A House Is a Home (with the help of bolt cutters): on occupation and its potentialities

Occupy-related protests have steadily increased in number and militancy, and so has the resulting police repression. This has only made it more urgent to to identify and understand recent important steps in the transformation of the movement. These steps were most visible in the general strike in Oakland, and the later occupation of the Traveller’s Aid building, and they have begun to expand throughout the country.

On November 2 we saw the first general strike since the major restructuring of capitalism in the 1970s, an expansion into new and exhilarating territories. The retaking of Oscar Grant Plaza and closing down of banks was followed by a large anti-capitalist march and the blockage of Oakland’s port, the fifth largest port in the nation, by tens of thousands of protesters. Finally, in a widely misunderstood moment, a smaller group of protesters went to support the occupiers of a building a few blocks from Oscar Grant Plaza, the former Travelers Aid Center.

While the New York Times characterized the event as an unpopular disruption of an otherwise orderly day by a “belligerent fringe group,” this was actually a peaceful attempt to extend the occupy movement into a much-needed interior space that was presently unused and only became violent because of police aggression. Contrary to the New York Times, we thought this last stage of the evening was an evolution of the Occupy movement – entirely different in character from the property destruction that occurred earlier in the day, which the Times conflated with the night’s activities.

So far, financial institutions have been the target of the movement; but these abstract manipulations of ethereal value are systematic with the concrete suffering caused by the massive numbers of foreclosures and destruction of social services.The voracious hollowing out of the world’s energies and resources has been managed and masked by bubbles and other forms of displacing crisis. Capital accumulation is fueled by the enclosure or eradication of the “commons,” through predatory financialization and speculation, widespread debt peonage, privatization, austerity, and structural adjustment programs, which global financial institutions use to control populations while managing crises. The occupation of a building vacated by a defunded social service was a possible first step towards reclaiming the commons.

Gold Rush
Crisis has engulfed the entire country, but it is no accident that the most visible political response has come in California. As Richard Walker has argued, in the last three years California has deeply registered crisis and austerity, serving as an apocalyptic vision of what is to come for the country at large. While California’s share of US total household income and GDP over the last decade have held steady at around 13%, California now has the second highest unemployment rate in the country. While investment in venture capital is again on the rise – with California controlling more than 50% of this most “dynamic” form of capital – state and federal investment in education and social services for the increasingly impoverished are nearing record lows.

The mortgage lending bubble that contributed so greatly to the crash was concentrated in California, which was responsible for six million original mortgages, ten million refinance loans, and 56% of the subprimes issued between 2005 and 2007. Banks in California have ramped up their foreclosures and evictions within the past few months, as they scramble to get bad loans off their balance sheets. Walker points out that California was already “the heartland of the largest stock bubble in history, as investment in the marvels of Silicon Valley pushed the NASDAQ to uncharted heights.” This plunged California and then the nation into recession – but this recession was “overcome” with the housing bubble, whose bursting has bankrupted hundreds of thousands. Housing was a focal point of California’s bubble-and-bust economy, and in the wake of the busted bubble of real estate sales and housing construction California was left with more bad loans and foreclosures than any other state in the union.

California’s austerity process can be traced to the passage of Proposition 13, which capped local property taxes and required a two-thirds majority in the state legislature for any future tax increases. This began as populist outrage against rising housing costs, but ended up serving as a linchpin for the neoliberal program of draining state resources. A low point in this downward trend was the bankrupting of the entire city of Vallejo, now subject to extreme austerity measures. Bereft of tax money or investment, California now keeps itself afloat with debt and past resources. Sleight-of-hand measures such as state bonds have maintained the illusion of a working public infrastructure, with the result that California has the worst bond rating in the country.

Mirroring the decline of California’s economy is the rise of inland and exurban ghost towns, where the wind whistles through foreclosed, empty houses. It will not be surprising if Oakland, following the wave of university occupations of 2009, heralds the beginning of a nationwide movement to reclaim and reuse vacated spaces – a process that has already been proposed and ratified by the Occupy Oakland General Assembly.

Keep it for Yourself
The occupation tactic has a long history. One of its most inspiring moments came with Lotta Continua’s efforts to organize rent strikes and other housing and occupation movements in Milan, Via Tibaldi, Rome, San Basillo, Tarunto, Palermo, and Naples in the early 1970s. Lotta Continua, one of the most militant extraparliamentary groups in Italy, sought to push beyond the limits of the trade-union model of struggle by explicitly criticizing the assumption that the working class could only meet its needs by increasing the purchasing power of its particular segments. For these militants, struggle in the community, and self-organization through rent strikes and squatting, were tactics through which the working class could realize its needs while developing collective ways of organizing aspects of daily life, such as child care, cooking cooperatives, and health collectives. They saw the struggle around housing as a precondition of the extension of the fight into other areas, such as transportation, health, and commodity prices more generally.

The occupations, then, represented a necessary recalibration of working-class struggle. In Italy, as in much of the western world, the post-war expansion of the global economy caught parties and unions in the web of productivity and efficiency; the socialist bureaucracies sought to tie working-class politics to the national economy. While the earlier revolutionary period in Europe saw workplace struggles as integrally linked with organizing the quotidian world outside the factory, no such common assumption survived mass working-class politics after the War. Everyday life was severed from politics and the horizon of political activity was limited to representational politics.

The theoretical and practical innovations of the post-war left signaled renewed efforts to revive this suppressed link. For the autonomist squatters, social life and consumption was an important arena of revolutionary struggle. What the Italians called “self-reduction,” the refusal to accept increased prices for daily necessities, was led by the housewives who performed the bulk of what has been called “feminized labor”: the unpaid labor that capitalism needs in order to maintain a waged work force. Working-class women in the movement described the immediate effects on everyday life that resulted from withholding rent money:

In the two years and five months that I’ve been on strike, I’ve saved a lot of money. I feel healthier. I’ve had more money to give to the children, to the ones who really need it. I’ve had some money to give to a few old-age pensioners. I’m not saying all this to give you big ideas about myself. But just think for a minute. Rather than give your money to the bosses, keep it for yourself. Give it to the children. Give it to the workers who are struggling in the factories and who are exploited, year in and year out.

For these women, rent refusal was not an abstract form of politics – it provided immediate improvement of health and well-being, especially for the most vulnerable members of the community. Crucially, the decision to occupy was a mass decision; the general meeting acted as the leadership whereby control and use of buildings was articulated and enacted.

In an era when labor has become increasingly precarious and marginalized, most people inhabit this “feminized” labor position, forced to work without access to the basic services that facilitate daily life. Struggle at the level of the everyday is a forceful move towards reappropriating the hidden wealth amassed by capital, as it sheds the services it once promised. Predictably, self-reduction, squatting, and other militant actions were met with media and political outcry, because they affirmed the power of the working classes to determine the shape of their own lives.

Demand Nothing, Occupy Everything
Practices of self-management and dual power arose in times marked by periodic crisis, but now that we are entering an era marked by the greatest stratification of wealth since the 1920s, and the biggest global depression since the 1930s, the opportunities to mobilize have intensified. It’s useful to mark the distance not only from recent “periodic crises,” but also the crises of industrial capitalism that marked the early 20th century. As Andrew Wood and James Baer show in their history of rent strikes in the Americas, housing has long been a central concern for the working class. But the precondition for the movements of this period was a state nominally capable of intervening into social affairs. “In contrast to previous generations,” Wood and Baer write, “demands for reduced rents and improved housing conditions were based on the relatively new belief in the state as arbiter of citizen’s rights and individual welfare.” The welfare state was able to keep people working by negotiating with social movements – a “new political engagement,” which was “characterized by a dynamic negotiation involving tenants, community associations, political groups, property owners, the press, and key government agents.”

Industrial expansion was characterized by overcrowding and the absence of space for the teeming working classes, along with activist states willing to intervene in social processes to ensure the continued accumulation of capital. Today, we are presented with an inverse situation: neoliberal states have so far been unable to deliver anything other than austerity cuts. The resulting vast infrastructure of discarded and vacant structures seems to demand new forms of cooperation. Strikes and rent strikes once demonstrated the vitality of a revolutionary working-class movement – today strikes, rent strikes, and occupations point beyond the decay of capital to the nascent strength of a renewed working-class movement.

There are two entrenched fallacies that must be overcome as the movement continues to grow in size and strength. First, we must recognize that the reinstatement of the welfare state cannot solve the structural problems of contemporary capitalism. The political and capitalist class that laid the intellectual groundwork for the New Deal and Great Society has been transfigured by increasingly sinister neoliberal strategies, and the economic conditions of an expanding global economy anchored by US economic might, which girded the expansion of the middle class and welfare state, are no longer with us.

Second, we should reject the profoundly anti-utopian reformism of left-liberals, and their lack of visionary hopes or demands – a necessity even Rolling Stone Magazine has recognized. Liberals accuse occupiers of lacking specific demands. We must reply that these accusers themselves have no demands, and in the current context the vague demands they do have will only harness or halt the radical potentialities of this movement. Rather than concentrate on superficial political demands for social services, we need to address a civil society rendered apolitical by post-WWII expansion, a labor market made quiescent through mid-century compromise, and the repeated and concentrated attacks on our livelihoods under the capitalist strategy of neoliberalism.

This occupation movement is an opportunity to move beyond a politics of protest and resistance. Occupy Everywhere, in distinction from earlier movements that used the tactic of occupations, is moving to recreate conditions of social life while simultaneously pointing to the need for deeper structural change. Though occupations have been a tactic of student and worker movements throughout the last thirty years, the tenor of the present moment has changed. Previous movements, such as the 1999 UC-Berkeley occupation of Barrow Hall in defense of the Ethnic Studies Department, used occupations as a means to force undemocratic administrations to accede to demands. But the current occupation movement refuses to recognize these administrations at all.  In the past, administrations have used demands to recuperate the goals of the movement.  For example, Ethnic Studies departments in the UC and other universities have either adopted a corporate/public relations persona or been suffocated by the withdrawal of resources and faculty.   It is these forms of manipulation that have forced a reconsideration of the relationship between movements and demands in the first place.

As fee hikes at the University of California accelerated during the closing years of the last decade, student activists surveyed the political field and reached the conclusion that the wrong lessons had been learned from the anti-Iraq war movement and the various Ethnic Studies movements that utilized occupations. It was not the case that protest and political action were ineffective, but that they were mired in strategy of representation and public welfare that is past its time. Denunciations of and protests against the undemocratic activity of the Regents had not managed to stall or overcome the privatization and corporatization of the UC, or prevent the Regents from using it as a personal piggybank. Protest and occupations at universities and colleges since the 1970s had failed to hold administrative bureaucracy accountable or bring transformative change to the often immiserating experience of US higher education.

We were part of the group of academic and student activists who occupied buildings in the fall of 2009, and many of us remembered the millions who turned out nearly a decade before to try to stop the attack on Iraq. Mere numbers had failed to force democratically elected representatives to comply with the people’s demands. Working with the rudiments of Italian theory, visions of Greek agitation and the fresh challenge of The Coming Insurrection, our movement was determined to take over educational infrastructure, demand nothing, and manifest a last-ditch effort to politicize civil society.

That this movement began in the universities is no coincidence. More than 80 years ago, Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, elaborated a vision of capitalist media and universities enlisted to “train the emotions” and intellects of the working classes. For early 20th century capitalism to maximize its efficiency and productivity, the ignorant and stubborn masses would have to be “enlightened”; to this end, monopoly capitalism marshaled ostensibly disinterested expert witnesses in order to overcome opposition to a liberal state. Coupling administration by experts with a pedagogy that separated thought from action, the liberal era saw the manufacture of consent as the necessary supplement of the brutal use of force.

Against this vision of a passive audience, Marxists and radicals have long held to a theory of education through struggle – emphasizing the need to supplement study with active learning in the picket line, the strike or through direct action. It is no surprise that radical educators and students who seek to wrest the classroom from the pedagogy of public relations have been on the front lines, working through a new theory of radical action. Working-class education through action is the only antidote to ruling-class public relations.

Overcoming the supplicating attitude of the left since the New Deal means overcoming the left’s strange relationship to the state. Increasingly, the US state is unable to operate according to welfare-based strategies; making demands would represent nothing other than legitimation of an illegitimate power. This is the theory underlying today’s slogan: “Demand nothing, occupy everything!” The form of the general assemblies and of autonomous movements provides the beginning of an answer to all possible demands.

Long Live the Oakland Commune
The night of November 2 we had the privilege of wandering around the briefly occupied Travelers Aid building while a dance party took place outside. A flyer described the building’s intended use, as an immediate shelter from the cold for the Occupy Oakland movement and as a site of future forms of mutual aid. From the front, the building looked to be of modest size, but this hid an enormous interior space. There were at least 10 rooms in the two-story building, with a spacious basement. We’ve been around the Santa Cruz DIY community for many years, and have seen dedicated radicals build projects like Food Not Bombs, infoshops, bike churches, and concerts with only pennies and gleaned resources, so we could easily imagine a space of this size transforming the lives of hundreds of people through meaningful collective projects with and for the destitute, hungry, and desperate. With work approaching the next day, we left for home after a couple of hours, in a sanguine mood.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oSTLxcV7KMY]

Police had been conspicuously absent, so we assumed that we’d have the opportunity for future visits and material contributions. News of police converging on the site was unsettling. We had spotty phone reception and received paratactic updates about the advance of the police, who unleashed tear gas and rubber bullets on our friends as we drove over Highway 17. While reception was fuzzy, it was clear that we would not be able to visit a thriving social center in the former Travelers Aid Building.

Despite our disappointment, we’re grateful we were able to take part in the collective joy that night. Given that the Oakland General Assembly has ratified its initial vote to occupy buildings – and that this call has been heeded in numerous other cities – we have no doubt that future endeavors will be made to seize the neglected spaces that should be ours. This has, as Business Insider notes, become an inevitability – as the weather gets colder, the millions of uninhabited buildings cry out for use. Recently a nationwide coalition called Occupy Homes has begun to reoccupy foreclosed homes and protect those about to be evicted; Occupy Atlanta has protected a police officer’s home from foreclosure, giving the family time to fight the bank; and Occupy Wall Street has secured low-income tenants heat from their slumlord. We’re not settled on a single theory of social transformation, but with news of these successes pouring in, it’s clear that this is an important step in that transformation.

As important as these particular successes are, the theoretical space opened by the actions might eclipse these first attempts in importance. Discussions and general assemblies are emerging in which people of varying political and social backgrounds have begun to debate how these spaces may be seized and held. Specifically, questions will arise about the relation of some of the more adversarial members of the movement – whose actions and theories, it must be noted, opened the space in which the occupation of public spaces became possible – to the general assembly; the pedagogical activity of marches and the assemblies; and the methods and modes by which future buildings will be claimed. A new era of self-management and mutual aid, made possible through the seizure of spaces abandoned by capital, has become a viable tactic. We look forward to an experimental period in which collective ingenuity will inhabit and expand capital’s gaps and fissures.

Authors of the article

is a lecturer at San Francisco State. She has written for Lana Turner Journal and Counterpunch

has written for Reclamations Journal, and is a member of University Research Group Experiment (URGE). He is also a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz.