.
It isn’t only President Gul, desperate for the protests not to be seen as a ‘Spring’ along the lines of what happened in Egypt, who says the uprising is like Occupy. More and more media observers, and increasingly the protesters themselves, now describe the protests as ‘another Occupy’. Turkish newspapers talk about ‘Occupy Taksim’ or ‘Occupy Istanbul’. Western observers who have visited the protesters say they are ‘instantly reminded’ of 2011’s Occupy Wall Street (the first real Occupy gathering). It isn’t surprising that they’re reminded of Occupy Wall Street and its scores of carbon-copy protests – because increasingly, the protesters in Turkey are self-consciously modelling themselves on Occupy, building ‘tent cities’, with outreach and advice areas and LGBT zones, and propagating the idea that holding out against the authorities, by staying put in Taksim Square, will be the measure of their success: a clear Occupy trait.
Since the first proper Occupy gathering, on Wall Street, the Occupy brand has been remarkably successful at co-opting all sorts of uprisings. Initiated by the spectacularly snobbish anti-capitalist magazine Adbusters, which sneers at the ‘army of zombies’ that make up Western consumer society, with our ‘glazed eyes, blank stress, faces twisted into ugly masks of want’, the launch of the first Occupy in 2011 declared: ‘What is our one demand? Occupy Wall Street. Bring tent.’ The very same paucity of political articulation and emphasis on camping out as a form of rebellion now infect movements around the globe. Even uprisings that preceded Occupy Wall Street – such as the uprising in Egypt and the Indignados movement in Spain – came to adopt the Occupy outlook and lingo, swiftly becoming Occupy Tahrir Square and Occupy Madrid. Everything from the uprising against Euro-austerity in Athens to the rebellion of the Arab peoples against their dictators has come to be denuded of its specific character and instead mashed into a massive pot marked ‘OCCUPY’. Western supporters of Occupy claim the difference between protests in, say, London and protests in places like Egypt ‘is one of scale, not of substance’. This is patently ridiculous. There are numerous substantial differences, and great diversity of thought and desire, between protests taking place around the world. But it seems that Western Occupiers, like a political version of MaccyD’s, cannot abide the idea of difference and feel an urge to make everything deathly samey.
Why has this happened? Partly it speaks to the intellectual crisis of radical thought today, where protesters who struggle to articulate what they are fighting for or what kind of society they would like to create have an instinct to fall back on a readymade, easily understandable brand to express their frustration. ‘We are part of Occupy’, they say. ‘That’s what we’re about.’ And partly it speaks to various protest groups’ understandable craving for respectability, their desire to be taken seriously. Easily the most striking thing about Occupy in the West has been its glowing popularity among the establishment, including the media, the Church, and even within certain political circles. Some foreign protest groups aspire to respectability within the West, seeing Western politicians and observers as potentially providing leverage in their local battles with tyrants or rampaging police; and so they come to believe that if they adopt the Occupy tag, then they, too, will win the flattery of Western establishments.
Occupiers will claim that the spread of their brand is about solidarity, even a form of universalism. But solidarity does not mean subsuming every radical movement into the same way of thinking and agitating. The unstoppable spread of a brand created by well-off Westerners who hate dumb consumers looks more like cultural imperialism than solidarity with foreigners. The transformation of Occupy into a global brand is actually having a deeply destructive impact on radical aspirations. In particular, it is discouraging protest groups from thinking carefully and articulating clearly what they are all about, instead inviting them simply to don the Occupy badge; and it is also implicitly inviting protest groups to spend more time on appealing to influential Occupy sympathisers over here, especially in the media, than on trying to win the backing of everyday people in their own nations. That is, the two most important things for any serious uprising to do – to state its aims and to try to win local support – are being made more difficult by Occupy’s Starbucks-style imposition of a contradictory and soul-killing radical conformity.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.
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