Occupy – Occupied … . Claiming the Future by Claiming Today’s Rights

The following are some notes I made in preparation of a presentation to the Occupy Cork Camp, which I addressed on Wednesday afternoon. 


Perhaps it would have been better to choose another title, saying that claiming the future is not least about claiming yesterday’s rights – and of course I can only make a few points, incomplete, in danger of being misunderstood and hopefully sufficient to spark some new aspects into the debate.

First a question, marking the point of departure and also important in more general terms as point of reference: Talking about occupation has usually something negative – and surely in reality it comes along as something negative. This negativity is about the loss of independence, the loss of self-determination. Such self-determination maybe something we claim as individuals or something we claim as social group or class.

“We”, if I may say so: from the people in the US, angry about the state and development behind the walls of the street, over a more or less organised movement in many EUropean countries and not least with the alter-mondialists of attac to again people like here in Cork are occupying public spaces, in actual fact occupying also the minds of many more people who are present. People in the streets, along some walls and not least behind walls and closed doors.

NB: university walls part of this system of catacombs, places to hide and claiming to be pushing towards paradise, people – at least some of them – playing an unfortunate role in this overall game of gaining power and security for a few.

Still, we easily forget one thing: actually, the occupants are the others, those are sitting in their secure places behind the walls which they can only occupy because and as long as we allow them doing so. And they are not just occupying their pools of money, greedy and egoistically diving every morning into it like Scrooge McDuck. – By the way, is it by accident that Scrooge is Scottish-American: Scottish in going back to the country where liberal economics finds its birthplace, American by showing that economy to live up to its excesses.

They are occupying power positions which they use to develop something that goes much further than what we usually understand as neoliberal strategy. In actual fact they develop an entire new capitalist system of accumulation, if you want: a new capitalism. This is not about conspiracy. Rather it is about the simple fact that they occupy with unimaginable amounts of capital not only industrial centres, not only bank and service centres but also and increasingly public positions of sovereignty. Police as private security services; the educational system as recruitment agencies; voluntary organisations as providers of public housing … – and not least the various governance instances, from public boards to voluntary organisations as assistants of the political system: the golden bars, sweetening the confinement.

Mind the following statement on labour relations, taken from the Introduction by Richard Bruton, Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to the Consultation on the Reform of the State’s Employment Rights and Industrial Relations Structures and Procedures. He is wants to

  • improve customer service, in light of the acknowledged complexity, backlogs and delays in the resolution of grievances and disputes;
  • provide greater value for taxpayers’ money, in light of current fiscal constraints;
  • rationalise institutions in light of the Government’s public service reform agenda


Brecht, looking at some stage back on fascism and the post-war developments once wrote that the womb from which fascism emerged had still been fertile, a dangerous ground for the further development of post-war Germany. Looking at the cutbacks, the austerity policy in the country (and in other countries too) we can say: this, the spirit of private responsibility and the way in which it goes hand in hand with occupation of public spaces by the ruling class is the fertile ground, the womb which bearing the new capitalism.

Much can and has to be said – and in my view one set of two points is of special importance, often neglected in these day’s debates: Neoliberalism, as said, I think it is a rather dangerous catchword, easily distracting from the fact that we are confronted with a rather differentiated system of intervention and reregulation. And also easily overlooking the fact that we are facing not simply the redistribution between the rich and the poor – instead it is about the distribution also within the two major classes. And with this the emergence of a specific new form of capitalism.

I think this – the new capitalism and the role Ireland plays in it and is ready to play in it – is more important than the ‘fact’ of IMF-intervention, the EU-memoranda and Stefan Gerlach, a Swedish-German, being since September Deputy Governor of the Irish Central Bank

Talking about globalisation all the time we have to accept that this is not about subordination in a simple way – rather it is about the differentiated world-system in which the different countries play different roles, and accept to play them in this way. Seen in this light, austerity policies are very much not least nationally based.

Second, in this sense the actual occupants are those behind the walls of the street(s) and also behind the walls of many academic institutions. Much of it may be willy-nilly, a matter, a matter of ‘structural forces’, and here we find surely also oral irresponsibility, the acceptance of the easy way. The point I want to emphasise is a different one however. What happens right in front of our eyes is a kind of refeudalisation. To be sure, although I used the term n academic publications, we have to be careful. History may be stupid. But it is not so stupid to repeat itself. Important is however that this is a suitable metaphor, capturing well two major developments:

* the occupation of the public sphere, the capturing of the sovereign private interests;

* the increasing de-economisation and de-marketisation.

The latter point is surely provocative – but not less sure is that we easily fall into traps when we use certain terms without further qualification. So it may be seen as provocation and as warning alike: a warning against the thesis of neoliberalism as straightforward concept. Neoliberalism is a catchword, easily used to explain everything and then at the end not explaining anything. The point is that we are facing increasingly a shift towards executing power that is based on the concentration and centralisation of material resources but not on economic processes in the strict sense. Slightly overstretching the argument, one may say tat capitalism has overcome itself – not primarily by the state bailing out the banks (though this is surely also a moment) but more by privately accumulated and centralised wealth, now violently occupying the roles genuinely attributed to the sovereign. It is not by chance that the term sovereign also had been attributed to the old English coin. However, then it had been a public currency, a means of socialising production and also power. Nowadays it is the establishment of the new sovereign: the completion of the capitalist individual will.

Third, coming to the other side then it is becoming a little bit tricky – it is easy to romanticise the good old times. Also, it is too easy to go with mechanisms that had been historically important and successful but that are now out-of-date. – I will return to this issue later. In any case, leaving all limitations aside, one of the relative progressive moments that capitalism claim to have established is rights-based approaches. As such this is by far not anything like perfect. On the contrary, all the rights-talk had been simply a reply on the total disrespect of even the most basic rights to live. This is true n the national levels and also in the intentional perspective. And as well, the then capitalist system itself instrumentally needed a rule of law: an accountable, predictable system of regulation, needed not least to ensure ‘smooth utilisation of capital’. Very much the discussion we find today again.

It is not least in this context that we have to be careful when it comes to pushes from governments like Germany and France, the move of the EU towards finance transfer taxation and we should not get too excited about some big bankers etc. who ask themselves now if Marx possibly had been right.

Fourth, going beyond the trinity the final point I want to make is about …, occupy. After we, ordinary people, had been occupied by capitalism and now pushed with the back against the wall, the occupants try to move even further, and turn to violence: squeezing in the name of an apparently sportive success – reached in Croke Park – additional hours of public servants, not to talk about all the rest of it. And this is why I referred to rights. As contestable as the much of the traditional social rights, as they are known in Europe, are have to be put n the agenda now, more than ever.

This is what we have to occupy – everyone in her or his position. In the position where we are occupied: as educators, as health service providers, as workers … For instance, forms of social economy should not be something at the margins but should be further developed as central moments of a democratically and sustainably developed economy. And we also have to occupy these spaces where we are not occupied. Sure, we have curricula at universities and at schools. And those who are employed there have to stick to them – at least in principle. But it is not less sure that the value of much of those principles is less than the paper on which they are written. The values of teaching are not defined by the formulas and number of rules. The real values are determined by how well they deal with reality – and realities are made by those who occupy positions.

I may return to Scrooge – and quote something that is surely not my favourite source – Wikipedia. There we read:

Scrooge has also opined that only in fairy tales do bad people turn good, and that he is old enough to not believe in fairy tales.

I just leave it there – only asking if we trust we are living in a fairy tale or in 2011-Ireland?

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