Review of Samuel Burgum, Occupying London: Post Crash Resistance and the Limits of Possibility

Review of Samuel Burgum, Occupying London: Post Crash Resistance and the Limits of Possibility. (2018). Abingdon: Routledge.

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Reviewed by Pete Bearder (Spoken-Word Poet and Occupy Activist)

What happened to the Occupy movement? In 2011, arguably the most exciting social movement in a generation exploded in towns and cities across Britain, and the world. The financial collapse of 15th September 2008 had spawned a global political contagion. For a brief and colorful moment in history, civil society appeared to transcended single issue politics. It spilled into one and a half thousand tented encampments in over seventy countries. The message – enough is enough.

But, tragically, it wasn’t enough. As Burgum points out, the Time Magazine person of the year went from the anonymous mask of ‘the Protestor’, to the ignominious façade of Donald Trump in the space of five years. All of the reasons for Occupy’s existence: unfettered market capitalism, spiraling inequality, ecocide, and the evisceration of public assets, have accelerated since 2012. The Occupy camps that didn’t face prompt evictions, disaggregated into internecine struggles for the ‘symbolic and material resources if the movement’ (12). This, sadly, befell the world’s longest running camp – Finsbury Square London.

With so much scholarship having focused on Occupy Wall Street, it is exciting to have an impassioned and well researched assessment of how Occupy punctuated, enlivened and divided the British left. Ten years after the crash, Burgum seeks to unpack how a horizontal collection of ordinary people accrued so much symbolic capital, but were ultimately unable to use it to remove the “1%”.

The book opens with a transcription of ‘Politics within Tent’, a poem I wrote and performed while living at Occupy London. The piece fizzes with an expansive enthusiasm which quickly left me. I am no longer able to perform the piece. As a poet that belonged to the movement, it was my job to dream and to try and capture the spirit of a moment. And yet, as this book reminds us, romantic appraisals of social movements are not always helpful in the long run. As a critical dissection of something that glimpsed at a social movement renaissance, some of this book was difficult for me to read.

It must also have been difficult to write. Having spent years interviewing and befriending occupiers, Burgum had to give a sober judgement of a repressed and exhausted movement. The book plays on this tension, expressing an impassioned desire to represent activist voices fairly, while simultaneously trying to draw lessons.

Each chapter begins with eventful, explicit and often amusing ethnographic sketches of life on camp. This grounds the book and brings colour and texture to a sociological discourse which I often find painfully dry. This book avoids that pitfall, yet, as an academic book, it may not speak easily to many former occupiers. For those, however, with a keen interest in the mechanics of social movements read on.

Chapter 1 grounds the study in political and social philosophy. This theory can be skipped without detriment, though readers may well enjoy a bout between Žižek, Foucault, Rancière and others, on the subject of political occupation and direct action.

The second chapter explores the politics of space, showing how, within the lineage of détournement, Occupy succeeded in repurposing space in a way that captured public imagination (at one point we were receiving over a grand a day in cash donations). Burgum is right to celebrate Occupy for making the polythene tent the defining political tool of our age. Its success ‘to make ‘non-sense’ appear’, (21) challenged what Rancière called the ‘distribution of the sensible’ about what is ‘reasonable’ public discourse, and where it may take place.

Yet, argues Burgum, in creating a new aesthetic of power, Occupy’s creative energies got sucked in to the many difficulties of maintaining territory and cohesion in the midst of homelessness, drug abuse and mental health issues. Vital energies were diverted away from the “1%” and into the micro hierarchies of camp process.

Chapter 3 explores these hierarchies further. Burgum argues that a political method premised on boundless inclusivity and a lack of hierarchy (and arguably structure) is self-defeating. The result is a heterogeneous landscape of identity cliques that prevents concerted authority. The movement loses ‘symbolic efficiency’ (65). In a landscape where no ‘collective boundaries’ exist, de-facto hierarchies remain unaccountable and unaddressed (85). Burgum posits an alternative: ‘negotiated exclusion’ in place of “inclusivity for the sake of it” (65).

In chapter 4, Burgum goes on to unpack the dynamics that lead to these subcultural groupings. While achieving moral distance from the 1%, the ‘pursuit of distance’ can lead to a process of self-ghettoization (110). Radical authenticity, he argues, is ultimately impotent in a commercialized landscape that fetishizes activism, absorbs subcultures, and then sells them back to us as T shirts and plastic masks. The book goes on to unpack how the underdog mentality translates to renewed underdog status, with the  endless rabbit holes of conspiracy narratives only aiding what Burgum calls the ‘foreclosure of possibility’ (144).

While all this does sound damning, Burgum does his best to emphasize the role of media monopolies and political elites in perpetuating the regime of ‘normal’ and breeding cynicism towards Occupy through misinformation, slurs and the toxic repetition that “there is no alternative”. But the 1% isn’t reading this book, and the lessons elicited here have ramifications for civil society in general. How can progressive politics “change the world without taking power”? Why does the left so persistently close off avenues for radical change from a position of cynicism towards those who dare to dream of something more utopic? In tilting his book towards these questions, Burgum offers an important glance into the subjectivity of the British left, its sense of worth, and its willingness to reimagine itself.

These questions need answering. We would also be foolish to abandon all of Occupy’s tactics. With privatisation erecting fences around people (and their attempts to dissent), there is, more than ever, a spatial imperative to protest, and to innovate how we do so.

I would like to have seen a greater discussion of Occupy’s legacy in this book. The movement’s “radical friendships” (to borrow a phrase from Ryan Newson) have surged back into action camps against fracking, as well as and direct action against airport expansion, housing issues and the deportation of assylum seekers. In opening up a space to dream, Occupy changed the conversation around capitalism, and enculturated thousands into direct action politics. It could be perilous to ignore and forget it. With the melody of Corbyn wafting faintly over a daggered future, ‘Occupying London’ provides lessons on how ‘to make ‘non-sense’ appear’ sensible.

Pete (the Temp) Bearder is a writer, spoken word poet, activist and musician based in Bristol, England. He is the former National Poetry Slam Champion who’s work has been featured on BBC TV and radio. Pete has toured with the British Council and done a TED X talk about his work as a spoken word educator. He is currently writing a book about spoken word as a democratic literary movement: ‘Stage Invasion: Poetry, Renewal and the Spoken Word Renaissance.’