Occupations are a kind of denial. They occupy the space where the past used to be and prevent it from being again, at least momentarily. Occupations deprive the powers that be, or the perceived powers that be, of their zone of control and display the operations of power at work in the act of re-establishing that control. The act of denial is also a means to reveal the manner in which spaces are already occupied by authorities other than those to which we have consented. It is a good tactic, rhetorically, because it makes clear that for all the laudable eloquence and oratory about the world in which we live having been constructed for the benefit of all, that is just covering for the insignificance of our lives to those who run the big end of town.
There are pleasures, satisfactions to be found in occupations. I can’t think of Greenham Common without an unequivocal grin of approval at the mud and the solidarity and the nuclear weapons just out of sight. These are similar pleasures to those sometimes sought in riot, affray, melee and general hooliganism. The WTO riots in Seattle in 1999 were a deployment of these behaviours against greed and capitalism and the general lack of thoughtfulness at work in capitalism. Similarly the great gatherings of the Arab Spring in Cairo, Tunis and Benghazi bring forth a good deal of schadenfreude in watching nasty people get their deserved comeuppance from those to whom they were nasty.
The good rhetoric, the just desserts, and the death of tyrants: these are the tropes of taking the power back. But they are also quotes. Recall the Bastille; the Winter Palace; the Fortress of Peter and Paul; the train in Santa Clara; the US embassy in Saigon; the Moscow White House; Bucharest’s University Square. All these were occupations that represented the end of an operation of power. The occupation of spaces in these contexts represents the redefinition of the relation between space and power, when power no longer controls space it no longer controls.
Watching the Wall St occupations (hardly the first) and the related attempts to fustigate capitalist power around the world recently I found myself reflecting on Guy Debord, the Situationist Internationale, and the 1968 occupations of the Sorbonne and Sud Aviation factory in Paris. The great occupations of May ‘68 spoke to the enormous contradictions in France (and elsewhere) but did nothing to resolve them. At the Sorbonne and in the factories the SI found itself occupying spaces in which the forces they were opposing were not absent. The spaces were not redefined by occupation, the very subjects of power on whose behalf the occupations had been staged were not interested in the vision of power redefined. The Council for the Maintaining of Occupations (CMDO), dominated by the SI, said on 8 June 1968:
The trades unions are ignorant of the class struggle; know only the laws of the market and in their dealings claim to own the workers… The shameful manoeuvre to prevent reinforcements from reaching the workers at Flins is only one more repugnant ‘victory’ for the unions in their struggle against the general strike… No unity with those dividing us.
And there we have it. The divisions of May 1968 were more important than unity. It is still the case now. The powers that be are the powers that be, and occupying the spaces of the powers that be does not alter that for a moment. You’re still in their space, we’re still in their space, and it is still their space.
In light of this I couldn’t help but recall one of Guy Debord’s meannesses regarding the thoroughly admirable left wing publisher François Maspero (who published Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, among many other worthy texts). Debord neologised the verb to ‘masperize’ as a result of some ellipses that detracted from Debord’s revolutionary fervour in a text published by Maspero. The meaning Debord intended is to quote a text selectively, abridging and misrepresenting the contents of a book. The occupations of Wall St and the others like it seem to me to be a kind of masperization of revolutionary occupation, just as May ’68 was, and reveal, in ever greater clarity, that the subjects of power aren’t that fussed by being subjected and are OK with it.