In Zuccotti Park

Henny Ray Abrams/AP Images
Clergymen carrying a papier-mâché effigy of the biblical golden calf to the Occupy Wall Street camp in Zuccotti Park, New York City, October 9, 2011

The Occupy Wall Street movement that began in Zuccotti Park in New York’s financial district on September 17 has grown to a degree that seems to have stunned even its organizers and most ardent supporters. From the first days, most news outlets, if they deigned to cover the movement at all, ridiculed the protesters for lacking a specific political agenda or concrete demands. They were “leaderless,” “directionless.” But less in this case has proven to be more: Occupy Wall Street’s vague, open-ended character has been crucial to its success. The catchphrase “We are the 99 percent” has a galvanizing succinctness, speaking directly to a wealth gap that has widened over the past decade to a point not seen since the Great Depression.*

The movement’s official Declaration of Occupation, released on September 29, is little more than a highly generalized incantation of the nation’s ills—“They have taken our houses…. They have poisoned the food supply…. They have continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate.” But the movement’s assertion that it is an ally to “all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world” has made it a blank screen upon which the grievances of a huge swath of the population can be projected.

The most common question asked about the protesters—after what do they want?—is, who are the organizers, who is behind it? Occupy Wall Street is the kind of deliberately elusive movement that, once the question is posed, its very premise is disputed: the word “organizer” is pregnant with just the kind of hierarchical connotations the protesters eschew. Nevertheless, there are organizers, and they are extremely astute, as well as reluctant to put forward their names. To them, “leaderless” is not an insult but an ideal.

By all accounts, the idea for the protest was hatched by Adbusters, a not-for-profit media organization that was founded in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1989. After subscribing to their magazine, I received the following e-mail:

Dear Culture Jammer,

Thank you for joining our network. You are now part of a 90,000+ strong global network of activists, cultural creative’s [sic] and meme insurgents—a revolutionary force that, with your active involvement, just might reshape how power and meaning flow in the 21st century. Together lets live a little more on the wild side, launch a few telling cultural interventions and pull off some surprising pranks, jams and other essential mental resuscitations.

The antic, Dadaist tone is telling. This is a movement that addresses the mind, not the belly—“mental environmentalism,” the founders of Adbusters dubbed it, an antidote to the “pollution of our minds” by “infotoxins…commercial messaging and the…financial and ethical catastrophes that loom before humanity.” This sounds…

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