Last week, Occupy London (OL) celebrated the fifth anniversary of its inception on the grounds of St. Paul’s. Like 15M (Spain) before it, the Occupy movement was inspired by the Arab uprisings that had occurred earlier in 2011.
OL claimed space (Gaventa 2006) with the help of the then Canon Chancellor of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Giles Fraser, who informed the police that St. Paul’s Cathedral did not actually need their protection. This gesture of tolerance by Giles Fraser gave the protesters the “right to participate effectively in a given space” (Gaventa 2006: 4) and “the right to define and to shape that space” (Gaventa 2006: 4) because Giles had the hidden power (Lukes 2006) to allow it.
The camp lasted 4.2 months which was long enough for its participants to practice prefigurative politics. In an attempt to detect and challenge the master codes (Melucci 1996), that dictate political norms (amongst other societal practices) OL worked with the consensus model. The proponents of the consensus model believe it to be a fully accessible democratic decision making model through which everyone’s voice is heard and taken into account. The reality that emerged, however, challenged this view, as a hidden power dimension (Gaventa 2006) materialized, snaking its way through all the professed good intentions of the Occupy organizers.
“Some issues are organized into politics while others are organized out” (Schattschneider 1960:71)
Occupy London’s decision making process had two tiers. First the working groups had to agree via full consensus on a given issue. Then they would bring their conclusion to the General Assembly, which were held daily at 7pm, to seek consensual agreement there. If they managed, the policy, action or press statement would become an official Occupy London decision. Individuals could also bring up topics in the GA directly.
The GA’s needed to be managed and there was a process group to do that. This process group had the power to dictate the issues to be discussed at the general assemblies. This kind of power was unaccountable and could not be addressed because the very act of addressing it required a consensus that this power existed which was never achieved. It should be of no surprise that the individuals blocking the very notion that such a power dynamic was developing were the people who either had that power or who had benefited from that power. The reluctance for members of the process group to acknowledge their own power angered many and germinated what Gaventa’s Rubic Cube of Power (2006) illustrates as ‘invisible power’. This power dimension includes, amongst other elements, disempowerment. Essentially it silences opposition by robbing it of its perceived agency.
The space in which the process group would meet was ostensibly open according to the ad hoc design of Occupy. This was the justification for the rejection of there being any particularly recognizable power inherent in it.
If anyone could join then what could possibly be the problem right? Wrong!
The meetings of the process working group were not always held in the same place and their locations were not made available to people, especially campers without access to the internet. The lack of diligence to maintain it as an open space which involved the effort of ensuring that anyone could find out where a meeting was being held, turned this open space into an invited space (Gaventa 2006) without acknowledging the difference.
Whether the individuals wielding this power were corrupt, stupid, enlightened saints and/or gifted facilitators is not within the remit of this piece. What is being highlighted is that they held power in a movement that evangelized the fact that it had no leaders . “No leaders” without any qualifications, implied that no one person had more power than any other person. This propaganda is what attracted many to the movement which was true to its word for the first few weeks until the chaotic vibrance settled and was replaced by a kind of governance. When the realization that power pools did actually exist and furthermore that they could not be addressed or held accountable, disappointment and anger brewed amongst many particularly within the camping contingent, which contributed to fracturing the movement.
Some occupiers were consumed by the belief that the process group were in fact working for the government and the City of London. This corrosive belief was contagious by camp members who felt disempowered and abandoned and yet felt incredibly responsible to maintain the space despite not having all that much say in the bigger decisions being made on behalf of the movement. It should be noted though that that year the film about Mark Kennedy, the undercover cop who had embedded himself in the environmental movement was released. This is a shocking eye opener to how far the police have gone in abusing the privacy rights of legitimate protest.
It was very likely a simple oversight by over worked actvists to not ensure that the locations of their meetings were made widely known to everyone but in social movements these apparently small oversights have dire consequences when the value of trust is considered and when its fragility is understood.
Although Luke 2005 may have been describing power dynamics in large NGO’s and governments, his description of the power that evolves from the creators of the decision making space can be related to the social protest movement of Occupy London once it had settled in for the winter.
Gaventa. (2006). Power after Lukes: An overview of theories of power since Lukes and their application to development. Retrieved October 21, 2016, from Power Cube: http://www.powercube.net/other-forms-of-power/other-forms-of-powerresources/ power_after_lukes/
Lukes. (2005). Power: A Radical View. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
Melucci. (1996). Challenging Codes. Cambridge University Press.
Schattschneider. (1960). The Semi-Soverign People; A Realist’s View of Democracy in America. New York, New York: Halt, Reinhardt and Winston.
This blog is part of a University of Westminster course.