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Issue 2.1 / 2012:

What does it mean to occupy?

Tim Gilman, Matt Statler

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continent. 2.1 (2012): 36–39.

From an ethical and political perspective, people and property can hardly be separated.  Indeed, the modern political subject – that is, the individual, the person, the self, the autonomous actor, the rational self-interest maximizer, etc. – has taken shape in and through the elaboration, institutionalization, and enactment of that which rightfully belongs to it.  This thread can be traced back perhaps most directly to Locke’s notion that the origin of the political state occurs when people rise above the state of nature by ceding the power to prosecute offenses.  The rule of law begins then with a defense of the right to property.  People become subjects by adhering to the social contract, which they do by deferring the defense of their own property to the state.

In this light, the response of the United States federal government to the financial crisis of 2008 appears to many as a breach of the social contract.  The chant “banks got bailed out, we got sold out” states the claim plainly.  Why exactly did some subjects (e.g., the banks) have their property defended by the state (i.e., through the variety of programs including TARP, the discount window at the US Federal Reserve, etc.), when other subjects (e.g., homeowners) found themselves without protection of their property rights, forced to default on mortgage debts and face dispossession?  Even if the rhetoric about “too big to fail” can be believed, and the collapse of the financial system would lead to negative consequences for people who had little or no connection to the activities that brought it about, such consequences need not call into question the notion that everyone stands equally before the law.

To occupy, then, appears as a form of civil disobedience, an intentional, retaliatory breach of the social contract by those who feel that they have lost the support of the state to which they ceded their power as sovereign agents.

The visible and the invisible
The violation of property rights of people who have recognition, protection and power under the law destabilizes their very status as citizens and tests the limit of democracy. Does the financial system force the dematerialized victimization of individuals?  Do people become numbers, or worse still, percentages of unemployed, tranches of defaulted mortgages and foreclosures?  Are they perhaps instead disenfranchised prospectively from the privileged position occupied by virtual entities and actors such as those involved in the derivatives markets, always already exiled back into the physical, visible realm?

The line of conflict appears to be drawn between invisibility/absence/deferral and visibility/presence/realization.  The demonstrators occupy an excess property of those subjects, namely, the banks and financial elite, who did receive recognition and protection under the law.  By domesticating this excess property, rendering its invisibility visible within the political economy, the protesters raise a new form of threat to the hegemonic order.

To occupy, then, involves a rejection of the order under which the “99%” have been subjected to erasure.  The occupation seeks creatively to establish a new means of communication and law for its subjects. In the face of an existing power structure that is increasingly disenfranchising the majority of people while consolidating nodes of power and influence, the “occupation”, or the work of the Occupy movement, involves seizing a space that refuses the rules of the existing, allegedly corrupt sovereign state.  This refusal of governance extends even to include a steadfast refusal to articulate a strategy, to formulate a list of demands, to converse with the sovereign power on the grounds of its own conventions, to put forth a leader, to resolve the ambiguity of the movement into a discreet identity, face, or voice.

Do these tactics provide a resolution to the problem that was its genesis? Not in such a direct and easily resolved manner, but it remains difficult to imagine a direct and simple resolution to the problematic of the breach of the social contract. The ambiguity of the situation has generated significant interest within the broader populace, though many people sympathetic to the cause appear to be frustrated because the movement has not simply put forward a short list of concrete demands, or even a set of leaders and spokespeople, much less a resolution. And yet, this lack of coherence appears as a resolution of a problem generic to protest movements in the past, where individual leaders can be removed or discredited, and lists of demands can be co-opted by others holding more political power.

Meanwhile, the ambiguity has compelled imitations on a global scale, with the Occupy Wall Street participants consciously taking actions that can be replicated by anyone anywhere without significant cost. These actions have taken place not in a peripheral location such as a parking lot in New Jersey, but instead close to the centers of power and governance, adjacent to Wall Street, close to the White House, on college campuses, etc. This spontaneous archipelago of protests becomes an irritant, a negation of the accepted order of protests, but when the protesters themselves move outside of their encampments, they are escorted by the police, constantly monitored and maintained so that a permanent state of paranoid persecution takes hold.

To occupy, occupying, occupation – these actions involve a variable degree of danger – are you willing to step into a different space, where the rule of law is unclear and evolving? Are you presenting yourself as a representative of the majority, the 99%? Who has a sense of belonging to the 99%? This previously invisible population becomes a focal point of political power, garners increasing public support, infects the public dialogue. The government recognizes this population by forcing it from the occupied space, removing the element of possession of property. It is at this point of conflict, in the struggle to hold the physical property, where the greatest friction and violence occurs.

Scaling the rule of law
While occupied, the property calls for a redress of grievances, a restoration of the rule of law. The Occupy movement does not select and put forward individuals or leaders, it puts forward places – the occupied property represents the point of conflict, not the individual. And it is this very property that the government then tries to reclaim. The movement remains faceless, anonymous, uncounted, or rather counted only as a mass, the self-labeled mass of 99%. These spaces are like refugee camps or favelas, but constructed to unite the political life and private life of the protesters. This objective is presented as a tactical necessity, as all other means of protest and communication have failed, leaving only the option of seizing, holding, occupying a property.

But to what end, exactly? Can anyone deliberately return to the prior social contract, embrace, affirm, and govern in strict accordance with the earlier relationship to property, following the logic of Locke’s arguments?

In this respect, the contemporary crisis indicates a new, transitional phase in the way that property operates, or rather, in the balance between real and virtual value. The roots of the crisis lay in the massive overvaluation of property caused by lax lending practices, as more people were encouraged to borrow more money, which drove up the prices of property. At the same time, these individual properties, these mortgages for homes actual families lived in and worked to support, were bundled into securities that could be bought, sold, and speculated on. The reduction of a physical house or piece of real estate to an almost incalculably small element in an investment vehicle appears as a scaling of the hedge that radically diminishes the value of any individually owned property. Moreover, a number of recently-innovated financial products allow investors to hedge in new ways, to deliberately spread risk around a portfolio in hopes of bringing returns even when the individual mortgage defaults. At the level of the ‘free’ market, these virtual negative valuations are designed to balance the physical positive valuation, though many of the biggest lenders are now being investigated for controlling both sides of this valuation, the positive and the negative, to facilitate both the creation and failure of the investments and to profit from both.

The ability to benefit from both the negative and positive value of an investment is a result of a technologically enabled capacity to operate within a complex field. These layered and scaled investment vehicles and the simultaneous negation of their value together represent a commingling of the virtual and physical existence that is both complex and multiple. The valuation of a virtual property has tremendous power to change the valuation of the physical - either injecting it with or depriving it of funds, pumping in or draining life and energy.

This situation has roots of its own – the notion of property advanced e.g., throughout the enclosure movement in Britain was, from the outset, an imposition of virtuality (i.e., the concept of law, the institutions associated with ownership, etc.) on the physical reality of land.1 The difference today is that technological trading platforms combined with innovations within the financial services industry have enabled the reduction of each individual property receiving or losing value in scale to an almost atomic level. In turn, the number of properties held simultaneously and valued as a massive, multiple wholes – i.e., the derivatives market in mortgage-backed securities – is a new phenomenon made possible through the application of similar technologies and institutional structures. And those actors who can trade in these layers of complexity can then profit from the new phase of disassociation of the virtual and the physical – unconcerned with and operating at such a virtual distance from the individual residing physically on a particular piece of real estate that they no longer feel the tug of the physical tying them back to the physical, operating literally as in a video game, in a virtually distanced world.

What can or should be done about this situation?  Answers lie outside the scope of this current essay, but merit consideration in the near future…



1) Hernando de Soto has emphasized this dimension by empirically demonstrating its non-existence in many countries in The Mystery of Capital.


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