Published February 2012. Written for Shift's Precarity series, the Introduction to which can be read here.
What are the meanings of ‘occupation’ today? How might the word’s different uses relate to each other, specifically in the context of the UK’s current political situation?
The message from the Coalition is that protest against its programme of spending cuts and privatisation will only be tolerated as long as it falls within the boundaries set by the authorities and doesn’t inconvenience anyone, as long as it follows the approved route and steps aside politely once it’s had its moment in the spotlight (as illustrated in the unwittingly Warholian manner of a government minister who suggested fifteen minute stoppages in lieu of one-day strikes). There is never any justification for obstructing the flow of capital and labour. Only a placatory re-channelling is acceptable, a sort of Glastonburyised leisure activism which, far from threatening ruling interests, ends up reinforcing them, as opposing views are perfunctorily taken into account and people allowed to ‘have their say’ while the measures are pushed through regardless. Protests which outstay their welcome by occupying territory earmarked for use by capital – whether potential advertising space in the media consciousness or an actual patch of land – are ridiculed as extremist and often brutally repressed.
The same theme occurs in the post-Fordist employment marketplace: you can be as ‘alternative’ as you like in your tastes or beliefs as long as this does not impinge on the work you are summoned to do, the products you are required to sell, the targets you have to meet. Any questioning of this apparent freedom is forbidden. In this sense, people are arguably more tightly restricted and deeply subsumed by capital than ever before. We’re flexible, say the bosses, so we expect you to be too; if you don’t like it, go somewhere else; a judgement delivered with a cynical flourish as unemployment levels rise. At Jobcentre level, the prospect of refusing work on ethical grounds is almost unthinkable.
This emptying out of the substance of work has been achieved to a great extent through capitalism’s use of precarious employment practices to drive down labour costs while convincing people that they have been freed from the chains of industry and that their destiny is now entirely in their own hands. In the words of countless aspirational television shows, if you have ‘passion’ and ‘drive’ and ‘self-belief’ you will succeed; and if you fail, it is your own fault; success and failure here of course being entirely framed by the interests of capital.
Through the spread of short-term insecure work the traditional category of ‘occupation’, signifying what one does for a living and connoting usefulness and belonging, has given way to an endless entrepreneurial career narrative propelled by generic terms such as ‘flexibility’ and ‘transferrable skills’. The individual is expected to surf between temporary assignments and market oneself as a multi-purpose commodity.
Now that practically all jobs are at risk, precarity has become paradoxically institutionalised. Workplaces become zones of permanent transition and deteriorating conditions go unchallenged as people are always just passing through, reluctant to jeopardise their prospects and always eager to move on before they are dropped. Such restless mobility brings on a spatial disorientation, and also a temporal blurring. Whereas the term occupation traditionally refers to the job a person is doing now, the discourse of careers and employability is all about what you aspire to do, where you hope/believe you will be in the future, and how you intend to get there ahead of, rather than alongside, your peers. To adapt Paul Mason’s phrase, today’s disaffected graduate (or school leaver, or middle-aged redundancy victim for that matter) is not only someone with no future, but also someone with no present. The routine question ‘what do you do?’ can provoke existential uncertainty, if not misery.
In order to assuage this anxiety and ensure effective functioning under the rule of precarity, the vacancy left by the absence of occupation is filled with the job of ‘jobseeking’. Whether or not one is technically employed, jobseeking becomes the supreme vocation, much more so than any actual work. Its duties of searching, updating and networking constitute an ongoing regime of self-care.
Similarly the function of labour (or welfare) is increasingly described not in the vulgar terms of getting money to live on, but as offering the speculative currency of opportunity, a foot in the door rather than food on the table. Internships are sold in this way as empowering, sought-after experiences. They are pastiches of paid work, while at the other end of the spectrum mandatory workfare schemes are cruel parodies, quasi-rehabilitative exercises designed to teach the unemployee a lesson while supplying the corporate client with free labour.
The process of dispersing occupation into the circuit of careers and jobseeking reaches its limit in the realisation that there is nothing behind the rhetoric. The promised future will never arrive; and furthermore, when the aspirational music stops it becomes clear that disorientation and instability do not obscure the real shape of the present; they define it.
In order to re-imagine the future this lost present must first of all be reinstated, and this requires a radical re-orientation of work and a re-occupation of the space of employment.
Another interpretation: by a reverse effect, the refugee aesthetic of the various anti-capitalist occupations highlights the real
occupation which is happening all around them, and from which they are improvised escape attempts: that is, the private corporate takeover of public services, public space and public thought. The occupying force is a wealthy elite which has bought the favours of self-serving politicians and is now siphoning resources away from welfare, health and education. Social institutions are being turned into lucrative business ventures.
As banal as this genre of oppression might seem in comparison with those in other parts of the world, nevertheless for certain sectors of the population – people with disabilities undergoing persecutory ‘assessments’, for instance, or those being pushed into workfare or caught in the downward spiral of debt and temporary work - everyday existence starts to resemble life under occupation. Interchangeable political parties offer non-existent choices; continual crisis and police brutality are combined with a synthetic antidepressant positivity. In workplaces and job interviews people seem to be performing roles and reciting approved scripts, as if for some unseen observer. Beneath this veneer a constant background of fear and stress is taken for granted.
A crucial task for the protest-occupations is therefore to connect with those who would not necessarily identify themselves as part of a politicised ‘precariat’ or union group, but who are nevertheless being held hostage by global capital. For many in precarious work the protests and strikes are likely to be experienced almost entirely as media spectacle, something remote to their own situations. This spectacular remoteness must be transformed into a closeness which provides practical support and theoretical ammunition. So after realising protest, the next step is to bring the principles of this real protest – which, as stated earlier, must cause inconvenience and outstay its welcome - to bear on workplaces which have been virtualised, where resistance has been inverted into competitive eagerness or turned inwards into apathy and self-blame.
Of course it is in the interests of the occupying powers to portray the various demonstrations as eccentric niche events and thereby make them easily containable. It is precisely the prospect of alliances across groups – between freelancers and agency temps, immaterial and manual labourers, employed and unemployed, old and young - which is most feared by the authorities. By recognising that this epidemic of insecurity is not a natural phenomenon or something brought upon oneself, but rather a technology which has been deliberately installed and maintained across all these different areas, people might begin to externalise their frustrations. Precarity might then be wrested away from those executives who administer and perpetuate it and made into a unifying, catalysing force for those on the receiving end.
The transient non-places which reproduce the culture of low-paid precarious labour - the recruitment agencies, warehouses and call centres, restaurants and shopping concourses – need to be re-occupied, re-placed. Staff need to be encouraged to immobilise themselves, to be inflexible and reject the worthless ‘opportunities’ offered to them. Unwanted ‘work experience’ must be avoided, Jobcentres returned to the status of welfare offices rather than disciplinary facilities. Last-minute calls from temp agencies should be left unanswered, admin tasks not completed outside working hours, performance targets ignored, competition with fellow workers resisted. A culture of collective hostility and negativity should be cultivated.
Finally, we need to occupy ourselves. We should evict the language of aspiration and customer service and re-occupy our minds and bodies. Knowledge and desire must be liberated from the clutches of employability. Somehow we must find a way to discredit the words put into our mouths by ventriloquist bosses even as we are forced to speak them, and learn again how to speak up for ourselves and each other. Then we might at last start to recover those occupations we have lost, and invent new ones.
Ivor Southwood blogs at http://screened-out.blogspot.com/ and tweets from @screenedout. His book "Non-Stop Inertia" deals with precarious labour and was published by Zero Books.