As the St Paul's protest camp continues its transformation into a respectable pressure group with mainstream support, James Turley draws a few lessons
Occupy, it must be said at the outset, is not quite yet over. Zuccotti Park is cleared, and - now - so are the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral; but its lexical quirks (the 99%-1% division, most obviously) still linger in the shared vocabulary of the left, and its iconic images (the tents, the ‘human megaphones’, the Guy Fawkes masks of the ‘hacktivist’ collective, Anonymous) still glimmer on our collective retina.
Certainly, the sundry forces thrown together by one brilliantly simple idea - camping on the doorstep of the central apparatuses of high finance - do not yet consider it time to withdraw from the public stage: “You can’t evict an idea,” declares one amateur filmmaker; Giles Fraser, the right-on canon of St Paul’s who resigned in support of the camp, declares in The Guardian that “Occupy LSX may be gone, but the movement won’t be forgotten.”
Yet, in a sense, these two impeccably clichéd statements of defiance sum up the problem. Firstly: you cannot, indeed, evict an idea. Occupy, however, was not driven by ideas; ideas began to intrude, but have hardly coalesced into a coherent political programme that unites all the Occupiers. What exists instead is the old, burning need to ‘do something’; well, the police have successfully stopped Occupy LSX from doing the particular something it had been engaged in.
As for Fraser’s comment, Occupy will - when it finally dies out completely - be forgotten. It will be preserved, all things being equal, in the kitsch form of nostalgia documentaries about the year 2011 when the time comes for the latter to be produced; in the intervening time, it will be relegated to what one historian, in another context, quite brilliantly calls “the trough of oblivion that accommodates old news before it is resurrected as history”.
There are many ways to evade that particular fate - one is to have a serious and lasting impact on society (the October Revolution, the Vietnam war). Another is to become socially massive enough that the memories of enough people who actually participated have themselves an effect on the memory of society (May 1968, the anti-Iraq war movement in this country). A third is to give rise to a sustaining institutional form - a political party perhaps, or something else - that propagates the movement’s memory.
Occupy did not bring down high finance; it did not organise more than a tiny fraction of the ‘99%’ at its peak; and no institution looks likely to replace the sustaining power of those campsites. The great likelihood is that it will turn out like countless previous protest movements, many very similar in character, that turned out to be less than the sum of their parts.
If we cannot take the off-the-peg defiance of LSX occupiers at face value, however, we should not be overly dismissive of this movement. That was certainly the attitude, for example, of the ex-Revolutionary Communist Party’s Spiked, noted generally for its disdain of protest for its own sake and, most especially, banal liberalism. Editor Brendan O’Neill, in a blog for The Daily Telegraph, suggested in the dying days of the St Paul’s camp that it had become “a holding camp for the mentally ill”, and gently proposed that it was time to “call it a day”. (This was a somewhat disingenuously gentle suggestion from a man who had a few months earlier declared in the same forum that Occupy made him ashamed to be leftwing.)
Increasingly rare though such occasions are, it is worth prying a little more into the Spiked analysis here. O’Neill is right, to a point, to indicate that the discourse of Occupy was a little intellectually undercooked and morally overblown. Yet the ideas were not the point. To read, as O’Neill does, into naive statements about the media ‘brainwashing’ the masses a snotty contempt for those masses is, before anything else, to take it for a theoretically precise and worked out position, rather than a simple explanation for the fact (which O’Neill has to deny) that, were the Occupiers right, it genuinely is the case that great masses of people stubbornly insist on acting against their own interests.
Occupy, for many of its advocates, was, more significantly, a “prefigurative society”. In the words of David Graeber, the anarchistically-inclined anthropologist, Occupy was “a combination of tactics of trying to create prefigurative models of what a democratic society would be like ... a way of organising protest or actions that were directed against an obviously undemocratic structure of governance.”
In short, it is a form of what has come to be known, since Marx and Engels, as ‘utopian socialism’; the difference with Occupy is that, while previous utopian projects have tended to take themselves out of physical spaces obviously corrupted by capitalism, Occupy picked as its stage Wall Street and its satellites. The attempt to make ‘propaganda by the deed’ for democracy had serious limits: anarchistic attachment to consensus, on the one hand, and the accretion of the lost, homeless and disturbed, on the other, with whom the activist ‘mainstream’ were ill-prepared to deal. Yet it was a courageous move.
Of course, utopian socialism is supposed to have been superseded by scientific - Marxist - socialism; or, in a petulant whine of O’Neill’s, “once upon a time, being leftwing meant exposing the structural problems with capitalism and putting forward some solutions for fixing or overhauling them”. Yet the brute fact of the matter is that the Marxists have done Marxism few favours in the last 30 years; this particular wheel is reinvented because we have failed in our mission. The RCP of old prided itself on being brash and terribly ‘new’. It was not, any more than Occupy is; and the fact that protest against capitalism, as it falls about our ears, has taken a utopian form is as much a function of the failure of the RCP and groups like it to break the deadlock as it is of anything else.
Without the utopia, however, all that is left of Occupy LSX is the idea - and, apart from the camp, the only form it has taken is the usual array of left-liberal calls for a financial transaction (‘Tobin’) tax and greater curbs on the power of banks and corporations.
This is a story familiar to those who know a thing or two about the alter-globalisation movement that preceded Occupy (indeed, David Graeber considers the latter a direct successor). The earlier movement took on fairly radical forms - the battles of Seattle and Genoa, most infamously - but ultimately got diverted into safe political channels, principally official greenism and charity-sponsored anti-poverty initiatives.
Does the same fate lie in wait for Occupy? The tell-tale signs are there, in London at least. Margaret Hodge, the semi-reformed Blairite MP for Barking, came out in support of the Occupiers on the BBC’s Any questions radio panel show - it was “a good thing”, she said, somewhat blandly. The rumour mill has it, even, that some protestors have been invited to meet senior people at the Bank of England. Some seem to think that this means ‘we’re getting somewhere’, but, while there is nothing wrong with a chance to speak one’s mind to Mervyn King, we should not expect a Tobin tax U-turn any time soon.
This is exactly the result the ruling class would want - ‘sensible’ discussions between bureaucrats and protestors; Margaret Hodge as a spokeswoman for Occupy. The sad truth is that this is exactly what the ruling class will probably get. Occupy has hit its limits, which are in the end the old limits of the utopian project.
The steady drift of Occupy discourse, in numerous towns, towards the question of the homeless and desperate, and what to do with them, is testimony to this fact. In the society which, however vaguely, Occupy purports to ‘prefigure’, it will be necessary to deal with this other 1% - a great deal more than 1%, in fact, and increasingly so. Society as a whole possesses the means to deal with those in the direst material straits, and those suffering from mental health issues, addictions and all the rest. The tent village on the steps of St Paul’s did not have a hope of doing so.
Marxism does not deny, except in its more stupid interpretations, that aspects of a successful revolutionary movement will have to be ‘prefigurative’ to an extent. Cooperatives contain a germ of social production; educational societies pose an alternative to the bourgeois education system, and so forth. There is, however, a qualitative leap between our jerry-built social institutions and the formation of a new political regime. Making that leap requires all the things that the dominant Occupy ideology would wish to dismiss as old hat - principally, a party, and an organised world view based around the central question of the class struggle.
Occupy will not be the last inchoate challenge to political authority in this period; but it is safe enough to say that what cannot be evicted will be coopted.
2. February 28.
3. Michael Kelly, quoted in G Elliott Althusser: the detour of theory London 1987, p7.
6. Platypus Review No43.