In the Desert of Cities

January 8, 2012

Notes on the Occupy Movement in the US
George Caffentzis

A talk presented at
“The Tragedy of the Market: From Crisis to Commons”:
a community gathering
Vancouver, B.C./Coast Salish Territory*

The Coptic hermits who left the world as though escaping from a wreck, did not merely intend to save themselves. They knew that they were helpless to do any good for others as long as they floundered about in the wreckage. But once they got a foothold on solid ground, things were different. Then they had not only the power but even the obligation to pull the whole world to safety after them. – Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert

No person shall sit, lie or sleep in or upon any street, side walk or other public way. – L.A.M.C. Sec. 41 18 (D)


My comments today arise out of my experience with “Occupy” movements in Greece (Thessaloniki and Athens) and in the US between June 2011 and the present. In the US. I have visited Occupy sites in New York, Boston, Portland, Maine, Oakland, San Francisco and I was at the destruction of the Occupy University of California – Berkeley site. I have not, however, spent a hermit’s night in an Occupy site.


Introduction: The Occupy Movement’s limits and possibilities internally and externally.

The recent governmental repression of the “Occupy movement” in the US has as its icons photos of New York City police officers’ harsh treatment of the Occupy Wall Street participants who practiced non-violence in the face of tremendous provocation: from the arrest of over 700 people in one action on the Brooklyn Bridge to the wrecking of the kitchen, library and the inhabited tents filled with personal effects on the Zuccotti Park site. Similar police violence occurred in most of the occupations in the larger cities like Boston, Oakland, San Francisco, Denver as well as New York City.

In the wake of the repression – justified under a ragtag series of minor, largely municipal (or, as Foucault would say, “biopolitical”) regulations: health and sanitary rulings, park closing hour regulations, restrictions on over-night presence in a public space, and regulations like L.A.M.C. Sec. 41.18 (D) which were devised to drive homeless people from the streets – there was outrage, for after all why should one be beaten to a pulp or be pepper sprayed in the eyes by police officers for the crime of over-night camping in a public park, an offence that would normally deserve the equivalent of a parking ticket? Why should so-called “free speech” constitutional rights not trump these local ordinances? After all, there is no 9 PM closure inscribed in the First Amendment. And indeed, these Clearances have generated thousands of lawsuits against municipal governments that will fill the court dockets around the country for a long time to come.

We know, on the testimony of Oakland’s mayor, Jean Quan, to the BBC that the assaults against the occupy sites were not the result of cops’ spontaneous sadism given free rein. They were coordinated and discussed by mayors from eighteen other cities. There is also good evidence of the involvement of Department of Homeland Security and FBI personnel coordinating the assaults.

It is also clear that these attacks were never repulsed by the type of self-defense that was (and is) practiced in Tahrir Square in over a year of deadly struggle in the face of live bullets and tear gas. In fact, and this is something I heard in the New York City, Oakland and San Francisco Occupy sites, many occupiers were either ambiguous about or almost relieved by the clearances while many others were bitter about the lack of resolve of the occupiers to defend their new community in formation. In the midst of this crisis, some even went as far as to say that the clearances came just in time to “save” the situation because there was so much discord in the encampments that they were on the verge of decomposition, while still others were angry about the lack of resolve of their fellow occupiers to hold the site.

Though, of course, the violence of the state is a significant barrier to the growth of the movement and constitutes an external limit, it is even more urgent to discuss the movement’s internal limits as we take new steps in expanding its scope. For, in actual fact, these internal limits are based upon the movement’s success in bringing together many class strata that had rarely encountered each other body to body politically. The political problem/challenge of the Occupy movement that was recognized with some chagrin was that the Occupy sites actually arose out of their success in doing a remarkable job of attracting many new strata of the 99% (or what used to be called the working class) to the occupy site.

In this talk I will discuss the paradoxical success of the Occupy movement, its relationship to some past movements and what its challenges are.

The Occupy Movement’s class composition: Get a Job!

In order to understand any class phenomenon in a capitalist society, we must understand how it is composed, for there is rarely any movement that is perfectly homogenous with a unified strategy and program. The Occupy movement claims to be a piece of the 99% and occupiers chant, “We are the 99%!” It is a great slogan because it is majoritarian, it refuses marginalization, and it calls on those who reject re-presentation to present themselves bodily here, to join us now. But the slogan holds two dangers. First, if we are as common as “leaves of grass” (the 99%), we might think we know already who we are and what are the limits of our powers. However, the most common is – like the dark matter that constitutes 90% of the universe, according to physicists – often the least known. There is much to learn about our powers and the opening that the Occupy movement has created in a hundred city squares is like a political telescope turned to examine these powers.

Second, but even more important, the slogan can tempt us to neglect the striations, the divisions, the hierarchies within the 99% that have such great power to stop movements in their tracks, in fact, much more power than the 1% can raise. True, no one can easily forget in this day and age sexism, racism, ableism, ageism, and the ever-growing list of other forms of intra-class conflict. From the very beginning of the movement, there were critiques and concerns about the racial and gender composition of the occupiers, for example. Was it a young, white male movement? How many people of color, how few trans and queer people, how many women were speaking at the GA? So the insightful Max Rameau of Take Back the Land sees the Occupy movement’s composition as one part of a larger entity that includes another complementary movement (the Liberate movement) differentiated by race: “Far from homogeneous, this budding movement is evolving towards parallel, but interrelated campaign tracks: #Occupy and Liberate…Composition. #Occupy has mobilized mainly, though not exclusively, disaffected young and impacted working and middle class whites. Liberate is mainly low and middle income people of color.”

In this talk I want to note another important division between those occupiers who had a job that required keeping regular work hours and a family in a home and those who were either unemployed, or without a family or homeless. This division permeated the most mundane decisions of the Occupy sites. For example, in a recent General Assembly (GA) at the Occupy Maine site there was a discussion concerning the scheduling of the hours of the GA, should it be at 6PM or 4PM? What’s the difference? It was soon revealed. The original time for the GA was 6PM in order to give people with jobs time to come to the meeting. But it turned out that the local homeless shelter that served a hot dinner to the homeless population opened its doors at 6PM and closed them at 7PM (and the kitchen at the Occupy Maine site was not too reliable). It was noted in the discussion that increasingly there was a shift from one type of worker who was waged to another who was not.

The power of the encampments is that it brought together much of the working class, both the waged and the unwaged, from the homeless to the long-term unemployed to the former university student facing an unpayable student loan with the worker on a job who can only find a political opportunity for resistance in a transformed space outside the factory, dock, office or school.

The double-sided nature of the Occupy sites speaks to both sides of the working class (a) as a vehicle for the protest of workers with a job but who are powerless to express their resistance on and against the job and (b) the site of reproduction of both the labor power and the refusal of labor of the irregularly employed people who are attracted to the Occupy site. The immediate interest that the unions took in allying themselves with the Occupy movement is a sign of the problem the unions (and workers with jobs) face. Thus, in the “general strike” in Oakland, the people who could not officially say they were striking were the reason d’etre of the strike itself: the truckers and the dockworkers! Similarly, the state workers in Wisconsin could not strike to protest Governor Walker’s destruction of their union rights, so they had to depend on the people (many without jobs) who had occupied the state house for weeks for active resistance to Walker’s schemes.

It is this two-sided aspect of Occupy sites – one as a political siege of the machinery of finance (as in the original Occupy Wall Street site) or the state (in the case of Wisconsin, a prescient Occupy moment) and the other, an attempt to create a self-enclosed site of a reproductive commons operating on the basis of sharing money and labor – that made the experience of the first phase of the Occupy movement so complex, verging on the contradictory, since these two types of workers had very different needs. But it was in the boldness to take on and bring together these two sides of the working class division that made the Occupy experience such an extra-ordinary source of political knowledge.

One epistemological maxim in politics is: “By the insults hurled at them, ye shall know them.” Applying this maxim to the Occupy movement, the typical taunt from its opponents was “Get a Job!” since the idea of the Occupy protests is that the occupiers would be hermit-like in protesting ‘round-the-clock (the way the hermits carry on prayer and meditation) and so it would be impossible to reconcile their life with having a regular “job.” The taunt was taken ironically by the occupiers, because, on the one side, many in the movement have a job, but can do little to protect it except with the help of those without one! As Chris Carlsson so powerfully pointed out in his Nowtopia, in this period waged work does not provide a viable identity for struggle for most workers. It now turns out that even struggling about a job must increasingly be done outside the job as well. But on the other side, those occupiers without regular jobs, through their participation in the Occupy protest, got a “job” in the sense that the full-time political job of protesting the injustices of the unegalitarian structure of contemporary society became theirs, if they were willing and able to do it.

These two aspects of the Occupy sites are both the source of conflict and the promise of a “recomposition” of the working class, now that the home is becoming an increasingly precarious condition of living and the tent is becoming a site of immediate communication within the class. The answer to the question, “Will the job/no job conflict defeat the recomposition or become its stimulus?,” will determine whether the Occupy effort will continue to not only challenge the rule of capitalists (the 1%) but also to help to transform the nature of the working class (the 99%) or not in the coming months.

Rejection of Representative Politics and a call for body politics

An important aspect of the Occupy movement is its rejection of representative politics for a body politics in earnest. You simply have to bodily be at the center of the circulation of cities to practice this politics. Its opposite, representative politics, is being rejected by millions of people. Let’s remember where representative politics comes from, i.e., re-presentation. Your re-presentative presents you in order for you to be absent from the political debates and decisions. So actually what appears to be a politics of presence is really one of absence.

Now for many of us busy, over-worked folk this appears to be a good deal. After all, sitting through long debates and getting trained to go over government accounts is time-consuming and tedious. But in periods of crisis when you no longer trust who is presenting you again in your absence and when you no longer trust the whole apparatus of representation, the need to make your presence felt physically returns, i.e., to go back to basics and originally present yourself as a body in motion at a historic juncture ready to swerve the relations of power in your favor. The occupying mass of bodies that we have seen from Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Greece, Spain are made up of those who, for good reason, no longer trust any form of representation, whether electoral or not.

You might remember a time when the notion of the power of the street and of the public gathering was ridiculed by political theorists like Paul Virilio. The politics of lightening speed or the virtual and the ethereal was all the rage in the postmodern cosmos, but the experiences of the last year have shown that speed is not enough for political effect, momentum (mass times velocity) is necessary as well. Though Twitter and Facebook were important, in the final analysis, the bodies and the site or place (“the squares”) were still politically decisive, even sine qua nons for any revolutionary transformation. The siege was considered the most archaic arrangement of forces, but now it has been revived. “Occupy,” not in the imperialist, but in the spatio-temporal sense of the word, is beginning to have a political meaning again.

This ‘round-the-clock bodily presence makes the occupy movement self-reproducing, in Silvia Federici’s sense. In other words, before the rise of the Occupy movement, there was an unfulfilled desire “to put an end to the separation between the personal and the political, and political activism and the reproduction of everyday life,” in her words. This erasure of these separations is exactly what the Occupy sites provided as a political experience in response to the concept of politics as a performance that one does as an event at a particular place and time (whether it be “violent” or “non-violent” is irrelevant in this regard) and then returns to the quotidian life. Much of the excitement of the Occupy movement was the creation of a new living topos in the center of the city that had been previously deserted and that was being used to transform the quotidian, a place that was generative of political action and at the same time a living space for hundreds in the desert of cities.

In the Desert of Cities

For there is an ascetic element in the Occupy movement. By facing all the weathers in the open, the occupiers showed that they were willing to suffer to say their piece to Wall Street. This aspect was especially emphasized for me in the Occupy Maine camp, where the occupiers were offered an easy out by the Portland City Council, which ordered their encampment be dismantled in late December, but the occupiers did not take the invitation and decided to fight the order in the courts and stay on in their tents in the face of a Maine winter! Whenever it rained, snowed or the temperature fell below freezing at night, I would think of my comrades in their tents and share at a distance a sense of discomfort; as if their suffering was a verification of the worth of the political message that is being expressed. Similar stories of ascetic suffering could be told of the other Occupy sites.

In a society where shoppers are crushed by their fellows in a frenzied quest for the purchase of an I-Phone, this asceticism is a potent living expression of disgust over the willingness of so many of the 99% to destroy themselves at the behest of a capitalism that is increasingly making the cities deserts of “an immense collection of commodities.” The sharing of the Occupy site is not only that of food and shelter, but of shared pain, discomfort and commitment. Sleeping in the rain and snow, finding places to wash, to urinate and defecate, dealing with frostbite (at least in the northern areas), devoting 24 hours a day to political activities marked those who stayed at the Occupy site from the ones who came intermittently during the day. The ever-renewed discomfort and commitment remained as a badge of honor and a sign of legitimacy.

This might sound strange, but all this experience was reminiscent of the ascetics of the desert, whether Hebrew, Christian or Muslim. I was especially moved to compare the occupiers with the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the fourth century, who, at the moment when Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire, walked out of their comfortable homes in the cities of the Nile, gave away their wealth to the poor, and started to live in the Egyptian desert, suffering much, but learning much and through their very pain cast doubt on the new turn of the faithful to state power. As Thomas Merton wrote of the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the epigraph to this talk, they found in their bodily privations the solitude and self-recognition that made it possible to “to pull the whole world to safety after them,” if the world was interested in being saved!

The Occupy method transfers a similar ascetic passion to the political level. It calls for a twenty-four hour political life that gives the Occupiers a moral authority that appealed to the 99% in comparison to the anxious self-satisfaction of the Wall Streeters looking down from their office towers wondering whether Occupy Wall Street will affect their bonuses!

Conclusion: Public versus Common

The transformation of the public space run for the convenience of the state into a common space that is organized by the commoners who live and work in it is another and final aspect of the Occupy movement that I will comment on today. This transformation is often expressed by the question: which trumps which, “free speech” rights or municipal biopolitical ordinances (regulation of sanitation, food preparation, etc.)? After all, what happens if integral to exercising free speech in Los Angeles a person “shall sit, lie or sleep in or upon any street, side walk or other public way” and therefore violates L.A.M.C. Sec. 41 18 (D)? This conundrum, however, describes the situation in the language of the state, i.e., in the form of constitutional rights taking precedence over municipal ordinances or not.

The truly subversive intent of the Occupy site is to transform public space into a commons. A public space is ultimately a space owned and opened/closed by the state, it is a res-publica, a public thing. A common space, in contrast, is opened by those who occupy it, i.e., those who live on it and share it according to their own rules. The worldwide movement of occupiers (through their practice) is demanding common spaces where they can live on in order to give body to their political thoughts. That is why the first acts of the Occupations involve housework: where are we to sleep, eat, urinate, defecate, clean up, etc.? This is not trivial, for in discovering the power of bodies that present themselves instead of being re-presented by others, their continued presence multiplies that power and momentum. This is what the government and Wall Street especially hate about the occupations and why there has been so much violence unleashed against them: they prefigure another way to organize society and to create a new commons. The parliaments and council chambers are temples of absence, while the Tahrir Squares of the world are places where a general will is embodied and in action.

Indeed, the 21st century Occupiers, instead of going to the Egyptian desert have gone instead to a more desolate desert at the center of their Cairos to save the world!

* I learned in the “community gathering” that Vancouver was built on the land of the indigenous Coast Salish people who had not signed any treaties ceding their land to the imperialist occupiers.


Chris Carlsson, Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and Vacant-Lot Gardeners are Inventing the Future Today. Oakland: AK Press, 2008.

Silvia Federici, “Feminism and the Politics of the Commons in an Era of Primitive Accumulation,” in Uses of a Whirlwind: Movement, Movements and Contemporary Radical Currents in the United States, edited by Team Colors Collective. Oakland: AK Press, 2010.

Christina Heatherton (ed.), Downtown Blues: A Skid Row Reader, Los Angeles: Los Angeles Community Action Network, 2011.

Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, New York: New Directions, 1960.

Richard Rodriguez, “The God of the Desert: Jerusalem and the Ecology of Monotheism,” Harpers, Vol. 316, No. 1892 (Jan. 2008), pp. 35-46.

Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics, New York: Semiotext(e), 1986.

1 thought on “In the Desert of Cities

  1. Pingback: In the Desert of Cities « Global Alternative

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