Occupying Change

  • Stephen Collis
    Dispatches from the Occupation: A History of Change. Talonbooks
Reviewed by Julie L. MacArthur

In September 2011, following Occupy Wall Street’s takeover of Zucotti Park, similar encampments developed in more than eighty countries around the world, reinvigorating hope in mass political mobilization on the left (broadly conceived). Some of these lasted weeks, others months. In his book on the subject, English professor and Vancouver “Occupier” Stephen Collis offers up a unique and heartfelt window into the rise and fall—or more accurately, transformation—of the Occupy movement. His Dispatches from the Occupation consists of “the whole jumble of rants, proclamations, manifestos, thoughts, screeds, and squibs that coursed through one occupier’s aching head and heart over some seven or eight months.” Collis uses the experience in Occupy Vancouver—presented in a series of blog-post “dispatches”—and surveys radical thought from Slavoj Žižek to Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey in order to draw lessons about transformation and change. A central theme running throughout the text is the dialectical pressures facing activists: reform and revolution, process and message, solidarity and ideological purity. These pressures can lead to the failure of political movements, as they break apart under the weight of internal tensions and state pressure. While he finds hope for creation of a new and more democratic politics in the dynamism created by these pressures, there are also important cautionary lessons to be learned for new movements.

Collis’ text is separated into three sections: 1) theories, 2) dispatches, and 3) theses. The dispatches make up roughly half the pages. They trace the author’s enthusiasm and hope for the encampment, through the debates around tactics and messaging to the overdose and death of Ashlie Gough, to municipal election, and to the eviction notice in November 2011. This personal and locally grounded narrative is where the book makes real contribution. Other texts have emerged analyzing the global Occupy movement—including Graeber, Krugman, and Chomsky’s Occupy, as well as Judy Rebick’s Occupy This—but Collis’ level of involvement and “embeddedness” in Vancouver makes for a unique journey for the reader, as does its rather lyrical style. As such, I can see students of social movements and politics, as well as those interested in activism more generally, find- ing much to “metabolize” and debate within its pages.

Dispatches does not, however, make for a cohesive argument for what’s wrong in the world today (despite the fact it suggests clear points of tension); rather, it presents an insider’s account of the dreams and challenges of the Occupy encampment in Vancouver. As a result, it will appeal most directly to those already convinced that revolutionary change to our social and economic structures is necessary. It may also appeal to those interested in “what Occupy was all about,” but be warned, the answer is not a simple one. In his discus- sion of demands, Collis argues that “[w]e demand an alternative. We demand to be able to take time and talk, to figure out what a real alternative might be. To work at it, from the bottom up, in tents in the middle of our cities if need be.” Readers may also find it somewhat repetitive and in places contradictory (for example, “the tents are crucial” versus “the tents are not the point”); however, for this reader, these represent a fascinating lesson on the “messiness” of shifting challenges and foci throughout the lived process, rather than a serious flaw in the text.

Despite the relatively short life of the encampments, Collis argues the events of Occupy are but one part of a broader wave of mobilizations in recent years: in Tahrir Square and the broader Arab Spring, anti- austerity protests in Greece and Spain. His point rings true. The factors driving these movements—austerity, elitism, militarism, and environmental collapse—are just as resonant two years later. Indeed, these tensions trace back to revolutionary France and the Roman Agora. As I write this, Idle No More is sweeping across Canada and reinvigorating discussions about colonialism and treaty obligations long absent from media atten- tion. At Vancouver’s Occupy encampment, discussions linking pipeline expansion to crony capitalism in Canada echo those protesting in front of the Wall Centre Hotel (the site of the Joint Review Panel hearings over Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline) in January 2013. Occupy Vancouver work- ing groups continue to be active in the city and engaged in “solidarity actions” with Idle No More. When viewing the movement through this lens—as a part of an emergent wave of activism—the reports of the death of Occupy seem greatly exaggerated.

This review “Occupying Change” originally appeared in Contested Migrations. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 219 (Winter 2013): 148-49.

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