A global act of refusal

The Occupy movement has energised politics, writes James Turley. But we must face up to the limits of spontaneity

It is not the first time that events on Wall Street have had major repercussions all about the globe. It is probably safe to say that it has never happened quite like this. A month ago, a few bands of North American activists - including the collective around Adbusters and radical hackers Anonymous - took to Wall Street to protest the manifest corruption of American politics by capital and high finance.

Now, ‘copycat’ protests have spread far and wide. The details change, as do the key demands; but hundreds of cities, on every continent, have caught the bug. The idea is simple - find a central, public and symbolically powerful location, and stay there. The squares and parks then become hubs of activity, as activists numbering very often in the few hundreds try to organise a propaganda effort to broaden support for their programme.

What is the programme? In the US, the central demand was initially for “a presidential commission on the relationship between money and power”; but the slogans that emerged hinge on the idea of the “99% versus the one percent” - that is, the dispossessed masses and the corporate ultra-elite who buy politicians like they would holiday flats.

This movement is spontaneous and diffuse and that character has positive and negative consequences.

The positives first of all: the Occupy movement demonstrates just how much comes naturally to people moving into struggle, no matter how politically naive they may be. There is an instinctive internationalism on display here; sometimes hundreds, sometimes thousands of people in all kinds of countries have discovered that their problems emanate from the same source, even when the nature of that source is left somewhat undefined.

Indeed, the Wall Street demo was inspired by the square occupations of the Spanish Indignados, who were in turn inspired by the Arab awakening that toppled Ben Ali and Mubarak. The Arab awakening itself demonstrates the enormous potential for protests to spread across borders.

Equally, there is that key slogan - ‘We are the 99%’. We will have better reason than sheer pedantry to dispute the numbers here, but, however inexact and populist, this is the germ of class-consciousness, an awareness that we are not ‘all in it together’, but placed on opposite sides of a fundamental antagonism. It also acknowledges that the power of the masses lies in their numbers - if the 99% strike with one fist, they will surely launch their exploiters off the face of the world.

Sniffy comments about the small size of the ‘core’ protests, particularly on Wall Street and at St Pauls, and (from parts of the left) their left-liberal campaignist political character, rather miss the point. Both the London and Wall Street protestors have managed - via hard graft and media savvy - to get a degree of trade union participation in their movements. The underlying class antagonism is more obvious to the unions than it would be to the young radicals. The internationalist dimension is perhaps more surprising - the unions’ enthusiasm for this wave of protest actually demonstrates how much work the labour bureaucracy has to do to repress the spontaneous solidarity of workers across borders.

The fundamental problem for these protestors is that the nature of their activities has serious internal limits. It is not simply that protests of this kind - no matter how numerous - will not succeed in overthrowing capitalism. It is that the rather minimal demands that the decision-making process, in combination with the pre-existing political prejudices at work, throws up are almost equally impossible. Cautious overtures from the White House notwithstanding, there will be no commission on money and power; or, if there is, it will be used to kick the issue into the long grass.

What are these limits? First of all, there are the organisational questions. Overwhelmingly, decisions are arrived at by consensus; an individual participant has the power to block a majority decision until he or she is satisfied that the issue is resolved. The fundamental driving force behind the rise and rise of consensus decision-making is the fear of the ‘tyranny of the majority’, and experience of its concrete forms (eg, meetings packed by clone-activists of some left group).

This institutes a power of veto which is not enormously harmful when decisions are taken between handfuls of like-minded activists. It is enormously harmful when major and at least partially compromised organisations (trade unions included) get involved. Many people worry that the likes of the US Democratic Party will strangle the movement; but, with these organisational practices, the movement effectively hands its enemies the garrotte.

It is not simply the de facto veto. This is a movement, like many others in recent history, with an anarchistic hatred of formal leadership. Yet the result wherever ‘leaderlessness’ is tried is with absolutely rigid regularity not a true egalitarianism of authority, but informal leadership.

We live in a fallen world, where hierarchy is not simply expressed through rules, but partially internalised. Formal leadership, accountable to those below, is not a tyranny over the mass movement, but a defence against the tyranny of pre-existing relations of hierarchy (class, gender and so forth) that, in the absence of formal structures, select the most ‘charismatic’ - that is well-spoken and confident - individuals to be leaders. The result in the paradigmatic case of the London European Social Forum was that the whole affair was run as a stitch-up between the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Action, both organisations with a great deal of savoir faire as to how to get a ‘good result’ at a meeting.

The political character is then based on what can be agreed - or at least tolerated - by an increasingly diffuse cross-section of people. “This is not about left and right,” Richard Seymour of the SWP was told many times at St Pauls. “These old ideas of political divisions are not necessarily relevant ... because this is about the 99%, this is about the have-nots, versus the have-yachts.”

There are three interlinked problems with this perspective. The first is that identifying the balance of forces is not a strategy. It does not tell us what we should do with the “have-yachts”. Tax them? Expropriate the yachts? Hang them from lampposts?

The second, and consequent, problem is that the balance of forces is not simple. The one percent, it should be emphasised, is quite real - the top layer of the bourgeoisie exists almost in a parallel universe, and the mass production of fictional values in the last period of financialisation has had the effect of accentuating the disparity.

But then, there are medium-sized concerns owned by a larger layer of capitalists, who, while hardly as flush as the transnational jet-set, still have a considerable stake in the system; and below them a large layer of small owners - the urban petty bourgeoisie, remaining pockets of small farmers and the managerial middle class - who are in a more ambiguous relationship to capital. A corner-shop owner may want the power of the corporate elite curbed; but in fact he is just as reliant on finance capital as Tesco. The working class, in turn, has interests antagonistic to, or at least conflicting with, around 30 out of the 99%.

Leaving the detailed politics unsaid does not magic away the differences; it does, however, negate the possibility of winning broader layers to a real political strategy, and thus exacerbate the centrifugal forces pulling the movement apart.

Finally, there is the point quite correctly made by comrade Seymour - the protests actually reconfirm rather than abolish the left-right divide, because it is the political left which has a history of standing up for the “have-nots” against the “have-yachts”. The beyond-left-and-right idea is an attempt to sell this as a moral crusade, but the truth is that these protests are identifiably leftwing. The idea that political divisions are outdated is fundamentally premised on the basis that there is only the ‘100%’, with poor and rich and state bureaucrat alike having their correct places in the social body, and is thus itself fundamentally a rightwing idea.

It would be stupid to pretend that these prejudices, however misguided, do not have a real basis. Put simply, the left has come out of a period of cataclysmic defeat, and has not come out fighting. The prejudices people have about socialist grouplets - at least partly founded on the disaster that was Stalinism - are endlessly reconfirmed by their actual encounters with socialists.

The problem which underlies all this, however, is the loss of any sense of history. My arguments on the flaws of consensus and leaderphobia could have been copy-pasted from The tyranny of structurelessness, published by the left feminist, Jo Freeman, in 1972. The failure of the Social Forums to organise effectively, and the dissipation of the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement, is one example among many of the failure of movements based on a universally agreed act of refusal. These failures are forgotten, and so reappear as if new.

In order for the 99% (or whatever fraction we can muster) to prevail, it needs to decide whether to overthrow capitalism or reform it, and whether to overthrow the state or demand it mitigate corporate greed; it needs the rich experience of history - our history, the history of the left and the centuries-old fight for democracy - to make that call. This movement is of immense symbolic importance; but that significance will be forgotten unless its architects take seriously the need for a party