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.