Sunday, 14 April 2013

The 'Occupy' movement and the question of strategy

Occupy Oakland: mass protests, 2 November 2011
Two essays in the wide-ranging volume 'Socialist Register 2013: A Question of Strategy' engage with issues arising from the Occupy movement, which emerged from September 2011 onwards, first in New York and rapidly spreading nationwide (and to an extent beyond the US).
The overall theme of the volume is socialist strategy. These two particular contributions have much to offer current debates about strategies for countering neo-liberalism in an age of acute, on-going crisis, looking especially at the experiences of Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Oakland, placing them in context, and sketching conclusions that might be more generally applicable. This post reflects my engagement with the two essays.
Occupy: strengths and weaknesses

Occupy Wall Street signposted a resurgence of radical protest in the US and generated political debate, in particular about social and economic inequality. The Occupy movement can be seen as opening up new possibilities for the American left, though in a way that is as yet far from complete. After the initial Occupy moment - galvanising, exciting, hopeful - different directions were (and are) possible. There are naturally different ideas about what the movement is for, what it can become, and how it should organise.

Jodi Dean's 'Occupy Wall Street: after the anarchist moment' highlights the strengths of Occupy, but also notes that initially attractive qualities - inclusive, leaderless, participatory, consensus-seeking - brought serious problems too. The focus on 'consensus' masked political and tactical differences, so there was a tendency to fudge issues that actually needed thrashing out and resolving in order for action to be taken.

The need for democratic structures which can guide effective action was too often evaded. If there are not accountable leaders - or leadership bodies - then unaccountable leaders emerge. The rhetoric of being 'leaderless', however well-intentioned and genuine, is soon complemented by unaccountable leadership and weak democracy. This reduces the capacity for collective action around coherent demands.

In New York the biggest Occupy or Occupy-related protests resulted from trade union participation. However, without coherent strategy, through collective and democratic decision-making, there was a failure to build fully on the successes. Instead the tendency was for fragmentation into disparate campaigns and projects.

Without a clear, agreed strategy for reaching out to broader layers of support, sustaining the occupation was increasingly seen as an end in itself. The movement was liable to turn in on itself, 'obsessively reflecting on its failures adequately to include'. Questions of process became more important than questions of action.

'Occupy Wall Street', writes Dean, 'couldn't persist - its basic tenets undermined large-scale collective organisation but it was crucial, even necessary, to igniting a new anti-capitalist movement in the US'.

Occupy: a new vanguard?

Dean observes that Occupy 'mobilised not a proletariat bound to the factory but the proletarianised extended throughout uneven, unequal cities'. This is a valuable insight: in a period of low levels of industrial struggle, protests and occupations are the primary expression of resistance, but that doesn't mean abandoning any notion of working class struggle or politics. It is a question of forms of resistance, shaped by the realities of today's working class and the legacy of defeats for the organised working class during the long neo-liberal offensive.

Dean suggests - provocatively and, in my view, correctly - that the occupiers effectively formed a 'self-selected vanguard' in a broader struggle, taking on the kind of responsibilities Lenin attributed to professional revolutionaries or Bolshevik cadre. She writes that they were 'establishing and maintaining a continuity, a persistence, that enables broader numbers of people to join in the work of the movement. This continuity combats the fragmentation, localism and transitoriness of much of contemporary left politics.'

In the Leninist tradition the two crucial points about any vanguard are that they are organised in a coherent and collective body, and that they are in constant interaction with wider layers of the class. This is the basis for needing two interconnected things: revolutionary organisation and the united front. Occupy was, by its very nature, a politically disparate phenomenon. It wasn't as (relatively) politically and ideologically homogenous as a revolutionary organisation. It also struggled to establish forms of long-term organisation, limited instead by the transient character of a specific tactic: the occupation of public space.

Occupy activists' relationship with wider layers of support was complex. Some elements were outward-looking and determined to build wider (and long-term) alliances, especially with working class organisations. But there was also a strong pull - due to both material and political pressures - to be inward-looking and overly focused on simply maintaining the occupation itself (and on its own internal dynamics).

Occupy and direct action traditions

Barbara Epstein's 'Occupy Oakland: the question of violence' covers far more ground than the title suggests: its relevance is vastly wider than Oakland and the question of violence is only one of a number explored here. She focuses on a number of issues arising from Occupy Oakland, which was one of the biggest and most high-profile parts of the movement: 'the balance between non-violent tactics and militancy, between a focus on tactics and internal processes on the one hand, and on goals and strategy on the other, and the question of how to respond to police violence.'

Anarchist and anarchist-influenced ideas have become prominent in the last 30 years of protest movements. She suggests the first wave was in the 1980s with a particular focus on anti-nuclear activity, with feminist and environmentalist concerns at the fore. The second wave was the anti-capitalist movement after the great Seattle demonstration in late 1999, which benefited from a wider anti-system critique but borrowed many of the same preoccupations: inclusivity, horizontalism, consensus, etc. The third wave is Occupy.

Internationally the predominance of such ideas and forms of organisation is influenced by the weakness of tradition that were once stronger: trade unions, social democracy, official Communism and the organised left (of course these traditions have long been weaker in the US than in many European countries anyway). There is often a deep distrust of 'politics' and also of organisation: taken together, this feeds an emphasis on direct action, and a certain dynamism and militancy, but with little connection to mass politics or mass organisations it also encourages a degree of elitism and sectarianism.

Epstein explains that various occupations, including Occupy Oakland, modelled themselves on Occupy Wall Street: 'adopting, along with encampment, the General Assembly, some modified form of consensus process, the hand motions, the use of the human mic.' She points out that these tactics have strengths but also drawbacks: consensus, or even modified consensus, can allow a small minority to block the will of the majority; meetings can be long, tedious and unproductive; an appearance of consensus can disguise important differences.
Responding to police violence
In Occupy Oakland the issue of responding to police violence became a central one. Influential elements within the activist base of OO, heavily influenced by variants of anarchism, foregrounded physical confrontation with the forces of the state. This was coupled with a highly antagonistic attitude to anything deemed part of 'official politics'.
While there is something to be said for this uncompromising realism, there were two interconnected problems. The first problem is that it privileges the courage and commitment of relatively small numbers of activists over the capacity to mobilise large numbers. But if you want to isolate and defeat state forces, it makes sense to mobilise the largest numbers possible.
The other problem is that distrust of authority even extended to sympathetic elected politicians. At one demonstration, progressive local politicians were refused any opportunity to speak. This elitist approach made it harder to mobilise broader non-activist layers. As Epstein writes: 'a suspicious attitude towards progressive groups that engage in electoral politics deprives Occupy Oakland of potential allies'.
The response to a police attack on the Oakland camp on 25 October 2011 was to call a 'general strike', which in fact was a day of demonstrations supported by unions, as agreed at a General Assembly of over 1000 people. 20,000 people took part in the demonstrations on 2 November, with many taking the day off work. In the evening a much smaller number - many dressed in black and wearing masks - gathered. A confrontation with police ensued, with over 100 arrests.
Debate raged afterwards about this adoption of confrontational, small-scale 'militancy' by some of those involved in Occupy Oakland. The debate tended to be framed in terms of whether only 'non-violent' tactics should be used or if a 'diversity of tactics' (including confrontational tactics) was preferable. But, as Epstein observes, that confuses the issues.
The real debate needs to be about what tactics can successfully build on widespread popular enthusiasm for Occupy. Continued mass mobilisations, outreach and strengthening links with unions were all tactics for doing this; small-scale actions involving dedicated activists, by contrast, alienated broad support and risked diverting the movement down a blind alley. The truly radical aspect of 2 November 2011 was not any 'Black Bloc' heroics, but rather the mass movement in revulsion at state repression (and in solidarity with Occupy's stand against social inequality and injustice).
Beyond the initial 'Occupy moment'
Epstein considers what options were open to Occupy activists when the occupations ended in late 2011. She suggests that perhaps the most successful development for Occupy Wall Street was a campaign over housing, taking direct action in response to evictions. This indicated the potential that exists: addressing issues that are important to millions of working class people, allying with campaigns and community groups, extending the movement beyond a single, highly visible but transient tactic. Such action can enable community participation and build new coalitions.
Occupy Oakland had some similar experience with a protest march against school closures attracting around 5000 people. OO's most effective work was through its links with trade unions, but - as indicated above - this was in tension with other elements of the movement. It's also not clear if it has been sustained.
Epstein writes:
'The Occupy movement as a whole faces the problem of any movement whose identity is tied to a tactic and an internal process rather than to a clearly defined goal: what to do when the tactic reaches its limit and the process loses its glow, when internal differences, or fatigue and declining numbers, call for more stable forms of organising.'
This implies that a clearer sense of goals and demands is necessary. That is one part of what's meant when we refer to strategy. But it also points towards other aspects of strategy: who is involved in the movement, and what mechanisms are deployed for mobilising them and co-ordinating their efforts. It is, fundamentally, a question of how a small and committed activist minority can - in a sustained, long-term way - connect with much larger layers of people in joint activity towards meaningful shared demands.


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