The Occupy movement began in the United States -- at a statue of a bull standing in the heart of Wall Street in New York City. It spread quite rapidly to other places around the country and around the world. In many locations, it built on or connected to pre-existing movements that had been working on questions of economic inequality for some time. But for many people, it was their introduction to activism.
In the United States, at least, the movement resisted both conventional leadership and conventional political program. It favored a more decentralized approach to both structure and content. It wasn't that Occupy lacked a leader or a program. It had plenty of both. Indeed, to quote Walt Whitman, Occupy "contained multitudes." And, like the poet, it sometimes contradicted itself. But Occupy never promised uniformity or consistency.
Perhaps the chief defect of Occupy had nothing to do with these purported weaknesses. It had to do with process. In many Occupy movements across the United States, the participants could only move forward on projects with the consensus of the group. In a relatively homogenous group, such as Quakers, consensus can be an effective tool for decision-making and group cohesion. But Occupy was far from homogenous. Even the "modified consensus" that some of the groups used, which required 90 percent approval on proposals, frequently came up against a minority bloc determined to dig in its heels.
In Slovenia, the Occupy movement started with a big demonstration on October 15, 2011. It was already getting quite cold in the country, but the protestors managed to maintain their encampment in the capital city of Ljubljana until the spring. Although the actual camp disbanded in mid-May 2012, many of the initiatives begun by Occupy activists continued in a decentralized way.
This O15 movement -- named for the October 15 gathering -- avoided some of the procedural challenges of the American Occupy movement by sticking to a rather simple rule. "We didn't search for consensus among everyone who met at the General Assembly," anthropologist and O15 participant Sara Pistotnik explained. "The forum was open to new initiatives. Even if you came three months after the occupation and you had an idea for a workshop that would then develop into some campaign, you could propose it. As long as there were no strong ethical objections, you could proceed."
She continued, "If you had a campaign on housing or the deinstitutionalization of people from mental institutions, then you had the autonomy to do that work, also because you had some experience dealing with this issue before. For us it would be unproductive to try to achieve consensus around these really specific social issues. And it would be a big shame to try to unify them into some common campaign."
David Brown, who has been in Slovenia as both a researcher and an activist, compared the situation to the U.S. movement. "We met with Occupy Maine from the university," he told me. "They were basically saying that the movement in Maine didn't do anything. They had interesting discussions around various topics. But every time they had substantive debates about what to do, there were people who said, 'That's stupid. I don't understand the point.' And they were shut down. But it went very smoothly here in Ljubljana because we had this mechanism of just go and do it."
Both Sara Pistotnik and David Brown have been active with Rog, a center for social activism in Ljubljana. Activists have been squatting this former bicycle factory for several years, and it has become a space for radical politics and art comparable to what Metelkova was for the previous generation. Ljubljana has this activist advantage over most other cities. Squatters have been involved in their own indigenous "occupy" movements since the early 1990s.
Back in October, we met at a bar in Ljubljana to talk about Rog, a topic I'd discussed with Sara four years before. Over beer and grilled meat, we also talked about the nature of social movements, the status of the Erased, and the virtues of street theater like the Clown Army.
Let's talk about Occupy here. When you mentioned it, you sounded a little skeptical.
Sara Pistotnik: I was skeptical not about the methodology but because it started on October 15 in Slovenia. That's not the best day to start camping here.
It started here with a manifestation on October 15, the global day of actions. We decided, through the assembly, to occupy the square in front of the stock exchange. So, it was part of the global movement with local characteristics. We stayed there until May 15. It was an interesting experience on many levels. It was outdoors, not the usual indoor space, and it was in the middle of the city. It opened up the political space not just because it was in the middle of the city but also because of the content. Through its actions, Occupy here allowed the expression of many marginalized topics. It wasn't just an encampment. There were different actions and public events.
It wasn't just in front of the stock exchange but in other spaces as well, including the occupation of the faculties of art and social work. Some things were also happening in other parts of Slovenia.
Also interesting was one of it postulates: Nobody represents us. That was the message spread all over the world through these encampments. In Slovenia, it was a funny situation because the pre-election campaign began on November 4th, with the election on December 4th. It was fascinating to see which topics came out through Occupy and which topics came out through the official pre-election campaign. They were completely disconnected. We were raising issues like the cuts in social transfers, the debt, the evictions, education and the health care, topics that are now quite crucial. Before, we made a campaign on a specific topic like the Erasure in which one part of the population had their rights violated. Now we're speaking of a situation in which the whole Slovenian society is having its rights violated. But the pre-election show just went on.
In the United States, Occupy did succeed in pushing the topic of inequality into the mainstream debate both in media and eventually politics. Did that happen here as well?
Sara Pistotnik: Here there wasn't a problem with the reaction of the media. The media was really open to it. But it didn't get into the political discourse. Here the only solution to the crisis is still austerity measures. What we said didn't become part of official politics. Still, it opened the space so that this topic could become part of the public discourse. We also raised topics like the destigmatization of poverty, the precariousness and the lack of future of our generation.
Why did you stop mid-May? It was getting warm out, after all.
Sara Pistotnik: It was a practical and logistical decision. A lot of energy went into the logistics of keeping the camp alive. At some point, we decided that it wasn't so important to keep it centralized. It was more important to disperse these topics into different spaces.
David Brown: By the end of November, the first debate took place about keeping the space open or not. By the time we closed it, it had served its purpose in terms of organizing, and the movement was clearly transforming into other forms that made the camp irrelevant.
What was the reaction of the authorities to the encampment?
To read the rest of the interview, click here.
Follow John Feffer on Twitter: www.twitter.com/johnfeffer