Corporate Power and the Space for Occupation

“The biggest challenge in the present crisis [2008] is whether we can recover some sense of the connection between money and material reality — the production of specific things, the achievement of recognisably human goals that have something to do with a shared sense of what is good for the human community in the widest sense.”

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, writing in The Spectator (23 September 2008.)

"The economic stimulus and the bailouts will not bring back our casino capitalism. And as the meltdown shows no signs of abating, and the bailouts show no sign of working, the recklessness and desperation of our capitalist overlords have increased." (187)

"When money becomes worthless, so does government. All traditional standards and beliefs are shattered in a severe economic crisis. The moral order is turned upside down." (188)

"They descended into orgies of self indulgence, surrendered their civic and emotional lives to the glitter, excitement, and spectacle of the arena, became politically apathetic and collapsed." (189)

"The worse reality becomes, the less a beleaguered population wants to hear about it, and the more it distracts itself with the squalid pseudo-events of celebrity break-downs, gossip, and trivia." (190)

"Our culture of illusion is, at its core, a culture of death." (192)

Quotations from Chris Hedge's inspiring book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of the Spectacle.

It’s one thing to profess to having a faith and to have hope for human action as a positive force; it is another to subscribe to a religion that has become highly codified and rigid. The more a religion exercises control against our free will the more we think of it as a cult – as a harmful form of mind-control and manipulation. I suspect that in the long run those faith groups that are more responsive to the lived life of individuals and communities are better able to speak to the people and guide them most effectively in their ethical, critical and creative choices. But the predicaments of doctrine, tradition, the use of Church buildings, and faith as an informant of social action have been thrown into stark relief by recent events in The City of London.

In an important sense the Christian faith does not offer a specific programme of actions; rather it helps to inform our choices and (one hopes) supports us to lead a better and a more responsible life. It is in these contexts that I want to explore the worldwide Occupy movements in relation to politics and postcolonial theology. Here are some questions and a few observations.

As I write two senior members of the Church of England have resigned over the issue of the occupation of land adjoining St Paul’s Cathedral in London. At the same time other senior members of the Church are now authorizing legal action that will if successful lead to the forced removal by the police of the occupiers who are campaigning against global capital, debt, and the London Stock Exchange. The reaction of the church is divided and we are told that the occupiers do not even know what they want to achieve. A more sympathetic and minority voice has been Madeleine Bunting writing in The Guardian on Sunday 30 October 2011:

“The critics complain that there are no clearly identified objectives; there is no manifesto. But ‘Occupy’ is not some proto-political party. Critics insist there must be leaders or representatives. But the protesters stubbornly refuse to conform to any of the conventions of our political and media culture.”

Let me say at the outset that I have been struck by the media hostility to the occupy movements. I’m writing from a British perspective and that may mean that your experience of the occupations, the activists and the media has been very different from mine. But a range of writers and thinkers such as Slavoj Zizek have also been prepared to celebrate the lack of a fixity of direction and purpose. The last thing a new movement wants is to build out of failed structures; the old politics and an irrelevant religion. The present climate of revolutionary play may to some historians, however, be deemed to be oddly reminiscent of the student-led revolts of ’68 and the experimental excitement and hope of the Situationists.

If to some people the occupiers appear to represent an unreal fantasy world of myth and imagination, perhaps the same can be said for the financial and economic gurus who seem to be unable or ill-equipped to deal with the present crisis (one in which a global youth population of 80 million may not find work). The need for critical dialogue based on common-sense realities is one feature of the argument that Rowan William was proposing back in 2008:

“The mythologies and abstractions, the pseudo-objects of much modern financial culture, are in urgent need of their own Dawkins or Hitchens. We need to be reacquainted with our own capacity to choose — which means acquiring some skills in discerning true faith from false, and re-learning some of the inescapable face-to-face dimensions of human trust.”

The main complaint from the media and from commentators on the left and the right is that the Occupy ‘movement’ lacks a coherent programme; that it lacks specific demands. It has been confusing for some commentators that its participants appear to cross political party and class boundaries. Debate rages about who these groups are. They range from inheritors of the Tea Party movement sponsored by big business to a lunatic fringe of latter day hippies and anarcho-socialists. It appears to be a very wide church and it’s difficult to pin a label on the “occupiers.”

The Occupation Movement's semantic mobility and viral acceleration is further propelled by harnessing the potential of digital social media. A few tents in the City of London become the focus for global media. Small gestures can have gigantic consequences and I suspect that there has been more than one commentator who pointed to Luther’s nailed theses as the beginning of global movement almost 500 years ago. (In his case a movement disseminated at high velocity by the ‘new’ technology of the printing press.)

I had intended to refer to ‘them’ as protestors, but even that label harks back to a mode of activism that appears rather outmoded. Is there some kind of identity crisis going on; like Christians, are ‘they’ like us and also different from ‘us’? It’s crucial to note in this regard that our obsession with categories and classifications (taxonomy was an Enlightenment project) is in its turn based on a need to police spaces and their boundaries. Space is a key battleground and it is also a place for identity-formation and for the construction of ideological coherence.

Let us not forget that the architecture of Western capitalism and empire was in key respects constructed in the coffee-houses of London (see Jurgen Habermas’s work) where merchant, stock jobbers and brokers, mercantile officers, manufacturers, poets and journalists did deals and described for the first time a new outlook on how to shape the world.

It’s ironic, or apposite, then, that what we are seeing today is a campaign against unfair terms of trade, global capital accumulation, and hostility to the Starbucks’ model of transnational capitalism. (I suspect that the Occupiers are also sceptical about, or hostile to, the notion of Corporate Social Responsibility.)

It is significant then that the new tented communities are experimenting with the occupation of space as the basic unit of struggle. It is an issue that goes to the very heart of a privatized and commodified world; it is an issue that goes back, also to seventeenth century debates about the commons – a free space for community use; an unfenced zone available for the common good.

It is instructive to think about how few are the public and open spaces that remain available to the people. Schools and colleges and Universities are increasingly closed and privatized spaces. Free evening classes are in decline and many educational institutions are walled, gated, and protected spaces in both real and metaphoric respects. The spaces available to faith groups and community organizations have been in decline since the 1970s. Even the much loved public houses of intoxication (or not) are in steep decline.

A major concern in cultural geography and postcolonial theology is with the ownership and the occupation of spaces; the domination and the exploitation of spaces by specific groups; the inequalities of space understood in discreet, local and global terms. Space then is crucial to the occupation in London, part of which is land owned by the Church. In the first instance the Occupiers were welcomed by the Church. Now that situation has changed and the Occupiers have been asked to leave. Legal action is underway. In other parts of the world the police are moving in. Is this 'our' Tahrir Square moment? Has the Arab Spring become an Anglo-American Winter of Discontent?

Let’s ponder the centrality of space again. A key discovery in recent years has been to identify evidence that where you live is the prime driver of where you will end up in life – and how and when you will die. Life expectancy across poor and rich boroughs of London varies by an astonishing seventeen years. Across the world, average life expectancy ranges from early forties to high seventies – almost twice as long.What questions does such a disparity raise? How does it affect our conscience as social animals and as ethical beings?

Surely a ministry and a social activism that fails to be informed by tragic inequalities will not be deemed relevant or responsive to human suffering by a majority of the global population. In Britain, we call the inequalities of health, opportunity and social mobility the ‘postcode lottery.’ How far is there an element in mission to cross boundaries and to embrace our common humanity?

Again I would like to quote Madeleine Bunting’s highly perceptive analysis of why the occupation of space needs to be understood as an essential feature of the ongoing debates:

“Space” is the theme that runs through much of what the protesters say. Their first agreed principle is that the current system is unsustainable, undemocratic and unjust, and they want to create the space to think of alternatives. First that means taking key symbolic public space – this is the politics of geography – to use it for conviviality, living, learning and participation. That’s no easy task in a city designed to facilitate only three activities – working, transport and shopping – with as little human interaction as possible. Metal fencing is springing up around even small public spaces in the City of London to preclude new camps. The protesters’ aim is to open up space, physically and socially, for people to connect and thereby open up space in people’s imaginations.”

Confusion, chaos and anarchy are one effect of an indiscriminate mixing of spaces. But doesn’t a true sense of equality suggest and imply a constructive potential for mixing, crossing, mingling, blending, exchanging? (Is our language in this regard ‘fallen’ if we think only of such exchanges as material commodities, financial transactions, and monetary vehicles?)

The occupy movements are loosely connected across the globe but they are not disorganized or chaotic. As The Guardian’s Madeleine Bunting has commented “The level of organisation is remarkable. There is nothing chaotic about this experiment in community in which no one is turned away, and everyone has their say.”

In fact a participatory and deliberative approach appears to be at the core of what they do as the following example of ‘principles’ drawn from Take the Square demonstrates:

Inclusiveness, we are a movement of people, whose plurality goes beyond any label; no political parties, trade unions or associations represent us.
Horizontality, we gather together in assemblies for taking decisions, so these decisions are taken as most shared as possible.
Collective intelligence, facing the problems we use or collective intelligence to scape the logic of the power.
Respect, because we look for what join us together rather what divides us, respect for the others is basic.
Non-violence, because non-violence make us stronger, it allow us to change the reality, break the predictable, it make us more radical.

It is too early to let Madeleine Bunting have the last word, but her conclusion has proved controversial in the comments section attached to her newspaper article:

“One might have hoped that an institution such as St Paul’s, conscious of its own history of civic purpose and national identity, not to mention the radical gospel of a Jewish itinerant carpenter, would have grasped the symbolism of the moment more astutely. That they failed demonstrates all the more starkly the ethical bankruptcy of our age. And that, after all, is exactly what Occupy London is about.”

What the occupations mean and where they are going it is difficult to predict. But I do sense that there is an unfinished project that in a significant way is taking its bearings (conscious or not) from Rowan Williams, writing in 2008, so eloquently expressed

“Behind all this, though, is the deeper moral issue. We find ourselves talking about capital or the market almost as if they were individuals, with purposes and strategies, making choices, deliberating reasonably about how to achieve aims. We lose sight of the fact that they are things that we make. They are sets of practices, habits, agreements which have arisen through a mixture of choice and chance. Once we get used to speaking about any of them as if they had a life independent of actual human practices and relations, we fall into any number of destructive errors.”

[An earlier version of this essay was posted on Postcolonial Networks. If you visit the site you will notice that there has been some thoughtful commentary on what I said at the time.]


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