Political challenges for the Occupy movement

For the past two months, the Occupy movement has electrified US politics and inspired movements in its image around the world. The occupations themselves have been relatively small, but hugely popular: a sign of the deep crisis of legitimacy facing those that run the world.

It is an indication of the radicalisation taking place around the globe, starting with Tunisia and Egypt’s revolutions and now flowing into the Greek strikes and Spain’s “indignados” movement.

After the evictions of occupations across the US, including the centrepiece in Wall Street, the movement will face a new challenge to grow and deepen.

Here in Australia, the Occupy movement was always dealing with a different scenario to the US and Europe because the economic crisis has not hit here in the same vicious manner (yet). Nevertheless, it showed the potential for radical politics and the growth of movements challenging Labor’s right wing agenda. But it has been held back by its own political limitations.

Firstly, there has been an issue with the movement’s attitude to police. The crackdowns in Melbourne and Sydney showed that police will use calculated violence to defend the 1 per cent.

The Occupy movement here faces a challenge in focusing on relating the wider layers of people inspired by the global protest movementBut too often, people mistakenly thought that we could persuade them to sympathise with our cause or that they were part of the 99 per cent. This attitude has often led to disunity and confusion in the face of police.

One protest in Sydney chose not to march to police lines that had hemmed us into Martin Place so the police would not be aggravated. But that did not stop a dawn raid the following morning.

Even more crucial have been the debates about how to build the movement. While only small numbers were prepared to actually occupy, a much greater number turned out on the streets of Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and elsewhere for Occupy demonstrations around the slogan “human need not corporate greed”. Yet a trend of elevating the tactic of occupying to a sole principle had the effect of cutting the movement off from these bigger numbers of people.

The occupations have been a visible show of defiance, but it’s politics and outreach that has inspired people well beyond the occupiers themselves.

An Occupy Wall Street organiser explained how it happened New York: “We now have groups in all five city boroughs doing outreach and agitation. We are organising on so many levels—on our campuses, in our communities and in our workplaces. Hundreds of thousands around the city have had a crash course in radical activism.”

Reaching out to unions
There have been important attempts to link the movement with the concerns of working class people. In Sydney and Melbourne, the stance against the greed of Qantas boss Alan Joyce and with the striking Baiada workers pointed to how our challenge to the 1 per cent could be made concrete.

It also points to the real power in society to challenge the 1 per cent: the power of strike action to bring the system to a halt.

The movement could have taken on broader demands that resonate with a wider audience, like an increase to corporate tax, no to public sector pay caps, spending on renewable energy, and an end to the refugee bashing they use to divide us. Yet there has been a hostility to taking on political issues.

Alongside this, the consensus decision-making process in the general assemblies, where 100 per cent agreement was required on everything, led to drawn out meetings dominated by discussion about process, rather than politics or collective activity.

Most people who were at meetings would recognise that the process didn’t really engage most of people there. Ironically the process led to passivity, as participants were repeatedly told not to “block” a decision unless it went against the “core values of the movement”, stifling debate and discussion and discouraging dissent.

Making decisions by simple majority votes is not just more commonplace and understandable, but also more democratic. Rather that decisions being dependent on a tiny minority, a majority can act together.

In Spain, similar issues crippled some of the camps. But the parts of the movement that reached out into the suburbs, campuses and workplaces have had the most success in building the movement.

While the immediate future of Occupy is uncertain, the potential to build the confidence and the organisation of people into a movement to fight the ruthlessness of capitalism has not gone away.
We can take the spirit of Occupy into the union fights, into the fight for refugees, and onto the campuses in 2012. There are important struggles ahead.

By Amy Thomas


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