Insurgent squares: the spatial practices of the political
“…the people is those who, refusing to be the population, disrupt the system.” (1
Tahrir Square, Assaha-al-Khadra, Syntagma Square, Green Square, Zuccotti Park, Paternoster Square, Puerta del Sol, Plaza de la Catalunya: these are just a few of the public (occasionally privately owned) spaces that have recently become engrained in our symbolic universe as emblematic sites of insurrectional geographies. Their names stand as points de capiton that quilt a chain of meaning through signifiers like democracy, revolution, freedom, being-in-common, solidarity, emancipation. The emergence of political space, these insurrections suggest, unfolds through a political act that stages collectively the presumption of equality and affirms the ability of ‘the People’ to self-manage and organize its affairs. It is an active process of intervention through which (public) space is reconfigured and through which – if successful – a new socio-spatial order is inaugurated. The taking of urban public spaces has indeed always been, from the Athenian ochlos demanding to be part of the polis to the heroic struggle of the Tunisian people, the hallmark of emancipatory geo-political trajectories.
Emblematically starting with the French urban revolts during the autumn of 2005, retaking streets and squares choreographed political struggle over the past few years as protests jumped around from Copenhagen to Rome and from Chicago to Riga, from Stockholm to Sama in Yemen. In the spring and summer of 2011, the indignados (the outraged) occupied central urban squares in Madrid, Barcelona, and Athens, among other cities, to demand ‘democracy now’. Rarely in history have so many people voiced their discontent with the political and economic blueprints of the elites and signalled a desire for an alternative design of the city and the world, of the polis. These urban insurrections are indeed telltale symptoms of the contemporary urban order, an order that began to implode, both physically and socially, with the onslaught, in the fall of 2007, of the deepest crisis of capitalism in the last seventy years, a crisis that finally exposed the flimsy basis on which the fantasy of a neoliberal design for the city and the world of the twenty-first century was based. (2
Alain Badiou recently explored the significance of these insurrectional events in The Reawakening of History (Le Réveil de l’Histoire). (3 For him, the proliferation of these insurgencies is a sign of a return of the universal Idea of freedom, solidarity, equality and emancipation and they are marked by procedures of intensification, contraction and localization. An Idea/Imaginary cannot find grounding without localization. A political moment is always placed, localized, and invariably in a public space (irrespective of the formal ownership relations). At the same time, insurrectional activity is intense; it requires the concentration of enormous vital energies for a sustained period of time. And finally, it contracts or brings together a wide range of individuals who in their multiplicity stand for the metaphorical condensation of The People (as political category – not as part of the population). However, such intense and contracted localized practices can only be a political event, not a political procedure. The key political question is what happens when the squares are cleared, the tents removed and the energies dissipate. In other words, what is required now is to take these proto-political localized events to a spatialized political ‘truth’ procedure.
The latter revolves squarely around questions of political organization, the arena of struggle and the construction of new political collectivities. While the 20th century markers of emancipatory political struggle revolved around the party as organizational conduit, the state as the arena to conquer and the proletarian as political subject, these markers are no longer performative today. The urgent tasks now to undertake for those who maintain fidelity to the political events choreographed in the new insurrectional spaces revolve around the mode and practices of collective political organization, the concrete modalities of spatializing and universalising the Idea materialized in these localized insurrectional events and the mobilisation of a wide range of new political subjects who are not afraid to demand the impossible, stage the new and confront the violence that will inevitably intensify as those who insist to maintain the present order realize that their days might be numbered. While staging equality in public squares is a vital moment, the process of transformation requires the production of new forms spatialization that is quilted around materializing the claims of equality, freedom and solidarity.
1 Foucault, M. (2007). Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-78. New York: Palgrave, page 66.
2 See Swyngedouw E. (2010)“The Communist Hypothesis and Revolutionary Capitalisms: Exploring the Idea of Communist Geographies for the 21st Century”, Antipode, 41(6): 1439-1460; Swyngedouw E. 2011 “Interrogating Post-Democracy: Reclaiming Egalitarian Political Spaces”, Political Geography, 30, pp. 370-380; Swyngedouw E. (2011) “ ‘Every revolution has its square’: politicizing the post-political city”, in Gandy, M. (ed.) Urban Constellations. Jovis: Berlin, pp. 22-25.
3 Badiou A. (2001) Le Réveil de l’Histoire. Paris: Nouvelles Editions Lignes