Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Assembling the Multitude: Material Geographies of Social Movements from Oaxaca to Occupy

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Assembling the Multitude: Material Geographies of Social Movements from Oaxaca to Occupy

Article excerpt

Abstract. In light of the abstract theorizations of scholars of transnational social movement networks--as exemplified by Hardt and Negri's Multitude--in this paper I argue for the power of grounded, material engagements with the practices of protest of social movements to transform not just political spaces, but our theoretical landscapes. I compare the practice of setting up and maintaining encampments in the Oaxaca and Occupy movements to argue that the spatial dynamics of occupation in a tent city fuels the distinctive style of participatory politics of the assembly, providing a creative means to transform confrontation into cooperation. A point of departure for this comparison is my assertion that the political difference made by these social movements lies not just in whether or not they achieved their political goals, but in the kind of intervention that the physical fact of occupying a public space entails in normative understandings of politics and public spaces.

Keywords: social movements, articulation, assemblage, sociality, collective subjects, Mexico


Flowering shortly after the Arab Spring and the mobilization of the Indignados in Spain, in the fall of 2011, the Occupy Movement quickly spread from New York City to New Zealand. As people stretched their tents out together across city spaces, the popular slogan "we are the 99%" proclaimed their common cause against rising income inequality around the globe. The rising discontent over the ravages of global capitalism that has fueled social movements over the past decade has not been lost on academics. Indeed, published on the heels of the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle and the 2001 World Social Forum, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire (2001) was emblematic of a focus in academia on the perils of neoliberal globalization as its networks extended their reach and power beyond the nation-state. While the hazards of Empire were debated, the promises of globalized networks of resistance to create a 'commons' in opposition to capitalism were also prominent in academic theorizations--and central to Hardt and Negri's follow-up book Multitude (2004). Reflecting a broader trend in considering that "the politics of ontology has taken an affective turn" (Ruddick, 2010, page 22), Multitude posits that the creative aspects of immaterial or affective laborers--their power to create "not only material goods but also relationships and ultimately social life itself' (2004, page 109)--puts them in the vanguard of struggle against Empire.

Responding to Multitude, scholars conducting empirical studies of immaterial workers have rightly interrogated the revolutionary nature of affective labor as a heroic space resistant to the exploitative relations of capitalist production (Dowling, 2007). Yet, with global networks the privileged scale for thinking about social mobilization, this kind of empirical analysis is rare; thus, as Paul Chatterton and Jenny Pickerill recently noted, "still missing are detailed empirical accounts of the messy, gritty and real everyday rhythms as activists envision, negotiate, build and enact life beyond the capitalist status quo in the everyday" (2010, page 481). Although exemplary and grounded studies of activist networks exist (Juris, 2008), these are exceptions to the generally abstract theoretical discussions that dominate the written page.

Not surprisingly, geographers have been vocal in criticizing this lack of empirical grounding in analyses of social struggles. For example, Paul Routledge's concept of "convergence spaces" demonstrated the need for a more concrete discussion of "the materiality of practical politics" (2003, page 345). Sallie Marston, John Paul Jones, and Keith Woodward turned to "site ontology" (2005) to remind us that places--including their links between local and global scales--are always already the products of particular, site-specific interactions between humans and their social and material milieu, and therefore cannot be assumed to exist for everyone or everywhere in the same way. …

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