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.