milibank

After their failures: the meaning of occupation

March 24, 2013

[originally published in Shift, October 2011]

A state ruled by law cannot tolerate any spontaneous or organised violence. Everybody must realise that the attacks against parliament, MPs and other citizens are mutilating democracy and undermining civil rights… [We must guard against a] derailment of democracy.
Greek President Papandreou, Reuters, July 2011

Conflict etches lines onto the social body. Past conflicts shape the present and offer glimpses of what will come to be. What we are living through now, this dying neoliberal present, is the result of a long period of social warfare which has been running from the 60s. Neoliberalism was a response to a rebellion that shook the world to its foundations, a social conflict that promised to undo the post-war settlement both in the global North and in the worlds of the sometimes post, sometimes still colonies. Our struggle is with a dying form of containment, one whose outcome is far from given or set in stone.

It’s important to start from the beginning – from our resistance. For this is what marks the project of neoliberalism more than anything else. The seeming dominance of finance capital over our lives and the renewed process of theft, enclosure and pillage are but two aspects of a more fundamental political project – to control and break the back of the upsurge of collectivity and rebellion of the 50s, 60s and 70s; to make a new social subject that is in every way, as much as is possible, of the market. It is an anti-political project, conjured into being to rescue capitalism from the threat of politics. And it is this threat of politics that lies beneath the occupations of city squares, banks, schools and universities, offices and schools around the globe. A politics of the most base and unruly kind. The return of King Mob.

If occupation is the return of unruly politics, then we need to ask why now and not before? In fits and starts, over the last few years, occupations have been an increasingly frequent mode of struggle. Occupations of streets, squares, universities, schools, factories and offices. These occupations, a practice that is ever-present under capitalism but has reached a crescendo during the crisis, are not all the same. We have to be careful of ascribing too much similitude between Tahrir Square and the current occupation of Wall Street; of the student riots in Chile or in London (or even between the student riots in London and the August riots sparked by the murder of a young black man by police and a social system of public incarceration and immiseration). These are different spaces, yet they clearly come into being and exist as moments in resonance with each other. Images, sounds, stories moving from one occupation to the next, multiplying, amplifying and planting the seed of the idea of a territorial resistance.

We can track the upsurge in occupations from the beginning of the current crisis. The current impasse can be described as one in which neoliberalism has failed, both as a means to pillage wealth around the world but also as a project of control. As it fails to turn everything into the mirror of itself, into a world of commodities governed by the logic of the market, into a world of consumers and entrepreneurs, it sputters and shudders to a halt. Markets fall. Faith has been lost but still neoliberalism as a project continues. Not because it works on its own terms but, at least in part, because there is nothing else within view. Neither the rulers of our world or their unruly subjects have yet presented another vision of what comes next, let alone proclaimed that another, different future is possible.

Our failures and theirs are the reason for the current impasse. But their failures provide us with an opportunity: one we must and are seizing. What is it that we must do to resolve this crisis on our terms? It is from this point that we can start to create another way of being in the world together. Another future. We need to start from the question of how our resistances and occupations have failed to make another kind of future possible. And what can be done to fail again, to fail differently and make something else a possibility. What is it that is stopping us? What is the limit of the occupation?

Is it a limit of form? To a certain extent it is, but occupation is a tactic, not a strategy or vision. It is worth looking at why it works, and why it has become so common, so as to see how the choice of tactics is less a limit than a place to start.

Towards a Rational Subject?

Neoliberalism, as an anti-political project, aims to make collectivity impossible. It deepened its hold on our lives by remaking us in the image of the market: by attempting to reduce is the political to the merely economic: the citizen to the consumer; the worker to the entrepreneur. It reduces the space for politics, rendering all subject to expertise and generalizing management into a way of life.

It holds out a mirror to the world, putting us into motion as we chase ourselves down the rabbit hole, looking for something to ground ourselves in; something beyond the individual; something close to joy or happiness. But, in the realm of consumers and entrepreneurs, there is only a lack: of contact, of desire, of satisfaction. The chase never ends.

Permanently in motion, constantly choosing things that look like people, and using people as though they were things in an effort to secure something that seemingly escapes from us when we come close. It is a life endless repeated, seemingly without alternatives or change. We need here only to chart two aspects of this system of motion; one at the level of governance, and the other at the level of the subjective.

Neoliberalism is marked by an ever-increasing gap between the governers and the governed as political decisions become subject to economic rules via a process of near-automation. Politics becomes economic management (and we all in turn become the managers of our own lives as reduced to economics). A matter of policy and expertise, not of ideology or ethics. Or rather, a space where both ideology and ethics have been reduced to mere effects of a well managed economy.

Alongside this process of management creep, a conscious remaking of what it means to be alive is being undertaken. Neoliberalism de-socialises our choices and problems, and remade them as rational choices between products and careers. It assumes the citizen to be the consumer, and the worker to be the entrepreneur, and sets about attempting to make it so. What we have witnessed is the erosion of both the collective and the politics of everyday life; without the possibility of the plural, with life reduced to individual decision making and risk management, there can be no possibility of politics. Since its initiation as a project, in half-steps during the 70s, it has progressively transnationalised economic governance, elevating the importance and centrality of financial transactions, while undoing what remains of politics and life beyond the market. Of course this did not happen without resistance, with the remaining spaces of life beyond the market and of politics testament to the struggles both past and present. But nonetheless by and large the project of neoliberalism has been successful so far.

The logic of occupation

Perversely this process has made capitalism more and not less dependent on geography. And it is at this juncture of dependency that occupation enters.

Finance is dependent on stable rates of return on money invested. For this it needs two things – steady (and low) inflation, and ‘stable’ places of growth and investment. Stability means no riots, mass struggles or social movements capable of dispersing or capturing the State. It means students not leaving school and smashing up the Tory party offices, or Wall Street not being occupied for two weeks within ever-growing support. It means no wildcat strikes by electricians or workplace occupations. It means no mass strikes in China or occupations of city squares by Egyptians or Bahrainians. Stability means the maintenance of the absence of politics. Low inflation means contained (or the absence of) workplace struggles, coupled with growing productivity and precarious bodies willing to labour long and hard, minimal tax and government oversight and sufficient capital (cash, human or otherwise) in order to not increase the cost of ‘doing business’.

Ultimately, neoliberal capital is dependent on the appearance of stability and of the promise of a decent return within geographically specific institutions and territories, unthreatened by strong State governance or powerful social and labour movements.

What then could be more threatening than a collective mass that disrupts the flow of capital and threaten the future possibilities of financial return by occupying those central geographical sites of governance?

It may start with a street, office or workplace, but the effect is the same. At the level of appearance, the level most important to a kind of capitalism built on the eternal return of the present and promise to pay, a break is made with both the technical and subjective presuppositions of neoliberalism. With an occupation, the individual moves towards the collective through the socialisation of individual problems. The possibility of self-governance becomes obvious to all.

All at once, they, politicians, bankers, all of them seem like so many vampires and parasites. The refrain is always the same: what do they do for us anyway, but lie, cheat and steal?

The physical occupation of a square, street or workplace creates the possibility of the return of politics. Proximity – being near to someone else – makes it possible to take what we are told are our own problems and responsibilities and make them collective. It is not my debt, but our debts; not my lack of childcare, but our lack of provision. I am not cold and hungry. It is a we that suffers. And it is here that a practice of politics can start.

In place of the assumption that nothing can change, change seems the only thing possible. In place of apathy comes a depth of emotion and empathy that seems to have no end. Occupation and the return of politics revels the fragility of a system built on the idea that we cannot come together; that there is no other choice. That it is only one by one that we can approach the world.

Politics is made possible when there are real choices of how we wish to live. By taking something, making it something other than what it was we bring other forms of life into view. We can see that not only are we not alone but that we can live differently.

Occupation stops the endless present and puts bodies together to make politics possible. It stops, if only for a moment, the events and processes of daily life. Ultimately, occupation presents itself at the level of appearance, meeting neoliberalism there, confronting it as a world of choices with a refusal to choose. A non-choice, a choosing differently. It turns the mirror around and shows the world to be a place without choices, empty.

Limits of the occupation

The first and last question in the occupation is always the same: what next? And here we reach the limit of the occupation.

A collective ‘what next’, a nightmare that has haunted neoliberalism from its birth. It is a question that immediately brings up another, more difficult question: what is it that we want, and what do we need? Not alone but together. It is at this juncture that the occupation breaks down or opens up into something else. Desire can fall back onto habit, with people clamouring for more of the same or it can become part of a expropriation of those things that make collective life possible. Those spaces we need, power, shelter, sustenance in all its forms.

A different form of life has needs. Without the expropriation that makes these needs realizable, occupation can only fall back on demands: for more things, or better experts to govern us. It needs to be grounded in a community of needs, and have access to the resources sufficient for our own material reproduction. Not the community of neoliberal focus groups, but a community bonded by necessity, an actual living-together-ness.

We have to learn what politics can mean again. The limit of the occupation lies in the fact that neoliberalism has rendered politics all but impossible. The occupation opens up the possibility of making what seem to be individual choices and problems into collective choices and problems. The possibility of going beyond the individual, and to see our collective needs and dependencies.

We have to forge another unruly kind of politics. We are confronted with the necessity of creating substantive communities based on common needs. The question of what next will succeed or fail on the strength those institutions we bring into being: can they sustain us? Do they allow for another way of life, other futures and dreams? Can we put them to use as weapons with which to tear down the world and build it anew in the same moment?

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