Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Don't belittle the Occupation

As Occupy London waits on the Court of Appeal’s decision on whether the City corporation can proceed with its eviction of the camp outside St Paul’s, the obituaries are already being written.

In the Guardian, which for a time assumed the role of newspaper of the Occupation, columnist John Harris bemoans the camp for failing to come up with an “exit strategy”, for over emphasising consensus decision-making and, as a result, failing to offer clear alternatives.

The occupation “had such profound problems articulating what it wants” and now, according to Harris, “the story is now seemingly one of decline, exhaustion and imminent defeat”. He is disappointed that the Occupation has no plans to out with a bang.

Readers are informed: “We all know the drill: clear demands have been spurned, any idea of leadership remains anathema, communing with mainstream politics is largely off the menu, and the running of everything is almost painfully collective.”

This painfully liberal whine begs a number of questions: What would “victory” look like in the eyes of Harris and the Guardian? The overthrow of the system? Hardly a cause that the Guardian that backed the Lib Dems in 2010 and New Labour for a decade, argues for.

As to the Occupation’s failure to “articulate demands”, it is not alone. Even the Financial Times has spent weeks and hundreds of column inches debating the crisis of capitalism in the search for “solutions”.

In Britain, the ruling political class has failed to come up with a single “demand” or proposal that does anything other than lay the burden of the economic and financial crisis on the backs of ordinary people. Such is the state of present-day democracy.

The occupation movement that began last October and spread to 1,000 locations at its peak, was a response to this social and political impasse, which was remarkably similar in content if not in form wherever the tents were pitched.

In truth, there are no simple “demands” that can form a coherent response to an historic crisis that embraces democracy, economics, finance, ecology, international relations and other features of globalised capitalism. No wonder Occupy London has had problems “articulating what it wants”.

Some at St Paul’s have favoured revolutionary alternatives while others, like those in the economics working group, have concentrated on plans for reform and re-regulation. Yet others have been content to see the practice of the occupation itself as a statement and wanted to go no further.

Occupy, to its merit, has provided an open space for debate and dialogue on these issues, even if this diversity has often been lost in the search for consensus and an over-emphasis on process. And if Occupy London attracted people with mental health and addiction problems, that is evidence of a crumbling welfare state more than anything else.

Harris tell us that the state organises in a “top down” or vertical fashion, citing the events in Athens, and implying that Occupy’s disavowal of formal leadership/organisation puts it at a disadvantage. But surely the challenge is not to replicate or mimic in actions, an alienating, hierarchical state that functions to maintain the status quo?

Following that path must lead inevitably to incorporation into the very same system of capitalist state rule. That has been the experience of the Labour Party and, to a great extent, the trade unions whose bureaucracy would make Byzantium jealous. In any case, the power Harris refers to is not subject to reform and is itself dominated and weakened by the interplay of market forces.

There is a unassailable case for a revolutionary transformation in society, one that breaks the state’s intimate relationship with capitalism and creates the conditions for new forms of democratic, horizontal rule in every sphere. Whatever happens next, Occupy London will come to be seen as part of this process.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

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