It has been the best part of a year since I prepared anything to share here, but this time I have forced myself to turn my (largely germinal) thoughts into something which might be communicable. We face a situation today which feels even less certain to me (and to many of my friends with whom I have discussed this) than it did a year ago. If we are staring into the abyss, we might as well talk about it and attempt to work out a way of avoiding the terror it holds without closing our eyes.
As the most important social movement in most Western societies in around a decade, more should be written, read, and discussed on the Occupy movement. By writing these short theses, I don’t mean to denigrate that movement or wish to disempower anyone who put so much of their life and energy into the occupations as many of my own friends. Among other things, Occupy has come impressively close in the UK to really challenging the absence of public space in our world. On the contrary, it is precisely to rescue Occupy’s central goal (or at least the goal of those who I know in the occupations) that I have attempted a critique of the movement. Praise is, after all, fundamentally useless while we remain under the same conditions Occupy has rallied against. Moreover, I have intended to use Occupy to some extent only as a means through which we can continue to theorise and elucidate the situation we find ourselves in, although I stand by all that is written below – at least for now.
- Most people agree that the tandem strength and weakness of the “Occupy movement” is its intentional ambiguity in content. Inspired by a mere notion of injustice it is freed from the baggage of theory: agreement on analysis and thus on a programme of action is impossible within its strict boundaries, and therefore it also becomes virtually impossible to oppose the movement: there is too little to oppose. For as long as a sense of suffering exists in the world, it could notionally sustain itself indefinitely.
- The slogan “Occupy Everything!” quite largely takes its cue from the student protests of 2009-2010 in the US, especially in California where the students raised banners reading “Occupy Everything! Demand Nothing!” Such a cry shows a movement for social justice stripped to its lowest common denominator – deliberately emaciated. The Occupy movement has carried on in this tradition, but has concealed even its own intention to avoid substantive content. Rather than achieving dynamism, it sacrifices it. Its slogan may as well be “All Form, No Content!” Or, in other words: we will create forums in which we might discuss our growing list of grievances with the world, but we will have no shared language with which to articulate them.
- A movement furnished absolutely with form and absolutely without content in fact does not, cannot, move – but is static. It can grow, but it will go nowhere. For as long as there is no theory, there can be no effective practice. The occupations are closed loops, perfect circles, and therefore in themselves have no prospect of reaching beyond their first word, the constitutive moment which both brings together members can keeps them apart: this simple imperative to act silently, to occupy everything and to demand nothing. The Occupy movement thus unconsciously recreates the very parliamentarian system against which it protests – the systematised peaceful coexistence of truth and lie which conceals its ideological persuasion and function by claiming to accept all viewpoints as equal.
- Having denied itself sufficient content, the constituting relationship between content and form is forgotten. It is neglected that the substance of a movement determines the actions that it takes: making itself substantially as empty as possible, the occupations manifest themselves to be in the immediate, practical sense fruitless. Occupation locations are chosen which are minimally controversial. Occupy London Stock Exchange avoids the London Stock Exchange because it cannot bear an antagonism which cannot be theoretically justified; Occupy Wall Street occupies the literal street rather than the powerful institutions which give its name such profile. Rather than occupying everything, the movement consequently occupies nothing. Occupations may spread and encompass new spaces, but all that is achieved is a change of scenery. The occupations create a space of minor political struggle in which camps challenge local authorities only for the temporary re-appropriation of those very spaces they occupy.
- Without being able to articulate exactly what is protested against, the occupations have a simple spectral quality – they float around the centre of a city, as if hanging in the air, in suspension from the concrete social world from whence they came, like a bad memory whose guilt or remorse lingers but whose particular images have been erased. The command to “occupy everything” cannot apprehend its own radicality. Instead of imagining power to be situated in and emanating from a world external to our own, in a space of exception which simply needs to be identified and invaded in order to affect its operation, it must be recognised that power only has a circumstantial geographic centre. Rather than descending onto the designated rallying place, the perfect response to Occupy’s rallying cry would be: “but we already occupy everywhere.” We already occupy the houses that are repossessed, the workplaces that are closed, and the schools and hospitals that are sold for timber. And we occupy them in a more significant sense than we can hope to occupy a pavement.
- The fetish for public camp-style occupations indicates a belief in the scientificity of method. The believed purchase of the command to occupy “everywhere” is that it is held to be an effective weapon in contemporary struggle. The methodological efficiency is meant to suffice as an appeal. People must flock to the occupations for they are the best hope they have. But here the means and the end are synthesised – the need to occupy becomes an imperative independent of all else. The over-emphasis most mainstream media placed on the Tahrir Square occupation thus reaps its reward. That Tahrir Square was foremost a symbol, (no matter how important) of resistance to Hosni Mubarak’s regime was successfully erased from history before it had even been written. The real history of the Egyptian revolution says: Tahrir, yes, but mass refusal too.
- Occupy has managed to put social justice on the political agenda, but only in a superficial way. It has only pushed itself into column inches which remain otherwise steadfastly locked, privately censored, and exclusive. Significantly, much of what is said about Occupy in the UK media is in debate over the extent to which it can be tolerated as it challenges individual laws and individual institutions. While it would be a travesty to deny this as progressive, it has to be acknowledged that it is also insufficient. Nothing will be sufficient until it is asserted that social justice, that is emancipation, is the agenda upon which all else is written.
- The occupations of the last year have served one purpose poignantly and successfully: they have reinvigorated the debate as to how self-defining “anti-capitalists” should organise – a debate which is of utmost importance and will only reach a conclusion with the emancipation of all humanity from suffering and scarcity. It is clear that the present option available to us, that of the Occupy movement, will mean atomism and stagnation It appears to be exhausted. The history of the 19th and 20th centuries also offers us options – to resurrect the mass-party in the hope that a large enough roster can cause the edifice to crumble, or likewise to amass in some other organisation (formal or otherwise) which claims to bear the torch of liberty. This appears to mean re-enacting battles from lost wars. To go forward, then, we must take the spirit of occupy and appeal for new, thoughtful strategies, tactics, and modes of organising. The task ahead of us is both theoretical and practical: to establish precisely what it means to refuse.