Occupy London: the weight of illusions
“Occupy London stands together with occupations all over the world; we are the 99%. We are a peaceful non-hierarchical forum. We’re in agreement that the current system is undemocratic and unjust. We need alternatives; you are invited to join us in debate and developing them; to create a better future for everyone.”
This is the statement which greets you upon finding the Occupy London website (occupylsx.org). It’s certainly true that there have been occupation movements all over the world, with actions springing up in over a hundred cities in the USA, starting with the Occupy Wall Street movement, and in places throughout Europe (Frankfurt and Glasgow, to name but two). The general format has been the occupation of a public space followed by discussions, protests and joint actions.
That the people taking part in the occupations have genuine concerns about the state of the world, the economy and political action is beyond dispute. A comrade of WR recently visited both occupied sites: “I visited Finsbury Square where I spoke to two young women, one unemployed and one working. One of them described their reasons for being there as being at some level unhappy with the current state of things.” The occupations provide something that is not in very great supply in Britain – a public space where people are free to come and discuss in general assemblies in an effort to try and understand the current situation of the world. The people at the occupations have come from different parts of the country, as well as from other countries. Some are actually working whilst taking part in the protest. There have been attempts to send delegates to, amongst other things, the current ongoing electricians’ protest. This at a time when, throughout the country as a whole, despite the widespread fear and anger engendered by the austerity being rained down, there has been little in the way of a genuine workers’ response.
As the recent events in Spain and Greece have demonstrated, the assemblies are the lifeblood of workers’ self-organisation. They are the place where political confrontation, clarification and reflection can take place. The clearest example of this was the intense discussions in Spain between those arguing for ‘real democracy’, that is, a better, improved governmental democracy and those putting forward a proletarian perspective: “There were some very moving moments as the speakers were very excited and almost all spoke of revolution, of denouncing the system, of being radical (in the sense of ‘going to the roots of the problem’ as one of them said).”
The discussions around the Occupy London protests still revolve around two key themes: how to ‘improve’ Parliamentary democracy, to win it back ‘for the people’ against the rich, the bankers, the elite; and secondly how to bring about social justice – i.e. a more equitable distribution under capitalism. As our comrade put it: “I eventually found the meeting, rather late, in the University Tent where there was a discussion on democracy where I learned that they don’t really have democracy in Spain as it is all party lists in proportional representation with no voting for an individual MP, and the parties are part of the state, which some of them felt was all a hangover from the dictatorship under Franco…In this meeting the politicians were pretty much to blame for everything. There were some dissenting voices which tried to raise the question of the economy, to point out that democracy in the UK isn’t any better. And there were some bizarre contributions to discussion including the idea that we should get the public involved in public office in the same sort of way they are called for jury service – perhaps this could replace political patronage in the House of Lords… or we should get better managers into government as in China… One thought that tinkering with the system of voting for parliaments was the way to try and take the assembly experience to a wider level. I was able to make 3 short contributions to the discussion. (1) That the way politicians behave is not caused by the Spanish, UK or any other voting system but the fact they are defending capitalism. (2) To support points on the role of the crisis – which is not just down to the bankers. (3) To say I had hoped to hear more about the assemblies, and to mention a list of historical experiences including workers’ councils. Although there was some hand waving of approval to some of what I said, the overall discussion went back to looking for ways to perfect bourgeois democracy.”
Occupy London is not only smaller than the movements in Spain and the USA that inspired it, but the voices raised in support of a working class perspective have been relatively weaker, and those defending parliamentary democracy relatively stronger. For instance the efforts to send ‘delegations’ to the electricians’ protests only a short walk away were seen as an entirely individual decision and initiative of those who participated, whereas in Oakland the Occupy Movement called for a general strike as well as evening meetings so that those who had to work could also participate (see http://www.occupyoakland.org/). This has left Occupy London very vulnerable to the manoeuvres around the threatened eviction – or the alternative offer of a reduced number of tents for two months – and the media circus around what is going on in the hierarchy of St Paul’s Cathedral with the resignations of first the Canon and then the Dean.
The reaction of the mainstream media has been mostly predictable, from the ‘shock! horror!’ headlines to articles in the more liberal / left wing press arguing that these occupations represent a ‘boost’ or a ‘shaking up’ of a staid democratic system. All in all, most of the press, and the established church, have tried to find a way to argue that politicians should be ‘responding’ to the ‘concerns’ of legitimate protest. But in the absence of a perspective for going out to make contact with the wider working class this predictable media feeding frenzy, and how they present the occupation, has become a point of fixation.
The threat of eviction, and how to defend against the violence and repression involved, is obviously an important concern. In many places across America, this ‘response’ by elected politicians has taken the form of heavy repression (witness the 700 protestors tricked and then arrested trying to safely cross Brooklyn Bridge, arrests and beatings at other occupations). However, when one of our comrades went to a general assembly at Finsbury Square that discussed how to react to the threatened eviction at St Pauls (before the offer to stay for 2 months and leave at an agreed date) the way the media would portray their response was the major concern. A proposal to go directly to workers, made by our comrade, like a reminder by another participant that their aims went beyond keeping the occupation going indefinitely, were not taken up. In fact both felt like distractions.
The greatest danger now is that Occupy London will become trapped in a hopeless inward looking dynamic leaving the Church and the media to make all the running. Graham 04/11/11
. The Guardian even reported that the son of legendary Bluesman Bo Diddley was arrested whilst trying to show support for the Occupation in a Florida plaza… named after his father! (14/10/11)