by Paul McLean
Art, Free Speech, and the 1%
Fareed Zakaria (10/13/13): This is now a kind of anniversary of the Occupy movement. There’s inequality and protests around inequality in many of these countries from Brazil to Turkey. So—
Lloyd Blankfein: America.
Zakaria: Right. So let me ask you, looking back, you know, with Occupy Wall Street, you know, having its anniversary, what do you think it all means? That Goldman Sachs wasn’t incidental to this whole issue.
Blankfein: I must have missed it. [Laughter] I don’t know why this was such a big anniversary. I must send flowers.1
That Lloyd Blankfein continues to walk freely among us is testament to the corruption of democracy in the United States. Maybe Blankfein was in such a great mood while chatting with Zakaria because he was privy to the 2012 economic data for American Chief Executive pay2, which showed an average of $100 million per annum for the top ten CEOs. Or maybe his good humor reflected the stock market’s record-setting month. On October 22, the N.A.S.D.A.Q. closed at 3,930, the Dow at 15,468, and Standard & Poor’s broke the 1,750 mark for the first time3. So what if JP Morgan Chase was on the hook for $13 billion in fines? So what if the U.S. government had been shut down for a couple weeks by a bunch of fanatical right-wingers? Goldman Sachs is still beating estimates, even if its revenues are flat. Blankfein is a free man. In fact, he had just visited the White House, ostensibly to advise the President and be advised on the shutdown/debt ceiling crises.
During the shutdown, a handful of concerned conservatives began a drumbeat of criticism aimed at reining in Ted Cruz and the Tea Party. Strangely, the pundits adopted language similar to the hyperbole employed during O.W.S. as noted by Noah Fischer in a thoughtful essay on the Occupy Wall Street blog (which is alive and well on the New York City General Assembly website).4 In his Washington Post column, former Bush II speechwriter Michael Gerson got explicit about it. In “Conservatism Meets Occupy Wall Street,” he wrote of the Tea Party:
I had always thought this type of romantic posturing more typical of the hard left. The world is going off a cliff of inequality and capitalist oppression—so pitch a tent in Zuccotti Park. Achievable results, even reasonable demands, are irrelevant. What the revolution needs is fearless consistency. Movement conservatism, meet Occupy Wall Street.
Let’s be clear: the O.W.S.-Tea Party comparison is a false one. The two phenomena have almost nothing in common, outside of a few shared grievances on long lists of complaints. The most obvious distinction between O.W.S. and the Tea Partiers is the crackdown on the former. The faux scandal about I.R.S. persecution on Tea Party organizations just doesn’t measure up. As Fischer concludes:
The Tea Party didn’t endure over 7,000 arrests nationwide, nor millions of dollars of property destruction by direct order of mayors across the country. They weren’t infiltrated by spies or picked off for entrapment schemes leading to long prison sentences and humiliation. The Tea Party was showered with cash and led into the political control room where they are now wreaking ego-based havoc.
O.W.S. was forcibly evicted by the Bloomberg administration. Due to the impressive efforts of a few true O.W.S. believers, such as Chris Hedges, the dimensional authoritarian suppression of Occupy in the United States and related movements abroad has come to light, through reporting, lawsuits, and other investigatory actions. The top-down-enabled subjugation of Occupy involved strategic organization of federal, state, and local leaders. The anti-Occupy directives were issued from the White House to a cabal of mayors in major U.S. cities with Occupations and executed by militarized security professionals. They used highly sophisticated, coordinated surveillance programs. The crackdown on Occupy employed a spectrum of interventions by enforcement agencies of every description. The cost of the campaign against the movement was vast. The operation was supported through media monopoly-enabled propaganda.
What did the Occupations accomplish? In the aftermath of multiple clearances, the world was made aware of the pervasive occupational powers of the post-9/11 security complex. We learned that the term “occupied” can be ascribed to democratic society today as a general prognosis. Occupy, generally, was a peaceful movement. The ugly incidents, whether the young women “kettled” in Manhattan by Officer Anthony Bologna (aka Tony Baloney) or the pepper-spraying of U.C. Davis students, or the casualties of police violence, like veteran Scott Olsen, who was injured by a projectile fired from police lines, often produced disturbing still and moving images that went viral. The ubiquitous mobile media in broad use as a direct action tool in the protests proved in almost every instance that violence involving Occupy was instigated by the officers present to contain the occupations, to occupy Occupy. Anti-Occupy corporate media spin was subverted or minimized via new media. Widespread revelations of cops’, prosecutors’, and courts’ rampant abuse of civil liberties have given rise to several important international human rights organizations’ condemnation.5 Hedges provides a nice summation of the lessons learned and the direction of the movement:
Class struggle defines most of human history. Marx got this right. The sooner we realize that we are locked in deadly warfare with our ruling, corporate elite, the sooner we will realize that these elites must be overthrown. The corporate oligarchs have now seized all institutional systems of power in the United States. Electoral politics, internal security, the judiciary, our universities, the arts and finance, along with nearly all forms of communication, are in corporate hands. Our democracy, with faux debates between two corporate parties, is meaningless political theater. There is no way within the system to defy the demands of Wall Street, the fossil fuel industry, or war profiteers. The only route left to us, as Aristotle knew, is revolt.6
One of the central reasons O.W.S. continues to resonate through the civil discourse is the movement’s affront to the global property/owner regime. The enforcement of property power IS the history of New York City, and America, and ultimately the planet. Free speech has always contravened as opposition to the overarching command and control complexes rooted in ownership. Whether we choose to admit it or not, we are facing the reality that property regime and democracy are over time incompatible.
The conflation of anti-property speech with sedition and blasphemy in America opens a fairly broad arena in the free speech continuum for tyranny to operate here against dissent. Sean Hannity and Mark Levin are currently leading the charge in the mainstream media. But American extremists operating on multiple platforms may choose from a range of positions (“Free Market,” patriotic fervor, and God) in order to attack. Upending free speech to “protect” it is another tack. Take, for example, the authoritarian measures taken during the Bush II administration, which penned those who opposed the president in Orwellian “Free Speech Zones.”7 The methodology of those temporary encampments, created to quarantine the Bush dissenters from the object of their ire, is itself remarkable, when considered coincidentally with monopoly media as the complicit quasi-political apparatus. The public property-plus-free-speech issues intrinsic in the creation of activist and reporter holding pens to protect a controversial politician’s photo ops or message machine are manifold. The isolation areas for Bush protesters constituted an expansive iteration of “out of sight, out of mind,” situating the politically mediated and enforced citizen opposition as invisible entities in the sphere of free speech, while also encompassing “out of hearing distance” and “out of the range of media coverage.” Occupy, to a significant degree, refused this anti-democratic assault, at least for a time.
The barriers and demarcations of acceptability are mutable for the tyrant, and concrete for the tyrant’s offender. To conceive of society outside property regimes (and the various political and ideological reactions to them), and to vocalize that conception, approaches the unspeakable in the corporatized un- or anti-democratic American society. The means by which unacceptable anti-property speech is relegated to the margins spans formal and informal discussion. Try to outline a vision of property-less America, and depending on the context, the restraints put upon the speaker might be any number of negating social responses, vocal and otherwise (e.g., eye-rolling), in an informal setting. In a formal one, the restraints might manifest as metal or plastic handcuffs, accompanied by violent blows.
Ask the Occupiers. Review the footage. What, really, did O.W.S. do, except propose that another world was possible, one that did not abide the dislocation and disenfranchisement of the Many for the enrichment of the Few? Property regimes of many types were put on trial during the Occupation, and afterwards. Even if the trials were mock ones, such as the O.W.S. “People’s Trial of Goldman Sachs,”8 these pop-up performative citizen courts seemed to project some sort of power that those actually in power could not abide. Ultimately, a resonant message of Occupy Wall Street might be that the people still possess the power to adjudicate society for ourselves, even as plutocratic elites successfully endeavor to own and/or manage the judicial branches of democratic government. Changing the name of Zuccotti Park to Liberty Square instrumentally acts as an officially unsanctioned judgment, positing in the symbolic realm one property’s liberation by the people, stipulated in the act of renaming. Despite the extent to which the authorities sought to legally justify the eviction of O.W.S., in the end they resorted to brute force in the absence of clear legal justification, which should be a clue. The crushing of Occupy in Manhattan and elsewhere had more to do with authoritarian expediency than legality, and little to do with right and wrong, democracy or freedom.
Bloomberg and his self-proclaimed “army”9 may not have been able to evict the idea of Occupy, but in the final analysis, the issue for the plutocracy isn’t so much with an idea, whether its time has come or not, but an ideal, which can be projected in such a way as to provide juxtaposition with current conditions and what is possible. O.W.S. was dimensionally demonstrating a new ideal social construct, autonomous of property-regimes, and that ideal was impermissible, even as a conjecture performed by a band of homeless noisemakers.
Freedom is the rallying cry for nothing and everything American, now. The worst actors on the political stage proclaim nefarious and unctuous activities to be in freedom’s defense or celebration, an expression of freedom, carried out by freedom-loving patriots, and so on. It is truly disorienting, when one considers how mundane this misappropriation and co-optation of freedom is. Can we forget “Freedom Fries,” which belongs to the same jingoistic lexical syndrome as military Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom? Political labeling for whatever inanity or crime against humanity, assigning inestimable value in freedom’s name, and branding it as virtuosity, is recognizable on one level of the public consciousness as a goofy and empty trope, which is why the comedy of Stephen Colbert works. It is no different for the word “Art” in the great void of the ownership regime we call “culture.” Freedom and Art suffer the same malady. They are both fungible, applying to any and everything, like Money. This is the result of subjugating democracy and art to economy, and attempting to make both run “more like a business.”
If free speech in the democracy is to apply to what we love most, it must also apply to that which we most despise. The opposite is made true in the ownership regime. Whether loved or despised, everything must be owned. All tastes—amounting to the entire spectrum of the subjective—are flattened in the possession paradigm championed by those least interested in promoting anyone’s freedom but the few, at the expense of the many. It is for these malignant sociopaths to proclaim a cause of liberty as a sign of patriotism, regardless of the actual circumstance wherein a word like “freedom” functions only as cruel jest. Poverty becomes freedom to pursue riches. A position at Goldman Sachs, that evil enterprise, becomes “God’s work.”10 All the while he conspired to evict Occupy Wall Street, Bloomberg proclaimed his commitment to freedom of speech (and assembly, and the rest).11 Mark Twain would have had a good time deflating such arrogance and pretension, but in reality these views amount to a sick joke.
Generating examples of hypocrisy in America is not difficult. In fact, it is the pastime of a multitude of critics, some professional, some domestic, some foreign/alien/willfully ignorant, some inspired and some riddled with despair. Entering a mimetic dynamic with hypocrisy is to assume the state of abjection. The American hypocrite genuinely offends the folks, and, whether the critique of the former by the latter is couched in comedy or framed as tragedy, bottom-up indictments of red, white, and blue hypocrisy are laced with the bitterness of the disappointed dreamer. Occupy profoundly re-established the practice of the redress of grievances as a vehicle for vision, instead of an exercise in failed hope.
In and on its humble signs,12 O.W.S. launched a renewal of free speech in hand-scrawled darts of all-directional—if proportionally unrequited—justice, aimed at none other than all 99%, and then the 1%, too, after the vents had been sufficiently opened. Each Occupy message, in its way, targeted the heart of the American experiment, which never presumes victory over hypocrisy, only real freedom from dimensional effects of tyranny. O.W.S. eschewed irony and thereby rendered the abject moot. The movement was not Utopian, although it reveled in ideals. A cause—to be against tyranny—is itself a refutation of hypocrisy performed as an ideal of the mind in a general constitutionally sanctioned assembly of and for the people. Occupy qualified. One portion of the percentages got the feather, a kiss, the other the sharp end—deflation. Occupy was on one hand a love song to the 99%, on the other a puncturing of the faux patriotic Ayn Randian hypocrite’s bubble. Collectively, the signs that adorned the grounds of the early Occupation outperformed anything the Continental Theorists thought of in the smoky past of ’68—no disrespect intended—in skewering the absurdities of the entrenched and vindictive potentate.
The underlying assumption of democracy is its requirement for participatory citizenship. The same is true for Occupy. For this reason, critique is obviated, analysis positing the movement as Other and otherwise abstracted is problematic, and the detached or objective observer prone to induction by the movement’s opposition. This is why O.W.S. as a photo-op, sub-narrative, or sub-plot proved again and again chimerical. The ghost of Baudrillard seemed ever-present throughout the Occupation.
O.W.S. as a phenomenon, or a constellation of phenomena, bloomed in lower Manhattan, and perpetuates as after-image, diaspora, manifesto, and moreover, a continuing call to action, since the problems the movement erupted to confront have not improved, generally speaking. As mentioned above, they’ve worsened. Wall Street and the vast regime it represents symbolically have not been contained, and the devastation originating in the global financial sector relentlessly metastasizes with each day’s passing. The plutocratic elites, through the various and numerous tools at their disposal, double down on their drive to consolidate their ill-gotten gains and pursue ever-more comprehensive command and control of the world’s power and resources. Endless war, and its symptoms—the military-industrial syndicates, the police/surveillance/prison state—continue to drain civilization of its most valuable assets and assail the citizenry and its civil liberties. The environment reels from all-directional and systematic human-borne assaults. Unaccountability for the worst offenders is the norm. At this point, those who failed to muster to join the Occupy movement, whatever their excuses, have little to validate their inaction. The critics and naysayers, what say you now?
It’s presumptuous to link the courageous actions of whistleblower-hactivists like Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and Aaron Swartz to Occupy. The record does not show that these individuals were inspired directly by O.W.S. However, the revolutionary impulse propelling many regime-shaking events, instigated by acts of conscience and carried out in defense of democratic freedom, appears to be threading through the most important stories of our time. On a cautionary note, acts of great madness and violence often get lumped into popular discussion of uprisings. It is also presumptive to assume the correlation of these divergent phenomena as relational, as parallel or spiraling (like DNA) strands. It is dangerous to consider something like Occupy and the Boston Marathon bombing as extant in a singular set, such as “expressive public acts.” Then again, it is perhaps dangerous not to. From what we have learned of the U.S. Intelligence “community,” they at least have no problem viewing Occupy and mass murderous acts through a single lens.13
Fortunately for Occupy, the movement has distinguished itself in the vibrancy of the creative scene that accompanied direct actions, fostering autonomous but allied or aligned artist interventions, such as Tax Dodgers,14 and to a degree supporting culturally valuable production, or at least recognizing the value of the arts in activism. Much of the crowd-sourced graphic art generated for Occupy was fantastic, and the designers who on the fly helped establish O.W.S. identity materials were stellar. The puppets, the many performers and troupes that assembled at the encampments, the drum circles, and on and on—all contributed to an immediacy and sense-fest at O.W.S. The fact that the locus for the talent pool was N.Y.C. meant that the quality of whatever happening erupted in and around Liberty Square and from there onto the streets of Manhattan had the potential to be mind-blowing. Which, by the way, did not seem to dissuade law enforcement from treating OWS in its entirety as a national security threat. They didn’t get the message: bombing plots and politically or economically relevant art shows are not identical. Maybe it was because Occupy artists did and continue to do more than art. Long after the Occupiers were evicted from Liberty Square, the people of Occupy, artists among them, successfully engage the problems the 99% face through practical and demonstrative, not just expressive, programs. Occupy Sandy is an example.
To close, there are indications that Occupy has distended the creaking superstructure of the 1% art market, since September 2011. To delve into this subject is a task for another essay. In brief, the deflation of the owner-driven system is not reflected in the economics of investment art, which is fodder for an artificial, fixed secondary commodities market, exclusive to the plutocracy. One of the significant ripple effects of O.W.S. has been a displacement of narratives that validate the global art industry. If fine art occupies the pinnacle of the free speech architecture, then developments in Occupational arts and culture have tended to dislocate art itself from the property regime in ways that appeal primarily to those who create art. In a rational and democratic arts ecosystem, the empowerment of artists to produce free art, a specialized iteration of speech, would serve society best. Some of the world’s most powerful men and women traffic in art as a luxury item of distinction. Their names are known in the upper reaches of the hierarchy of cultural means, their collections celebrated. With billions invested in a property regime that is not complete without art, these art barons will not roll over for radical change. In late September, Bloomberg announced that upon leaving City Hall, he will become chair of the Serpentine Gallery in London.15 The 1% know the value of art in a democracy and have a stranglehold on the mechanisms of culture.
So the incredible innovations in content realization during and after Occupy go largely unacknowledged. Occupy Art promulgated new forms functional, and sustainable, and almost entirely outside the ownership regime. For this, those of us participating in O.W.S. arts were subjected to authoritarian scrutiny and force designed to apprehend enemies of the state and destroy international terrorist cells. With a few notable exceptions, the arts and culture industrial complex tacitly supported the oppression of O.W.S. arts and culture, nakedly stole the concepts we generated, and attempted to re-contextualize them in the ownership regime, or, in cowardly fashion, turned away and pretended to be otherwise occupied. As time passes, it becomes more difficult to act as if nothing has happened, because the disease we arose to treat, like a cancer untreated, only worsens.
1. Fareed Zakaria, interview with Lloyd Blankfein, GPS (CNN), aired 10-13-13.
2. Dominic Rushe, “US CEOs Break Pay Record as Top 10 Earners Take Home at Least $100m Each,” The Guardian (10-22-13).
3. “S&P Rises to Fourth Consecutive Record Close,” USA TODAY (10-22-13)
4. “SHUT IT DOWN: THOUGHTS ON THE TEA PARTY-OWS COMPARISON,” by Noah Fischer (http://occupywallstreet.net/story/shut-it-down-thoughts-tea-party-ows-comparison)
5. John Del Signore, “Legal Experts Accuse NYPD of ‘Widespread Human Rights Violations’ Against Occupy Wall Street,” Gothamist (7-5-12).
6. Chris Hedges, “Let’s Get This Class War Started,” Truthdig (10-20-13).
7. James Bovard, “Quarantining dissent / How the Secret Service protects Bush from free speech,” San Francisco Chronicle (1-4-04).
8. To view an excerpt on YouTube, see “Cornel West Chris Hedges at Goldman Sachs Mock Trial Occupy,” on NewYorkRawVideos channel, uploaded 11-5-11 (http://youtu.be/kgvgHQMV6Mc).
9. Hunter Walker, “Mayor Bloomberg: ‘I Have My Own Army,’” Politicker (11-30-11). Bloomberg stated: “I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh biggest army in the world. I have my own State Department, much to Foggy Bottom’s annoyance. We have the United Nations in New York, and so we have an entree into the diplomatic world that Washington does not have.”
10. “Blankfein Says He’s Just Doing ‘God’s Work,’” DealBook/New York Times (11-9-09).
11. “After Protest Crackdowns Elsewhere, Mayor Backs Free Speech,” Metropolis/Wall Street Journal (10-28-11).
12. Paul McLean, “How Occupy Wall Street’s Protest Is Taking Art Back from the Richest 1 Percent,” ARTINFO (10-24-11).
13. Alice Hines, “FBI Investigated ‘Occupy’ As Possible ‘Terrorism’ Threat, Internal Documents Show,” Huffington Post (12-23-12).
14. Colin Moynihan, “Protest Gets a Pedestal Among Baseball’s Greats,” New York Times (7-22-12).
15. Yoav Gonen, “Bloomberg to Serve as Chairman for London Gallery,” New York Post (9-26-13).
PAUL MCLEAN is an artist and writer living in Bushwick. His nexus website is www.artforhumans.com. This essay was adapted from a longer text on property and free speech in America.