By George González
Placards at this weekend’s forced evacuation of “Occupy Boston,” as elsewhere in the country, defiantly read, “You Can’t Evict an Idea.” This kind of contention is key to understanding the sophisticated politics of the “Occupy Movement.” The seeming contradiction between this notion and the original focus on the physical occupation of space exemplifies the genius of the movement.
In my previous post, “The Market, Warren Buffet and the Occupation of Wall Street,” I discussed how arguments which overstate the rationalist dimensions of economic life, whatever their political persuasion, are dangerous because they contribute to misunderstandings of how economic power actually works in our daily lives. If we misdiagnose the stakes or misread the landscape, our social critique is impaired. I made the point that, in practice, Warren Buffett’s financial empire understands quite well the “emotional content of economics,” as one of my mentors, Bethany Moreton, nicely puts it. Yet, his solutions for improving our economic lot are strangely rationalist given the multifaceted ways in which his company does business. What I mean by this is that his solution is formal, proceduralist and bureaucratic. It makes a policy appeal regarding tax law and commends legislative approaches. Legislative and legal activism that benefits from ten-point plans and specific policy goals are, no doubt, very important pragmatic dimensions of the work that needs to be done. Such work, however, does not begin to exhaust what is meant by the mantra Occupy Everything! nor begin to exhaust the sakes as many “occupiers” understand them.
Max Weber, the German sociologist, is helpful here. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, a founding text in the sociology of religion, Weber argued that, among other things, Western capitalism, secularism, is characterized by the legal and cultural division of religious and traditional values from the liberal procedures of the modern state. It’s not only that there is a separation of church and state for Weber, but rather, he argued that feelings, aesthetic sentiment, non-conscious thought, an explicit interest in the psychological dimensions of human life, and religious values were all institutionally excluded from the day to day operations of Western capitalism’s dominant forms. Capitalist bureaucracy was, at least in theory, decidedly not interested in religious belief, psychology or the magical dimensions of social life but, instead, promoted a thoroughgoing rationalization of society. Our contemporary notions of cost benefit analysis or legal reasonableness are colored in Weberian tones. They are modernist idols. Even as idols, however, they seem increasingly porous and unstable.
Contemporary capitalism, evinced by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, understands full well the non-conscious and poetic dimensions of economic life. Dress up as George Washington and making corporate Hollywood-esque movies for the annual meeting of the company faithful? These actions belie Buffett’s view of reason; cost benefit analysis cannot be separated from the metaphorical dimensions of economics. I am not arguing that Buffett’s actions are intentionally contradictory but simply pointing out how easily we slide into ideas about economics that are anthropologically and psychologically deficient and aesthetically tone deaf.
This contradiction, wherein we resort to ideals of economics that are based on a truncated sense of reason and agency, despite the obvious facts at hand, is evident in some of the critiques often lodged at the Occupies. Criticisms of their theatrics, street aesthetics and “hippie” rituals miss the point or, worse, are willfully hypocritical. Why must the protestors adhere to a standard of strict reasonableness and “serious” policy wonkishness when corporations and financial gurus like Buffett are allowed to mine and exploit the sensorial and affective dimensions of life? Might we not, instead, consider the sophistication of a movement that understands the nuances and complexities of cultural capitalism in ways the pundits are still trying to catch up to?
If the passionate devotion of the street is something coveted by big business and—just look around, this devotion is not proceduralist or rationalist–wouldn’t it make sense that critics of cultural capitalism turn to a more embodied view of critique that brings all our senses into play? As the bodies walking around town with Nike logos attached to them stamp social space with the “Just Do It!” philosophy and persons on their iPhones code space for Apple, the ubiquity of the Guy Fawkes masks at the Occupy events mark out social space for an anonymous, horizontal form of collective organizing (even as we also might wonder if the best symbol for anonymous and non-violent struggles was chosen). Social critique, like business, is way bigger and badder than the reasonable person. The subsequent weeks of Occupy events since my first piece have me further convinced that ritual politics is a helpful tag for what the Occupy movement does.
For secularists, the legislative process is precisely not ritual; ritual is what fascists, religionists and cultists do. Post-secularism is increasingly a term deployed in religious studies circles to mark certain important changes in the grand narratives of Western capitalism. The bright lines between secular and sacred, or reason and ritual are eroding, some scholars argue. It is in this post-secular or post-modern context that I have come to believe that Occupy Wall Street’s social organization and understanding of human agency is sufficiently post-modern and post-secular to pose real threats to the actually post-modern and post-secular business model of today’s global capitalism.
My visits to the general assemblies at Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Boston contribute important empirical fabrics and textures to my analysis. In New York I ran into some students from Union Theological Seminary in Washington Square as the occupiers walked from Liberty Square and claimed the park as new occupied space. One of the seminarians was wearing a sign on which was written the following biblical quote: “What sorrow for you who buy up house after house and field after field, until everyone is evicted and you live alone in the land. (Isaiah 5:8)”. I again ran into the seminarians after the general assembly had ended, when those present, still seated on the ground, were implored to take the organizing tools we had been taught to go and “occupy your own space.”
On the subway ride back to my “own space,” my mom’s apartment, I saw an ad for Manhattan Mini Storage that read “’In My Father’s House There Are Many Rooms.’—John 14:2—–Clearly, Jesus Was Not A New Yorker.” The words popped off the ad precisely because of where I had just been and what I had just heard. An ad I would normally not give a second glance struck me as obnoxious. It kind of made my stomach churn.
The Dramaturgical Dimensions of Business
If reading abstract theory about commodification has its place, the embodied activity of being in the park and reading the sign brought home the point in ways the exceeded the limitations of linear logic. The folks initially dismissed as a ragtag and incoherent bunch have read the signs of the times quite well. One of the most influential organizational management theorists of the past quarter century, Margaret Wheatley, is a big believer in the dramaturgical dimensions of business and other forms of management. She writes:
There are many processes for developing awareness of a whole system—a time line of some slice of the system’s history—a mind-map, a collage of images, a dramatization. Any process works that encourages nonlinear thinking and intuition, and uses alternative forms of expression such as drama, art, stories, and pictures. The critical task is to evoke our senses, not just the gray matter. We learn to dwell in multilevel phenomena simultaneously and let our senses lead us to new ways of comprehending.
If Wheatley’s corporate readers are invited to mine the political uses of the theatrical and folks like Warren Buffet do so all the time, why shouldn’t Occupy? Whether it’s the street theater of the Reverend Billy, the grand spectacle of the Occupation Party at Times Square, the Guy Fawkes masks, drum circles, satirical costuming or the yoga and meditation groups, there is a ritual dimension to the Occupy politics. Sights, color, sounds and different forms of bodily movement are respected for their power to help shape ideas and experiences. This is why attendees were asked to wear white to the Occupation Party just as one might expect of ritual ablutions.
For those who have ever worshiped at a Christian church, you might think of the generative dimensions of ritual in this way: you sit in the church building which, through its architecture and aesthetic, is established as a special place. The sights, like the stained glass windows, music and movements of your body in accordance with the liturgy reinforce the connection. Or, in a Reformed setting, the plainness and directness of the service reinforce ideas about God’s transcendence. At the end of the service, you might be exhorted to “go and do God’s work in the world.” For the theorist Catherine Bell, the church space and the liturgy make the experience distinct and cultivate specifically Christian sensibilities. You do the ritual and this reinforces your movements, even in non-ritual spaces, as a Christian. You go to work as a Christian or walk through nearby woods as a Christian, in other words.
Similarly, for Naomi Klein, iconic brands are able to profit from ever expanding “brand extensions” because corporations understand how to make “their brand concept into a virus and (send) it out into the culture via a variety of channels.” Brands go viral because they are a bundle of associations and, as such, exceedingly motile. Breaking into new markets or insinuating the brand story into new areas of life requires the activity of consumers whose walking, speaking and moving about code space for corporations. Nike needs us to have ecstatic moments in their running shoes and Apple needs us to tactically connect with their commodities. As we do so, however, their power as ideas grows. Similarly, I want to suggest, the Occupy movement goes viral as protestors inhabit space and just live their everyday lives. Physical occupation has helped Occupy establish iconic status in society and to redraw the boundaries of the national conversation.
The point is that that post-secular capitalism works in much the same way. Thinkers like Naomi Klein, Douglas Holt (How Brands Become Icons:the Principles of Cultural Branding) and Douglas Atkin (The Culting of Brands:When Customers Become True Believers) all agree that brands are not simply products or things but rather ideas and bundles of (pre-rational) associations. Starbucks doesn’t just sell coffee but rather sells an experience. The brand’s cosmopolitan sophistication is something the branded space itself creates. Like religious ritual, where sights, smells and movements mark time and space as special or prestigious: the folks working on laptops, the adult alternative music and décor mark the Starbucks coffee shop as distinct from, say, Dunkin Donuts. Because Starbucks is more than coffee, Naomi Klein writes, it can sell records and ice cream. The company no longer needs to advertise because devotees brand space for the company simply by carrying their associations with the brand (cups, bags) with them even outside of the ostensibly non-branded space.
Many have written about the passionate devotion the Apple brand can elicit. Jonathan Chait at the New Yorker observes that for Mitt Romney the iPhone is the ideal metaphor for contemporary digital capitalism and compares it to the outdated, burdened and heavy “pay phone strategy” of the Obama White House. For many Americans, Jobs was a capitalist saint for his creative genius, intuition and aesthetic savvy. His national eulogy reflected the ways in which both he and the brand he birthed have everything to do with how the successful Apple brand has used ritual—such as the pilgrimage to the Apple store at the launch of a new product– to insinuate capitalism’s supposedly rational nature into the full array of our emotional lives. But, a key political point is that cultic devotion has often saved Apple from criticism for its less than perfect labor and environmental record. Belief is powerful stuff, as we know. When it’s convenient for business, the interconnectedness of it all is celebrated, but when cracks show in the glorious façade of freedom and equality that capitalism displays, business asks us to focus on one or two bad parts of the system, effectively moving us from organic to machine metaphors. “We bring good things to life” becomes “we’re announcing some layoffs.”
Adbusters, one of the founding forces behind Occupy Wall Street, is best known for using the symbols of corporate advertising against corporations, exposing contradictions through what they call subvertisement. If not quite sex abuse scandals, certain revelations about corporate behavior (like Kathy Lee Giffords’ associations with sweat shops and child labor through her clothing brand in the 1990s) have shocked tried-and-true believers in the stories brands tell about themselves. Despite some specific attacks, brands have been secondary to the Occupy Wall Street conversation, which has focused on the banks and the deregulation of financial services. Lessons learned from the 1990s and early 2000s can be seen in the current movement’s ritual politics, however; culture jamming and the protests against globalization had everything to do with the poetics of space.
The privatization of public space and corporate downsizing went hand in hand with the psychic and existential claustrophobia elicited by capitalism’s new cultural turn. Naomi Klein wrote about NO SPACE and NO JOBS. Then, the tragic human cost of mergers and acquisitions and corporate restructuring had a lot to do with the cultural vulnerability of brands on the ground. M&A might be less the culprit today than deregulated speculation but the fact is that, at the end of the day, it’s the corporations that we expect to create jobs. While it made sense to highlight Wall Street practices to start, the corporations and their brands should shudder at the thought of where Occupy can go from here.
In the end, the move to occupy space, I want to suggest, has a history, including ‘90s ideas about reclaiming branded space from corporations. The pageantry and “street theater,” dismissed by some as politically juvenile, actually links arms with an effective ritual politics for reclaiming commodified, militarized and privatized space. This politics works with aesthetics and ritual for the sake of social change and with a textured understanding of politics. Post-modern and post-secular capitalism respects the power of ritual. When it’s safe to do so, it even celebrates ritual. Occupy mirrors this awakening and attempts to subvert capitalism’s procedures for assuming power over bodies and places. In this way, the spaces and doings of resistance enable and support the development of new forms of political agency.
The Power of Aesthetics
What does all of this suggest for our broader outlook? First, as Kalle Lasn, one of the founders of Adbusters, explains in a recent piece, his call for a movement was founded on the desire to remodel “mental environments” and was premised on the conviction that “one of the most powerful things is aesthetics.” There’s no doubt that electoral politics and legal activism are necessary components of lasting social change, but George Orwell’s insight that “consumer society is the air that we breath” implies that corporate power is also a lot more complicated than a fully electoral and legal understandings of the stakes. The financialization of the economy in recent decades has also coincided with continued growth and expansion of a consumer society. What the “theatrics” and non-traditional politics of Occupy provide are multi-sensory techniques and rituals for reclaiming branded bodies, psyches and souls. They are helping to shape the consciousness and attitudes of a collective citizenry willing and able to do battle with big money—a populous capable of fighting to restore Glass-Stegall and willing to take on corporate personhood despite the heavy corporate pressures to submit and comply.
This populous will understand that capitalism is already high theater. This understanding is precisely the opposite of carnival for carnival’s sake since it eschews the facile libertarian idea that all we need to do to liberate ourselves is get colorful, get funky and unleash our hidden desires. The movement knows that these are not Weberian, Kantian or Smithian times. Occupiers have intimate familiarity with capitalism’s postmodern turn. The pageantry of protest of the Occupy movement hopes to use the Technicolor prowess of late capitalism against itself. A “psychic break” of the hold capitalism has over spaces, bodies and souls, as Lasn claims, will sustain revolution.
The question of ritual’s relationship to “spirituality” is an especially important one to consider among certain audiences. The Catholic theologian, Vincent Miller, implores theologians to take questions of practice more seriously than they recently have if they want to better understand how consumer society works and how religious resources might be brought to bear on economic issues. Consumer behavior shapes habits and desires, both narratively and ritually. Consumer culture, he writes, “shapes the relation between belief and practice.” If what matters is my own personal limit-experience working out, I will be less inclined to ask who’s made the shoes that I don like a modern totem. Nike, like much of American capitalism, wants us to see the frames of life in certain ways. If ritual can be deployed by religionists to remake the bounds of the thinkable and doable, it can also be used by a movement like Occupy to sew together new connections and to rewrite the public narratives of capital. The movement’s ideas are affixed onto bodies and places as persons travel across social space. Spirit, as it were, cannot be evicted.
George González completed his doctoral studies in Religion and Society at Harvard Divinity School in 2011 and is currently working on a manuscript, based on his dissertation, entitled Shape-Shifting Capital: Spiritual Management, Critical Theory and the Ethnographic Project. His research explores the ways in which neo-liberalism and the discourse of globalization imply new institutional constructions of religion, spirituality and economics.