To my friends: on #OccupyLSX

To my friends:

I left the campsite of #OccupyLSX a few days ago to go to Barcelona. I’ve found myself spending much of the time I’ve been away wondering: where are you?

Let’s try a thought experiment: in the capital city of your country, a popular protest movement springs up with the explicit aim of confronting the financial system, occupies and maintains an occupation of a prominent public space, captures the media conversation and enjoys widespread popular support. The only possible response is to go down and engage with it.

Yet, of the many astonishing things about #OccupyLSX, perhaps the most astonishing is the paucity of faces I recognise there. This has two sides: the positive side is that the majority of people at the camp are actually newly politicised, and have been driven to take action building on the profound intuition that something is wrong. Here’s the crap side: people who have been involved in extraparliamentary politics for a long time are largely not there, preferring to sneer from the sidelines that the politics of the camp are not sufficient to the ends we would like to see, or that they’re not militant enough, or they’re simply getting things dangerously wrong.

The form of this thought is ludicrous: it proposes that political views are conceived prior to political action, and remain static and immobile throughout it. Actually, the politics of the camp, and the people in it, are in flux – and if you want people to have politics you judge as adequate, whining that they don’t have them from the comfort of the sidelines is useless.

We know about social movements. Above all, we know their failings. We know that social movements can diminish into activist ghettos. We know they get disconnected from the realities of everyday life. We know that they get bound down in internal divisions. We also know that social movements, when they appear, do not bear the form we were expecting, or perhaps even that we were desiring. This last is an important point: the real conditions from which social movements spring will always be partly obscured to us, their form is dictated by the conditions in which they arise, and partly determined by them. It is up to us to go to meet history when it is moving, rather than expecting it to come to us in a pleasing shape.

I am calling this a social movement because it is; I am saying that the protesters by St Paul’s are newly-politicised because they are. They are made up of people whom the ‘left’ in its traditional forms has failed, or never engaged: yes, including the unions, but including the activist left as well. Many of them – housewives or mothers, unemployed or underemployed, secretarial or temporary workers – are those bitten hardest by the changes in work in the past thirty years, without an easily comprehensible political language. If they do not talk about ‘class’ or ‘capitalism’, it is because those concepts vanished over the horizon of popular thought for the past thirty years, or because they came to mean static, historical ideas, perhaps relevant to the past, but no longer describing what we do today.

We are living in an extraordinarily hot political moment, in which people’s politics are changing rapidly – and in which systemic popular dissent is more visible than it has been for a long time. That it is systemic is most interesting: for all the reductive slogans about bankers and their bonuses, the political conversation that emerges in the camp is far more about systemic change than some peculiar bad bankers.

As I said, what brought people to the occupation was at base an intuition of something profoundly wrong. What develops out of that is still up for grabs, but it is clear that intuition is widely shared. Most conversations I’ve heard passing the camp have been broadly supportive, even when inflected with standard reservations about making a fuss and things being unable to change. But this negative mode of politics leaves a vacuum: intuition has to lead somewhere, and where it leads is yet to be determined. If we withdraw from the political conversation, then we end up conceding the conversation to a variety of right-wing dipshits, ‘libertarian’ capitalist, Zeitgeist conspiracy-theorists and those who think capitalism can be overcome by meditating and drinking your own urine.

I get that it’s frustrating. The slow work of politics – having essentially the same conversation over and over a thousand times – is not fun. It’s not like breaking through a police line, or marching, or chasing shamefaced politicians around Westminster with an angry mob. It is, however, the most important work we can do. This is a proposal for a kind of interventionism, but not the kind that operates by arriving in a cadre, or seeking to pervert process: it’s one that works from the ground up, by locating a popular movement and engaging it (that is, with the people, all of them, who make it up) with the humility to recognise that it might teach you a few things about how you organise, and about what you think, too. It is called participation.

We all bemoan the walls of the activist ghetto: the same faces, talking the same self-satisfied shit, even enacting the same ritual anger at the isolation and failure of engagement of activist culture. But on the other hand, it’s strange to walk on to a site where you don’t recognise anyone, and where all your previous experience, friendships and networks aren’t there to make life easy. #OLSX is – surprisingly, even to me – very much not the usual crowd. To find the walls of the ghetto crumbling and discovering that, actually, your activist social capital means little unless it translates into doing something – yes, that’s got to be a chastening experience.

Then this is my point: you need to engage this movement, and it won’t be comfortable doing so. I was down there almost continually, and one thing that’s striking is that its representation online bears little resemblance to what’s actually happening in reality. What’s happening is happening there, not on the computer screen. Needling, trolling, or criticising online is all well and good – I certainly like it – but it doesn’t really translate into anything beyond some enjoyable sound and fury.

Lastly, I share many of your critiques, frustrations and fears about the camp: about its slipshod process, about its lack of safe space and treatment of women, people of colour and queers, about the naïveté of trying to build a new politics uninflected by what currently surrounds us, about its hesitancy to engage fully against capitalism, about its softness to the church, about how it connects to wider labour struggles, about the transiency and direction of the camp, about its instinctive acceptance of many activist credos, about its ability to be sustained – but it is a mistake to believe that those are unalterable problems, or ones that can be solved by carping from the sidelines. Engagement means engagement: it doesn’t mean drifting through the camp listlessly, but actually talking, engaging, getting actively involved, it doesn’t mean turning up with your friends to sneer briefly and then fail to speak up, or living in an isolating bubble which dismisses it all as a flash in the pan. It means participating, as an equal. Any movement is what you make of it – I won’t be ceding the ground to conspiracy theorists, or the liberal centrists, or the nationalists. There is a real chance here, and to pass it up without any engagement is jawdropping.

You weren’t born with great politics. You didn’t emerge from the womb brandishing three volumes of Capital with a burning firebrand in the other. You, and I, came to a coherent politics after a lot of work, after a lot of thinking, a lot of conversation, and probably a lot of charity on others’ parts. Have the awareness and the optimism that such a transition should bring you: other people’s politics grow and change too. But if you aren’t there, if you choose to write them off, if you choose to remain in the comfort of purity without getting your hands dirty – well, then you’re working the first part of a self-fulfilling prophecy, and what’s worse, you know it.

See you on site.


27 thoughts on “To my friends: on #OccupyLSX

    • That’s actually not what I wrote, but it’s interesting that you interpret it as such. Obviously, I think your politics are incoherent, your understanding of capitalism wildly flawed, your notion of markets unhinged and idealist, and I have minimal interest in your ahistorical ‘libertarian’ programme — but I’m certain you’re welcome on site, and if you want to come and have a conversation about it there, I’m happy to argue about it down there. You’re likely to find many, many people who disagree with you.

  1. I’ve been overtly critical of the left all year, but what is down there is quite special. These are not people for whom politics is understood through the prism of a debate to be won or lost, these are people for whom their lives are the results of politics. And in their understanding of the world a great deal of what is missing from the left can be found. I have encountered the world of radical politics this year, and overriding any differences in belief or ideology are social norms, similar demographics and having those confronted may be uncomfortable fro activists not used to being in the minority. THis is a necessary part of what has to happen for the lack of representation that underpins the need for this, to be addressed, is for voices to be heard. And this is a forum where that is happening, and I urge you to go down there to support that happening, even if your voice doesnt enjoy the privilege it has in activist circles. For they are very small circles.

  2. Absolutley spot on apart from them being newly politicised, some but lots have been at it for a long time, and I think its important to note this because it adds credibility to the fact that mainstream politics has totally failed and this is the prototype of a new model.

  3. “explicit aim of confronting the financial system” – not at OccupyLSX, constant denials by spokespersons of any intention to confront anything, and certainly no consensus on systemic change, just bad people.
    “an occupation of a prominent public space” – not at OccupyLSX, relies on licence to remain in private space.
    “captures the media conversation” – with reformism and pro-church platitudes.

    “Yet, of the many astonishing things about #OccupyLSX, perhaps the most astonishing is the paucity of faces I recognise there.”

    There lies the difference, you may not recognise them but I do, the majority are the same liberals that turned up at Climate Camps and decried any direct action, preferring the “better” media coverage they saw coming from non-disruption. It’s no surprise that the camp has endorsed a (salt) march to parliament followed by a rally of the undead left’s 1%: John Pilger, Bruce Kent, Kate Hudson, Weyman Bennett, Lindsey German.

    But everything will be okay, because “Non-violence will win out, always.”

    • I have my own serious concerns about the OLSX media team and the way in which they’re working to moderate the conversations that are live around the camp, and work to determine the tone of conversations. This is actually a wider problem with the vague global movement they’re linked to — many of the criticisms of the indignados movement mentioned the same issues around the silencing of radical voices. But then, actually, the spin you put on these issues is just as partial — for instance, the occupation actually resolved to stay regardless of the decisions of the authorities, many people inside the camp are at odds over engagement with the church and so on.

      Beyond that, though, on the issue of the new faces — on this your experience tallies with mine. Yes, I see some of the faces you recognise, too, but I see far more, and have had many more conversations with people for whom this is their first experience of any kind of extraparliamentary action. That’s simply my experience, but the point I’m making about self-fulfilling prophecy is this: yes, those peaceful-peaceful liberals are certainly there, but leaving the space as a vacuum in which their voices dominate means that events like the long walk of tedium you (rightly) deride are the only thing that will come out of it.

  4. Noone’s arguing AGAINST engagement (well I’m not anyway), but we all have lives to lead and struggles going on inside of them. There are reasons why social movements become activist ghettos – it’s largely cos it’s only fulltime activists (or seriously committed volunteers) have the time and inclination to commit to them! What OLSX lacks is an orientation towards everyday life. It is largely a media spectacle.

    FWIW, SLSF members were there on Oct 15 and we do visit when we have a chance, but we have a lot going on and personally, I’m quite critical of the implict suggestion that we should drop everything to concentrate on this. Struggle existed before OLSX and struggles are continuing to exist. Unfortunately I think this attitude indicates a sort of short-termism that can only react to situations rather than trying to create them.


    • Yeah, I see the point you’re making, and actually my beef here isn’t with SolFed, and I’m not suggesting you drop anything. Two issues: the one of time/commitment and the vicious circle of the fulltime activist is obviously one of them, but actually there’s a huge proportion of people engaged with the camp who aren’t there fulltime and who are working elsewhere. I’m one of them! But the camp really *is* a place to which a lot of newly politicised people are coming, and trying to engage them with a realistic and informed critique of how the camp works and broadening it out to work with struggles elsewhere is important — I thought the SF Time To Occupy Our Own Lives leaflet was a good intervention toward this end.

      But perhaps the other thing worth doing is actually spending time listening to the people who are coming to the camp and wondering why they’re hostile to or simply disengaged from any other kind of struggle. It’s not because they’re seasoned activists immersed in a lifestylist subculture — the majority of them aren’t. The camp is an imperfect vehicle for that kind of struggle, but that’s where they are — all I’m saying is that more of us need to understand the attraction of the camp, their horizontal process, etc etc, for those who haven’t been reached by the traditional modes of organisation.

  5. Oh, ok, that’s me told. I will go to Occupy Edinburgh, but there’s a man there who walks around wanking off a mannequin and talking about Zeitgeist (apparently). But you’re quite right.

    • There’s the guy that says feminism is a conspiracy by the Rothschild’s. He’s quite influential a OE, from what I understand

  6. I agree people should engage, yet from reading key things like it’s clearly not enough for people to turn up and hope everything turns out allright – from reactions to the above there’s clearly an equally strong argument for women to stay away, simply because of the “damage speaking up about rape does to the movement.” Clearly the protesters are hardly a homogeneous group, and thus the characterisation in the above article is unfair; still, the comments are very telling.

  7. Hey, Thanks for the article.
    Just two thoughts:
    I think the large majorities in big occupy movements come out when the options run out. When poverty looms, when unemployment beckons. The large majorities come out not because of ideological convictions, but because of need.
    Secondly, Meditation, self awareness practice, intuitional practice, Sadhana, or whatever you prefer to call it has a clear and obvious role in a new world less dominated by greed. It is a misconception to see it as a practice of escapism to a “better world”. Rather it is a methodical repeatable (i.e. scientific) practice to clear out emotional baggage and misconceptions of smallness and separateness. What materialists fail to realize is that beneath this exterior is not apathy to the world but a surprisingly powerful engagement with the world.

  8. I -want- to support the Occupy movement. I don’t support what it opposes. It’s just I have so little confidence that whatever it is that replaces capitalism will be nicer. Where are the historical precedents? Where are the ingredients in human nature?

  9. I think this is a very good, and indeed necessary, argument to be made. And I say that as someone who, with regard to this particular movement, has spent some time criticising from the sidelines, although I have also been up and down to the two London camps a bit when I have had time. But I think that the doubts that have been raised by my admittedly somewhat limited experiences of the camps have left a lot of doubt about what I can fruitfully do there as an activist. A few examples. One morning a turned up at about 7:15am to legal observe an action that had been planned by the Finsbury Square camp. I arrived to find thirty men and one woman. I mentioned to a few people that I was seriously concerned about this, and said that they needed to think about why and how this had happened, and was shocked even more when the standard response was “shit, we hadn’t even noticed that there was a gender disparity.” Meanwhile, other people I’ve met on my visits to camps have been people I know to be anti-semites (including one face I know from climate camp who has expressed some really awful sentiments about Jews to me.) I’m generally happy combatting racism, but I’d rather not spend all my time doing it, particularly not within so-called radical social movements. This also simply means that these are difficult places for people like me (Jews, I’m guessing women from my experience at Finsbury Square, and other marginalised groups) to exist in. The best bit of writing I’ve seen on this is here and is a really fantastic thing that people ought to read. – I must admit here that I maybe somewhat biased as I have spent a great deal of time trying to map a lot of the anti-semitism in this movement.

    Well what I’ve said so far is a critique which is (sadly necessarily) becoming more commonplace, I wanted to also mention some other reasons why this may be a difficult arena in which to organise. For me, the first issue is an aversion to thinking, and I mean thinking here in a strong sense. It is not the case that the people in #OccupyLSX are averse to nuanced critiques of capital (and of course, I don’t expect everyone to be totally clear on everything that Marx ever wrote), but rather there is a problem that many of the people in the camps, and this is fostered by a certain environment, do not believe that the system of capital is something that needs to be critically thought through. I am amazed every time at how little ephemera there is around St Paul’s. Or how few books. We can compare, perhaps, with the student movement last year and it’s penchant for 1970s Italian ultraleftism. There is an impression that the contradictions of capitalism, that the machinations by which it realises suffering, are there on the surface for us to photocopy a million times and tell the world about. If critique isn’t obvious it is nothing. The problem is that critique is never easy, just like effective protest is never easy. This is not to say that it has to be super-complex, jargonistic, or, as Lenin would have it, just a preserve for the bourgeois intelligentsia, but rather that I am concerned that there is something about the arguments made in the occupation, echoed exactly in the non-abrasiveness of the legalised tent-pitching and glossy media interviews that suggests there is a great deal of work to be done in transforming this space into something that is more negative with regard to the concrete specifics of the status quo. As a side-note I think it is worth addressing that where the rest of the left have ephemera, the closest things the occupy movements have are a bunch of very very dodgy youtube videos, such as Zeitgeist, Money as Debt, etc. I’m yet to sit through a GA without someone mentioning fractional reserve banking.

    What does this all mean for a lefty-activist? Well to start with, I’m not afraid to say that many of us lack time. Over the last weeks many have been involved and broken by Dale Farm, others have been working tirelessly against the criminalisation of squatting. Almost all have extremely regular commitments, whether these are bits of trade-union work, organising meetings, personally I do a fair bit of court support for activists (there are only about 7-8 of us in the whole of London who cover every single activist court case!), and legal observing. Meanwhile, many spend a lot of time organising locally, be that on campuses, outside job centres, around specific targets of cuts, or in the areas in which they live. And as much as the left is small and weak, we ought not to forget the importance of all that work, and that without it we’d have no left at all. Indeed, for many people, it is this sort of long, slow, often boring organising that allows ideas to develop, and to create the groups that we need to start organising effectively, In this context, it becomes very difficult to drop everything and sign up for the latest craze when it is place where you feel stifled, both in your identity as a person within marginalised groups, and mentally by an attitude that too often smothers thinking and critique. #OccupyLSX is, for even some of us hard-headed and hard-hearted activists, not a massively pleasant place to be, nor is it one in which more people can be convinced to our way of thinking than any other local activism, which often does the same without needing to watch itself pasted on the front of every tabloid.

    I remember planning with a friend to write a letter to all of our friends about this time last year saying, “We are really tired. We are busy with activism every day, and each day of fighting we are more exhausted. We wish others would join us and help us do what we need to do in fighting the government etc…” The letter was never written, and we are still exhausted (I say this at the end of spending 8 hours at Kingston Crown Court today, looking after defendents and their families as 5 young people from the student protests got sent down with really lengthy sentences.) Every day we are more exhausted, jaded, frustrated. And I’m not convinced that it is helpful, given this context, which is one shared across much of the serious left (I counterpose with the silly left and other Trotskyoids), to treat the #Occupy movement as a There Is No Alternative moment. Such an argument is coercive, to an extent, and belittles a great deal of unseen work by unheard-of people. It’s true, sometimes we sneer, or sound like purists, but often that is because we are knackered.

    Sorry, this has turned into less an answer than a rant. I agree that this is a movement that needs to be supported, bolstered, transformed, and that is only something that can happen through engagement, but I worry that the left oughtn’t become #Occupy’s sense of reflexivity but rather should push it towards gaining its own. I agree with you that, for example, feminists shouting from the sidelines about gender inequality in the movement is nothing compared to the movement recognising its own problems. Indeed, for as long as this movement refuses to look itself in the face, it will remain a political desert, but forcing it to do just that is no easy business, and will for many demand just too much time and energy.

    • Jacob, thank you for this. Frankly, I agree with much of what you say. I intended to be at the camp today, but my work elsewhere (on LGBT asylum, in this case) has left me too frustrated and emotionally exhausted to be able to do anything useful. This is a perennial problem, not least because I (and it seems others too) find it difficult to go from the unpleasant realities of longer-term struggles to the often naïve, starry-eyed and shapeless optimism of the #Occupy camps. I often felt similarly when visiting student occupations last year, though in this case it’s magnified because of the failure of a lot of the #Occupy movement to articulate *why* they’re taking a space, and to what end.

      In fact, I turned up to St Paul’s with the explicit intention of being largely uninvolved in what was going on there, being already stretched too thin with campaign and support work elsewhere. As I said above, one of the things that has kept me involved is the number of people for whom this is a new thing, and the wave of popular support that surrounds it. I don’t want to be too purist about that, and I think it’s useful to have a strong, and critically-informed anticapitalist presence on the camp. The other is an awareness that there’s a problem of institutional memory in a lot of movements like this, and it’s just worth being able to share some experiences in that vein. Beyond that, the demographic is obviously in flux, but there are a lot of people coming to, and passing through, the camp who aren’t reached by our traditional methods of organising – and I’ve found it immensely useful to sit down with those people and hear about why that is, and what draws them to the camp. (I actually think that the transient portion is more interesting than the permanent camp in that respect, and many others.)

      Beyond that, I don’t think radical camping is going to spell the end of capitalism. But I am certainly aware that this is a moment in which the political situation is changing very rapidly, and the degree of popular support for ‘something that is not this’ is growing. That’s a very weak position to work from, but this is one of the sites in which we can do so, and I think an engagement with it is worthwhile – and the way to do so isn’t an inaudible, self-confirming purism, I would in fact argue it’s much more difficult than that. We know there are peaks and troughs in class struggle, and that capital recomposes itself very rapidly – this is a moment in which the form of struggle is starting to look very different indeed, and we might need to consider that it’s not going to fit easily into the schemas by which we’ve been mapping it thus far. Yes, there is certainly an argument for withdrawing from dead vehicles – but writing off everything as dead beforehand is an equally useless strategy.

      I’m not accusing you of this, and you’re not the intended recipient of this letter – it’s largely a very specific intervention, but one which obviously chimes for some other situations. I agree that the presuppositions of a TINA-style argument over #Occupy are misguided and overly excitable; there are multiple struggles, and most of the ones worth doing are less glamorous and involve much more drudgery. But I’m not sure isolating participants in each one from each other is a better strategy, or that it would be detrimental to try to better their links – obviously one of the pitfalls *and* advantages of the encampment at St Paul’s is that it’s not Climate Camp, or a student occupation, in that what it’s in antagonism with is more systemic and thus in many people’s minds hard to pin down. I think that’s an opportunity.

      Two last points. I’m also concerned about the strange evacuation of intellect from much of the site – including the ‘university’ part. I don’t want to dilate on the questions of theory versus practice, but I’ve been thinking about Kant’s reflections on the tutelary condition, and the connection between revolution and emancipation from a condition of tutelage. I’m convinced that we need to better express the connection between analysis and (useful) action, and that this needs to be conveyed not within our own little circles, but to the wider movement. Yes, it’s worth asking: why *is* the discourse of the movement so muddled? I’m actually going to leave that for the time being, and return to it tomorrow.

      I’ve left the question of racism, antisemitism and connected hatred til last, because it’s what’s troubling me most at the moment. The structural possibility for antisemitism lies just waiting for realisation in any movement confronting ‘money’, and the fact that it’s just brushed off is deeply concerning. I am very, very uncomfortable about going on to a site which has a huge ‘root out usury’ banner flying in front of it. I’d like to chalk it up to ignorance or stupidity, but I actually suspect there’s a degree of malice behind it. More widely, I’m deeply concerned about the lack of a safe space policy after what we’ve seen in other camps, and in the way meetings are sometimes going on site. One of the other reasons I’m not on site today is the volume of bizarre, anonymous homophobia that came through (mercifully screened) blog comments on this piece, and in one instance, to my private email. Some of this is right wing idiocy in full swing, but it’s also coming from people who consider themselves within ‘the movement’. I’m partly glad it’s moved in anonymised form online, because there’s obviously a degree of recognition that it wouldn’t fly openly on camp, but there’s no way of denying it’s there, even if thinly disguised. Most of this stuff floats off me, being tediously unoriginal in the way of abuse, but working on what I was working on this morning, I actually felt it had poisoned my ability to engage. More widely, though, I’m mostly inured to it because I have other privileges — that’s not true of other people, and it’s grim, it’s dangerous, and it may make or break my further participation within the camp.

      Thanks again for the comment, Jacob.

      • Yeah well I think some more SLSFers are up there as we speak actually, with an updated version of the leaflet which you bigged up. On a personal level, I have issues going on with my landlord, and on a personal level, the cuts are equating to a lightning quick casualisation of my sector which leaves me in a grey area in between employed and unemployed.

        I mention this – again – cos, reading yours and Jacob’s posts, I sense impending activist burnout in both of you. Perhaps your sense of ennui/fatigue is compounded by the strategic aimlessness of OLSX? I strongly believe that our political activity (which I wish to distinguish from the concept of “activism”) should focus on our immediate, material needs, on issues and struggles in which the benefits will be to us ourselves, and the objectives are clear and achievable.

        Voluntarism is of course laudable but it is limited and somewhat transient. This is reflected in the flip-flop short-termism of ‘political activism’, jumping one from bandwagon to the next. Not long ago, meetings were being disrupted by people shouting about “KIDS RIOTING ON THE STREETS” and discourses about the futility of ‘middle class consciousness’. We were supposed to ignore the shortcomings and contradictions within the riots and chastise the hateful discourse of #riotcleanup. Now we’re once again supposed to orient ourselves towards the woolly liberals and evangelical pacifists?

  10. I think it’s of vital importance that this movement exists both on the ground in the physical occupied spaces and also online. Currently it’s a long and laborious process of handshaking between some of the remants of climate camp. some from the student occupations, Anons (whoever and wherever they are) and ‘newbies’ – that can’t be quick and easy. those of us working on tech and media on both current #occupylondon sites are doing our best to facilitate that (hint: Please don’t ignore us at #occupyLFS )

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