Occupations, assemblies and direct action – a critique of ‘body politics’

Joseph A Todd examines the widespread belief that bringing bodies together in occupations, assemblies and other actions is enough to create change

August 22, 2016 · 12 min read

Occupy_Wall_Street_Washington_Square_Park_2011_Shankbone(Picture: general assembly meeting in Washington Square Park, New York City October 2011, Wikimedia Commons)

This article was first published in the August/September edition of Red Pepper – try our pay-as-you-feel subscription to get the print magazine

The occupation, assembly and direct action have become the symbolic locales of new left resistance across the US, Canada and parts of Europe. These performative spectacles, which have come to define Occupy, the alter-globalisation movement and, most recently, Nuit Debout in France (see RP, June/July), are practised by a generation of 21st-century activists whose default mode is to occupy squares and buildings, instigate public assemblies and engage in the spectacle of direct action.

Yet these tactics are anything but 21st century. The gathering of bodies together to take space, meet or make a symbolic point is not made possible by technological advances or changes in social structure – although it is augmented by social networks and concentrated urban spaces, and amplified by citizen journalism – but is rather a means of resistance that has existed in one form or another for centuries.

So why the current resurgence? In a broad sense, the anarchist spirit that informs these direct, prefigurative tactics shouldn’t be surprising. A number of factors combine to draw ‘millennials’ towards anarchist tendencies and tactics when engaged in struggle: increasingly ‘liberal’, less authoritarian upbringings; sporadic engagement with hierarchical workplaces; lives oriented around connection to networks rather than centres of authority; and (albeit in practice, of course, only in relation to the market) the values of freedom, autonomy and entrepreneurship instilled by neoliberalism.

At the same time, however, we can read the popularity of the occupation, assembly and direct action – tactics of presence, of physical bodies together in creative concert – as a revolt against the mediated, screen-oriented life-worlds many of us are compelled to inhabit. In contrast, these rebellions are direct, physical and present. They are bodies, together, as they should be. They feel authentic, genuine and tangible in a world of fakery, complexity and confusion.

Vulnerable flesh

This ‘body politics’, hinging on the deployment of vulnerable flesh, invoking the potential to be hurt for purely symbolic ends, is a development in the new left tactical arsenal that is becoming hegemonic. It romanticises an almost political-theological act of sacrificing one’s body for the spectacle, that demands presence in an increasingly virtual, mediated world and asserts that we must realise our identities and reveal ourselves to each other not only through bodies on the street, but bodies on the street creating spectacle.

To sit in, die in, occupy, lock on, publicly assemble or protest unmasked is to perform body politics. Body politics is not a synonym for direct action, symbolic action, peaceful resistance or unmediated resistance, although it can be all four. Rather it is deliberately making your body vulnerable to incarceration, truncheons or bullets. It is potentially sacrificing your body for symbolic ends. It is allowing yourself to be pepper sprayed and handcuffed for the images that will (hopefully) circulate later on. It is ascribing value to physical presence in a mediated world, to the ability to remain in space.

‘Body politics’, putting vulnerable flesh on the line and invoking the potential to be hurt for purely symbolic ends, romanticises an almost political-theological act of sacrifice

Occupy activists were paradigmatic practitioners of body politics. While the alter-globalisation movement was divided between often militant, but still sacrificial, spectacle and masked property damage – an important distinction that I will explore later outside of the usual dull binary of violence and nonviolence – Occupy’s body politics seemed to be consistent and nearly universal across North America and the UK, the temporary exception being black bloc resistance at Occupy Oakland.

To frame the movement in body political terms: camps were set up in almost exclusively symbolic, non-disruptive locations, usually parks, squares or large public spaces; their continued existence, and prefigurative flourishing, demanded continued and often gruelling body presence; engagement in decision making and inclusion in the polis was premised on body presence; and the narrative of these occupations, temporally at least, was making sure your body was in place to be sacrificed to the state when they eventually came to clear the camp.

Body politics extends beyond the occupation, however. To list a few recent actions from the London scene, the Plane Stupid activists who disrupted Heathrow by lying on the runway, those who dived onto the red carpet at the Suffragettes film premiere and those who conducted a die-in in solidarity with refugees at King’s Cross were all practising body politics. While the Plane Stupid action was disruptive – causing 25 flights to be cancelled – it remains body politics because those involved always intended on offering their bodies for punishment. This was in part because there was no reasonable chance of escape after disrupting a runway with one’s body but also to extend the spectacle –- via court appearances and the invocation of public debate – beyond the action itself.

However, the notion of body politics can also be stretched to include actions that are not prone, submissive and obviously sacrificial but, on the face of it, are defiant, confrontational and militant.

Symbols and sacrifice

David Graeber’s account of the ‘battle of Quebec’ is useful here. Converging on the city for the Third Summit of the Americas, one of a series of talks attempting to extend a free trade area to South America, activists were particularly outraged by the fencing off of a three square-mile stretch of the city around the conference centre. Over the course of the weekend various parts of the fence were torn down and running battles with riot police ensued. For a demonstration taking place in the global north, even by the standards of continental Europe, this was militant. But what were the objectives of this militancy? What was its target and for what end was it performed?

As Graeber recognises, the fence was ‘the perfect symbol’ and it became the primary site and target of the protests. Beyond that, there seemed to be little enthusiasm for – or indeed possibility of – actually entering enclosed area and disrupting the conference, a fact the protest organisers recognised from the beginning. The object of the militancy wasn’t disruption, but symbolism and spectacle – tearing down fences that symbolised neoliberal exclusion and creating a spectacle of militant resistance in the face of state violence to be replayed around the world.

The potential sacrifice of the body for symbolic ends and the creation of spectacle isn’t particular to western, neo-anarchist political practice. Here we could cite various hunger strikes or the practice of self-immolation by Tibetan monks as examples of far more extreme, visceral acts of body politics. Nor should political acts of bodily sacrifice, right the way from arrest to immolation, be written off as foolish, naive or ill-judged.

The performance of body politics – short of political suicide – has important experiential effects for those involved. Following the social theorist Judith Butler, it constitutes an ‘announcing’ of one person to another, a ‘reveal’ as it were. It provides an opportunity to build bonds radically different to, and most probably impossible under, usual capitalist relations – an assertion lent weight by countless recollections of occupation and direct action. More than this, it is a tactic that can often work.

Mohamed Bouazizi provided the spark for the Arab spring by dousing himself in paint thinner and setting it alight. Ceyda Sungur, the ‘woman in the red dress’, electrified the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul by passively taking a spurt of pepper spray.

Beyond the symbolic

But body politics’ growing hegemony in many left circles means it must be critiqued, lest it come to limit the horizons of our tactical, performative imaginations. Often symbolic, sacrificial direct action, where we lay our bodies at the feet of police, must be complemented by actual disruptions to capital. The demand for presence at assemblies and meetings should not be a prerequisite for inclusion, but merely one mode of involvement. Although appearing to one another builds bonds that are unattainable otherwise, in our society of surveillance and control we should nurture the ability to disappear too, performing political acts where we recognise the value of the closed, covert and secretive, in the knowledge that the open and public will always be observed, infiltrated and recorded.

The latter is a rarely discussed reality we must face; body politics has become more difficult and dangerous to practise. As the opportunity for spectacle has increased, so has the opportunity for surveillance. Our bodies have become increasingly vulnerable and precarious precisely because it is not only our present bodies that we risk. The rise of forward intelligence teams, vast police databases, near-total CCTV surveillance in cities such as London and the increasingly sophisticated infiltration of activist networks means that we risk our future bodies too.

The object of the militancy wasn’t disruption, but symbolism and spectacle – tearing down fences that symbolised neoliberal exclusion and creating a spectacle of militant resistance

Escaping the site of action does not equate to escaping consequence as it once did, with the police often catching up with activists months after the act. In countries such as the UK the consequences can be small: a night in jail, perhaps, or a non-charge that won’t stick. But elsewhere political violence and torture are common, and the consequences of this rite of passage, both domestically and abroad, are far greater for the mentally ill, disabled people, trans people and men and ethnic minorities, as the recent case of Sarah Reed in Holloway Prison should remind us.

Thus, mediated, covert, disruptive and non-sacrificial forms of action must be popularised. This is not a protestation for people to undertake more ‘radical’ action, be that more violent, illegal, dangerous or disruptive. As outlined above, body political action is often dangerous and can include the most militant of actions. Nor is it an argument for returning our bodies to the private realm and engaging solely in clicktivism or hacktivism, although the latter is surely something activists must begin to take more seriously. Rather, I claim that body politics has been romanticised to the point where we forget that it is increasingly dangerous, often symbolic and just one form of ‘action’.

The academic and writer Nick Srnicek discusses the potentials of Fredric Jameson’s ‘cognitive mapping’ in this vein. For Srnicek, neo-anarchist tendencies, localism and a reactive leftist politics have conspired in creating a ‘folk political’ tendency that, among other things, radically simplifies and scales down complex global systems to binary oppositions and specific geographical locations while subjectifying dispersed systems of power.

What we must pursue – collectively, both with humans and machines – is the creation of cognitive maps of our increasingly complex work. We must understand the ‘interlinking, nonlinear’ nature of systems of capitalism, climatic change and social interaction; we must identify the weak points, the most fruitful sites for intervention. This means taking computer modelling seriously. It also necessitates a move towards action that doesn’t merely create a spectacle, but actually disrupts flows of capital and power.

Refusal to progress

An example. Occupy Wall Street was the most important instance of body politics in recent US history. Thousands of bodies creating a prefigurative space, a space dependent upon the continued presence of those thousands of bodies.

But its failure was because it refused to progress beyond this body politics. Inclusion in the polis was premised on physical presence – both in that decision making was conducted in general assemblies for extended periods of time, but also in that non-participation in the general assembly constituted a symbolic exclusion from the performative spectacle that became the symbol of the movement. And while the lack of demands was partly rooted in a distrust of existing institutions, we can also trace it back to body politics, the belief that bodies together is enough to create change, that bodies in space could prefigure the revolution.

To occupy is to perform body politics because one needs to be physically present to occupy. But what if the movement had gone beyond this? Many have suggested that Occupy should have made demands, engaged with existing institutions and even institutionalised titself. But proceeding on its own terms, why wasn’t direct action that was disruptive rather than symbolic, that didn’t involve necessarily sacrificing bodies, also pursued as a complement?

Less than an hour north of Zuccotti Park is the Mahwah district of New Jersey. This is where the main servers for the New York stock exchange are held. Alternatively, there is Alpha, New Jersey, where there is a 2,000 square-foot amplifier facility that boosts and cleans the signal between the Chicago and New York stock exchanges. This is where Jameson’s ‘cognitive mapping’ can lead us. Not to the symbolic hubs of Wall Street, parliament or Downing Street, but instead to the physical anchors of global capital, the locations where disruptive intervention would be most effective. More than this, a combination of cognitive mapping and complex computer modelling could enable us to not only identify these sites, but to map out with precision the effects disruptive actions would have, better enabling us to assess the opportunity costs of where, when and how we intervene.

Effective intervention

This essay is intended as a friendly, constructive critique of current political practice. I have been part of many body political actions and will continue to be so. They are necessary and important, both in their experiential benefits for participants and their potential to create narrative disrupting spectacle.

Nevertheless, they do not constitute the entire horizon of possible political action. If we are going to intervene effectively in complex, non-linear, global systems; if we are to avoid unnecessarily exposing our bodies to violence and incarceration; if we are to cause actual disruption as well as symbolic spectacle; we must pursue action that is mediated, modeled and often secretive. Action that disrupts, while protecting our vulnerable bodies.

Joseph Todd is an activist, postgraduate student and part of Brick Lane Debates. Twitter @josephalextodd

Decorative illustration

England after the break-up of Britain

Ex-Labour MP Thelma Walker explains why she’s thrown in her lot with the Northern Independence Party

The Firm and its long-lasting grip

Laura Clancy examines the history of the Crown, its role in empire and its continuing functional and ideological purpose today

Political blackness and Palestinian solidarity

The question of Palestine has become a black political litmus test, argues Annie Olaloku-Teriba, defining the very nature of black identity and politics

Essay: a new sense of nation?

Michael Calderbank and Ashish Ghadiali discuss the meaning of ‘national pride’ and ask if it can – or should – have a place in a truly radical left politics

Routes to working-class solidarity

In this second of a two-part series, D Hunter and John-Baptiste Oduor discuss socialism, conservatism and pathways to solidarity within and between working-class communities

Democracy in focus: the people and parliament

Stuart White explores the constitutional contradictions underlying today’s crisis

For a monthly dose
of our best articles
direct to your inbox...