Occupy Zurich: When the movement becomes exhausted

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This is a translation of an article from our comrades in Switzerland.

In response to the economic crisis, angry and indignant people in Switzerland set up their first general assembly (GA) of the Occupy movement on October 15 2011. Subsequent weekly meetings in front of the big banks on Paradeplatz (Army Square) in Zurich were inspired by much more important international movements such as the Indignados in Spain or Occupy Wall Street in the United States. The very heterogeneous Occupy movement is an expression of the international emergence of a process of reflection and of revolt faced with the impasse of capitalist society. Despite a convergent tendency at the international level to focus (often in a very restricted fashion) on the “world of finance”, some quite diverse experiences unfolded in different countries, deserving to be taken up at the international level. And these happened when disillusionment within the Occupy movement was clearly appearing throughout. Thus we want to share here some experiences drawn from our participation in Occupy’s activities.

“Making proposals for a fairer capitalism” or the traps of democracy

As in New York and other cities in the United States, on October 15 Paradeplatz was transformed into a village of tents, but after two days, threatened with expulsion by the police, the “village” had to move to the central Lindenhof Park. The Occupy movement in Zurich wasn't straight away confronted with direct repression as in Spain, but much more a classical policy of attempting to integrate the movement into the system, with the ruling class in Switzerland resorting to its own version of “direct democracy” to blunt any resistance to capitalism. Here in Switzerland the ruling class had drawn the lessons of events at the beginnings of the 1980s, understanding that it wasn't possible to suffocate social movements by brutality alone and that it could do so much better by offering some possibilities of participation in the system.

Hypocritically, the leaders of the banks and the government thus showed their “understanding” of the Occupy movement. Occupy militants were immediately invited onto one of the most important political TV programmes with the objective of reflecting together with the main bankers and professors as to the possible means to make the financial system better; the leaders  of today couldn't adopt the arrogant attitude that “everything's going well”. During this initial phase, the attacks of the bourgeois press were mainly restricted to criticisms of the absence of concrete political positions on the part of Occupy.

When, in its initial enthusiasm, the Occupy movement accepted offers like that of state television, it was in the hope of greater popularisation. But at the end October, the GA managed, most of the time, to spring the trap of “concrete propositions” aimed at ameliorating the capitalist financial system and the parallel trap of integrating itself into the mechanisms of classic democratic participation.

For the ruling class, the most profitable thing seemed to be to tolerate the movement as a whole and wait for its exhaustion rather than immediately integrate it into the democratic game where it would be hammered. In the almost unprecedented culture of debate in the initial phase of October and November, where almost everyone was allowed to speak, a great strength of the movement was that it settled on the principle: “take time to discuss and don't allow ourselves to be put under pressure”.

Tent village, the movement as a whole and extension

The tent village of Lindenhof, well organised and welcoming towards those who wanted to participate, rapidly became (as the Saturday GA on Paradeplatz) the real centre of discussion for the Occupy movement. As with the Indignados’ movement in Spain, the collective occupation of a public space provided a framework that allowed the movement to unite. Very quickly however, and despite the open attitude of the militants living in the village, two dynamics appeared:

1.  The emergence of an independent community to which only people having the time and staying power to live their lives in this place could participate – whereas that was almost impossible for the majority of people responsible for families and the obligations of wage labour.

2.  The daily concern of housekeeping and of the organisation of the tent village progressively took        over the time dedicated to political debate – which was at the origins of the hopes of the Occupy movement.

This situation wasn't freely chosen by the occupants and they can't be reproached for it; it was imposed on them through the objective difficulty of making the tent village an inhabitable infrastructure, and above all because of the permanent threat of being expelled by the repressive apparatus of the police. Contrary to Zuccotti Park in New York, the movement as a whole in Zurich didn't go as far in a dynamic of falling back on itself and fetishising the park. It engaged in its general assemblies with an intense reflection on the way in which the movement could link up with the rest of “99%”.

On the eve of November 3, the GA which occupied the University square in order to hold a collective discussion, inviting students to participate directly, constituted an expression of this aspiration to enlarge the movement. For five weeks, free of the daily concerns of the tent village, these weekly general assemblies were collective moments encouraging reflection on questions of general politics. Faced with the emergence of positions absurdly proposing a “leadership” to the movement or describing themselves in a fatalist fashion as “delusional”, the plenary assemblies were strong enough to pose their collective spirit of self-organisation. But the anger and combativity among the students wasn't developed enough to join the Occupy movement to their own preoccupations. Even if the hope of a strong participation of the students didn't come to fruition (a hope based on the fact that in 2009 a movement broke out at the University of Zurich), these evening meetings, called “GA's on the content”, where some new people made an appearance, constituted an enrichment of the Occupy movement which could no longer be reduced to a village of tents. Occupy had tried concrete measures to spread the movement.

As a matter of fact, the positive dynamic of such “GA's on the content” demonstrates that in the future any movement will be able to avoid transferring fundamental political discussions of the plenary GA to the “GA on the content” - in the same way that political life cannot be exclusively delegated to work groups. On the contrary, the plenary GA must take the time to come together in order to calmly and collectively clarify the fundamental political questions of the movement. In December, Occupy Zurich, strongly influenced by activism, got more and more bogged down in the problem of holding GA's in themselves, treating numerous questions of organisational detail in an exhausting fashion.

The pioneer spirit, disillusionment and personalisation

The pioneer spirit present in the first great mobilisations of October and November on Paradeplatz settled down. Occupy was not dead, as the bourgeois press would have us believe at the end of December with the slogan “Bye bye Occupy!”, expressing the wish to bury protest against the crisis and the financial institutions. But participation in the GA's rapidly fell during December. The tent village was again emptied by the police on November 15 and some militants had demoralising fines inflicted upon them. By the first GA of 2012, January 4, with a participation of about 70 people, several interventions underlined that “there were less and less numbers”. And, in the space of a month, Occupy clearly went from a spontaneous movement mobilising numerous people to a kernel of militants trying to maintain some near-daily actions whatever the cost.

Quite another atmosphere affected the culture of debate of the GA’s: patience and mutual respect while speaking, so impressive at the beginning, began to give way to tiredness, impatience, tensions and feelings of being excluded from any decision-making. A dynamic developed trying to compensate for the growing isolation by an activism that more and more clearly rested solely on the capacities and on the good will of militants taken individually and not at all on any collective perspective. Occupy Zurich held numerous actions that were really no longer possible with a declining force, as the discussion of the GA about the information stand installed on a public square in Stauffacher showed. Though without doubt well intentioned, but quite desperate, the appeals to discipline (which can’t be the basis for any social movement fighting for the emancipation of humanity because it’s equivalent to the individual moralism of capitalist society) only led to still more tensions.

It's a well-known phenomenon in social movements that the great heights of the beginning are rapidly transformed into frustration when the movement remains isolated from the rest of the working class. The question of isolation is here shown to be a key question. The evident fetishisation of Zuccotti Park in New York wasn't due to the isolation coming from Occupy Wall Street, but was rather an expression of it. There are no “survival recipes” for a movement like Occupy because like other social movements it doesn't originate from an activist “feasibility”, but comes from the political fermentation within society. It arises on the basis of the objective conditions of life.

Marked by the progressive decline of the Occupy Zurich movement, the January 4 GA thus turned to a presentation and the adoption of plans of action in which the participants mostly involved themselves in a very individualistic way. In such a moment, it is more productive to pose the questions: “what do we want?”, “what are our common strengths?”, “why is the movement going backwards?”

Culture of debate, permanent movement and alliances as a lifebuoy

For the people involved in the movement of Occupy Zurich, confronted with fatigue and the shrinkage of numbers down to a small kernel, the necessity to pose some quite fundamental questions was clearly shown in the two first weeks of January 2012 in the question of the frequency of assemblies. What this discussion shows, in the framework of a social movement in decline, is the insoluble contradiction between on the one hand the maintenance of frequent assemblies as the lungs of the movement and, on the other hand, its declining strength and participation. At the GA of January 4, this question was settled in favour of the sole solution which seems realistic and reasonable (immediately go for one assembly a week) but with the aid of the “thermometer of fatigue”. It was absolutely correct for one of the most active elements to put in writing the day following this assembly the critique that “the decision to hold one GA a week was not taken unanimously, but by a decision of the majority. From the beginning I was clearly against the reduction in the frequency of GA's, however my arguments were not confronted and my preoccupations ignored. When everyone expressed their opinions it turned out that there was a majority for holding less GA's, which finally ended up, when I again wanted to support my position, with me being barracked by all. Unfortunately, two compromise positions were rejected without discussion. I present my excuses here to those that formulated them; in this situation, put under pressure from all sides, I considered these compromise positions without controlling my emotions, which led me to reject them straight away. I regret it. Looking back on them, both had potential if one had been able to discuss them in detail.”

What this comrade is defending here is not a blind principle of about raising the frequency of GA's independent of the dynamic of the movement, but the preservation of the culture of debate. The consensual method of the Occupy movement, even if it can conceal the latent weakness of prematurely taking the smallest common denominator as a result of the discussion, thus preventing the necessary polarisation, had, at least in the initial phase, the advantage of allowing a place for all opinions. It is clear that sometimes concrete decisions must be taken even if everyone is not in agreement. However, when decisions are taken by the majority they must not fundamentally mean the end of discussions around them. At the GA of January 11, the preoccupation of the participant quoted above couldn't find any place because of the overwhelming amount of information and points concerning action, although his critique went to the heart of the problem: the changes in the operation of the culture of debate.

It's difficult to say where Occupy is going. However, the January 11 GA clearly contained a tendency towards seeing itself as a “permanent movement”, wanting to evolve and transform it into a political regroupment. Given that the struggles for working conditions or against the lowering of wages in capitalism today cannot have a permanent character without falling into a trade unionist policy of rotten compromise and accommodations to representative democracy, similar perils lie in wait for Occupy. In the context of the momentary loss of its strength and its own dynamic, some voices made themselves heard in favour of an alliance with leftist groups such as Jusos and Greenpeace, doubtless with the aim of regaining some strength. For example, the GA got completely drawn into an insignificant offer of cooperation with a political spiritualist group. Instead of defending the autonomy of the movement, of discussing questions that are really on the agenda, the GA restricted itself to a debate aimed at arriving at an immediate decision concerning their relations to this particular group and to religious groups in general. Such a discussion can be interesting in itself, but it's impossible to undertake and clarify in such haste, which has been imposed from the outside and which already gives a foretaste of bourgeois leftist politics. What, at the beginning of the movement had been thrown out of the door with a healthy instinct - the blackmail exerted by the bourgeoisie pushing for the formulation of “concrete demands” with a view to making the financial system better, in other words pressure to obtain a position within the framework of bourgeois politics - now furtively reasserted itself through the window.

If the Occupy movement doesn't want to be dispersed and get lost in supporting parliamentary proposals about “disclosing the financing of political parties” or in democratic initiatives against speculation on basic food products, which some participants have presented to the GA as their political project, it is necessary to return to the question at the beginning: why is there this crisis of capitalism? The Occupy movement has to ask itself the question of whether all the problems so sharply perceived by its participants can find a solution within capitalism – or is it time to go beyond this mode of production as a whole? As it is impossible for such social movements to be permanently maintained, and there will be others, it is important to convey all the positive experiences made to future social movements in case Occupy doesn't find a second wind. Because the crisis of capitalism, the element which unleashed Occupy in the first place, will not disappear as long as this system of exploitation survives.

 Mario 16/1/12