Monday, July 16, 2012

Missing Occupy

July 16, 2012

Whatever happened to Occupy? The movement that rocked the U.S. in the fall of 2011 has faded to background noise. A recent “National Gathering” drew 500 participants, not an impressive number considering how many were roused to action all over the country just months earlier. The “general assembly,” the much-celebrated participatory democratic institution that was the movement’s trademark, seems to have fallen into disuse almost everywhere. And there is no alternative decision-making body emerging to take its place.

Close up, one can identify a number of struggles around the U.S. which Occupy groups have initiated or provided considerable support for. There is a rent strike in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and an occupation of a school in Oakland. Occupiers have supported the struggle of the Cruz family in Minneapolis and stood with a mobile home community that was to be displaced for fracking in Jersey Shore Pennsylvania. Occupiers have also joined the picket lines of Palermo’s Pizza workers in Milwaukee. There are plans to use the first year anniversary of OWS in September to launch a campaign around debt. I’m sure other examples could be identified. Yet the sum total of these struggles does not presently add up to an imposing movement.
Does it matter? 2012 has not been a bad year for protest in the U.S. In the spring, there were the May Day demonstrations, largely called by Occupy, and in some places, including New York City, quite impressive. Large protests were also held at the NATO summit in Chicago, partially reviving the peace agenda. The much debated “99% Spring” coalition of established social movement groups (Moveon, unions, etc.) protested at various bank shareholder meetings. Labor unions and civil rights groups in New York City held a large demonstration demanding an end to the racist stop-and-frisk policies. As I write this, a major rally of unions in support of locked-out Con Edison workers is planned for this week in NYC, and, just a week later, another march in support of low wage workers and demanding a higher minimum wage will occur. A related march against Walmart was held in Los Angeles a few weeks ago. And as we look to the fall, all eyes focus on Chicago, where the confrontation of the teacher’s union with mayor Rahm Emanuel promises to challenge the entire agenda of those attacking public education. With all this activity, should it bother us that a bunch of scruffy anarchistic kids camping out in parks have disappeared from sight?

I think it should. Whatever its limitations, Occupy offered something invaluable to the social movement landscape in the U.S. Before the encampments were repressed, their presence affirmed the existence of a struggle larger than the sum of its parts. This was partly because of the slogan “the 99% against the 1%,” which drew attention to the power of elites granted immunity after 2008. It was partly because Occupiers insisted on pushing back against police efforts to contain protests to sidewalks. And it was partly because the “no demands” attitude of Occupy made the movement distinctly open-ended: it could not be pigeon-holed as a reform movement which would be satisfied when a handful of changes were made.

In turn, some of these features appear as weaknesses since the repression. The lack of demands makes the movement confusing when less visible. The confrontational attitude drives away many, while enhancing the confidence of the black bloc, a force that has grown a bit since the initiation of OWS. While the lack of demands made OWS something of a rorschach blot onto which one could project ones hopes, ranging from the restoration of Glass-Steagall to an anarchist utopia, the silence of the black bloc instead ensures its marginality. “It’s those kids who like to smash things” many activists and others think, and move on. Neither the black bloc nor the 99% Spring, whose website apparently hasn’t been updated since May, provide an adequate substitute for Occupy. And without Occupy, all the other struggles mentioned above, such as stop-and-frisk and raising the minimum wage, start to look more like isolated reform movements.

I wonder if the socialist left might make a productive intervention at this point. I say so with some reservations. Many socialists exhibit an intellectual arrogance entirely out of proportion to their own impact. Some dismiss the history of most left struggles from the Zapatistas onward, as if there were some self-evident road to socialism that people are straying from. They fixate on debates rather than actual organizational strategies. There is still disdain for struggles that focus on something other than relations of production (feminism, anti-racism, etc).

Furthermore, the socialist left is exceptionally weak in the American context. It has two basic forms. One is the parties, none of which show any promise of metamorphosing into a genuine American left. The parties either stand outside struggles, trying to control them, or attempt to shift the politics of movement organizations from within. The former strategy makes them look like jerks, while the latter strategy sometimes produces positive results at the expense of the visibility of the party as fighting for something as broad as socialism. The second form of the socialist left is as a group of unaffiliated intellectuals. Some of these figures have substantial followings, and at times make important intellectual interventions. However, they are far better at identifying the failings of “the establishment left” or the unions than they are at organizing a movement that might transform or challenge either.

A formation that had the endorsement of the intellectuals and the participation of the major party formations might have the heft both to attract large numbers of socialists who are currently unaffiliated and make a productive impact on the post-Occupy landscape. Furthermore, several prominent struggles this year–the near victory of Syriza in Greece and the student rebellion led by CLASSE in Montreal–have enhanced the confidence of socialists. The challenge is getting to that formation. I wonder if socialist intellectuals could not initiate a call for a new sort of general assembly on a city by city basis.

 It would diverge from the general assemblies of Occupy in two respects. First, it would use majority voting, although probably 50%+1 is too narrow, more likely something like a 70% majority should be required to pass anything. Secondly, it would make demands. These two modifications would mostly answer complaints about the assembly form. Keeping party formations from taking it over or otherwise subverting its democratic appeal would be a challenge, but something could be worked out. If such an assembly were to cohere, it could become a new pole of attraction, either replacing Occupy or acting as a socialist caucus within a revived movement. Quite a bit of socialist energy over the last six months has been expended critiquing a movement that socialists were largely marginal to. It is past due for socialists to develop means to work together and fruitfully intervene in the present situation. The Northstar is one effort to do so that has influenced my thinking.

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