analyses the experience and draws lessons from the Occupy movement almost a year after the establishment of the first Occupy camps in the UK.
The global Occupy movement (often referred to as #Occupy) has been popularly presented as the beginnings of an organised, popular resistance to austerity. Although all but dissolved in organisational terms in the UK, the rhetoric of the “99%” still retains strong resonance within both corporate and social media as representative of the conditions of proletarianised workers, students and sections of the middle strata faced with the increasingly brutal logics of capitalist accumulation and the social disparity between themselves and the “1%” (more controversially largely represented as the CEOs and big financial firms continuing to benefit from the crisis). While for our counterparts in the US, Occupy still appears to have some mobilising potential, in spite of continuing contradictions of the organisational model (at least that is our perception as outsiders), in the UK Occupy it was a largely geographically and temporally fixed phenomenon – being largely represented in a few cities over a time-scale of approximately late 2011 to early 2012.
In spite of this, the experience of Occupy UK illustrates a number of critical concerns for British anti-capitalists. Strategic conclusions can be drawn from analysis of the camps themselves, there are questions left open by the general lack of a sustained anarchist presence (and the subsequent drift of already quite politically plural camps into wholly liberal reformist positions) or whether it is possible to “camp” popular opposition to austerity (all of which are address below). Occupy UK, or to put it more concretely the failure to actualise the popular anti-austerity movement that Occupy UK was premised upon, also raises a broader concern for us – what, if any, will the shape of popular resistance to capitalism take in the UK in the 21st Century? Occupy UK indicates a two-fold failure in this respect – failure to mobilise a popular movement around anti-austerity positions (and win a broader public debate concerning austerity) by Occupy itself and a failure of anti-capitalist intervention to expunge anti-austerity positions of the illusions of liberal reformism, or to offer meaningful analysis and orientation of the barriers experienced in building that movement (in terms of a class-based approach to social change).
We should be honest about this balance sheet. There has been a tendency within the wider anarchist movement, and we were witness to this at the recent international gathering at St. Imier, to champion Occupy as a demonstration of the “victory” for anarchist ideas. Not only does this show a misunderstanding of the content and composition of Occupy itself, as well as being misplaced in terms of the general absence of clear anarchist involvement and influence, but shows an unwillingness to really take stock of the genuine position of disorientation that many libertarians find themselves in the current context. The state is determined to plunge the working class into ever deeper conditions of poverty and insecurity, and this is a situation replicated across Europe. In the face of this escalating onslaught resistance does not appear to be forthcoming. In the wake of the burning passion and creativity of the student occupation movement we have been offered only the disorientating and muted action of the Occupy camps on the one hand, and the disconnected and tired politics of (trade union led) anti-cuts coalitions on the other. More importantly the ultimate ineffectiveness of Occupy UK is not something we should wish to claim as a mantle for our tradition. Such a position only bolsters the arguments of the authoritarian Left who locate the weaknesses of the movement in its commitments to autonomy and self-organisation and the absence of a centralised leadership – elements that we ultimately celebrate.
The questions to which we turn in this article and the analysis developed from them are the product of collective and self-critical discussions between Collective Action militants as well as drawn from our own experiences of the camps as participants in this movement.
Occupy UK: origins and aims
On October 15th 2011, the first incarnation of the then international “Occupy movement” established itself in the UK when a coalition of activists and organisers occupied the forecourt of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The original intention, following the Occupy Wall Street model, was to create a visible presence of anti-capitalist activity within the economic heart of the capital; in the case of London, the Stock Exchange and the “Square Mile” where the majority of international financial and banking services are based. Like its American cousin in Zuccotti park, Occupy the London Stock Exchange (“Occupy LSX”), initially fell short of “reclaiming space” directly from financial institutions (attempts to occupy Paternoster Square were quickly thwarted by the police) and was instead based at St. Paul’s Cathedral nearby.
This was a decision, perhaps unforeseen at the time, which was to later cause a great deal of difficulty in terms of clarifying the message of the camp with a particularly zealous campaign by the right-wing press to “clear the cathedral” and the majority of the initial negotiation for the space taking place in relation to the Canon of St. Paul’s. That is not to say that action against religious institutions is necessarily an exercise detached from campaigns for social justice – in Sheffield it was joked that the Occupy camp closing the cathedral may have been the only perceivable victory the camp there could claim – but in terms of building an explicit anti-austerity message it certainly contributed to the camp failing to make substantial gains as the debates it sought to provoke were often overshadowed by arguments about the camp’s location and disruption to the cathedral. It also immediately threw up some difficult issues for organisers to grapple with in terms of religious tolerance and co-operation with the church.
In spite of this, Occupy LSX did coalesce around a specific set of aims, to be followed in the months after by camps set up across the UK. On October 16th, a gathering of over 500 Occupy London protesters collectively agreed upon and issued the following ‘Initial Statement’:
1. The current system is unsustainable. It is undemocratic and unjust. We need alternatives; this is where we work towards them.2. We are of all ethnicities, backgrounds, genders, generations, sexualities dis/abilities and faiths. We stand together with occupations all over the world.
3. We refuse to pay for the banks’ crisis.
4. We do not accept the cuts as either necessary or inevitable. We demand an end to global tax injustice and our democracy representing corporations instead of the people.
5. We want regulators to be genuinely independent of the industries they regulate.
6. We support the strike on the 30th November and the student action on the 9th November, and actions to defend our health services, welfare, education and employment, and to stop wars and arms dealing.
7. We want structural change towards authentic global equality. The world’s resources must go towards caring for people and the planet, not the military, corporate profits or the rich.
8. The present economic system pollutes land, sea and air, is causing massive loss of natural species and environments, and is accelerating humanity towards irreversible climate change. We call for a positive, sustainable economic system that benefits present and future generations.
9. We stand in solidarity with the global oppressed and we call for an end to the actions of our government and others in causing this oppression.
This was later synthesised by Occupy LSX to:
Reclaiming space in the face of the financial system and using it to voice ideas for how we can work towards a better future. A future free from austerity, growing inequality, unemployment, tax injustice and a political elite that ignores its citizens, and work towards concrete demands to be met.
It is fair to say that a great deal of what Occupy claims, or claimed, to be about lies in its processes – movement-building, participation, direct democracy, collective living, etc – and as a result it is perhaps unfair to judge it on the basis of its objectives alone. It was also very clear that many participants considered objectives to be secondary to a far more inclusive process of uniting progressives under the banner of anti-austerity (a commitment which will be discussed in more detail later). Nonetheless, in spite of this the camps clearly did, initially at least, have a driving rationale, and however embryonic in practice this may have been after a little over a year since the occupations, media coverage and public attention, it is necessary to reflect on these aims, their viability as means of struggle and whether future incarnations can be successful. It should also be emphasised that even in an embryonic state the content of these initial aims had immediate practical effects in terms of the processes themselves. Many, for example, cite the errors of a failure to include a more concrete “safer spaces” policy (a commitment to create spaces free from discrimination and prejudice) within the Occupy platform as a contributing factor to the incidents of sexism and rape reported at certain camps.
Occupy UK: a balance sheet
As already stated the actions of the police, along with the fact that Paternoster Square is private property and, therefore, was easily granted a High Court injunction, meant that Occupy LSX was not able to follow its initial plans of a camp in the centre of the financial district. This was later, at least partially, rectified by the “public repossession” of disused offices owned by UBS and their conversion into the “Bank of Ideas,” which hosted teach-ins, seminars, film screenings and, probably most widely covered by the media, a free gig from the bands Radiohead and Massive Attack (the site was evicted January 30th 2012). The picture across the UK, however, was much the same as the London camp with Birmingham, Brighton, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Manchester, Sheffield and many more cities and towns failing to occupy a financial space and being based in public squares and parks instead. Following the religious building trend, Occupy Sheffield squatted the “Citadel of Hope”, an empty Salvation Army Citadel, for the Occupy National Conference, but this ceased to be operational after the event and is now only used by a circus training group.
Of course many pointed to the successes of Tahrir Square as a precedent for public occupations that did not rely on such a direct, physical confrontation with the “spaces” of power. However, sentiments to “Take the Square” – aiming to recreate the scenes in Egypt – marginalised the significance of wider social mobilisations present in these events, for example the April 6th Youth Movement which supported striking workers. More profound ideological changes such as the newly found solidarity and confidence within the Egyptian working class was absent from spectacular media coverage and this led to the emphasis on the form, as opposed to the content, being reproduced in many of the copycat protests that followed.
Confrontation with financial and political institutions, leaving aside the role of the church, actually largely occurred on a terrain in which activists were weakest – through the courts. This was where the City of London Corporation was able to secure a forcible eviction of occupiers in a move that was replicated by councils and local authorities across the country. It also forced Occupy into a position in which it had to adopt bourgeois legalism – freedom to assemble, freedom of speech – to justify its activity.
What then of the politics?
In many ways it is difficult to judge the goals of Occupy here even on its own terms. Certain positions are barely distinguishable, particularly in terms of the call for “a positive, sustainable economic system that benefits present and future generations”, from the language of Westminster (this may have been appropriate given the presence of MPs such as Caroline Lucas and John McDonnell within the London camp) and, therefore, makes it difficult to gauge what objectives are actually being proposed here. It would be fair to say that Occupy did not necessarily talk about “an” alternative but of the need for alternatives. So to what extent was it successful at building and mobilising others towards a political spectrum of progressive currents against austerity?
It is impossible to create a complete picture of every camp across the UK here but it is our aggregate experience, particularly outside London, that praxis was largely limited to creating a camp site and creating a community within it. These are the immediate practical tasks which arise from forming an ad-hoc community with very loose over-arching values, in often quite adverse conditions (exacerbated by poor weather and anti-social elements). In all cases the priorities of refining and developing political positions were secondary to the cohesiveness (or lack thereof) of the camp as a whole – the lowest common denominator being a liberal pluralist position of hoping to keep everyone happy at the expense of following any specific initiative in a sustained way. The camp environment also threw up other issues in this respect. The longevity of the camp site is unclear, making long-term plans uncertain. Such an environment may be familiar territory for activists but may alienate other members of the working class. Many camps did hold public assemblies as a means of opening up the processes and forming a more inclusive space for those unable to camp, but when the principle agenda items are the practicalities arising from camp life it would be easy to question what relevance such a gathering has to the wider public. In light of this it is necessary to reflect on whether camping is compatible with the original Occupy aim of mobilising alternatives to austerity (if alternatives can be said to exist in the Occupy platform).
In this respect the British Occupy movement could perhaps learn from aspects of the North American Occupy. Under strong influence from revolutionaries in organisations such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) the movement has made tangible links to the working class and local communities. For example, they joined in on the struggle against the foreclosure of homes, made common cause with labour struggles, while in Oakland they shut down the docks there. Like Occupy in the UK these were ultimately limited in both duration and scale, although less so, but they were important added dynamics in two senses. First that it showed the potential of Occupy as a tool for broadening social struggle in terms of using the model to build and solidify links within and between otherwise stratified or partially stratified sections of the class. Secondly, it set the course for moving the occupation tactic away from spectacular assemblies and public protest to occupation in the true sense – seizures and appropriations. These are tactics that are not only more economically disruptive in practical terms (and therefore a stronger and more sensible basis for promoting the use of Occupy as a means of fighting austerity) but also orientate strategy towards the true location of social power – collective struggle driven by class unity.
It is hard to say as outsiders what the key to Occupy US’s increased size and radicalism was. It could be speculated that a) the US camps contained more united elements than the UK’s loosely networked and multiple anti-cuts groups, b) that there existed a degree of self-reflection and criticism lacking in the UK, c) that Occupy US was more successful in reaching out beyond the physical camps; or a combination of all these things. Perhaps the experience of Occupy UK simply stands as an indictment against the willingness of British anti-capitalists to fight for their ideas in a comparable way to their US counter-parts. Whatever the weaknesses of the camp model, elements within the North American occupiers have at least acknowledged that to be effective anti-capitalists you have to disrupt the flow of capital. Hence the moves towards the “General Strike” as the principle demand there. In the UK no such connection has been made on any organisational level. Occupy can barely be described as anti-capitalist in most UK incarnations with many campers displaying open hostility to anti-capitalist ideas and practices. In the case of Glasgow, for example, statements were issued on behalf of the camp that argued for more “ethical” capitalism.
Likewise no direct, explicit link was made to the student movement, even at a time when student militancy was reaching escalating levels and the state was employing massive repression against them. In London, Occupy also failed to make any strong connection in the sparks’ struggle, as electricians shook off the inadequacy of union bureaucrats to take workplace grievances into their own hands – an ample opportunity for Occupy to provide support and assistance. More importantly Occupy didn’t really offer anything substantial to these struggles in terms of their ability to escalate resistance or offer alternative means of widening or broadening methods of struggle, other than just a wider constituency of potential supporters. In spite of the diversity of the camps the actual repertoires of action offered by Occupy was surprisingly limited – camping and the occasional squatting of buildings – a poor record to even the “Climate Camps” and summit camps of recent history, which although also limited in different ways were at least geared towards facilitating action and interventions beyond the gathering of activists.
Occupy: critical reflections
As the practice of a tactic Occupy is unusual in that traditionally occupations are an advanced organisational expression of the escalating resistance of social movements. While the more immediate public memory of occupations is of Tahrir Square and the (seemingly) spontaneous mobilisations of the Arab Spring, it would be more consistent to think to the actions of the striking teachers of Oaxaca in 2006 and the APPO (Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca) as well as the occupations of town halls and municipal buildings during the 2008 Greek riots as better contemporary representations of the practice. In both cases occupations were not a starting point but emerged both out of concrete necessity of the struggle and as a practical consequence of the solidification of communities in resistance. In Greece, occupations provided a base for activity that replaced the spontaneous communities of insurgents in the streets, as well as reflecting the ideological evolution of the struggle, e.g. the occupation of trade union offices against the class collaborationist position of the trade unions. In Oaxaca the public square occupation was a hub for solidarity with striking teachers bringing together all manner of social movements against the state’s governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. Barricades in this sense were indications of the emergence of community bonds and networks of solidarity through the struggle while acting as a very practical defence of the violence of the state against militants. In both cases, although ultimately facing some limitations, occupations posed a direct threat to the resumption of social order on both an economic and political level.
By contrast, occupy camps in the UK emerged as a mild and not very disruptive social or economic force. Neither did they emerge from a specific struggle but rather a more general ideological climate of pro-austerity ideas and policies. This is not to say that there have not been material struggles arising from cuts to public services and declining living standards, it is just that these particularities are unrelated to the formation of Occupy camps. The reality is that camps have acted more as “publicity bureaus” or public forums for anti-austerity organising – where this practice has been successful. This is not necessarily a negative thing in itself, but the limitation of the form, political maturity and the lack of self-awareness have meant a failure to capitalise on this as a specific tactic. Tailoring Occupy more concretely to the need to build anti-austerity alternatives could shed new light on the tactics that are used, e.g. is camping the most effective tactic which can be used? Are there other means of intervention/outreach that can be explored? Could Occupy be transformed, for example, to form something along the lines of the Zapatista Consulta, e.g. radicals doing outreach within and amongst communities?
Material struggles carry within them a potential trajectory for a) generalisation and b) systemic critique (anti-capitalism) by virtue of the terrain in which they are situated (confrontation within capital along class lines) and, more importantly, the social location of their participants – their class. While it is almost always the case that class struggle finds some form of accommodation within the system, e.g. a pay rise, more welfare, or is simply defeated, it also carries within it at least the potential for supersession in respect to the conflict between capital and the class. There is a logic contained within class struggles that ultimately leads to the constitution of class as a negation of capital. Occupy was based more on the need for “alternatives” as a reaction to the pervasiveness of the all-consuming austerity narrative. It is of no surprise in this sense that unity often devolved to the very practical tasks of maintaining camps (and in the worst cases an insider vs. outsider mentality amongst some campers). With the absence of a material condition that brought campers together, e.g. as students fighting cuts or workers on strike, and the absence of a clear political programme; being an occupier represented anything from an anti-capitalist anarchist to a reformist liberal or conspira-loon. This absence of basic shared values meant huge obstacles for the next step of a radicalising process – assigning the means and methods by which we collectively tackle the austerity narrative. As opposed to representing a spectrum of radical ideas, this pluralism simply delivered the base assumptions of the camps – that campers are against austerity – while delivering no practical means to actually act on these assumptions.
Occupy is far more continuous in respect to existing protest activity than is often acknowledged. It expressed a model of militancy essentially voluntaristic in character, not especially distinct from the existing composition and practices of Leftist groups. Crucially, Occupy offered no sustained or integrated way of introducing anti-austerity activity into working life. Camping is simply not a viable practice for the majority of workers, so what to do when you cannot camp? Occupy was largely built and mobilised by the unemployed, students, the homeless and those off work. This did not necessarily have to be a point of weakness. If Occupy was to give rise to a movement of the jobless sections of our class this would be a positive achievement. But a lack of self-criticism and particularly the need to be seen to be being “representative” of a wider constituency – under the rubric of representing the “99%” – meant missing opportunities to develop the strategy and tactics of camps into a definitive programme suited to the needs of those involved.
The problem with the 99%
As popular and as useful as the slogan of the “99%” may have been in propagandistic terms, from a communist perspective a number of issues arise from the analysis associated with this slogan. Many of these criticisms have been covered extensively elsewhere, and some raised in the context of the movement itself, so here we believe it is sufficient to only provide a summary of key issues as an extension of our critique of Occupy’s inability to mobilise or extend resistance against austerity. As anarchist communists it is our position that austerity is only one facet of the management of capitalism and that it should be understood as a particular manifestation of systemic structures rooted in the existence of social classes. As a result we argue that the only means of creating a society based on social justice is through challenging these fundamental structures via revolutionary confrontation with the state and the capitalist class. The slogan of the “99%” is therefore problematic to us for a number of reasons.
The “99%” overlooks important stratifications that exist within and between members of our class. Those who are, for example, not millionaires and city bankers but still benefit from capitalism or play a part in its administration, e.g. the managerial strata, the police, bailiffs, border agency staff. The confusions associated with this analysis led some Occupiers to claim the police, the likes of the English Defence League and other reactionary elements as part of the “99%”. Technically they are correct, but this exposes exactly the problem with this analysis. Inequality is not simply about ownership and wealth but relations of power. Class relations often manifest themselves in and between communities in spite of a very similar economic context, e.g. racism, sexism, homophobia. In fact these stratifications are exactly the divisions that capitalists periodically stoke up to ensure that workers are competing against each other and perceive each other as a threat rather than the power of the bosses. Likewise with the adoption of liberal policies, the capitalist class has found that providing a little privilege and power to certain sections of workers, effectively stratifying the class and providing the illusion of ‘social mobility’, allows capitalists to stabilise social order through the creation of a strata of middle-managers who do not appear so removed from the workers themselves. The police and the border agencies similarly play critical roles in maintaining class relations and carrying out the institutional violence that keeps workers in their place. These forces will inevitably come into conflict with movements that attempt to challenge the social structures that underpin our society. Confusion on these issues creates obvious organisational problems some of which were clearly apparent in the camps, e.g. co-operation with the police, lack of a safe-spaces policy and incidents of sexual violence against women.
The 99% analysis represents the problem of austerity as an issue of unconstrained finance. Finance, however, is only a part of the circuit of capital whose influence is, in contemporary terms, predicated by a number of more fundamental structural changes in the management of capitalism, including the declining profitability of the “real” economy. It is impossible to provide a comprehensive analysis of this here but this does include the increasing internationalisation of capital, the move away from Fordism (and with it social democratic corporatism) into neoliberalism and increasing reliance on debt to maintain standards of living. A more complete criticism should be tied to the organisation of capitalism as a whole and how finance is simply one aspect of class control that is exercised by the capitalist class. Critics may point to the way that finance has played a particularly prominent role in undermining (bourgeois) democratic values and subverting state accountability. Our critiques of capitalism are, however, far more fundamental than this. Even a “democratised” capitalism (should this ever be possible) would be reprehensible to us given the coercive nature of the system itself – a system whereby workers are forced to work to survive and where the full product of our labour is stolen from us through our work. What is required is not a levelling of the system, raising up the 99%, but a humanisation of the values which structure the economy away from the motivation to accumulate profit to one based on human need, where products are fundamentally social in character (and not present as spectacular commodities) and where time away from necessary labour is maximised.
The extent to which the “99%” slogan has seeped into public discourse is impressive and an indication of how well it speaks to a common feeling of injustice, but as the above indicates, it also very comfortably lends itself to reformist ideology – injustices are seen to need to be rectified. The mobilisation of the Greek movement “We Won’t Pay” might be an interesting comparative example here in terms of a popular movement organised in response to austerity. “We Won’t Pay”, as its title suggests, is an organisation that uses direct action to disrupt what it considers to be unfair or exploitative levies on public services. This has included raising barriers on the toll booths on private roads, encouraging mass rides of public transport, sabotaging of ticket booths, sharing the skills to allow people access to free electricity as well as community-based work that organises the distribution of free food and clothing to those who need it. Like the “99%”, the “We Won’t Pay” slogan is expressed as a statement of outrage and injustice – we won’t pay for a crisis we claim no responsibility for! It is also, more importantly, a discourse of expropriation, of seizure of those necessities that communities depend upon, all of which is facilitated by direct action. “We Won’t Pay” gives a clearer sense of the immediate confrontations that are involved in social struggle, e.g. security staff who protect toll booths, fascists thugs who roam public transport, while also sowing no illusions in the state’s ability to mediate the injustices visited upon working people. It provides a more forthright assertion of the strength and objectives of collective action as well as a positive vision of the autonomy of communities in struggle, i.e. “these things are necessary to my continued existence and I am entitled to them without your (the state/the boss/the security guard) interference”.
Wot, no resistance? Broader questions
A basic reality that we must face here in the UK, and the experience of Occupy broadens this perspective, is the collapse of mass-based challenges to capitalism. That is either in the form of popular, militant trade unionism or as mass workers’ parties, however inadequate these may have actually been in superseding the conditions imposed by capital. If we are to look to the role (or the absence, as was actually the case) of anarchists in respect to Occupy this is a perspective that needs to be adopted. Occupy was treading new ground in many ways in that fundamentally, as inadequate as its answers ultimately were, we do not know what concrete shape popular resistance to austerity will, if it indeed does, take in the current context. There have been ongoing localised struggles of both workplaces and communities against specific cuts and state policies. Both the student occupation movement of 2010 and the August riots of 2011, without drawing too strong an equivalence between the two, suggested at least the emergence of a new resistant subject against the austerity regime – the newly proletarianised youth. This was only to be subsumed by parliamentarism and state repression, in the case of the former, and the absence of any basis for coalescence and the criminality in the case of the latter. The sparks likewise showed the propensity for the British organised working class to re-activate resistance, but this seemed to express more the resilience of a long-standing tradition of struggle, conditioned by black-listing and other cultures unique to the industry, as opposed to anything emerging against austerity per se. Since then the only general mobilisations have been in the form of the TUC (Trades Union Congress) “days of action”, themselves an exercise in the defeatism of the trade union bureaucracy and their wholesale retreat from workplace action. These have only served to reinforce the existing schisms evident during the riots, resulting from the 26th March 2011“March for the Alternative” when thousands marched to listen to Ed Miliband’s (leader of the opposing Labour Party for international readers) address in Hyde Park while just a few hundred radicalised youth rioted through the heart of the city.
In respect to Occupy in particular it was necessary to recognise the continuities, in the form of cross-class umbrella organising, something very familiar within the context of the workers’ movement, and discontinuities – the dimensions of Occupy that were “demand-less”, sought to transfer consensus on austerity into an attack on private space and debt and build popular opposition to austerity – present within the embryonic movement. This required an awareness of the underlying structural problems the Occupy project highlighted (at this point we really don’t know the current social basis for any fight back against austerity, if indeed there is one), while also arguing those positions on which we, as anti-capitalists, are certain of: resistance has to be rooted in working class unity and emerging from the politics of everyday life. The management system of capitalism may have changed but its essential logic – and the transformative role of the proletariat – remains the same.
This is where anarchists perhaps squandered an opportunity to use the, albeit often quite limited and even politically hostile, space that Occupy opened to argue for this orientation and really investigate what mass resistance can and cannot look like in the current context. As it stands we really didn’t learn anything other than those self-fulfilling prophecies with which we were already aware – that a cross-class movement with no root in material struggles and premised on a manufactured community of resistance was likely to collapse into reformism, peter out or get crushed by the state (or often all three simultaneously). This is while, ironically, many anarchists were claiming the mantle of Occupy as a vindication of anarchist methods and ideas. Undoubtedly there was a lot of resistance to genuine anti-capitalist positions among campers, and we experienced these ourselves, but this was compounded by the failure of anarchists to effectively intervene. Both factors together allowed the anti-capitalist position to be easily characterised as extremist, when the intention was actually the opposite in terms of bringing Occupy as a meaningful thing to the class, and allowed pacifistic and activist methods to dominate. In London, the camp descended into in-fighting after some campers erected a “Capitalism is Crisis” banner, with liberal and pacifistic campers arguing that ‘capitalism isn’t the enemy, greed is’.
Anarchists advocate mass movements against the capitalist system. In the present condition, these are clearly lacking. The so-called ‘labour movement’ doesn’t do much ‘moving’ at all and the UK is as devoid of militant unions now as it has ever been. Anarchists uphold that mass movements have to be organic in order to create transformative social change. Why then did so many uphold Occupy as a vindication of anarchist ideas? Could it be that without any existing mass movements, and without any modern ideas of what form mass movements today should take, we were simply blinded by a romanticism that something was kicking off?
While it is possible to muse over whether the downfall of Occupy UK came from its failure to claim Paternoster Square, or to adopt a more anti-capitalist stance; it should be clear that even if Occupy had successfully taken the Square, and even if it had outright advocated ‘camping for communism’, substantive change cannot come about through camping. Yes we should welcome that libertarian modes of organising based on direct democracy are becoming more popular, however, as previously stated, we should also critique Occupy to the grounds of what it claims to be ‘about’. In this sense, Occupy failed to increase participation in anti-austerity struggles, and also failed to make links with ongoing struggles, such as the student movement, the sparks’ struggle and striking public sector workers. Beyond this, Occupy UK also failed to reflect on this and seek to remedy it. Here lies one area where anarchists could have intervened and attempted to take the well-meaning organisational sentiments of Occupy to ongoing and organic struggles in actual communities such as workplaces, neighbourhoods and educational institutions.
Occupy was successful in terms of its ability to express a commonly felt sense of injustice and outrage towards further shifts of wealth away from the class – e.g. cuts in public services and to benefits, erosions in living standards, declining wages – and into private hands. The speed and spread of the mobilisations, something that cannot be explained by the new role of social media alone, was a strong demonstration of this. However it lacked purpose and was plagued by many of the issues which continue to alienate activist cultures from wider communities. Occupy needed to provide more concrete answers, practical solutions and, most importantly, a more thorough critique of the social system. It needed to engage more strongly on the issues of practical necessity that are being thrown up by austerity politics showing how social solidarity is a viable and sensible alternative to the alienating and hope-less politics of Westminster. It could have done more to catalyse existing groups in struggle and speak to those groups at the harsher end of the austerity drive, embracing specificity over the woolly narrative of the “99 percenters”. It could also have spoken more about itself, both in terms of the discourse that emerged out of the camps but also the need to address how composition and experience relates to the kind of actions a movement can take.
This analysis can be situated in a wider social and political context; a context which helps to explain the immediate appeal of Occupy (and some of its failures). Principally, we find ourselves amidst a de-politicised political culture in which organised anti-capitalism is not a viable alternative to a more pervasive radicalised liberalism, such as that propounded by Occupy, where class identity has been dislocated by an onslaught of capitalist realism and where activists, where they are present, often lack the skills and experience to act as organisers mobilising and strengthening communities in struggle. Almost a year since the first camp it seems unlikely that Occupy will re-emerge as a continuing tool for anti-austerity struggle. What we should take from it, however, is the desire for an alternative to the present system. The only way to achieve this is through the self-organisation of the class in the communities of everyday life, and if we want libertarian communism to be that alternative, this is where we have to start.
by Rick Dutton in International News
If you know anyone from the West African Republic of Nigeria you might find them slightly absorbed by what is going on back home at the moment. Yes, yes, we hear you declare, that’ll be the ethnic tensions and rise of another group of Islamic extremists kicking off, they’re always doing that!
We’ll if you were to take a good look at international media reports it’s understandable that you might have that reaction. What isn’t being reported much is that there’s a movement of protest going on in Africas most populated country which is seeking to rid the country of injustice, corruption, political greed and incompetence. While there are indeed increasing clashes on a religious and ethnic basis these are minuscule compared to what is actually going on in pretty much every state of Nigeria. And that is ‘Occupy Nigeria’.
Cynics among you will no doubt be shocked to hear that this isn’t just a couple of hundred people in tents camped outside the equivalent of Londons St.Pauls Cathedral. Well it’s not. It’s hundred of thousands of people from every section of Nigerian society…hundreds of thousands of people on the streets shouting ‘We have had ENOUGH!’
Occupy Nigeria has barely been noticed by other Occupy groups around the world, hardly a mention. And it’s not like they haven’t been sending messages out asking for support. Yet there’s more eloquence and understanding of corruption in terms of international and domestic capitalism on display in Occupy Nigeria than from ANY other we have seen so far on our own door steep and indeed across the so-called ‘western world’.
Here’s some other things you may or may not know.
Did you know Nigeria is the sixth biggest oil producer in the world pumping oil to the tune of two million barrels per day? Did you know Nigeria is Americas third biggest oil provider? Did you know that a Nigerian Minister earns $60,000 more than an American Cabinet Minister? Did you know members of the Nigerian Senate earn $26,000 (not including allowances) more than their American counterparts? Did you know the majority of the population of more than 160 million people live on less than $2 per day? Did you know Nigerian ministers travel in convoys ten vehicles long, have their own jets, own properties around the globe, attend international events (whether invited or not) with entourages of sometimes 100 people…all at the expense of the Nigerian people? Did you know money regularly disappears to the tune of billions of dollars with rarely any explanation or individuals held accountable. In fact it is estimated that $400bn of the country’s oil revenue was stolen by Nigeria’s leaders between 1960 and 1999.
Remember our own expenses scandals? There is simply no comparison.
These are as close to facts as you could possibly get.
Meanwhile there is little to no working public infrastructure let alone any public welfare system. ‘Official figures’ from the Bureau of Statistics puts the unemployment figure at about 20% (about 32million people if based on a population figure of 160 million), but this figure still did not include about 40million other Nigerian youths captured in World Bank statistics in 2009. Average life expectancy in some studies puts men at 47 years and women at 48 years.
With those kind of statistics you’d wonder if there was anything at all that the Nigerian people receive from their government that is of benefit to them.
There was one, but that’s now being taken off them. We’ll call it a ‘perk’.
That one ‘perk’, from the government of Africas biggest oil producer, was subsidization at the fuel pumps.
That one ‘perk’ ended on January 1st causing prices to go from $1.70 per gallon (45 cents per litre) to at least $3.50 per gallon (94 cents per litre). The costs of basic food stuffs and travel also doubled.
Let’s just go over that again…$3.50 per gallon when the average wage of the population is $2 a day.
The only ‘perk’ taken away, just like that…overnight.
The lie from the Nigerian government is the removal of the subsidy will benefit the Nigerian population because there’s a massive hole in domestic finances which they’d like to recoup to rebuild the nation. Nigerians have heard this one before. Many times. ‘Rebuilding the nation’ is a phrase every government has used since independence in 1963 and it has rarely come to much.
As of last Monday the already growing Occupy movement was swelled when unions called out their members on strike in protest to the removal of the subsidy. In turn this has attracted the young, masses of them from every part of Nigeria.
Last night union leaders from the Nigeria Labour Congress, threatening this coming Monday to shut down all oil production met with the Nigerian President Goodluck Johnson and his government officials to ‘negotiate’ an end to the strike in return for the original fuel subsidy. However tweets from inside the meeting made it clear that the government would reduce the price slightly and the unions would meet them half way, much to the fury of protesters and a substantial number of the population who believe that the unions have no right to negotiate away the return of $1.70 per gallon on behalf of the Nigerian people. The popular declaration is it’s ‘N65 or nothing’ (the price in the local currency Naira).
This meeting ended without agreement and today hundreds of thousands were again back on the streets warning the union leaders not to betray them tomorrow when meetings between the two parties continue. Union leaders have called off the strikes over the weekend apparently in order to open airports and allow members of the government to fly to the capital Abuja to make their voices heard. Cynics might also say there’ll be those flying ‘far away’ also in fear of what may or may not occur in the coming days. But there is also a need for those involved in the protests and the population at large to ‘re-charge the batteries’, so in that respect it is to be commended.
Both governments and unions have much to be frightened of at this juncture. Neither parties are likely to quell the current growing anger if the demands of the public are not addressed quickly. The average working Nigerians are far from being the usual stereotype many bigoted fools in the ‘the west’ hold of scam artists who spam email boxes on a daily basis, they are far more politically astute and resourceful a nation than these bigots at large would give them credit for. Great names such as Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ken Saro-Wiwa should be forced upon them. In fact they are far more politically astute and resourceful than their own leaders and union heads give them credit for. They should take heed.
Meanwhile the international Occupy movement should get off their butts and support Occupy Nigeria. While it is common knowledge that there is chronic pollution in the Niger Delta caused by oil spillage, it is not the fault of the Nigerian people, it is the fault of their government, lack of accountability, corruption in high places and the oil industries. It is the fault of international capitalism running riot. Nigerians are calling for the outside world to support them.
And this has what to do with us here in little old Norfolk? Maybe nothing, maybe everything in the current international crisis. But keep an eye on the old oil pumps at your Morrissons, BP or Sainsbury forecourt if Nigeria hits crisis point, better still keep an eye on our own state and its allies because the root of all these problems internationally lies there!
And in the spirit of of Nigerian freedom fighters such as the likes of the late great Fela Anikulapo Kuti there’s a message to the EU, the US, the UK and above all the IMF…
Him no know hungry people
Him no know jobless people
Him no know homeless people
Him no know suffering people
Him go dey ride best car
Him go dey chop best food
Him go dey live best house
Him go dey waka for road
You go dey commot for road for am
Him go dey steal money
Na “Vagabond in Power!
Occupied With Conspiracies? The Occupy Movement, Populist Anti-Elitism, And The Conspiracy Theorists
All progressive social movements have dark sides, but some are more prone to them than others. Occupy Wall Street and its spin-offs, with their populist, anti-elitist discourse (“We Are the 99%”) and focus on finance capital, have already attracted all kinds of unsavory friends: antisemites, David Duke and White Nationalists, Oath Keepers, Tea Partiers, and followers of David Icke, Lyndon Larouche, and the Zeitgeist movement (see glossary below).
On one hand, there is nothing particularly new about this. The anti-globalization movement was plagued with these problems as well.(1) This was sometimes confusing to radicals who saw that movement as essentially Left-wing and anti-capitalist; when the radicals said “globalization,” they really meant something like the “highest stage of capitalism,” and so from their perspective, by opposing one they were opposing the other. The radicals often saw the progressives in the movement as sharing this same vision, only in an “incomplete way”—and that they only needed a little push (usually by a cop’s baton) to see that capitalism could not be reformed, and instead had to be abolished.
But for numerous others, “globalization” did not mean capitalism. Just as for the radicals, it functioned as a codeword: for some it meant finance capital (as opposed to industrial capital), while for others it meant the regime of a global elite constructing their “New World Order.” And either or both might also have meant the traditional Jewish conspiracy’s supposed global domination and control of the banking system. Whether they realized it or not, the many anti-authoritarians who praised this “movement of movements” as being based solely on organizational structure, with no litmus test for political inclusion, put out a big welcome sign for these dodgy folks. And in that door came all kinds of things, from Pat Buchanan to Troy Southgate.
But still, the anti-globalization movement in the United States was initiated by an anarchist / progressive coalition that in many ways controlled the content and discourse of it, giving it a classic Popular Front feel—the same way the old Communist Parties controlled large progressive coalitions for many decades. In contrast to this, Occupy Wall Street immediately took on a purely populist approach.
There are different ways to understand and oppose capitalism. There is a structural critique, usually associated with Marxism but often shared by anarchism, which seeks to understand the internal dynamics of capital and sees it as a system, beyond the control of any particular person or group. There is also an ethical critique, popular among religious groups and pacifists, which focuses less on the “whys” of capital and instead concentrates on its effects, looking at how it produces vast differences in wealth while creating misery, scarcity, and unemployment for most of the world. Last, there is a populist vision, which can transcend Left and Right. Populists have a narrative in which the “elites” are opposed to the “people.”
On one hand, this can be seem as a vague kind of socialism which counterposes the everyday worker against the truly rich. But it also lacks any kind of specific analysis of class or other social differences—the 99% are treated as one homogenous body. Usually the “people” are seen as the “nation,” and these 1% elites are perceived to be acting against the nation’s interests. From a radical, anti-capitalist viewpoint, this narrative may be wrong and “incomplete,” but by itself is not dangerous. In fact, many progressive and even socialist political movements have been based on it.
But the populist narrative is also an integral part of the political views of conspiracy theorists, far Right activists, and antisemites. For antisemites, the elites are the Jews; for David Icke, the elites are the reptilians; for nationalists, they are members of minority ethnic, racial, or religious groups; for others, they are the “globalists,” the Illuminati, the Trilateral Commission, the Freemasons, the Federal Reserve, etc. All of these various conspiracy theories also tend to blend in and borrow from each other. Additionally, the focus on “Wall Street” also has specific appeal to those who see the elite as represented by finance capital, a particular obsession of the antisemites, Larouchites, followers of David Icke, etc. “The Rothschilds” are the favorite stand-in codeword of choice to refer to the supposed Jewish control of the banking system.
Much has already been said about the Occupy movement’s refusal to elucidate its demands. On one hand, this has been useful in mobilizing a diverse group of people who can project what they want to see in this movement—anarchists, Marxists, liberals, Greens, progressive religious practitioners, etc. On the other hand, this has been useful in mobilizing a diverse group of people who can project what they want to see in this movement—Ron Paulists, libertarians, antisemites, followers of David Icke, Zeitgeist movement folks, Larouchites, Tea Partiers, White Nationalists, and others. The discourse about the “99%” (after all, these Right-wingers and conspiracy mongers are probably a far greater proportion of the actual 99% than are anarchists and Marxists), along with the Occupy movement’s refusal to set itself on a firm political footing and correspondingly to place limitations on involvement by certain political actors, has created a welcoming situation for these noxious political elements to join.
So far, the overwhelmingly progressive nature of many of these Occupations has kept this element at bay. But it is only the weight of the numbers of the progressive participants that has done this. There are neither organizational structures within the Occupy movement, nor are there conceptual approaches that it is based on, that act to ensure this remains the case. So it is not unreasonable to expect that, especially as participation declines, some of the Occupations will be taken over by folks from these far Right and conspiratorial perspectives. All participants might rightly see themselves as part of the 99%. The real divisive question will then be, who do they think the 1% are?
(1) At least one Left group had quit the anti-globalization movement in 1998 because of antisemitism and far Right affiliations; a prominent deep-pocketed funder had close links to a neo-fascist think tank; and neo-Nazi figures both praised the Seattle demonstrations and attempted to glean off the anti-globalization movement after words. Things got so out of hand that a whole new brand of decentralized crypto-fascism crystallized and attempted an entryist maneuver. See my “Re-branding Fascism: National-Anarchism” for more background on this.
Spencer Sunshine is researcher, journalist, and activist who lives in Brooklyn, New York. His writings on the far Right include “Re-branding Fascism: National-Anarchists” . He is currently writing a book about the theoretical implications of the transition from classical to contemporary anarchism.
Buchanan, Pat (US): Paleconservative politician who has run several high-profile campaigns for President. A Christian nationalist, he opposes globalization and relies on racist, antisemitic, and homophobic worldviews.
Duke, David (US): Media-savvy founder of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. He was elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives as a Republican in 1990 but lost his bid for US Congress. Stresses antisemitic theories about Jewish control of the Federal Reserve and the banking system.
finance capital vs industrial capital: Populism often depends on the producerist narrative, which pits “unproductive capital” against “productive” capital. Unproductive capital refers to industries which are based on the manipulation of abstractions (banking), versus the production of physical objects (factory work). The Nazis relied on this distinction for their “National Socialism.”
Icke, David (UK): A former Green Party-leader-turned-conspiracy theorist who blends numerous different conspiratorial ideas together, including antisemitic ideas. He claims that world leaders are Reptilian aliens who appear to be humans, and feed off negative human energy. He has followers on both the Left and Right.
Larouche, Lyndon (US): A former Trotskyist who founded a Left-wing cult around himself and then quickly transformed it into a far Right political organization with a focus on intelligence gathering. He is an antisemitic nationalist who attacks finance capital and globalization.
Oath Keepers (US): Right-wing organization of current and former military and law enforcement members. Descended from the Militia movement, they pledge to disobey certain federal orders that are perceived to violate the Constitution.
Paul, Ron (US): Republican Congressman from Texas who is currently seeking to be his party’s 2012 presidential candidate. He has libertarian economics and isolationist politics; he opposed the US invasion of Iraq but also wants to withdraw from the UN. Favors drug legalization and dismantling the Federal Reserve. Has support from some White Nationalists as well as some progressives.
Southgate, Troy (UK): Former National Front activist who founded National-Anarchism, a form of decentralized crypto-fascism which attempted to infiltrate the anti-globalization movement.
Tea Party (US): A Right-wing populist movement that has affected the US political landscape. It has no clear focus but a mass base and deep funding from wealthy Rightists. Islamophobes, ‘Birthers’ (who claim that President Obama was born in Kenya and is a secret Muslim), and White Nationalists can be found in these circles.
White Nationalists: A catch-all term for various far Right politics whose central concern is the “preservation” of people of European descent (excluding Jews), who are seen as comprising a “nation.” This includes white supremacists, white separatists, and those who work inside parliamentary systems but advocate for “white rights.”
Zeitgeist movement: Technocratic movement which also transcends the traditional Left / Right divide. Founded by Peter Joseph, it originates in a series of movies which blended various conspiracy theories together. Chapters exist around the world.
Oh dear – you can see from my Occupation post that I am being positive about OCCUPYLSX and have suggested that sometimes it’s best for radicals like me to just get out the way and let a new movement breathe. But dear oh fucking dear. Here we have the usual tired old lefties trying to organise the one thing they love – a useless march. So suddenly the shameless SWP hack weymann bennett and equally shameless Kate Hudson of CND and COR are speakers at a rally organised by Occupy. they have had nothing to do with this movement nor have Lucas or Pilger. they are all struggling to contain it in recognisable forms which they can control. Doubtless the SWP placards are ready and waiting. I can actually fucking visualise Andrew Burgin and John Rees cooking upthis menu of rancid leftovers.YOU WILL NOTICE FROM THE SPEAKERS LIST THAT THE ONLY PEOPLE NOT LISTED ARE ANY OF THE ORDINARY FOLKS WHO MAKE UP THE FUCKING CAMP – INSTEAD WE HAVE THE USUAL SUSPECTS INCLUDING THE OBLIGATORY FUCKING COMEDIAN.
CAMPERS AWAKE – THEY ARE TRYING TO WRITE YOU OUT OF YOUR OWN STORY YOUR OWN HISTORY. FUCK THE SPEAKERS. FOR A MEETING BY THE CAMPERS, FOR THE CAMPERS AND OF THE CAMPERS. DO NOT LET THE FUCKING LEFTIES POUR NEW WINE INTO OLD BOTTLES – THESE FUCKERS WILL BORE YOU TO DEATH AND STRANGLE THE MOVEMENT.
COMRADES – NO TO THE OLD WAYS! COMRADES – IF YOU TOLERATE THIS THEN YOUR CHILDREN WILL BE NEXT – A LIFETIME OF POINTLESS MARCHES AND SPEAKERS
AHA – all becomes clearer now. On Saturday the SWP’s big rival sect – the Socialist Party – is holding a march in London to welcome the marchers from their Jarrow march useless stunt. Speakers will include Bob Crow. Now the SWP/COR are organising a different march at the same time to get one up on the Socialist Party. One lot will be rallying in trafalgar square – the other a few hundred yards away at parliament. Fucking pathetic – really shows the petty nature of the Trots. Not exactly their finest hour……………
Spot on Ian.
We’ve had a bit of a running commentary going on in regards to the Occupy group in Norwich recently. Their declaration of ‘true democracy’ appears to mean that any old racist nutter can post any old guff on their Facebook page irrespective of the content. The majority of which is most definitely coming from 9/11 ‘truth’ campaigners that appear to be growing in number recently.
While we wouldn’t want to tar everyone involved in the Occupy movement with the same brush, the rabid antisemitism behind the propaganda that is being posted is blatantly obvious to anybody with an ounce of intelligence, and all Occupy groups are at risk of letting this poison seep out into the mainstream. It would be a shame to think that ‘Occupy’ in a years time was only remembered for giving these racists a platform.
We condemn these idiots completely. So should you!
To keep up to date with exactly what these people are coming out with next you may want to check out Paul Stott’s 9/11 Cultwatch blog.
Gelderloos analyses the “indignant” and “occupy” movements which have spread across the world in recent weeks.
After the courageous revolts of the Arab Spring, the next phenomenon of popular resistance to capture the world media’s attention was the plaza occupation movement that spread across Spain starting on the 15th of May (15M). Subsequently, attention turned back to Greece, and now to the public occupations spreading across the US, inspired by the Wall Street protests.
The function of the media is to explain interruptions in the dominant narrative, not to spread lessons useful to the social struggles that generate those ruptures. As such, it is no surprise that they respond to the strategically important moments before and after these mass gatherings with a news blackout.
While the central plazas of the cities of Spain are no longer occupied, in some places the momentum of May continues with force. Particularly in Barcelona, a dynamic struggle continues to evolve, including a heterogeneous and broad group of people in weekly neighborhood assemblies, protests, hospital occupations, road blockades, fights against mortgage evictions and housing repossessions, and solidarity demonstrations against the inevitable repression.
The neighborhood assemblies in particular form a strong backbone that holds up all the ongoing struggles. In about twenty neighborhoods throughout Barcelona, once a week, twenty to a hundred neighbors meet to discuss their problems, propose actions, and share news. Each assembly has a different structure, and members of each assembly gather periodically to share and coordinate between neighborhoods. Half a dozen neighborhoods had assemblies before May 15, and a couple assemblies even predate the September 2010 general strike, but the participation in these assemblies exploded after the beginning of the plaza occupations, and over a dozen new neighborhoods formed assemblies of their own.
These neighborhood assemblies are changing the face of the struggle in Barcelona, overcoming the isolation and separation of the various, pre-existing political ghettos, creating spaces of informal, intergenerational debate, gathering resources for propaganda and legal support, and preempting the isolation that is the express purpose of government repression. The neighborhood assemblies are directly responsible for at least part of the unprecedented turnout of nearly a thousand people taking the streets in a solidarity demonstration the same day that Catalan police began arresting protestors identified from the June Parliament blockade (see “Wave of Arrests Sweep Barcelonahttp://www.counterpunch.org/2011/10/10/crackdown-in-spain/). Since we’ve met our neighbors in the streets, we’re no longer alone, and the State can try to lock us up or wear us down, but they cannot isolate us.
What’s more, the neighborhood assemblies attack capitalist isolation and the enclosure of public space in the very act of meeting. Every neighborhood assembly is also an occupation that takes over a plaza, park, or street corner without permission, eroding legality and demonstrating that the city is ours. On countless occasions, neighborhood assemblies have blocked major streets as an act of protest (against a hospital closing, for example), or they have decided, almost whimsically, to hold their meeting in a large intersection and simply shut down traffic. In the feeder marches to major protests the people of a neighborhood have met to march all the way to the center, blocking every street along the way, even though they may only consist of forty people. And because of the greater social legitimacy enjoyed by the neighborhood assembly as opposed to some political faction or specific organization, the police have been hesitant to create problems because any repression would draw more people down into the streets. Temporarily, the neighborhood assemblies have negated government sovereignty in the streets; if the police ask whether marchers have a permit, they just get laughed at.
Interestingly, the plaza occupations that began on the 15th of May provided a unique opportunity for people trying to change the world to meet each other and increase our forces and understanding, but it seems that at each step, we had to pass an obstacle constituted by the original forms of the 15M movement. Similarly in the US, the starting points imposed by the Occupy Wall Street action serve as a sort of cocoon that must be broken in order to go further. A number of features that have aided the growth of our struggle in Barcelona may be useful for people in the US to reflect on in comparison with the occupations now happening in New York and other cities.
History is Wisdom
The deeper a struggle’s historical roots, the greater its collective knowledge. In the beginning, both the media and some leading activists tried to present the 15M movement as something new. But in reality, the vast majority of us who occupied Plaça Catalunya and created the movement with our own participation were informed by a lifetime of frustrations and a long history of struggles. In Barcelona, that history includes the struggle against the austerity measures (including two general strikes and a Mayday riot, among innumerable smaller actions), the student movement against the privatization of education, the squatters’ movement, anti-border and immigrant solidarity struggles, the anti-war and anti-globalization movements at the beginning of the last decade, the struggle against gentrification and the Olympics in the ’90s, the struggle in the prisons or the movement of military objectors in the ’80s, the workers’ autonomy and neighborhood movements at the end of the dictatorship and the transition to democracy, the clandestine struggle against Franco, the Civil War, and going back to the beginning of the century, the anarchist struggle against capitalism.
All of these movements constitute lessons learned that can be passed down to aid future struggles. So often, the mistakes that defeat a revolutionary movement are repeated. The neighborhood assemblies in Barcelona serve as spaces where people from different generations can share their perspectives, where those with experience in past struggles can collectivize that experience and turn it into communal property. In the beginning, the organizers of the 15M movement presented their protest model as something ultra-modern, with more references to Twitter than to the country’s rich history of social movements. This model was rejected by many in Barcelona, especially older people or those who had already participated in a previous movement. People preferred to build off their own tradition of struggle, while taking advantage of the new situation and adapting certain features of the 15M model to their use.
The historical memory of past instances of bureaucratization, co-optation by grassroots politicians, and pacification have already served to help the ongoing movement avoid a number of pitfalls. Despite attempts to centralize them, the neighborhood assemblies remain independent and decentralized, allowing for a broader, freer participation, and meaning that politicians who attempt to take advantage of these spaces are at a disadvantage because they cannot operate openly without being kicked out of the assemblies.
The memory of struggles from before the global economic crash has allowed people to move beyond a simple kneejerk response to the present crisis and instead formulate a deeper critique of the system responsible for their woes. In practice, this has meant a popular shift from complaints about specific laws or specific features of the banking system that might serve as scapegoats for the crisis, to a radical critique of government and capitalism. While the movement is heterogeneous and by no means consistent, on multiple occasions it has popularly defined itself as anticapitalist, thus drawing on a strong tradition of struggle that goes back more than a century throughout Europe.
The United States is also a country with inspiring histories of popular struggle. But it is a country with a case of social amnesia like no other. It seems that to a certain extent, the Occupy Wall Street actions exist more as a trend than anything else. The slight extent to which they draw on, or even make reference to, earlier struggles, even struggles from the past twenty years, is worrying. The fact that a present awareness of US history would shatter certain cornerstones of the new movement’s identity, for example this idea of the 99% that includes everyone but the bankers in one big, happy family, is not a sufficient excuse to avoid this task. The historical amnesia of American society must be overcome for a struggle to gain the perspective it needs.
International Connections Feed Local Roots
The local roots of the neighborhood assemblies foster a great many advantages that have allowed these bodies to become useful tools at everyone’s disposal, provided the participants recognize them for what they are. Especially those assemblies that have remained informal places of meeting, despite the frequent attempts by grassroots politicians to herd them into some formal structure or another, serve a primary function of allowing neighbors to meet each other and share their stories, thus fulfilling a fundamental emotional need for human contact that contrasts with everyday alienation. It is the fulfillment of this need that keeps many people coming back; not just the activists who were already meeting junkies before May 15, but the old folks who had long since given up on meetings, as well as the hospital and education workers or the young students who had never participated in meetings before all this.
The assemblies of some neighborhoods, particularly the more yuppy ones that are full of liberals and authoritarian socialists, have chased away a great deal of participation by spending months deciding on a unitary definition of themselves, or otherwise using consensus or voting processes to achieve a forced and artificial unity. Meanwhile, the more fluid, effective assemblies have recognized that, as it was articulated on one occasion, “we’re not an organization, we’re a neighborhood; we don’t have unity, we have heterogeneity. The only thing we have in common is that we live in the same neighborhood and we’re trying to make things better.”
The fact that we have brought our focus to the neighborhood we inhabit spares us from the abstractions and mediations of politics, allows us to measure our success not in meaningless figures like the number of people who come out to a protest but in very real, increasingly visible quantities, such as the extent to which we know each other, to which we are no longer strangers in our own neighborhoods, and the extent to which these relations of acquaintance are transforming into relations of material and emotional solidarity.
The city, in fact, is an abstraction. In the particular case of Barcelona, most of the neighborhoods were independent villages that were absorbed by the life-devouring machine—first based in industry and now in tourism—that is Barcelona. Village/neighborhood identity was lost as the urban fiction advanced. Returning to the neighborhoods allows us to recover a human scale and distances us from the illusion of politics, which places all emphasis and power at the so-called higher levels of organization. If we ever regain power over our own lives, it will mean nearly all coordination and decision-making takes place at the level on which our own direct participation is possible: locally. This local emphasis has meant that in the attempts to create a coordinating body among the different neighborhood assemblies—a process rife with possibilities for bureaucratization or take-over by self-appointed representatives, if history is any indication—most assemblies have insisted on jealously preserving their own autonomy, putting the centralizers at a distinct disadvantage.
Notwithstanding, the localization of this movement is aided immeasurably by its international contacts. Thanks to the participation of immigrants in these assemblies, we have access to the experience of neighborhood assemblies in Argentina in 2001, the lessons of the Chilean student movement or the Mapuche struggle, or the model developed over the last several years by the Seattle Solidarity Network, to name just a few examples. And because of direct relationships of solidarity with international struggles, when the pacifists try to hijack the story of the Arab Spring or the uprising in Iceland to try and steer the movement in Barcelona towards legalism and civility, people with friends and comrades in Cairo or Reykjavik can remind everyone that those revolts were fought with sticks, stones, and molotov cocktails, and that in any case it’s still too early to declare victory.
It seems that in many cities in the US, the occupy movement is marked by a certain chauvinism that at most takes some inspiration from struggles in other parts of the world, without taking any critical lessons. The idea of “taking back America” is a tried and true strategy for self-defeat: creating a fictive community that in reality includes conflicting interests and conflicting desires and will inevitably be directed by its most powerful elements.
Actually, one need not even look to other countries to find the problem with this sort of populism. George Washington and James Madison were among the richest inhabitants of the North American colonies. They used a unifying patriotism to whip the farmers and laborers into a frenzy, do the fighting and dying for them, kick out the 1% represented by the British overlords, and then when it was all done they wrote a Constitution that preserved their privilege and power, subsequently crushing several farmers’ rebellions that rose up to contest this quiet counterrevolution. Neither did they blink, so soon after their pretty talk about “liberty,” while continuing their policy of genocide against Native Americans and enslavement of kidnapped Africans.
The American identity needs to be challenged as one of the oldest tools for getting the middle and lower sectors of US society to betray themselves and help push down those who are even lower in the hierarchy. The US could not possibly have created the largest wealth gap in the so-called developed world without the complicity of large parts of the population. Just below the 1%, there are plenty of people looking for a leg up, and they’re more than happy to pretend they’re just like everyone else if it lets them shake a few more apples from the tree.
Another disadvantage that needs to be overcome in the US is the near total absence of place. Hardly anyone is from anywhere, and most places are built according to the needs of planned obsolescence, so that local identities barely have any common foundation from one decade to the next. The landscape itself is constantly dissolving. In the US, people are born into precarity and forced mobility. In the past, the most extreme cases, the tramps, developed their own nomad culture, and these tramps were a major force in US labor struggles at the beginning of the 20th century, making up a large part of the Industrial Workers of the World, to name an example. But even this has been marginalized or made to disappear.
This alienation of place cannot be accepted with resignation as a simple feature of American society. It is the direct result of capitalist strategies of accumulation and State strategies of repression. How many times has the US government used the forced internal relocation of oppressed groups as an explicit strategy for social control? The only country I can think of that has done this more is China (going back, interestingly enough, through the Communist period all the way to the early dynasties).
In order to overcome the severe disadvantages created by the denial of place, American rebels and revolutionaries need to hold on to their locale for dear life, prevent its periodic reconstruction or gentrification, and put down roots. The idea of “American” as a homogenous, uniting ideal and xenophobic sense of specialness needs to be eroded in favor of local cultures and global awareness. The progressive bumper sticker cliché about “thinking globally” is not enough. People also need to understand themselves as part of those global struggles, able to influence and be influenced by them.
Take Public Space
Barcelona is a city with a long history of popular life in public space. Chris Ealham, in Anarchism in the City, describes how workers pushed into overcrowded slum housing at the end of the 19th century converted the streets into their living rooms, creating an indispensable foundation for the informal neighborhood networks that gave strength to subsequent anticapitalist movements. This street culture survived the decades of fascism intact only to be sharply and effectively undermined by the democratic regime starting at the end of the ’70s. The Olympic Games of ’92 provided a major boost to commercial urbanization, and the civic behavior ordinances, passed in Catalunya after consultation with ex-NYC mayor Rudi Giuliani, might have been the penultimate nail in the coffin of street culture. Barcelona was fast closing in on the American model of the total privatization of public space that not only prohibits—but also installs new urban architecture to engineer out of existence—anyone who is not a consumer in motion.
The neighborhood assemblies are starting to reverse this process, drawing on popular memory of the way things used to be, and architectural remnants such as central plazas in each neighborhood. The more modern neighborhoods that bear greater similarity with US urban spaces and have no plazas take advantage of well positioned parks.
By holding their meetings outside, without permission, the neighborhood assemblies are eroding government and commercial sovereignty over public space and creating a visible referent for self-organization. Even though only fifty people might participate in a particular assembly, thousands see that it exists, and this changes their perception of what is normal and what is possible. This is no small accomplishment. If someone were to write the definitive history of capitalism, the 20th century’s enclosure of public space would merit as much attention as the enclosure of communal lands hundreds of years ago, that allowed capitalism to develop in the first place.
The US, once again, is at a disadvantage in this respect. Whereas all European cities were originally designed for defense and at a certain point they had to be redesigned to put the would-be invader at an advantage, thus allowing armies to easily reoccupy cities—it wasn’t only Paris, after all, that had its commune—US cities were designed from the start according to the needs of Capital. It is no coincidence that Capital and the police forces of social control experience converging needs.
Nonetheless, public space does exist in the US, however inconvenient its shape, and it must be taken for popular struggles to advance. The occupy movement is clearly breaking ground in this respect, although the embarrassing habit in several cities of asking for permission for what is supposed to be an occupation endangers any gains that have been won.
Break Out of the Democratic Ideology
In many other cities, leading activists in the 15M movement succeeded in imposing pacifist, populist, and democratic limits to the plaza occupations, meaning that anarchists and other radicals were expelled, while fascists, among others, were included. But in Barcelona, thanks perhaps to the Catalan spirit of independence, the occupation maintained an autonomous character from the beginning, defeating an explicit attempt by would-be leaders to impose a narrow program. Not coincidentally, the Barcelona occupation maintained a greater heterogeneity and a greater force than most other cities’ occupations. And since then, the new movement has been largely reabsorbed into a broader, older, and more intelligent movement with much deeper roots: namely, the anticapitalist movement.
Within the neighborhood assemblies, which are interwoven with workplace struggles and the fight against privatization and cutbacks in health and education, the confused and populist calls for electoral reform have given way to more revolutionary visions. Just a brief scene from our meeting on Wednesday night can give an indication of the healthy effect this radicalization has had on morale:
There were perhaps seventy of us, people from our neighborhood and a few people from other neighborhoods who had come to share. This time, instead of the usual plaza, we were meeting in front of the nearby hospital that is being forced to close down or privatize. Capriciously, we had decided to hold the assembly in the intersection of two streets, shutting down traffic to cut down on the noise, win space for our meeting, and most of all, just because we wanted to, to demonstrate that the city was ours. At one point, a younger person spoke of the need to remember our prisoners and the people facing trial for fighting against an eviction or for harrassing politicians during the Parliament blockade, and not just to remember them today but to remember and support them a year from now, and as long as there are prisoners. Everybody applauded. Subsequently, a woman in her 60s spoke of the need to increase our forces, to fight harder, to get out of control, to do whatever it takes to shut this system down. People cheered loudly. Another speaker remarked on the need to support the struggle beyond any single issue, as important as the problem of healthcare is, because in truth we were struggling against capitalism. Another urged everyone to boycott the upcoming elections. Only one of these people, as far as I know, was an anarchist, but no political division was visible. All of us were just neighbors, and each of these statements won broad agreement.
In the assemblies we look for ways to take action ourselves. What could be more tedious than sitting through a two hour meeting where we’re counselled to follow rules stacked against us, perhaps sign a petition or two, come out to a protest, provided we behave a certain way, and then leave the rest to the specialists? If someone had gotten up to speak of the need to be nonviolent or respect the laws, they probably would have been booed or ignored as a simpleton. If someone had spoken in favor of negotiating with the politicians or supporting a political party, they might have been kicked out.
The fact of the matter is, the neighborhood assemblies are not open to everyone. They are not spaces for fascists, for politicians, for journalists (at least in the case of some neighborhoods), or for bosses. They are places for building a struggle against capitalism, among those of us who are angry and who respect the principle of solidarity. As such, they fly in the face of democratic fundamentals such as equal rights, free speech, and universal participation. As much as the ideologues of direct democracy try to hide the conflict between the notion of rights and the ideal of freedom, there’s no getting around this fact. The principles of democracy were drafted by elites interested in mediating class conflict and allowing the preservation of a class society. A struggle, to challenge the foundations of this system, must be antidemocratic.
While the alternative media have generally taken a cue from the 15M movement’s self-appointed leaders and described it, in the words of these leaders, as a movement for “real democracy now,” the chants in the protests and the comments in the assemblies leave no doubt—at least in Barcelona, where this movement is strongest—people are increasingly abandoning the concept of democracy and moving towards a growing anticapitalist consensus. There is still plenty of democratic rhetoric in the movement, but every month it seems to wane, and in the most active, dynamic neighborhoods, the common ground is not support of democracy but the shared opposition to capitalism.
Meanwhile, the cities that held on to a democratic ideology quickly wasted their energies. This should not be a surprise. Movements that hope to bring together fascists and immigrants, that hope to inspire people by drafting petitions to their leaders, that ask us to respect the laws created by those who rule us, that underwrite the police’s monopoly on force, that insist on an artificial unity maintained by interminable, process-heavy and easily manipulated meetings rather than trusting the intelligence of decentralization and people’s own ability for self-organization, are destined to fail.
While we must be increasingly communicative to overcome social isolation, populism should be shunned like the plague. We do ourselves no favor by dumbing down our analysis, while we do make strategic errors more likely. Not only is populism counterproductive, it can be dangerous as well. At a peak of the global anticapitalist struggle in the 1920s, fascism appeared within the belly of the movement. Although fascism is identified as a rightwing phenomenon, it began with an anticapitalist rhetoric that blamed an obscure, elite minority for robbing “the nation,” and it recruited heavily from within workers’ movements. The bosses quickly supported the new fascist movement, giving it protection and resources, as an effective way to neutralize revolutionary struggles. The pro-democracy movement prevents the worst of fascism by promoting tolerance, but in many places it has already won the financing of forward-looking elites, hijacked growing struggles and steered them in populist, self-defeating directions, and marginalized more radical elements, directly assisting in their repression.
From the very origins of the democratic concept, “rule by the people” has always been a way to increase participation in the project of government, and “the people” have always excluded classes of slaves and foreigners, whether inside or outside of national boundaries. The question of freedom lies not in who rules, but whether anyone is ruled, or whether all are self-organizing.
In this respect, people in the United States have a great advantage over those in Barcelona. The Spanish state has experienced democracy for less than forty years, and the transition from dictatorship was a clear case of shuffling the cards, with fascists becoming conservatives and the Socialists being allowed into government as long as they didn’t try to change the ground rules inherited from the earlier system. Historically speaking, it’s an easy mistake for people here to make, calling for a “real” democracy as though their own were somehow false, or any different from any other democracy anywhere else on the planet.
The United States is the oldest continuous democracy on the planet. People there have no excuse for misunderstanding the nature of democracy. In fact, among the apolitical majority, there may well be a greater contempt for politicians and for government in general than in most other countries. The welfare states of northern Europe, for example, have successfully undermined popular autonomy and created a population of dependents and sycophants that, even today, in the face of growing abuse and governmental fascism, seem unable to constitute popular struggles. This innate American antiauthoritarianism, though it tends to remain in self-destructive or inert forms, could transform into an important ingredient for popular struggles.
In general, people in the United States face severe disadvantages in fighting power. The popular struggles of past generations were brutally crushed and critical lessons were not passed on. People have to start from scratch in a society constructed to meet the needs of money. In part because of this, people in the US have a unique opportunity to influence struggles worldwide, should they overcome the obstacles and turn these protests into something powerful. One thing is for sure: in the neighborhood assemblies in Barcelona, people have been whispering to each other, “Now, there’s even occupations starting in the US. Something really big must be happening!”
Peter Gelderloos is the author of How Nonviolence Protects the State (South End Press) and Anarchy Works (Ardent press). He currently resides in Barcelona.