#Occupy – On Autonomy in times of Crisis

by Sam Halvorsen

Territorialised occupations facilitated by deterritorialised networks are challenging the political and economic orthodoxy in an age of austerity, creating alternative autonomous spacialities.

First published: 28 October, 2011 | Category: 

Following the Argentine fiscal default of 2001, the slogan “occupy, resist, produce” became the hallmark of a new political movement that had strong autonomous tendencies. With mass capital flight from the country, many factories and workplaces were left with no choice but to close down. With one in three unemployed, the situation took a radical turn as workers started occupying factories, hotels, schools, and even hospitals, creating a network of workers' cooperatives across the country. Parallel to this, neighbourhoods rapidly organised themselves into assemblies, using non-hierarchical structures of direct democracy to self-organise.

The political-economic situation in post-2008 crisis UK is clearly very different to that of Argentina. Unemployment, while at a 17-year high, is only at 8%. Unlike Argentina, no political leaders have (yet) been overthrown, and the majority of the middle class is not (yet) taking to the streets. Nevertheless it is interesting to consider how times of crisis can provide opportunities for new political strategies in the search for more just societies. In particular, the rejection of centralised hierarchies and the failures of the state, and the struggle for autonomy are often apparent in moments of capitalist crisis (Boltanski and Chiapello, 2005).

Autonomy can be broadly understood as a political struggle that rejects large, centralised and hierarchical structures tied to the nation-state and increasingly to multinational corporations, and simultaneously seeks to develop alternative political structures based on self-managed consensus (see Katsiaficas, 2007). Both resisting and creating, autonomous movements seek to be the change they want to see, and actively construct post-capitalist worlds in the present (see Gibson-Graham, 2006). This short vignette will focus on the recent popularisation of “occupations” within the UK anti-cuts movement, considering how autonomy has become one of their central tendencies and what spatialities they have been engaging with.

Occupation and its Spatialities

“Occupy everything” has become a popular phrase in recent weeks. Following the success of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, the UK has also followed with “Occupy the London Stock Exchange”. Although not a particularly new tactic in itself, it is undoubtedly inspired by recent movements in Spain and the Middle East. Here in the UK it perhaps well represents the collective imagination of a new wave of activists that consider traditional “A to B” marches and parliament lobbying as passé, and are seeking new ways of doing politics.

On 15th October this year, a global day of occupations was called, with hundreds of cities across the world taking part. Responding to growing inequalities and the failings of the global economic system, protestors specifically targeted the financial centres of their countries, from Frankfurt to New York, as opposed to the political ones. Moreover, rather than presenting political demands to their leaders, people are experimenting with a prefigurative politics that seeks to create a new, radically democratic structure within the shell of the old one.

In London we gathered in our thousands, in the heart of the City, armed with tents and sleeping bags. People had come not to march and then go home, but to set up camp and stay. Within an hour of arriving, a “peoples’ assembly” had been called and we gathered in a circle. Refusing to be lead or told what to do, the assembly seeks to give an equal voice to anyone who wants to speak. It must have taken less than a minute to come to our first decision – that we were now in occupation and were not prepared to move.

The first day was very hectic. With no leaders or imposed guidelines, we were free to (re)create the space as we saw fit. Initially people focused on making small structures, improvising with placards and cardboard to create makeshift tables. We were keen to embed ourselves in the new territory, both reworking its symbolic meaning to us (through banners or graffiti) as well as its practical meaning (making it a space to organise and discuss). By the end of the day, and after some tensions with the police, we had over a hundred tents, a kitchen marquee, and numerous working laptops. The space now belonged to us.

This reworking of the space outside the London Stock Exchange relied on a strong engagement with its micro geographies. From the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, to the entrance of Starbucks, every square foot of space was now being used, and had been designated to some working group or other. The coming hours would then see an intense negotiation with both the police and the cathedral over the exact location of the camp, with tensions developing over the use of very particular pockets of space (such as the upper steps outside St. Paul’s). As time went on our structures got stronger, as did our emotional and physical attachment to this place.

This territorialisation of our politics was combined with a diverse networking of relations across London, the UK and even the world. Apart from those activists who arrived by train, plane and bus to get involved, our newly formed “media-tech” team were sending and receiving messages of solidarity from across and the world, and donations were soon flooding in. Others were contacting journalists, from local to international, and spreading the word wide and far. Finally, others were communicating with representatives from trade unions, universities, and numerous political organisations in order to start building links.

Autonomy

The act of occupying has long been a tactic of autonomous movements, that seek to re-imagine what a particular space means to them, liberating it from the permeation of capital and rejecting the top-down hierarchies of state imposed bureaucracies. As Castoriadis (1991: 163) notes, ‘autonomy emerges when explicit and unlimited interrogation explodes on the scene – an interrogation that has bearing not on “facts” but on the social imaginary significations and their possible grounding’.

Crucially for political movements seeking autonomy, this social imaginary must be a collective one in which activists negotiate their collective project together. By occupying a space activists are bound together by the territory in which their (re)imaginations are being applied. They work together in order to resist the entrance of capital and state into that space, and also seek to (re)produce it through processes of consensus decision-making.

These instances of autonomous struggle, however, can be short-lived and are often very fragile, what have been termed “temporary autonomous zones” (Bey, 1991). Moreover, as has been well documented in numerous recent case studies by Chatterton and Pickerill (2010), these spaces of autonomy tend to be “interstitial”, in that they contain both autonomous and non-autonomous social relations within them. Whilst we may occupy collectively, numerous individual power relations drive our process, with more vocal or persuasive activists often determining the outcome of events, and others acting as mere observers. Autonomy is only ever a process, a desire to which activists strive but never fully achieve.

For many activists and academics interested in the autonomous movements of recent years, their proliferation has largely been down to their operations within a networked structure. The network is horizontal, embodying the key anti-hierarchical tendency of autonomy. Moreover, it lacks a centre and is thus resistant to external agents who seek to co-opt and dismantle it. Finally, its use of modern communication technologies has allowed it to globalise and overcome spatial barriers.

However an occupation cannot exist solely on the basis of this deterritorialised network, as some prominent voices have suggested (Hardt and Negri, 2004). Many of the activists are mobilised on the back of place-based struggles, e.g. at the work place, in which they develop strong-tie relations and build the confidence and skills necessary to participate. Moreover, the act of occupying relies on a strong embeddedness in a particular territory, in which activists are forced to put down some roots, if only temporarily. Indeed many occupations can soon become a struggle over the territorial politics of place.

These two spatialities, of the territorialised place and the deterritorialised network, can support each other. Most occupations tend to rely on online networking to gain broad support and publicise their message. Moreover the space of the occupation can act as a useful meeting point for diverse networks to encounter each other and discuss strategy. The call to “occupy everything”, is rather a strategy of multiple simultaneous occupations, embedded in particular territories, but brought together through a wider network.

Austerity

What does it matter that these occupations are taking place in an age of austerity? Clearly, there are numerous grievances at play, and individuals are perhaps more likely to take to the streets and have their voices heard. But the demand for “autonomy” that other scholars have noticed (e.g. Castells, 1983; Boltanski and Chiapello, 2005), is also a strong rejection of their entire political system. With foul play, corruption, false promises, and endless failures throughout the parliamentary system, the strategy of participation and reform becomes increasingly a lost hope. The moment of austerity, then, provides an opportunity for the broader autonomous project of “subverting the political” (Katsaficas, 2007) – rejecting the dominant and creating the alternative.

However autonomous movements move into uncomfortable ground when they find themselves within the anti-cuts movements, as they inherently place themselves within the logic of “demands”. The occupied spaces, ostensibly liberated from state and capital, are in fact tied to them in numerous ways. Students occupy and demand that the state does not retreat, but maintains a very strong presence on campus. Meanwhile those “occupying the stock exchange” are very aware that as long as they remain unable to actually have any impact on the stock exchange, their influence is minimal.


What, then, can be said for autonomy as a strategy for change in austerity Britain? And how do occupations and their spatialities fit into it? Firstly, the struggle to participate directly in the political-economic processes that engulf society and the desire to take direct action against those responsible for the current economic crisis are important political statements from a new wave of activists. Having spent the previous week camping outside the stock exchange, I have been amazed by the majority of people who have had little or no previous experience with any form of political organising. Many of them don’t even see their actions as radical – it is just an obvious thing to do. Occupations and their autonomous tendencies appear to be becoming normalised.

Secondly, occupations provide a very physical manifestation of the deterritorialised network. Movements need to root themselves in place from time to time, and build strong-tie relations in place to sustain their activities. Whilst some take the struggle for autonomy to the work-place (e.g. workers' cooperatives) or home (e.g. squats), there is an increasing desire to create spaces of autonomy within the heart of the capitalist system. By reterritorialising the struggle, in a very material way, occupations act as public experiments of post-capitalist worlds.

Thirdly, our ability to measure success in these movements remains a challenge. As the welfare state is torn apart, and we become a society of debt holders, activists struggle to (re)conceptualise what winning may mean for autonomous politics. On day nine of the London occupation, there are increasing discussions about the need to take “action”. Whilst for some the ability to simultaneously occupy two prominent spaces within central London is success in itself, others lament the lack of any impact on the surrounding corporate powers. Building processes are not enough, we need to simultaneously shut them down.

The contemporary political landscape in the UK is far from Argentina in the wake of its crisis. But then again the Argentine uprising disappeared almost as quickly as it grew. Although the outcomes may not yet be known, at least those struggling for autonomy are doing something. Both questioning and experimenting with new possibilities, the politics of the Zapatista rebels is brought to mind: “walking, we ask questions”.



Bey, H., 1991. T. A. Z: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism. New York: Autonomedia.
• Boltanski, L. and Chiapello, E., 2005. The New Spirit of Capitalism. London: Verso.
• Castells, M., 1983. The City and the Grassroots: A Cross-Cultural Theory of Urban Social Movements. London: Edward Arnold.
• Castoriciados, C., 1991. Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy: Essays in Political Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
• Chatterton, P., and Pickerell, J., 2010. ‘Everyday activism and transitions towards post-capitalist worlds’ Transactions of the Institute for British Geographers. 35: 475-490.
• Gibson-Graham, J.K., 2006. A Postcapitalist Politics. London: University of Minnesota Press.
• Hardt, M. and Negri, A., 2004. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. London: Penguin.
• Katsiaficas, G., 2007. The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life. Edinburgh: AK Press.

All comments are moderated, and should be respectful of other voices in the discussion. Comments may be edited or deleted at the moderator's discretion.

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?