Occupy Exeter, an experience rich with lessons for the future

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On 12 November 2011, protesters in Exeter established a camp on the Cathedral Green in the heart of the city in solidarity with similar movements elsewhere in the UK and around the world. The Exeter experience seems to mirror others and serves as a good example of the current efforts to come to grips with the enormous challenges posed by the current epoch, the difficulties encountered in struggle and the lessons to be drawn for the future.

The most significant factor in the Occupation in Exeter has been the emergence of a newly politicised generation, many (but not all) of them very young and only loosely aligned to formal political currents. They have a keen appetite for discussion and a profound desire to understand the historic situation facing humanity.

As usual, the left-wing defenders of capital were also present in the movement. These are the older, more experienced activists who have an explicitly reformist, liberal approach. These individuals often took on key roles as ‘facilitators’ in many of the meetings and ‘working groups’, enabling them to steer the movement along their own agenda. Traditional leftists (Trotskyists, for example) were largely absent from the core movement, although they have been much more active online.

A key component in the early days of the camp was the underlying battle between these two currents in shaping the evolution of the movement. The ICC participated in several meetings of the camp and did our best to polarise the differences between these two opposing tendencies, while supporting the new generation. A full account of the movement is impossible here, but we can point to some key moments.

Who takes decisions?

At the 2nd General Assembly (GA) there was a discussion around a leaflet that was being distributed in the name of the movement. It quickly became obvious that this statement had been produced by a ‘working group’ and had not been agreed or even discussed by the GA, supposedly the decision making organ of the camp. Our comrade at the meeting insisted on the importance of a proper discussion around such statements and was quickly supported by other members of the camp. Many of these had already expressed unease about the way the statement had emerged but had been hesitant to challenge the experienced activists who had put themselves at the head of the movement. Once the question had been raised, however, they quickly began to assert themselves and expressed a desire to keep decision-making power centralised in the GA.

At a subsequent meeting, supposedly on the question of capitalism, a decision appeared to have been taken (no-one seemed quite sure by who) to change the agenda to allow someone to speak on legal matters concerning the camp. We challenged this vigorously and the meeting eventually decided to split the meeting between the two discussions. The ‘legal expert’ turned out to be a proponent of the “Freeman on the Land” movement who treated the meeting to a series of woefully inaccurate claims about English Common Law and some conspiracy theories thrown in for good measure. Most participants struggled to understand the relevance of this pseudo-legal lecture and eventually the discussion was ended.

The following discussion on the nature of capitalism, however, was wide-ranging with many ideas, both reformist and revolutionary, being presented. Against those who argued for nationalisation, pacifism, reforms to the tax system and ‘ethical’ capitalism we argued that the system was beyond repair and that the only way to respond to the current situation was to destroy the state and eliminate the core social relationships of capitalism. This received significant support from many of those there who also asked how such a future society would organise and how that related to the current movement. We insisted that centralisation was important and that the GA showed in embryo how a centralised decision-making process could work. Many struggled with this idea as they were convinced that centralisation had to mean domination by a minority.

Despite many disagreements, it was clear that many wanted the discussion to continue and there was considerable interest in some of the ideas we presented. In an effort to end the discussion, a ‘facilitator’ proposed another meeting where it could be discussed further and suggested we present at that one. We readily agreed.

The appetite for discussion

The subsequent meeting was attended by those with a more open attitude - the usual ‘facilitators’ were conspicuous in their absence. We presented our vision of the historical trajectory of capitalism, explaining why only a revolutionary struggle by the working class could offer a way out. A whirlwind of discussion followed! At first, one participant asked us our thoughts about Salvador Allende, the ‘first democratically elected Marxist’ in Chile. They were shocked when we denounced him as an enemy of the working class and even angered when one of our sympathisers labelled him a Stalinist. But this lead on to a discussion about whether the state can be reformed or not, the role of figures such as Chavez, the nature of nationalisation and national liberation, the role of the state, the nature of communism and Marx’s vision, the nature of the revolution, the role of the national state, the nature of earlier social formations, and much more.

We were very heartened by the hunger for discussion and the understanding show in the meeting and in spite of our intransigent critique of many of the illusions expressed. The passion of the participants during the meeting was maintained in a fraternal atmosphere throughout. We were warmly welcomed by the Occupiers who expressed great interest in having further meetings. The whole experience was very impressive.

At the next meeting, leading up to the public sector strikes, we proposed that the camp link up with the demonstrations, advertising the GA as a place to hold a discussion after the march. Once again, the younger Occupiers were very supportive and the motion was passed.

On the day, around 40 people attended and there was a discussion around how to organise resistance to the cuts and capitalism in general, the relationship between Occupy and the strike, and the role of the unions. We insisted on the need for workers to self-organise outside of union control; it was clear that many struggled with this idea and most supported the unions. But, once again, what characterised the meeting was a genuine desire to engage and understand all the issues. The discussion moved onto communism and another focus for discussion developed. A ‘facilitator’ made an attempt at one point to end the discussion on the pretext of discussing practical matters but we argued for continuing the discussion and the meeting voted in support.

In the ensuing discussion the question was asked as to why the Occupiers didn’t explicitly identify themselves as anti-capitalist. The answer was that most of them still believe in the possibility of a ‘fair’ capitalism and even those that don’t are not sure about what to pose in opposition to the present system. ‘Communism’ is perceived as having a negative connotation - but they could all agree on wanting something more ‘democratic’.

Future potential – and obstacles

Throughout this experience, this conflict between revolutionary and reformist politics lay at the heart of the dynamic of the camp. The hunger for understanding was shown in a remarkable level of spontaneous public political discussion which we haven’t seen for a very long time. Our participation did not ‘create’ this dynamic but it did seem to embolden the revolutionary current in the camp to explore ideas. In particular, by challenging the leftist and liberals in their efforts to keep the discussion on the anodyne terrain of statements, petitions and democracy we enabled the discussions to develop a depth that they might not otherwise have had.

The driving force came primarily from the younger participants, but in spite of their openness and combativity, they were marked by hesitancy in challenging the dominance of leftists and liberals both at a practical and ideological level. While recognising disagreement, they were unable to recognise the fundamental opposition between reformist and revolutionary ideas that have different class origins.

As is happening everywhere, the Occupy movement in Exeter is now coming to an end. The camp has been dismantled and they are now faced with the question of what happens next. Perhaps most significant is the difficulty many have in understanding that an ‘Occupation’ itself can create obstacles against the most positive aspects of the movement: open discussion. Right from the start, there was a tendency for the minutiae of running the camp to dominate discussion - as the practical difficulties increased this became more and more noticeable, with the maintenance of the camp becoming an end in itself. Moreover, the conditions in the camp were off-putting to many of the public, the ‘99%’ the Occupiers wanted to reach. Now the camp has been dispersed, there is a tendency to focus on finding ‘somewhere else to occupy’ rather than focussing on the need for discussion.

There is a very real danger that the newly politicised young people who have made up this movement will be sucked into its negative aspects: the fixation on ‘democracy’ often manipulated into the sabotage of discussions and preventing a genuine confrontation of ideas; the dominance of activism; the failure to connect with other groups despite a genuine desire to do so.

The camps and occupations have raised awareness and created a temporary space for discussion. They are now becoming a dead-end. Rather than attempting to artificially preserve them, the Occupiers should concentrate on deepening their political discussions, developing their understanding and drawing the lessons of this movement, ready to inform and strengthen the new movements that will inevitably emerge as resistance to capitalism gathers strength. 

Ishamael 3/3/12