OccupyLSX, unruly politics and subversive ruliness

Any social movement that challenges the state but leaves streets unsafe and refuse uncollected will rapidly lose legitimacy. The trick is to undermine power by exposing its hypocrisy and to make new rules in the process of unruly contestation.

The stay of execution granted to the Occupy the London Stock Exchange (OccupyLSX) camp outside Saint Paul’s cathedral just before Christmas is over. The judge has now granted the Corporation of London’s request for an eviction order. This request drew extensively on accusations of unruliness, and indeed of criminality, and these clearly played a part in the judge’s decision. But we should resist attempts to conflate criminal behaviour taking place around OccupyLSX – an almost inevitable hazard in such a location, and openly recognised as a problem by camp members themselves – with criminal intent on the part of the Occupiers. This would be not merely an injustice, but a fundamental misreading of the real political significance of the form of protest that is actually exemplified by the camp outside Saint Paul’s. For the story of OccupyLSX is also a story about the power of ‘subversive ruliness’ within the broader field that in our research at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in Sussex we are calling ‘unruly politics’.

In our work on citizen participation and unruly politics in the Global South, my colleagues and I have observed that accusing protesters of promoting criminality is a conventional response to political dissidence in Latin American, Africa and Asia, as well as in the context of the Arab revolutions. It is also becoming an increasingly familiar response to the current wave of contestation in the ‘formerly rich world’ (as a Brazilian minister described Europe and the US, during a recent seminar at IDS). In the UK, such accusations have been used to delegitimize direct action by anti-cuts campaigners, by lumping it together in the public imagination with the ‘mindless criminality’ of the riots and looting that took place in many English cities during the summer of 2011.

The point is not that there has been no criminal behaviour around OccupyLSX; in a recent editorial in their Occupied Times newspaper, camp members themselves recognised that "our sites are not the safe spaces we would like them to be". In addition, the attempt to defend the camp may yet lead protesters to face criminal charges: Occupiers to whom I spoke while the case was being heard were cheerfully insistent that they would stay and resist even in the face of a legally binding eviction order, and would put out a call for people to gather at the camp to resist the eviction. The Occupiers are fully committed to non-violence, but also to using direct action and surprise tactics that may or may not involve breaking the law.

So far, so unruly. But I would argue that paradoxically the real significance of the model of contestation provided by the camp lies not in law-breaking, but in rule-making. Transparent, rule-bound behaviour is absolutely central to the political practices that characterise OccupyLSX. This, in turn, is central to the unique power of the challenge that it poses to the intermingled political and financial interests whose unruly, untransparent and often downright illegal practices have left their disastrous mark both on London and on communities across the world.

The Corporation of London alleged that the camp has promoted disorder and criminality in the area around the cathedral in the heart of London’s traditional financial district, for which the Corporation has responsibility as the local government authority. The cathedral’s own authorities, who have repeatedly changed their position on the camp, with splits and resignations among the clergy, came out in support of the Corporation’s allegations. Yet on all my visits to the camp, I have been struck by how obsessively orderly it is, how preoccupied with rules and regulations. While there have been widely-reported problems with the ‘challenging behaviour’ of some of the people who have been drawn to the camp, OccupyLSX’s ‘General Assembly’ self-governance mechanism has made concerted efforts to address these, and to enforce rules such as those banning drugs and alcohol from the site. This even reached the point of instituting nocturnal ‘Tranquillity’ patrols by volunteers wearing stab-proof vests. Thus, in an almost surreal reversal of roles, protesters who may soon be targeted by the police have themselves been playing the role of police, duly mandated to enforce democratically-agreed rules within the General Assembly’s jurisdiction.

The General Assembly is itself guided by an intricate web of rules and practices, covering everything from the remits of different working groups to the famous hand-signals that are used for agreement or dissent. It constantly revisits these rules and practices, in an ongoing attempt to achieve the kind of balance between inclusiveness and effective decision-making that has long preoccupied advocates of deliberative democracy. Combined with the enormous amount of time taken up by discussion of issues such as tent siting, recycling and sanitation, this gives OccupyLSX a curiously parochial aspect, where its strategic concern with major political and economic issues sometimes seems obscured by a very domestic concern with practical questions of community organisation and management.

This evidently frustrates some participants: at a General Assembly that I attended in October, soon after the camp was established, one speaker complained vociferously that the focus on camp organisation was crowding out the space for articulating a clear political message. But other participants felt that the two could not be separated; they saw the way the camp is organised as a political statement in itself. As one of them put it, using a phrase that has since become familiar from writings about the Occupy movements, ‘the process is the message’. The process, with all its complex, time-consuming public deliberations, is at the heart of the message that these movements are not only protesting about the social and economic consequences of political decisions. They are raising fundamental questions about the ways in which those decisions have been taken: in haste, by self-interested elites, meeting in closed spaces.

Like other occupations from Tahrir to Syntagma, OccupyLSX has included building a local political community from very diverse elements, and actually practicing the forms of self-organised democratic debate and deliberation that have been so absent from political and economic decision-making in recent years. In creating a space that combines attention to strategic issues of social justice with practical concerns over community-level security or sanitation, OccupyLSX actually provides a very powerful model for local governance. It is a model that has much in common with the democratic innovations from Brazil, India and elsewhere that are promoted by the flourishing local governance networks with which IDS works in the Global South, such as LogoLink. The camp’s mostly young, scruffy and idealistic inhabitants may seem very different from the self-important, suit-wearing municipal worthies who come to mind when we think of local governance in the UK. But by showing that ‘another democratic process is possible’, Occupy LSX has opened up new possibilities for regenerating England’s moribund local democracy.

This became even clearer when OccupyLSX challenged the Corporation of London’s own political legitimacy, calling attention to the fact that it is the only local government authority in the country that is not elected by popular vote. As Maurice Glasman and others have pointed out, under the City of London’s unique electoral system, the businesses registered in the financial centre have the right to cast 73 per cent of the votes that choose the Corporation’s administrators, with only 27 per cent belonging to citizens resident within the medieval city limits. The Corporation not only maintains its own courts and police force, despite governing an area with just 9,000 permanent residents, but also lobbies Parliament on behalf of the banks that are based within its boundaries. This means that the local government authority that is responsible for preventing disorderly behaviour around Saint Paul’s cathedral also represents the same institutions of finance capital that the protesters hold responsible for causing the current economic crisis with their own disorderly behaviour.

This is what gives subversive force to the ‘ruliness’ of OccupyLSX: it challenges the claims of the powerful to rule by right, by unmasking the unruliness with which they have used their political and financial power. In this, it has something in common with other recent upsurges of ‘unruly politics’, such as that which brought down Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak. My IDS colleague Mariz Tadros has described how Mubarak’s regime reacted to the mobilisation in Tahrir Square by withdrawing public security services from Cairo’s neighbourhoods, and using freed convicts and plainclothes police to unleash a wave of criminality. The response of Cairo’s residents was to self-organise to ensure order, with groups of neighbours providing the security that the state was so conspicuously denying its citizens, as well as improvising replacements for paralysed municipal services such as refuse collection.

Of course, change cannot be won by camping and committees alone, and it usually takes unruly contestation to seize the attention of the powerful. At the same time, mobilisation that challenges the state but leaves streets unsafe and refuse uncollected will rapidly lose legitimacy. The trick is to choose a course of action that undermines power by exposing the hollowness of its claims. If entrenched elites try to show their power by enforcing their version of order in public spaces, then unruly contestation of those public spaces can show that without the consent of the citizens, this power can quickly prove to be an illusion. If bankers and politicians damage democracy through unruly behaviour, then it is rule-bound, scrupulously democratic protests like OccupyLSX that can show by example just how hypocritical are their claims to exercise legitimate authority.

Overall, it seems that the greatest potential for transformation comes from finding a way to combine ‘subversive ruliness’ with unruly contestation. This is something that I learned from working with indigenous movements in the Brazilian Amazon. In their struggle against racism and corruption in the health system they initially baffled me with their tendency to make sudden switches from orderly participation in formal, bureaucratic health service monitoring meetings to war-painted, bow-and-arrow-wielding occupations of government offices – until I realised that it was precisely this ability to maintain the element of surprise by mixing apparently incompatible political strategies that had enabled them to overcome their political, social and economic exclusion and force the Brazilian state to recognise their rights.

In Egypt, the battle for democracy is far from over, but Cairo’s citizens have shown that they can combine fearless physical confrontation of state power with practical organising to supply basic services when these are denied by the state. This mix of strategies seems to hold greater potential to keep tyranny from reasserting itself than either contestation or self-organisation alone. At OccupyLSX, the protesters are gearing up for the classic ‘unruly’ strategy of physical (albeit nonviolent) resistance to eviction, while maintaining the emphasis on democratic and obsessively rule-bound self-organisation that gives moral force to the camp’s critique of unruly finance capital. As in Cairo, the outcome is uncertain but the promise of a new and transformative way of doing politics is a potent one.

There is a caveat, though. The issue is not just how people mobilise for change, but who is actually mobilising. Tahrir Square united (albeit briefly) the marginalised masses and an Egyptian middle class driven to unruliness by a corrupt and unaccountable system – but no such alliance is yet visible in England. For all the attempts to link them within a common frame of ‘disorder’ and ‘criminality’, there is currently little or no connection between the scrupulously ‘ruly’ OccupyLSX campers, most of whom are (or at least sound like) middle-class student activists, and the hyper-marginalised urban youth whose riotous protests sparked last summer’s upsurge of ‘unruly shopping’.

In their sense of exclusion not just from the political debate but from the very idiom in which this debate is conducted, the latter may have more in common with Brazil’s indigenous peoples than with the Occupiers outside Saint Paul’s. Amid the welter of reasons for taking part that were recorded in the interim report on the riots, some are clearly linked to the aspiration to realise a long-denied right to be heard (including the telling comment ‘they never listen to us – they did that day’). In Brazil, the indigenous peoples’ movements, faced with a similar refusal to hear them, learned to use ‘subversive ruliness’ to challenge racism and corruption. This meant engaging with the formal governance system, learning the rules that the state claimed to espouse and demanding that it stick to the letter of these rules – while retaining the option to resort to fierce unruliness if these demands were ignored.

Could England’s marginalised urban youth achieve something similar? And could movements like OccupyLSX help them to do it? While the Occupiers may espouse direct action, I suspect that they will find it hard to put up a convincing display of fierceness because in the main they are too reasonable, too nice, too wedded to solid principles of non-violence. The rioters of the summer of 2011 are not. The Occupiers have the ability to shame the powerful, but the rioters have the ability to scare them. Thus far, however, this ability has not won the rioters the right to be heard because any willingness to listen has been sidelined by the elite’s eternal fear of ‘the mob’, to which the default response is repression and not dialogue.

Unruly protests achieve maximum political force when their participants can be characterised as citizens driven to unruliness by the bad faith and obduracy of the powers-that-be. They are most easily ignored when their participants can be stigmatised as habitual criminals incapable of ‘ruly’ political expression. Brazil’s indigenous movements have learned this: by practising orderly democratic engagement they began to break down the racist depiction of them as ‘savages’, but by retaining the option to resort to fierce unruliness they forced the state not to take them for granted. As long as England’s marginalised urban youth fail to learn the principles of ‘subversive ruliness’, their protests will continue to be easily dismissed as ‘mindless criminality’. Avoiding this means that they need to absorb some of the lessons learned by the Occupiers. If the two groups actually learn to talk to each other in 2012, then this could prove to be the year that the financial and political elite starts to tremble after all.

This article has been updated and adapted from an original post on the IDS Participation, Power and Social Change blog

About the author

Alex Shankland is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), University of Sussex.