Sleeping as an act of non-violent resistance and civil disobedience
- by Doris Denekamp, 2011

This text is a shorter version of the thesis ‘Sleeping as an act of non-cooperation in neoliberal times’ written in the context of the Dutch Art Institute and supervised by Doreen Mende.

In this article I am going to argue why the act of sleeping is seen as subversive in our society. I think this is due to the neoliberal ideology which has formed our economy, culture, politics and cities. In the first part I am going to describe how the act of sleeping can be instrumental to resist this hegemony and in the second part how it can be a tool in collective movements enforcing social change.

SLEEPING AS AN ACT OF RESISTANCE
To understand how we can see sleeping as an act of resistance we have to consider our current social-economic situation. The first part of this article will revolve around the contemporary neoliberal doctrine and its consequences on our everyday life. Only if we understand how neoliberalism changed our working conditions, our experience of the city and even shaped our individual identities, we can explore sleeping as a strategy to oppose these developments. This opposition is not characterized by loud outcries, clenched fists or banners, normally used in protests organized by oppositional political parties or unions. Sleeping can be an oppositional action through being an action and a non-action at the same time. When sleeping we suspend all action, we rest. This suspension can be instrumental for resistance through non-cooperation.

Neoliberalist theory is a revival of the liberal doctrine of the 18th century, which became popular again in the 1970s. As David Harvey explains it, the main values that neoliberalism advocates are individual freedom and liberty, and its followers believe that this ‘individual liberty and freedom can best be protected and achieved by an institutional structure, made up of strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade: a world in which individual initiative can flourish. The implication of that is that the state should not be involved in the economy too much, but it should use its power to preserve private property rights and the institutions of the market and promote those on the global stage if necessary.’6 So the role of the state changes under neoliberalism from controlling the market into serving it. In order to make the market flourish it has to be freed of all interference. Neoliberalism is a theory that was developed in opposition to communism and fascism, but also very much in opposition to the strong welfare states which were constituted in postwar Europe.

economy of dispossession
The emphasis on the individual is the basis of neoliberal capitalism – individual freedom is the highest good. In a way this ideal of individual freedom came out of the protest movements of the 1960s. The students in that time struggled for greater freedom of state and corporate domination. And next to that there were other movements like the more traditional labor movements which struggled for social justice and equality and the people who fought for a more sustainable economy. In the 1970s neoliberalism seemed a way to realize the individual freedom and liberty, although it had no answer for the questions of social justice and sustainability. Harvey thinks that ‘what happened in the 1970s is that when the neoliberal move came in, the idea erupted that, okay, neoliberalism will give you individual liberty and freedom, but you just have to forget social justice and you just have to forget environmental sustainability and all the rest of it. Just think about individual liberty and freedom in particular, and we’re going to meet your desires and your interests through the individual liberties of market choice – freedom of the market is what it’s all about.’

A lot of people who were active in the 1960s responded to this way of thinking. But now, forty years later, we can see what a devastating effect this train of thought had on social justice and the environmental well-being. We live in a consumerist society with a commodity market sustained by disempowered workers in sweatshops all over the world. And moreover we live in a society of waste, we produce enormous amounts of rubbish which is again largely disposed in the same development countries where our goods are produced. Thus although life seems fairly good in the rich, Western part of the world it can only be sustained by an economy of dispossession, mostly played out on the other side of the world, but also very apparent in the position of the undocumented people in our own countries.

1,2,3 action!

Also the less deprived people, the social middle class, find themselves in a stranglehold held by the neoliberal doctrine. The free and flexible market without governmental interference causes all working conditions to be more and more precarious. There is no such thing anymore as a job for life and many people work under a zero hour contract. This working condition plus the conviction that we are all individuals produces a need to perform. Only when we are active, when we produce and consume, we take part in the economy. To participate in this economy is essential to be respected in a society which is characterized by the market. Therefore we need to deal with the competition of the free market, we need to work harder, better and for lower wages than the competitors. At the same time we work in a deindustrialised, post-Fordist economy – everything is based on ideas instead of products.

The capitalist economy is based on growth – we experience a crisis if the growth decreases or the economy stagnates. To ensure the accumulation of wealth, people need to have desires which need to be fulfilled, only to be transformed into new desires. It is never enough, in order to pursue happiness we always need new things, new kicks, new commodities which carry the promise of happiness and fulfillment – a promise cleverly constructed by marketing campaigns. This makes consumerism the pivot of our culture.

Our individual identity, which gained so much importance in neoliberal times, is mostly constructed with what we possess and what we do. Through our lifestyle, taken as the commodification of the way we live our lives, we try to differentiate ourselves from others. To show our competence we exhibit what we do and what we like on social networks like Facebook and thus we are even commodifying our friendships. How can we get out of this circle of consuming and producing? How can we say NO to the demand to perform? How can we resist the dominance of the market?

I prefer not to

In this light it is interesting to look at Herman Melville’s story Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street. A lawyer who works in Wall Street hires the scrivener Bartleby to copy his lawsuits. Bartleby performs very well in the first few days, but then he starts refusing work with the sentence: ‘I prefer not to’. He works less and less but somehow his employer doesn’t have the heart to fire him. One day he discovers that Bartleby is actually living in the office on Wall Street. After some time the desperate employer decides to move his office in order to leave the completely passive Bartleby behind. Later the lawyer hears from the new tenants that Bartleby refused to leave (‘I prefer not to’) and that they finally had to kick him out – only to discover that he slept on the stairs from then on. Bartleby gets arrested and dies in his cell because he prefers not to eat.

I think Melville’s story depicts a very radical refusal to perform. Bartleby no longer wants to meet the pressure put one him. He refuses to be active and to play the rules of the game. He seems to be overwhelmed by feelings of depression. It is exemplary that the office is located in Wall Street, New York’s financial heart. Bartleby is resisting the demands of the market through pure passivity. But although he is completely passive, he resists the demand to perform in an active way by being always present. He even moves into the office and does not want to leave anymore. When he is chased out he starts sleeping on the stairs. He uses the presence of this passive body as a charge against the economic system. The act of sleeping performed by Bartleby is a radical act of underperforming right in the center of business, where everything is based on activity and movement.

undoing, unworking and unconsuming
To sleep means to stop with what we were doing – to pause. We stop working, walking, travelling, eating, producing. When sleeping we suspend activity and therefore it is unproductive in an economical sense. Sleeping collides with the neoliberal ideal of the 24/7 economy, production and consumption that never stops, creating cities that never sleep. The sleeper neither produces nor consumes. In his book The Fall of Sleep Jean-Luc Nancy states: ‘He who sleeps does not feed on anything that comes to him from without. Like animals that practice hibernation, the sleeper feeds on his reserves.’ The sleeper doesn’t need anything, I understand his or her state of being as a closed circle. This self-fulfilled, closed state is a strong rejection of the capitalist hegemony. It rejects the accumulation of capital caused by perpetual desires through its passiveness. Sleeping is undoing, unworking and unthinking.

the fall of sleep
To sleep means to surrender – to let sleep take control. Only when we surrender completely we can let go of our desires, of our fears and our commitments. When we fall asleep, we let go of everything we normally hold on to and we start to fall – a free fall. This fall is a breakdown, but it is a breakdown which is at the same time rejuvenating. This rejuvenating character of the fall of sleep makes it very interesting as a technique of resistance. Mental breakdown, burnout, physical fall or even dropping death (like Bartleby in the end of the story) can be potent refusals to the demand to perform, but these breakdowns are at the same time destructive for the actor.

Therefore I think the fall of sleep is a very special fall, it is an endless fall which stops if you are waking up, but you will never hit the ground. Just before sleep takes over, we feel how we start falling. We seem to fall backwards, a free fall in an undetermined space. We descent into the unconscious.This fall is beautifully described by Jean-Luc Nancy:

I’m falling asleep. I’m falling into sleep and I’m falling there by the power of sleep. Just as I fall asleep from exhaustion. Just as I drop from boredom. As I fall on hard times. As I fall, in general. Sleep sums up all these falls, it gathers them together. Sleep is proclaimed and symbolized by the sign of the fall, the more or less swift descent or sagging, faintness.

This falling is only possible through endless trust and surrender. Although we are completely passive, we are not static, we do move. We descend further and further. Sleep leads us away from the world that we know. This fall sets us free, we are loosened from all worldly connections. Fragments of our lives, our jobs pass by. Two friends can suddenly be combined in one body, lovers can turn into monsters. It is as if we fall in Wonderland’s rabbit hole – we pass endless shelves with familiar objects, but we are not able to hold on to anything.

Or as Nancy describes it:

In any case, faintness and falling consist in not allowing a state to persist with the tension natural to it (a state of tension, then, that is not a “state”). With its tension and its intention slackening, giving up: activity into fatigue, interest into boredom, hope or confidence into distress, pleasure into displeasure, rejection of pain into morose delectation of it. Keenness becomes dull, momentum is lost, an alertness falls asleep.

Because falling asleep is not allowing a state to persist it is always a disruption. When we fall asleep we break with our wakeful state and sink away in another kind of consciousness. Feelings and emotions we have while awake, fall away and transform into others. Therefore sleeping creates a counterpoint – when sleeping we are able to inhabit a point which counters our wakeful state. From this point, established by the act of sleeping, new alternatives can be formulated.

the fall of I

When we fall asleep we make no distinction anymore between ourselves and the outside world. Our individual identity, which is so important to neoliberalism, falls away. Jean-Luc Nancy writes:

I myself become indistinct. I no longer properly distinguish myself from the world or from others, from my own body or from my mind, either. For I can no longer hold anything as an object, as a perception or a thought, without this very thing making itself felt as being at the same time myself and something other than myself. A simultaneity of what is one’s own and not one’s own occurs as this distinction falls away.

So our carefully constructed individuality suddenly dissolves, there is no clear distinction any longer between you and me. At the same time the whole notion of possession melts away – we no longer make any distinction between what is ours and what is not ours. This is highly subversive to everything neoliberalism stands for. How can we strive for individual freedom if we can not perceive our individuality any more? If we are no longer able to desire possession we strike capitalism in its heart.

mimicking death

‘Like death, sleep, and like sleep, death – but without awakening. Without a rhythm of return, without repetition, without a new day, without tomorrow.’ (Jean-Luc Nancy) Sleeping in a way mimics death, we refuse all interaction with our environment. Nancy writes: ‘Not – says the sleeper as well as the dead man, I am not there. Not there, not now, not here, not thus.’ Death and sleep are a rejection of everything, except for death or sleep itself. But although it rejects any interaction with the environment and the one who sleeps or who is dead doesn’t react on outside stimula, he or she is physically very present. This presence, this embodiment of the rejection to interact is very important when using the state of sleeping as an act of resistance. Death is without waking up, and thus happens only once, therefore it seems less sustainable as a strategy. Although death can also be rehearsed and performed.

virtual suicide

An interesting contemporary phenomenon is the virtual suicide. This is done by deleting one’s personal profile from the popular social network sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, in a dramatic way by making use of special virtual suicide programs. These social networks are the channels through which we broadcast our activity and by doing so we commodify ourselves and our relationships. Therefore social networks are maybe the most exemplary and apparent outcome of the current economy based on (un-)paid performance. Geoff Cox states in his article Virtual Suicide as Decisive Political Act that ‘virtual suicide stands as the stubborn refusal to operate under intolerable conditions of service and affirms the possibility of creative autonomy over work and life.’ Only by radically rejecting any kind of participation we can regain this autonomy over our lives. Now that I’ve looked into ways of radical rejection, the breakdown, sleeping, enacting death and even death itself, I now want to research ways in which we can use sleeping in a more active and constructive way. An interesting thought by Cox can be a starting point:

If the current neoliberal regime is significantly underpinned by open social exchange, it continues to be the case that those who created it are logically the ones that can uncreate it – according to dialectical logic at least. Reversing the way power unfolds is arguably the only way change can happen, initially through ethical refusal and by establishing forms of resistance based on the structure of governmentality. The political task becomes one of reverse-engineering, or negating, significant elements to achieve different ends.

In the second part I want to take off from here. I want to unfold the idea that sleeping can be politicized as an act of negating the neoliberal hegemony. I think it is very important to look at how we can use sleeping actively, because the danger of using sleep as a strategy, is that we might fall into the gloomy state of the depressed, who can’t anymore find the energy to get up. In that case sleep loses its rejuvenating qualities and it will only wear us out. To sleep should also mean to wake up.

SLEEPING AS AN ACT OF CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE
In this last part of the article I want to look at sleeping in public space and how this can be politicized. Public space is essential to constitute a public – a group of people which feels connected and sees itself as connected. Public space provides the conditions for people (acquaintances and strangers) to meet and to experience being part of a greater collective. By being physically included in a group of people, we can recognize ourselves as together in a particular predicament. In the first part I have described how the notion of the public has eroded through the neoliberal emphasis on individual freedom. In this second part I want to look at public space and how it changed under the neoliberal influence. What effect has the increasing privatization of public space on the notion of the public? How can we reclaim public space and the right to the city? Can sleeping, as something that is very private and therefore normally only done in private space, be used as a technique to subvert the dominant powers regulating public space?

the absorption of surplus value through urbanization

The public space that I am targeting in this article is mainly the outside space and public structures like the library, the hospital, the station and the shopping centre in contemporary cities. Although much of this ‘public’ space is actually privatized, I am still calling it public, because it is the space where we can be part of a public. To understand how this public space is formed and changed by the process of urbanization I will go back to the writings of David Harvey. In his article The Right To The City Harvey describes the relation between urbanization and capitalism. He states that the main characteristic of the capitalist system is that it runs on the repeated investment of surplus value. Every investment creates new surplus value and at least part of this surplus value has to be reinvested to keep the system running and the profit growing. Thus “the politics of capitalism are affected by the perpetual need to find profitable terrains for capital surplus production and absorption.” (David Harvey) In this system innovations keep everything running, new products create new desires, the production process gets more efficient and cheaper and the geographical area from which cheap laborers and raw materials can be extracted becomes larger and larger. If any of these processes stagnate, it will inflict an economical crisis. If there is no profitable investment of surplus value possible anymore, the economic growth will stop increasing and sometimes even ceases.

“The crisis of 1848 was one of the first clear crises of unemployed surplus capital and surplus labor side-by-side and it was European-wide.” (Harvey) This crisis was most felt in Paris where it led to the most extreme political unrest. The unemployed workers and bourgeois utopians revolted against the capitalist system, but were violently repressed by the bourgeois republicans. The latter did not succeed in solving the crisis and Napoleon Bonaparte took the power. Bonaparte repressed all revolutionary thinking and solved the problem of the capital surplus by investing in huge infrastructure projects. One of these projects was the major restructuring of Paris. He hired Georges-Eugène Hausmann to create huge boulevards and to redesign whole neighborhoods.

“What he did in effect was to help resolve the capital surplus disposal problem by setting up a Keynesian-like system of debt-financed infrastructural urban improvements.” (Harvey) Hausmann’s city renewal was one characterized by gentrification; he demolished the labor neighborhoods and thus pushed the social underclass out of the city center. Never before was the city restructured on such a scale. This transformation led to a whole new urban lifestyle of leisure – Paris became the shopping center of Europe. The pattern of solving economical crises by huge urbanization projects proved to be very effective (although only until the next inevitable crisis), and is repeated many times since then.

the segregated city – gated communities and slums

From the 1990s on similar major urban development projects take place all over the world. China is in the middle of a rapid urbanization process focused on big infrastructure projects like highways and dams, again all debt-financed. It has absorbed nearly half of the world’s cement supplies since 2000.40 All these urbanization processes in different parts of the world have a huge effect globally on the absorption of surplus capital. Many countries profit from the increasing demand for raw materials, for example Chile booms because of the demand of copper.

The most recent wave of rapid urbanization, fueled by neoliberal capitalism, started again a new urban lifestyle based on untamed consumerism. But since the economic boom of the 1990s has only benefited the very small upperclass of the world population, this lifestyle is only available to a happy few. All the major development projects, especially in countries like China or India, take place in the middle of growing slums.

Quality of urban life has become a commodity for those with money, as has the city itself in a world where consumerism, tourism, cultural and knowledge-based industries have become major aspects of urban political economy. (Harvey)

The result of this growing inequality between the rich and the poor is that the city becomes more and more segregated as well. The expensive city centers and business area’s are the territory of the wealthy upperclass as well as the carefully protected, and often even gated, residential neighborhoods. Also public spaces, like parks, squares and shopping centres, are more and more private owned and therefore fenced off and kept under constant surveillance. The underprivileged inhabit so called ‘problem neighborhoods’ often without good facilities and with a low quality of housing. These neighborhoods are often being demolished during city renewal projects. Especially when these neighborhoods are located in the city center they have to make place for fancy development projects. In this way the social underclass becomes more and more marginalized. Each social group inhabits their own relatively autonomous fragment of the city.

Under these conditions, ideals of urban identity, citizenship and belonging, already threatened by the spreading malaise of the neoliberal ethic, become much harder to sustain. (…) Even the idea that the city might function as a collective body politic, a site within and from which progressive social movements might emanate, appears increasingly implausible.
(Harvey)

The privatization of public space and its heavy surveillance (executed mostly by private security companies) restricts the use of the space for a large part of the population dramatically. Only when conforming to the rules and regulations set by the elite, the less privileged are allowed to use these spaces. The city centers are shopping conglomerates designed for people to spend money or go from A to B efficiently. When you can not or you do not want to obey to these prescribed ways of using the space, you at least attract attention. People who try to make use of the space in a different way are often chased away – for example groups of young people, skaters, drug addicts and homeless people. These groups denounce the commercial use of the public space through their actions and therefore their presence is considered a nuisance. The bylaws created to chase these people away from certain parts of the city undermines their right to the city and with that their citizenship.

At this point there arise two very important questions: ‘How can the right to the city be democratized?’, and: ‘How can the notion of the public revive?’ Only when we find a way out of the stranglehold of the neoliberal individualism we can constitute a countermovement based on our shared predicament. These are very big questions and I don’t have a ready-made answer to them, but again I think the act of sleeping can provide an interesting point of departure.

sleeping on the streets and the dispossessed

In the first part I wrote about Bartleby and how he rejected the capitalist environment of Wall Street in a very strong way by being always present but at the same time completely passive. When the new tenants try to remove him from the office he starts to sleep on the stairs. His unavoidable physical presence is very important, it establishes his sleeping as a campaign against the demand to perform.

When we think about sleeping in public space, homeless people immediately come to mind. Because they are deprived of a private space they have to sleep on the streets. This is by no means meant as a subversive act; they sleep in public out of mere necessity. But I think there are possibilities to politicize this inevitable public sleeping without ignoring the merciless condition of the homeless. The strong physical presence on a specific location constituted by the act of sleeping can be a powerful tool to draw attention to the situation of the social underclass and to reclaim their rights to the city.

colonization of public space
The last ten years you hardly see homeless people sleeping on the streets in the Netherlands. This is not because the economical and social problems which causes homelessness are solved, but because there has been a very strong policy to remove homeless people from the streets, especially in the centre of the cities. In an interview Don Mitchell explains that:

One of the problems with homeless people is that they are hypervisible. Homeless people can be very clever about this and do a lot of things to keep themselves hidden, but they are visible doing things that they are not supposed to be doing in public – going to the bathroom, eating, sleeping, being intimate in all kinds of ways. Their being in public in this way upsets all kinds of norms that are deeply ingrained in what we think is proper in certain kinds of behavior. So this hyper visibility and the fact that they are transgressing these norms is, I think, one of the reasons that we have such an abject response to homeless people.

Homeless people use the public space for actions other people perform in private and in this way they deregulate the experience of public space. Moreover homeless people are colonizing the space where they stay, for example a park or a square – their sleeping bodies occupy the public space and make it their own. To understand the colonizing quality of the sleeping body we have to look at public space and how it is designed primarily as infrastructure for the fluent movement of people, goods and information. The planning of the city is informed by the neoliberal demand for performance – people in public space are supposed to be active. This active state of being is characterized by the upright position – people walk, drive or sit but never lie down. As soon as we lie down we constitute a whole different relation with our location. A horizontal position breaks with all movement, the body makes as much contact to the place as possible and thus also lays a much more permanent claim on this space. This permanent presence of the lying and especially the sleeping body collides with the geographical flux needed for the cycle of production and consumption.

In the Netherlands we can see since a few years that most of the public benches have arm rests which divide the bench in individual seats, all to avoid people lying down. Also the comfortable chairs in the public library in The Hague are recently replaced for ‘active furniture’, because the chairs were used to take a nap. Homeless people can not obey to this constant demand for activity in public space and therefore they do lie down in public space. This is necessary for their survival, since sleep is one of the basic needs of a human being. But next to that they are in many ways excluded from the economy and thus their chances to perform are very limited. So they lie down and fall asleep. This is experienced as threatening, because suddenly there are people who subvert all rules and regulations of public space. People perceive places where homeless people reside as unsafe and therefore the value of the private property in the neighborhood decreases. To counter these developments the policy of the Dutch government, and governments all over the world, is to look for solutions for the problem of the visibility of the homeless, instead of solving the problems inflicting homelessness.

The homeless are seen as the cause of urban decline, rather than as a symptom of urban decline or a symptom, as I see it, of capitalism working as it necessarily must. In my work I am arguing that these people should have the right to use the public space for sleeping, toilet, etc. because there is no other option. Therefore they should have this right to the city. (Don Mitchell)

Don Mitchell supports Harvey’s theory that explains capitalism, and especially neoliberal capitalism, as functioning through the ‘accumulation by dispossession’. Homelessness is one of the results of this dispossession. This became once more evident during the current economical crisis. The global capital network which is established in the 1990s encourages risky behaviour on the local market, because the risk can always be transferred elsewhere. The global displacement of very high risks led to the housing asset-value bubble in the USA. The inevitable burst of this bubble came in 2007 and caused a global credit crisis. The first group that fell victim to this crisis were impoverished US citizens, often Afro-Americans, who lost their houses and became homeless. Although these problems are the direct outcome of global economical developments, homelessness is largely perceived as a situation imposed by personal problems.

Don Mitchell says that because the homelessness of the people is a symptom of the capitalist system, they should have the right to use the city as they need to. He continues to say that:

The visibility of the homeless people is problematic – it brings down the power of a state, of other classes that don’t want them and so forth. But their being in public is also positive or at least can be political positive in that it shows that there is a collective of people and that there is a serious problem in our world that has to be addressed. If the homeless are always hidden away, we don’t see that. That is a very instrumentalist way of thinking on who the homeless are, but I think it is a very important political way of thinking too.

I concur: the thought that homelessness is your own fault should be countered. Only when the homeless people and all the other underprivileged people are visible, in public, only then can they draw the necessary attention to the shadow side of the economy. But since neoliberal governments do everything to reduce this visibility to protect the property value of the neighborhoods, while at the same time they are deconstructing the social safety net, the homeless people should stop cooperating. Although for most homeless people it is very difficult to spend energy on anything else than their own survival, I think it could make a change if they collectively reclaimed their right to the city through being physically present in the city centers. To form a collective body is in this case more important than ever because the situation of the homeless people is extremely precarious and they often have no voice in any official discourse. Therefore these people should be joined by all other people who want to enforce a change.

sleeping on Tahrir Square
To conclude this article I want to look at collective movements that are currently happening and how the act of sleeping plays a part in these. Although I have spend most of this essay arguing that the notion of the public is disappearing, 2011 seems to be a year of massive uprisings. In the early spring we witnessed the spectacular protest movement in Egypt which followed on the uprising in Tunisia and inspired many more protests in the Arab world. But also in Spain, Greece and Portugal and later in the US and Western Europe people gather on the streets and squares to protest. Although these protest have evolved out of different local predicaments, the overall tendency is that the people demand more democracy. In all these movements public space plays an important role as catalyst of the collective struggle. The massive gatherings on Tahrir Square (Liberation Square), a main public square in Cairo, became an iconic example for the other protests.

When we look at what happened and still happens on Tahrir Square, we can see that it enables the protesters to physically experience the public and their togetherness in their protest. By being en masse on the streets the individual preoccupations can grow into a collective fight. Through their inflamed feeling of collectivity the protesters felt strong enough to resist the regime of Mubarak, although protesting was -and still is- a very dangerous endeavour. By being all together the public suddenly got an enormous immediacy – with their bodily presence they were able to enforce a change.

One of the very powerful techniques of the protesters on Tahrir Square was to stay and to sleep in the public space. By doing so they made the space their own and claimed the rights to use it. They colonized the space through lying down – by lying flat on the ground they literally covered as much space as possible. Furthermore they established a more permanent relationship with the location – a relationship which is completely different than the one of the passerby. In this way the people showed their persistence in their struggle – they were present, and had a very strong bodily presence. They were not going to leave before Mubarak would resign.

non-violent resistance, non-cooperation and civil disobedience

During the occupation of Tahrir square preceding the fall of Mubarak, the protesters used the vulnerability of their sleeping bodies as a living, but immobile barrier in front of the army tanks. These sleeping people embody non-violent resistance. They have put their vulnerable, unarmed bodies right in the path of the devastating tank tracks – only when the Egyptian army is willing to kill defenseless people these tanks can move forward. Their lives are the ‘weapons’ in their struggle.

These acts of civil resistance are based on a very long tradition of non-cooperation and non-violence, two techniques that have often proved to be very powerful. Leo Tolstoy and Mohandas Gandhi are the most iconic spokespersons of these forms of resistance. In 1908 Tolstoy wrote A Letter to A Hindu in which he propagates non-violent resistance and civil disobedience as tactics for the Indians to overcome the oppression of the British.

Tolstoy wrote:

As soon as men live entirely in accord with the law of love natural to their hearts and now revealed to them, which excludes all resistance by violence, and therefore hold aloof from all participation in violence – as soon as this happens, not only will hundreds be unable to enslave millions, but not even millions will be able to enslave a single individual. Do not resist the evil-doer and take no part in doing so, either in the violent deeds of the administration, in the law courts, the collection of taxes, or above all in soldiering, and no one in the world will be able to enslave you.

Tolstoy’s letter inspired Gandhi and his non-violent struggle for Indian independence. Between 1921 and 1942 Gandhi was able to mobilize millions of Indians in the non-cooperation movement against the British oppression, with the independent state of India as the final result. The techniques of peaceful resistance, non-cooperation and civil disobedience were applied during many more political struggles and in the uprisings this year it proves again to be a very powerful method of resistance.

Action through non-action seems incredibly relevant in a world marked by the constant demand to perform. Sleeping as being existentially an act of non-performance seems the most radical way to oppose the perpetual need for production and consumption caused by the neoliberal doctrine. To use sleeping as a subversive act, it has to be made public. We have to find a way to stage our rejection and thus to overcome the private realm. Only if we succeed in reaching out to others, we can collectively start a social movement which can realise a change. The protests of 2011, including the Occupy movement have been a very potent beginning, but are by no means an end. Only if we continue to subvert the neo-liberal hegemony collectively we can create space for alternatives.