The excesses of okupations: Reading events in spain and greece with the Free Association

What we need are cheerful voices; voices that remind us that the few will turn into many!

Gustave Landauer

In order to be happy I’ll have to change the whole world!

The Free Association

The text that follows borrows freely from a collection of essays written over a period of roughly ten years by the Free Association collective.  The motive for the exercise is the belief is the belief that the political and theoretical work of the Free Association is of enormous, on-going importance.  The ambition then is to further disseminate their work and to continue to employ it as a set of tools to engage with, to “sample” the movements of excess of our present.  All references are to Moments of Excess: Movements, protest and everyday life, The Free Association, PM Press, 2011.

Late last March, in the neighbourhood of Carabanchel of Madrid, an unoccupied five story residential building with thirty flats was occupied, giving birth to the Corrala La Charca, one more in a now long list of occupations of residential buildings throughout spain.  The original communiqué addressed to the neighbourhood on the occasion of the occupation reads as follows:

“We are unemployed, precariously employed youth, the evicted, families without means and definitively all of those whom the supposed “Welfare State” has turned its back on.  At a time in which the rights of citizens and their “Inviolable Constitution” are no more than wet paper, we decided to act.  Feed up with begging from power, we have opted for horizontal and assembly based self-organisation to reclaim what belongs to us, a dignified home.

“But that no one should be mistaken, we are not property rights over the building.  What appears to us inadmissible and what will we not allow is that in a country where there are hundreds of evictions every day, with people living in the streets, that there continue to be millions of empty houses collecting dust.

“We claim okupation as a legitimate way to accede to a home, for as long as homes continue to be a luxury accessible only to a few.  From where we stand, we desire that the example spread like fire, following also the examples of the andalucian corralas, of the social centres that plague the country and of the thousands of other examples less covered by the media.  We launch ourselves in the recovery of what is ours.

“The liberated building is the property of UNIFO.  Its construction was completed two years ago and it has remained empty ever since.  This company that speculated all that it could in real estate, a good of primary necessity, was devoured by its own greed, leaving behind itself a trail of astronomical debts with public administrations.  As in theory homes are a social good, let us socialise these abandoned to their fate and let us make them available to those who need them.

“This is not an okupation motivated solely by the material necessity of a home, but is part of a larger project to open to the neighbourhood social, cultural and artistic possibilities.  We hope to turn specific flats into temporary shelters for people who have been evicted, and for whom the alternative is the street.  It is also our desire to use the common spaces, as well as some flats, as spaces for a social centre, as a space where different collectives can meet, where they may organise talks, workshops, debates and everything that we may want to construct together with your help.

“If you take the commons, we will take the private.

“Okupy and be happy”.

For those involved in such actions, along with the now countless other examples of self-organised and self-managed collective activities/organisations created in spain since the advent of 15M, the ambition is increasingly to create spaces and times for anti-capitalist ways of life.  The movement or movements that comprise 15M, and others parallel to it, have thus increasingly assumed an opposition to Capital and the State that sees the “resolution” of the crisis as only conceivable with the overcoming/destruction of capitalist social relations.  And yet 15M has never been fully convincing to those of older, anti-capitalist struggles who see in it a largely ephemeral and ultimately irrelevant “movement” of increasingly disinherited petty-bourgeois citizens.  But what sustains such judgements?

We speak of “anti-capitalist movements”.  But what is a “movement and what makes it “anti-capitalist”?  There are ready-made answers to these questions.  An anti-capitalist movement is “simply composed of those individuals who are consciously, collectively and actively opposed to capitalism”. (11)  And yet the answer easily surrenders its apparent obviousness.  Is a movement to be grasped merely quantitatively?  How many individuals are required to make up a movement?   And if numbers are the key, does this imply practically that one of the principle aims of the movement should be recruitment, as if significant social change depends but upon this?  (The history of ostensibly radical labour unions and radical political parties offer sad examples of such a preoccupation).  To understand a movement quantitatively also typically leads to counting the membership and sympathisers of pre-existing, institutionalised groups, leaving out there by the great many who participate in social movements, but who have no such affiliation, not to speak of the submission of the movement to such groups that such an enumeration implies.  Finally, such quantitative recordings of movements objectify or reify them to the status of things.  The movement becomes “something that can be defined, whose boundaries are clearly mapped, and which stands outside and against something called ‘capital’ … It is increasingly difficult, though, to reconcile such a static, thing-like view of the anti-capitalist movement with the realities of everyday life … where the vast majority of the world’s population exists both within and against capital”. (13)

Drawing upon the autonomist marxist analyses of contemporary capitalism, two ideas come to the fore.  Rather than see social development as a consequence of the internal logic of capitalism, it is rather capitalism that evolves according to social class struggles, or more precisely, the struggles of the working class.  Secondly, and related to the first, capital is the product of the working class. (13)

“’Capital’ is not something ‘out there’, something that we can fight against as if it were external to us and part of someone or something else – even if we sometimes talk about it as if it is. … Capital is a social relation mediated through commodities.  Capital is the way we live, the way we reproduce ourselves and our world – the entire organisation of the ‘present state of things’ as they are today.

“But capital is reliant on the expenditure of our labour to valorise itself.  What lies under capitalist development is the social production of co-operative labour.  While labour can never be autonomous from capital, through its constant insubordination is tries to affirm itself as a social subject beyond capital.  Conversely, capital constantly tries to contain the working class within the limits of its form as a mere living container of labour power, reducing the whole of life to work – for the sake of work.  This forms the fundamental cycle of what is termed ‘class composition’: our autonomous struggles provoke capitalism to restructure the production process and the division of labour in order to reassert its command.  This in turn leads to the development of new antagonistic subjectivities, a ‘recomposition’ of the working class, not as a wage-labouring class demanding a better, new deal, but as the multitude-in-resistance that demands the end of class.  The only possibilities of escape from this cycle of decomposition and recomposition, of imposition of work and resistance to this imposition, lie in the asymmetry at the heart of the relationship between capital and labour: while capital needs labour, labour does not need capital.  Instead of the familiar view of capitalism as confident and monolithic, we are left with a picture of a social order constantly forced to recompose itself in attempt to co-opt, channel and cap the ‘creative unrest’ of human labour”. (14)

Movements, then, conceived dynamically, are the shifting movements of the social relations of struggle.  In other words, movements are not of people, “but of people doing things”. (15)  It therefore makes little sense to talk of or to seek to establish with any finality the “static boundaries or limits of a movement”. (15)  Any movement is a shifting body that responds, acts and reacts, expands and contracts, creates, through an identity that is in constant metamorphosis.  An anti-capitalist movement thus contests capitalism on permanently changing ground, across a multiplicity of dimensions and dissensions.  No social actor or agency is intrinsically anti-capitalist (all may become or cease to be) and what is anti-capitalist is rather than identified structurally or systematically (e.g., principal versus secondary social antagonisms), is made manifest in the active doing of people who in a diversity of ways seek to challenge the reproduction of capitalist-class social relations.

The vision of capitalism suffused through all forms of social life is a nightmarish one.  “But if capital is primarily a social (class) relation, and if the capital relation is a global relation, then capital is contested everywhere”. (19)  What in effect opens up is a new form of politics, a politics that is not focused upon the conquest of power, but of “real experimentation with social practices and organisational forms” (20) that both contest capital and create realities, forms of life, worlds, beyond it.

This is not something reserved exclusively for the activist. Indeed, the moment that we recognise that capitalism is a composite of exploitive social relations, then all manner of human activities can be and should be understood as anti-capitalist.

“Only a tiny proportion of this against-and-beyond –capital doing is consciously anti-capitalist or revolutionary, and ‘we’ –activists, revolutionaries, communists – certainly rarely recognise it.  Yet it exists in and emerges from every crevice of social life, though often in confused ways.  Every day, people volunteer (gift) their time (according to their ability) to help others according to their needs. … ‘Yes, but…, it’s not political’.  Think again.  Perhaps the problem is ‘politics’”.

Anti-capitalist movements then are not the doing of enlightened political vanguards or professional political cadres, but the “concerted attempts to discover what we already are”. (21)

This discovery comes in moments of excess.  If capital is based upon the domination and exploitation of human activity, human doing, life, it never fully succeeds in domesticating it (to do so would be to reduce us to machines).  This excess escapes commodity or value production and exchange, and it is here that the collective fabric of human society is woven.  Yet the escape is but temporary, for the socialisation of contemporary capitalism has meant the increasing colonisation of all such “free” activity.  Human activity however invariably seeps through the cracks of capital.  And cracks there will always be.  And at times, the activity explodes in all of its colour and movement, in the moments of excess of political rebellion, or revolution.

“Every now and then, in all sorts of different social arenas, we can see moments of obvious collective creation, where our ‘excess of life’ explodes.  In these moments of excess, everything appears to be up for grabs and time and creativity accelerates. … At these times, which may have spanned several years or literally a few moments, we have glimpsed whole new worlds. … All of [the] examples are specific to a certain time and place, but we can see a common thread: a collective, liberating creativity that delights in mixing things up and smashing through all barriers.  And they constantly lead back to the fundamental questions: ‘What sort of lives do we want to lead? What sort of world do we want to live in?’We don’t mean this in a utopian sense.  Moments of excess aren’t concerned with developing ideal types or blueprints of how life should be lived.  Instead they deal with the possible, and represent practical experiments in new forms of life”. (33)

In such moments, the impossible becomes possible.  “Another defining characteristic of moments of excess is that existing methods of mediating people’s desires and demands fail;  People don’t stop to think what’s possible, what’s realistic – and no ‘expert’ is there to help them keep their feet on the ground.  Hence the Paris 1968 slogan ‘Be Realistic, Demand The Impossible’”. (34)

Struggles may of course be for bread, housing, employment, but the indignation which feeds them generates momentum, times and spaces, desires and subjectivities, that can quickly transcend the limits of the original protest (e.g., Tunisia, Puerta del Sol, Syntagma, Gezi Park, and so on).  Such movements cannot be programmed, planned, in advance.

“Fundamental change starts with small, localised, material innovations, perhaps the introduction of new tools, technologies or ways of thinking.  But every now and then these incremental changes build up into an event, a moment of excess, where so much life is produced that it overflows existing social forms.  We spend most of our political lives developing such tools but we never quite know when an event will arise or what the effect of it will be”. (65)

And the events pass.  Where or when is the rupture in all of this?  “We don’t know … all we know is that nothing is certain”. (39)  And maybe the rupture is recognised only after it has occurred, already recuperated by capital into yet another commodity form.  But then “’recuperation’ is itself a problematic concept, as it still works with an inside/outside logic, as if there is some place that capital cannot penetrate: we’d rather think in terms of striation, where flows of energy are temporarily captured but always have the potential to ‘unfreeze’ and move again.  This moves the problem from protecting pure spaces to keeping spaces open, to the dynamism of new movements”. (39)

Keeping spaces open, experimenting, balancing between excess, ecstasy and form, organisation.

“We need to keep open not only our ways of thinking, but also related methods of organising, the tactics,  techniques and technologies we use – its a constant battle to ward off institutionalisation.  That sense of openness and movement seems fundamental to different ways of life”. (40)

Our time of rebellions offers us examples of tools in use by those in anti-capitalist movements.  City squares have become the focal points in and through which movements have grown and shifted.  They have often become the point of departure and the safe spaces of uprisings.  But safe spaces are not safe, at least not permanently so.  And if occupied squares have gone on to resonate through proliferating neighbourhood assemblies, okupied social centres, and many, many other kinds of self-managed autonomous collectives, associations, organisations (I am thinking here again of course of spain’s 15M, but also the movement/s born with the occupation of Syntagma Square in greece, more recently the Gezi Park – Taksim Square movement in turkey, and numerous other such examples in Europe and elsewhere), to see all of these as strictly models for a brave new world is to run the very serious risk again of reifying these forms and generating new inside/outside distinctions (at the most basic level, between activists and ordinary folk).  But such models are simply illusions, because there are no pure, liberated spaces.  What we have are experiments, that is, spaces not to be identified with a particular square or building, but a way of doing things distinct from and in opposition to capitalism that becomes a way, something repeated that through which we are created, and through which we change as the repetitions are played with.  Repetitions as refrains, improvised over the course of time and accordingly opening up new possibilities.

In this light, occupied city squares, social centres, land and the like, “aren’t separate from the rest of life”, “are never pure but are constantly engaging with existing social relations because they are part of them”. (75)

The risk of capture by capital is however permanent.  Refrains can be replicated and sold, when not simply repressed.  The last year has witnessed a very concerted effort on the part of the spanish and greek authorities, those socities in which okupations have played a central role in very broad social movements, to limit and bring okupations to an end.  (The greek government has pursued this goal with great determination and violence over this period, with the most recent interventions taking place in Patras and Athens).  Until now, this has proven in vain, and as these movements resist, retreat, re-deploy, re-okupy, liberating spaces as other are lost, a way of doing gains form and spreads the moments of excess that are revolution.

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