Territory, Identity, Enunciation: a critical ethnography of Occupy London

UoM administered thesis: Phd

  • Authors:
  • James Matthews


Occupy London emerged in October 2011 as the local articulation of the Occupy movement, and of a broader-still wave of popular occupation protests. This thesis is a critical ethnography of Occupy London, which interrogates three inter-related features or problems of Occupy, which were themselves the focus of commentary on the movement from early on: the practice of occupation; the claim that 'We Are The 99 Percent'; and the apparent aversion to demand making. The thesis, which emerges from my own extended participation in Occupy London, uses engaged participant observation, in-depth semi-structured interviews, and key texts produced by the movement, to follow the ways in which these problems unfolded around key debates and the everyday doings of collective action and camp life. My ethnography covers three years of Occupy London's activity, from its effervescent early days, through the long months of occupation, and more than two years following the final evictions, to trace the ongoing negotiations of these central problematics through the long period of movement breakdown and abeyance. The ethnography is critical insofar as it seeks not only to document the complex 'facts on the ground', but to signal the possibilities and limitations of these for a radical politics. The thesis draws on a range of theoretical and conceptual tools to analyse the concrete features of the movement. Rather than imposing a transcendent grand theory, these are put to work in the analysis of those dimensions they best illuminate. Of particular use is the theoretical lexicon of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1987, 1977), while other conceptual tools are taken from Michel Foucault (1984, 1970), Jacques Rancière (1999), Henri Lefebvre (1991) and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2000, 2004), as well as diverse social movements scholars and radical thinkers. In the first empirical chapter, the problem of occupation is framed in terms of the Deleuze-Guattarian understanding of territory, using their concept of the territorial 'refrain' to highlight how Occupy was locked in a defining tension between the desire to overcome fixed sites, and the tendency to establish a 'home' in the form of the protest camp. Signalling the polyvalence of this 'home', I argue that while this demonstrated the political production of space (Lefebvre 1991), the result was a 'heterotopia' (Foucault 1984), staging tensions of belonging. The claim that 'We Are the 99 Percent', the centre-piece of Occupy discourse, is also discussed as the site of problematisation and tension, the subject of the second empirical chapter. I argue that while there remained a recognition that this named the condition and fact of inequality, rather than any identity, the opposing tendency for 'the 99 percent' to name the identity of 'the People' raised the problem of representation in a movement suspicious of such a dynamic. I account for the various ways in which Occupiers' sought to overcome this contradiction, finally arguing that Jacques Rancière's (1999) concept of 'disagreement' bridges the space between an identitarian 'people' and a radical critique of inequality. Occupy's apparent aversion to articulating demands is taken as a provocation in the third empirical chapter to address the wider problem of collective speech, and the role of speech in the constitution of collectivity. Through a discussion of the principal institutions and modes of Occupy's movement speech (the People's Mic, the General Assembly, representations to the media, the issuing of statements and demands), I account for the compromises and politics that produced collective speech, and consider the privileged place of speech in a movement seeking to facilitate 'conversation' and produce a 'message'. In sum the thesis offers a critical and deeply empirical engagement with this important moment of collective struggle.


Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Award date1 Aug 2017