In recent weeks, we’ve been witnessing more and more police crackdowns on the Occupy-movement in the US. Huge amounts of police resources have been used to disperse the occupiers’ camps, often only for them to return in larger numbers the next day or so. We’ve also learned that these crackdowns have been coordinated on a nationwide level.
From an European perspective, this is of course nothing new. We can still well remember the epic battle for Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square in early August (see here, here, here, here and here for a vivid description of the events), and the crackdown on the Alexanderplatz acampada in Berlin in late August (a couple of videos here and here). A particularly tragicomic example of this campaign to crush any attempts to erect a camp in a public space can be seen in this video where a whole legion of police in a military formation attacks a handful of protesters sitting on pieces of cardboard in La Défense in Paris.
All these incidents beg the question, why? Why are these occupations perceived as such a great threat that the authorities are willing to go to extreme lengths, and even to use illegal methods to make them go away? I mean, most of these encampments are very small and hardly represent any kind of threat to general order. Even the largest camps have had only a few hundred people staying overnight, a tiny fraction of all the people who populate public spaces in large cities on a daily basis. I think we can dismiss the official explanations, such as safety or hygiene, right off the bat. Naomi Wolf has suggested that the US crackdowns may have been orchestrated by congressmen who fear changes of legislation that would threaten their privileges. I think, however, that this is also too simplistic a view. The campers are pretty far from a position where they could actually influence federal legislation.
To answer the question, we need to look at how the concept of public space has changed in recent decades. Not so long ago, public squares were places where people could gather freely to discuss pressing issues within the community, places of political engagement in other words. Since then, most of these places have been sold to private companies and limited to just certain kind of behaviour. They have been turned into places of consumption where any other behaviour is considered “loitering” and thus subject to police repression. Camping on the squares is seen as a transgression of these new, stricter rules of behaviour.
This change of concept has been no accident. It’s an integral part of the ongoing project to subjugate the entire society to capitalist control. This happens by way of privatising what used to be the public sphere, or the commons. We can see this in the digital domain with the ever-expanding intellectual property rights. We see it in the Third World where foreign investors are buying off large areas of agricultural land, forcing local independent peasants to become wage labourers. In Europe, we see this more and more with the privatisation of public services. And the world over we see it with the privatisation of parks, town squares and other spaces used by the general public.
What happens is that when the commons goes, so goes the community. And when the community goes, politics becomes impossible, since what is politics if not dealing with the community, that which is common to many? This is the ultimate goal of the capitalist project: the eradication of politics and thus, of course, the end of democracy (Again, I need only to point to Margaret Thatcher’s famous line: “There is no alternative.” You will be assimilated.).
The most important thing the occupiers have done is that they have created new communities, literally from the ground up. They have taken these once public spaces and entered them back into the sphere of the commons. They have thus opened up a space for genuine, creative political discussion, as opposed to the charade of representative politics that the media keeps shoving down our throats whilst claiming that it has something to do with “democracy”. It’s not just a question of “free speech”, it’s a question of opening up a space where that speech can have real meaning and real repercussions. They’re not there to challenge the privileges of some individual group of people, they’re there to challenge the whole system and the presumptions that are used to justify it. That’s what the ruling elite is the most terrified about: that their carefully weaved web of lies gets exposed. And that’s precisely what has happened with the crackdowns: the capitalist society has been exposed as the system geared towards total control that it is.