The Occupy Movement as a Politics for All

(Capitulo sobre el movimiento ocupa, del libro Cyborg Subjects recién publicado y disponible aqui – chapter on the occupy movement from recently published book Cyborg Subjects, available here)


by Alessandro Zagato[i]

Before, I watched television; now television is watching me.

(Egyptian rebel, 2010[ii])

Lost my job. Found an occupation


For the first time in my life I felt at home

(Banners seen at OWS, 2011)

An insurrection is not like a plague or a forest fire — a linear process which spreads from place to place after an initial spark. It rather takes the shape of a music, whose focal points, though dispersed in time and space, succeed in imposing the rhythms of their own vibrations, always taking on more density.

(The Invisible Committee, n.d.)

The principle of domination according to which just a minority of professional, skilled and eventually elected individuals have the capacity and legitimacy to objectively explain and determinate social reality, to take political and economic decisions which may affect the life of other individuals – this representative and separated idea of politics, from which ordinary people are excluded – was challenged by movements and events which have punctuated recent history with a strength, a scale and through processes somewhat unprecedented.

This is not to suggest that the world is at the verge of “Revolution”, nor to argue that capitalism is being in some way “defeated”. In fact, the situation is suggesting exactly the opposite, particularly in the EU, where austerity measures are being implemented with authoritarian zeal, and in the case of Greece and Italy by non-elected governments.

The idea that I would like to put forward here is that within the sequence that in its last phase named itself Occupy, unexpected steps have been taken forward in the development of a politics that shifts from orthodox and conventional forms and ideologies and, most importantly, makes itself available virtually to anybody.

Syntagma, Tahrir Square, Puerta del Sol, Zuccotti Park, Rothchild Boulevard and so on are names that in the last two years have had a huge resonance in the media. They indicate nodes, “evental sites” (Badiou, 2007, p. 175) where this political subjectivity has mushroomed in a rhizomatic and heterogeneous way. In my view, despite contradictions and differences among and within local initiatives, the leitmotiv of these diverse collective experiments is the simple and powerful idea of a politics which –to use an expression introduced by Judith Balso (Balso, 2010, p. 16)– is virtually “for all”. One that, in other words, responds “to the most fundamental idea of politics: that of the power possessed by those to whom no particular motive determines that they should exercise power, that of the manifestation of an ability which is that of any one” (Ranciere, 2012).

I will argue that the main conditions of a politics for all, such as the one witnessed in the last two years at an international scale, are: a. that it breaks with representation; b. that it   subverts a certain regime of distribution of places and functions; and c. that it provides a space for permanent discussion and decision making where anybody can participate on an equal basis.

1.     Rupture with representative politics

“We do not represent anyone and nobody represents us” (15M slogan)

Spain, 15th of May, 2011: demonstrations are taking place in main cities against the “anti-social” policies implemented by the government to handle the crisis.  Political parties and unions are officially not taking part: just a multitude of individuals and small organisations who have answered the call by newly created online platform “Real Democracy Now!” (Democracia Real Ya!). Protesters call for a radical change in politics arguing that no party represents them. “We are not commodities in the hands of politicians and bankers” reads the slogan shared by all adhering individuals and associations.

Only in Madrid more than 50,000 people take the streets. In the evening, when the situation is supposed to get back to normal –when protesters are usually expected to disperse and return to their homes– a minority of people from diverse backgrounds decides not to leave Puerta del Sol, where the demonstration has just ended, and to camp there overnight. They feel that there is still much to do and discuss. That demonstrating as a ritual performance –as an empty “spectacle of dissent” (O’Callaghan, 2011)– is no longer enough.

This singular decision constitutes the foundational event of the 15M movement, a key node in the “occupy” sequence.  It is the “Arab Spring” manifesting itself in Spain. Half way between the 17th of December 2010, the day when Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vender, immolated himself out of frustration sparking an epochal wave of protest in many Arab Countries, and the occupation of Zuccotti Park, New York, the 17th of September 2011. Events start resonating: “something that surfaces here resounds with the shock wave emitted by something that happened over there” (Badiou, 2011).

After Puerta del Sol, occupations involved more than 50 cities in Spain, opening the space for a new type of movement and organisation. Independent public assemblies grew and spread from central to peripheral cities and neighbourhoods while countless working groups with evolving tactics and aims were set up.

According to Cedillo (2012), a crucial feature of 15 M as a form of organisation is that it “subsumes and subordinates the asymmetrical ones”, such as parties, unions, NGOs, extreme left organisations and so on. It highlights and broadens the gap between the independent political capacity of the people and groups that are hierarchically/bureaucratically structured, shaped by centres of enunciation providing ideological content and lines of conduct: groups whose politics are not exactly “for all”.

The refusal to reproduce traditional forms stands out in many statements produced by Spanish acampadas and Occupy camps. For example, shortly after the 15th of May the Acampada Barcelona issued a leaflet (Acampada Barcelona, 2011) declaring “we are people who have congregated freely and voluntarily. We do not represent any party or association. Nevertheless no one represents us”. Likewise, the “Statement of Autonomy” issued in November 2011 by the OWS general assembly (OWS, 2011) asserts that: “Occupy Wall Street is a people’s movement. It is party-less, leaderless, by the people and for the people. (…) We wish to clarify that Occupy Wall Street is not and never has been affiliated with any established political party, candidate or organization. Our only affiliation is with the people”.

The point here is not just to take distance from conventional groups. There is an explicit intention to exercise a pedagogic influence in order to eventually transform them. As OWS (2011) put it “any organization is welcome to support us with the knowledge that doing so will mean questioning your own institutional frameworks of work and hierarchy and integrating our principles into your modes of action”.

This rejection of traditional forms of organisation sets the movement in a “post-party” perspective, as this idea has been developed by contemporary sociological and political theory – among others by Badiou (2005), Wang (2006), Ranciere (2006), Neocosmos (2009) and Russo (1998). From a post-party point of view “politics does not spring from or originate in the party. It does not stem from that synthesis of theory and practice that represented, for Lenin, the Party” (Badiou, 1998, p. 113). It is not, in other words, something that a group of individuals, no matter how expert and qualified, perform on behalf of people whom they somehow “represent”. Politics without party springs from real situations, from what ordinary people in first person can think, say and do in those situations. Therefore in this perspective “there are political sequences, political processes, but these are not totalised by a party that would be simultaneously the representation of certain social forces and the source of politics itself” (Badiou, 1998, p. 113).

A politics that bypasses conventional forms of mass organisations is not necessarily unorganised. “Spontaneity” itself is never completely amorphous. It always entails some kind of informal organisation. “It is a long standing mistake of the ‘organisation’ debate that it takes place as if one should choose between absolute formlessness (‘spontaneous’ movement) or form (the Party)” (Nunes, 2012). Occupy/15M’s refusal to adopt traditional forms is related to the necessity to keep the process as open as possible, avoiding sectarian and elitist drifts.

“We are the 99%”, the slogan that became iconic of Occupy epitomizes the possibility of an almost unlimited extension of this logic. 99% is neither a statistical data indicating the effective amount of participants, nor the result of sociological class-analysis. It rather equates to a militant declaration asserting the possibility of an egalitarian change process actively involving nearly each and every one.

2.     Subversion of place and function

“If you weren’t afraid what would you do?” (Banner seen at OWS)

As I mentioned previously, in many cities the first step was to establish a stable presence in emblematic areas, after the resolve of demonstrators not to get back to business as usual, or as an initiative per se. With occupations proliferating, “encampments” quickly turned into the spatial/organisational expression of the movement and tents into its iconic symbol.

The immediate effect of this “politics of the street”, as Judith Butler (2011) called it, is the subversion of public space, shaping its physical appearance and the way it is collectively used, lived and perceived. Squares are turned into inhabited places, common life areas that contrast sharply with surrounding cityscapes shaped by the anonymous circulation of people and goods.

Despite resembling islands, occupations constitute in no way utopian attempts to escape “reality”, to isolate from the surrounding social fabric. On the contrary, they become part of it – constantly attempting to colonise it. Through info shops and the ubiquitous handmade banners and leaflets, camps engage in a continuous dialogue with the outside environment.

Examples of re-mapping of squares designed by occupiers (Figure 1) provide a visual illustration of how this “subversion” might work from a spatial point of view. Notice the richness of details highlighting the new conceptual complexity that has shaped two squares (Plaça Catalunya, Barcelona on the left hand side and Puerta del Sol, Madrid, on the right) along with the occupation.

Figure 1: Re-mapping of occupied Plaça Catalunya and Puerta del SolImagen

These pictures provide a graphic illustration on how occupations subvert what Ranciere (1992, p. 58) calls “distribution of the sensible”, meaning the conventional criteria of division and allocation of resources, places and functions within a specific social/historical situation. Emancipatory politics according to Ranciere (2012) “is always manifested through a distortion of this logic” – it involves people starting to act differently, from how they are expected (and they expect themselves) to. Subjectively, the interruption of one’s day to day routine can have surprising consequences. For example, I had a chat with a homeless person whose involvement with Dublin’s Occupy camp temporarily helped him to deal with his drinking problem. Such change can happen when a common cause makes other day to day individual issues less significant. Thus the idea of subjectivation (indicating the process of becoming a political subject) can also be described in terms of “disidentification or declassification” (Ranciere, 1998, p. 61) – since it points to moments where individuals subordinate historical cultural/identitarian contingencies to the process of becoming part of a “universal” political procedure.

Wherever an acampada or occupy camp is set up passers-by are intrigued. They cannot resist checking what is going on in a space that they know, but that suddenly looks so different. Some of them may even start chatting with an occupier, thus interrupting their daily routine. Eventually they get involved in an assembly and participate in a collective decision making process. Or they get enrolled in a working group. The fact that this might be their first experience of the site, that so far they have just followed the events through the media, does not make them less entitled to participate than other “experienced” activists.

Within occupations, differences between individuals tend to become less relevant. The feeling to be part of a collective becoming sets them aside and occupied squares become places where people practice modes of solidarity that are latent in normal life. This aspect has shaped the movement since its early stages. Referring to a turbulent square such as Tahrir during winter 2011/2012, Badiou (2011) described inspiring scenes of exchange and cooperation between protesters of different backgrounds: “between intellectuals and manual workers, between men and women, between poor and rich, between Muslims and Copts, between peasants and Cairo residents”. By breaking usual standards of interpersonal relation and cultural division/distribution, and by enabling formerly disparate and disconnected groups of people to engage in unprecedented ways these encounters “produce subjects” (Colectivo Situaciones, 2005, p. 604) and constitute an essential condition for a politics for all.

3.     A permanent process of collective debate and decision making

Speak with us not for us” (Occupy slogan)

Each occupation provides a forum for peaceful assembly where individuals can debate and address issues that concern them directly. The adoption of the consensus model of decision-making and the General Assembly (GA) as the movement’s main agent of enunciation constitutes so to speak a “natural” outcome of a politics that breaks with representation. Indeed these are forms of collective cooperation and decision making – historically pioneered by autonomist and anti-authoritarian movements – which explicitly question usual concepts of authority, leadership and delivery.

This outcome has generated frustration among conventional political groups, whom in many cases have tried to disrupt the process by imposing their line. Reported attempts of co-optation by parties and unions have been numerous[iii]. The main criticisms coming from this front pointed to the inadequacy of GAs and consensus as effective decision making systems. In their view assemblies are too persistent in trying and reach consensus; too much time is wasted with issues that for them are not exactly “political”; there is a lack of a well-defined line/ideology to be followed and goals to be achieved. Some (Roesch, 2012) even argued that the movement’s initial success was mainly due to its connections with longer-standing organisations (mainly unions), and activists (i.e. members of the organised left) which provided early support and resources.

However, by observing the dynamics of interaction, the gestures and the collectively invented languages and signs of those attending Occupy/15M assemblies, one could advance the hypothesis that what is really at stake is the experimentation with new forms of togetherness and solidarity more than the production of a formal, action/delivery-oriented structure. “The assembly” -highlighted an anarchist activist- “is in embryo the different world we seek to create” (Flood, 2012).

The long debates taking place at acampadas and Occupy GAs might seem to be pointless or ineffective to the eyes of professional politicians and “expert activists”. However, they are part of constructing a communal sense of politics that is precluded to the majority of people. A detail that impressed many who attended one of such events for the first time was the extreme patience displayed by participants willing to spend hours listening to each other’s interventions on the most disparate themes and waiting for their turn to speak, like suddenly an unlimited amount of time was available to them.

“We walk, we don’t run, because we have a long way to go” is the way the Zapatistas describe their use of time in experimenting with new social relations as part of the construction of a new world. This slowness, this will to bring everyone to the same level, also those who, for instance, are not familiar with political struggle or not used to publicly express their thought and concerns is part and parcel of a process of collective re-appropriation of politics outside the domain of representation. Emancipation directly concerns each and every one.

This same logic also explains the tendency of occupiers not to issue concrete demands – i.e. their preference to keep all options on the table, not constraining the process they are part of into a set of defined points. Politicians and experts have strongly criticised this attitude and repeatedly asked occupiers “what are their demands?”. This responds to their need to control the process, to integrate it into the status quo. As Jensen (2011) suggests, “the demand for demands is an attempt to shoehorn the Occupy gatherings into conventional politics, to force the energy of these gatherings into a form that people in power recognise, so that they can roll out strategies to divert, co-opt, buy off, or – if those tactics fail – squash any challenge to business as usual”.

In other words, a collective political process exceeds partial demands with something deeper and ungraspable: an uncertain becoming that even those who experience it cannot really define. A process that “no set of demands, (…) once met, would bring (…) to an end” (Anonymous, n.d.).  Philosophers have tried to define this excessive element as “ideal of justice” (Butler, 2011), “communism of movement” (Badiou, 2011), “people’s power to” (Holloway, 2011), “common” (Hardt & Negri, 2009) etc.

All these concepts do not point to an institutional model –or a form of state– that might be applied to different contexts. They also transcend the categories of public and private, both articulating the same idea of sovereignty based on domination: be it the domination of a private owner over his properties or domination of the state over its territory. These notions rather indicate forms of people’s creative power, which find their higher expression in mutual cooperation for the “common creation of a collective destiny” – to use Badiou’s (2011) poetical expression.

4.     To start again from the beginning

The political sequence that goes from the Arab spring to Occupy highlighted a gap between a real political capacity of the people and both public institutions, which fell under the control of global financial oligarchy, and representative asymmetric organisations whose politics are not “for all”.

This rupture has unleashed boycotting actions by these same organisations; actions that together with widespread police repression and adverse weather conditions have compromised the peaceful and spontaneous evolution of the movement. This capacity to obstruct the development of independent egalitarian movements highlighted the weight that representative structures still have in many societies.

However, at more subjective level, a problem that Occupy had to deal with recently was the progressive deterioration of its spatial logic. Last autumn (2011) a major topic of discussion was if occupiers could “survive” the winter in their tents and shacks. Authorities and commentators were expecting the movement to run out of steam. And for many activists disproving this forecast became a sort of implicit challenge. “Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet will end our occupation” tweeted Occupy Chicago in October 2011.  Many camps (as the one in Dublin) managed to resist the winter hazards. However with the time it was recognised that the momentum had been lost. Indeed, although significant, the challenge is not just that of maintaining a permanent control over a space. This priority has contributed to isolate the movement. In many cases camps ended up resembling more or less self-enclosed activist communities, a sort of 1% whose (housekeeping, logistic) problems and aims have to some extent stopped matching with those of non-occupiers. In Dublin, for instance, public assemblies stopped taking place and a wooden fence (Figure 2) was erected around the site. This has obviously undermined Occupy’s political strength, its universal “accessibility” and thus ordinary people’s direct engagement.

Figure 2: Occupy Dame Street Camp before and after the introduction of fences.


Indeed one should recognise that -until they lasted- the spontaneous engagement, passion and creativity deployed by ordinary people (many of whom did not have an “activist” or “political” background) made the real difference. After most of those people have returned to their day to day life, these exceptional energies have also vanished, with controversial consequences that still need to be investigated.

Philosophically, such involution reflects what authors have described as “intermittency” (Russo, 2006, p. 673), or “sequentiality” (Badiou, 1998, p. 113) of politics, pointing to the tendency of political processes to be intrinsically unstable. Moments of “sheer excess of political energy” (Piven & Cloward, 1979, p. xxi) are evanescent and discontinuous. Although activists generally attempt at making those exceptional moments endure, it is problematic to actually normalise an exception, if not at the cost of undermining its very (exceptional) nature. Inevitably, stabilising processes occur, which Wang (2006, p. 29) amongst others has described in terms of “depoliticisation”- i.e. the assumption of forms correlated with that of the state.

Nevertheless, the new stability will display more or less evident signs and influences of the “exceptional” phase that preceded it. Where the process has been particularly powerful (as in the case of big revolutionary events) the state can resemble a sort of “hollow imprint” of it (Pozzana & Russo, 2006, p. 350). The idea of “hollow imprint” emphasises the fact that although the state can be heavily influenced by a political procedure, it fails to preserve the subjective energies which sustained that procedure.

It is perhaps too early for an evaluation of occupy/15M’s impact at the level of the state. We do not even know if the 2011 movement will be remembered in the same breath as other marking historical sequences, like 1968 for example. Rodrigo Nunes (2012) has argued that its destiny will depend on “whether the coming years will fulfil its promise, making it appear retrospectively as the start of something”. Understanding the dynamics of its on-going transformations is a step forward in answering some of those questions.

For example, Amador Fernandez Savater (2012) has recently advanced the inspiring idea that “the 15M is today a climate”, meaning a sort of “state of mind”, which is not localised but that affects society as a whole. Although Occupy’s egalitarian aspirations have got almost no “structural” impact, the multiplicity of subjective experiences that the movement has made possible are hardly evaluable in terms of consequences at social (and individual) level.

Indeed “after being in the plaza, you are not the same, nor do you go back to the same life” (Savater, 2012). Paradoxically, one returns to a new life somehow touched, traversed, affected by the movement. It would be very interesting to know what each person did with that involvement – how it has been assimilated in their day to day life. As Savater (2012) highlights, there were many teachers, nurses, social workers, psychologists, computer students, journalists in the plazas. Understanding how their perspectives, practices and ways of being in the world have been altered by the encounter with the movement, is fundamental because this could lay the ground for a new sequence.

As an OWS activist (Leonard, 2012) puts it “this two-month occupation existed and all these people got to collaborate in trying to create a sustainable community in a square in downtown Manhattan, it made a lot of things that used to seem impossible, seem more possible”. According to him “the great value of OWS in the long run is going to be the impact it has had as a laboratory, as a learning experience”. Moreover, if we look at the massive demonstrations that shaped May Day 2012 in New York and Madrid, for example, it is evident that the discontent that gave rise to the movement has not disappeared yet.

Hopefully this discontent will provide Occupy initiatives with new energies to restart and reinvent themselves. Some positive signs are starting to be visible. Like for example the diversification of tactics, involving more situational approaches privileging a “temporal rather than a spatial orientation” (Adams, 2012, p. 16). But think also about the occupation of buildings turned into community centres. Or the creative re-appropriation and re-adaptation of traditional forms of struggles like the strike.

“Like stubborn weeds, we’re popping back everywhere” OWS (2012) have recently claimed. “We are learning, diversifying, and evolving (…) Urgent creative 24-hour activism against the domination of our lives by banks and corporations is back, and in many new forms”. In the words of an old Chinese poem “let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend”. Decisive for their future success will be the ability to, once again, articulate the initiative in terms of a politics for all.


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[i] At the time of writing: National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis, Department of Sociology, National University of Ireland Maynooth.  I would like to thank Raquel Leonardo for her useful suggestions.

[ii] Quoted by Badiou, 2011.

[iii] For example the November 17th collective day of action, New York, ended up with hundreds of union marshals working alongside riot police to keep the streets clear. See report at  In Portugal during the November 24th strike/national demonstration, a CGTP (main left-wing union) security line attempted to prevent an “indignants” demonstration uniting with CGTP workers. I personally witnessed Socialist Workers Party (SWP) attempting to pushing their party line using entryist tactics at Occupy Dame Street (Dublin) GAs.





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