Claiming the Camp: Biopolitics and the Occupy Movement

Contributed by William Koch Visiting Assistant Professor at Department of Philosophy, University of North Florida
April 19, 2012
Part of the Cluster:


This project was first presented in an early form as a teach-in to the members of Occupy Jacksonville and I am grateful for their thought provoking questions and suggestions.

            I would like to discuss the Occupy Movement primarily in terms of its origin out of, and in response to, biopolitics as it is understood primarily by Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben. I will show that one of the movement’s characteristic strategies, that of the occupation of public spaces and the creation within them of new and often temporary communities, is a productive inversion of biopolitics’ primary contemporary manifestation in the politicizing of public space manifesting at the most extreme level in the homeless, refugee, and concentration camp.

            Briefly, according to Foucault, biopolitics begins to achieve dominance in the nineteenth century and represents a break from the primarily negative and repressive nature of political power during earlier periods of history. In contrast to earlier forms of political organization that focused primarily on forcing certain actions and forbidding others, biopolitics is characterized by increasing attempts to create, organize and direct the diverse biological, psychological and medical forms human life takes within society. The rise of biopolitics goes hand in hand with a focus on the idea of the social body, understood as a biological system in need of general therapeutic interventions, in contrast to something like society understood in terms of a contract between individual autonomous actors. We begin to see biopolitics, for example, in city planning as it grew out of the medicalization of space through quarantine and hygiene in response to disease and the raising of collective physical, mental and sexual health to the level of political concern. It is important to stress that while biopolitics shows up around the same time in diverse and widely located social practices it is not to be understood, primarily, as a conscious strategy undertaken collectively by governing individuals. Rather, small practices provoked by specific historical demands coalesce over a large area of social life in the forms that would become biopolitics and because of the, often unintended and accidental, usefulness of these practices for reinforcing various economic and political power structures their use proliferates and strengthens into the contemporary political forms we see today. There is, then, rarely a conspiracy or large-scale plan at work.

Although we have already set up our understanding of biopolitics in contrast with social contract theory, what Agamben has demonstrated in Homo Sacer is that the figure of bare life traced out through the network of fundamental human rights enshrined in the liberal social contract tradition serves as a fundamental mechanism of biopolitics. We might suggest, as I will discuss more fully later, that the vital space protected by rights is primarily marked off and protected for the ordering of biopolitics rather than against it. As we will see, it is this unusual fact with accounts for the form biopolitics takes in our contemporary context and towards which the Occupy Movement is largely responding.

The Biopolitical Contours of the Financial Crisis

            Although most of the concerns of the Occupy Movement predate the financial crisis of 2007, there can be no denying that it is this crisis that brought the seriousness of these concerns into focus for a larger public and motivated a surprisingly diverse collection of people towards political activism. If we are to understand the response the Occupy Movement took to contemporary social problems we must, then, understand the crisis that largely precipitated that response. As I will show, the crisis was primarily a dramatic failure of the biopolitical regime and provoked, in the political mainstream, an attempt to strengthen and re-inscribe rather than reduce or renovate the very biopolitical strategies that precipitated the crisis to begin with.

            Biopolitics in its early formulations grows largely out of the need to defend and encourage the health of a society’s workers and their maintenance of a working population through healthy reproduction. This goal manifests alongside the need to properly shape the consciousness and bodies of the working classes to increase their productivity and efficiency within an industrialized capitalist context. To take one specific example, the rise of prisons and the focus on rehabilitation serves two major purposes. First, in fact if not by intention, prisons provide a controlled test case in which practices for disciplining collective bodily behaviors can be developed and observed. How does one efficiently get many men to engage in the same activities at the same time? How do you get them to move swiftly and calmly from place to place? How do you get them to eat within a limited time frame while serving themselves and cleaning up after themselves? How do you instill, generally, self-conscious hygiene to avoid the outbreak of disease? When seen from this perspective, most of what a prison’s organization is concerned with is not the repressive control of specific forbidden actions but rather the creation, structuring, and encouragement of a general mode of bodily existence. It is when these practices are generalized to the whole of society that biopolitics is truly born.

The other accomplishment of the prison, which in turn will be repeated throughout society, is ironically found in what seems to be its fundamental failure. Prisons did not, and have never, served to decrease the occurrence of crime. As either deterrents or systems of rehabilitation they have been dramatic failures. With the instituting of the prison crime and recidivism increase.[1] As Foucault points out, by isolating criminals together the prison serves to constitute a criminal class. The invention of the idea of the delinquent, understood as a young person with the newly created “criminal” consciousness, is the complimentary psychological ground of the creation of such a class. This, however, serves a useful purpose for the general economic social structure. Energies, generally within the lower classes, that might have been directed against the political and social arrangements that helped to constitute their poverty are instead redirected against the lower classes themselves in the form of crime. Members of this same class then feel themselves more and more in need of governmental protective services to defend them from themselves. A key component, then, of biopolitics is the creation of social types, and their reduction to naturalized psycho-medical species, which goes hand in hand with a structuring of these types that serve to make their behavior predictable and implementable in the fight to defuse or redirect resistance to the general organization of society. 

            While many of the strategies I have just discussed remain productively in place within the contemporary political context, there is a sharp shift that occurs from a society trying to come to grips with industrialized capitalism and one that has, instead, generally automated and outsourced most of its industrial components and instead relies upon its lower and middle class populace for consumers rather than producers. The form biopolitics takes in consumer society is distinctly different from the form it was able to take within an industrial one. The points that follow offer an, admittedly, very general sketch of what this shift looks like. The move towards a consumer society is contiguous with the shift to a service economy in which the virtues necessary for working in a factory are unnecessary, or even antithetical, to those needed for those in costumer service, teaching or office work. But beyond this, the desires necessary in a society where everyone must play the role of consumer in order to maintain a policy of non-stop economic growth are dramatically different from those needed to motivate and pacify a producing public. The factory worker can be motivated by basic needs, the necessity of making rent and acquiring food, and these same needs if just expensive enough can maintain a level of exhaustion which, when combined with the constitution of the criminal class previously discussed, can ensure that most revolutionary tendencies will be successfully annulled. In a consumer society, however, it is vital that the populace have extra spending capabilities, time and energy in order to exert the purchasing power necessary to fuel the economy. This gives rise to two very distinct problems, the answer to which end up being related.

            In a consumer society production has been both largely automated and, at the same time, outsourced to economically and often politically dominated nations that remain within the productive and not the consumptive mode. This means that, at first, the jobs available to the non-owning classes are dramatically limited. It was partially this dynamic which Marx believed would lead to revolution to the extent that the benefits accruing to society through new technological automation primarily go to the upper owning classes while having the reverse effect upon the working class by making their jobs unnecessary. For the society to avoid revolution it must accomplish two related things. First, it must create new, generally non-productive, jobs that can both keep the majority of society from starving while also providing the purchasing power to drive the economy. Secondly it must, as always, find a dependable way to dissolve revolutionary energies. But, the first problem cannot be answered as simply as it seems because the transformation from a productive to a consuming society is driven by a process that seeks to consolidate more of the society’s wealth in the upper classes. The automation and outsourcing of industrial jobs is motivated by the desire not to have to pay workers, or to be able to pay them much less. So, simply paying the consuming-serving classes the same amount of the society’s wealth that used to be provided to the productive classes or, as is necessary for robust consumption, paying them more would serve to again dissipate the concentration of excess wealth in the hands of the few that drove automation and outsourcing to begin with. The answer to both the problem of purchasing power and the problem of dissolving revolutionary energies will take the form of debt.[2]

            Brilliantly, the way to maintain purchasing power in the lower and middle classes while keeping them from demanding extensive political and economic changes is to provide them with an excessive purchasing power that, at the same time, does not provide actual wealth or economic security. While, over the last several decades, the pay of middle and lower class jobs in America has stayed the same or gone down relative to purchasing power, consumption has generally increased and the price of things like property, education and medical care have sky-rocketed. This occurs through the exponential expansion of credit and debt that creates an economic regime based entirely on the increasing indebtedness of the middle and lower classes to upper classes that have benefitted from the arrangement through ever increasing monopolization of wealth. What it is important to notice here is the centrality of this development to the very existence of a consumer society. Without new, and biologically unnecessary, desires the economy deprived of industrial production can not exist and, similarly, without finding a way to drive consumption without in fact paying the consuming classes the money saved by the automation and exportation of production such a society is not justified in the eyes of its ruling classes. While inescapable indebtedness often arises from individual decisions, such decisions and such indebtedness is the unavoidable presupposition of, for example, the American economy. A non-industrial and generally non-productive economy without a general state of “irresponsible” debt would stagnate, starve and/or collapse.

The state of contemporary debt, much like the rise in crime due to the institution of the prison, is not actually a sign of a failure of the practices in question but rather a central part of their justification and, just as in the case of the creation of a criminal class, it also serves to redirect revolutionary impulses. While the industrial worker was kept from resisting the social structure through exhaustion, fear of immediate starvation, fear of crime or through having any such energy directed into crime against other members of the same class consumers are kept from revolution through the constant fear of losing the jobs which pay them just enough to pay the minimum payments on their mortgages, student loans and credit cards or which alone provide them with the privately inaccessible health insurance which keeps them from certain poverty should they get injured or sick. Much like the answer to the question of why we maintain prisons when they don’t serve to lessen crime was answered by recognizing they aren’t really meant to reduce crime, so too the answer to the question of why medical and educational costs are allowed to rise mostly unbridled is that the debt, or fear of economic ruin, such a situation creates insures that service workers do not have the leisure to question, or act to change, their society in any dramatic way.

            We should pause for a moment to stress that such a society runs very much like a credit card company to the extent that if all the debtors actually paid off their debt the entire system would crash. Credit card companies make their profit from endlessly collecting interest on debts, but were those debts to simply be paid off directly they would suffer dramatic economic losses due to the expenditures in which they are already engaged based on the assumption that they will be making much more money off interest than their actual outstanding loans constitute. On the national and international level the state of debt is the same, economic growth or even stability is predicated on most debtors paying the minimum payment on their debts not on their paying off their debts. Were the debts to be paid off, again, the system would collapse based on the over-expenditure dependent on interest that economic growth consists in. So, all moralizing to the contrary, it is vital for the consumer society that people not pay off their debts directly but rather pay agonizingly over time much more than they ever owed. Beyond this, however, it is also flat out impossible, not only in practical but more importantly in mathematical terms, for current outstanding debts to be paid. As David Graeber points out, the collective international debt surpasses the combined Gross Domestic Products of every nation on the earth.[3] But, and this is where the financial crisis of 2007 comes into play, the debt economy which is the foundation of consumer society is fundamentally unstable and necessarily unsustainable. As already mentioned, just like a credit card company such a system requires most debtors to pay their minimum payment, but as pay fails to increase and economic growth along with growth in consumption continues to be the driving goal of the economy, debt and the minimum payment it is necessary most people be able to pay increases. The lack of purchasing power due to the loss of productive jobs and the isolation of profits in the top classes of society was corrected for through credit but this was only ever an imperfect and temporary bandage on a massive problem. The crisis of 2007 occurred largely because the minimum payment required of a group of debtors, mainly those involved in certain types of mortgages, was no longer able to be met by a large enough collection of those debtors for the system to continue. But, considering the larger contours of the debt economy, this was only a very small bump heralding, potentially, much larger problems down the road.       

            At this point we must take a step back and connect more clearly what we have said to the issue of biopolitics. When we first began discussing biopolitics it showed up in terms of overt government actions, for example in terms of the establishment of prisons and city planning, but in discussing consumer society we have transitioned to discussing general aspects of the economy which seem to rest mostly within the realm of business and market forces rather than governmental actions. How is it that we are still discussing politics at all? The answer arises from the recognition that even early forms of biopolitics arise from governmental power’s direct concern to stabilize and make more efficient its productive forces, forces that are essential for the financial and military power of the state and the wealth of the richest individuals within the state. Furthermore, the very individuals that constitute those institutions expressing governmental biopower are either those whose interests are served through increased economic productivity and efficiency or those who are primarily influenced by the pressure exerted through moneyed interests. This interconnection of financial and governmental concerns makes it such that market and political forces are not only reinforcing but also that the business of governing in the age of biopolitics is “outsourced” more and more to corporate entities. This alone would have been unimaginable, at least on anything like the scale we see it, in the era of primarily repressive rather than creative state sovereignty as expressed, for example, by strong monarchies. Consumer society is governed, then, through a politico-commercial matrix of practices and institutions from which independent entities such as government and market can only artificially be abstracted and through which the life of individuals are structured almost exclusively in terms of their market existence. As Foucault observes at the end of his course on biopolitics, “…American neoliberalism seeks rather to extend the rationality of the market, the schemes of analysis it proposes, and the decision making criteria it suggests to areas that are not exclusively or not primarily economic. For example, the family and birth policy, or delinquency and penal policy.”[4] Contemporary biopolitics exists, then, primarily in the form of commercializing to the greatest extent possible every aspect of life and this is achieved through corporate and governmental coordination.

            We can make this point more convincing by looking at the concrete local actions of governing power which structure most of our daily lives. Let us consider a topic that will be central to understanding the importance of the strategy of occupying public spaces. How are ways of life structured and created through the governing of public spaces? Theoretically public spaces such as public streets or parks are areas in which what one can or cannot do is determined primarily in terms of basic rights and the laws that are not to interfere with those rights. When I am within such a public space the law’s relation to me should, according to this theory, be determined by the extent to which I respect the rights of others and act within the protected space of my own rights. In other words, legal existence within public space should be determined by considerations of my sheer status as citizen. In actuality, however, what we see is that public space, carved out we might say by the limitations and protects of personal rights, does not represent a space of freedom but rather a space in which the biopolitical determination of the individual as consumer is primary. We see this when we note the strange way in which utterly incidental characteristics become criminal within public space. This occurs primarily on the level of local laws addressing loitering, homelessness and protest. Before we discuss concrete examples it is worth tying the specific biopolitical power I have in mind to the view of biopolitics presented by Agamben in his book Homo Sacer.[5]

            According to Agamben biopolitical power is the power to isolate out the bare life of citizens and, through their reduction to bare life, except them from the normal protection of law. Anyone, in other words, who approaches the point of existing only as a living human and not also in terms of more robust social roles enters the legal region in which the brute expression of state force is primary. This area is precisely, however, that which is supposed to be protected by general human or specific national rights. This legal region is called the state of exception and Agamben suggests it is primarily in terms of declaring what will count as a state of exception and placing specific groups or individuals into such states of exception that biopolitical power functions. This in term suggests that the reverse is also true, that biopolitical power also functions in terms of specifying implicitly what ways of life one must lead in order to avoid being placed within a state of exception. For consumer society, then, any failure to live the life of a consumer, especially in public space, endangers one’s protection from arbitrary use of governmental force.  

 We can offer both dramatic and everyday examples of this power to declare a state of exception. But, if most governmental power is biopolitical and most such power is really to have this characteristic, we would expect to find many common everyday examples and we do. Any situation in which an apparent right or freedom disappears because of the, often implicit, declaration of a state of exception due to a failure to fit the category of consumer fits the bill. There is no lack of examples.

Surely one citizen has the right to cook dinner for another. What could be a more basic freedom? Yet in the city of Jacksonville Florida, if one of the citizens in question is someone who is homeless we suddenly run into a very strange state of exception. I can cook you dinner or share my lunch, unless you lack a home. In fact, any sharing of food with strangers in a public space is outlawed but this limitation is extended to include homeless people you might know well. Almost all the laws that apply to dealing with the homeless have this strange aspect of seemingly arbitrary suspension of seemingly basic freedoms. Consider anti-loitering laws. One would imagine that any citizen has the right to occupy a bench in a public park. However, when you lack a certain amount of money this everyday freedom seemingly magically becomes an illegal activity. In many communities, my hometown in New Jersey used to have a law like this, loitering laws specify that if one does not have a legal id or a certain amount of money in one’s pocket the simple activity of strolling through town becomes suddenly the illegal activity of loitering. But surely my status as a citizen with a right to utilize public spaces does not depend upon my possession of an id or money. When governmental power is defined by the power to declare a state of exception, however, being a citizen becomes only an abstract ideal perpetually open to revocation.

            The irony of the moment when governmental power becomes the power to declare a state of exception is that it is precisely the claim to one’s rights that frequently provokes the declaration on the part of government power of a state of exception. So long as one does not seek to practice one’s rights or appeal to the law no state of exception is necessary. However, demand your rights and you take yourself out of the protected classes of the home-owner, consumer or business-person and place yourself in the perpetually endangered, because always open to exception, class of bare-citizen.

We see this with the creation of “free speech zones”. Go about your daily business and you might feel that all public spaces in America function as free speech zones. That, indeed, seems to be what the right to a freedom of speech is about. In fact, however, public space is open only to the free speech of consumers. Choose, however, to make an issue of the right to free speech and your very practice of that right becomes the justification for declaring you within a state of exception which limits your right to freedom of speech to a specific area designated by governmental power, usually a fenced off out of the way protest zone. It is by demanding your rights that you become excepted from them.

We see this clearly when we consider the Occupy Movement’s practice of occupation. Surely it is any citizen’s rights to walk down Wall St. It is a public street and it is inconceivable that access to it would be denied to a citizen without some pretty hefty justification. The number of citizens wanting to take the stroll and the reason they want to take the stroll do not count as such a hefty justification, while a dangerous gas leak might. But, gather with other citizens and demand one’s right to walk down Wall St. and immediately you face barricades and policy brutality.

            This is not so surprising, suggests Agamben, as the modern interest in natural rights rides on the back of a strikingly contrary view. If we follow Agamben in looking back at Greek and Roman law we see that the founding action of a city or state consists in setting off the status of community membership from that of a natural living being. To be a citizen is to be something other than, and apart from, simply an existing human being. Biopolitics extends this by governing and structuring subjects existing only within the realm of bare-life rather than simply ignoring, killing or exiling them as would be more common in the ancient context. This carries important connections to the debt crisis as well. Debt crises are not new things, though the form and necessity of debt in consumer society is a unique development. Within the ancient world there were two likely outcomes of the creation of large-scale inescapable debt and each takes the form of a state of exception. Within Mesopotamia, for example ancient Sumerian and Babylonian societies, crushing debt often forced city dwellers to reject city life and leave the boundaries of the community. These self-exiled individuals would then join nomadic communities existing outside the city walls. By doing so they were reduced, at least for a time, to the status of bare-life losing all legal protection and property as well as, from the viewpoint of city culture, facing a life much like that of a wild animal. Alternatively, those inescapably indebted often found themselves reduced to bare-life in being made into slaves, another case of being placed outside the standard boundaries of community and into a state in which they were excepted from standard legal protects, duties and privileges. Within contemporary society the debtor does not generally face debtor’s prison, enslavement or standard exile, and indeed foreclosing the possibility of debtors escaping its social force is a major priority of biopolitics, but instead they face the risk of being placed in the more common state of exception which comes from no longer being functioning consumers. Joblessness, homelessness, and poverty, aside from their many dangers and deprivations, also bring with them a decreased protection from either the abuse of others or the often arbitrary exercise of legal force. The homeless can be herded from place to place, their rights to public space either flat out denied or dramatically limited through ever shifting relocations and baroque regulation. They exist permanently within a state of exception.

            In this way we see the double edge nature of contemporary rights. They trace out areas of protected freedoms only to the extent that those freedoms are practiced according to the standard biopolitical dictates of consumption, work and minimal debt repayment. Without the prescribed use of these freedoms, however, rights serve rather to isolate and pick out those who have been placed, through choice or unavoidable circumstance, in a state of exception marked by their existence merely as bearers of rights.

Claiming the Camp: The Strategy of Occupation

            What we have said so far depicts contemporary society as one in which the official government primarily serves the interests of the wealthy and, even more so, the corporate power which is really the first line of biopolitical governance. Official governmental power, especially on the local level, serves to structure and enforce citizen participation within commercial markets. It is this indivisibility of government from corporate power in the face of government’s official claim to represent the people in general that has likely most enraged and motivated members of the Occupy Movement. A financial crisis tied essentially to the nature of the debt economy, the inability to achieve any extensive health insurance reform, repeated corporate bailouts unbalanced by bailouts for middle or lower class citizens, cuts to education and social services, the deterioration of safety nets, the lack of jobs in the face of continually growing profits to the rich and the corporations they control all in the face of consistent tax breaks to the very individuals and corporate entities that most benefit from the debt economy finally pushed too many people too far. What I hope I have shown is that each of these elements is part of the larger structure of biopolitical power that governs contemporary society. It is the brilliance of the Occupy Movement that one of the main strategies its has used is that of calling the bluff of biopolitical power.

            As our discussion of Agamben suggested, the most brutal form of biopolitical power is practiced upon those who exist, whether through chance or choice, within society but outside the clearly delineated roles of consumers or, generally, service-employees. These are the unemployed and, most especially, the homeless. This is why the nature of the Occupy Movement is essentially connected to the plight of the homeless. These individuals live in a non-commercial manner within public spaces that should be guaranteed for their use through their citizenship that, most assume, is independent of their commercial activity and way of life. As we have seen, however, this is not the case. Their lack of consumer contribution equates to their being excepted from their status as full citizen. In being reduced to bare citizen they are, instead, reduced to bare life to be regulated, moved about, harassed and/or “rehabilitated” towards the goal of allowing them to once more bodily enter the realm of consumerism. The mere holder of rights, as citizen, is revealed in these cases as actually the anti-citizen, the bare life that since the times of Ancient Greece is the antithesis of the city and state. What the Occupy Movement does, then, when particular general assemblies select to use occupation and encampment[6] is place themselves willingly outside the space of consumerism and into the endangered and endangering realm of bare life resisting contemporary biopolitical force.          

            Agamben has built upon the work of Foucault to suggest that the highest form of modern biopolitics takes the form of the camp, most especially the refugee and concentration camp. Here we find a space of exception marked out within a nation’s border where those who live within a continual state of exception are exposed to biopolitics in its rawest form.[7] Keeping in mind the essential connection between the Occupy Movement and the state of the homeless, when the media compares Occupy encampments to homeless tent cities and Hoovervilles they are hitting upon, though most often misunderstanding, an important point. Encampments of the homeless stand as dramatic condemnations of the citizen-consumer paradigm of modern politics while exposing the residents of these camps to the unmediated attentions of biopolitics. As Agamben states, “…the camp is the new, hidden regulator of the inscription of life in the order – or, rather, the sign of the system’s inability to function without being transformed into a lethal machine.”[8] As both the most extreme effect of biopolitics and a sign of its essential inhumanity, the camp is a strategic weakness within modern biopolitical systems.

            The camp represents a strategic weakness for the alliance between corporations, the rich and government that constitutes contemporary biopolitics precisely because individual complicity within the system depends extensively on the assumption that one’s rights market out a space of freedom and not a space of intensified political structuring. One exists purely within the realm of one’s rights when one exists independent of any market or economic characteristics. But such an existence in public space is precisely the fundamentally unfree existence of the homeless or the highly bureaucratized existence of the political protestor. It is very informative to consider the example of the protest organizer who is forced, willingly or not, into a market form through demands for protest licenses and, often, insurance policies. In some cities practicing one’s right to protest can be an exceptionally expensive proposition, clearly foreclosing the practice of this right for those without consumer standing. The message of encampment is, then, that there is in practice no citizenship protected from government force. It is only when one abides by the unspoken, thought violently enforced, biopolitical demand to exist in public space as a consumer that any level of safety can be assumed. American government, and those of most developed liberal societies in the world, stand upon the illusion that certain freedoms are granted based purely upon life or citizenship when, in fact, the opposite obtains. It is pure life and citizenship that represent the realms of least freedom and security.

            The maintenance of the basic illusion of biopolitics depends upon the ability of most citizens to see, in the concentration camp occupant, the refugee, the homeless, etc. someone who is anything but a human or citizen. Rather, in each case, the occupant of the camp must be seen as a problem in order for the system to maintain itself. Consuming citizens must, in looking at the camp, fail to see someone existing purely within the realm of rights and instead see someone legitimately excepted of their rights because of various personal failings. What must be, above all, avoided is the recognition that in looking at the homeless one sees the figure of what our society does to those who exist fully within the protection of the very rights the thought of which sooths us to sleep at night. Here is the paradigm of the fate of the free citizen: hounded by the police; refused time and again the use of public spaces; forced from sidewalks, streets and parks; shuffled into shelters and expelled again from them on fixed schedules; bussed out of town or to other towns against their will; arrested, released, vilified and ignored. Here is the hero of the political faery tale, existing as equal to all others endowed with inalienable rights.

            This weakness in the system of biopolitics which would convince us to be reassured by our citizenship while, at the same time, conferring upon its concrete existence nothing but fear and disgust explains both the effectiveness of the practice of occupation as protest and the strategies used against it. It is ironic that the resemblance of occupation to homelessness, extend by the media to often direct claims that occupiers just are homeless and unemployed, touches upon an important and powerful element of the movement while using it as a justification for dismissing the movement. It becomes essential, then, for the movement that the brutality meted out by the police to be seen as directed against those types of citizens that the majority of people have not already accustomed themselves to viewing as problems rather than citizens. This can, as a side note, lead to the dangerous tension within the Occupy Movement to distance ourselves from the very people whose position we are choosing to enter, namely the illegitimated homeless.

The connection between the two positions I have discussed, that of non-commercial protestor and non-commercial homeless, is seen even more clearly when we consider the Kafkaesque rationality that allows governmental forces to except both camps from their rights to the use of public space, public assembly and protest. It is staggering to consider that the vast paramilitary force used in clearing Zuccotti Park in New York City including helicopter surveillance, clearing several city blocks of any form of traffic, disruption of public transportation, journalistic blackouts, to say nothing of the extensive police forces and militaristic hardware mobilized, were all justified for seeming negligible biopolitical concerns such as the need to clean the park and address concerns of the businesses in the area. Apparently aesthetic, hygienic, and commercial concerns unquestionably trump those most basic rights upon which our political system is supposed to be based. It is this same typically biopolitical combination of aesthetic, hygienic and commercial justifications that motivate the domination and repression of homeless citizens by local authorities.         

            The path we have followed makes clear that the violent response the Occupy Movement has faced, while utterly horrifying, is not at all surprising. The movement has placed itself outside the roles created, encouraged and finally demanded by biopolitical power and, in doing so, has dared the governing forces to demonstrate how they really treat those who address them not from the position of consumers, servants or owners but rather as citizens reduced to their basic rights alone. Throughout America and elsewhere in the world the government-corporate powers have done precisely that, revealing exactly where one stands when one stands only as a citizen. The answer is that one stands in the range of tear gas, pepper spray, police batons and precisely not within a public space in which you are recognized as having any rights of use, assembly or protest. If we recall that biopolitics arose as a positive project to structure and direct ways of life rather than just forbid or command certain actions we see that, when pushed to its extreme, biopolitics can be made to collapse back into a purely negative and repressive form of power. This, in turn, dissolves for those who pay attention the illusions upon which biopower’s benign appearance depends.     

            The reclamation of the camp from the forces of biopolitics, while achieving the strategic victories I have mentioned and providing a platform from which an extensive critique of contemporary biopolitics can be heard, has also involved a rich productive side as well. Within the space of the camp, a space excepting itself from consumer existence and excepted externally from protection from government violence, the temporary and fragile opportunity to explore what community might be free of biopolitics takes shape. It is in this sense that the practices embodied in general assemblies, organizing groups and soap boxes across the country offer a new and vibrant image of what the political is, namely community membership. Across the country and in many other places throughout the world people are creating, discovering and learning anew what it means to be responsibly active in a community, what it means to be political. A friend asked me what I thought was the most important lesson I had learned so far from the movement. My response was that politics consists in what we do every day. It is a way of existing within a community. Within contemporary consumer society politics, like everything else, is bought and sold. It is a product in the media, and a passively consumed product at that. For some citizens the only real political moment is periodic voting, at least for the minority who actually vote. What we learn from the consensus forming practices of the movement and the community they build and strengthen is that politics is not, or not only, about people you rarely meet making decisions you frequently don’t hear about or don’t fully understand in places you may never have seen in person. Rather, politics is the art of the polis, of the community, the art of existing with others and making decisions about what is important and what should be done together. Not only, then, is politics first and foremost local it is also a way of life, and one which biopolitics works above all to foreclose for it is, in its most basic form, non-commercial and unable to be consumed or purchased. It can only be lived.   


[1] For an analysis of this fact and the basis of the interpretation I present see Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish Vintage Books, second edition 1977 Alan Sheridan trans. Part Four, Chapter Two.

[2] The discussion of debt that follows is largely inspired by David Graeber Debt: The First 5000 Years Melville House, 2011. Following the completion of this paper my attention was directed by a colleague to Jason Read’s impressive paper “Starting from year Zero: Occupy Wall Street and the Transformations of the Socio-Political” which was presented at the conference “Occupy Philosophy” at Michigan State University. In his paper Dr. Read offers a detailed interpretation of the debt economy with which my own interpretation is largely in agreement. A version of his paper, which I highly recommend, can be found at…

[3] Graeber Debt p.16

[4] Taken from the excerpt in Michel Foucault, Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth: Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984 Volume I The New Press, 1997. p. 79. 

[5] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer Stanford University Press, 1995 Daniel Heller-Roazen trans.

[6] This is a strategy which I am well aware is not universally accepted by all general assemblies or members of the Occupy Movement and I am no way suggesting that it is, or should be, the official strategy of the movement.

[7] For an extensive discussion of this point see Agamben Homo Sacer part three “The Camp as the Biopolitical Paradigm of the Modern”.

[8] Agamben, Homo Sacer p. 175