An old tale tells of a departing lord who commanded his servants to take what they had been given, and with it to “Pragmateusasthe en hōi erchomai,” “Occupy till I come”.
Pragmateuomai pertains to action, to deeds begun and done by men in the world of men, to pragma. Despite the imperative neither to love this world nor the things of this world, but rather to turn from the mundane for the sake of loving that above and beyond it, this command, occupy, shows, contra the Prussian’s pronouncement, that Christianity is no mere democratization of Plato’s least Socratic thinking. Occupy, pragmateusasthe: engage in this world, entangle oneself in it, act.
Occupy nominally retains something of this old meaning, but today the word verbally suggests a martial register. It resounds with unrightful, imposing force, with violence. Occupations are conquests. They last as long as the occupying force remains encamped on seized territory, or until that force is itself made subject to a contrary force.
Otherwise occupy is denuded of agency. Passively taking up space, the occupant lingers in a place before passing on. To this place the lingerer has no right; he will cede it before long. In its most paralytic sense, occupy denotes the spatial character of mere existence, to being here or there, to that which merely occupies.
The late protests and demonstrations answering the exhortation to occupy tout the sheer force of their number, seize spaces, establish encampments, and disavow the elemental violence. They prefer to appear as the extraneous, lacking in worldly agency, who yet remain visibly in place, at least until a less passive force compels them not even to do that. The occupiers are a force of weakness.
As is expected. Protest and demonstration are the grand public activities of those who cannot but concede their impotence within the extant public order. The protester is the testator who declares what should be heard; the demonstrator points to what should be noticed. Both activities promulgate knowledge. It is left to the attentive, if there are any, to act on this knowledge. If anyone on it acts at all.
This the elder Savio knew when he exhorted the gathered “to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus” to stop the machine. For “you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all!” The indicating Savio pedagogically pointed, ceding the doing of the liberation to some perhaps coming other.
There is a beauty and a dignity in the edifying entreaty to those possessing the power to act, provided this concession of public impotence is genuine. The powerless call is a bastion of an old humanity. Its active answer, a humanizing of an old messianism.
When this concession is pretense, as in certain recent mock-carnivals, protest and demonstration defile humanity. The genuine carnival is a pageant in which high and low playfully exchange places, and momentarily liberated from the accidents of station and fortune, revel together in their common, enduring humanity. But this humanity is denied when the high costume in subjugation while feigning themselves trampled by monstrous, overstepping tyrants. Indeed, the recent mockeries more than feign this: the new unreconstructed fire-eaters mistake their hallucinations for reality.
For the new Savios the concession of worldly impotence is neither genuine nor feigned. It is not even properly a concession. Deploring the so, so heart-sickening world of men as it appears before them, they condemn it. They counter the fallen culture as retreating holies counter the fallen world. Rejecting it they set themselves apart from it, quarantining themselves to remain unspoiled, unprofaned, uncorrupted by its depravity. But in this sanctifying rejection they forfeit as well their presence and power as acting men in this human world.
Occupy! The word was once a call to men of this world who longed for a better world to embrace what the new Savios presently shun. Engage in this world, entangle oneself in it, act. Take whatever is at hand, and use it to grasp the controls of the levers and gears and wheels, of the entire apparatus, not to stop the machine, not to voice entreaty, but to join in its direction. As those who claim to yearn for freedom must.
If truly they yearn for freedom.