Scandalous Bodies in Occupied London - Saul Newman

Saul Newman takes a closer look at the politics of space within the Occupy movement.

The Occupy movement spreads like a virus throughout the nerve centres of the capitalist empire, symptomatic of the terminal crisis of this global regime. This is not only an economic crisis, but a legitimation crisis. Never has the predatory nature of financial capitalism, and the gap between people and the political elites who supposedly govern in their name, been so stark. Our political regimes no longer even pretend to seek democratic legitimacy and the consent of the governed, as we have seen recently with the technocratic governments imposed on Greece and Italy – important laboratories for the forms of financial dictatorship yet to come. It is as if a veil has been torn away, revealing the workings of a politico-economic oligarchy whose only ethos was cynical self-enrichment and self-aggrandisement. This oligarchy represents the interests of an economic system which has no future, and yet which continues to operate as if everything can simply carry on as normal. And to think that they call us utopians!

Well, the detritus spat out by this economic machine – the hordes of people whose lives it has devastated – has returned to haunt it. These people have nothing left but their bodies, their ‘bare life’, which they wedge between the cogs of the machine. In their encampments they lay siege, quietly yet determinately, to its glittering towers and citadels. In their vulnerability and nakedness the Occupiers confront the powerful, exposing their ultimate powerlessness and imposture. And our political and economic masters are worried. You can see it in the incoherence and uncertainty of their reactions, which oscillate from entreaties and denunciations to violent repression.

What is so disturbing to the dominant order about the disorderly appearance of bodies, the claiming of space, and the simple refusal to move on? Our biopolitical society operates through the control and surveillance of bodies, gestures and spaces. We move through predetermined spaces in predetermined ways, adopt normalised practices and patterns of behaviour, typically based around consumption and ‘communication’. Even our deviations – depression, illness and other afflictions – themselves follow an established course and are treated in the accepted, medicalised way. Bodies and subjectivities are assigned to different spaces at different times; when they move and communicate, they do so through the usual channels and conduits. Bodies must be on display, and everything must be offered up for inspection. Paradoxically, then, there is no such thing as public space, if by public space we mean spaces that are free from private and commercial interests on the one hand, and state policing and surveillance on the other. Free spaces, in other words. Try standing still for a period of time in the middle of a street, assuming you are not looking through a shop window or participating in some other form of sanctioned behaviour, and you will soon find yourself the subject of suspicion.

When bodies appear where they are not supposed to, and when they act in an unexpected and surprising manner, they are reclaiming a public space – or, rather, reconfiguring a space as public in a genuine sense. Perhaps it would be more precise to say that the space becomes – even if temporarily – part of the commons.

What appears with the Occupation movement is a new kind of political space which is autonomous from the state, which refuses the normal channels of political representation and communication, and for which there is no vanguard or leadership structure. The cry of the indignados in Spain was ‘You do not represent us!’ This has two interconnected meanings: one as a cry of protest against the lack of adequate representation; the other a refusal of representation altogether. You do not represent us, and you cannot represent us! Instead, we find a daily experimentation with new forms of politics in the form of horizontal relations, consensus decision-making and direct action. Critics complain that these movements lack a coherent agenda, leadership structures and a clear set of demands – demands that should be articulated through established political channels. But this tired old refrain simply misses the point and fails to recognise the genuine novelty of these movements: the opening up of an alternative, collective space for autonomous politics.

The Occupy movement thus reinvents the idea of a public life – albeit not in the conventional sense. Indeed, we are reminded here of the figure of Diogenes the Cynic, who lived his life openly and publicly in the agora, sleeping naked in streets and marketplaces of ancient Athens. The scandal of his existence was to collapse the distinction between life and politics, between the private hearth and the public square. Michel Foucault, in his final lectures at the College de France in 1984, reflected on Diogenes as an example of the genuine philosophical life, in which the courage of truth and the ethics of existence was embodied in every gesture and act, in one’s daily life and activities. The ethical life was necessarily a scandalous life and an ascetic life, a life lived in public in the full scorn of society – the life of a dog who sleeps in the streets. The ethical life was also a militant life in the sense that it pitted itself against the norms, mores and institutions of existing society and sought to break radically with them. Foucault shows how the revolutionary politics of the nineteenth century, in particular anarchism, invoked this idea of the other life in its absolute rejection of the prevailing values, conventions and habits.

It seems to me that today we need to invent this idea of the other life again. The coming insurrection involves not simply the toppling of power, but, more importantly, the active experimentation with different relationships, subjectivities, ethical modes and ways of life, in which our own attachment to power is interrogated. As the revolutionary syndicalist, Georges Sorel put it, we must learn new ‘habits of liberty’.

To do politics differently we must learn to live differently, and embody politics in life and life in politics. This is what Foucault was perhaps getting at with the notion of bios philosophikos: ‘The bios philosophikos as straight life is the human being’s animality taken up as a challenge, practiced as an exercise, and thrown in the face of others as a scandal’ (Michel Foucault, ‘The Courage of Truth: the Government of the Self and Others II. Lectures at the College de France, 1983-1984’). Can we see in the movements of Occupation, in the encampments outside St Pauls and in other cities around the world, a glimpse of a new kind of political and philosophical life? The beautiful, simple gesture of sleeping and living on the streets without shame or fear, signifies, like the setting up of the revolutionary barricades of the nineteenth century, a real moment of rupture in our world.

"Saul Newman is Reader in Political Theory at Goldsmiths College, University of London. His work includes anarchist theory reconceptualised through a post-structuralist lense, for which he has coined the term ‘post-anarchism’."