Occupy – free, educating theatre coming to a town near you

We are seeing today the first widespread global popular uprising in history that shares a name-tag and an idea: an end to corporate greed, extreme socio-economic inequality and, by deduction, the capitalist system in general. This performance on the world stage is wrestling with notions of publoid space and the challenge of ‘scaling up’.
Alison Dreher
12 February 2012

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man plays in his life many parts” – William Shakespeare

“Landscapes provide a stage for human action, and, like a theatre set, their own part in the drama varies from that of an entirely discreet unobserved presence to playing a highly visible role in the performance” – Dennis Cosgrove

“The city in its complete sense, then, is [...] a theatre of social action, [...] the city creates the theatre and is the theatre” – Louis Mumford

These three quotes all share the notion of life on earth being a play: Shakespeare speaking both abstractly and materially, Cosgrove and Mumford dealing only with the physicality of this thought, and Mumford focusing on the city in particular. I want to apply this family of metaphors to the Occupy Wall Street movement and its global offspring, notably Occupy London.

This map showed how widespread the Occupy protests were by October 15, 2011 – the global day of action – filling nearly the whole land surface with red blobs, except for sparsely inhabited areas such as Canada, Greenland and North Eastern Asia; places with oppressive regimes inhibiting public protest such as the Middle East; and places with poorer connectivity and large non-urban areas such as sub-Saharan Africa. We are seeing today the first widespread global popular uprising in history that shares a name-tag and an idea. This is not surprising, as the grievances being vocalised are corporate greed, extreme socio-economic inequality and, by deduction as well as directly outspoken, the capitalist system in general. Capitalism can only be fought on a global scale because it has spread all over the globe – globalisation being inherently fuelled by capitalism’s need for perpetual growth. This struggle is happening in cities. Cities are relevant to this discourse in many ways: urbanisation is the product (and simultaneously raw material) of capitalism, the urban landscape is a public and political space, cities are places of constant power struggles and contestation of meaning, and logistical issues of rallying the relevant numbers are involved. The city therefore becomes the content or cause of protest, but also a stage, a channel and a requisite.

David Harvey’s theory of urbanisation as the output and simultaneous site of input of surplus value to fulfil capitalism’s perpetual need for growth is interesting in three ways.  Firstly, it serves to explain why anti-capitalist (or at least, capitalism-critical) protest should happen in cities, because cities are the direct consequence of capitalism’s constant creative destruction of value for bigger value’s sake. Secondly, the city is the focal point for the socio-economic inequalities that capitalism produces. As this inequality grows hand in hand with the growth of capitalism itself, as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, this is manifest in the business districts of the city with ever growing skyscrapers harbouring the homeless squatting in their shadows. The city brings together these extremes and makes them visible to whoever refuses to look away. And thirdly, it foregrounds the topic of capitalism itself, returning to the motives for this protest movement. The unsustainability of capitalism has been made apparent in the financial crisis of 2008 onwards. It was one of many economic crises that has shaken the system – indeed the system is built on the cycle of crisis and boom – but as with most truths, it takes some time for people to realise things with their hearts (or stomachs, in this case?) that they noticed long ago with their brains. 

But as graduates find themselves crippled with debt and unemployment, as EU countries’ economies like Greece find themselves on the verge of collapse, and as banks are bailed out with taxpayers’ money but public spending is cut, as CEOs of failing companies get perversely high bonuses – in short, as the middle class is being affected – , ‘eyes are opening,the shackles of apathy loosening’ and the economic necessity for extreme inequality begins to be questioned.

Marx imagined that capitalism would kill itself off in its never-ending greed by collapsing in one of its crises, and when that failed to happen Lenin predicted that capitalism would fail once it had reached its highest form – imperialism – and could grow no more (resulting in a world war and the global proletarian revolution). Instead of either of these scenarios, capitalism seems to stay alive by exactly these crises, by making the exploited pay for its salvation, then further exploitation of the poor, in a vicious cycle that forever feeds off the disadvantaged. The result of this, the huge and ever growing inequality, is the motor of this protest. As Gerry Stoker argues, this stress on the wider financial structure is vital to urban theory:

 ‘the neo-Marxist emphasis on the constraining impact of social and economic structures encouraged urban scholars to become less interested in analysing observable power. The trend, supported by broader developments in political theory [...] was to examine systematic power’.

The big Occupy protest sites are aimed to be geographically close to the financial districts, because the movement primarily addresses the financial sector rather than the government as responsible for the state of the world, and the transgression of these places by those normally excluded is a vital part of the message.

This act of transgression shows that urban protest is physical: it brings bodies to the multiply times mentioned stage, an action that cannot be sufficiently replicated by virtual support via the internet or other media, and it makes the protester aware of her own strength and agency when taking direct action. It makes people stand together on, quite literally, common ground

The connection between the bodies and the city is both symbolical and material, Don Mitchell distinguishes between ‘public sphere’ (the abstract) and ‘public space’ (the physical). The first has representational aspects to be considered. Mitchell defines the concept of ‘spaces of representation’ as what he identifies to be a product of Lefebvre’s ‘dialectic of public space’: representations of space are the ordered and controlled layers of meaning, and representational space stands for the true, lived-in aspects of that space. Spaces of representation, he argues, are the result of the constant dialectical struggle of the two.

Actual, real bodies of the protesters (and police) are vital to urban protest. The presence of human bodies displays an urgency to the matter, and creates a sensual (i.e. visible, audible etc.) entity that cannot easily be missed – the necessity of urbanity comes in: publicity is crucial to both the spread of awareness and thus the success of the protest, and the legitimacy of civil disobedience if the law is broken.

David Harvey points out that ‘they have the money, [...], the only thing we have is [...] a mass of people’, while Susan Leigh Foster’s essay Choreographies of Protest carries it in the name: protest can be seen as a dance on the stage that is the city and bodies become tools, symbols and agents. Bodies react to the movements of other bodies; they symbolically and materially choose lines to cross, and cling together to resist arrest. Also, the body itself and its actions can be a form of protest (physically defying the norm or doing things contrary to the ideology of the day), bodies can be revolutionary material themselves, and yet also cities can be bodies; cities and bodies are constantly fighting each other. 

Noteworthy aspects of the material particularities shared by multiple Occupy camps are the human microphone and the discrediting attempts by the right-wing press of presenting dodgy thermal images of supposedly largely empty tents. Here the topic of violence has its five minutes of fame: this is not the place to discuss moral considerations of physical violence (there are naturally other forms of violence, which are also not covered here) but rather its implications for urban protest. In popular belief, the police protect the citizens and their right to protest (this is assuming a ‘western liberal democracy’) and this is arguably often the case. However, in situations of physical political protest the police frequently do not react to violence but incite violence, or simply act unnecessarily violently to nonviolent acts of protest. Although every politician proudly proclaims the right to protest, actual protest that might have the power to change something is out of order, a disruptive act, worthy only of disrespect.

As George Orwell wrote, all repressive regimes reign by fraud and force, and when fraud falls away, only by force. Modern police forces have been created as the ideological and repressive organ of the state, with police officers made to unquestioningly fulfil roles detached them from any class interests. But there is always the possibility that those enacting force wake up too and refuse to do their duty. The 99% that the Occupy movement claims itself to represent includes police officers, and in Oakland, California – an Occupy site with harsh and brutal policing where the use of rubber bullets nearly took the life of an Iraq war Marine Corps veteran, the mayor’s deputy and legal adviser have both resigned in protest of that policing, the latter openly calling for support for the Occupy movement.

In his work on ‘Policing the Working Class City’ (1979), Philip Cohen also pointed to the schizophrenic workings of the police: they have to be seen being successful and law-abiding simultaneously, and to achieve this impossible task the media creates a false hysteria that allows them to disregard of the law in the name of effectiveness. The way in which the police have been reacting to the Occupy movement varies greatly: in the US, many Occupy sites were evicted brutally, such as Occupy Oakland, Occupy Wall Street and – quite famously – the Occupy UC Davis site where about a dozen or so nonviolent, seated in an entirely unprovocative manner, students refused to move and were heavily pepper-sprayed, to an extent that some were hospitalised. While tear gas is used to disperse people by making them avoid that area, pepper-spray leads to great pain and, notably, immobility.

On the first day of Occupy LSX at St. Pauls, where the aspiring occupiers were semi-kettled – basically a kettle with supposed one-at-a-time-exit possibilities, funnily enough always right on the other side of where you were at any given moment – which was quite obviously a method of provoking protesters into legitimating some kind of violent backlash, because, newsflash, no one likes to be caged in a tiny area which is continuously being made smaller. ‘Containment’ is a method of keeping protesters from splitting into smaller groups and dispersing, thus forcing the police to do likewise – a sort of prevention of divide and riot, if you will. Here, the fact that the police were kettling what was supposed to be an occupation was blatantly a farce.

Publoid space

In Canada, the (nonviolent but contradicting human rights) eviction of some Occupy sites has incited legal complaints to the UN. In London, however, the eviction of the Occupy LSX site in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral was legally issued on November 16 by the City of London Corporation, the passing of the deadline did not result in immediate physical removal because such action must first pass through the High Court. In many other logistical and legal ways, each Occupy site is unique due to its specific location, even within the same city. While the globalisation of ideas spread the message and solidarity over the globe, each individual Occupy group brings the issue home to a different place, with different legal and structural challenges to master. In London, the first and biggest site supposedly occupies the London Stock Exchange, despite actually being located in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral rather than Paternoster Square, the actual home of the stock exchange, owned privately by Mitsubishi. Together with the legal issues in Zuccotti Park, this has prompted a debate on private-owned public spaces. The space in front of the Cathedral is owned by the Church, the highways however belong to the City of London Corporation, a plutocratically run council. The prominence of this place leads to much tourist attention and also introduced an interesting debate on the role of the Church, i.e. of Christian values of compassion, but also exclusion of protesters from worshipping. Other Occupy London sites are Finsbury Square  – an actual public rather than privately owned ‘public’ (henceforth ‘publoid’) space just outside the Square Mile, therefore outside the jurisdictional reach of the Corporation of London; the ‘Bank of Ideas’ in an empty UBS bank building in impoverished Hackney (evicted in January 2012); a site in East London, an unused court complex that has been deployed for symbolic trials of the 1%;  and – for a very short time only – Trafalgar Square, which was occupied for a few hours on November 9 by breakaways from the student protest against education cuts and privatisation, but was quickly destroyed by the Metropolitan Police – armed to the teeth – which had previously proclaimed that anyone breaking away from the route of the demo would be arrested under section 12 of the Public Order Act.

The whole issue of publoid spaces is now being greatly debated: they are essentially privately owned spaces that are opened to the public on the conditions of the private owner, subject to only very vague fundamental conditions demanded by the government. These spaces do not exist for the benefit of the public, but – as a collateral outcome of pure profit maximisation – benefit those who are seen to ‘belong’ in these spaces. Thus the (unintentional) occupation of these publoid places also serves as a form of symbolism through transgression, if the use of places is sufficiently transformed. This rather well endorses Don Mitchell’s point that cities are not just places of struggle, but places of struggle over which places are places of struggle.

Problems of scale

The structure of the Occupy movements reflect the world they wish to live in : decisions are made in a bit of a limbo between direct democracy and anarchist consensus (the ‘jazz hands’ method is mocked by critics for looking goofy, possibly a bit too lively for spectators accustomed to strict formal politics – then again, if the goings-on in the  House of Commons represent formal politics, please excuse me for a moment while I weep for humanity), the outcome is more or less ‘socialist’ in the abstract sense – from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs. Here again, the city has a role to play: direct democracy only works in small communities, such as Zuccotti Park. However even these communities appear too large to come to an anarchist-style consensus where a compromise that considers everyone is found. Rather the system still seems to be majority-rule based. The city, it would seem, is simultaneously too big and too small to be a single unit of governance. Therefore, one of the most pressing aspects of the Occupy movement for its critics is whether official demands are issued and to which extent they are met. For now, the movement seems to see itself as too broad to legitimately be able to make demands beyond the basic, clear message they are sending in their pure presence. They are also unwilling to enter the formal political system. Issuing formal demands would disqualify Occupy as an anarchist movement, despite the adoption of some of its methods.

But progress is only ever brought about by protesting against the status quo. Without activism, society stagnates. As Harvey puts it, ‘the right to the city is not merely a right of access to what already exists, but a right to change it after our heart’s desire’. We have the power and the legitimacy to overhaul the theatre as we see fit. Either way, let’s not miss the show.



Cohen P (1979), ‘Policing the working-class city’ in Fine B, Kinse R, Lea J, Picciotto S, Young J (eds) Capitalism and the Rule of Law: From deviancy theory to Marxism, Hutchinson & Co. Ltd, London

Harvey D (2008), ‘The Right to the City’, New Left Review 53

Lefebvre H (1996), Writings on Cities, Blackwell, Oxford

Mitchell D (2003), The Right to the City, The Guilford Press, New York

Monbiot G (2004), The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order, Harper Perennial, London

Stoker G (1998), ‘Theory and Urban Politics’, International Political Science Review 19 (2)


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