The organised left can certainly learn from the #Occupy movement, but some participants in the #Occupy movement might be surprised that they could also learn from the organised left.
Across the world, thousands of people have occupied squares, parks and plazas as part of the worldwide #Occupy movement. Tens of thousands have participated in demonstrations supporting these movements. Millions have looked on at this development with support and interest, with the protests becoming a reference point for people who are angry with the bailouts of the bankers and the speculators at the expense of the rest of us.
The rapid spread of the #Occupy movement demonstrates the widespread disenchantment with the policies of governments around the world. It represents a second wave of occupation movements influenced by the tactics of the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East. The first wave developed in southern Europe in early summer this year in the form of the indignados movements there.
Of course, these protests and occupations are not replicas of each other. The general motivations and tactics have interacted with the local conditions and issues. For example, in Ireland the question of the intervention of the troika, the IMF, EU Commission and European Central Bank has come to the fore, along with the giveaway of Ireland’s natural resources to the likes of Shell.
Occupy Dame Street
I have been participating in #OccupyDameStreet (ODS) as much as I can, giving a workshop about the EU, as well as participating in a number of general assemblies, attending other workshops and going on two of the protests. It is an inspiring movement for a number of reasons. It represents (particularly in terms of those attending the demonstrations) the first engagement for a layer of young people in politics. Partly as a result of this, the numbers and mood on the demonstrations represent a relative upturn from other protests that have been seen recently. This is an upturn from quite a low ebb, an ebb which is reflective of the mood of people generally who have felt powerless in the face of the onslaught of austerity and the complete absence of leadership by the trade union movement. Nonetheless, the protests have been marked by a good mood and a feeling of power and optimism in the participants.
The #Occupy movement also represents a generalised rather than specific movement. Like the anti-capitalist protests (although anti-corporatism would probably have been a better description of the attitudes of the majority protesting) that emerged at the end of the 1990s and start of the 2000s, these protests are not about very particular issues – but are a more general questioning about how society is being run. Obviously there is a need for campaigns around particular issues, but this development is extremely positive because it represents a widespread questioning of the system and is a result of the crisis that capitalism has been undergoing for the last three years.
The key ideas that have been put forward are very significant. The most striking slogan and feature of the protests – for me at least – is the notion of the 1% and the 99%. The recognition and popularisation of the fact that society is not run for the majority, but for a tiny minority, is quite profound. A recent academic study illustrated the truth of that concept, revealing that just 147 transnational corporations control a massive portion of the world’s wealth.
So there is no question but that this movement is an enormously positive development that should be welcomed and embraced by all socialists and left activists. Within the movement there are of course vigorous debates and discussions taking place, with different participants reflecting their political outlook and experiences. There are a number of issues of controversy that are worthy of comment and further discussion.
What are we against, what are we for?
One of the weaknesses (although some of the participants would consider it a strength I think) of the #Occupy movement generally is the lack of a set of very clear demands. For me, this is not about tying down the #Occupy movement to become a protest movement focused on simply one or two issues, but about putting forward demands that illustrate how society could be run differently – in the interests of the 99% rather than the 1%.
#OccupyDameStreet does have clearer demands than many of the other occupations internationally. Its four demands are: an end to the complete control of the European Central Bank over our economic policy; that the IMF stays out of our affairs; that we refuse to pay for private bank debt, and that our oil and gas reserves be returned to “sovereign control”. However, even here, I feel that the movement needs to go further and begin to provide answers to a series of important questions. How can the massive power of the financial markets be tackled? How can the banks be used in the interests of the 99% rather than bailed out by the 99%? How can the power of the corporations who control the economy be broken?
Answering these questions means raising demands that identify the ownership of massive amounts of wealth by tiny sections of the population as a central problem, together with the existence of a state which operates in their interests. That means identifying capitalism as the central problem here and beginning a discussion on an alternative to capitalism. Identifying the movement clearly as anti-capitalist would represent a big step forward, in my view.
For me, the alternative is clear – it is socialism. In short, that means democratic public ownership of the key sections of the economy, including the banking and financial sector, with democratic workers’ control and management of these enterprises as well as a democratically planned economy, together with an entirely different type of state based on real participatory democracy at a workplace and community level.
How can real change be achieved?
Another important point of discussion is about how the 99% can win. Although we may be much more numerous than the 1%, it is the 1% that has control of the state apparatus and the media which they use to defend their system. As the history of revolutions across the world shows, they will not just meekly hand over power because they’re asked nicely by the majority in society – a major movement that can bring about fundamental change is needed. To look to the movements Egypt and Tunisa which inspired the tactic of occupations, these movements did not remain as occupations, or simply try to build an alternative better society within the occupations, they became revolutions that embraced the majority of the working class and at decisive stages through general strike action together with mass protests were able to oust the hated dictators of Ben Ali and Mubarak.
Crucially, for me this means the development of a real orientation towards the working class. Although the establishment media and some academics might try to dismiss the idea of class as outdated, it remains a fact that the majority of the 99% in Ireland works for an employer and has little or no control over their working conditions, or is a dependent on someone who does. These people are working class. Because they hold a key position in the capitalist economy, as they make the goods and provide the services that enable the economy and society to function, they have enormous potential power.
This potential power was demonstrated by the general strike last week in Greece, which shut down Greek society for 48 hours and mobilised the biggest demonstrations since the fall of the dictatorship in 1974. In order to win, ODS needs to work towards winning large sections of working class people to active support for the movement. This support should not just be as individuals, but as a group through working class organisations, centrally the trade unions. Concretely, in my opinion we must campaign for and raise the idea of a 24-hour general strike against austerity and the 99% paying for the economic crisis that was caused by the 1%.
Individuals vs organisations
If this orientation is to be successful, it means spreading the movement into working class communities and workplaces, at the same time as maintaining the occupation in Dame Street. Crucially, it means approaching and talking with the trade unions. In my view, the biggest mistake of the ODS movement so far is that it has asked trade union members not to bring banners or leaflets from their unions – thereby asking them to attend only as individuals. This approach misses the point that workers are strong precisely because they are not just individuals, but because they are part of collective organisations. It also is an example of mistaking the rotten leaderships of the trade unions for the trade unions themselves.
Another linked question for debate is the appeal that at the ODS protests people leave their political parties at home, and the appeal for political parties to not bring leaflets and placards. I understand completely the sentiment and reasons why these ideas have arisen and received a significant degree of support. I think they primarily relate to the repeated betrayal of people’s hopes and wishes by the establishment parties, including by the Labour and Social Democratic parties across Europe. The “far left” also has a responsibility. In Spain, the major organisation of the left, Izquierda Unida (United Left), for example, has failed to give a serious answer to the economic crisis and the attacks on the 99% in terms of either campaigning initiatives or proposals.
The assertions by some that the movement is “not political” (which is self-evidently a nonsensical thing to say about a movement fighting for the 99%!) or that it is not “left” is a harmful one. Left parties like the Socialist Party have decades of experience fighting for the 99% and contain within them hundreds of activists in Ireland who have campaigned on various issues. The conclusion we have drawn is that in order for the 99% to win, an organised political force needs to be built around a clear set of socialist demands and that is what we are trying to do. However, the building of such a party does not substitute for the building of a movement – both are necessary.
Certainly, we do not have all of the answers, but a constructive dialogue between the organised left and those who are not members of any parties and are participating in the #Occupy movement would surely be a good thing. The organised left can certainly learn from the #Occupy movement, but some participants in the #Occupy movement might be surprised that they could also learn from such an engagement. Having this dialogue, in my opinion, means welcoming political organisations (as organisations, not just as individuals) onto demonstrations and protests organised by ODS. Banners representing these parties should be permitted to be present and would be a positive demonstration of the social weight and support that ODS enjoys. Left organisations for their part should behave responsibly by not attempting to “brand” the protest as their own.
In particular, though, a free debate and discussion should be encouraged. Speakers who are members of political organisations should announce their affiliation when speaking at the General Assemblies to enable people to understand where they are coming from. In addition, the exchange of ideas in the form of leaflets and newspapers from left organisations should be encouraged rather than banned. More discussion, not less, is what is needed within ODS.
Discussions, debates, decisions
Finally, this brings up the question of structure – as to how decisions on these matters should be taken. There is currently an insistence on consensus, which, as it currently operates at Dame Street, means that those who don’t agree have to agree to “step aside” and allow there to be a consensus without them. This means that a minority retains a blocking power. While, it makes sense to strive for consensus, the reality is that a movement as broad and diverse as this will inevitably have significant differences. Rather than simply ending up with lowest common denominator agreement I think it is better to have thorough debates and ultimately if a consensus cannot be reached, to have a mechanism to decide by majority vote, while ensuring that one group could not simply turn up and “pack” a general assembly to win a vote.
Vigorous debate and discussion on all of these matters is to be expected in a movement like ODS. It is being mirrored in discussions at the other #Occupy protests in Ireland and across the world. Such debate, if carried out in a democratic and fraternal way, is a strength rather than a weakness. ODS, as well as the #Occupy movements generally, face a crucial phase now. Decisions taken by the participants will have an important impact on whether the potential for these movements is fully grasped and a further step forward towards building a mass movement that can win is taken.