Dr. Verity Mensonge
The sun is unfeasibly warm. Yet another bright October morning is hovering hazily like a TV on pause, in the midst of this unseasonably mild autumn. Finally someone I know arrives, late. She floats in just as brightly, head to toe in black. Days are strung out in both directions like cotton on a line, I’ve lost track. Someone makes an announcement and I graze my tongue on a hot, black coffee as I try to bite it, playing it cool by the radiator.
Summer has never ended here, a hangover of late, dog days on slow, breathing playing fields and late, soft nights, drinking cans of Polish larger on plum coloured hillsides with new and old friends. Fox eyes watching us from the bushes. Here on another knuckle-stinging early morning, after the long, self-involved circlings of the night before, we sit through a lingering, sun-yellow morning at the conference, passing notes. A week ago someone had passed us a note as they passed us on Westminster Bridge, today they, whoever they are, are going to try something.
The conference is telling its tales, speaking its name with a barely plausible straight face, a couple of obligatory remarks are tossed in, tossed over the shoulder like the automatic salt of superstition, the way only academia can. Occupy is still a magic word that doesn’t need to be spelled out, that following the formula – problematised of course – can be hung upon a recycled paper to prove you have read one. Relevance.
But it isn’t. Hastily packing a plate of the lavish lunch before such things are taken away, we think about leaving while they do their best to ignore us. It’s the best I’ve eaten in weeks, food has become a prize for me, to be gleaned in those fag-end scraps of the night when I’ve actually been home. These past weeks have been haunting me and I am adrift. In a flash of resolve and a clash of eyes we decide, sign a hasty, unspoken pact. These days exchanging numbers on a Saturday night has been swapped for the soft scrawling of lawyers’ numbers on another’s arm. It feels like a ritual, the arming before battle. This is a different exchange altogether, tracing lines on skin with a sharp nib.
And we jump on a bus, determined, squinting in the light, swigging water. When we get there, to the stock exchange, or so we think, walls of surly, porridge-faced cops glower. No way through. We’ve been here before, we know the score, or so we think. We’ve broken through before, outwitted the slow-minded shield wall, they lie and we know it. I feel it all rising in me again as we skip around the side streets, looking for a way into a kettle – the tinge of expectation, of not knowing, of apprehension and the thrill that this is actually happening. It’s been long months since we’ve felt this, it feels good, we’ve missed it. Not knowing, we fear our self-suspicious looks, ‘don’t worry’, she jokes, ‘we are just a couple of people out for an afternoon walk in the sun’. We are and we aren’t. But playing our parts we slip silently through the lines and dive into a crowd standing in suspended animation. I roll her a cigarette and we spark up, the sun catching lazy ghosts of smoke as they thinly veil her face. She raises an eyebrow as if to say, ‘here we are then – what now?’ I just smile and shrug.
Maybe none this happened in that way, but it could have done. I am something that I’m not, so is she, so are they. When nothing is true, everything is permitted.
That was then. As night gathered its forces and closed in, lines of filth did likewise. ‘Sit down!’ Someone yelled, and huddled in a circle there, hemmed in by the gathering shadows and ranks of cops shuffling claustrophobically like chess pieces, we tried to look like we didn’t care. Each side made its moves and tension hit a steady pitch, resonating around the ancient stonework in front of the cathedral. On the steps, others, unrecognised and recognised, looked at each other and looked at the sky. After breathless moments, maybe hours, something shifted, our shoulders dropped, the wind changed, and they were gone. Would they be back? Would we make it through the night? All was in balance, in the air, at that moment. Suddenly others showed up outside and broke the spell. We broke ranks and broke a promise that we weren’t obliged to keep, walking back to the world. Everything and nothing changed. Things that remained familiar were not the same.
Whatever else he was, Guy Debord was a brilliant writer. Carefully measuring up and measuring out both poetry and strategy, a poetry in service of revolution. Spare us the ’68 shit again, it’s a fucking nightmare weighing down upon us, can we not bury it for good? No, I don’t mean poetry in the wilted, watered down flower power sense, a wet tissue of lies to shove into our mouths like chloroform. Peace love and empathy man – put a shotgun in your mouth instead. Rather, by concocting slogans from a looted array of poetical and political proclamations, he succeeded in resurrecting a spectral echo of the commune from beneath the streets of Paris after a long, dreamy sleep. Revolution turns full circle. His intellectual property was theft and strategic half-truths, stolen from Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Breton, Marx, Lukács and others – one is never compelled to speak the truth except in one’s own language; in the enemy’s language, the lie must reign. Our own language has barely begun to be made, but until then the hijacking of resonant resources – words, images, ideas – is an assault on liberal poetics and a weapon in our armoury.
The slogan is a circle, a ripple spreading from a big splash, a grain of salt in the swash, reappearing as both a wave and a particle, circular and linear. It’s the returning echoes of poetic imaginings, resonating outwards in concentric circles, crashing in a glittering constellation of saline spume wherever poetry and festival break upon the linear beach of history. The cry, at once Rimbaud’s, Breton’s and Debord’s is ‘Change Life’! A call to detourn it, to overturn it, unleash the underside.
When we let cops set the tempo, protest is little but a brand to sell newspapers – get your logo to the front, don’t forget to leave your email at the back, face the camera, be sure to use the right typeface. A slogan is not a brand; it is breaking forth, as passage beyond. But what of slogans? I don’t mean that old ‘a slogan, repeated, will never be defeated!’ chant, re-pealed out every year like the obligatory xmas tangerine in a million lifeless repetitions from the party faithful. I mean rather a repetition that is also difference, a performative rupture, a virus, the agent of a contagiontology. Not necessarily what overpaid professors at the Oxbridgeingham Mansion of Humanities might call a meme, and it’s not necessarily some social network circlejerk either, it’s more the pétroleuse fires that burn into a Parisian night, more the commons of a looting spree, honour amongst thieves. The myth, the magic circle – we go circling at night and are consumed by fire.
Imagine you are a journalist, your editor has assigned you to go down and take a look at what most reasonable people of your milieu apparently seem to agree is the quirky but somewhat tedious protest camp that has coalesced in recent weeks around the side of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Tedious, you speculate to yourself, but likewise, perhaps, somewhat understandable, given all that financial crisis stuff that you keep hearing an echo chamber of business spokesmen puffing up to downplay on Radio 4 every day. Not that you’ve really felt it too much yourself – but you will. This camp has apparently erupted abruptly from the fabric of the socially disaffected. This is a crowd that your paper allies paint as at once a lazy, unwashed, underclass of benefits claimants and simultaneously privileged middle-class whingers with a sense of entitlement. They’ve hauled tents and sleeping bags onto the freezing streets in a gesture, and a realisation, of anger. You shrug to yourself, jaded with the disease that sweeps all before it, the disaster-capitalism blighting this planet. What can they do? Vague, directionless dreamers you call them, and yet at the same time blinkered, dogmatic ideologues.
Perhaps you have your framing already worked out, these anti-capitalists, as you label them, not really understanding what it means, are the same lot who turn up and turn out whenever the runaway trainwreck of political profiteering gets careless in its presentation. They show up, make a bit of noise, herald the decadence of Great Britain’s Broken Society to some deluded, express reading, senile sack of spite. Sometimes there is even a stage-managed show of force from the cops to add some spice for the photographers, then everything goes back to ‘normal’ – dreary, weary, resigned normal – the point when faux outrage is no longer selling papers, some other scandal eclipses all this, all this junk and spin that passes for news, it’s a commodity after all, commodities need to renew themselves every week or how is the whole production-accumulation-growth bandwagon going to keep on rolling? Reality is obsolete. That’s how you see it, that’s your own cynical view of things, you’ve seen too many protests, it’s a ritual, a routine, a spectacle aimed at you, and you are fucking bored of it
When you arrive at the camp however, one cold, autumn morning, you begin to wonder. Milky sunshine and a well-meaning old man wash the steps of the cathedral, that palatial monument to the power of ideological fictions. You see people laughing in the street with colourful, homemade banners. They bustle like insects around flowerheads, trickling through the narrow walkways between blooms of brightly coloured tents. The whole space appears bursting with DIY signs, as irritatingly earnest music drips through the crisp air. Protest songs and dancing swirl outwards from the centre of the camp as fresh-faced youngsters strum guitars, reliving their parents, even their grandparents, youth – at least as much as they know of it, from the TV – they look like they never got, and yet never got over (the over) the counter-culture, they strain at the empty, blue heavens, effusing the simulacra of peace and love to all comers.
But the organisation looks good, hell, some of the people even look good, I mean, these people look half, you know, respectable, half-decent…quite middle-class, almost like you. Suddenly it grips you, you ‘get-it’ – what they are doing here, what they are doing is momentarily refusing the temporal routines of work and leisure right? Refusing the separation of space into domestic and public? Refuting the overbearing, almost unquestionable notion that the purpose of space, the purpose of time, above and beyond all else, is to facilitate commercial interaction and capital accumulation? What we appear to have here is a situation people! Didn’t you read something about situations once in your media class at university? Yeah, that was it, situations, must have been the situationists, situationism even… that’s what this is, situationism. Clearly.
We might forgive the lazy, bourgeois hack her assumption, but we shouldn’t. The fact is that this camp, whilst promising much, opted for a different route. Its overweening atmosphere was at risk of becoming more methadone of the masses than intoxicating festival of the people. In fact it could have done with changing the record, switching the needle, and administering a powerful shot of something more akin to a situationist thinking, directly into its heart, as it squatted the heart of this heartless world.
Whatever else, the not-always-happy campers were on many levels brilliant. Despite a farcical and bilious campaign of excrement flinging from the chimps in uniform and their disgusting propagandists in the press, the commitment, passion, purpose and poise of my fellow protesters cannot be faulted. For this I salute them, encourage them, support them and thank them. But to support the cause and to stand in solidarity is not always to bite one’s tongue. This is war and capitalism has cornered the field of play when it comes to desire, we need an expeditionary force to take it back.
Occupy London often spoke about joy, anger, desire and rage but seemed most able only to adopt capitalism’s moribund, morose and morbid, pre-packaged austerity. The restless, relentless driving into the ground, not of tent pegs, but of a religious, ascetic abstraction of a movement has been somewhat disturbing. Wait, I’ll just consult the faith liaison working group committee on that, don’t want to offend anyone with a whiff of militant secularism. The cults that were haunting the cathedral steps from the start, along with the slightly sinister anti-celebrity Assange, coloured the atmosphere of this space from that first, sunny afternoon. Maybe it was just being beneath a cathedral but occasionally some of the folk here appeared like a revelatory vision of apocalyptic flagellants or wild-eyed millennialists howling at the end of the world – but then it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, or so we are so neatly told. Their delusional rantings precisely filled a capital-shaped hole in their analysis – but I have news for them, there is no conspiracy, there are no illuminati. The so-called conspiracy is the concentration of the ownership of production, and as a result economic and political power, in the hands of a certain class. This is occurring in plain sight, there is nothing mystical or clandestine about it, transparency and regulation will not serve to address it, nor to dress this gaping wound on the face of history.
But the atmosphere of delusion and paranoia was not unfortunately confined to conspiracy maniacs or the socially-maladjusted. Just as elsewhere, the ravings of superstitious cults have been sanitised, rationalised and reproduced industriously and industrially by the so-called reasonable people that adhere to the ideology of organised religion, so too here. Conspiracy, in failing to think capitalism systematically, mirrors religion in the sense that it sees a process of deluded individual enlightenment rather than class struggle as the means to combat injustice. Such people are reading the wrong map, a consolation prize for impotence. This vocal religious element in the camp ensured the protest tumbled zealously into a trap, coming dangerously close to a joyless playing out (and into the hands) of police tactics, at once policing itself, but at the same time diverting its attention from the target it set out to attack. The axis of the police and the micro corporatist state that is the City of London Authority set in motion its bureaucratic PR machinery in order facilitate the church to act as its proxy enforcer, so as to tactically outmanoeuvre the camp publically, shifting the terrain of battle onto that of its own choosing. Initially it did this in order to set up and present an engineered conflict between church and protest as a surrogate struggle in place of that between the protest and its intended target, the stock exchange and the capitalism system it helps to facilitate. This both failed and succeeded, this particular conflict with the church was in fact, against the odds, won by the camp, but only at the cost of occupying what was perhaps in this instance the less effective position, that of the moral high ground.
The camp flipped the corporation’s strategy on its head, where the corporation had sought to use the church as a proxy, as a shield to grant legitimacy to its intended suppression of the camp, instead this was reversed, the church largely became a strategic pawn in the camp’s arsenal instead. Not that many of them realised this of course, they were busy praying.
The wider struggle hinged upon this one battle, a battle that appeared to end in a victory for Occupy at the expense of a winning broader strategy. Of course the church was playing it strategically too, and when the Orwellian state forces with their smart fascist uniforms showed up, it was quick to wash its hands of the right to sanctuary, preferring property rights instead. Come eviction night it sided with big brother, betraying the camp at least three times before the cock crowed. But that was always on the cards, no one should ever have expected any more or any less.
By temporally winning the church however, the camp won a certain level of respect amongst the establishment and the public. In turn this was a significant and not to be underestimated force in introducing an oppositional voice into the fiction of mainstream politics. Clearing ground on the left for Labour voices to begrudgingly adopt, it forced the hand of the Lib-Dems as they tried not to be outflanked, and therefore in turn forced their Tory masters into a number of largely meaningless, conciliatory gestures against banks and their ilk. Personal handwringing, not systemic changes – classic liberal trash. Opinions perhaps shifted leftwards ever so slightly, blink and you’d miss it, but nevertheless they did. Regrettably but naturally, this shift was headed off at the underpass by classic smoke and mirrors on the part of the party of capital. We are yet to see how this all might ultimately pan out, by placing the government, as it did, on the back foot, at least in terms of presentation, they have been slightly weakened. This could be the point that a slippery, slime- sodden worm turned, time will tell, the future is open. This was perhaps the single biggest achievement of the camp, and to be fair, this is all that many of those there set out to achieve. In this respect they won their battle, but not ours. In gaining respectability they also fatally diverted into the dead end of liberalism, whispering mantras of ‘legality’, ‘rights’ and ‘peaceful protest’ – hammering them home to anyone who would listen.
Occupy’s tactic has been to appeal to a broad sector of society, some say there even exists a mythical class known only by the number 99. Who can say? Where Occupy spoke up, it often appeared to offer appeasement or an eagerness to meet the enemy on their own terms, to be drawn further and further from the ground on which radical critique and action might be pitched. This is understandable when we acknowledge that it was not perhaps intending to perform a radical critique at all, but rather to fill the vacuum of a civil society and political opposition that has itself been almost entirely occupied and neutralised by capital: from the party system, to NGOs, charities, local government and the media. For Occupy to do this is not necessarily a bad thing at this juncture, it’s just a social democratic thing. But perhaps, insomuch as it is that, we might uncharitably cast it as merely an intrinsic self-correcting function of capital, its immanent negativity – when it has internalised all critique, its own functions will perhaps generate new ideological stimuli in order to hone these very functions for a new situation. Perhaps it can no longer reproduce a compliant labour force with current levels of inequality? Wasn’t this always what social democracy was all about?
Perhaps this movement is just a melancholic mourning by the newly proletarianised for the slow death of their social democracy – the post-war pact of capital and labour – the result of highly specific conditions to which we cannot ever return even should we want to. Class is decomposing and recomposing fast, and perhaps this movement is a lament for the death of a certain fictional, credit-based, consumptive middle-class? Or then again, perhaps this is rather the heralding of a new class, the new beginning of a struggle starting over? The circle turns again.
So let the soggy outpourings of new age junk-philosophy come, the nonsensical non-analysis of conspiracy cults and worse still, the reactionary spoutings of religion, let them prostrate themselves before the deluded pseudo-morality of bourgeois public opinion. They will drown themselves. This is nothing but the spectatorship of the proletariat – to steal a line that was too obvious not to have been deployed before. The debate around the camp’s iconic central banner bearing the concise statement of fact ‘capitalism is crisis’ (interestingly itself a slogan stolen from an earlier engagement) was a case in point. Apparently, despite the fact that the media had already, and continued to, label the campers ‘anti-capitalist’ whatever hippy platitude we replaced this sign with, still people were concerned that anti-capitalism was ‘alienating’. The irony of this assertion was apparently lost here. Whoever wants to bend over and double-page spread for the media be my guest, they will chew you up and spit you out.
The desperate fetishising of public opinion is an illusory deference to a re-packaging of our thoughts, a replacing them with replicated versions of society’s dominant ideology, the very ideology we purport to challenge. Our thoughts replaced, we are alienated from ourselves as social beings, viewing ourselves instead through the proxy of an abstracted, commodified self-definition. Strategically we make the grave error of fighting our battle on the terrain of the enemy’s choosing.
At times Occupy (again I can only speak of my experience in London, I have no parallel experience of the movement elsewhere) was all too guilty of being hung up on and strung up by public opinion, at others, in its patient attempts to listen and learn from others and from itself collectively, it offered glimpses of something more promising. Amongst these traces of something more promising was the potential insight that opinion worth listening to, worth building up and building upon is rather something arising collectively, in relation – not in the ‘isolation-together’ of those individualised constructs that go by the names of opinion polls and editorial. Opinion capable of changing anything is realised precisely and only through social action and interaction; it is socially constructed precisely through the relations between people – through conversation, through interaction, and most of all through activity. Public opinion, a carrot with which to cajole us, a nightstick with which to beat us is abstracted from reality, constructed in separation from social conditions, reliant upon the fiction of the isolated, self-transparent essentialised subject, whose feelings and thoughts are likewise held to exist in some mythologised, internalised isolation. The social nature of such thoughts and feelings, their contingency, complexity, flux and incommensurability is denied and concealed by the abstraction of this opinion into a commodity and its placement into the economy of generalised equivalence that results from the value form – where all hearts may be measured, traded, represented, bought and sold. By pandering to this fetish of ‘public opinion’ all we can do is replicate in miniature the exact society we seek to challenge.
Perhaps Occupy was beginning to come around to this way of thinking? Perhaps it already contained it from the start? The persistent calls upon Occupy to hone its ‘brand’, such as those that continually emerged from various voices both inside and outside the movement, were calling for nothing other than a set of neatly manageable demands to be entered into an economy of generalised equivalence. It begs the nagging question, something that has haunted this movement – can a revolutionary demand ever be entered into such an economy? Is there is any commensurable pay-back or pay-off; perhaps it is not an exchange but a gift, an irreducible singularity? The only realisation of such a demand will perhaps be to overturn the terms of the argument, to tear up the rules of engagement, to overturn the dancing tables and to cast both the money lenders and the would-be messiahs out of the burning temple. But perhaps we are bored with the ‘no demands’ thing, that was like, so 2011. Did it fail? I don’t know. Certainly Occupy proclaimed no demands as a convenient cover for an absence of coherence, it proclaimed no demands and yet it made a million different ones. Occupy was like a brief reflourishing of Chartism with no real charter, but how could it say what it was and what it wanted when it didn’t know – aside from asking these very questions of itself? Thoughts of an alternative, a capacity to strategise, have been almost been stolen from us by our own abstraction from the world, yet for all its faults Occupy asked the question – what would it take to win?
So me, and her, and they, pretend to be something we are not. Without adopting a given form of appearance, we cannot and do not appear. Perhaps it was against expectations, but by the end Occupy no longer really sought to appear, but rather to converse. It became as much about education as about protest, and as much about learning as teaching. Perhaps this is actually its real achievement – the real question however, is what did we learn?
Those former middle-classes left behind by capital’s relentless trajectory aren’t happy, fine, but ultimately their revolution, if it ever happens, will be a bourgeois one. It can only ever reproduce a capitalist system with its structural inequalities, its wage slavery and its disastrous in-built preponderance towards private accumulation by the logic of profits at all costs. In this respect, puritan voices in the movement could do well to dig up some more sloganeering, words from Lautréamont, returned to us via the situationists, which in this sense at least, still ring true today – returning again, full circle:
To transform the world and to change life are one and the same thing for the proletariat … Free creativity in the construction of all moments and events of life is the only poetry it can acknowledge, the poetry made by all, the beginning of the revolutionary festival.
Festivals can be spectacles too, sure. But let us not forget that for the SI, the commune was the greatest festival of the 19th century. While such words inhabit the dead time of history they do nothing but suck the life out from the living time of now. It is only by redeeming them, bringing them to life in social action, that we can lift their weight from us and really live. Maybe, maybe not, but at least it will be better to lose well than to lose badly. Still better to win…
Fear of vanguardism and yet the unsustainable commitment entailed in being ‘authentically’ part of this movement – for those who could or would not sacrifice of much of their existing life, and still had a life left to sacrifice – meant that sustained engagement by many radicals became impossible. As a result a cleavage of mutual suspicion, accusation and theoretical and practical divergence arose between Occupy London and many of its logical supporters amongst existing radicals and activists, who all told, failed to engage in a sustained way with Occupy.
Many amongst both an intellectual, activist class and traditional workers’ movements, along with of course all those non-organised (under)employed who fall through the gaps, were perhaps occluded from full participation in Occupy by the pressures of their precarious lives. This, and the fact that many appeared strategically stymied between a fear of either vanguardism on the one hand, or of participation in a movement that did not ‘authentically’ concur with their own theoretical position on the other. In short a fear of speaking for another, and the fear of another speaking for us.
This is not a moment for guilt however, but for analysis. Material conditions dictated who this movement was and who it spoke for no less so in this case than in any other. Activist professionals (as opposed to professional activists) can learn from this, support or criticise, analyse and strategise but whilst material conditions occlude them from the form of this movement they cannot share its consciousness and it is not really theirs to speak for. They must find their own form, their own language, or rather we must find one together, which we can all speak. Until then we can only really lie. What we need is a language, a truth, that can made true precisely by through its realisation – the performative rupture that remakes its context anew.
I attended, conversed, participated, shouted, supported, waved my hands, every day for a month and a half, then other obligations – emotional, financial and indeed political – eroded and eventually collapsed my commitment to this movement. I was exhausted. Though I search for the words to speak about this, to find them would to again be something that I am not. I too cannot speak for Occupy, although, in many ways I have already tried. Until we have a situation in which enough of us can both speak for such a movement and for ourselves in one and the same breath, without being something we are not, we have little chance of building what we need to win – a poetry made by all. Occupy, for all its faults, at least began attempting to create this, what we perhaps need now is to think where it succeeded and to concede where it ultimately failed, and then to try again, and to try more effectively.
I sit shivering on the steps. Having grabbed an Evening Standard on my breathless, nightly skip from London Bridge, I shove it under me just to keep my arse from fusing to the icy stone. It’s too dark to read now anyway, as November closes around us like a dark mouth. She looks cold as we share another menthol cigarette, the ones I like in the green packet. I hand her a bag of crisps I took from work earlier, her favourites. We spend days at the bus stop, or listening to endless announcements about working groups, waving hands at the thin wind. I lend her my scarf to wear and a copy of Lenin’s Imperialism to sit on – both appropriate and inappropriate – I’ve been reading it on the bus but I keep falling asleep. Someone takes our picture and she scowls at him, I just pose. She’s got a hat on that she found somewhere, she looks younger than she is tonight.
We all huddle together for warmth, a strange crew, chain-smoking ripped off Egyptian cigarettes pressed upon us by a coughing middle-aged Iranian who fled here when the Islamists hijacked the revolution, his revolution. The cold isn’t too good for his chest yet his eyes are brighter than the frost forming on the pavement. There is a sly irony as we surreptitiously sip forbidden Tesco largers out of carrier bags, listening to yet another prayer, or some Trot telling us Egypt was a working class victory. It was and it wasn’t I say, as someone else comes up to gush over the Arab spring – brought to you with the kind sponsorship of Twitter. Sometimes the Iranian and me go to the pub after she’s gone home, we talk as if this is really happening, as if the revolution is at the gates, then we go home too, and I fall asleep on the bus.