About Nick Mirzoeff

Writer and critic

Finishing the Conversation

Did you miss Occupy 2012? Do you miss Occupy? Me too. It seems like time, finally, to look back, to collate, collaborate and continue.

Occupy 2012 cover small

Inspired by once again seeing John Akomfrah’s beautiful art installation for Stuart Hall, An Unfinished Conversation, I decided to reopen the unfinished conversation of 2012. So I’m in the process of making an e-book anthology of posts from Occupy 2012. It has five sections: visuality, race and empire, debt, days of action and the climate catastrophe. Each section has six to twelve posts and is about an article’s worth of material. Put together, it’s about the length of the average book. I hope it might be useful for some in revisiting what happened, perhaps for workgroups, discussion, teach-ins and so on.

I’m going to move on from there to a collaborative conversation with the title After Occupy: What We Learned. The idea here is to post a series of thoughts about key themes in my own militant research and ask people for feedback, comments, ideas and corrections. I’ll post one every week or so, not at the hectic pace of Occupy 2012. Then the posts will be revised in light of all the comments and reworked into a second e-book.

Both books will be open access, free, libre. If people have thoughts about what format works best, do let me know. There’ll be one more post from Occupy 2012  that will have links to the anthology and the new project. Looking forward to talking with you all again.

Happy New Year.

It’s Not Over

A year ago, I was getting ready to go and see Patti Smith in what turned out to be the last ever of her New Year’s Eve gigs at the Bowery Ballroom. In the back of my mind was the idea to do a project on Occupy. So here we are, 350+ posts, 325,000 unique visits and many, many meetings and emails later, at the last of these posts and the end of the project.

There’s time later to work out what it all means. For now, just a very big thank you to all of you who read any of these posts for the gift of your time and attention.

Here’s the end-of-year favorites lists:

Top Direct Actions!

1. October 13 Day of Global Noise–Plaza Mic Check

Plaza Hotel


2. S 17–OWS One Year Anniversary

Strike Debt in JP Morgan Chase 9-17-12

Strike Debt in JP Morgan Chase 9-17-12

3. May Day!

All Our Grievances Are Connected

All Our Grievances Are Connected

4. M17–Six Month Anniversary of OWS

OWS Banner in Liberty Square 3-17-12

OWS Banner in Liberty Square 3-17-12

5. March 1 Student Day of Action

New M1 FlyerTop Tweet of the Year

ElvisTop Moment of the Year


Rolling Jubilee!

Rolling Jubilee!

What it’s all about

Occupy Theory WSP

And it’s so not over

I saw Les Miz the other night and it made me think of everyone in Occupy. Enjoy 2013 as much as I did 2012.




In late 2010, I finished my book The Right to Look and added this sentence:

In short, the choice is between continuing to move on and authorizing authority or claiming that there is something to see and democraticizing democracy.

Months later, the Arab Spring began and then spread to Europe and finally the Americas in the form of Occupy. So it never seemed a contradiction to me that I would be involved in Occupy.

I have often been asked how I found the time to write a post every day. It’s true that I have seen very little TV over the past year and I have no idea what’s been happening with music. But for the most part, it’s been a simple choice: this is how I choose to spend my time. It’s not been that difficult.

That said, I do want to acknowledge here that this has been a team effort and it would not have been possible without the support and forbearance of my partner Kathleen and daughter Hannah. Because the whole project has been about creating the hope for a better future I want to formally dedicate it to them.

What does that mean? My feeling all along has been that the purpose of occupying 2012 was not to change the world system in 2012, or any other overarching transformative goal. It was to maintain the possibility of a space in US society where we could think about democratizing democracy, a space where radical thought and action was practiced on a sustainable basis. There was a concerted effort on the part of government and media alike to define “Occupy” as a brief moment of rebellion in 2011. As we move into 2013 with a transformed and revitalized movement, I think we have resisted that enclosure.

As the first snow lies on the ground, we realize that the season for direct out-of-doors action is past. The Winter is our friend: it is a time we can dedicate to recuperation, recharging and rethinking. The rethinking needs first to imagine a different politics. In 2012, it was impossible to have a discussion about politics because the Presidential election intruded so forcefully. Now that it’s over, the multi-billion dollar extravaganza appears like a phantasmagoria: was there ever a person called Mitt Romney? And did any of that make the slightest difference to anything?

At this point in a social movement, the call goes out to recast the political. I’ve called this democratic autonomy. It involves setting aside the formulas of “the left,” not in favor of some bland consensus, but in order to try and determine how it might be possible to create radical change now. Perhaps the greatest obstacle in the past months to this goal has become the tedious sectarianism of a left whose pronouncements echo within its own chambers via corporate social media but very little elsewhere. This challenge is not unforeseen or unprecedented.

If past experience is anything to go by, any such “post-left” moves will be greeted as reactionary, uncomradely and so on by The Jacobin and its ilk. I remember similar attacks on cultural studies and Stuart Hall’s analysis of Thatcherism from the New Left Review in the 1980s, right up until the time that the NLR relaunched itself using precisely the same ideas in its new series beginning in 2000. This might sound more snarky than I intend. I just want to suggest that there’s a resistance to moments of reconfiguration, often highly principled, that later comes to a broad agreement. But the interim squabbling is so far from productive or useful.

Let’s dedicate the next year to using the space we have created for those to whom we owe everything, our friends, our families, those we love and care for.

Abolition or Extinction

Unless we can control the space we occupy, we will not be able to really love one another

Kalamu Ya Salaam

I came across this sentiment from New Orleans poet and activist Kalamu Ya Salaam in thinking about how we might start to feel in our bodies the extinction that is going on. Many folks feel that a genocide is going on in New Orleans. It’s actually going on across the planet. Abolition or extinction. That’s the choice.

What did we learn from Hurricane Katrina? In the words of activist Clyde Woods:

Katrina revealed the present and future costs of a fragmented, de-linked, privatized, and devolved state; no one is in charge.

From levee failures to the destruction of public housing and the manufacture of homelessness, post-Katrina New Orleans demonstrated the predatory nature of modern capitalism.

It’s easy to see those forces at work again in post-Sandy New York. It’s tempting to see this as a feature of disaster recovery. It’s better understood as the becoming visible of the planet of islands. These islands extend from Manhattan to Maui in the literal sense and are the most at risk. But whereas John Donne said,

no man is an island,

neo-liberalism says to us: “you are all islands.” It wants to sever all cultural ties, all traces of community and leave us exposed to the winds of the market and the rising sea of global inequality. Some will literally drown, others drown in debt, all lose their sense of identity.

This is Manny.

Manny on Guam

Manny on Guam

He’s a seventh-generation master navigator now living on the island of Guam in the Central Pacific, a US military colony. He’s seen here at the canoe house built by the Traditions About Seafaring Islands group, one of the actions taken by the indigenous Chamorro people to claim their long-ignored rights.[i]

They have revived traditional navigation in which canoes built by hand, using no modern materials, are sailed thousands of miles by navigators relying on their knowledge of the stars, the ocean and its interrelation with land. A man of few words, Manny explains his skill with an aura of authority. I ask him if he has seen any difference as a result of climate change.

He notes that he has always been able to predict the weather. His colleague Larry Cunningham interrupts to give substance. Once the group were planning a voyage of about 1500 miles. Manny simply said that they needed to be back by the end of the first week in July. On July 8 that year a typhoon struck. In this equatorial region, weather patterns observed over generations have been sufficiently stable to allow for such precision, he explains. Manny looks at me. “Now I can’t tell what the weather will be.”

The cultural studies scholar and activist George Lipsitz writes:

The South is not a periphery of the US racial order; it is its center.

That insight can be made planetary. The global South is not the periphery of racialized neo-liberalism, it is its center. This neo-liberalism produces whiteness as unmarked Anglophone commodity capitalism. It ignores the fact that over a third of the spoken languages on the planet, even today, are indigenous to the Pacific “sea of islands.” We are losing our cultural gene pool, just as surely as we are losing our right to existence.

Here’s Kamalu Ya Salaam again:

white people
come in all colors
their systems sink
past skin
anchoring into bone, mind
flesh, heart and soul
it is geno-suicide
to minstrel aliens
but some of us do die
strangled by our own


[i] My thanks to Keith Chamorro, LisaLinda Natividad, former Senator Hope Christobal, Lawrence J. Cunningham, the University of Guam and many others for kind assistance during my stay on Guam in August 2010.


The Year in Occupy Theory

I mentioned yesterday that I began writing about Occupy with a post called “Occupy Theory” back in October 2011. What are the uses for “theory” in the movement now? There are many pieces to be taken from past work, but the theory we are practicing now is inventing itself as it goes, mutual aid as a new kind of autonomy.

Looking back over the past year, Rancière, Hardt and Negri and Zizek have all appeared in my posts, together with discussions of essays and web publishing. However, within the movement, much of this has been received with a certain skepticism. It seems to have been written by academics acting as spectators, looking in for a while, and then heading back to their offices to write an essay or two. Now we’re beginning to see work from activists, like the new collection Is This What Democracy Looks Like from Social Text.

Why does this matter? Occupy did not recognize itself in its representations, as is so often the case. Some would say that is the virtue of the disinterested study. Certainly, there’s also the long legacy of a certain form of mimetic identity politics at work here as well. That is to say, it has remained the case that many people feel that only those directly interpellated by a specific form of identity can convincingly speak to that identity. This caution has hindered the movement from engaging with questions of racialization, for example.

There’s also a good reason for this hesitation. Most of the theory we already have emerged as a response to a certain set of crises. I have come to feel that the crisis of 2008-11 and after is a distinctly new form to which the older set of analyses do not correspond. More precisely still, the tactics that they propose as political responses are not quite adequate to the present crisis.

In this view, post-structuralism and Western Marxism, so hegemonic in university humanities departments as to have become a new scholasticism, were responses to the failures of 1968. In France, the political outcome was often to form groupuscules, little groups, concentrating on specific issues. Foucault for example worked in the GIP (Groupe des Informations sur les prisons/Group for Information about Prisons) that played a major role in changing penal practice and ending the death penalty. Of course, such groups continue to exist and do excellent work. Yet it does not feel like a new solution to propose developing the movement in this way.

Cultural studies and varieties of Gramscianism were explicitly about negotiating the rise of Thatcherism and what we have since called neo-liberalism. In Britain, Stuart Hall, Eric Hobsbawm and Beatrix Campbell proposed a broad alliance against Thatcherism. While that tactic might have been interesting, what actually happened was that the supposedly centrist Liberal Democrats consistently enabled the Thatcherites to exclude Labour until Labour became Thatcherite. In the US, the Obama election of 2012 was just such a broad anti-neoliberal alliance. Its outcome already appears weak and uncertain, even to liberals (US-style).

Autonomia and the other Italian radicalisms are closer, in that they clearly respond to austerity and precarity. The Italian political situation of the 1970s with its factory occupations and active armed resistance was, however, very different to the US today. The point of intersection comes with the refusal of work and the refusal to pay increased prices or debts. The US social movements of 2011 drew directly from the horizontalidad of Argentina and other Latin American resistance movements like the Zapatistas. The sheer violence of policing made it harder for us to persist with this approach in the form of assemblies.

What has now begun to emerge as the democratic form being theorized in practice by Occupy (or whatever we are now) is mutual aid. In a sense, though, mutual aid is not democracy in the classic sense, although it very much it is in the movement sense of course. That is, democracy is a form of rule by a circumscribed group of people known as the demos, the people. Entry to “the people” is hard, as anyone who has tried to immigrate can tell you. There are blatant racialized exclusions, especially in relation to so-called “felons.” And mutual aid is, crucially, not about rule. It offers an engagement without preconditions that is not charity but a form of self-fashioning via the collective.

It’s obvious that the problem here is scale. But that is a problem across the globalized world-system. What makes this moment of mutual aid different and why it takes on a new urgency is precisely the planetary limit to growth–in short, a changed understanding of scale. Because we can’t afford the 250+ floods a year that there will be in New York by 2080 (according to the state’s own report) if we don’t radically reconfigure the fossil fuel economy. And doing that will be mutual aid as democratic autonomy. Work to be done.

Of Occupied Pasts and Tidal Futures

Yesterday I read over the entire history of this blog, using Google Reader. It was an interesting experience to look back over 350 posts. From a personal point of view, the obvious change over the year was a shift from simply describing what I saw as an individual to being part of a community. And so it makes sense that this web-based reporting will become part of a wider online project in 2013 with Tidal: Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy.

The first few visits I made to Zuccotti Park, I looked around, listened to the GA and went away. It was the carnival phase, all was going to be different. I learned about “the process” and watched the now-familiar rituals of stack, consensus and break outs. At that time, it was all mic-checking and the sound of it was very special. I joined the Education and Empowerment Working Group, which meant I showed up for meetings and joined a very active listserv. A working group about student debt got going.

After October 15, the Times Square demo where there was nearly an occupation of Washington Square Park, I worked with Occupy Washington Square Park. We concentrated on education and outreach. I happened to have Judith Butler’s email. We invited her on the off-chance and such was the mood in those days that she replied to my email within the hour. There was a great teach-in, the one where she spoke about “impossible demands.” She also did it at Zuccotti and had such a great time that her friend Angela Y. Davis asked if she could come as well. That was a wonderful day, a packed meeting at WSP where Davis beautifully answered questions for over an hour, followed by an emotional address from the steps at Zuccotti as dusk fell. There were three relays for the human mic that evening.

Somewhere around that time I was at Zuccotti and the phrase “occupy theory” popped into my head. I went home and the piece wrote itself, it’s still out there on the web on the Critical Inquiry blog for Occupy archaeologists. Around that time, I heard that there was an Occupy working group called Occupy Theory. I sent them an email. Months later, long after we had started working together, someone read it and reposted the piece on what was now the Tidal website.

Eviction did not seem to mark the end of the Occupation. There were rumors on the N17 demonstration of a new effort and the December 7 attempt to create a new occupation at Duarte. By late December though, things were quietening. People left town. The “holidays” disrupted everybody’s rhythm. And so the idea came to me to undertake this project.

There’s some things to say about the intellectual and political trajectories of the past year that I’ll cover in the last posts. For now I want to make a personal observation. Reading over the year, it’s clear to me that at first I felt very much the observer. I knew who people were but did not know them personally very well, if at all. By the time the New York Times described Strike Debt as college professors, corporate drop-outs, film makers, writers and graduate students (a more or less accurate description), I knew who was meant by each. But more than that, the combined experience of Strike Debt, the Rolling Jubilee and Occupy Sandy has produced a new community, one that no longer depends on the memory of the parks.

This time last year, there was a determination to carry on but a back-of-the-mind feeling that it might be over before the year was out. Now it’s clear that the crisis of austerity has become permanent but there is still no authority capable of making that seem right. The resistance continues. It continues to strive to learn what it is that it needs to learn. Its horizon is not the next week or month but years.

While I can’t keep up a daily writing project, it’s also been clear that the renewed movement needs the kind of flow of information and ideas that web-based communication provides. So I’m pleased to say that in 2013, Tidal will be beginning a new blog, which I’ll be writing for. It seems of a piece with the journey I’ve described that this writing should go from a personal to a collective framework. Tidal has some amazing projects in the pipeline. I’m organizing a militant research “collective visioning” called In Visible Crisis, February 8, 2013. There’ll be a book from this project–do we like Jubilant Theory as a title?

2012 changed my life. Let’s see what 2013 brings.

The Debt Canon

It’s a stormy night here in New York the day after the holiday. What better than to sit down with a DVD set and forget all about debt. Only we chose one of those BBC classics, in this case Bleak House. And the literary canon is about nothing other than debt.

It can be said that the realist or bourgeois novel is the story of debt. Consider: Balzac, nothing but debt. Dostoevsky, all debt. In George Eliot, much turns around the screw of debt, especially in Daniel Deronda and its gambling debts and bankruptcies, and so on and so forth across the Great Tradition, all the way to Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, wandering his Bloomsday about Dublin, worried about his debts and how much he can spend.

Here there are both kinds of debt, or better three kinds. There is monetary debt of course. These debts are owed to shady money lenders, like Fagin. There is money raised on speculative lending like the nouveaux riches in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, wealthy on slavery. There is an immense amount of obligation, whether due to class, family or religion that often constrains the characters and drives the plot. It is the function of the police in the novels to determine the secret that characterizes the obligation. Sometimes the text argues against such obligations and it does so in the name of love, the required rebellion of the imperial bourgeoisie, but also a genuine form of relation.


Phil Davis as Smallweed (BBC)

So in Bleak House in the BBC/PBS version from 2005, much centers around monetary debt, as if prefiguring the 2007 crisis to come. Smallweed, a minor character in the novel, comes to personify predatory debt. Dickens made his character disabled and full of violent rage. The BBC added the obligatory hints of Jewishness. Dickens tells us of Smallweed:

The name of this old pagan’s god was Compound Interest. He lived for it, married it, died of it.

He lives by buying up secondary debt and making what he can of it. So Mr. George and Captain Hanwood and many other characters in Bleak House come to their downfall by means of this debt. No Jubilees intervened against the Law that Dickens represented as a suffocating smog, reaching across England.

Does it end happily nonetheless? You wouldn’t want me to spoil it, now, would you?

December 25

So there are those who think that today of all days everyone should not work too much, have nice things to eat, something to make them feel special, be warm, clothed and in shelter.

And there are those who think that everyone should have this every day.

I wonder if there’s any way to make the two groups come together.

Have a lovely day.

What Ugliness Is

520 clinton on fire

520 Clinton on fire. Photo: unknown.

On the eve of the most important Christian holiday, someone appears to have set fire to the Church of St Luke and St Matthew at 520 Clinton Avenue in Brooklyn, which is one of the hubs for Occupy Sandy. I find this to be one of the saddest of all the violent images that have come out of the repression of the Occupy movement. A church. That is used for hurricane relief. Set on fire. There’s a violence in America right now that feels ugly.

Luckily, no one was hurt but it was a serious incident. According to the New York Times report:

Father Ballard said the fire had been fueled by a pair of gasoline containers donated to Occupy Sandy volunteers, who had used the church as a staging area for hurricane relief efforts. The gasoline was intended to be used in a generator for a Christmas party in the Rockaways on Sunday night. Father Ballard said the containers had been put outside when the church was cleared of most donated materials to make way for Christmas services.

Clearly, the minister does not think for a minute that this was an accident. Whoever was responsible, if this was an act against the Occupy movement, as seems likely if not proven, it seems yet another escalation of the violent end to 2012.

It also recalls another difficult episode in progressive history, the fire-bombings of churches during the Civil Rights Movement.


People remember the terrible bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham AL (above) in 1963 that killed four young girls but we should also remember the trail that led up to that event:

In January 1957, four Black Churches were bombed in Montgomery, Alabama. In April, two were burned in Bessemer, Alabama. In 1958, burned churches were reported in Birmingham and Memphis. In 1959, a church was reported to have been burned in Roscoe, Georgia.

There were more arson attacks on churches during the movement, especially in 1964 and 1968. A wave of 37 church burnings in 1995-6 led to a specific act of Congress that seemed to quieten the attacks. Two hundred and thirty-five people were convicted under the Church Arson Prevention Act. However, in 2006 nine churches in rural Alabama were attacked again.

Obviously we don’t yet know what happened in Brooklyn. Perhaps it will somehow turn out to have nothing to do with Occupy. But let’s be realistic. It will probably have been done by one or more young men. Their lawyers will tell them to deny any political motive, to say that it was a prank gone wrong. The echoes of the past tell us otherwise.

What to do? Donate to Occupy Sandy (again, yes). Volunteer again. If you are in New York, why not attend the service that will be held tonight at 10pm at the church? I’m the least religious person in the world but this sounds about right:

We are pressed on every side, perplexed, but not easily broken.

-Corinthians 4:8

The lesson of the past is simple: the resistance has to begin immediately and be very visible or there will be more attacks like this.

No Apocalypse And No Democracy

Photo: Tim Russo

Photo: Tim Russo

So no apocalypse. Or as the Zapatistas reminded us, an apocalypse that has happened already in 2008 and continues to play itself out. When Occupy was all about the GA and direct democracy, the media harped on about demands. Now the movement has articulated some sharp critiques around debt, climate and disaster, notice the silence over democracy.The “democracy” we have is no longer defensible. The alternative is uncertain.

It is by now self-evident that representative democracy cannot contain or direct the crises of this curious time with no name. The media mistake the decline of the traditional left and the lunacy of the neoliberal right as a desire for centrism. But the center has collapsed most thoroughly of all.

Nowhere is this clearer than over the so-called debt debate. US Federal debt is not an issue. It’s easy to sell and offers almost non-existent interest. But the political class has talked up a grand showdown in order to be able to sell a further round of cuts in benefits and paid-for entitlements. Notice how Obama immediately gave up his only two clear election promises: to raise taxes on those making more than $250,000 and not to cut social security. So what will happen is a mealy-mouthed combination of marginal tax increases for the immensely wealthy, which their accountants will negotiate with ease, and two years more work for the rest of us. At this point the Congress will be exhausted and nothing else of note will happen until the next “most important election of your life.”

What does trouble me is the corollary collapse of the traditional left. It is as if without a point of reference against which they can call themselves “the left,” the whole project falls apart. In Spain, for example, movement activists referred to the unions as dinosaurs and would not even speak about the Socialist Party that introduced austerity. When I mentioned actions like the miners march from the Asturias, the come-back was immediate: what did they accomplish? Ironically, the movement is using the establishment critique of 2011 against itself. In France and the UK, I would hear very familiar calls for “socialism,” for Trotskyism or a popular front but without conviction and less chance of actual success.

This sense of frustration has led to extensive and continuing attacks on everything that isn’t canonically Left or Marxist or Trotskyist depending on the persuasion of individual groups or individuals. Much of this has been directed at Occupy, Strike Debt and the Rolling Jubilee. I don’t think that we’re beyond criticism, far from it. Movement de-briefs after actions or events can often be scathing.

But what are the continuing efforts to claim that the Rolling Jubilee will create unthought of tax liabilities, despite the well-publicized involvement of lawyers and accountants who say otherwise, supposed to achieve? The left critics have never contacted the movement directly, as it would be easy for them to do, let alone make a pre-publication intervention. This isn’t about correcting a mistake. It’s about sectarianism: the idea being that the success of the “left” relies on unorthodox elements being successfully purged or squashed. The fact that there is no “left” to speak of in the US does not mitigate the force of the true believers desire to purify.

The real questions nonetheless remain. After the passing of the General Assembly model, how would a movement work beyond the local scale? Strike Debt has several sister groups but there is no consensus as to whether these are affiliates, chapters of a union, or autonomous bodies agreeing to work together. While we delegate and allow for people to take on different roles, this practice is based on trust among known comrades and is not a model.

Even the Zapatistas had nothing to say on their powerful demonstration, nineteen years after their first appearance under the slogan ¡Ya Basta! There has been no apocalypse but there is clearly something that is either a collapse or a paralysis of the mechanisms of representative democracy that are used to validate neoliberalism. Far from being an emergency for the post-left alternative, this situation gives us a renewed opportunity. In the park, time was always of the essence–proposals and actions had to be decided immediately. As winter begins, we find the post-apocalypse post-democracy opens the chance to engage with new possibilities at a more reasonable tempo. Like not posting every single day;)