16 January 2012By Douglas Kellner
"In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation." -Guy Debord-
In the past decades, media spectacle has become a dominant form in which news and information, politics, war, entertainment, sports, and scandals are presented to the public and circulated through the matrix of old and new media and technologies. By “media spectacles” I am referring to media constructs that present events which disrupt ordinary and habitual flows of information, and which become popular stories which capture the attention of the media and the public, and circulate through broadcasting networks, the Internet, social networking, cell phones, and other new media and communication technologies. In a global networked society, media spectacles proliferate instantaneously, become virtual and viral, and in some cases becomes tools of socio-political transformation, while other media spectacles become mere moments of media hype and tabloidized sensationalism.
Dramatic news and events are presented as media spectacles and dominate certain news cycles. Stories like the 9/11 terror attacks, Hurricane Katrina, Barack Obama and the 2008 U.S. presidential election were produced and multiplied as media spectacles which were central events of their era. In 2011, the Arab Uprisings, the Libyan revolution, the UK Riots, the Occupy movements and the other major media spectacles cascaded through broadcasting, print, and digital media, seizing people’s attention and emotions, and generating complex and multiple effects that may make 2011 as memorable a year in the history of social upheaval as 1968 and perhaps one as significant.
2011 in retrospect appears as a year of Popular Uprisings in an era of cascading media spectacle. Following the North African Arab Uprisings, intense political struggles erupted across the Mediterranean in Greece, Italy, and Spain, all of which faced economic crisis and cut backs of social programs. In February and March 2011, workers and students in Madison, Wisconsin occupied the state capital building to protest and fight against cutbacks of their rights and livelihood when a rightwing Governor Scott Walker signed a bill to curtail union rights and cut back on social programs, including student aid and healthcare; Egyptians declared their solidarity with protestors in Madison and sent them pizzas. For weeks during the summer of 2011, there were also widespread demonstrations in Israel in which demonstrators, like in Tahrir Square in Cairo, occupied and set up a tent city in Tel Aviv to protest against declining living conditions and government policies in Israel.
In the face of the failures of neoliberalism and a global crisis of capitalism, tremendous economic deficits and debts in these countries, enabled and produced by unregulated neoliberal capitalism, there were calls by established political regimes to solve debt crises on the backs of working people by cutting back on government spending and social programs that help people rather than corporations. These struggles emerged globally with powerful protest movements against government austerity programs emerging in Spain, Italy, the UK, Greece, and other European countries, intensifying as capitalist economic crises intensified. In many of these struggles, youth played an important role, as young people throughout the world were facing diminishing job possibilities and an uncertain future in an era of global economic crisis.
In September 2011, a movement “Occupy Wall Street” emerged in New York as a variety of people began protesting the economic system in the United States, corruption on Wall Street, and a diverse range of other issues. The project of “Occupy Wall Street” was proposed by Adbusters magazine on July 13, 2011 and on August 9 Occupy Wall Street supporters in New York hold a meeting for “We, the 99%.” On September 8 a “We are the 99 Percent Tumblair” was launched and on September 17 Occupy Wall Street protesters began camping out and demonstrating Zuccoti Park in downtown New York close to Wall Street, setting up a tent city, that would be the epicenter of the Occupy movement for some months. Using social media, more and more people joined the demonstrations which received wide-spread media attention when police attacked peaceful demonstrators, yielding pictures of young women being pepper-gas sprayed by police. Mainstream media attention and mobilizing through social media brought more people to demonstrate and by the first weekend in October, there was a massive protest in lower Manhattan that marched across the Brooklyn Bridge and blocked traffic, leading to over 700 arrests.
The idea caught on and during the weekend of October 1-2, similar “Occupy” demonstrations broke out in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Denver, Washington and several other cities. On October 5 in New York, major unions joined the protest and thousands marched from Foley Square to the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park. Celebrities, students and professors, and ordinary citizens joined the protest in support, and daily coverage of the movement was appearing in U.S. and global media.
As it has come to own all major political stories of 2011, the Guardian was initially the place to go for Occupy Wall Street in the global media, with a Live Blog documenting news and actions related to the movement, and a web-page collecting their key stories with links to other stories at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/occupy-wall-street (accessed on October 3, 2011). As the Occupy movement came to London, the Guardian focused special attention on their local occupation that involved dramatic clashes with the City of London and Catholic Church when occupiers set up a camp outside the venerable St. Paul’s Cathedral; church debates over how to deal with the occupation led high-ranking officials to resign.
In the U.S., police violence against the movement appeared to intensify its support and Al-Jazeera had telling footage on October 5 of demonstrators videotaping police beating up their colleagues, calling attention to the fact that the participants were using media to organize, to document violence against them, and to circulate their message globally, and that the Occupy Wall Street was traversing the globe as a major media spectacle of the moment.
During the weekend of October 8 and 9, large crowds gathered in Occupy sites throughout the country, and it appeared that a new protest movement had emerged in the United States that articulated with the global struggles of 2011. Like the movements in the Arab Uprising, the Occupy movements were using new media and social networking to both organize their movement and specific actions, as well as to document police and government assaults on the movement -—documentation used to recruit more members and to intensify the commitment and resolve of its participants.
Occupy Wall Street was focused against financial capitalism and the corruption of the political class in the U.S., just as the 1990s anti-corporate global capitalism movement focused on the WTO, World Bank, IMF, and other instruments of global capital. In Greece, Spain, and Italy, people were demonstrating against these same institutions of global capitalism, as well as their own national governments. Like the Arab Uprisings, the Occupy Wall Street and other anti-corporate movements were outside of the domain of old-fashioned party politics, embraced diversity and tended to be leaderless. Although after meeting with Egyptian and other militants, some members of Occupy Wall Street indicated that they were going to search for specific issues that could lead to particular actions, so far no specific demands have been made to define the movement as a whole, although specific actions are being undertaken by some Occupy groups.
Slogans such as “We Are the 99 percent” and “Banks Got Bailed Out, We Got Sold Out,” and critiques of economic inequality and greed were becoming characteristic of the movement, which was producing a great diversity of slogans, including humorous ones like “We Demand Sweeping, Unspecified Change!” and “One Day the Poor Will Have Nothing to Eat but the Rich.” Momentum continued, the protests spread globally, and by mid-October there were over 1000 Occupy sites in over 80 countries. Activism in these movements was taking place simultaneously on-line and in the streets, and activists circulated information, planned events, and mobilized for action. Indeed, by mid-October, there were over 1.2 million followers of the Occupy Wall Street movement on Facebook and hundreds of page all over the world; during the global protests on October 15-16, the overall volume of Twitter doubled, as an analysis from Trendrr indicated; see http://blog.trendrr.com/2011/10/21/trendrr-occupy-wall-street-press-recap/ (accessed October 22, 2011).
Interestingly, many of the tactics and goals of the Occupy movement replicated the politics and vision of Guy Debord and the Situationalist International, creating situations, demonstrating outside of organized party or movement structures, using slogans and art of different forms to raise consciousness and inspire revolutionary movements. 2011 was looking more and more like 1968 with eruptions of struggle, police and establishment brutality, and renewed protest and actions. Yet new media and social networking were creating new terrains of struggle. In using new media and social networking, the Occupy movements had the same decentralized structure as the computer networks they were using, and the movement as a whole had a virtual dimension as well as people organized in specific spaces. Hence, even if people were not occupying the spaces where the organizing and living were taking place they could participate virtually and be mobilized to participate in specific actions.
While the rightwing Tea Party movement which had helped the Republicans win Congress in 2010 and block all and any progressive and even mildly ameliorative initiatives, were hierarchical and top-down, the Occupy movements were genuinely bottom-up. The Occupy movement exemplified Deweyean strong democracy, was highly participatory, and experimental in its ideas, tactics, and strategies. While the Tea Party was financed by rich rightwing Republicans like the Koch brothers and had a national television network in Fox News to promote their goals and fortify their troops, the Occupy movements produced their own media including their own website, news media, videos, and Livestream that broadcast live action taking place in Occupy sites (see the Occupy Wall Street website at http://occupywallst.org/ [accessed on January 3, 2012] and Livestream at http://www.livestream.com/occupywallstnyc [accessed on January 3, 2012]).
By the end of October, establishment violence against the Occupy movements intensified, and on October 25 police brutality was used to forcefully remove Occupy Oakland militants, causing a concussion and hospitalization of Scott Olsen, a young Iraq war veteran. Olsen became a cause célèbre and the Oakland movement organized a general strike on November 2 that closed down much of the inner city and first slowed down and then shut down the Port of Oakland, the country’s fifth biggest as thousands of marchers descended on the Port. The same day in New York, demonstrators ascended on Lehman Brothers where George W. Bush was allegedly meeting, shouting “Arrest George Bush” and calling for a citizen’s arrest that apparently kept Bush imprisoned in the Lehman Brothers building until he was spirited out in a limousine after the demonstrators left for other destinations. Henceforth, demonstrators could be assembled in flash mobs that could occupy any site at a moment’s notice and submit corrupt businessmen, politicians, and others to the wrath of the people.
The Occupy movements had generated a new political discourse that focused on economic inequalities, greed and the corruption of Wall Street and financial institutions, and the need for people to organize and demonstrate to force government to meet their needs. As evidence that the Occupy movements were constituting a threat to the established system of power in November 2011, police and city governments closed down some of the biggest Occupy tent sites, sometimes violently, yet people continued to rally to the cause of the movement and demonstrations, occupations, and actions continued through the year. The brutality pictured in the closing down of the Occupy Wall Street site on December in Z park presented images of a fascist police state as images documented police beating up demonstrators, tearing apart and bull-dozing their camp-sites, and throwing their possessions in garbage trucks, including the Occupy Wall Street library that had collected over 5,000 books presented a frightening image of a fascist police state.
One of the main features of the Occupy movements was having media on hand to document their activities and those of police brutality and the spectacle of police throughout the United States brutally tearing down Occupy camps made the U.S. look like the thug regimes overthrown in the Arab Uprisings. The documentation accumulated of brutal police power provided material to radicalize new members and harden the resolve of the experienced ones that made possible a continuation of radical Occupy movements in the future.
On December 16, the fourth month anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement happened to correspond to the first anniversary of the death of the vegetable vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia who had set himself on fire and burned to death in protest, a media spectacle that was frequently taken as the spark that ignited the Arab Uprisings. As I argued above, the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Everywhere! Movements were inspired by the Arab Spring, creating an American autumn and Winter that guaranteed that 2011 would long be remembered in history books and popular memory as a year in which media spectacle took the forms of political resistance and upheaval.
*Douglas Kellner is George F. Kneller Philosophy of Education Chair at Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, UCLA.
 This text is extracted from my forthcoming book Douglas Kellner, Media Spectacle, 2011: From the Arab Uprisings to Occupy Everywhere! (London and New York: Continuum/Bloomsbury, 2012).