The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Friday, 1 February 2013

The Occupy Movement – a lasting legacy? Reflections by a participant.

Exactly one year ago, on 28 February 2012, the Occupy camp next to London's stock exchange was evicted. In this guest post, Vera Weghmann will share her experience as an activist at Occupy London Stock Exchange (Occupy LSX) and evaluate the lasting legacy of the Occupy movement.
Photo by Vera Weghmann
One of the first questions coming to the fore when outsiders talk about any movement is most likely to be: 'what is it about?' The Occupy movement has often been falsely accused of lacking clear goals and aims. But it is short and simple: The Occupy movement stood against the sky rocketing inequality to a great extent (re-)created by the unaccountable and in-transparent power of the finance industry which is ruling the world. This is reflected by its slogans: 'we are the 99%', which refers to the concentration of wealth in the top 1% of income earners; and 'real democracy now', which points to the in-transparent corporate rule, where decision makers are influenced by financiers while the majority of the population has no say.

However, Occupy was more than a protest of opposition. It created spaces 'close to where many of the levers of power are centred [...], to convert public space into political commons - a place for open discussion and debate over what that power is doing and how best to oppose its reach' (Harvey 2012: 161). This is clearly put in the Occupy LSX initial statement, where it reads: 'The current system is unsustainable. It is undemocratic and unjust; we need to think about alternatives, this is the place where we work towards them'. Occupy was an educational movement - a space where learning and social change where linked. At Occupy LSX we created a Tent City University, where we offered free lectures and workshops and you could even obtain an alternative degree in economics; we organised alternative city guides – revealing the power of London's financial city; and every night we screened documentaries.

Photo by Vera Weghmann
There was something mystifying around the Occupy movement, it spread like wild fire to 951 cities in 82 countries and lasted for months - no one seems to have expected that. Me neither. On the first day, the 15th October 2011, I sat with friends in front of our tent betting how long it would last. When I said a week everyone laughed and declared me naïve. We are in cold, boring London and not on the Placa de Sol in Madrid or the Tahir Square in Cairo they argued. But this was exactly the point. Occupy did not arrive out of nowhere. We were inspired by the protests in Tunis, Cairo, Athens, Madrid and lastly New York. In fact, the Indignados were the ones, who, together with a few other activists mainly from UK Uncut and Climate Camp, prepared the Occupation months in advance.

The inspirations of mass occupations of public spaces elsewhere merged with frustration about our protests at home. In London we had just experienced a cold winter of demonstrations against the sharp rise in tuition fees. Kettled by the police we spent hours and hours in the freezing dark without any success. Moreover, austerity was kicking in and the resistance in terms of marches and creative flash mobs mostly organised by UK Uncut could not stop it.

Occupy was a new method of organising. It did not only attract the typical left wing activists but also many who had never protested before. They were fed up with a socio-economic system where the high budget deficits (to a large extend caused by bailing out of banks in the financial crisis) was carried out on the backs of the most vulnerable e.g. the poor, the young, the sick and the old, while the rich and big banks even benefited from the crisis. People were desperate for change. Thus, Chomsky rightly concludes 'The Occupy movement is an extremely exciting development. [.] It is unprecedented' (2012:24).

Photo by Vera Weghmann

However an occupation as a means of protest bears its problems. Here I want to name three of the most important ones:

  • Firstly, the very nature of an occupation excludes many from participation. Most people cannot spend a great share of their daily lives in the camp. Especially excluded were those with families, and workers – in particular the working poor with two/three jobs a day. Also excluded were the old people and sick. Everything happened so fast in the occupation that it was impossible to keep abreast if you weren't there most of the time.

  • Secondly, it often felt that we were actually so busy maintaining the site (cleaning, organising food and sanitary facilities as well as entertainment) that we had little time to focus on active protests. Of course, we had some teach outs (public lectures in front of banks or in public spaces which were privatised) and some creative direct actions. We also joint the big marches organised by students and the TUC. However, our main focus was internally - to keep the camp running.

  • Thirdly, an occupation is extremely exhausting for its participants. For those permanently on site it was a full time job, often with a severe lack of sleep. And while it was very warm at the beginning, the winter and the long hours of darkness soon sucked out our energy. By the time of eviction the majority of us, including me, had already left the camp.

So looking back, one year after the eviction, what did Occupy achieve? It did not abolish or radically change global capitalism nor did it gain any material benefits for the 99%. But Occupy's greatest success was to change the narrative. It has brought the inequalities of everyday life to the headlines, influencing public perceptions, debate and even language itself. It was a historical event which managed in times of crisis to unite fragmented social and political groups as well as many individuals. It was a space where skills were shared and lasting networks and bonds were made.

Photo by Vera Weghmann
So, is the Occupy movement over? The occupation of course is. And its envisioned come back in Spring 2012 never happened. But we should not forget that a movement is in the end nothing but its people. They moved on to other projects. Several spaces were occupied during and after Occupy LSX – there was for example the Bank of Ideas and the School of Ideas (squatted spaces which were turned into  free universities), the Friern Barned Library (a library closed due to the cuts which was occupied and re-opened to the public), the Palestine Place (a squat for film screening, workshops and action in support of Palestine), and the Cuts Cafe (a squat which functioned as a meeting point, a place of exchange and learning for all the different groups taking part on the 20th October TUC demonstration for a 'Future that Works'). But the people of the Occupy movement did not only occupy new places, others got actively involved in UK Uncut, the Counter-Olympic-Network (which opposed the militarisation and commercialisation of the Olympic Games) and so on. As such, the movement continues, but its means of resistance and its projects will move on.


Chomsky, N. (2012) Occupy. Penguin. London.

Harvey, D. (2012) Rebel Cities. Verso. London.

Vera Weghmann was involved in the preparatory stages of Occupy LSX, co-founded Tent City University and lived and co-ordinated actions on the camp for more than two months. She completed her MSc in Globalisation and Development at SOAS university and is currently doing her PhD in Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham supervised by Andreas Bieler. Her topic deals with the changing nature of employment structures and resistance to it, with a particular focus on labour activism outside trade unions. She can be contacted at

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments welcome!