The tented encampments that are the face of the global #Occupy movement’s outlet in the United Kingdom have begun to slowly move indoors to the warmth, either as a replacement for the old camps or as a supplement to the very public nature of a tented city. There is an inherent radicalism in taking abandoned buildings that do not belong to you (more so than areas of public/semi-public land) but what has this meant for the politics of a movement that, at least in London, has often been criticised for a somewhat confused critique of what it is supposedly fighting against. There is scope here to consider both the right and left’s response to the recent developments in #Occupy’s housing situation, but I shall allow the right to make their own case and will develop my response from an anti-capitalist position and one that is ultimately friendly towards some of the expressed and unexpressed goals of these occupations.
Right up until a week into the inception of the Bank of Ideas I tried to engage with the occupy movement as much as possible, helping where I could. It certainly wasn’t an awful experience, but I soon found that with other commitments looming and my tolerance for the politics of the group wavering that I would no longer be able to participate as I had done before. Thus for the past four weeks I have not been to any of the #Occupy London camps or buildings. Though not entirely on purpose, it has given me an opportunity to see how the movement presents itself to those who are not there and are not experiencing it – primarily through varying forms of media (including the national press) but also through speaking with people who are still at the camps and in the buildings of the #Occupy movement.
What I hear all too often is a frustration that people do not understand what the occupiers are trying to achieve. People have given up time, energy and in some cases jobs and possessions in order to be part of the #Occupy movement, yet their message just isn’t getting out the way they want it to. Why not? Well it is unsurprising when the occupier in the next tent doesn’t exactly share one’s politics. This is more than understandable, especially when people have only recently been forced to be politically engaged because of the necessity of a crisis. The exchange of views is how people’s politics develops, but playing this out in front of the world’s media is not entirely the best way to do this. But even more frustrating for individual occupiers is that the, often self appointed, spokespeople tend to represent a contingent who are the most liberal minded and willing to engage in the media game. The politics of the camp thus becomes diluted into what is most palatable for the BBC journalist and about the next spectacle which will keep the cameras coming back for more.
The latest of these spectacles, the occupation of the abandoned Old Street Court is exactly what is wrong about a movement which has been dubbed anti-capitalist yet insists on a branding exercise that misses the value of what it is doing. There is nothing inherently wrong about occupying a court house at all, in fact, it is a wonderful resource and should be put to use. But the constraints of branding it as the fourth #OccupyLondon site has been obvious in all of the reportage about the site. It is to become the site of trials for the 1%. Not capitalism. The 1%.
I find a lot problematic about this indeed. Firstly, the 99% vs. 1% argument is an awful class analysis that fails to admit that the issue of capital spreads far further than the few right at the top of the system. Anti-capitalism is about being against a social relation which means that an entire class of people are exploited for their labour by another class of people who control the means of production. In Marxist lexicon these are the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, there are of course questions that need to be asked of the Marxist critique in order to square it with modern incarnations of capital, however, it provides a much better analysis than one which lumps the majority of those who exploit in with the great oppressed 99%. Furthermore, the notion of putting individuals on trial for the wrongs of capitalism, though tempting, plays into the society that occupy seems to be trying to reimagine through its processes. By using the courts, jails and vengeful ‘justice’ system of the type of society you disagree with, you may provide a nice story for the media to grab on to (and inevitably mediate and dilute for public consumption) but it dooms the movement to carry on in the exact same vein as what it is campaigning against.
Without the constraints of the assumed set of politics that come with the #Occupy brand, there is so much potential for spaces like the Old Street court. There is no doubt a community of workers and residents around the site of the old court that have lost their spaces and would relish the opportunity for a space to organise against exploitative bosses in their work places. It isn’t about a grand plot against the 1%, but about real fights that workers need to have in order to improve their material conditions. It may not be as glamorous, but may strangely be more popular than the stunts which have been the main form of action for occupy thus far.
Some would congratulate occupy for their media prowess, but I would rather it took the time to develop its politics and consider the views and well-being of its participants than provide stories for a media that could not care less about its cause.There are many people involved in the camps and buildings that have either been recently made redundant, are graduates in a market where there are no jobs or work in extremely precarious conditions. I am sure these people have much to say about what #Occupy could be organising and campaigning around, and it is these people that the movement should be developing it’s politics around – not the media. It is dangerous to be populist when you do not quite understand what you are popularising and have very little control over how is is mediated.
Taking buildings is beautiful, but the squatting community who are helping #Occupy take these building are more than experienced in doing it – perhaps their time would therefore be better spent sharing the skill with those who are soon to find themselves on the streets not through choice, but forced by neo-liberal economics which has yet again gone wrong. Students, tenants, home owners, community groups and others can all do with abandoned buildings, and whilst there are some to go around, having access to them is not a common skill and shouldn’t be the preserve of the #Occupy brand development working group.
Occupying is a tactic, not a brand.