By Daniel Fisher

“My mistake – a terrible mistake for a radical – was in thinking too small. You do not win because of your rhetoric. You do not win by writing off potential allies or insisting on ideological purity. You do not win by heroics or martyrdom. You win by organising and you win by approaching people in terms they can accept. If I had been in charge we would have done a great deal differently. We would not have leafletted basketball games or held prayer meetings. And we would not have won.” -The Sweatshop and the Ivory Tower in ‘We Are Everywhere’ (2003).

This autumn may well go down as one of the most depressing seasons I can remember. Far from the blossom of an Arab Spring, the leaves are falling into  the bleak and cold of a Western winter.

For me, it started with a breathtaking occupation at Edinburgh University. I’m not a student at Edinburgh but I know many people who are, and as a recent  graduate, I feel a keen sense of anger at the betrayal of a Tory government whose education policies would have financially prohibited me from taking part  in the greatest experience of my life. As I sat on the steps outside the enormous George IV Lecture Theatre, students drifted in and out, congratulating us  on our endeavours and expressing their own outrage at the institution of 36K RUK fees. There was a feeling of hope in the air, as jubilant as the infectious  vibe of fresher’s week.

As the bulk of the occupation was sleeping, an inevitable question we were asked was “How many of you are there?”. The answer was “loads”, but I  suddenly became aware that one particular group of freshers seemed to think the six of us sitting on the steps composed the movement in its entirety. This  didn’t seem to undermine their respect for us, however, and I had a sudden flashback to my own days in high school, during which if you staged a protest  or campaigned on a particular issue you probably would get only your six friends turning up. “So did you all know each other before coming to university?” they asked.

I laughed, their internal logic echoing my own paranoid thoughts many years earlier when my own university staged its first occupation following the wake of  the Israeli incursion into Gaza. ‘What if its just us? What if everyone thinks we’re crazy? What if no one understands what we’re doing?’ What I couldn’t  have understood then, what events did in fact bear out, was that hundreds of people would visit our short-lived occupation, that that particular movement  was to grow and grow even after seeming defeated. Most of our demands were met in the fullness of time and, better, we found our comrades under the boughs of the ornate university lecture theatres. “We’re your tutors and professors,” I felt like telling the Edinburgh University freshers.

“We’re the best friends you won’t make until third year and the cute guy/gal in your seminars who you’ll always be too nervous to talk to. We’re the people who will always steal your favourite seat in the library and the RA who lives just across the hall from you. We are everyone and everywhere, and we’re here to stay.”

This year’s Edinburgh Uni occupation ended after 36 hours with the promise that each week another would be held until the administration’s resolve  crumbled before the student’s demands. As I argued at the time, that level of commitment and enthusiasm is understandably difficult to maintain. But failure  can be far more damaging. Failure in the short-term makes it harder to achieve success in the long-term because it inculcates the idea to sorely needed newcomers and to established potential allies that radical, grassroots action doesn’t work. And if we’re to create the better world we keep talking about and fighting for, well, that is a very dangerous notion indeed. Better, in fact, not to  have tried at all than to have tried
and failed.

Success can, of course, take many unexpected turns and seemingly unsuccessful actions can have unexpectedly positive consequences. I’m not saying  that we should give up before we’ve started on the off chance that we might fail. I am saying that our collective project is simply too important to discard as  one might an old hobby when, suddenly, we’re faced with a prospect slightly outside our comfort zone.

Which brings me to the Occupy X movement.

There’s something I have particularly grown to hate about radicals. We’re so used to imagining other worlds we fail so singularly to recognise them when they turn up. For years we’ve bemoaned either the absence of a collective consciousness among those around us or the lack of radical tactics and ways of organising in those who seek change. And, now, when it finally arrives, we refuse to engage with it – why? Because it isn’t  radical enough?

An occupation is an inherently radical proposition, regardless of its aims. An unauthorised one, even more so. Finally we have an assemblage which isn’t  prepared to ‘make its point’ and then ‘go home’. We have a mass movement of ordinary people who are prepared to admit that there’s a problem and then  take a fairly active stab at trying to fix it, if only they knew how. And the first thing that they’re doing is coming together and talking about what could be done to change it. If that’s not radical, I don’t know what is.

As I wrote this, a General Assembly at LSX ratified its key demands. None of them are actually likely to change too much – as a contributor to this blog pointed out, ‘Abolishing the Lord mayor and the Aldermen? That’ll send shockwaves through global capitalism!’ Yet they were formulated by a working group assigned to the task and ratified by a General Assembly. And where were we when this happened? The reason we fight for  direct democracy and participation in our movements is because unlike in this sham we live in the rest of the time, we don’t have to just ‘turn up, make our  voices heard, and go home’. So, again, where were we? I suppose that’s the one problem with participative movements – you actually have to participate.

A week ago a ‘fat stupid white man’ representing Occupy Wall Street told Jeremy Paxman and the British public he’s anti-capitalist. And for a second, I actually thought I liked Michael Moore – at least until he insulted Amy Goodman’s maths skills in an interview for Democracy Now! a few  moments later. Then I learnt from a Twitter update today that an anti-capitalist banner was removed from LSX at the behest of the General Assembly. And  again, I ask you, where were we when that decision was made?

Still, far worse things have happened in the world than objectionable placards being removed. Last week, it became apparent that a woman had been raped  at Occupy Glasgow. This travesty would be terrible and shocking enough as it is, but all the more so given the context in which it occurred. Yet where was the mediation unit enforcing a safer spaces agreement? Where was the medical tent or tranquillity team to help the woman when she needed it? Where was the patrolling night watch or street teams?

As radicals who have organised Climate Camps and G8 Gatherings, who have spent years organising annual skillshares and activist convergences, we have a huge amount of collective experience in the successful organising of the essential infrastructure behind assemblies like these.  Yet if we’re happy to take to the streets in force to ‘protect’ the citizens of our local community when tiny midgets like the EDL come to town, where are we now, when our skills and experience is needed most?

Perhaps as radicals we’re too afraid of monopolising the discourse because we know what that can do to a movement. Maybe we’ve seen it happen or maybe we’ve been lucky enough to be in movements which have succeeded in putting in place safeguards to prevent that from happening. Either way, it’s an issue that tends to weigh fairly heavily on our consciousness, I think.

I was at LSX two weeks ago. It was a memorable experience, everyone waiting quietly with some trepidation and speaking in hushed whispers as we encircled the Exchange. As the Assembly convened, we were asked to get into small groups to discuss the most relevant issues facing the camp. After a few moments a group of around eight people had formed around a man talking very animatedly about the Tobin Tax. They listened for some moments then, as the man did not appear to be about to stop talking anytime soon, I politely interrupted him. “Perhaps we could all talk about why we’re here and what we think we should do next. Let’s go round in a circle – I have some paper here and a pen, so perhaps we could write down our thoughts and nominate someone to feedback to the Assembly?” And suddenly, eight pairs of eyes were looking to me for guidance and support. Afterwards, Mr. Tobin Tax came up to me and thanked me personally for taking the initiative to facilitate the small meeting. It was flattering, but I’m just one person. And besides, there was  a medical tent that needed setting up.

I think that as radicals we’re often guilty of thinking too small because no one else will accept our critique or listen to what we’re saying. We’re so used to being sidelined we’ve forgotten to even imagine the possibility that some might listen to us, let alone that some are now saying the same things we have been for years. The occupy movement is radical in format but lacks experience, both in its politics and its tactics. As radicals we urgently need to provide that experience before it is too late and we are yet again consigned to the irrelevance of history.