I have a fondness for the spirit behind the Occupy movement. I suppose my fondness is based on potentials. The potential to change something, to move in a different direction, to create new forms of organization, to engage young people politically in ways that resonate with them. I guess I still like the idea of a space for utopia. After the mostly jaded ‘90s and early ‘00s, the return of a potential for utopia is, for me, the potential for hope. I know, such an outdated and unfashionable notion, one that was even outdated by the time I came of age. But you can say that, in spirit, I might be a child of the ‘60s. So, I see these popular assemblies as picking up where the ‘60s left, not imitating or reproducing the spirit of the 60s, but using some of those ideals as part of a historical continuum. And for that alone, I root for the movement.
So, when this week we discussed with the other editors that we would devote Tiger Beatdown to different views of the Occupy movement, I cheered. I pointed out my frustration at the unexamined replication of American slogans that have little or no value in the European Union, namely, the tirelessly repeated “We are the 99%”. Which, let’s face it, is a great catchy phrase. From a marketing perspective, it contains everything great bylines are made of: short, descriptive, vague enough to be used in different contexts while still retaining its original intent, easily remembered. Except that, when repeated on European territory, as it is the case in most Occupations currently taking place across the continent, it is complete nonsense. Just to offer one example, at Occupy Amsterdam’s website, you can see, on the left side of the screen, the Official poster repeating this 99% meme. This, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news, is a lie. At a quick glance, this Wikimedia map illustrates my points pretty clearly. There is no point of comparison in wealth distribution between any European country and the US. Even Turkey, which is not even considered part of Europe, has more income and wealth equality than the US. To put it in layman terms, European wealth is in the hands of a bigger group than a nominal 1%. The problem with basing your movement on a lie, on a catchy slogan imported from some place else is that your opponent can easily dismiss you. Facts, when in the hands of people with power, win discussions. And this, I am afraid, is not to be overlooked because the Occupy fight is not against one institution or one specific group, but against an entire system. If this movement is honest, then it will have to acknowledge that the fight itself is a struggle against kyriarchy, even if, in the interest of simplifying discussions, they prefer not to use such an obscure term. And because of that, the language we use, the facts we lay down on the table, the points we make need to be impeccable and impeachable. Which so far hasn’t happened at all.
The Empire strikes back
The European Union’s wealth is the wealth of Empires. Mainly the British, Dutch, Spanish, Belgium, French, Italian, Austro-German and Portuguese empires. This is the wealth built on the backs of the African slave trade and the colonization of lands as distant from each other as the African continent, the Americas, Asia and Australia. This wealth is made of unspeakable suffering and economic deprivation for those in the colonized territories. This wealth is also made of resource depletion and subjugation of native populations. This wealth that never belonged to Europe to begin with.
And yet, people talk of “Occupations”; which come to think of it, Europe invented as the very foundation of “modernity” to begin with. So what exactly does it mean to “Occupy” Europe in this context? What does it mean when the citizens of a super power of Europe’s magnitude talk of “Occupations”? National treasures, welfare states, museum collections, food production, trade agreements, the diamond trade, the automobile manufacturing industry (heavily based on rubber trade to produce tires), oil production and commercialization, military interventions: all of them and many more, based on this very idea of Europe “Occupying” extra territorial spaces. The very same wealth people now Occupying these public European squares reclaim as their own, demanding it is re-distributed while it was generated as a result of Europe’s occupations in the first place. And yet, none of this is examined or contextualized. Most people operating under the illusion that this wealth they are reclaiming is rightfully theirs, that they are entitled to it.
Europe, which through systematic occupations, created what Andre Gunder Frank has called the process of the “development of underdevelopment”. And yet, the European Occupy movement does not even attempt to integrate basic concepts like Dependency Theory, and its very European foundation in relation to Europe’s colonial past and neo-colonial present and how the very same wealth the Occupiers reclaim is not entirely legitimate:
- Poor nations provide natural resources, cheap labor, a destination for obsolete technology, and markets for developed nations, without which the latter could not have the standard of living they enjoy.
- Wealthy nations actively perpetuate a state of dependence by various means. This influence may be multifaceted, involving economics, media control, politics, banking and finance, education, culture, sport, and all aspects of human resource development (including recruitment and training of workers).
- Wealthy nations actively counter attempts by dependent nations to resist their influences by means of economic sanctions and/or the use of military force.
And now, to prove that none of this Dependency Theory is a thing of the past, in a very recent display of neo-colonial power, NATO forces, the pan European military arm, occupies Libya, a former Italian colony, supporting the “good guys”, the rebel insurgent group whose idea of justice was to sodomize Gaddafi minutes before his execution (Warning for extremely graphic content). Europe, once again, behind the pillage of bodies outside their territory, because that’s another concept that Europe laid out the foundations for: the idea of what Judith Butler very aptly named “the non grievable” lives. Those that are placed as the perpetual “Other”, not “one of us”, undeserving of grief.
Occupy a Cage
These “non grievable” lives are only allowed to occupy very limited European spaces, namely, they are to be held captive as a punishment for crossing European borders. Their bodies to be kept outside the territory that only legitimate subjects can Occupy to reclaim wealth. Even though these people come from the areas that created the European wealth. Now they are conceived as unnecessary, unseen, silenced, their only permissible movement that of deportation, a return to the predated land that Europe has deemed no longer worthy of occupation, the formerly colonized territory. And this, I’ve said it before, is supposedly done in the name of the same European citizens that are now taking to the streets to reclaim the wealth they believe is deservedly theirs.
Travelers and Roma people constantly evicted from European spaces, their right to Occupy anything denied while a complacent media enforces their status as “Other” and as such, undeserving of the right to inhabit spaces that should be reserved for legitimate Europeans. Because, let’s be clear here once and for all: only people who are legitimized by the State can occupy anything. The rest, the undocumented immigrants, the refuges, the Roma, the asylum seekers, had their right to occupy revoked. However, the European Occupy movement is not widely addressing this deprivation and their role, as rightful subjects, in it. Instead, I insist, the movement claims a bigger portion of the tainted pie.
The foreign threat
All of the above brings me to one of my favorite topics: Europe’s contemporary role as a hegemonic power based on the constant need to demonize “the Other”.
None of this is new. All European Empires were built on this notion of “the Other”, the non human that was only good in so far as she could produce labor and resources and, in turn, more children to be exploited. Nowadays, these ideas constantly framed as “the immigrant menace” and the inevitable raising of xenophobia and racism; European governments passing laws demanding more and more stringent requirements to access a documented residency status. The non Western immigrant that did manage to acquire a residency, forced to learn the language of the country or risk deportation. The old colonial practices now enforced on European territories under the guise of “cultural preservation” and “integration”.
In Decolonizing the Mind, Ngugi wa Thiong’o described the practice of language controls in colonial Kenya:
Thus one of the most humiliating experiences was to be caught speaking Gikuyu in the vicinity of the school. The culprit was given corporal punishment – three to five strokes of the cane on bare buttocks – or was made to carry a metal plate around the neck with inscriptions such as I AM STUPID or I AM A DONKEY. Sometimes the culprits were fined money they could hardly afford. And how did the teachers catch the culprits? A button was initially given to one pupil who was supposed to hand it over to whoever was caught speaking his mother tongue. Whoever had the button at the end of the day would sing who had given it to him and the ensuing process would bring out all the culprits of the day. Thus children were turned into witch-hunters and in the process were taught the lucrative value of being a traitor to one’s immediate community.
Nowadays, European States (the Netherlands and Denmark are two such examples) have laws that demand Non Westerners learn and speak the local languages or risk fines or, failing to comply, eventual deportation. Their right to occupy a space subject to assimilation.
At the bottom of these practices there is one undeniable truth: the wealth that was acquired through the Empire, should remain, as much as possible, in the hands of the Empire’s subjects. The subjects that do not belong to the Empire, kept at bay through barbed wire, military raids, unfair trade balances, strict controls and subjugation.
If European Occupy movements have a real desire to change the contemporary power imbalance, all of this needs to be an integral part of its ethics. However, as much as I want to see this movement succeed, I do not have very high hopes. In so far, in Europe, the Occupy movement is mostly White and European. I have seen Amsterdam’s first hand (photos can be found here) and while it might not be exactly identical to the entire European wide phenomenon, by all accounts, it seems to replicate the demographics of its counterparts across the continent. White, native subjects of the former Empires demanding that their needs are met. Which is undeniably a very valid demand and one I wholeheartedly support. However, this expectation should not come at the expense of further oppression for “the Other”. Especially when European wealth was created at the expense of this “Other”, this non European that now bears the burden of her colonial past.
A social movement that demands change without examining the role of its participants in dominant discourse and their active and necessary participation as “subjects with rights” in the enforcement of State violence is only going to produce half baked results. It might timidly generate a superficial improvement in immediate wealth re-distribution, perhaps achieve some cosmetic short term improvements in the form of concessions disguised as “legitimate change”. However, such movement will only be an instrument for the perpetuation of the status quo. One where certain groups are deserving of a voice while others, “the Others” are quietly kept in their place. After all, Empires have never been very keen on sincere self examinations.