A lasting (pre)occupation

by Joseph Markus

So we’ve reached the end of the road for Occupy LSX. Having lost an appeal against the judgment of the High Court in mid-January, last night the City of London began removing tents in the presence of police officers and High Court enforcement officers.

Nevertheless, it’s been an interesting time for politics in this country. So often a dead-zone for the young and marginal, the occupants of St. Paul’s Churchyard reclaimed part of the political domain as their—and on behalf of the rest of the notional 99%—own using the only available method, the physical occupation of space.

It’s not difficult to think of examples where the arrogance of Government has led it to refuse to listen to the voices of those whom it purports to represent. The Health and Social Care Bill is one—very good—example among many. The majority of the medical profession oppose the introduction of competition into the NHS, as well as the 160,000 or so individuals who have signed the Number 10 e-petition (do sign it if you haven’t already!). Recent polling also suggests that a majority of the British public oppose the changes. Taking as a starting assumption the general apathy and dissociation from politics of many in the country, the extent of opposition here really is quite remarkable.

The shared background to both of these acts of opposition is the way in which global economic conditions—leading to austerity, foreclosures, and misery—have galvanised what was always, perhaps, latent disaffection with the way capitalism has run the world, whether in relation to creeping privatisation or excessive wealth.

But the real distinction between Occupy and, for instance, the opposition to the health bill is not their origins, or even necessarily their goals—and this is one thing that many commentators seem to have overlooked—it is that each embodies a fundamentally different approach to political activism. Here I don’t intend to descend to the level of talking about the mainstream of politics and its radical undercurrent. Rather, what I want to mention is how, without necessarily having any form of external or coherent message, Occupy has demonstrated a new, or perhaps lost, mechanism for political engagement.

Opposing the health bill can take place within the happily narrow confines of the Downing Street e-petition website, in the House of Lords, and through the chattering commentariat. We need go no further than this.

Occupy has tried, in radically different fashion to the traditional institutional model, to free politics and to shift it in a radically different direction. This is not something you can ever really attempt through pulling the usual strings—something new was required.

For example, if you are the BMA, you have the authority—and at least some power—to shape the health debate. If you are a socialist, an anarchist, a homeless person, a person struggling on benefits, and so on, where is your power? Certainly you may have authority to speak about the unique experience of living in those conditions, but who listens?

Occupy located any power it had in the physical seizure of public space. And while scepticism and indifference rapidly spread through much of the ‘mainstream’ press, at the start there was news coverage. At the start their activities did prompt a renewed discourse of ‘responsible capitalism’ both here and in the US.

But more than this, the Occupy idea represented a real attempt in a world of strikingly visible inequalities to try to bridge differences and allow equal access to a common political space. The general assembly method of making decisions intentionally sought to set each participant on an equal plane. This is a compelling vision of how politics-at-large could be. The real question, moving forward, is how this could be operationalised in some sense and writ-large.

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