How I Occupy myself…

On the coach to the London march for ‘A Future that Works’, I read Sophie Nield’s 2006 article, ‘There is another world: Space, theatre and global anti-capitalism’. In it, she discusses the crucial difference between de Certeau’s understanding of resistance to dominated space as a ‘tactic’ and Lefebvre’s suggestion that resistance needs to mount a ‘counterattack’ unless it is to be absorbed and controlled. She argues that resistance can and does produce new space: ‘the territory “occupied” by the demonstration is not, for the duration of the event, the space of power. Neither is it exclusively the space of resistance. The event itself is a battle between these two spaces…’ (Nield 2006:60). Thus protest makes a claim on territory.

I think this is right, but there remains something here that makes me uneasy. Part of the problem with the ‘tactic’ is that it assumes a relationship of ‘us’ and ‘them’: ‘us’, those without access to power to conceptualise and shape the world; ‘them’, those who have it. Even though Nield is suggesting is that ‘we’ do have some power to build an alternative world, there’s still a very clear sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’. ‘Our’ alternative to ‘their’ space. But it isn’t exactly like that, is it?

It isn’t exactly like that, at any rate, if you are a member of UCU marching against the government cuts.

My reading on the way home further complicated this ‘us’ and ‘them’ notion, as I read in Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria and Colin McFarlane’s fascinating edited book, Urban Navigations: Politics, Space and the City in South Asia,  and particularly Urmi Sengupta’s account of squatters in Kathmandu whose struggle to ‘join the formal sector’ and to be recognised as legitimate has been such that they can now be recognised ‘as strategic actors…making a claim on the urban space and modifying urbanism as we know it’ (Sengupta 125 and 133). The mark of success here, is the transition from tactic to strategy, from ‘us’ to ‘them’. That doesn’t mean selling out, it means that people are seeking  agency.

I was inspired, recently, to read Ian Desai’s 2011 New York Times article (Nov 29), where he asks , ‘What would Ghandi say?’ of the contemporary Occupy Movement. He proposes that ‘Gandhi would reject the division between the 99 percent and the 1 percent.’ Non-cooperation is an invitation to cooperate. Moreover, the status quo is only maintained, transformed or worsened by our actions: ‘Gandhi explained this most pointedly when he declared that the British Empire existed because Indians had let it exist.’ Put simply in relation to our own government, they are in power because we let them be (although not exactly by voting them in, as it happens). Desai suggests that “We are the 100 percent” may not make for a dramatic slogan, but from Gandhi’s perspective, it is the only way to achieve true and lasting change in society.’

I’ve begun to like ‘We are the 100 percent’ as a slogan, actually.

Desai concludes with a theatrical metaphor: ‘Protesting in the park downtown can be quite useful. So, for that matter, can patronizing the arts…But they are most meaningful when they set the stage for constructive social action, through which we might begin to mend the world.’

So, how might they ‘set the stage’ – is it through producing new space? Yes, I think so, but the space is inside us as well as outside. When I march as ‘us’ against ‘them’, I mentally and physically take myself outside the institutions that shape the world, including my own participation in them, and rehearse the experience of standing outside them, mentally and physically.

This is a way of working out where I stand, and what I want to build.