Why radicals should engage with Occupy London, not dismiss it
Over the last few days, there seems to be a growing trend from some people on the more radical left to knock Occupy London, dismissing or demeaning its demands and its politics. At the more light hearted end of the spectrum were the #occupylsxdemands jokes, a gentle jibe at the occupations apparent lack of radical demands, but there’s also some much more thought through analysis of the failures of the occupy movement – in this case referring to occupy wall street. But in order for Occupy London to be anything more than a brief tent city calling for reforms to what Polly Toynbee referred to as ‘bad capitalism’ these people need to engage, not dismiss the movement.
Undermining those willing to take action to achieve social change does nothing to help the movement. Refusing to engage only guarantees that its achievements will be limited.
From the blog post about Occupy Wall Street and people’s tweets about Occupy London there seem to be three main critiques of these occupations: firstly that action is solely symbolic rather than direct; that the political demands and political analysis is not radical enough and finally that the ‘99%’ narrative blames the greed of bankers rather than the system itself for the current crisis.
So on the first, tactics. Effective action, beyond the symbolic, could well mean that Occupy London should organise “a mass strike combined with the mass occupation and barricade of a bank’s headquarters. I mean thousands of people, not hundreds.”, and to take on the “real violence of the state”. There is no doubt that this could potentially take down a major corporation and show the direct power of people against companies. But it is not going to happen. The revolution is not nigh. Nowhere near. (And on that point there is a big difference between London and Wall Street – I don’t think I’ve seen any mention of revolution at all in London.)
Direct action is still a fairly a fringe tactic not used by more than a few thousand people, across a range of causes and issues across the whole of the UK. Even amongst those who profess to take part in direct action, many actions don’t go further than symbolic media stunts. To many people simply joining an organised labour movement or going on strike can seem too radical. Occupy London could be the start of a movement, a place to discuss and inspire people to take direct action and to bring more people into the movement. To do this Occupy London needs people from a more radical background to engage, train and share skills, not to knock those less radical. How could we ever see thousands of people genuinely blockading a company like Goldman Sachs until it folded if those who have the skills refuse to share them with those who have never done it before?
Onto demands. For a start, some of Occupy London’s initial statements are pretty radical, even if they aren’t worded like a declaration of outright anti-capitalism. “We want structural change towards authentic global equality” – I can’t see how that could be a more thinly veiled reference to the need to replace capitalism. Capitalism leads to capital accumulation and increased inequality. To achieve authentic global equality capitalism would clearly have to go.
Dismissing these demands, for failing to name capitalism, or for less radical demands such as for regulators to be genuinely independent of the industries they regulate, just seems like a mix of political snobbery and a lack of faith. How will anti-capitalism ever move beyond a small minority of people in the UK if those with a more radical perspective refuse to engage with those already critiquing the current economic system? And if we want people to join this movement, to grow beyond a hardcore of activists, outright statements of radical anti-capitalism or quotes from Marx are not going to bring in the masses. People need to be brought in, and then engaged. The university being set up there is exactly the kind of tool that could achieve this.
Finally, narrative. Yes many people probably do think of the 99% message as being about blaming a greedy 1% for the current financial crash. I don’t see it that way. I see it as a way to show that the 99% are being exploited by capitalism – admittedly getting much more exploited the further down that 99% you go. But nevertheless its an opportunity to show that capitalism isn’t about middle class home owners and bankers vs the poor, but about an economic model that systematically exploits pretty much everyone.
The only way that Occupy London can move beyond a symbolic politics with a lack of clear political direction to being a force for real change, is if those with experience, those with a critical analysis of the current system, engage. Occupy London is nowhere near to being a finished product. So for some people on the left to dismiss or undermine it before it has had a chance to even establish itself, never mind to grow and flourish, strikes me as a knee-jerk ‘more radical than thou’ response, rather than a genuine analysis of the kind of movement that is needed to achieve real change.