How can Occupy London Stock Exchange move beyond its limits?
This is a guest post by Guy Mitchell, who spent Saturday and Sunday at Occupy LSX.
There is a starting point that is incredibly powerful to all this. It is a simple realisation, an acknowledgement that the government does not do what it claims. Democracy is a lie and we are not all in it together. It is the same powerful realisation that underpinned the riots. The multitude of attacks on our lives always had to produce something more than neat, well defined campaigns.
It is this lack of definement that gives the Occupy movement its power and potential. While lack of demands and clear message has been the chief criticism from the press and politicians it has not seemed to prevent its growth. What is vitally important is the lack of answers because this is also an acceptance that the answers will not be easy. They require coming together, listening to each other, and this takes time.
Above all else Occupy x is a movement of people looking for answers, what is to be respected is that they did not turn to the media, our self selected leaders or celebrity for these answers but each other. When the list of grievances is as long and wide as the collected occupiers the solution has to be radical. It has the potential to become a school in anti-capitalism, not where lessons are dictated but in the Freirian fashion “a collective investigation of reality” (however I cannot help but feel an influx of political theory is also needed). Will everyone’s grievance get its full airing? Will the time be set aside for us to discover genuine answers or, in fear out of the unknown, will it snap back and call for mere technical reform of the system that occupies our daily lives?
The question is can the occupy movement rise above the setting of its own limits? Already we can see how limits are being set, but they are not concrete yet. I wanted to outline 3 ways the movement threatens to limit itself and how it might rise above them.
Limits of privilege
Privilege is everywhere but it is never more obvious than when there is a guy telling everyone that “this is democratic and if you disagree with a decision it is because you did not make your voice heard”. I watched an open general assembly where, on the surface of it, anyone could stand up and speak their mind. Out of the 10-12 speakers I saw, one of them was a woman and one of them was not white.
Aside from who gets to speak at the camp there is also the problem of who attends it, the crowd is overwhelming middle class as I understand it was in Spain and is in New York. The 99% are not equal. The fact there is privilege and discrimination should be expected, after all the movement is built out of the world as it exists already. What is needed to prevent limitation by privilege is not pretence it doesn’t exist but recognition of it and active struggle against it both inside and outside the camp. This can turn it from a limit into a chance grow, bring more people in and gain a better understanding of the world now and the one we want.
Certainly there is awareness amongst some in the camp of privilege but how much time and energy the camp as whole dedicates to this is to be seen, I cannot help but feel it will fall short.
Limits of fetishisation of strategy
The guy mentioned earlier who claimed OccupyLSX was perfectly democratic also fell into the trap of limiting by fetishiseing the strategy. This already exits to a large degree due to the memetic roots of the protest but often grows from participants not wanting to question what they have put so much effort into. What is at risk is that the strategy (mass public occupation) becomes like the Party, unquestionable and resistant to change. It seems unlikely the camps will survive the British winter and even in sunny Spain could not last forever. It is vital that the participants are able to evolve the strategy into many currently unknown forms that can take place after and alongside the occupation.
There is a threat the occupation come to privilege itself over other forms of rebellion. OccupyLSX should not be the centre of the movement any more (or less) than the TUC should be. To do so would be to limit not only OccupyLSX but rebellion more generally.
A particular fetishised strategy is so called ‘peaceful protest’. I’m not suggesting the occupation should attack the police, indeed at the current moment in time his would be a poor tactic. The problem is ‘peaceful protest’ has become a mantra, as not current tactic but an ideological way we should always be. I heard ‘the police are the 99% too’ a lot but not ‘the rioters are the 99% too’ and this ‘we are peaceful’ thing sounds a lot like ‘we are better than the rioters’ (and whiter, and richer). It limits OccupyLSX not only to tactics but far more importantly to who it is in solidarity with and who feels solidarity with it.
Hunter S. Thompson once talked about the failure of the counter culture movement coming out of the colleges in the 60s being down to not recognising and linking with the Hell’s Angels and other working class rebellions of the time. Will this end up been the same for the occupy movement with the looters who grabbed the nation’s attention earlier this year?
Limitation by definition
This is perhaps the most threatening limitation. As discussed earlier the current power of the occupy movement is the existence of more questions than answers. The lack of a set narrative is what gives the movement potential.
The politicians and the press are devastated by its lack of definition, they don’t know how to undermine and subvert it. They don’t know what it is so it is difficult to co-opt. They would rather the occupations change so as they can be understood by those in power. When it does not do the things they expect it is derided as silly, illegitimate or even somehow immoral.
There has been desperate desire to define itself amongst much of the camp, to give itself identity. This is why the, frankly confusing, draft statement was rushed out. There are various reasons for this desire. Partly it is to please those in power as if by playing their game they will give concessions, as if 5 simple demands will put OccupyLSX on all the front pages with universal good coverage. The other reason some call for definition is security, a list of demands or a defined cause would explain would answer the question ‘what the fuck are we doing here?’. It would give solace in identity. It would provide an anchor so we can avoid the rough seas of the unknown but it also prevents us going far. My fear is that technical demands of the system are proposed (e.g. regulatory independence) that, aside from been unlikely to be achieve and making little difference if achieved, ends up constricting OccupyLSX to that rather than helping on the path to the creation of a new world. OccupyLSX must ask the questions: Who are they trying to look respectful too? and Do we want to be considered legitimate in a world where everything we are against is legitimate? To the Leninist who claims we will never get mass support until simple demands a levelled we must ask: How did we get here without these demands?
This is not to say OccupyLSX should not have demands. Indeed the process to come up with these demands could be incredibly powerful. But it should not do this to seem respectful or legitimate but because they are tactically advantageous. Yes, we need a radical politics to erupt out of the vagueness that surrounds these gatherings. Yes, we need to understand why we are here and what we are fighting for. And of course we should aim to be able to articulate this to ourselves and each other. But this will take time and we do not need to define ourselves in the eyes of the 1%, they do not need to understand us other than as a menacing threat.
Above all we should not fix ourselves. We should allow any definition to change, we must not be held down.
Overcoming our fears
This all boils down to fear. It is how the police operate from the bark of the dog to the roboticness of the riot cop and the threat of the kettle. And it is scary realise that privilege is everywhere, and overcoming decimation is not simple. It is scary to accept the tactics are not perfect and we cannot be in control of it all. It is scary to take part in something that has unlimited aims, that is venturing into the unknown. For those ‘radicals’ who has criticise from the sideline it might be scary to take part in something that does not match our expectation that we have philosophised about so much. It is scary to venture beyond our limits. But if real change we have to face the fear of the unknown and find those things that make us ecstatic, move us forward and defy expectations.