by Samuel Burgum & A.N.Onymous
At the end of the Piccadilly line, at the Cat hill environmental camp in North London, protesters are occupying woodland to prevent a housing development from tearing it down. It was here that I met with A.N.ON – a self-described ‘War Artist’ who was involved with Occupy London and is often pictured in the mainstream media for his unique aesthetic of ski-goggles, pillowcase headwear and cartoon pyjamas – to talk about Ranciere and Occupy London for the TCS journal website. A.N.ON is familiar with some of Ranciere’s work – but also pointed out that doing homework for the interview wouldn’t have been very ‘Rancierean’ – so the following is therefore a transcript of our conversation that we have collaboratively ‘tidied up’ since.
SB: Do you think there was a problem with unequal power and authority within Occupy London?
A.N.ON: Certainly, there was in many ways. Occupy was the first kind of protest camp environment I was ever involved in, and I didn’t get there from the start, so it was already set up and there was always the question of ‘who started it off?’ There was a ‘tyranny of the founders’, a sort of inner circle that were ‘experts’ in activism teaching us ‘how it’s done’. I suppose if I was an expert of activism in London – and I’d been around and I’d earned my spurs and my ‘credit rating’ was high – then I could probably meet these people and they could vet me. But one phrase that appeared at the end was ‘the circle of trust’ and it became an identity thing: ‘them and us’.
It was supposed to be a ‘horizontal’ leaderless movement and an experiment into a more equal and direct democracy using the consensus model of a General Assembly [GA]. But, although no one was saying that there were leaders, I pointed out that you could tell who the hierarchy are because they’re the ones walking around saying there’s no hierarchy! There were people who conceived of themselves as ‘experts’ in Occupy’s democratic process and they were the ones who ended up adopting powerful positions.
However, having said that, there are some people in London who are ‘experts’ in ways of organising rallies, protests and camps because they’ve been doing it for quite some time. And there’s no point saying they’re not very good at it: they’ve got the Port-a-loo phone numbers and materials in a garage somewhere. I don’t think there’s any point denying that there’s some people that are experts, but what Ranciere is talking about how you allow everyone to be experts and the importance of ‘learning to learn’.
I mean, are these people who are experts willing to share their knowledge? Instead of Ranciere’s ‘ignorant schoolmaster’ I would say that these were more ‘reluctant schoolmasters’. The Occupy ‘movement’ was supposed to be a union of settlements, but this was something that was blatantly subverted by the ‘master builders’ of the consensus. These hitchhikers of ‘Occupy London TM’ crashed the car (but not before rifling through the glove compartment). They took over the major camp and con-troll-ed it.
Mind you, I’m forever telling the experts things they have done wrong, so does that make me an expert? Or does that just make me an expert in pointing out the fallacies of experts? (I suppose there’s an expertise to that!) But the Rancierean point is that I don’t want to be the only person who’s pointing that out. You don’t want to be the only person to do that, you want everyone to point that out. The ignorant schoolteacher is still teaching, they’re not like “oh, there’s a load of kids there, I’m going to keep them ignorant”.
SB: Part of Ranciere’s theory is that we need to presuppose equality rather than have it as an ‘end goal’ of a political project, do you think Occupy was able to presuppose equality?
A.N.ON: I don’t think enough re-centring was going on from the schoolmasters and therefore not enough ‘presupposed equality’ was in evidence.
In fact, it could be said that there was even collusion between the people who wanted to be in power and the people who didn’t want to be in power. Some people don’t want to put themselves forward and are scared to do it. I suppose Ranciere is suggesting that the people who stay as a consumer – watching it and pondering it – are not as valid or something, but some people do want to ponder things and don’t want to be involved. If you go to a circus and people call you up then some people will be turned off by that – “this is the worst moment of my life, I’ve just been called up on stage” – but other people will go: “oh! I wanted to be pulled up onto the stage and do that!”
There’s this phrase “if you tell me, I’ll forget. If you show me, I’ll remember. If you involve me, I’ll understand” and Ranciere is touching on things like that. But if it’s about involvement and you don’t want to be involved, then it could be character destructive rather than character building. It’s kind of like this “I’ll stand on the stage, because I like singing, and you sit in the audience because you don’t like singing”.
Part of what the ‘dissensus’ is, is the people who’ve had their ability to complain taken off them. But, while it is certainly better to involve yourself and make a spectacle out of the involvement, at the same time, what about the people who don’t want to be involved in that? They have also lost critically important communication skills and confidence skills.
SB: For Ranciere, the police order is something that attempts to control the aesthetics of space by designating what can appear legitimately and making other appearances ‘move along’. Did you feel this was used against Occupy London?
A.N.ON: A group of Occupiers tried to set up a camp on Hamstead Heath and within three hours the council (in conjunction with the police) had moved them along. A council spokesperson said they had no problem with 1000 people protesting on the heath; but they didn’t allow camping there and therefore had to call the police. That’s all the evidence anyone needs of the power of occupying land as part of a political campaign (‘occupying’ mind you, not ‘Occupy’ing). There can be a movement without a settlement, of course, but the next time 50,000 people march through London and get no press coverage, perhaps they might consider the relative benefits of occupations. The cops of Hamstead would be proud of ‘Occupy London TM’. The copse of Hamstead Heath would not.
Furthermore, there’s always a chance the government will define you as a ‘terrorist organisation’. I have my face covered and the cops might come over and say “you look like you’re being offensive” and I say “well, I’ve got my doctor’s letter so it’s not offensive, it’s a defensive mechanism because I have my medical condition.” This happened at the anti-fracking camp in Balcombe, they’re going to say: “ah, you look like you’re doing some direct action with you face covered” and my argument is “I came up to you two weeks before and asked you to get in touch with my doctor so you know I’m genuine!” So it’s chicken and egg because they can always go “ah, you look offensive” but of course that’s the point because they’re always going to tell us we’re offensive. Just like the rioters in Tottenham – “ah, offensive!” – but they’re aggrieved about someone being shot in their community. But of course, for Ranciere, the police would be experts in the community in Tottenham.
I remember when we were going to get evicted and we were thinking what to do. One of the ideas I had was to tarp everything. You know you have blue United Nations tents with ‘UN’ written on them? Well, I said, we should get blue tarp on everything so it’s uniform and call it ‘United Rations’! So it’s telling people what we are: an ideological refugee camp. It’s saying that this isn’t something you see on the news far away, this is a state of mind. We’re not part of this government, we’re standing against it. Another one I thought is… the classic resistance to imperialism is Asterix’s village: they’re the ultimate badass European occupiers really! I was saying if we made the camp look like that… I mean it’s far-fetched… but the point is that Occupy is Asterix’s village vs. the Romans!
SB: When we met before, you once used a metaphor of ‘snow and grit’ to describe how the movement developed and put certain restraints on Occupy in London?
A.N.ON: Well someone put a call out – ‘we are the 99%’ – and whoever set it up was taking a punt: “we will try and have as many people as possible, a ground swell, and we will take on the banks, so we need as many people as we can”. But, on the one hand, you’ve got some (perhaps more ‘middle class’) activists who think about issues in advance, and then on the other you’ve got those who are pushed to the edge whose main concerns are where they’re getting their next drugs or drink. So they’ve invited people to build this snowball, thinking “it’s going to be a lovely, pure, long-termist, alternative future… it’s going to get bigger and we’re going to break the banks with it.” But actually, in order to pack it up to begin with, they’re looking around thinking there isn’t actually much ‘snow’ so we need to begin with ‘the wrong kind of snow’ and put that in. Then before long, you look at it, and it’s more of a grit-ball than a snowball.
Now, what’s wrong with talking to grit and allowing the grit to decide what it’s going to do? You’ve got to allow the thing to develop differently and accept that it’s a grit ball now, but they wanted it to be a pure system. Some of us thought it was about occupying the space and we thought the people in the GA were helping that – that they were there to support the camps – but they obviously thought differently: that it was more about ‘occupy your mind’ and that the camps were there to support the movement. One was the hardware; one was the software. You can argue it either way, but the fact is we had good will towards each other at the start and it fell apart not least because of their central idea of inviting snow to the streets of London only to find out that “oh look, there’s already grit on the streets!”
The movers and shakers arrived and the gritty people who held the beach, who packed the snowball early doors with artificial colourings, were outsourced to that country cousin of a protest camp: Occupy Finsbury Square. The GA gave up on the ‘overspill’ site at Finsbury, but I think Occupy did more there. It was a tougher ride but you learnt more because you got rid of the system that was at St Pauls.
SB: It seems that Occupy London had many internal contradictions that it found it difficult to cope with – the un-desirable hierarchy, the negotiations over appearance, the problem of ‘grit’ – but how do you see these tensions being resolved?
A.N.ON: This is the age-old thing of direct action vs. democracy and thinking you know best against the wishes of the majority. But, ultimately, all you can really do is a Gerrard Winstanley kind of thing and take some land and those who set up camps in the future should remain there to answer any questions from the inevitable dissensus that emerges. We need a perpetual feedback loop that embraces the possibilities of the tents themselves: which moves about a bit, reconfigures itself, and questions itself with its own building blocks. You can start from small roots.
About the Authors
Sam is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Warwick and has been conducting research with Occupy London since 2012. You can follow Sam on Twitter (@sjburgum) or visit his blog (esjaybe.wordpress.net).
A.N.Onymous is a conscientious objector to the British government whom the Icelandic government won’t give political asylum to. A.N.ON was involved in Occupy LSX, Occupy Finsbury Square and continues to be political active.
TCS will be publishing a Special Section on Ranciere in this year’s Annual Review (TCS 31.7-8, December 2014). The section is edited by Nikos Papastergiadis and features an interview with Ranciere, already published Online First here: http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/04/11/0263276413476559.abstract
Readers may also be interested in John Phillips’s 2010 TCS article on ‘Art, Politics and Philosophy: Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière’, available here: http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/27/4/146.abstract