Power to the 99 Percent

Is the first anniversary of the Occupy Movement this month something to celebrate? With a bit of perspective, we can now look at its tangible achievements and limitations.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana, The Life of Reason (1905).

The background to 2011 was one of weak class consciousness, let alone socialist consciousness. Inequality remained firmly off the political agenda. The message from the millionaire ruling class was “We’re all in this together”. Ed Milliband’s challenge to the austerity myth was merely that the cuts were too deep and too fast. Little surprise then that cuts to welfare were implemented relatively free of political impediments.

Then in Spain, protests calling for “Real Democracy Now!” and to “Take the Square” formed the inspiration for Adbusters magazine to call for similar protests in the United States.  It asked, “What is our one demand?”

“In the weeks leading up to Sept. 17, the NYC General Assembly seemed to be veering away from the language of ‘demands’ in the first place, largely because government institutions are already so shot through with corporate money that making specific demands would be pointless until the movement grew stronger politically. Instead, to begin with, they opted to make their demand the occupation itself—and the direct democracy taking place there—which in turn may or may not come up with some specific demand. When you think about it, this act is actually a pretty powerful statement…” (Reproduced in Occupied Wall Street Journal 1).

This was the start of the Occupy Movement, with the core slogan, “We are the 99 percent”. Various organisations participated in starting it, although Occupy remained much broader than any of them.

The methods of Occupy were not totally without precedent even in the last few decades. Back in the 1990s, the Zapatistas had used horizontalism for decision-making. One slogan that was used, “Another World is Possible,” also recalled the comparable international impact of the protests against the G8 in Seattle. These protests inspired the Anti-Globalisation movement (subsequently renamed Alter-Globalisation) which petered out, although Indymedia and World Social Forum proved more sustainable.

Occupy is formed along non-hierarchical lines.  Its decisions are taken by consensus in general assembly and in smaller working groups. Its commitment to organising without hierarchies seems to have so far deterred vanguards from hijacking it, as happened in the anti-globalisation movement. Regular (mostly weekly) General Assembly meetings have been held in London since its inception and despite repeated evictions from the Stock Exchange, St Pauls, Finsbury Park and Hampstead Heath.

Despite protests from unions, Occupy Oakland was able to partially mobilise for a march of 40,000 people. Occupy London occupied an abandoned bank building and created the venue, Bank of Ideas. They were evicted from that, but they had also formed the Tent City University to organise more talks. Several significant publications have emerged from Occupy locals around the US and UK including propaganda sheets such as Occupied Wall Street Journal, D.C. Mic Check, Occupied Chicago Tribune, Boston Occupier andOccupied L. A. Times as well as much lengthier papers such as Occupied Times of London and Occupy! Gazette by n+1 (literary journal publishers).

The ideological support for austerity was challenged, the genie was out of the bottle and, worse still for the 1 percent, opinion polling showed favourable attitudes to the Occupy movement. The 1 percent establishment were forced to respond.

Co-option by the 1 percent?

In the US, the Democratic Party seem to be targeting Occupy for co-option, using initiatives such as a “99 percent declaration” , “99 percent Spring”, “Occupy Congress” and “Occupy the Dream”. Although Occupy, seeking political support from the electorate isn’t necessarily harmful, Glenn Greenwald comments:

“they are going to try to convert OWS into a vote-producing arm for the Obama 2012 campaign, and that’s what ‘Occupy Congress’ is designed to achieve. I believed then and — having spent the last few weeks talking with many OWS protesters around the country — believe even more so now that these efforts will inevitably fail: those who have animated the Occupy movement are not motivated by partisan allegiance.” (“Here’s what attempted co-option of OWS looks like”, Salon.com)

The members of Bush Snr’s administration, which Colin Powell is alleged to have called “the crazies”, are the now powerful neoconservative strain which has chosen to attack Occupy. Dirtier muckraking smears of the 1 percent than those in the film, Occupy Unmasked, would be hard to find. The trailer seems to suggest that Occupy is hierarchical, astroturfed and nihilistic. However, just because some participants may have such ideas, does not mean they should be taken as representative of Occupy. Only those agreed by the general assembly can. Whether the controversial body called the “Spokes Council” in Occupy Wall Street makes their movement hierarchical remains to be seen.

Divisions within Occupy

The most controversial argument within Occupy in the US seems to have been between Chris Hedges and David Graeber:

“The Black Bloc anarchists, who have been active on the streets in Oakland and other cities, are the cancer of the Occupy movement. Black Bloc adherents detest those of us on the organized left and seek, quite consciously, to take away our tools of empowerment. They confuse acts of petty vandalism and a repellent cynicism with revolution. The real enemies, they argue, are not the corporate capitalists, but their collaborators among the unions, workers’ movements, radical intellectuals, environmental activists and populist movements such as the Zapatistas. Because Black Bloc anarchists do not believe in organization, indeed oppose all organized movements, they ensure their own powerlessness. They can only be obstructionist. And they are primarily obstructionist to those who resist.” (Chris Hedges, The Cancer in Occupy, 6 February 2012, Truthdig.com)

To which David Graeber replied:

“I have on more than one occasion taken part in Blocs where property damage has occurred. (I have taken part in even more Blocs that did not engage in such tactics. It is a common fallacy that this is what Black Blocs are all about. It isn’t.) I was hardly the only Black Bloc veteran who took part in planning the initial strategy for Occupy Wall Street. In fact, anarchists like myself were the real core of the group that came up with the idea of occupying Zuccotti Park, the “99 percent” slogan, the General Assembly process, and, in fact, who collectively decided that we would adopt a strategy of Gandhian non-violence and eschew acts of property damage. Many of us had taken part in Black Blocs. We just didn’t feel that was an appropriate tactic for the situation we were in.” (David Graeber, Concerning the Violent Peace-Police, An Open Letter to Chris Hedges, 9 February 2012, n+1)

Like the World Socialist Movement, Occupy does not seek to impose its object on unwilling participants. It aims rather at facilitating the diversely ideological 99 percent to freely arrive at ideas. The above controversy demonstrated the need for a space to develop those sometimes conflicting ideas. This is where Tidal Magazine (OccupyTheory.org) comes in. In depth but plain-speaking and free from jargon, Tidal argue, “We believe we can’t have radical action without radical thought”.

Occupy is important since it is rare to arrive at an analysis of the class composition of society close to that of the World Socialist Movement but popularised independently. And it is anti-Leninist too.

For us, socialism is the best system for the interests of the 99 percent. For Occupy as well as for those who want socialism, the twin dangers are of treading the path of reformist demands (which would undermine the 99 percent core message), or the path of inevitably doomed insurrection, which was the fate of the Paris Commune of 1871.

Politics has come a long way since the era of the reforms demanded by the Chartists in the 19th century. The manifestos of Real Democracy Now and the Global Occupy Manifesto demonstrate that these have chosen the reformist path. If the iterative Initial Statement of Occupy London continues “veering away from the language of ‘demands’” they may be able to avoid this mistake.

China’s first modern capitalist premier Zhou Enlai is reputed to have said in 1972 it was too early to judge the significance of the French Revolution of 1789. Though the quote is thought to be misinterpreted, hopefully, this opinion rather than Santayana’s is more applicable to the green shoots of the Occupy Movement, still in its infancy.

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