Carnival Against Capital

Ole Mas On Wall Street

While some commentators and journalists have dismissed Occupy Wall Street as carnival, lawmakers and policemen did not miss the point. They reached back to an 1845 ban on masking to arrest occupiers wearing as little as a folded bandana on the forehead, leaving little doubt about their fear of carnival as a potent form of political protest.
The same journalist who expressed her lack of conviction in “air[ing] societal grievance as carnival” (Bellafante, NYT, 09-24), also warned against “criminalizing costume” (Bellafante, NYT, 09-30), updating her condescension to caution as she confirmed the police’s point: masking can be dangerous, carnival is serious business.
Carnival per se, the Shrovetide festival, hardly exists in the United States anymore, save for Mardi Gras in New Orleans and the West-Indian American or Labor Day Parade in Brooklyn, a pan-Caribbean celebration. The carnivalesque, however, as medium of emancipation and instrument of political protest, is alive and well.
In fact, carnivalesque protests are a staple of the anti-corporate globalization movement. Direct reference to Russian semiotician and medieval carnival theoretician Mikhail Bakhtin underpinned the June 18th1999 Global Carnival Against Capitalism or J18 waged by activist group Reclaim the Streets in London and across the world to coincide with the G8 in Cologne.
No such rhetoric seems to be at work on Occupy Wall Street. Yet, the Liberty Park encampment is under carnival’s sway, with its spontaneous community building and free communal feeding, bodies at play and trash on display, excess and refuse.
Highbrows raised about alleged sexual acts taking place in the Park and confessions of gluttony for the infamous OccuPie pizza are all indications about the pleasures of the senses and excesses of the flesh common to carnival – even under the duress of uncomfortable accommodation and police harassment.
But there is more than carnival symbolism to the occupation. Occupiers don costumes during demonstrations. The infamous Guy Fawkes masks of the Anonymous hacktivists are legion and they have found at least one legal defender (Jay Leiderman) to protect their masking rights, arguing that as their sole common symbol, the mask is the statement, and therefore protected by the 1st Amendment.
More interesting, maybe, than what has been described as an activist co-optation of a Warner Brother derivative corporate product, are classic cases of hierarchy reversals, a carnival hallmark. These include protesters dressed up as billionaires, cocktail glasses in hand, and signs reading “austerity for you, prosperity for us.” The recent Millionaires’ March, cacophonous as a charivari, belonged in the subversive realm of the carnivalesque as well. Other protestors made up as “corporate zombies,” spewing dollar bills from bloodied mouths.
And then there are the countless examples of personal ingenuity. For some, the message of the protest seems to be lost in translation. A helmeted woman in fur boots and beauty pageant outfit was seen riding a gold and pink papier mâché unicorn. For others, the message is targeted. A young man dressed as what I would call a Zorro Graduate, wearing both the black mask and gloves of the TV Mexican avenger and the equally black graduation hat and gown, held a convict’s chained bullet printed with the words “student loan” and a sign reading “ Unemployed Superhero, Master of Degrees, Shackled by Debt.”
Yet the most poignant message might be the simplest, exemplifying the merit of less is more, un-carnivalesque as that may sound: the photograph of a young blond-haired man, his mouth tapped off by a dollar bill with “occupy” handwritten on it, has become iconic of the movement. Or maybe it’s because of the American flag tucked in his backpack, putting the whole scene into context.
More minimalist yet, baring it all has been a strategy of (uN)masking at Liberty Plazza. “This Country Was Made by Men in Denim and Will be Destroyed by Men in Suits” read a handwritten cardboard sign. In a corporate world where the clothes make the man, with men in suits (or banksters, tycoons, pundits, plutocrats, oligarchs, Masters of the Universe, small thinkers, un-Americans) aka the 1%, protected by the blue shirts (regular police officers) and the white shirts (from the Paid Detail Unit of infamous pepper-spraying fame) against the occupiers (or ragtag, hippies, hipsters, activists, anarchists, anti-capitalists, crusaders against globalization, un-American) aka the 99%, the spectacle of nudity is a good reminder of the common human nature of the 100%.
Whichever the costume or lack thereof might be, we shouldn’t see carnival for the costumes. Carnival is no friend of capital, and this Occupy Wall Street might well be another Carnival Against Capital.
Carnival in the Americas, from Trinidad and Tobago to Brazil, was a distinctive feature of colonial societies where proto-capitalism was experimented with on plantations. Colonization and slavery in the New World replaced feudalism and servitude in the Old World and carnival occasionally accommodated a topsy-turvy world.
Scholars Peter Stallybrass and Allon White argue that “it actually makes little sense to fight out the issue of whether or not carnivals are intrinsically radical or conservative” and assert that “there is no a priori revolutionary vector to carnival.” Both skeptical journalists and radical protesters however, have made direct references not just to any revolution: to the mother of all revolutions, the French Revolution. The former mocked the latter’s disappointment that “the Bastille hadn’t been stormed” (Bellafante, NYT, 09-24) while the latter warned in a “memo to 1%: 99% are waking up. Be nervous. Be Very Nervous. Marie-Antoinette wasn’t”, following Roseanne Bar’s call for the return of the guillotine. This revolutionary chorus is met with an anthropophagic crowd menacing that “One day, the Poor Will Have Nothing Left to Eat but the Rich” (or the short version: “Hungry? Eat A Banker”).
What is at stake here is not so much whether or not the carnivalesque is at work in turning Occupy Wall Street into a revolutionary movement. Rather, it is the realization, through carnivalesque ritual strategy and hierarchy inversion, of the expanse (and expense) of the political antagonism and binary extremism between the 1% and the 99%. As much a site of resistance as a relational mode, the carnivalesque occupation of Wall Street is a symbolic struggle to break the high-low binarism that has besieged contemporary American society.
Staging their carnival in the middle of this 21st century form of Lent as recession, the occupiers might seem to want to have their cake and eat it too. Beware though, that the Wall Street Bull ends up like the fattened Ox of Mardi Gras, sacrificed on the coming Fat Tuesday or the next Black Wednesday.

—Claire Tancons is a curator, writer and researcher whose work focuses on Carnival, processional arts, and protest movements. She was born in Guadeloupe and lives in New Orleans.

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