The refusal of sovereignty; An anarchist reading of “occupy” movements

(El Roto)

The “occupy” movements that emerged in 2011 in different parts of the world continue to merit reflection as the most radical challenge to State forms and Capitalism in recent memory.  We share below an essay by a friend of Autonomies, Carlos Jacques, presented at the Sociology and Critical Perspectives Conference, July 2-4, 2015, in Istanbul.  The preceedings of the conference have also been published by the conference organisers in e-book format.

The Refusal of Sovereignty: An Anarchist Reading of “Occupy” Movements

Where men wish to be sovereign, as individuals or as organised groups, they must submit to the oppression of the will, be this the individual will with which I force myself, or the “general will” of an organised group. If men wish to be free, it is precisely sovereignty they must renounce.

Hannah Arendt, What Is Freedom?

The novelty of the coming politics is that it will no longer be a struggle for the conquest or control of the State, but a struggle between the State and the non-State (humanity), an insurmountable disjunction between whatever singularity and the State organisation.

Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community

“Indignados”: the term was used to refer to those who filled the streets and squares of Spain and Greece in 2011, and beyond. With an allusion to Stéphane Hessel’s pamphlet of 2010, Indignez-vous!,(1) the term seemed applicable to the many who in that year occupied city streets and squares as testimony of their indignation; a sentiment that the philosopher Spinoza defines as “hatred towards one who has injured another” who is similar to oneself.(2) The sentiment however finds its limits in its origin in hatred, something which for Spinoza is never good.(3) To hate feeds the desire to destroy the object of hatred; something that is contrary to reason, for by this last, we are led to desire for ourselves what we also desire for others. It is then for reason to correct, to sublimate, the sadness of indignant hatred for the joyful desire of goodness.(4)

Spinoza’s reading of “indignation” and its overcoming in the blessedness of virtue would then force upon the interpretation of our “age of riots”(5) an opposition between particular and universal interests. In the movements of the occupation of squares, who would stand for the universal, the occupiers or those they presumably contested, would then become a matter of controversy, to be resolved only by a sovereign political decision. But I suggest that such a debate is secondary, even distorting, because of what such a reading forces on both protagonists: the desire for power, for political hegemony. And if it makes sense to speak of a common movement in the occupation of city squares, beginning in Egypt with Tahrir, spreading then to the Puerta del Sol, Syntagma, Zucotti Park, Taksim, and so on, it is that they have an ethical source that is not indignation, but rather refusal; a refusal that is rooted in a way of being that gave form to a politics beyond sovereignty.

“We are not alone here.” – “No, we are not really alone. Would we accept being alone?” – “Alone, but not each one for his own sake; alone in order to be together.” – “Are we together? We aren’t completely, are we? We’re only together if we could be separated.”

Maurice Blanchot, Awaiting Oblivion

I     “At a certain moment, in the face of public events, we know that we must refuse”, wrote Maurice Blanchot.(6) This refusal is categorical, absolute and thus without justificatory arguments, without reasons. As such, “it is silent and solitary, even when it asserts itself, as it must, in broad daylight.” Deprived of the possibility of joint affirmation, those who refuse are nevertheless tied by the force of refusal, a negative solidarity grounded in “this certain, unshakeable, vigorous NO that keeps them unified and bound.”(7) Blanchot calls this a kind of friendship, though not one fused together in unity through love. For Blanchot, we have to “give up trying to know those to whom we are linked by something essential; by this I mean we must greet them in the relation with the unknown in which they greet us as well, in our estrangement.”(8) This is a friendship “without dependence”, that “passes by way of the recognition of the common strangeness” that holds friends together; a strangeness, “an infinite distance, the fundamental separation on the basis of which what separates becomes relation.” In such relations, we are “not allowed to speak for our friends but only to speak to them.”(9) And in speaking with each other in refusal, there is movement without indignation, “without contempt, without exultation, and anonymous, as far as possible, for the power to refuse cannot come from us, nor in our name alone, but from a very poor beginning that belongs first to those who cannot speak.”(10)

It is by reference to this solidarity of the anonymous who are voiceless, unrepresentable, but who nevertheless refuse, that I will speak of the anarchism of the movements of the occupation of squares.

Revolutionary Theory is now the enemy of all revolutionary ideology and knows it.

Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle

II     The desire to speak about the occupations engenders a paradox: can they be spoken about when they have contested the very possibility of speaking of, or for, them? If they challenge and refuse representation, how can the social theorist pretend to do just that? How, by whom and with what ambition can the movements be thought? The literature on the occupation movements is today abundant. And it ranges across a wide spectrum of possible perspectives, from the historical to the political-scientific, from the sociological to activist-participant. What the greater part of this literature however assumes is that the occupations are social phenomena to be studied and explained by reference to considerations such as the social composition of their protagonists, the socio-economic and political contexts of the movements, their historical settings, the motives, aims and frustrations of their participants, and their successes or failures as social movements. None of these enquires are without value. But nor are they sufficient. The weakness, fragility, even error, of this literature is its tendency to quick empirical generalisation, with regards to causes, events and effects. The generalisations more often than not assume too much, and then serve as the bases for judgements and evaluations according to criteria that are perhaps misplaced or irrelevant. Were Spain’s 15M, or the social upheaval in Turkey in defence of Gezi Park, unsuccessful because they failed to prevent the election or re-election of political forces unsympathetic or opposed to the movements? Or was the Tahrir occupation a success because it brought down the dictator Hosni Mubarak, even though just over two years later, another violent military ruler would stand in his place? Did all of the movements fail, because they could not put a stop to the politics of selective austerity that all were opposed to? Or will 15M finally be judged successful, should Podemos, like Syriza before it, triumph in the next national Spanish elections? The questions multiply, and any possible answers are by no means evident for they are born precisely of the kinds of generalisations that the occupation movements themselves, I suggest, put into question. For some, these movements were fated to defeat for they lacked clear political goals, refused political organisation of any traditional kind, or leadership, were too unstructured and amorphous given their incoherent social composition or essentially “middle class” nature, and for these and other reasons, they were condemned to being ephemeral. Whatever truth resides in these observations, however legitimate the questions asked above are, they go astray in ignoring the social movements own self-understandings, generalise when universal explanations (or any social explanations) are likely not possible and leave aside the possibility that events such as these movements initiated cannot be accounted for by any social causality.

Henri Lefebvre, writing in the midst of the uprising of May 68 in France, spoke of events as defying forecasts. To “the extent that events are historical, they upset calculations”, they “upset the structures which made them possible.”(11) This is in part due to epistemic limits; forecasts and “calculations are inevitably based on partial analyses and records, and cannot match the totality of events.”(12) There is also in addition an ontological dimension to an event: “it completely changes the situation.” “Essentials are … cast up, especially those that are known and recognisable. Against this background are projected new elements of social life.”(13) Events are, following Lefebvre, “always original”. The understanding of them therefore awaits their re-absorption “into the general situation.”(14) Yet what this implies is that all understanding of events is retrospective and thus in part incomplete, even possibly illusory, for when grasped, they are no longer events as such, but events cognitively domesticated.

This understanding of the nature of events may be still further radicalised. For Lefebvre, the novelty of events is finally dictated by their exceeding our knowledge. They are always one step ahead of our apprehension; original, yes, but not “absolutely virginal.”(15) According to Alain Badiou, events, and for what interests us here, political events, are to be conceived of as contingent, singular ruptures in historical and social continuities, consequence of ungrounded decisions to act taken by those outside ordered social relations of control and domination, decisions that possess no legitimacy beyond themselves. Erupting upon pre-existing social settings, the excluded agency of events appears with maximal intensity; their reality announces itself as true and thus capable of changing social relations.(16) In other words, to employ Slavoj Žižek’s terms, an event is “an effect which exceeds its causes”; it is “the surprising emergence of something new which undermines every stable scheme” of understanding.(17) And thus social reality changes along with the parameters by which are measured the facts of change.(18) The approach to understanding events accordingly calls for an appropriate corresponding methodology. In sum, and to cite Žižek’s felicitous expression, events must be approached in “an evental way”, that is, in a manner that both grasps the event-like nature of change and assumes the change that this brings about in the very nature of our understanding.(19) And though this may seem to be a purely ontological and epistemological concern, it is also and fundamentally political, because the event redefines political possibilities as it changes realities and ways of knowing.

In a sensitive reading of Occupy Wall Street, Bernard E. Harcourt describes the movement as one of political disobedience. In contrast to civil disobedience, which accepts the legitimacy of existing political institutions, but “resists the moral authority of the resulting laws”, political disobedience “resists the very way in which we are governed”: partisan politics, reformist policy demands, political party affiliation and leadership, respect for the law, legal sanction, participation in or with existing political institutions and actions, political ideologies.(20) Confounding “traditional understandings and predictable political categories”,(21) the occupation movements call “for a new way of speaking about politics”.(22) As leaderless movements, no one can speak on their behalf, no one can represent them. Extending this concern and refusal to theoretical representation, the task of interpretation and explanation, if that task is what is sought, is rendered that much more difficult. The time honoured manner of speaking about or to or in the name of the movements is problematised politically; whatever statements are proffered carry no prima facie epistemic authority or truth value.(23) There is therefore a need to think, to speak, from within the events, to articulate expressions and concepts that shape as much as reflect them. The new “grammar” of the occupation movements is both cause and effect of the opening up of “political space to multiple voices, views and opinions.”(24)

What is therefore proposed in this reflection is not an inquiry into the political truth of the movements of the occupation of squares, but the creating and sharing of a sampling of a political resonance, that of anarchism, that moved through the occupations.(25)

We have neither a name, nor a leader and nor are we in a hurry.

15M slogan

III     It might seem appropriate at this point to define “anarchism”. The task however is not so simple, as differences abound within it, both theoretical and practical. Furthermore, there never was, nor is there still, any ideological uniformity common to all anarchisms or anarchists. And this may very much have to do with anarchism not being “a set of dogmas and principles, but a set of practices and actions within which certain principles manifest themselves.”(26) Not being “primarily about what is written, but about what is done”,(27) the concept of “anarchism” can be claimed by no one.(28) A minimal definition of the notion is thus what is called for. With the already stated emphasis given to practice and following Tadzio Mueller, “I will understand anarchist practices in the realm of political organisation and expression as those practices that consciously seek to minimise hierarchies and oppose oppression in all walks of life.”(29)

Echoes of anarchism, so conceived, can be found throughout the literature dedicated to the occupation movements, and more importantly in their political practices. “Que no, que no, que no nos representan”/”That no, that no, they don’t represent us” was shouted in all of the squares of Spain in the wake of the 15th of May movement; a slogan that was understood not only as a rejection of political representation, but of any representation. At the heart of all of the movements was the assembly, an open, horizontal forum for debate and decision. Embryonic expressions of self-government, experiments in the reclaiming of democracy, deterritorialisations of citizens who refuse participation in dispossessing political institutions; the assemblies were a form of pre-figurative politics. Often criticised for making no clear demands upon existing political authorities, dismissed as either lacking organisation and therefore ineffective, or utopian and therefore irrelevant, what the critics failed to discern was that the assembly was the message.(30) In turning away from the state, in occupying squares, anonymous individuals found themselves face to face with each other, in this way giving birth to, through the assemblies, a space of self-government, self-creation: the very essence of politics as we have learned from Hannah Arendt, and as was defended and lived out by so many in the anarchist tradition. Politics for Arendt arises in a space of appearances, a space in which individuals act together, sharing words and deeds and which “precedes all formal constitution of the public realm and the various forms of government.”(31)

Again, recalling the notion of an event is helpful here. If a movement, a social movement, is conceived of as something with a beginning, middle and end and as a collective subjectivity opposed to a hegemonic institutionalised power, a counter-power or dual-power in the making, then it is difficult, if not problematic, to think of the movements of the occupation of squares as social movements. As events however they can be seen rather as fissures, cracks, within sedimented social relations that opened spaces onto possibilities. The assemblies made few or no demands, acting instead upon themselves; they refused any political closure, defining themselves only ephemerally through multiplication and/or division; they rejected the need to decide upon who they were, and thus in opposition to whom they were not. Carl Schmitt defined the sovereign as “he who decides on the exception.”(32) The occupation movements, sometimes implicitly, other times explicitly, acted without regard to such a decision. Without wishing to generalise to all of the “movements”, nor to assimilate them to a single political expression, it was in their oblivion or refusal to decide on the exception that the occupations in effect renounced sovereignty, freed themselves not only from the ambition of political hegemony, but from the notion of hegemony itself (the “hegemony of hegemony”).(33) What the agents of the occupations thereby embraced was their status as the politically insignificant or non-existent as their very source of strength. The anonymous multitude was no longer embodied in a people constituted in and through a sovereign authority. Rather beyond state sovereignty, in its collective refusal, they became their own permanent self-making.

The notion of self-emancipation … implies that we start from a ubiquitous rebelliousness, a ubiquitous potential for self-determination, a ubiquitous moving against-and beyond existing limits. In this sense, a concept of self-emancipation is necessarily anti-identitarian …

John Holloway, Change the world without taking power

IV Badiou describes the state as an extraordinary machine to produce the non-existent, a non-existent normality of identity: the identity of subjects classified according to terms that separate and divide, whether ethnically, socially, racially and the like.(34) This is the identity of what is often called the people. Yet in the constitution of the people, the multitude, the many are in fact excluded; whether referred to as the plebe, the proletariat or by any other name, they are the anonymous many who exceed or spill out between the cracks of state created identities. The historical rebellions of our time then, for Badiou, as the Paris Commune or May 68 before them, are events that eradicate the terms of separation of state power.(35) “It is a matter of affirming the generic, universal quality, and never the identitarian, of all political truth. It is a matter of making disappear by the real consequences of a choice of truth, the fiction of the object of identity, the ‘average’ object of the State.”(36)

For Badiou, the conflict here is one between decisions, that of a particular state sovereignty versus a universal people. And the latter, the peoples’ decision, in turn demands an organisation if the affirmation of their own truth is to be of consequence.(37) The paradox of Badiou’s reading of revolutionary politics is that the solution to the problem that he analyzes borrows from the very problem that needs to be overcome: the decision of sovereignty. The risk then is the obvious repetition of the same. If the violence of sovereignty, of the state machine, is to be overcome, then it is not through the creation of a counter proto-state. It is rather to be found in the destitution of sovereignty;(38) precisely the radical promise of the contemporary political events of occupation.

The multitudes in Tahrir, Sol, Syntagma, Taksim and elsewhere, withdrew from state authority not with the aim of making themselves into an opposing sovereignty, but to create forms of life beyond sovereignty. In these moments, the exception of the sovereign decision was suspended, identities already weakened were discarded and ways of being emerged that suppressed the divide between the disunited many and the constituted people. In the binding collective refusal of the anonymous many, a force without a name appeared, a paradoxical force born of weakness, the weakness of the politically non-existent who in retreating from sovereignty realise a form of politics in which the potential for permanent self-transformation is sustained at the heart collective self-creation.


1. Stéphane Hessel, Indignez-vous ! Montpellier: Indigène éditions, 2011.
2. Baruch Spinoza, “The Ethics” [1677], in The Ethics and Selected Letters. Indianapolis, IL: Hacket Publishing Company, 1982, Part III, definitions of sentiments, 20, p. 145.
3. Ibid., “The Ethics”. Part IV, 45, p. 180.
4. Ibid., “The Ethics”, Part IV, 37, p. 174.
5. Alain Badiou, Le réveil de l’histoire. Nouvelles Éditions Lignes, 2011, p. 14.
6. Maurice Blanchot, Friendship. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 1997, p. 111.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid., p. 291.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid., p. 112. It is difficult to read these words by Blanchot without thinking of Herman Melville’s character Bartelby, of the short story of the same name. Bartelby, a lawyer’s scrivener, does not rebel against the orders of his employer, but simply refuses to carry them out by saying that he would prefer not to the do them. In his refusal, it is not that something is affirmed, positively or negatively, but rather, in not preferring to do what is asked of him, the space of potentiality that haunts all concrete actions is kept open, the space of pure possibility. In other words, Bartelby reveals the ultimate condition of freedom. His tragedy is that he is truly alone and that his efforts to befriend his employer come to nothing. See: Giorgio Agamben, “Bartleby, or On Contingency”, in Potentialities. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.
11. Henri Lefebvre, The Explosion: Marxism and the French Upheaval. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1969, p. 7.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid.
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid.
16. Alain Badiou, Le réveil de l’histoire, pp. 87-8.
17. Slavoj Žižek, Event : Philosophy in Transit. London: Penguin Books, 2014, pp. 5-6.
18. Ibid., p. 179.
19. Ibid., p. 6.
20. Bernard E. Harcourt, “Political Disobedience”, in W.J.T. Mitchel, Bernard E. Harcourt, Michael Taussig, Occupy: Three Inquiries in Disobedience. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2013, pp. 46-7.
21. Ibid., p. 47.
22. Ibid., p. 53.
23. Ibid., pp. 54-5.
24. Ibid., p. 56.
25. The Free Association, Moments of Excess: Movements, protest and everyday life. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2011, p. 7.
26. Tadzio Mueller, “Empowering Anarchy: Power, Hegemony and Anarchist Strategy”, in Post-Anarchism: A Reader. Duanne Rousselle and Süreyyya Evren eds. London: Pluto Press, 2011, p. 76. I cite Mueller’s words here because I believe that they are a correct way to describe anarchist thought. However, I do believe that he is mistaken in claiming that the priority of practice over dogma or principle is a feature of anarchism today. I would suggest, on the contrary, that it has always been a characteristic of anarchism, to varying degrees.
27. Ibid., p. 76.
28. Noam Chomsky, Occupy. London : Penguin Books, 2012, p. 64.
29. Tadzio Mueller, “Empowering Anarchy”, p. 76.
30. David Graeber, The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement. London: Allen Lane, 2013, pp. 22-3.
31. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958, pp. 198-9.
32. Carl Schmitt, Political Theology [1922]. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1985, p. 5.
33. Richard J.F. Daly, Gramsci is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements. London: Pluto Press, 2005, p. 8.
34. Alain Badiou, Le réveil de l’histoire, pp. 109-11.
35. Alain Badiou, L’hypothèse communiste. Nouvelles Éditions Lignes, 2009.
36. Alain Badiou, Le réveil de l’histoire, pp. 116.
37. Ibid., p. 119.
38. Giorgio Agamben, For a Theory of Destituente Power. Public lecture retrieved at:, on 09/06/2015.

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