Occupy Market Street

The Occupy meme, kicked off by Kalle Lasn and the crew at Adbusters, has spread perhaps faster and further than they could have dreamed in the short months since they launched it. Some of the “Occupy” spin-offs have a sensible and organic link to the original “Occupy Wall Street,” like the current #OCCUPYXMAS meme (and Twitter hashtag). Some have been parodic but pointed – Occupy Sesame Street being the obvious example:

Some of the mutations of the Occupy meme speak to its power and pervasiveness, such as people joking during the Thanksgiving holiday about “occupying the dinner table.” Some of these mutations though have been distorted and distorting, like the CBS radio spot, mentioned in a recent New York Times article, that ‘invited viewers to “occupy your couch.”‘ This seems very far from, even antithetical to, the motives, dreams and outrage that underlie Occupy Wall Street.

Occupy occupations/encampments/protests continue to get shut down, often violently across the country, despite the efforts of groups like the National Lawyers Guild (see here). And the Occupy meme’s spread also involves a certain amount of dissipation of its original force and focus. So I’ve been thinking of what we might “occupy” now that we’ve been kicked out of the original occupations – and have left the Thanksgiving tables and refuse to sit in our couches to be passively entertained by corporate media (except when The Big Bang Theory is on). Something that has some real connection with the aims, dreams and desires of the Occupy movement, of the Occupiers.

Of course, as so many of the mainstream responses have pointed out, it is not that easy to pin down or to speak to those aims and desires. One of the more articulate – though also highly academic, and deeply engaged with contemporary cultural theory – discussions of this problem is in a current opinion piece in The Guardian. As Bernard Harcourt notes in his analysis of “Occupy’s new grammar of political disobedience,” the Occupy movement is motivated by a response to the current situation in America (and elsewhere, I would argue):

this situation that so many perceive as intolerable – a condition of continuously increasing inequality where, today, “the 400 wealthiest Americans have a greater combined net worth than the bottom 150 million Americans.” That, I take it, is the guiding Jacobin spirit of this new form of political disobedience

Banks and financial institutions hare played a key role in creating the current situation of economic inequality in the United States, and more notoriously and obviously were central causes of the economic crisis that even when it hasn’t left them jobless and homeless has left many Americans feeling – correctly – profoundly vulnerable, and with an acute awareness that the “American dream” is a fantasy for most people, and the world of our parents, the world where it was natural to assume that your children would be better off than you, that world is gone.

Not precisely gone. Stolen. And in part what the Occupy movement has been “occupying” is the space, the void created by that lost world. The post-war prosperity in the United States was built, to a large degree, on a consensus between Big Business, Big Government and Big Labor. That consensus is gone. Labor is gone. Big Government is not so big anymore and if the Republicans have their way will get drastically smaller. But Big Business is bigger than ever, and it is not just limited to Wall Street.

During the early days of the current economic crisis, there was another meme making the rounds, “Wall Street vs Main Street” – the bailout of the financial institutions being contrasted with the struggles of “small businesses.” But that meme, that juxtaposition, relied on a hyper-idealized image of “Main Street.” The Main St. of Gene Kelly signing to Vera-Ellen in On the Town (one of the greatest of musicals, directed by Stanley Donen):

Let me tell you about my hometown, San Francisco… Well, that would take a long time – there’s a lot going on here, some of it good, lots of it bad – so let’s just talk about the “Main Street” here, Market Street, and more generally the downtown shopping district around Union Square.

Once a vibrant and diverse commercial district, Market St. has fallen on hard times in recent years. Many of the independent businesses have gone, to be replaced by corporate chain stores, or left as bordered up spaces. A few spaces get taken up by seedy operations selling convenience food and junk products that come and go, and are in any case interchangeable and equally awful. The sidewalks are dirty. Many of the city’s too homeless make their homes down there, where they are stepped over – figuratively and sometimes even literally – by shoppers on their way to Armani or The Gap, lawyers, financial analysts and tourists.

Partly what has hit Market St. is the same thing that his hit downtowns across the USA and Canada: malls, which suck too much of the money away from downtown to the periphery and leave nothing behind but liquor stores and shops selling cheap junk or bongs. But it’s not just that: one of the most successful malls in the country is right there, at the heart of Market St., at the intersection with Powell – the Westfield San Francisco Centre (owned by an Australian-based multinational). The malls don’t just suck money away from downtowns, though, they suck it away from locally-owned, independent businesses to the chains and franchises that seem to do best in the carefully controlled spaces of malls. The surveilled spaces. The private spaces.

So maybe what we need is an Occupy Westfield. An attempt to reclaim those parts of daily life which are increasingly being taken out of the public realm and put into the private, where they can be more fully controlled and policed. But even if some sort of magical inside-out operation could be effected and all the stores inside the Westfield San Francisco Centre were poured back onto the public street, onto Market Street, into those empty storefronts… I still wouldn’t want to shop at them. They are part of the problem.

It’s not just banks and financial institutions that created the inequality in the United States. Big Business and corporate capitalism have played their part as well. Wal-mart is the 18th largest public corporation in the world, the largest grocery store in the country and the largest private employer. But lots of those Wal-Mart employees still need welfare or second jobs to afford those groceries, as Wal-Mart is a notoriously bad employer. And notoriously anti-labor. Fortunately, there isn’t a Wal-Mart on Market Street, nor anywhere else in San Francisco. The nearest one is across the Bay in Oakland, near the Oracle Arena – named for the Oracle Corporation, whose co-founder Larry Ellison is one of the three wealthiest individuals in the USA, and the highest paid CEO in the world. The 1% indeed. And all of that started just a few miles away.

There is a Gap store, though, a huge one, right across the street from the San Francisco Centre. Just down the block from is a big Old Navy outlet. A couple of blocks away, off Market Street on Grant, near Union Square, is the flagship Banana Republic. All three of these clothing chains are owned by The Gap, Inc. – the country’s biggest specialty apparel retailer, and only recently slipped from #1 to #2 in the world, another mega-business that started right here. The store locations, appearances and contents give a very graphic lesson in market segmentation: from Old Navy at the bottom end to Banana Republic at the top. I feel particularly aggrieved by these stores since I can remember shopping at them when they were stores, nice little local stores, and not part of some huge corporate machine. Banana Republican was a quaint joint up a staircase in Marin that sold weird suplus from around the world, like British Army shorts from the WWII North Africa campaign that had been sitting in a warehouse over there for decades. The Gap was where I got my back-to-school clothes when I was little. I haven’t set foot in one for years. I’ve looked in from the outside, though. The one in the mall near my dad’s house in Canada looks like the one in San Francisco which looks like the one in Sydney, and the one in London, and the one in Singapore and the one in Hong Kong.

Across the street from that Gap, back in the San Francisco Centre, there’s a Godiva Chocolatier store. It too looks just like the one in Hong Kong, in London, in Toronto. Who needs it? These corporate chains are impoverishing us both culturally and economically. The malls and these mall stores, regardless of where they are located, don’t just suck the life out of our downtowns, they suck the money out of our communities, and in doing so contribute to the inequalities we see now, the vast inequalities that corporate capitalism is driving, growing fat on.

So what would it be to “Occupy Market St.”? Well, it would be the exact opposite, in a way, of “Occupy Wall Street.” It might be better called “Abandon Market St. and the Mall.” In short, shop local. Not just in your local neighbor, but at locally owned stores. And as much as possible for goods that do not come out of the same corporate capitalist machine.

Things will cost more. Good. We buy too much stuff already. It’s part of why our carbon footprint is stamping out the life of the planet.

There isn’t all that nice, free parking like at the mall. Again, good, and for roughly the same reasons.

Here is where the Occupy movement and the Green movement and the Slow Food / locavore movement and lots of other movements come together. The anger at Wall Street is more properly anger at a whole system which has risen up – call it corporate capitalism, or maybe, as Kim Stanley Robinson does, Götterdämmerung capitalism (see here for a start), creating vast fortunes for the few while immiserating the many, privatising more and more of the world, surveilling more and more of daily life to feed those profits, gutting civil liberties when they get in the way, gutting healthcare, and health, burning up the planet.

It’s time to Occupy Daily Life.

For more…

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