The Occupy Movement: Response to Capitalism’s Attacks Hampered by Illusions in “Democracy”
Without a doubt the most important eviction took place in New York’s Zuccotti Park—the place that started it all—where Mayor Bloomberg’s police evicted the “Occupy Wall Street” (OWS) protestors in the early morning hours of November 15th. This touched off a curious legal fight in the bourgeois court system, with lawyers for the occupiers arguing that the eviction violated their first amendment rights of free expression. The decision of the bourgeois judge was a pyrrhic victory for the protestors allowing them to return to the park to engage in lawful protest, but refusing to block the city’s prohibition on tents and camping gear. Thus, OWS finds itself deprived of its modus viviendi. With the bourgeois state no longer willing to play nice, it is now an occupation movement without the ability to occupy anything of consequence.
Could this work to extend the movement? Deprived of the right to legally encamp in the park, might the protestors be moved to create a different mode of struggle—one that focus less on the occupation of a particular geographic space and more on developing organs for clarification and theoretical deepening such as discussion groups? At this time it is not possible to say, but it is often the nature of social movements that actions of the state have these kinds of unintended consequences.
Although many in the occupy movement vow to continue their fight against corporate greed, income inequality and the supposed corruption on the United States’ democratic process, it is clear at this point that the initial phase of the occupation movement has come to a close. Throughout the first several weeks of the occupations, the protestors could generally claim the support of public opinion obliging the authorities to operate with some level of restraint towards them. This is no longer the case. While polls continue to show that the population holds tremendous sympathy for the protestors’ goals and grievances, support for the occupations themselves has declined. The sense that the occupiers have overplayed their hand is widespread. Pressure is now being put on the occupiers to find ways to work within the system to voice their grievances.
While we can’t predict where this movement will go from here, or even if it can survive as an independent social movement outside of the institutions of bourgeois politics, it is appropriate at this juncture for revolutionaries to attempt to make a balance sheet of this movement in order to draw the lessons for the future of the class struggle. What was positive in this movement? Where did it go wrong? What can we expect from here?
Despite these unanswered questions and the general ambiguity expressed by this movement, we feel that is a manifestation of the desire by certain sectors of the working class, among other social groups, to fight back against the massive attacks the capitalist system is carrying our on its conditions of life. Even if this movement featured much of the same activist dominated politics we have seen since the late-1990s with the anti-globalization movement, it nonetheless appears to have been carried out on a fundamentally different dynamic than these previous movements, one that might contain the seeds for further radicalization, even if these have yet to fully sprout.
Thus, while we cannot provide a definitive statement on the nature of this movement at this just yet; however, we can attempt to situate it within a class perspective and draw some of the major lessons for the period ahead.
The International Context
The Occupy Movement in North America constituted a clear link in the chain of protests and social movements that have swept across the far corners of the world over the course of 2011. These movements have overwhelmingly sought to respond to the effects of capitalism’s crisis on the conditions of life of the working class and society in general. From the revolts in the Arab world in the spring, to the outbreak of massive struggles in China, Bangladesh, France, Spain, Israel and Chile, the Occupy Movement was clearly inspired by events that took place far from American shores. Not since the period of the late 1960s/early 1970s, have we witnessed such a broad series of movements across the globe all seeking to respond to the same fundamental provocations: the attack on the population’s working and living conditions resulting from the global recession and the massive austerity attacks unleashed on the social wage in the wake of the sovereign debt crisis and the financial meltdown of 2008.
All these movements have been characterized by the desire of ever increasing numbers of people to do something in response to the mounting attacks on their living and working conditions, even if there is little clarity as to what needs to be done. The Occupy Movement is an important manifestation of this international trend within the “belly of the beast” itself. Like the massive movement in Wisconsin earlier in the year, the Occupy Movement has refuted the persistent idea that the North American working class is totally integrated with capitalism or unwilling and unable to resist its attacks. However, whereas the events in Wisconsin took place within one state, the Occupy Movement has spread to hundreds of cities across the continent and even the world beyond. Moreover, while the Wisconsin protests were very quickly recuperated by the unions and the Democratic Party, the Occupy protestors have been keen to assert their autonomy, believing that meaningful change can only flow from a “new type” of movement. They have shown a very healthy distrust of official parties and programs, demonstrating their increasing suspicion that the official parties only exist to co-opt their struggles.
Like the movements in other parts of globe, the Occupy protests have been characterized by the influx of new generations of workers, many of whom have little experience in politics and carry few preconceived ideas about how to organize a struggle. What unites these participants is an almost precognitive desire to come together with others and feel the experience of active solidarity and community made real—to pose an alternative to the existing society through the lived experience of making the struggle. Undoubtedly, these desires are fueled above all by the increasing sense of social alienation in the face of capitalist decomposition, as well as the tremendous difficulty the younger generations have in gaining admittance to the labor process itself. The absence of the experience of collective labor and the accompanying sense of isolation, atomization and despair is today propelling more and more workers—particularly the young and those who have been kicked out of the production process—to seek solidarity through the struggle. Also present in these struggles are people from other social strata: all sorts of people deeply frustrated and worried about the direction of society. However, in North America, these protests have been dominated by the younger generations of workers and those most deeply affected by the crisis of long-term unemployment.
Of course, this does not mean that the Occupy Movement itself—in particular the tactic of occupying specific geographic spaces—represents the form that the class struggle will take in the future. On the contrary, this movement—like all of its sister movements across the globe—have been marked by fundamental weaknesses, which it will be necessary for the working-class to transcend if it is to go forward. We can conclude that the Occupy Movement represents an important attempt by sections of the proletariat to respond to capitalism’s aggressive attacks on its conditions of life, even if it does not represent a direct model for future struggles.
The Importance of the General Assemblies
One of the most important features of the Occupy Movement has been the emergence of general assemblies (GAs) as the sovereign organ of the struggle. The rediscovery of the GA as the form best capable of ensuring the broadest participation and the widest exchange of ideas has marked a tremendous advance for the class struggle in the current period. In the Occupy Movement, the GAs appear to have been adopted from prior struggles—particularly that of the indignados in Spain—demonstrating that in this period there is a tendency to learn from struggles in other parts of the world in quick succession and adopt the most effective tactics and forms. The speed with which the GAs have spread across the globe this past year has indeed been quite impressive.
Like the GAs elsewhere, in the Occupy Movement the GAs were open to everyone, encouraging all concerned to participate in shaping the movements direction and goals. The GAs operated on an ostensible policy of openness. Minutes were circulated. A clear desire was expressed that the GAs remain distinct from any party, group or organization that may seek to usurp their autonomy. The GAs thus represented an incipient realization that the existing parties and institutions—even the parties of the left and the unions—could not be relied upon to run the struggle on behalf of the masses. On the contrary, the protestors themselves would remain sovereign; they alone could determine how to go forward.
Nevertheless, despite these very positive features, the experience of the GAs in the Occupy movement was marked by a profound weaknesses not seen to the same extent elsewhere. From the start, the Occupy Movement framed itself as an occupation of a piece of geographic space. While OWS may have initially set out to occupy the financial district of New York City itself, or set up a symbolic place of protest on Wall Street, once it became clear that the state would not tolerate this, the protestors turned to occupying a nearby park, almost by default. (1) At the foot of the mountain, but not quite the mountain itself, the model was thus set for the movement in other cities, which overwhelmingly took the form of an encampment in a city park. While there is some precedent for this kind of occupation in US history, (i.e. the Bonus Army’s occupation of fallow land in Washington, DC to protest the living conditions of World War One veterans during the Great Depression); the decision to define itself as a movement occupying a specific geographic location constituted a profound weakness that contributed to the Occupy Movement’s isolation.
Rather quickly—particularly in New York—the Occupy Movement became dominated by a sentiment that it had to defend the park that had become the movement’s home and in fact had come to serve as a kind of community for many of the individual protestors. Undoubtedly, the positive sense of solidarity that many of the protestors felt as participants in a movement for change contributed to a tendency to define the limits of the movement as the park’s boundaries and to seek to defend those boundaries against attack by the state or dilution from mainstream politics.
However, this tended towards the production of a tension in the Occupy Movement, between, on the one hand a movement for broad social change and on the other a new experiment in communal living. From a temporary encampment made as a result of tactical necessity, Zuccotti Park tended to be seen by the occupiers as a new kind of “home” within capitalist society. Rumors of imminent police repression only reinforced the desire to “defend the park.” While the occupiers made occasional forays outside the park to protest the banks or demonstrate in bourgeois neighborhoods, the longer the movement persisted, the more the tendency to try to constitute a kernel of an alternative way of life in the park predominated. No real attempt was ever made to carry the struggle to the broader working-class beyond the boundaries of the park.
By contrast, this fetish on occupying a specific geographic space did not characterize the movements in Spain, Israel and the Middle East. In contrast, the public squares were seen more as a meeting point where protestors could come together for a specific purpose, discuss, hold rallies and decide tactics. The desire to hold onto public spaces with permanent encampments has been a peculiarly North American feature of the recent movements, one that demands further examination.
However, perhaps even more damaging than the fetish for occupation, the GAs in the Occupy Movement were ultimately unable to fulfill their function of unifying the protestors, as over the course of the struggle they were transformed from decision making bodies of the struggle to increasingly passive objects of activists and professional leftists—mainly through the activities of the working groups and committees. Rather than constituting the organ of the most widespread debate, the GAs omnipresent fear of working out concrete demands—because they were seen as divisive and polarizing rather than unifying—rendered them powerless in the face of the need to take concrete decisions in the heat of the moment.
Democratic Illusions And The Trauma of the Past
One feature of the Occupy Movement that has been common to most of the protest movements we have seen over the past year has been the preponderance of tremendous illusions in “democracy” as an alternative to the present system. In one form or another, the sentiment that some kind of authentic democracy can serve as an effective corrective to, or buffer against, the worst forms of oppression and suffering that the population is experiencing has emerged in Egypt, Spain, Israel and elsewhere.
In the Occupy Movement, these ideas were expressed with a typically American flavor. For the most part, this took the form of an underlying assumption that the problems facing the world could all be traced back to the domination of economic and political life by a parasitic clique of financiers, bankers and large corporations who put their own immediate financial interests above that of society as a whole. In the United States, this phenomenon is said to have corrupted the U.S. democratic process, such that corporations are effectively able to dictate policy to Congress and the President through their control of campaign funds.
Thus, the Occupy Movement has tended to pose the solution to oppression and suffering as the revitalization of democracy against corporate greed and financial speculation. While the precise definition of “democracy” may differ from protestor to protestor—some may be content with an amendment banning corporate campaign contributions, while others have a more radical definition of self-government in mind, the underlying sense is nevertheless that “democracy” is somehow opposed to economic oppression and exploitation.
Moreover, while many protestors are now willing to say that “capitalism” is either part of or at the root of the world’s economic problems, there is no consensus on what “capitalism” actually is. For many, capitalism simply equates to the banks and big corporations. The Marxist understanding that capitalism is a mode of production associated with an entire epoch of human history characterized by the exploitation of wage labor is only broached on the margins of this movement. As such, while many protestors recognize that Marx had something important to say about capitalism’s problems, there is little clarity about the relevance of Marxism and the workers’ movement for their project of building a new world today. These hesitations have also been seen in other movements around the world, constituting a limitation that is vital for future movements to transcend.
If these illusions in democracy remained at the ideological level, we could justly write them off to the immaturity of the movement, as an expression of an opening phase in the class struggle, which the working class would transcend in the light of experience. This may ultimately prove to be the case, but for now the Occupy Movement has turned its view of the nature of democracy into a fetish that came to serve as a fundamental barrier to its ability to move forward. In addition, it provided the basis for precisely what the movement did not to happen in the first place: its co-optation by pro-democracy, reformist ideology in the context of the approaching Presidential election campaign of 2012.
From the beginning, taking the mandate to create a new form of democracy in the course of the struggle seriously, the GAs attempted to function on the basis of a “consensus” model of democracy. In many ways, this was a healthy response designed to ensure the widest possible participation and to make sure nobody felt excluded from the decisions taken by the GAs. Undoubtedly this model was adopted as a response to the bad experiences of previous movements dominated by professional activists and political organizations, in which the average participant was made to feel like little more than a foot solider in a movement led by professionals.
In this sense, the desire to make sure everyone felt included is perfectly understandable. However, in reality, the insistence on operating on a consensus model prevented the movement from moving beyond its limitations by blocking the necessary confrontation of ideas and perspectives that would allow the movement to break out of its isolation in the park. In the absence of being able to take any real decisions, to respond to the immediate needs of the movement—by neglecting to develop an executive organ—the GAs very quickly fell under the influence of the various working groups and committees, many of them dominated by the very professional activists they originally feared. In a way, the insistence on making every decision based on consensus ensured that no real decisions could be made and that the various “parts” (working groups, committees, etc.) would begin to substitute themselves for the “whole” (the GA). Thus, the GAs’ fear of exclusion allowed substitutionism to creep in through the back door—a situation that ultimately led to numerous distortions of the GAs’ sovereignty.
The a priori insistence on consensus based functioning was also evident in the very difficult question of the raising of concrete demands. From the beginning, the Occupy Movement seemed proud of its refusal to specify precise demands or formulate a program. This is an understandable concern for those who wish to avoid being recuperated into the same old reformist politics offered up by the state, but as the fate of the Occupy Movement shows, reformism cannot be blocked by refusing to put forward demands. The movement has been characterized by an extreme heterogeneity of demands. The most radical vision for a total recreation of society on egalitarian terms co-exists with totally reformist demands that remain within the purview of bourgeois legalism, such as the passage of a constitutional amendment to end “corporate personhood.” In the name of excluding no one, the Occupy Movement has been unable to advance and thus unable to fulfill its ultimate goal of transforming society.
With such a plethora of often-contradictory demands circulating, and with the movement consciously refusing to specify which demands would define it, the movement thus allowed others to step-in and speak for it. Unsurprisingly, the Occupy Movement was very quickly adopted by bourgeois celebrities, left-wing politicians and union officials who wasted no time stepping in and declaring themselves the movement’s voice. By refusing to specify demands, the movement ensured that it would characterized in the media—and thus in front of the rest of the working class—by only those demands that fit the immediate agenda of this or that faction of the bourgeois political apparatus.
The refusal to take up the question of demands, the avoidance of the trauma of “exclusion,” served to prevent the movement from figuring out how to move forward. With no ability to undertake a real process of clarification, the Occupy Movement was unable to determine to which social force it should turn to. It was thus doomed to turn inwards on itself in an ultimately fruitless attempt to defend the “communities of consensus” they thought they had built in the parks.
Without question the Occupy Movement’s focus on consensus functioning was a response to the trauma of previous movements and represented, on some levels, a healthy instinct to try to transcend leftist and bourgeois modes of functioning. However, beyond this, the insistence on consensus represented the fundamental penetration of democratic ideology into the functioning of the GAs itself. Thus, the Occupy Movement—and indeed most of the social movements we have seen recently—are characterized by more than mere ideological illusions in the bourgeois democratic state; on the contrary the insistence on democratic functioning have completely distorted the unitary forms of struggle that are merging in response to capitalism’s attacks.
The traumas of the past—of which Stalinism and leftism are paramount—have created a fetish for attempting to create a new kind of democratic-consensus functioning that can avoid exclusion, confrontation and hurt feelings. While this may be understandable on one level, ultimately it comes to function as a roadblock to the development of a real alternative to the present system. In the end, the consensus model proved totally illusory as the GAs’ ultimate inability to live up to the tasks of the moment allowed the committees and working-groups to ultimately assert their hegemony.
One of the most important lessons of the Occupy Movement therefore is that future movements must take up the question of how to develop a competent executive organ that remains responsible to the GAs: A real decision making body that operates with an immediately revocable mandate from the GAs. Such an organ is necessary if the movement is to make decisions in the heat of the struggle and forge solidarity, trust and unity among all participants. As this movement shows, the development of a real executive organ cannot be avoided if the movement wants to advance beyond a very elementary stage. How can tactical decisions be made in the heat of the struggle? How can the GAs maintain their sovereignty over whatever committees and organs will be necessary? These are the vital questions that must be taken-up.
Of course, it is also true that an executive organ cannot be proclaimed ex nihilio. An executive organ that does rest on the basis of the widest discussion and the broadest exchange of ideas between all participants would be at best a total farce and at worst another avenue for substitutions to creep in through the back door. An executive organ can only function as a concretization of the vitality of the GAs—it cannot substitute itself for them. Therefore, while the failure to take up the question of an executive function may have been a key factor in the Occupy Movement’s ultimate demise—this does not mean that an executive organ declared in a purely voluntarist fashion by the most active elements in the struggle would have saved it.
More than anything, what was missing from this movement was a real desire to discuss the roots of the crisis itself. Rather than attempt to engage in what has become an inevitable discussion about the nature of society’s troubles, the Occupy Movement focused instead on a fetish around the mode of decision making itself. Bogging down in process, the movement never broached the fundamental substantive questions: Are the banks to blame for society’s impasse or are their shenanigans a mere symptom of a wider failure of the economic system itself? Can we make meaningful change by prodding the state to act in society’s interests or must we think about ways to transcend the state? While it was possible to find participants on both sides of these questions (and a few more to boot!), the movement never figured out to go about deciding which positions were “right.” Under the guise of “all positions are welcome here,” the Occupy Movement never moved beyond a simplistic faith in its own ability to point the way forward by the example of a new form of consensus living.
The Need to Extend the Struggle
One aspect of the Occupy Movement that figured prominently in its ultimate failure was its inability to effectively extend the struggle beyond the various encampment sites. Many factors figured into the movement’s ultimate isolation: the tendency for the occupiers to see the encampment sites as a community, the tendency for the various parks to be seen as fortresses of liberated space that must be defended, etc. However, the most important factor has been the inability of the movement to effectively link up with the broader struggle of the working class to defend its living and working conditions faced with capitalism’s aggressive attacks.
Outside of the controversial general strike in Oakland that shut down the city’s port operations for a day, the Occupy Movement has been unable to inspire a broader response by the working class to capitalism’s attacks against it. (2)
For the most part, the working class at the point of production remains disoriented in the face of capitalism’s broad offensive against its conditions of life and has been unable to launch a mass struggle to defend itself. Outside of a few scattered union-controlled strikes, the broader working class remains largely absent from the struggle at the moment.
On some level, this should not be surprising. The current crisis and the present stepping up of the assault on the working-class is coming after over 30 years of open attacks on the working-class’s living and working conditions and the very basis of class solidarity itself. Moreover, the current attacks are remarkably brutal in their ferocity at both the level of the point of production and the social wage. In addition to this, the ongoing political crisis of the U.S. bourgeoisie must be factored in to any analysis of the working class’s apparent passivity. The insurgent right wing’s aggressive attacks on the union apparatus, as well as the increasingly bizarre rhetoric emerging from the Tea Party have undoubtedly had a disorienting effect on working class consciousness. Under these conditions, many workers remain on the level of seeking to protect what they still have through the existing institutions of the unions and the Democratic Party. Others have become so disoriented that they sympathize with whatever politician sounds the angriest—even if he/she happened to be from the Tea Party.
Nevertheless, despite the difficulties and barriers it faces to recovering class identity and the working-class terrain of the struggle, the broader working-class has not been totally silent. The examples of the mobilizations in Wisconsin earlier this year, are evidence that we have entered a phase—opened up by the New York City Transit Strike in 2005/2006—where the tendency will be towards increasing class confrontations—towards the recovery of solidarity and a will to resist the paralysis instilled by capitalism’s attacks. If the trauma of the escalation of the attacks in the wake of the financial meltdown of 2008 and the current political chaos of the U.S. ruling class are currently weighing heavily on the working class and dampening its militancy, a memory of these struggles still brews on the subterranean level.
However, while public opinion polls have consistently shown a high level of sympathy for the Occupy protestors throughout the populace, this has not translated into any effective mass action. There were of course instances in which this prospect was raised. Mostly, this occurred around the issue of police repression. In New York, Oakland and elsewhere, each time the state appeared to go too far in its repression of the protestors, a massive outrage in public opinion forced the state into restraint. However, while the New York unions were obliged on several occasions to call the workers out to show sympathy with the protestors in the face of imminent repression, only in Oakland did police repression evoke a broader response from the working class.
It is not surprising then, that the Occupy protests have done little to slow down the attacks against the working class, which just keep coming. American Airlines’ bankruptcy petition, the ongoing lock-outs at American Crystal Sugar and Cooper Tire and the massive austerity planned at the U.S. Post Office are just some examples that show the bourgeoisie has not been cowed by the Occupy Movement to lessen its attacks on the working class. Clearly, the tactic of occupying parks on the edge of financial districts has not proven effective in fighting back against capitalism attacks. Rather than camping out on the fringes of Wall Street, Bay Street and other financial centers, would the protestors have been more effective if they would have taken their efforts to working class districts, showing the workers—still too disoriented to struggle—that they were not alone?
We cannot say for certain, but clearly, a serious conversation about tactics has become necessary for all those seeking to struggle against the current degradation of human life represented by capitalism’s ongoing assault on society. Unfortunately, for the Occupy Movement, it’s a priori fetish for consensus, its almost principled desire to refrain from tactical discussions and its privileging of pluralism above concrete action; have prevented it so far from effectively taking up these questions. Above all, in the face of state repression, it has not been able to effectively ponder the questions, “To whom do we turn for support?” and “Where do we go if we can no longer live in the park?” Unable to consider these questions deeper, the Occupy Movement has for now turned back in on itself and faces an uncertain future.
From our perspective, even if the Occupy Movement represents a very important first step by a portion of the working class most affected by capitalism’s crisis, it is clear that going forward will require a fundamental reconsideration of the goals of the struggle and the method for carrying it out. Above all, there is a need to reexamine the attachment to consensus functioning, which appears to us to ensue from the traumatic wounds emanating from the negative experiences of past movements. How can a social movement advance in a way that avoids the pitfalls of the past, but which allows it to function in a truly effective way in the heat of the struggle? How can a social movement committed to the idea that another world is possible remain true to this goal, but still have the tactical fortitude to confront the bourgeois state? These are all important questions, which revolutionaries and all those committed to a different world will need to consider in the period ahead.
(1) A similar chain of events occurred in Toronto, where plans were made for protestors to meet in the heart of the city’s Bay Street district, only to later move to a small park on the outskirts of downtown. The Toronto Police Department—still reeling in the court of public opinion over their aggressive crackdown on G20 protestors the previous year—were more than willing to allow the occupiers to take over the park.
(2) See our article, “Oakland: Occupy Movement Seeks Links With the Working Class”