Nicholas Mirzoeff: Why I Occupy

It is pretty remarkable to see an essay like this one in an academic journal, even one as broad and literary as Public Culture.

An excerpt from this essay, “Why I Occupy” by Nicholas Mirzoeff, one of the professors most involved in the Occupy Student Debt coalition in New York:

(Read more about Occupy Student Debt in my 2011 article for The Nation.)

“I live in New York City, where I teach at New York University, and since October 2011 the centerpiece of my intellectual and political life has been Occupy Wall Street. I don’t claim to have been there since ‘the beginning,’ whenever that was, or to be a leader, whatever that means, or still less, to speak for the movement. For better or worse, this has nonetheless been a signature moment in my personal, professional, and political life. It’s only been five months since the first people started to occupy in New York. It has been a year since the Tunisian revolution suddenly changed the sense of the possible and then Egypt made it go viral. The moment seems ancient and modern at once. Vladimir Lenin famously danced in the snow when the Bolshevik Revolution had lasted longer than the Paris Commune. If the encampment at Liberty Plaza did not quite outlast the Commune, Occupy continues, and there’s dancing most days for those so inclined.

I’ve been waiting for this sense of possibility for a long time now. It was Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister, who coined neoliberalism’s mantra: “There is no alternative.” In 1979, on the day she was first elected, I went to a performance of Macbeth— the famous one with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench at the Donmar Warehouse, in London. I remember wondering, as I walked out of Shakespeare’s examination of the disastrous consequences of autocratic ambition, how long this Conservative moment might last. I was too young to vote then. It’s only now as I turn fifty that I see a chance, just a chance, that we might take a different direction. In the space that has opened up between the disappointment engendered by “Obama” and the emergence of Occupy has come a widespread realization that no election of a single candidate or party is likely to change the neoliberal consensus, let alone transform capitalism. Hard on the heels of this commonplace (in certain left circles at least) came the opportunity and responsibility to try and do something about it. I want to be able to think that, even if Occupy evaporates, I did at least participate as best I could.

This commitment is a little less monastic than traditional activism. One of the strengths of the Occupy movement is the rhetoric of “step up, step back,” meaning that once you have done or said something, you should in fact step back for a while and allow others to act or speak. As much as some people have given over their lives to the project, this formula allows others a variety of ways to engage. On days of direct action, there are actions planned where there is a risk of getting arrested, such as a picket of Wall Street, and others where that risk is low, like a march to city hall. The movement needs the visibility of both disruptive nonviolent direct action and numbers in the streets, so one choice is not more important than the other.”

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