Three Dimensions of Occupy

March 24, 2012

The Occupy movement seemed to spring out of nowhere in the autumn of last year. First we saw the Occupy Wall Street camp in New York’s Zuccotti Park – which was swiftly renamed Liberty Square in homage to Cairo’s Tahrir Square.  Here in Britain, we saw a series of Occupy camps set up on October 15th, most notably the Occupy LSX site on the steps of St Paul’s cathedral in London.

I had the privilege of visiting Occupy Wall Street in October. I was sent to report on it by the newspaper “Socialist Worker”. This trip didn’t quite go as planned – I ended up arrested along with several other activists and spent 30 hours in jail. We were protesting against student debt in the lobby of a Citibank outlet, and the New York Police Department considered this to be trespass. Once I got back to London, I visited the St Paul’s camp on a few occasions to take part in general assemblies.

Of course both camps have now been forcibly cleared by the authorities. Occupy is at a crossroads, and we are presented with the opportunity to step back and critically assess the past four months. What follows is an attempt at that kind of political analysis. I should stress that it is in no sense an “insider account”. It comes rather from the position of a sympathetic fellow traveller with the movement, and should be taken in that spirit.

I want to look at three dimensions of the Occupy movement. The first is the physical dimension – the politics of occupying a public space, the repression such actions encounter, the history and relevance of such tactics. The second is the ideological dimension – what Occupy said and meant, in particular the focus on capitalism’s systematic inequality captured by the “We are the 99%” slogan. The third dimension is more speculative – I’m provisionally calling it the insurrectionary dimension: a distillation and synthesis of the first two perspectives. I’ll end with some brief words on where we are now here in Britain, and where we could go next.

Let’s start with the most striking aspect of Occupy: its physical occupation of space. The mainstream media like to present this as a new tactic. But such a view involves a certain historical blindness. Occupations have a history in working class and radical movements. The Occupy camps had immediate antecedents and inspirations in the form of Spain’s indignados movement and the student occupations of 2010.

I was studying for an MA in philosophy at Middlesex University that year. Management decided to shut the department down and we ended up occupying the mansion house in Trent Park in protest at this move. At the time, we considered it to be a one-off event. But a few months later, a wave of student occupations arose in response to tuition fee hikes and the abolishment of the Education Maintenance Allowance.

Look back further, and we can see other examples of occupations. Several universities had occupations in protest to Israel’s attack on Gaza in late 2009. After the Seattle demonstrations in 1999, social centres associated with the anti-capitalist movement were established. They, in turn, were linked to radical squatting movements and aspects of the 1990s rave scene. Evidently, Occupy had many precursors.

There is also a history of occupations in the workers’ movement, although it has often received less attention. In 2009, workers occupied the Visteon factory in north London and forced Ford into paying them redundancy money that it had been withholding. Similar factory occupations in the past have won notable victories. In 1981, many women workers at Lee Jeans in Greenock occupied their plant and saved it from closure.

Occupation is a tactic with a history and a pedigree. Of course each occupation arises out of unique circumstances and has its own unique dynamic. But there are certain general points that can be elaborated. The first is that occupation poses an immediate question about public and private space. We live our lives surrounded by a field of invisible regulations that tell us where we can or must go, and what we are and aren’t allowed to do there. Occupation makes these regulations of bodies in space visible. Anyone involved in an occupation rapidly confronts police officers or security guards. The forces of ‘law and order’ seek to restore ‘normality’, and are more than willing to use violent means to do so.

Indeed, the levels of force used by the authorities are shocking. We’ve seen kettles, mass arrests, truncheons, and police horses. The student protest on December 9th 2010 deviated from its official route and occupied Parliament Square. My friend Alfie Meadows – who had been centrally involved in the Middlesex philosophy occupation – ended up getting truncheoned by police and underwent emergency brain surgery. Of course no police officer has been brought to account for this action. Instead Alfie has been charged with violent disorder and faces the courts on 26 March.

Again, history is important. When the police attack an occupation, this is not an aberration. The police force was set up in the 19th century partially in order to break up mass demonstrations. Police work has never been limited to solving crimes or catching villains – it has always been about controlling the masses as well. The attacks on occupations and demonstrations represent a return to the police’s core purpose, not a deviation from it.

The violence of the state has ambivalent effects. On the one hand, it was the police repression of Occupy Wall Street activists that brought the camp to the attention of the mainstream media. At least initially the repression was counterproductive from the perspective of the authorities – it fuelled solidarity on an unprecedented scale for the activists involved.

But on the other hand, one cannot ignore the overwhelming superiority of the state’s ability to use force against occupations. Politically, solidarity can stave off the ending of an occupation only for a certain amount of time. Occupations are by nature temporary affairs, as we have seen in both New York and London. Activists must carefully balance the energy directed inwards to sustain the occupation against the energy directed outwards to garner support and solidarity from the wider public. In New York activists responded to the eviction of Liberty Square with the slogan: “You can’t evict an idea whose time has come.” This points to an important truth: the symbolic aspect of occupation can outlive and outlast the transient liberation of a particular space. Occupation is about more than setting up camp in a particular place: it creates a platform to put political ideas out into the public sphere.

This leads us on to the second dimension of Occupy – its ideological aspects. One of the most fascinating elements of Occupy is the way it combined old and new media. The movement took full advantage of internet technologies and social media such as emails, Twitter and Facebook. But it also deployed age-old tactics such as placards and slogans. People wrote out demands and polemics on pieces of cardboard, and then photographed themselves and posted digital images online. Occupy took on the traditional task of speaking truth to power in new and creative ways.

Of all the various slogans and phrases one striking metaphor stood out: the theme of the 99% versus the 1%. At a basic level, the slogan was simply a factual description of the world, and of the grotesque inequality of power and wealth. Of course, this inequality has been with us ever since the rise of “civilisation” (or class society, as Marxists call it). But it has accelerated exponentially in recent years, under both the “neoliberal” phase of capitalism and the “austerity” phase that is now dawning in the wake of the 2007 global financial meltdown.

But the 99% slogan is about more than a bald statement of fact. First, it is an antagonistic statement: the 99% versus the 1%. At Occupy Wall Street I saw several homemade placards bearing statements like “The 1% is my enemy”. This naming of an enemy set Occupy apart from more general populist rhetoric about how “we the people” are “all in it together”. It explicitly drew a battle line – and implicitly pointed to the idea of class struggle.

Second, the 99% slogans had what philosophers call a “performative” dimension. Occupiers didn’t just say something, they also did something. Occupy Wall Street activists organised marches through working class areas chanting “We are the 99%”. This was a call to arms and an invitation to people to join them. It was also a chant that raised questions. Demonstrators typically chanted it over the heads of cops. So were the police part of the 99% or not? This was a common question discussed among activists. My answer would be that while average police officers are not part of the 1%, they certainly work for the 1% and do their bidding. They do not and never will side with the 99%.

Occupy’s slogans did more than propagandise about inequality. They also instilled a political discipline on the movement. At the centre of this was the confrontational nature of the slogan. For despite the omnipresence of inequality under capitalism, it remains the system’s dirty little secret. We aren’t meant to talk about it.

But the act of talking about it involved taking on not just the police but also ruling class ideology – the “policeman in our heads” as the 1968 students once called it (though this metaphor can be misleading: ideology isn’t really “in our heads” but “out there” in the world). Eric Fretz, a New York-based socialist, wrote a story that illustrated this point. He recounts the story of filmmaker Michael Moore’s speech at last year’s union rights protests in Wisconsin. Moore pointed out that just  400 Americans hold more wealth than half of all Americans combined. But it was only after Occupy Wall Street that these statistics received a wider airing. Occupy forced the issue of systematic inequality out of the radical ghetto onto the agenda of the mainstream media. That alone is an acheivement worth applauding.

What do these two dimensions of Occupy – the physical and the ideological – have in common? An insurrectionary character, a refusal to play by the rules of “normal” society, ?a revelation of the 1%’s power combined with a defiance of that power, and a rallying call for others to join the insurrection. That is the spirit at work both in the physical occupation of privatised space and in the ideological focus on questions about inequality, poverty, and political power under capitalism.

Occupy is strongest when it seizes that insurrectionary spirit and moves it forward. We see this in Occupy Wall Street’s success in linking up with trade union struggles, anti-racism campaigns and a host of other radical causes. It has bound together the 99% and mutually strengthened all those struggles. And it has continued to play that role even after the physical dissolution of the camp at Liberty Square.

We can see similar dynamics in Britain. One of Occupy LSX’s first pledges was to support the 30 November public sector strike that saw 2.6 million workers walk out against cuts to pensions and public services. Another example is the solidarity delivered by Occupy activists to the recent electricians’ dispute. It’s no coincidence that the police went out of their way to prevent the electricians from marching to join Occupy LSX and student protesters during their frequent skirmishes with the authorities. The 1% know how dangerous it can be when radical movements fuse with workers in struggle. We should draw that lesson, too.

The question for Occupy is how to harness that insurrectionary dimension, and where to take it. The answers are far from straightforward. History is peppered with inspiring examples of radical activism and ideas crossing over into mass working class struggle, but there are also too many examples of failure. The success of that alliance is not something that occurs automatically or without conscious intention.

Moreover, knitting together the physical and ideological insurrections also involves bridging theory and practice. Again, this is hard and requires effort. It’s all too easy to lapse into producing overarching critiques of the system while getting lost in the minutiae of internal organisation and process. This gap needs to be closed: Successful activism requires a theory that guides our practice and a practice that informs our theory.

The overwhelming power of the 1% also needs to be addressed. They have laws, judges, media, police and armies on their side. All we have is numbers and organisation. The question is how to build those popular resources into something that can effectively challenge the status quo. One of Marx’s key insights was about the role of workers. Organising in the workplace means organising at the point where our labour generates their profits. It means organising where we are strongest. Agitating for mass strikes – a generalised insurrection of labour – draws the largest amount of people into struggle as well as deploying our power most effectively against that of the 1%.

We are currently seeing austerity programmes being rolled out by governments across Europe. This is most evident in Greece, which has seen wave after wave of strikes and demonstrations involving huge numbers of people. Protest is even spilling over into direct workers’ control. Hospitals and newspapers have been occupied by their workforces and organised by them rather than by a discredited and powerless management. Similar processes are underway in Egypt, where the movement against Mubarak has deepened into more radical struggle over the very nature of society.

There are glimpses of this in Britain already. The electricians won their battle to prevent construction bosses from imposing new and vastly inferior contracts upon them. They did this through rank-and-file organisation and militant tactics, crucially including unofficial strikes that pushed their union into action. We also saw it with the November 30th strike, which was less militant but involved far greater numbers of people defying their managers, walking out, organising pickets and linking up with other workers in struggle. As I write, that dispute looks set to flare up again with another major strike scheduled for March 28th.

And the spirit of insurrection is spreading. We’ve seen the astonishing spectacle of company after company dropping out of the government’s noxious workfare scheme in the face of militant protests backed by a tidal wave of public anger and disgust at those who would force the unemployed to work for free. The government is increasingly under siege over its plans to dismantle the National Health Service. Almost everyone who works to deliver healthcare has united against the government and in defence of basic NHS principles. The mutinous spirit is spreading, and Occupy is a part of it. We can and must mobilise the 99% against the 1%. Or as Percy Bysshe Shelley put it two centuries ago: “We are many, they are few.”


Anindya Bhattacharyya is a journalist on Socialist Worker. You can follow him on Twitter at @bat020 and read his article on Occupy Wall Street at This article is based on his contribution to a seminar on Occupy earlier this month at the Oxford Radical Forum. Other participants included Conor Tomás Reed from Occupy Wall Street and Tanya Paton from Occupy LSX.