The #OWS Occupations and their Spatialities

Excerpted from the New Left Project:

Found in a report on Occupy London.

“The first day was very hectic. With no leaders or imposed guidelines, we were free to (re)create the space as we saw fit. Initially people focused on making small structures, improvising with placards and cardboard to create makeshift tables. We were keen to embed ourselves in the new territory, both reworking its symbolic meaning to us (through banners or graffiti) as well as its practical meaning (making it a space to organise and discuss). By the end of the day, and after some tensions with the police, we had over a hundred tents, a kitchen marquee, and numerous working laptops. The space now belonged to us.

This reworking of the space outside the London Stock Exchange relied on a strong engagement with its micro geographies. From the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, to the entrance of Starbucks, every square foot of space was now being used, and had been designated to some working group or other. The coming hours would then see an intense negotiation with both the police and the cathedral over the exact location of the camp, with tensions developing over the use of very particular pockets of space (such as the upper steps outside St. Paul’s). As time went on our structures got stronger, as did our emotional and physical attachment to this place.

This territorialisation of our politics was combined with a diverse networking of relations across London, the UK and even the world. Apart from those activists who arrived by train, plane and bus to get involved, our newly formed “media-tech” team were sending and receiving messages of solidarity from across and the world, and donations were soon flooding in. Others were contacting journalists, from local to international, and spreading the word wide and far. Finally, others were communicating with representatives from trade unions, universities, and numerous political organisations in order to start building links.


The act of occupying has long been a tactic of autonomous movements, that seek to re-imagine what a particular space means to them, liberating it from the permeation of capital and rejecting the top-down hierarchies of state imposed bureaucracies. As Castoriadis (1991: 163) notes, ‘autonomy emerges when explicit and unlimited interrogation explodes on the scene – an interrogation that has bearing not on “facts” but on the social imaginary significations and their possible grounding’.

Crucially for political movements seeking autonomy, this social imaginary must be a collective one in which activists negotiate their collective project together. By occupying a space activists are bound together by the territory in which their (re)imaginations are being applied. They work together in order to resist the entrance of capital and state into that space, and also seek to (re)produce it through processes of consensus decision-making.

These instances of autonomous struggle, however, can be short-lived and are often very fragile, what have been termed “temporary autonomous zones” (Bey, 1991). Moreover, as has been well documented in numerous recent case studies by Chatterton and Pickerill (2010), these spaces of autonomy tend to be “interstitial”, in that they contain both autonomous and non-autonomous social relations within them. Whilst we may occupy collectively, numerous individual power relations drive our process, with more vocal or persuasive activists often determining the outcome of events, and others acting as mere observers. Autonomy is only ever a process, a desire to which activists strive but never fully achieve.

For many activists and academics interested in the autonomous movements of recent years, their proliferation has largely been down to their operations within a networked structure. The network is horizontal, embodying the key anti-hierarchical tendency of autonomy. Moreover, it lacks a centre and is thus resistant to external agents who seek to co-opt and dismantle it. Finally, its use of modern communication technologies has allowed it to globalise and overcome spatial barriers.

However an occupation cannot exist solely on the basis of this deterritorialised network, as some prominent voices have suggested (Hardt and Negri, 2004). Many of the activists are mobilised on the back of place-based struggles, e.g. at the work place, in which they develop strong-tie relations and build the confidence and skills necessary to participate. Moreover, the act of occupying relies on a strong embeddedness in a particular territory, in which activists are forced to put down some roots, if only temporarily. Indeed many occupations can soon become a struggle over the territorial politics of place.

These two spatialities, of the territorialised place and the deterritorialised network, can support each other. Most occupations tend to rely on online networking to gain broad support and publicise their message. Moreover the space of the occupation can act as a useful meeting point for diverse networks to encounter each other and discuss strategy. The call to “occupy everything”, is rather a strategy of multiple simultaneous occupations, embedded in particular territories, but brought together through a wider network.”

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