Occupy LSX, unruly politics and subversive ruliness

27/12/2011

Alex Shankland

The Occupy the London Stock Exchange (OccupyLSX) camp outside Saint Paul’s cathedral in London spent the week before Christmas fighting a legal battle against the Corporation of London’s request for an eviction order. The court case (on which the judge will give his decision in January) was based on accusations of unruliness, and indeed of criminality. This is a conventional enough response to political dissidence, long familiar from social movement struggles in Latin American, Africa and Asia as well as from the Arab Revolutions and from the recent 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 helped the powerful 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.

These attempts to characterise the camp as a hotbed of criminality should be challenged not only because they are a transparent attempt to silence legitimate protest, but because they obscure the real political significance of the form of protest that is actually exemplified by OccupyLSX. For the story of the camp outside Saint Paul’s is also a story about the power of “subversive ruliness” within the broader field that we are calling “unruly politics“.

When I was at the camp last week, the occupiers I met were cheerfully insistent that they would stay and resist even in the face of a legally binding eviction order. They 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 for me 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 – and to the unique challenge that it poses to the unruly and untransparent intermingling of political and financial interests that has left its 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 problems with the behaviour of some camp residents and visitors, 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.

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: 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 flourishing local governance networks 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. In fact, under the City of London’s unique electoral system, the businesses registered in the financial centre have the right to cast 73% of the votes that choose the Corporation’s administrators, with only 27% belonging to citizens resident in the financial district (which corresponds only to the medieval city limits, a small fraction of the metropolis of Greater London). The Corporation not only maintains its own separate courts and police force, despite governing an area with just 9,000 permanent residents, but also lobbies government on behalf of the banks who 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 (and sometimes downright illegal) 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 Mubarak. My 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 undermine power by showing what it is not: if bankers and politicians damage democracy through unruly behaviour, then rule-bound, scrupulously democratic protests like OccupyLSX can show by example just how hypocritical are their claims to exercise legitimate authority. 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 a hollow fantasy.

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. 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 marginalisation and force the Brazilian state to recognise their rights. The battle for democracy in Egypt 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. From the outside, this seems like a potent enough mix of strategies to keep tyranny from reasserting itself.

Could such a mix take root among protest movements in the UK? 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”. But 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.

Alex Shankland is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.


We, the women who revolt

21/12/2011

Mariz Tadros

I went to Tahrir Square at around 6:30pm expecting a small, marginal crowd of women who would have bothered (or dared) to respond to the calls for a general protest against the brutality of the army in stripping, molesting and harassing female protestors a few days earlier. There were many reasons to expect a low turnout: for one, most Egyptians are sick and tired of protests and they want to get on with life. They are exhausted, energy depleted and believe enough is enough. For another, the army and the Islamists had managed to turn public opinion against them: they were the thugs, the unruly ones, the dissidents, those who disrupt, who are keeping the rest of the population from moving forward – or so the mainstream media has people to believe. Second, the army has no qualms in using its military clout to terrorize and obliterate and the images are enough to send chills down anyone’s spine, let alone go out and face them.  Third, any protest to claim women’s rights is usually small. Lets be honest here: the country does not exactly have a civil or political society that is sympathetic to women’s issues. But instead I found Tahrir Square full of thousands – perhaps hundreds of thousands of women congregated despite the fact that Tahrir Square was completely dark – presumably a strategy by the army to dissuade people from joining and to allow it to strike away from the public and international gaze.

In order for me to join the protests I first I had to pass through the rows of men who had formed a cordon around the women protestors. A few months ago when I joined a protest in Tahrir Square, I refused to bow to the idea of men on the outside, women on the inside. I had felt enraged: the women don’t need protecting, we are perfectly capable of protecting ourselves, thank you very much. But this time it was different – the army had shown that they will target women specifically to molest, to grope, to humiliate. And we needed the strength of numbers.

This was a deeply moving demonstration. The women in Tahrir Square were of all ages, veiled, non-veiled women, those with children, those barely able to walk. The men who formed the cordon were equally diverse. Women were leading in shouting the slogans, and people answered back. While women took part fully in the uprisings that led to the ousting of Mubarak, this demonstration was different: they were more than participants, they were the leaders. They spoke, and everyone listened. They shouted and everyone- men and women responded back . And it was not just the urban women who were leading, it was the village women in their black gallabiyyas who were raising their voices and everyone answering back even louder. As people marched around and around in Tahrir Square carrying banners against the military, carrying a large picture of the woman who was stripped and dragged from her hair across the square by a soldier, while another soldier was shown about to stomp her bare stomach with his shoe-the determination not to let this rest was strong. I heard a young man say to another “my God, I never thought these women could be so strong. They are mightier than the Ultras” (The Ultras were the football club supporters who had protected Tahrir Square from Mubarak’s thugs during the 18 days uprisings).  Another asked his companion: “do you think these women will lead the next revolution in this country?”

At some point, the protesters were joined by hundreds of sheikhs from Egypt’s ultra-conservative Islamic establishment, Al Azhar, to express their anger at the murder of Sheikh Emad who was shot dead by a soldier’s bullet while peacefully protesting a few days earlier. The voices in Tahrir Square were united in their call: “Down, down with the military regime”, “The revolution is on-going” “Revolution, revolution until victory” people chanted, and “Leave! Leave! Leave!”.

But this was not a call for general freedom, this was a call to redeem the women of Egypt who had been sexually assaulted by sending out a clear message “Raise your head high, you are more honourable than those who tread on you.” This slogan was chanted over and over again. The women who were stripped, who were assaulted need not bow their heads low in shame, they were to be recognized as heroines: their flesh was exposed but they were now clothed with greater dignity and respect. There is no shame but the shame of the army: “Instead of protecting us, you strip us!” women chanted and in a show of defiance, continued: “Is this manliness? Come and strip us all, we are here in Tahrir Square”

And for those who had any illusion that this was about women united, the slogan chimed loud and clear “Not the [Muslim] Brothers, not the [political] parties, it is the women in Tahrir!”. Of course beneath the display of collective will, there are differences – differences that are probably significant enough to explain why this women’s movement joined by hundreds of sympathetic men is not a feminist movement.

When one of the women shouted out “There is no God but Allah, the martyr is the beloved of God”, I yelled back  “No! No! No! Madaniyya, madaniyya [civil]”.

The young women next to me looked at me in bewilderment “What is wrong with There is no God but Allah?”

“Because it is a religious slogan. And this protest is civil. There are hundreds of civil slogans we can use instead”

“But the Christians don’t mind.”

“How do you know that?” I answered

“Because they have not objected. Anyway, when they don’t like a slogan, they can just keep quiet and not reply back with the others”

So much for inclusive democracy.

The warning to El Mosheer Tantawy, the commander of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) was clear and loud: “O ye Mosheer, be you patient, the women of Egypt will dig your grave”. The words that terrorized the population were thrown back, reclaimed and given new meaning, it was no longer the authorities that pronounce the red lines, new ones were being proclaimed in Tahrir:  “The women of Egypt are a red line!”.

For the passers-by, the women protestors pointed to the rows of men who had formed the cordon: “Here are the men, where are the rest of you [men]?”. The pleas to Egyptians was made over and over again: “Come down now, join us, we will not bow down, we will raise our voices”. But the plea mostly fell on deaf ears. The call for a revolution in every alley, in every street was not having the inspirational impact it was supposed to generate: the authorities had allowed the general security situation to collapse to a point where chaos was feared by all, and stability revered above all. Then again, you never know what happens next. Within and outside Tahrir Square, many are saying: a second revolution is going to happen so watch this space.

Mariz Tadros is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS and will be publishing IDS Bulletin 43.1 ”The Pulse on Egypt’s Revolt” in January 2012


Clinton and LGBT rights: Whose voice really matters?

07/12/2011

Stephen Wood

At an event in Geneva yesterday celebrating Human Rights Day, Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, gave a speech in which she stated clearly that, “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights”.  This speech is to be welcomed, due in part to the honesty in which she highlighted her own country’s difficulty with living its values towards their LGBT citizens. It was heartening to see her carefully avoid language that dictated to individual countries, focussing more on the concept of combating discrimination and the state’s responsibility to foster equality.

The backdrop to her speech has been a rapidly worsening situation for LGBT people across many parts of the globe. Only this week, a bill is navigating the Nigerian Senate that calls for 14 year prison sentences for same-sex marriage, making public displays of same-sex affection an offence with a jail sentence and criminalises individuals who do not report their fellow citizens to the authorities. It feels as though every other month, another country starts in motion legislative attacks on the human rights of LGBT citizens that require mobilisation of local activists and their international partners. Uganda, Malawi, Senegal and Russia are supporting similar legal strictures against these marginalised sections of their population. Not only are these laws pernicious, but they are equally unworkable too. Banning same-sex affection in public? How will the values of community and society be reshaped by such an intrusive and aggressive scrutiny of human relationships?

There are more positive signs coming from the global south. Local social movements have championed legal and policy changes successfully in countries such as India, Bangladesh and Nepal for both LGBT and third gendered people. There are networks of activists, those involved in collective action, practitioners and legal experts in these settings whose expertise needs to be shared more broadly. At the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), we are committed to working with partners to try and support south-south dialogues among people who are marginalised because of their sexuality. There have already been many Southern-led articulations of what international efforts are needed and it behoves the development sector to pay them greater attention.

As I’ve argued previously, there is a need for countries like the US (and the UK, whose Coalition Government has made increasingly positive noises that they want to commit themselves to promoting LGBT equality) to match their resolve with new financial resources to support the strengthening of legal NGOs, women’s groups, sexual and reproductive rights organisations, LGBT organisations, human rights groups and advocacy campaigns that are committed to sexual rights and human rights.

Clinton’s commitment to a $3 million start-up for a Global Equality Fund, which will support groups working for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights worldwide is promising, but disappointingly modest. As the backlash towards Western countries has intensified over the contested ground of LGBT rights, the US Government has begun to realise that they cannot dictate change like an imperial power, but should support grassroots organisations. Fine speeches are all well and good, but at a time when so many communities find themselves under sustained attack, we now need real dialogue and financial muscle to back the laudable renewed commitment to universal human rights.

Stephen Wood is a member of the Sexuality and Development Programme in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS and can be found on Twitter at: StephenWood_UK


The Millenarian Development Goals

05/12/2011

Naomi Hossain

Here in Aidland, aka Dhaka, there is talk of ‘learning from the MDGs’. This is happening all over, and is about making way for a fresh justification for after 2015. Yet the outlook is less rosy than when the original goals were thought up. The last few years have been tricky – some earlier gains have been erased, risks and conflicts made more visible. Many people are on a roller coaster of worry about jobs, living costs, public spending cuts, the environment and quality of life. The best response to these shocks has never been obvious or easy. In small, open economies like Bangladesh, governments have not had much scope to act; many have exhausted any reserves and the policy cupboard is now looking decidedly bare. Political survival in quite a few countries has come about through the cushion of public spending, political spectacle, fine words and good luck. There is some optimism that people might actually prove quite resilient – but whenever you look at this closely it generally means that women work harder without complaining or showing up in the statistics.

So, what now for the MDGs? There is such uncertainty and change in the world that it would be a genuine misread to project so far in the future as an MDGs exercise. I want to drive this point about uncertainties home: as it says in David Shrigley’s It’s getting worse, ‘It’s getting worse’. A recent example: in the hours after the abortive latest G20 meeting in November the Guardian reported (I paraphrase) ‘It is the end of the world; the G20 failed to agree a deal; our collective future rests in the hands of one man; that man is Silvio Berlusconi.’ (This was before he resigned). This was millennarian enough. You saw instantly that we were doomed. Only then did you recall that this is the kind of situation the head of the International Monetary Fund might be called in to act on. And the shenanigans on climate change, BP, bonuses … This is Lord of the Flies on an island soon to be hit by an earthquake.

When we look at their risky behaviour, we have to ask: can our global political elites really be serious about pursuing a type of development which is people-centred and fair when they are themselves such careless stewards of our world and its economy? This is surely the ‘takeaway’ from the wave of unruly politics since 2007. Global economic carelessness has not delivered for many people, who quite rightly want their interests – not those of the faceless ‘markets’ – to direct public policy. Citizens generally hold governments responsible for protecting them against big shocks – natural disasters, inflation – that they can’t do much about themselves. So all of this discontent – nobody finds it mysterious.

If you try to list the major global risks with which people on low or precarious incomes contend (Guy Standing’s precariat), you may feel you have joined the Crisis Cargo Cult of which I am a member. We are people connected by pessimism about the near-future with its dirty scramble for resources (even Bangladesh is eyeing African land for its food security plan), failure to manage climate change, shifts in global power, austerity and recession, ideological extremism, lack of stewardship. All bets are off as to which development path is next. So you are left with a singular Millenarian Development Goal, one which benefits from a new and improved in-built accountability mechanism. This is an agreement that public authority means protecting people better; do so, or they withdraw their consent to be ruled.

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.


Improvements in the evidence base, but where is the will to end AIDS?

01/12/2011

Kate Hawkins

World AIDS Day provides us with an opportunity for reflection – to remember those who we have lost and to look forward, to consider what still needs to be done if we are to tackle HIV. In terms of scientific advances and political commitment this year has been a very mixed bag.

Many of us were delighted when the HPTN 052 study found that antiretroviral treatment prevents the sexual transmission of HIV among heterosexual couples in whom one partner is HIV-infected and the other is not. The study showed a 96 per cent reduction in risk of HIV transmission: A real boost for people living with HIV and the people who love them. Of course condoms should remain the mainstay of HIV prevention because they offer protection from HIV, sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancy. But this study provides further proof – if any was needed – of the need to increase access to life saving treatment services.

Then, in an uplifting speech by Secretary Clinton in the US, we heard that their government was committed to working towards an AIDS-free generation. She elaborated:

‘Now, by an AIDS-free generation, I mean one where, first, virtually no children are born with the virus; second, as these children become teenagers and adults, they are at far lower risk of becoming infected than they would be today thanks to a wide range of prevention tools; and third, if they do acquire HIV, they have access to treatment that helps prevent them from developing AIDS and passing the virus on to others’

And yet as the year draws to a close there are some dark clouds on the horizon.

Activists and people delivering HIV services were shocked at the announcement from the Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria that they will not be able to run this year’s funding round. So while they will endeavour to keep running those ‘essential services’ that are already in place no new activities will receive their support. It appears this decision was taken because some donors have changed their mind about pledges, and others said that they would delay payment.

So why is this a tragedy?

The Global Fund is one of the few financing mechanisms that makes a real effort to meaningfully involve affected communities in its governance structures. By affected communities they mean people living with HIV, sex workers, men who have sex with men, injecting drug users and others who are particularly vulnerable to HIV and its affects. This process isn’t perfect. Yet it is a financing mechanism that has funded those programmes that some other donors may shy away from due to ideological differences or distaste. An IDS study, Aid for AIDS, concluded that the Country Coordinating Mechanisms of the Global Fund have moved discussions of national sovereignty from a focus on governments to multi-sectoral national responses and therefore a more up-to-date and less state-centric notion of ‘the national’. The Global Fund gives money directly to governments for health systems strengthening and service delivery in many settings. But they also recognise that civil society is a vital partner in supporting community responses to HIV and holding governments to account.

The current scaling back of Global Fund support to ‘essential services’ clearly then begs the question ‘what services are essential?’ and ‘who will be the judge of that?’ – how essential are services to support sex workers and sexual minorities?

Adopting a glass half full approach we have chosen this World AIDS Day to launch a new online resource guide on HIV and Sex Work which was developed by the Paulo Longo Research Initiative. It is intended to provide key resources for development practitioners who are undertaking interventions that affect sex workers. It highlights literature in four focus areas: understanding sex work; links with HIV; human rights, laws and regulation; and developing and implementing sex work projects.

After more than two decades of research, there is a substantial body of knowledge about the role of commercial sex in HIV epidemics and the factors that drive sex workers’ and their clients’vulnerability to HIV and AIDS. Let’s hope that this knowledge is not overlooked in these times of financial austerity.

Read more about our work on HIV/AIDS and Sexuality and Development.

Kate Hawkins is Convenor of the Sexuality and Development Programme, based in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.