Saints and Sinners: #OccupyLSX

I’m currently preparing a piece for Sophie‘s Journal of Occupied Studies, focusing primarily on the flaws of the #Occupy movement in London, and especially considering the Bloomsbury Social Centre as a critical intervention in the kinds of discourse and tactics that have characterised OccupyLSX as it has progressed over the last three months. The below section, more-or-less excised in my redraft, and somewhat modified here, touches on the curious religious aspect to the occupation.

Camp Apocalypse and a Politics of Saints and Sinners

The differing political histories and cultures of the US and UK have meant a particular scission in the matter of religion: whereas religious affiliation and demonstration of piety plays a substantial role in US public life, Alistair Campbell’s rebuke to an American journalist during an interview with Tony Blair – ‘We don’t do God‘ – largely characterises the British political attitude to religion. Despite frequent attestations to the value of ‘faith groups’ in government policy, religion is largely something that happens away from government, and the language of the pulpit is far-removed from the anodyne technê preferred by the denizens of Westminster. The influence of communist and socialist movements in Europe in the twentieth century have made the mention of God doubly verboten in extraparliamentary politics on the Left, though the occasional Catholic Worker or Quaker will be found on demonstrations and direct action, especially in anti-war campaigns. The evacuation of formal religion from the political sphere, and especially the left, has left behind a number of problems in its wake, as well as its obvious benefits: the rise of a washy transcendental and ill-defined ‘spirituality’, a failure to understand (as Marx did) the consolatory historical function of religious thinking, as well as the re-emergence of a kind of religious thinking under another name in the guise of politics.

It makes it seems strange, then, that OccupyLSX should have so obvious a religious dimension: not only in its establishment of a faith working-group, but in the meditations that have sometimes preceded its general assemblies, its establishment of a meditation tent, its mooted ‘ring of prayer’ to resist a potential eviction, and its frequent banners and arguments about ‘what Jesus would do‘. Of course, some of this – perhaps even much of it – could be a strange osmosis from the Cathedral grounds in which the camp sits, the early media storm over its treatment of the occupiers, and the subsequent resignation of its Canon Chancellor Giles Fraser in objection. The sediment of reaction that gets stirred up when we shake the leavings of religion can also be seen in the ‘Root Out Usury’ banner that hung over the entrance to the camp for some time, a dim echo of the antisemitism so often a feature of the junction between Christianity and politics. But, more than the formal religious dimension, which is as often a kind of rank kitsch as it is a serious attempt at blending the political with the theological, I am interested in the currents of what one might deem religious thinking within #OccupyLSX. These might be broadly seen as three strains: a kind of messianism, an attempt to prefigure a new kind of community, and a martyrological political schema. These three are not discrete: each informs the other.

As mentioned above, the curiosity of the religious mode in contemporary politics in the UK cannot be overemphasised, and they fit far more closely in the US than here – the commingling of religious and political thought being one of the frequent markers of what Hofstadter called ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics‘, a style perhaps ever more evident in moments of crisis. Is there a ‘paranoid style’ in the Occupy Movement? The discourse of ‘the 99%’ broaches on the question of class, without ever articulating it as such, and points out profound inequality in the distribution of wealth without explicitly dealing with the causes of such distribution. With such a lacuna in economic explanation, a variety of causal chains jostle for attention, from the partly true (the close interrelation of the finance industry and the political class) to the outlandish and conspiratorial. What unites these explanations is their special focus on the agency of a few individuals. Hofstadter: ‘The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional).’ In the discourse of the 99%, this agency also becomes a question of moral culpability, that bankers or politicians are perpetrating a moral outrage, and this statement becomes sufficient as an explanation – that there is something morally corrupt in the choices of politicians and bankers, a consequence of which is suffering, injustice and poverty. What is distinctive about this is that it refocuses the critique of the systemic to the individual agon of the soul – a fine subject for tragic drama, but not, perhaps, a comprehensive politics.

When I mention a ‘messianism’ involved in #OccupyLSX, I do not mean that it has at its centre a cult of personality (or that, if it does, that personality is the empty frame of the ideal human being); instead that it possesses a certain orientation to the political event and community of the elect that might be called ‘messianic’. This is not to say that this is a potential Waco or Jonestown – it isn’t. But in the absence of any formal leader or charismatic icon, there exists a tendency to enshrine organisational process as the mode that distinguishes the Occupy encampment from the form of political organisation that constitutes the society around it: as David Graeber has pointed out, this kind of process has been deeply attractive for many who feel their voices are not listened to in conventional ‘democratic’ structures. It remains true, however, that this process has its roots in religious thinking, and, specifically, in the belief that the divine spirit (in Christianity, the Paraclete) will visit the process of assembly, often as a ‘still small voice’ in the hearts of its participants, to allow the consensual truth to emerge in its process. What happens when we remove this transcendental guarantor from the process? How does that process then come to terms with the discomfiting reality that there are, in all likelihood, conflicting and incommensurable political ideologies and desires private to each participant? How, even more so, when the population of the camp is frequently transitory, the people at the general assembly changing from day-to-day? The process itself is an object of faith.

It is important to note that what I am calling a kind of ‘messianism’ here – a zealous belief in the transformative nature of process, but also a form of political action characterised by a waiting for the arrival of the event – is distinct from the invocation of the theological figure of ‘The Messiah’ in Walter Benjamin’s Theologico-Political Fragment and its later development in the work of Agamben. It’s impossible to briefly summarise this figure without traducing it, but it may suffice to say that, for Agamben, the figure of the messianic is not a figure of distinction and election, but one in which the distinction of the sacred is inoperative; further that messianic time is not a time of waiting, and certainly not one into which a decisive, transformative event is projected into the historical future. (A further examination of this concept might explore Agamben’s assertion that the Messiah ‘is the figure in which religion confronts the problem of the law.’) This is precisely what the Occupy camp is not: it is a project of severance, waiting on the transformative intervention of a supreme political event, the character of which is indeterminate (for some, reform, for others, revolution, for others still a ‘general change… in how we humans treat each other.’). This waiting that characterises the camp at St Paul’s – the sense that one has stumbled on the camp at the end of the universe – brings to the fore the two other religious themes I want to touch on: prefiguration and martyrology.

The prefigurative aspect of #OccupyLSX is perhaps its most obvious attempt at transformation of its participants: drawing on the long tradition of prefigurative politics on the activist left, it attempts to reimagine and live a different kind of community. Like all prefigurative projects of this kind, it runs into obvious problems, for instance the hovering question of what it is trying to prefigure. It is an old objection, but nonetheless true, that there is no outside of capital to live in, that any such project is inevitably composed of human beings living in capitalist society, and that its prefiguration of other ways of being will inevitably run up against the difficulties of food, shelter and ways of relating to each other under capitalism. This is not per se an objection, but a recognition that there is no ‘elect’ who live outside of these norms. There is, of course, a long history of occupation and prefiguration in England – the Levellers being the most famous example – but it is salutary that the political and religious-millenarian aspects of these projects are frequently inseparable.

A sign currently hangs at St Paul’s informing its visitors that the camp is no longer occupying, but ‘guests’ of St Paul’s Cathedral. Earlier in this essay I discussed the transition between ‘Occupy’ as a verb, suggesting an action taken to contest the ownership of space, and ‘Occupy’ as a noun, as now bandied about by many who see themselves as part of this movement. This reification is not without significance here: in no longer seeking to contest the concept of ownership explicitly, and accepting the necessarily conflictual relationship this implies with civil power, ‘Occupy’ comes to stand for the individual relationship to, on the one hand, a series of mutable and shifting political beliefs, but (far more obviously and extensively) a marker of personal participation in one of the camps. This shifts the locus of meaning, again, to the question of the individual’s particular moral-political status, and, beyond that, locates the camp’s significance in its ability to bring about personal transformation rather than exert pressure for structural change. This is most obvious in the reframing of traditional discourses about revolution around personal behaviour, the preponderance of ‘reLOVEution’ and ‘revolution through evolution’ signs being the most crass and obvious of these. The parallels with the question of grace in Christian theology can be glimpsed at various points here.

I discussed above the question of sovereignty, and the model of the general assembly as a potential state-form, casting its participants in the form of citizenry; equally the emergent and inherited structure of ‘working groups’ as replicating a relationship to labour less distinct from post-Fordist work than might be initially apparent. It is obvious, also, that a commitment to full participation in the camp requires a severing from the norms of social and productive life under capital: in other words, a withdrawal from work and even perhaps choosing to live in the camp full-time. This is manifestly not an option for all who might sympathise with the movement, but nor do I want to argue that this in itself (i.e., the choice or necessity of a marginal life) is politically doomed. Instead, I want to suggest that this choice tends towards a model of the occupier as citizen-martyr, both in the obvious sense of an embrace of suffering, but also in the sense of rendering its participants as exemplars of a new life. The former can be dealt with pretty rapidly: many of the speeches given by participants and supporters of the movement have focused on the suffering of its participants as testifying to the fervour with which they seek political change – ‘…These people, suffering in the cold for us’. This, mixed with the rhetoric of nonviolence, is not an uncommon feature of protest movements, its most obvious referent being satyagraha; its practical conclusion can be found in the protestation ‘if we sit down and meditate in front of them when the police come, then we win, even if they beat us.’ The logic of this is that it transforms the violated protester, mediated through the lenses of photojournalists, into an exemplar of moral triumph over the forces of oppression, thus inspiring further resistance.

Martyrology – from μάρτυς, meaning ‘witness’ – has always meant to transform individual lives into paragons of inspiration, both in the libidinal investment in lurid torture, and the strength of testimony surpassing any concern for personal safety. This making of martyrs is at the centre of the zealous adherence that has characterised many of the longer-term occupiers, in some cases even leaving behind their jobs and relationships to ‘work’ full-time at the camp. The history of martyrology presumes the perfectibility of the human being, the community of the sainted elect acting as witness in unredeemed time to the possibility of a redeemed future – a politics of the New Jerusalem. One may justly pause to wonder what kind of trauma this expectation of perfection and suffering leaves on the psychic lives of occupiers, or inject a note of realism in saying that the obvious failings of the Occupy camps, from sexual violence, to the excrudescence of reactionary politics, to the high proportion of conspiracy theorists cannot be brushed under the carpet. The natural consequence of seeing the physical existence of the camp and its participants as a testimony to the moral force of its argument is the habit of dissociating it from anything troubling rather than attempting to deal with it – or to deal with it by attempting to refine the rules whereby it runs. Equally, in viewing the camp and its participants as attesting to its truth, much political energy is expended in the simple task of its reproduction – i.e., in keeping it running, for its value as a testament.

This mode of politics naturally sets itself no time limits: it is a politics of waiting for victory. It is, perhaps perversely, the religious spirit rather than formal theological doctrine that is at question here – having receded from the scene, even the question of, say, salvation through works is not in argument here. Instead, a political messianism without religious content, but with religious tenor, holds sway. It is not that there are not figures in history who have drawn on religion to make a political point (Froissart quoting the Priest John Ball in the English Peasants’ Revolt: ‘Good people, things in England cannot work, nor will they until wealth is shared equally; until there are neither peasants nor noblemen and we are all united. Why are these men, whom we call lords, masters over us? What have they done to deserve this? Why do they keep us in servitude?’) But that the religious mode within politics, and especially its attendant discourse of moral victory and passivity are trends that do not deserve to go unexamined.

2 thoughts on “Saints and Sinners: #OccupyLSX

  1. I would connect the left’s conspiracy-theoretic inclinations to its optimism about human nature. Inability to credit that people don’t on the whole share one’s radiant ideals–that there’ll never be a general change in how we humans treat one another, and not even for any externally necessary reason but simply because *we don’t want one*–combined with history’s refusal to show those ideals embodied *except as exceptions* in human behaviour, results in an attribution of the evils against which the left defines itself to a malignant cohort of silent operators of inordinate power.

    Incidentally, aren’t religions too ‘washy’ and ‘ill-defined’? Isn’t anything that has to deal directly with metaphysics?

  2. Pingback: Religion & Occupy. « Witty in the Morning

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