The "Occupy" Movement and the Politics to Come


Paul Livingston


The “Occupy” Movement and the Politics to Come

In this essay, I would like to consider the current “occupy” movement and its relation to some ways of thinking about the nature of politics and the future of political thought and action.  My aim will be to consider a series of relevant and potentially helpful ideas in recent political thought and to suggest that we might understand the potential of the movement to produce political change and transformation partly in terms of these ideas.  I will argue, in particular, that the “occupy” movement has the potential to develop an innovative kind of conceptualization and praxis of politics, a kind of “politics beyond the polis” that creates new ideas and possibilities of political thought and action, and which is also anticipated by several leading contemporary political theorists.  This is not to say that the movement will necessarily continue to develop in the specific directions I am considering here, or even necessarily that it should.  I aim simply to extract a series of concepts that may prove helpful to some in thinking about theoretical bases for the kinds of organization and practice that the “occupy” movement has exhibited so far, and could possibly carry further.


Politics beyond the polis

For those who took to parks, streets, and public spaces in the fall of 2011, beginning with Zuccotti park in Manhattan but soon spreading across the USA and around the world, the meaning of “occupying” is basically a political one.  Yet the actions and interventions that began in New York typically do not orient themselves toward any specific political party or any narrow set of policy recommendations in the sense of the established electoral, administrative, and bureaucratic politics of the USA, or any other state.   In fact, one of the greatest potentials of the movement appears to the prospect that it may, going beyond existing positions and policies, offer to fundamentally reconfigure the space of “political” thought and action itself.  But what kind of “political” action is it to occupy?  And even in the wake of the forced removal of most “occupy” protestors from initial occupation sights in the fall and winter of 2011, what might it mean for the prospect of a movement founded on the simple action of occupation – in any of the various senses of this term, not limited to physically taking up spaces, but extending to actions of repossession, appropriation, and liberation, both in physical and virtual “space” – not only to intervene within, but to change fundamentally, the very space in which we today talk about, think about, and take action with respect to politics and the political?

To consider these questions, it is helpful to begin with Aristotle’s classic definition of the “state” or polis, at the opening of his Politics:

Every state (polis) is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for everyone always acts in order to obtain what they think good.  But, if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good.[1]

Aristotle’s classic definition of the polis contains two ideas that are essential prerequisites for any thinking of the political today.  The first is the idea of a community – an association, or koinonia – which forms the basis, according to Aristotle, for every possible organization of the polis.  This is an idea of the fundamental foundation of the political organization in the unity of the common, in the commonality of interests, desires, identities and hopes that makes possible, for Aristotle, any form of coherent social organization.  Though Aristotle himself does not define it this way here, the polis is understood, by Aristotle and other Greek thinkers, as the organizing “center” of the social life of a community, the fixed and firm “pole” around which all actions, laws, and practices must inevitably orbit.  This is a spatial and territorial idea of the state, the conception of a people grouping itself together in the unity of shared interests that comes from inhabiting the same centered space.  The second idea, always in a certain tension with the first, is the idea of the directedness of this form of association toward the good – toward what we can hope for and work to bring about through this unity of interests or of identities, of values or of needs.  Aristotle conceives these two aspects – the unity of the center and the openness toward the good – as the essential basis as well as the essential form of the political “common,” and so lays the foundation for the two-thousand year Western history of the politics of the state.

If, however, we are to take seriously today the second idea, of a fundamental directedness to the good, it is first necessary that we examine once again the first idea, that of the unity of the community in the centering substance of the “polis.”  For the classical concept of the “polis” which Aristotle presupposes and deploys appears today to be less founded, secure, and certain than ever, and, as I shall try to show, one of the great potentials of the “occupy” movement may be that it effectively stages this insecurity in a way that points toward new forms of organization and directedness toward the good that can no longer be understood as the unity of a community or find its direct and unproblematic expression in the politics of a state.  This is so for various reasons, all connected to the changes and transformations that the concept and reality of the state has undergone since antiquity, which have accelerated in the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.  First, any serious thinking about the state and politics today must come to terms with the dramatic and vast expansion of the powers and authorities of the state in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, an expansion that goes hand-in-hand with the world-dominating symbiosis of state governments (led by the U.S.) and non-state, global forms of capitalist economic praxis, including global industrialization, the development of “information” economies, and, perhaps most importantly today, the dramatic and rapid growth of speculative finance capital.  But second, and simultaneously, it is evident that the sovereignty and power of states in the traditional, territorial sense of that term is today undergoing a dramatic and radical crisis of authority, a crisis witnessed in ever more desperate and violent attempts to control borders, securitize resources, and ensure global military and juridical hegemony. 

From its beginnings on Wall Street, the “occupy” movement has been focused, in large measure, on the massive and systematic inequities of the global financial order, the structural inequalities that led to the crises of 2008 but have still not been addressed in any fundamental way by any effective power either within or without state politics.  And the brutal and spectacular instances of police violence that we have seen in response demonstrate unequivocally the decisive investments of state power in the material defense of this existing trans-state global financial structure.  If, then, those in the movement understand that the electoral and administrative politics of the state exist, today, largely, if not exclusively, in service to these economic formations, it must also be acknowledged that the essential link envisaged by Aristotle between the state and the common good has effectively been broken.  For as the crisis of 2008 spectacularly demonstrates, the global order of financial capital serves the good of only a narrow and select few, and above all exists primarily in service of the privilege of these few and the perpetuation of its own inegalitarian structure.  But if the modern reality of state and capitalist politics has essentially privileged the structure of the state (in the extended significance whereby it comprehends global economic structures as well), the challenge of the coming politics is to conceive of the fundamental possibility of directedness toward the good outside the structure of any form of state organization, to think the good otherwise than as the “common” of the polis.   

The problem of the massive and inegalitarian dominance of the state by trans-national global structures could not have been envisaged by Aristotle, for whom oiko-nomia still meant only the order and management of the oikos, or household.  But if the administrative, military and police power of the polis today functions largely in defense of the fundamentally inegalitarian global economic order, then the challenge for any thinking of the possibility of a politics to come is the problem of thinking a politics that is, in a certain way, beyond or outside the polis.  Because it is no longer possible to understand the unity of the state as a simple, territorial one, and because the power of the state tends ever more to devote itself to the defense of a trans-state order that has little or nothing to do with the unity of a “common” good, political thought is thus challenged to think, and bring about, the unity of a community that has no allegiance to the global order of capital or to any existing state formation. 

This, in any case, is the provocative claim of the contemporary philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who in his remarkable 1990 book, The Coming Community, imagines the “community to come” as a unity of singularities without common identity, territory, or center:

The novelty of the coming politics is that it will no longer be a struggle for the conquest or control of the State, but a struggle between the State and the non-State (humanity), an insurmountable disjunction between whatever singularity and the State organization.  This has nothing to do with the simple affirmation of the social in opposition to the State that has often found expression in the protest movements of recent years.  Whatever singularities cannot form a societas because they do not possess any identity to vindicate nor any bond of belonging for which to seek recognition.[2]

According to Agamben, the political struggles of the future will thus demand the emergence of a transformative politics of what he calls the “whatever singularity;” this is an actor or being whose claim to recognition does not rest in any shared essence, culture, or identity, but rather, as Agamben explains, in its simple existence, in its “being-there” itself.  The community to come of “whatever singularities”, then, is a community without the unity of shared identity, a community whose members are so radically different from one another that they do not and cannot form even the unity of an organic “society.”  Here we see the ultimate consequence of the contemporary crisis of the polis, and face the challenge of the possibility of a politics to come that does not any longer orient itself with respect to the centering unity of the state.  As Agamben suggests, this challenge is the one that must be faced by any political movement that seeks to respond to the massively unbinding and alienating totality of the global capitalist order, and to arrive at new forms of community and collective life that can eventually supplant and defeat it.  If “occupy” is to be such a movement, then, it apparently must involve a radical new thinking of the possibility of community itself, outside the organization of any polis as well as any unity of essence or identity.  Here, it is inadequate simply to call (as some have on behalf of the movement) simply for a new and non-capitalist “politics of the commons” or for a theorization the possibilities of futural non-state politics simply on the basis of existing concepts of community or commonality.[3]  Rather, it is a dramatic challenge to thought which is at the same time a profound challenge to practice and action: the challenge to think the very possibility of a collective directedness toward the good anew, outside the guarantee of any substantial unity or any correspondence of essence, and without the assurance of the concept of the centered polis which has sustained Western political thought since its inception.


The khorology of politics: occupying, spacing, and making space

Since its beginning of the “occupy” movement, commentators and critics have often noted the relative absence of concrete demands and policy recommendations that distinguishes the practice and action of “occupy” protestors from those of many other protest movements, present and past.  This is not to say, however, that the movement lacks concrete ideas or has failed to implement action directed precisely toward the most important inequalities and structural failures of the current configuration.  The first and foremost of these actions has been, of course, occupation itself.  If the movement has indeed largely, if not completely, lacked concrete, direct recommendations or programs on the level of immediate policy, and thus has seemed in certain ways unrecognizable from the perspective of current mainstream “politics,” this may, as I shall argue, be simply an inherent consequence of its effectivity on a different level of political action and praxis, the level on which the act of occupying, in itself, points toward the possibility of a transformed politics and another kind of collective life.

But what is the meaning of “occupying,” if it does not issue immediately in recommendations and demands on the level of state or economic policy?  Does the direct action of protestors who took to streets, parks, and public places then amount simply to the (perhaps “subversive” but hardly transformative) act of “taking up space”?  As I shall argue, the significance of “occupation” may be far broader than this, amounting not simply to “taking up space” but rather, much more significantly, to making the plural spaces in which genuinely democratic forms of life and the politics grounded in them can arise and flourish.  For essential reasons, this making of space doesn’t immediately issue in recommendations to be followed or demands to be realized; its burden is the much more profound task of creating the fragile possibility of new kinds of collective praxis that articulate the forms of a life to come.

Once again, we can turn to recent political thought, in its dialogue with the fundamental concepts of western political thought and action, for some helpful conceptual guidelines.  In his jointly political and cosmological dialogue Timeaus, Plato considers the relationship between ideas, which are intelligible only by means of thinking, and the objects of the senses.  In addition to these two types of being and mediating between them, he says, there is also necessarily a certain “third genus”, neither sensible nor intelligible in itself, but that which mediates between them, making possible the sensible as well as the intelligible by giving space and making a place for all that is.  To designate this “third genus” which mediates between and unsettles the opposition of thought and materiality, Plato uses a word which also had, for the Greeks, a more general signification of “place” or “area.”  The term is khôra:

…we must agree that One Kind is the self-identical Form, ungenerated and indestructible, neither receiving into itself any other from any quarter nor itself passing any whither into another, invisible and in all ways imperceptible by sense, it being the object which it is the province of Reason to contemplate; and a second Kind is that which is named after the former and similar thereto, an object perceptible by sense, generated, ever carried about, becoming in a place and out of it again perishing, apprehensible by Opinion with the aid of Sensation; and a third Kind is ever-existing Place (khôra),which admits not of destruction, and provides room for all things that have birth, itself being apprehensible by a kind of bastard reasoning by the aid of non-sensation, barely an object of belief; for when we regard this we dimly dream and affirm that it is somehow necessary that all that exists should exist in some spot and occupying some place, and that that which is neither on earth nor anywhere in the Heaven is nothing. (51e-52b)[4]

In a far-ranging 1993 essay, Jacques Derrida revisits the meaning of khôra, considering its implications for a deconstructive interpretation of the problems of contemporary thought and action.[5]  In a peculiar and interesting way, Derrida argues, the concept of khôra destabilizes from with the whole host of oppositions on which Plato’s philosophy and all the philosophical systems that follow from it depend.  These oppositions – between the thinkable and the sensible, the ideal and the real, thought and action themselves – have also organized the politics of the West, and, as Derrida notes, in its effective destabilizing of these terms of opposition the khôra has an exemplary and singular political significance as well.  Indeed, it is not insignificant, Derrida suggests, that within the Timeaus “this mise en abyme [of the khôra] affects the forms of a discourse on places, notably political places, a politics of place entirely commanded by the consideration of sites (jobs in the society, region, territory, country), as sites assigned to types or forms of discourse…”  (p. 104).  The thinking of khôra is thus, according to Derrida, the thinking of a kind of impossible spacing, a condition of the possibility of space and place that itself cannot be thought on the basis of any positive concept or sensible object.  As such, it first makes possible the space of any possible political life, the place of any positing of goals or any realization of aims.  It conditions the spacing and placing of anything like a political community, or the radically undecidable space in which anything like a political project can first take place.

In its more general sense, khôra can mean the place or region of a community, the open and environing region within which the city takes shape and begins to pursue a collective life.  It is the opening of space in which the exchange and negotiation of public life first become possible.  Yet the significance of khôra is both broader then, and different from, that of the agora, the central place of assembly and political decision, but also the marketplace, in which the Athens of Socrates and Plato conducted the business of exchange and Socrates pursued his unceasing inquiry into the values of the city.  If it is the case, as Derrida suggests, that every regular configuration of political thought and action depends on the undecidability of the khôra, then its opening or spacing also necessarily precedes any positing of goals, announcement of projects, or negotiation of ends.  That the khôra is a structurally necessary “third genus” between the ideal and the material means that the opening of the khôra must, necessarily, precede any possible politics of ideal ends or their substantive realization.  And that the khôra necessarily precedes the opposition between thought and action in this way means that the opening of the khôra can provide a radical alternative to the contemporary mainstream politics of the globalized agora, the economic-political marketplace of capital in which all ideas, policies and projects are (always already) bought and sold. 

If this is right, then it seems possible that the most radical implication of the praxis of an occupation without demands may be that it accomplishes this opening of khôra, the opening of a space of political and collective life whose structure is, at the deepest level, different from that of the contemporary global economics and politics of markets and administration.  Far from simply “taking up space,” the act of occupying might be seen, in and of itself, as the paradoxical act of “making space,” opening and creating the spacing that makes another kind of political thinking and acting possible.  This would, again, be the creation of the space for a democracy without policy or polls, the space of a collective politics and action that thinks, and lives, otherwise.


Critical politics of the whole: generic being of the life to come

In each of these ways, the contemporary configuration to which the “occupy” movement responds appears to demand a new thinking of politics, a politics outside the assumption of the substantial unity of identity or the shared bond of an assumed space of political identities and values, indeed a politics located outside the ambit of the Aristotelian assumption of the polis, the unifying center of collective thought and action directed toward the good.  But more than just providing a radical alternative to the contemporary economically and administratively determined structure of the state (in the extended sense in which it comprises not only territorially based governments but also the vast trans-national economic networks that surround them and set their agendas), the “occupy” movement may be seen as providing some of the terms of thought and action that are most appropriate for its radical critique and transformation.  This is because, as I shall argue in this final section, the thought and practices of the “occupy” movement effectively capture and bring to light the deepest and most structurally significant contradictions and antagonisms that in fact structure and determine the global politics of the market and state.

If, as I have suggested, an effective future-directed politics can no longer be thought as structured around the assumption of an organic social unity, harmonious in itself, then it becomes necessary to consider how the existing political order is in fact fundamentally structured, not by unity, but by the internal divisions and structural contradictions that threaten at each moment to rend it apart.  From this perspective, the coercive power of the State, witnessed so spectacularly in the state violence to which “occupy” protestors have repeatedly been subjected, is ultimately founded not on any substantial pre-existing social bond or unity, but rather on the claim to prohibit the kind of un-binding that would otherwise divide the presumed unity of the state into its various constituent groups and interests.  In his comprehensive 1988 treatise Being and Event, Alain Badiou offers a structurally profound and engaged theory of the possibility of fundamental political change and transformation.[6]  Here, Badiou formulates a profound challenge to the classical thought of politics as founded in the unity of a social bond:

These classical statements [of Marx, Engels, and Lenin] must be quite carefully sorted because they contain a profound idea: the State is not founded upon the social bond, which it would express, but rather upon un-binding, which it prohibits.  Or, to be more precise, the separation of the State is less a result of the consistency of a presentation than of the danger of inconsistency.  This idea goes back to Hobbes, of course (the war of all against all necessitates an absolute transcendental authority) and it is fundamentally correct in the following form: if, in a situation (historical or not), it is necessary that the parts be counted by a metastructure, it is because their excess over the terms, escaping the initial count, designates a potential place for the fixation of the void. (p. 109)

If Badiou is correct, the fundamental operation of state politics is not one of unifying individuals (for instance by means of a “social contract” or by appeal to the bond of mutual need) into a substantial and organic whole, but rather its effective prohibition of the un-binding of this imagined whole, the appearance of what Badiou calls its “proper void.”  The state, according to Badiou, must above all else work to ward off the appearance of this void, because its appearance would signify the actual nonexistence of the substantial unity of the state, or polis, which the coercive functioning of state power both presumes and ideologically constructs.  This is why, according to Badiou, any effective political action directed toward the fundamental transformation of the existing state structure must begin by staging its most important internal antagonisms and contradictions.  What Badiou calls the “subject” of an “event” does just this: by taking account of the fundamental structural contradictions whose prohibition makes possible the existing state structure, such a “subject” intervenes at the precise structural points where these contradictions are most profound, thereby exposing the fiction of the unity of the existing state and creating the possibility of a transformed order to come.

From this perspective, the greatest significance of the slogan of the “99%” which the “occupy” movement has adopted is not to be found in its populism, its appeal to capture the positions or class interests of what is by far the largest socio-economic class of Americans.  Its significance lies, rather, in  the way that this slogan captures the principal contradiction that effectively structures the global economic-political order today in its totality.  This contradiction is the one between the lives of the vast majority of citizens and consumers and those of the small minority who effectively control political decision-making and policy as a result of their control of wealth and capital.  To recognize this contradiction as a fundamental antagonism is to recognize that there can be no solution to the problems of the current economic-political order on the level of incremental reforms or policy recommendations within this framework.  Rather, what is needed is the politics of a radical staging and exposure of this fundamental contradiction, an uncompromising development of the fundamental antagonism to the point where it fractures the empty ideological assurances of the presumptive existing order.

Within the formal framework that Badiou proposes in Being and Event, this work of drawing out the structural implications of the principal, though usually suppressed, contradictions of the existing state order depends upon the retrospective recognition of what Badiou terms an “event.”  Such an event is the unanticipated and unforeseeable appearance, within a constituted political order, of the possibility of the new: in its radical and sudden appearance it demonstrates what is unthinkable in the current configuration and thus makes possible the “faithful” action of a “subject of the event” in drawing out its implications and ultimately in constructing, piece by piece, a radically transformed order.  But the action of the subject in the wake of the event is not simply to be understood, again, as providing a completely distinct articulation, simply exterior to the existing order; instead, using a highly formal apparatus of mathematical set theory, Badiou theorizes the faithful action of this subject as yielding the construction of a new situation that is “generic” with respect to the existing one.  In particular, the new situation is constructed by a process of proceeding through the terms and concepts of the existing one to provide a new configuration that is precisely determined as representative of the totality of the old order, without, nevertheless, being nameable or representable within it. 

It is in this sense, as Badiou has explained in his more recent Logics of Worlds, the generic activity of the subject renders visible to a “maximal” degree precisely those elements that were structurally invisible, though nevertheless present, within the old configuration, and so confronts the situation with its properly structuring void: adopting the Marxist motto “we who are nothing shall be all!” Badiou calls for the futural politics of the “generic”, of the sudden transformation of the situation around the unprecedented upsurge of its own most proper representative, its “generic” subset.[7]

In this conception of upsurge of the “generic” subset that represents the totality of the situation, including most importantly its fundamentally structuring conditions, without being representable within it, we may perhaps recognize again, as well, the structure of Agamben’s “whatever singularity”, the generic “avatar” of a community to come.  But as we saw above, the greatest significance of the “whatever singularity”  for Agamben does not lie in its potential to create a new state order, no matter how deeply transformed, but rather in its capacity to capture and embody an essential position outside the substantial unity assumed by every state order, to become the site of a politics that cannot be situated within any pre-existing space but rather creates itself ever anew on the basis of a fundamental opening of space and place, the spacing of the khôra.  Because, as I have suggested, the real importance of the gesture of “occupation” may ultimately lie in such a creation of spacing, Badiou’s conception of the “generic” may ultimately prove more important in conceptualizing the praxis of the movement than does his politics of the punctual event itself. 

In particular, as I have argued in my recent book, The Politics of Logic, Badiou’s formal-structural thought of the determination of existing situations leaves open the alternative of a different, less directly militant but more critical, politics of the transformation of existing subjects and situations.[8]  By contrast with Badiou’s conception, this politics does not depend centrally upon the possibility of a punctual, immediately transformative event.  Rather, it calls for the careful construction of spaces of critique and reflection in which the fundamental antagonisms and contradictions of the existing order can be demonstrated and even pushed to the point at which they produce, of themselves, fundamental and radical change.  As I argue in the book, the opening of these spaces can, in itself, point the way to a clarified collective life, one that does not seek ultimately to eliminate all contradiction but rather to produce forms of thought and action that comprehend and accept the necessity of strife and antagonism for all possible forms of genuine politics.  The aim of the thought and praxis of such a life is not to be found in any goal of production or economy, nor (as we have seen) in any conception of a unity of essence, whether founded on nature, culture, or the common needs or rights of man.  It is, rather, to be found only in the immanence of this life itself, in its unending and reflexive critical self-examination, and in the ongoing creation of its forms on the basis of its own self-conscious understanding of them. 

Such a politics – what I call in the book, in opposition to Badiou’s “generic” orientation, the politics of the “paradoxico-critical” -- does not defer the radical transformations that are clearly needed to produce a more just, egalitarian and responsible order; nor does it situate these transformations on the far side of a hypothesized “event” which must await the prognostication of conditions and opportunities for action.  Rather, it actively produces these transformations at each moment through the creative thought and effective action that opens a new kind of space, beyond essence and unity, for the shared reflexive examination of the forms of organization and collectivity that increasingly and pervasively determine human and non-human life on Earth. 

[1] Aristotle, Politics, 1252a1-6 (Barnes, J., ed., The Complete Works of Aristotle.  Princeton U. Press, 1984). 

[2] The Coming Community, transl. by Michael Hardt.  U. of Minnesota Press, 1993, pp. 85-86.

[3] Cf. “A Movement Without Demands?” by Marco Deseriis and Jodi Dean: (posted Jan. 3, 2012 and accessed Feb. 24, 2012).  Deseriis and Dean point to an “idea of the commons” which “asserts the primacy of collectivity and the general interest—an idea found in Aristotle’s emphasis on the common good as well as in the work of contemporary theorists such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Silvia Federici, George Caffentzis, Iain Boal, Elinor Ostrom, Eben Moglen, Slavoj Žižek, and others.” They further hold that the “first” problem posed by a “radical politics of the commons,” given the actual non-existence of the “commons” envisioned in terms of this classical concept,  “how can truly anti-capitalist commons be created, recreated, and expanded?”  By contrast, it is the position of this essay that the classical concept of the “common good” is no longer sufficient for the foundation and formulation of the politics to come, and that no such appeal will be successful outside a deep and profound re-thinking of the very basis of the concept of the “common” (Greek koinonia) itself. 

[4]Translation from; taken from Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925.

[5]Khôra” in On the Name, ed. by Thomas Dutoit, transl. by David Wood, John P. Leavey, Jr., and Ian McLeod.  Stanford: Stanford U. Press, 1993. 

[6] Badiou, A. [1988] 2005. Being and Event.  Trans. Oliver Feltham. London: Continuum.  Translation of L'être et l'événement.  Paris: Éditions du Seuil.

[7] Alain Badiou, Logics of Worlds: Being and Event II, Albert Toscano (tr.), Continuum, 2009. 

[8] Paul Livingston, The Politics of Logic: Badiou, Wittgenstein, and the Consequences of Formalism.  New York: Routledge, 2011.  

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.