Next steps for the Occupy movement?

16 March 2012

Anton Soika reports on the latest developments with the Occupy movement

THE EVICTION of Occupy London on 28 February saw baliffs and police surround the camp, destroy the tents and equipment that had been assembled there and disperse activists. “You can’t evict an idea” is the now popular response from Occupy camps across the world that have faced state repression. And they are right.
What the Occupy movement represents is an alliance of those who dared to vent their anger – youths, students, workers, the socially excluded and exploited – against the severe injustice of the government’s austerity bill and the bankers who landed us in the biggest recession since the 1930s. This manifested itself in making the working class and poor pay for the errors and greediness of the financial sector.
We have been sold the repugnant lie that unfortunately there is no other way, we must all ‘tighten our belts’ in order to remedy this crisis. Yet for those who see past the government’s rhetoric, Occupy has provided a great source of hope and inspiration.
Undoubtedly one of Occupy’s biggest strengths has been the way in which it has asked awkward questions: why are people unemployed, why are they in so much debt, why can they never attain the standards of living and happiness our leaders promised? At the same time, the movement showed that we are strong together, we can struggle together, and we can win together.
To this extent, Occupy’s slogan “We are the 99%” has brought the issue of class to the fore – there really is a difference between us and them. Not only has it highlighted inequalities in the West, but the movement has consciously linked up with revolutions from Syria to Tunisia and radical social movements in countries as diverse as as Nigeria, Greece, Spain, USA, Kyrgyzstan and Russia.
If we get passed all the ridiculous complaints about how “messy” the camp was, we come to the reality of what it represented – part of a growing international movement of people who are in resistance to their governments and ruling elites.
The factors which have led to the emergence of the Arab Spring are the same ones that led to the Occupy movement, and can be found in the global crisis which began in 2008. As Marx argued, every so often a crisis grips the world and causes tremendous social upheaval. The current crisis created the conditions for new social movements and revolutions to feed off each other and challenge the capitalist system.
This has led to increasing international solidarity between those who desire radical change. In some countries it is an end to dictatorships; in others it is a demand for an end to the rule of the Bankocracy. In both cases the movements centre on demands for more democratic rights.
Inevitably, the reinvigoration of radical social movements has begun a debate around anticapitalist alternatives. For many activists, simply seeking to reform the system is not on their agenda. They intend to rip it down entirely. This has been fueled by repeated examples of the state mobilising its forces to protect its interests, be that in Oakland, where police fired plastic bullets at Occupy campers or in Cairo, where activists were dragged away and raped.
Weaknesses in the strategy
Despite Occupy’s strengths, we must ask ourselves some serious questions about the Occupy movement and whether it can continue to develop. From the start, Occupy has had some worrying and unsettling attributes. As Marxists, we have to analyze the contradictions evident within the movement.
Firstly, the organisational structures of Occupy come from the “horizontal” tradition: mass assemblies without formal representation, autonomous working parties, consensus decision-making. It is not hard to envisage the potential problems here. Autonomous bodies working independently will quite possibly operate in contradiction to one another. General assemblies that insist on 90 per cent agreement on any specific policy or course of action will often, especially at crucial moments, be unable to make quick and effective decisions. Moreover, as each Occupy movement operates independently, demands and aims can differ radically from reformist to revolutionary politics.
Occupy involves a broad range of people, from graduates-without-a-future to the long term unemployed, workers, activists and so on. The debates over what Occupy is or should be are testament that this is work-in-progress. The heterogeneous nature of Occupy is, at first, a strength, as it is inclusive. But transforming quantity into political quality is a hard task and, as the movement ebbed, those who had no interest in building a mass movement gained influence.
This highlights problems of the movement’s ambiguity about linking up with the organisations that must be at the core of any revolutionary movement – the trade unions and socialist groups – that can penetrate the workplaces and housing estates. Without a political and economic perspective to reach out and win over the 99%, the Occupy movement could simply become a space for an illusionary reformist utopia.

Where next?

The danger is that young activists, politicised by the the student movement, the anticuts protests and mass strikes, could become burnt out and disillusioned. Unless Occupy can develop greater ties with the student movement and workplace activists – like it started to do with the rank and file electricians –its focus on occupation as a means to an end would consign it to a footnote in history.
That’s why Occupy’s international call for for a global strike on May Day is such a positive development. May Day clearly situates Occupy within the working class, but the demands being raised by some of the Occupy groups are limited to calls for more rights for workers, women and immigrants. What about an end to capitalism?
Limiting itself to headline grabbing stunts and building communities within capitalism will not be enough – we need to think more clearly about not just the problems of the banks and attacks on our democratic rights, but on how to get rid of the system once and for all. We need a revolutionary answer to the questions that Occupy poses.

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