openDemocracyUK

Occupying the offices of the 1%

The occupation of the offices of Xstrata, home to the highest paid FTSE chief executive in the UK, shows the radical potential of the emerging anti-austerity movement.
Sam Halvorsen
2 December 2011

N30, strike day, saw hundreds of picket lines and public rallies across the country. The Occupy London movement joined striking electricians before visiting a few pickets in central London. For many occupiers, however, the focus of the day soon turned towards the afternoon's action – a flash occupation of the office of Xstrata, home to the highest paid FTSE CEO in the UK. Having gathered at Piccadilly circus in their hundreds, activists swooped into the nearby building, getting onto the roof whilst a samba band played outside. Although the heavy handed police response lead to numerous arrests and cases of brutality, it was a great success. This article sketches out four tendencies of the occupy movement that this action has helped to highlight.

Firstly, it has shown how decentralised politics need not necessarily be deterritorialised. The autonomous, anti-hierarchical currents of the alter-globalisation movements thrived off loose networks that sought to show another world is possible. The occupy movement has shown how we can (re)create very particular places, such as the courtyard of St. Pauls, based on the same commitments to radical democracy. Occupying, albeit very briefly, the offices of Xstrata showed the power of entering, occupying, and subverting space as a political tactic. (Re)territorialising the movement in particular times and spaces can help fracture the shell of capitalism.

Secondly, the occupy movement has helped put a spotlight on the obscenities of capitalist development. As socio-economic exclusion continues to rise, with unemployment soaring and access to public services decreasing, FTSE executives have seen an average pay rise of 43%. Xstrata’s very own Mick Davies was paid over £18 million last year alone. Targeting his offices exposes the 1%, and reminds us that until we reject claims that ‘there is no alternative’ to constant economic growth, the minority will continue to prosper at the expense of the minority.

Thirdly, the Xstrata action was a good example of the occupy movements’ ‘do it yourself’ philosophy, based on taking direct action and empowering ourselves. As activists stormed the building and dropped a banner off the roof, others were busy in a teach in downstairs, educating each-other and the corporation’s staff over the contrast between their CEO’s pay rise, and the cuts to public sector workers’ pensions that fuelled the day’s strikes. Moreover, the ability of a group of occupiers, many of whom had no involvement in political organising before, to be able to actually have their voices heard and successfully undertake this action is precisely the sort of fulfilling and empowering political experience that has lead so many to join the movement.

Finally, the occupy movement has been about experimenting with ways of doing democracy. From the General Assembly at St. Paul’s, to the teach out at the Xstrata offices, it has been about engaging with people in direct and participatory ways. There have been numerous difficulties with such an open process, making it venerable to attack from the outside and incoherence from within. However, it has been committed to the process itself, believing that democracy does not lie in the structures that we create, but in the act of creating itself. The occupation of Xstrata's offices does not have to be judged based on quantifiable outcomes, but rather on the paths it has already opened up to future political actions. In this way the occupiers seek to keep moving forward, but without imposing a direction in which to head. For many this is major problem for the movement: the lack of precise direction and clarity of concrete goals. For others, however, that is precisely the point. As Subcomandate Marcos well puts it: ‘preguntando caminamos’ – ‘asking questions we walk’.

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