by Colin Clarke
“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
Antonio Gramsci. From the Prison Notebooks.
The beginnings of the ‘Occupy’ movement
In July this year, the online magazine Adbusters called for an occupation of Wall Street by 20,000 people to protest against the greed of corporate bankers and the lack of influence ordinary people have over the growing economic crisis that they’re being forced to pay for. As it happened, on the 17th September around five hundred people marched into Wall Street and eventually ended up in Zuccotti Park nearby.
From these small beginnings, the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protest has caught the imagination of people all over the USA and the World. Partly inspired by similar events in Spain and the earlier occupation of Tahir Square in Egypt, the protests are focused on pointing the finger of blame for the current economic crises at the greed of bankers and those involved in the global financial system. Many of those involved have called for President Obama to set up a commission to look into ways that the influence of the bankers can be diminished. Most of all though, the whole protest is fueled by a righteous anger at the state of the world and the fact that the majority of people have to shoulder the burden for the benefit of the bankers.
As the first official statement of the occupation put it: ‘We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice and oppression over equality, run our governments’. The message of the protest is centred on making the case that the majority of people in the world don’t benefit from bankers making millions from financial deals. The key slogan that has been taken up in New York and worldwide is ‘We are the 99%’. Throughout the weeks that Zuccotti Park has been occupied, thousands of people have been involved, both in the park itself and on supporting demonstrations.
As is to be expected, when the protesters have moved out of the park to make their voices hear in other parts of the city, they have been met with the customary police brutality meted out to those who go too far in their demonstrative dislike of capitalism. On the 5th October, thousands of union members joined a march through the financial area around Wall Street which ended in the police using pepper spray on the demonstrators when the marchers attempted to break through barricades preventing them from reaching Wall Street. There were also arrests when 100,000 people marched on Times Square on the 15th October. On the whole though, there has been little state pressure exerted on the actual occupation since the first few days and the police have generally kept a low key profile in the park.
Attempts by Mayor Bloomberg and the park’s private owners to evict the occupiers so they could ‘clean up’ the park were thwarted after two of New York City’s biggest unions called upon its members to go down and support the occupation. A sign, if you needed one of what really scares the capitalist class. The support of the unions and its members will also help the movement by bringing in the voices of working class Americans to the discussion
The make-up of the occupiers seems to be mainly a mixture of activists, students and academics though of course, workers have been involved too as well as a whole host of people who only have the vaguest of political convictions. All of them understand that the financial system which makes billions for those who work in it has to take some responsibility for the economic crises sweeping across the world.
The slogans of the occupation single out corporate greed as the one of the main causes of the current crisis and counterpose the 99% of the majority of the world to the 1% who own all the wealth and while there have been no formal demands made, the main message that is coming out of Zuccotti park is the need for more and better regulation of the financial system and a rejection of mainstream politics. Of course, many of the protestors would see the need for more radical change and do in fact argue for that.
At present, the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement has yet to formally agree any demands and is in fact arguing over whether demands should be made at all. None of this has prevented it being an inspiration to thousands of people around the world.
‘Occupy Wall Street’ goes global
The weeks that Zuccotti Park has been occupied and the thousands who have been involved in some part of that process would make it significant in itself. However, what has moved it to the next level is the rapid spread of similar protests throughout the rest of the USA and the world. There are currently ‘Occupy’ protests in more than 80 countries around the world, following on from the ‘Occupy the world’ Day of Action on the 15th October that saw about 900 demonstrations globally.
Given the dire worldwide economic situation, it is not hard to see why people in so many countries have taken up the call to occupy their own cities. Apart from anything else, it’s rare for ordinary people to get the chance to discuss the world’s problems amongst like-minded people.
However, the state has been much quicker to act against the ‘occupiers’ than it was in New York. Across the USA, attempts to occupy public spaces have been broken up by the police in Boston, Chicago and San Diego to use but 3 examples. Other cities have been more tolerant and ‘occupy’ camps are flourishing in San Francisco, Oakland and Las Vegas for example.
In Europe camps have been set up outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London, in Berlin (attacked by the police), Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Rome, Madrid, and Athens where the small camp was overshadowed by a general strike and a militant march on Parliament. There have also been protests in Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Brazil amongst others.
In Australasia, there have been ‘occupy’ protests around New Zealand (see article for more information) and Australia. In Melbourne, police violently removed around 100 protestors from City Square after they refused an order to leave on the 21st October. Around 16 occupiers ended up in hospital.
The spread of the protests around the world shows how deeply anger at the system lies but as in New York, it manifests itself in a contradictory fashion. Despite this, the fact that so many people in so many places came onto the streets on the 15th October can be seen as a source of optimism. No matter what criticism there might be of the protests, their global reach shows that there is a growing belief that things need to change.
Responses to the ‘Occupy movement’
As befits a movement that began as a protest against Wall Street, the heart of the world financial system, there has been a great deal of discussion all over the media, official and unofficial about its significance. Most groups on the far left are playing up the movement’s importance as much as they can and talking about how it is a sea change in global consciousness. The USA Socialist Worker paper, for instance, in an editorial entitled, ‘The promise of Occupy’, states:
“OCCUPY. IT’S the movement of a new generation–but it’s also the voice for working people of all ages furious at the relentless decline in their living standards and mounting economic inequality. And as it gathers momentum, the movement is showing that we have the power to resist the endless attacks on us–and win.”
While this is heavy on the hyperbole, there is no analysis of what is actually going on or any realistic appraisal of how the movement could develop in the future. Ian Bone, a London based anarchist and founder of Class War, had this to say on the 9th October about a speech by Noam Chomsky: “Chomsky took no prisoners. He described the Occupy Wall Streeters as ‘naive people who have no comprehension of the real world’. He then went on to look at the demands of the occupiers in both New York and Boston – and illustrate how they could easily be accommodated by the existing banking system. There was a class war going on said Chomsky repeatedly but only one side was currently waging it and it wasn’t us!!
“For the Wall Streeters read UK Uncut here who have similarly lame financial demands which are similarly easily accommodated. There’s an argument to be made that ‘anything is better than nothing’ but like Chomsky, I don’t think it is. ‘People will live an intense period of activism for months,’ said Chomsky, ‘then vanish from political activity forever because of the nature of their demands which pose no threat to the system’.” (Chomsky sticks boot in to occupy Wall Street)
The contrast between the two views couldn’t be greater, showing how the ‘occupy movement’ has split opinions. The bourgeois press has been the same; the Guardian, for example, has been broadly supportive, running dozens of articles giving the viewpoints of people involved and publishing discussion of the participants. They’ve even published an article by one of their journalists, Seamus Milne, arguing that they need to make tougher demands.
Even the Financial Times, the key paper of the British capitalist class was able to allow one of their journalists at the end of a broadly sympathetic piece to write: “The Occupy Wall Street protests may or may not grow into a political force pursuing a specific legislative agenda through normal systems, but there can be little doubt at this point that the protests have struck a chord with a large swath of Americans.” Occupy apalooze strikes a chord
Other newspapers have been more hostile but in an almost friendly style, poking fun at the innocence of those involved. Protestors are gunning for Wall Street with faulty aim html
All this is unusual. Normally, most of the papers mentioned above would be openly attacking protestors against capitalism. I suspect it shows a general unease with the protests; a worry that there is just a possibility that this could begin to coalesce into something that becomes more threatening.
The response of the state in the different places occupies has also been interesting. As detailed above, there has been plenty of heavy handed police attacks on some camps but at the same time, it is significant that 5 weeks after the start of ‘Occupy Wall Street’, the protestors are still there in Zuccotti park and the majority of other places occupied in the USA. Perhaps, this shows a certain nervousness on the part of the authorities who are unsure what the result would be if they were evicted. In the case of Wall Street, the support from local trade unions certainly made a difference.
Elsewhere, it becomes more interesting why certain camps have been allowed to stay. Here in Dunedin in New Zealand, the ‘Occupy Dunedin’ camp has been in the Octagon, in the centre of the city for over a week. After a few days, the council’s security firm asked the occupiers to move but they refused. A few days later, the Mayor and Chief Executive came down to meet the campers. Out of this visit, a delegation was allowed to speak at a council meeting on Wednesday to mutual incomprehension.
The council then made the protestors an offer of another site, Market reserve, away from the City Centre on the grounds that the Octagon itself is for the use of everyone. It is also the drop off point for tourists from the cruise ships that come into Dunedin and the idea that the first thing visitors see is a camp of tents is not something that sits comfortably with the Mayor. The offer of an alternative site is a clever one as if the protestors refuse to move to it, they may lose any goodwill they already have.
Sticking with Dunedin for a moment, it’s worth mentioning the response of local people to the occupation. I work a minutes walk from the camp and almost all of my colleagues have little time for the protest and are in fact quite cynical about it. A friend who drives past the site every morning complained at the start that there were no banners explaining their demands. On the whole though, there appears to be a certain amount of support for the occupation.
A final point worth wondering about is the ability of the ‘Occupy movement’ to withstand being co-opted by various factions of the capitalist class. As I’ve noted above, there has been amongst some sections of the bourgeois press an almost sympathetic hearing to the demands of the protestors. More interestingly, Ban ki Moon, head of the United Nations, has expressed some support for the demands of the protestors and has asked the forthcoming G20 meeting in Cannes to attempt to address the concerns people have about the current state of the global economy. It is also interesting to note that Adbusters, the group who helped begin the protests, has links to the Democratic Party in the USA and there is even some support in Congress from Democrats for some of the demands of the movement.
Analysis of the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement
Leaving all the hyperbole aside, let’s look at the bald facts of the ‘Occupy movement’ so far. For just over five weeks, thousands of people have camped in Zuccotti Park close to Wall Street in protest at the way that bankers caused the crisis but have paid no penalty for it. While the numbers of permanent protestors in the park has been limited, thousands of people have been to the camp over the same period. The main purpose of the camp has been to highlight the iniquities of a financial system that allows small numbers of people to make vast fortunes despite the bail-out of the banks 3 years ago while the majority of the world’s population are facing increasing hardship as a result of the crisis.
The main activity of the camp has been to allow participants to discuss the problems arising from the banking crisis in a way that most people are never able to do. All shades of opinion appear to be represented in the occupation, the participants of which also seem to come from all walks of life. Despite the relatively small numbers who actively occupy the park, the movement has been able to mobilise large marches, ranging from 15,000 to 100,000, no small feat indeed. The latter march was particularly impressive, as it included large numbers of union members.
Yet…the occupation itself is small and has little or no impact on the institution, Wall Street, it is protesting against. The protestors themselves have no power. The occupation has no effect upon the capitalist class; no profits are lost and it doesn’t even cause them any inconvenience, apart from some bad press. If they had the will, the New York police could quite easily move them on. Yes, there would be some unpleasant headlines and a lot of anger but nothing that got in the way of normal business.
The occupation has attracted a whole variety of people to its ranks. Most of the USA’s far left is there as are anarchists, lifestyle and otherwise, middle class idealists, religious people, hippies, pro-capitalists who just think the system needs tweaking, students, academics, and trade unionists. Out of this plethora of people comes a plethora of ideas that range across the whole spectrum of politics. There is also a fairly dominant strain that could be described as anti-political which has helped prevent a coherent set of demands to be drawn up. For example, see this from the Nation of Change website. Why no demands: Occupy Wall Street is a rebellion not a protest
“Let’s get something straight: this movement has issued no demands. It is not a protest. It is an occupation. Rebellions don’t have demands”
This is shocking in its crassness and naivety. OWS is not a rebellion. It is an occupation of a park that has gained worldwide publicity. It is not on the verge of overthrowing capitalism or anything else for that matter. That OWS has brought to global prominence, issues that the capitalist class would prefer to be left unmentioned is, of course a good thing. However, it would be remiss not to point out that you don’t destroy capitalism just by talking about it or issuing statements or even sitting in a park. Thus far, OWS has not gone one step in the direction of building a movement that could take on the forces of capitalism.
The occupation is essentially a static demonstration which helps provide it with all the problems that come with marches. The demonstrations during the British Miners Strike of 1984/85 were organized arounda tight set of working class demands and consequently, the people on those marches reflected that class conflict. The million-strong anti-war demo in London 10 years ago marched under slogan ‘stop the war’, something that carried no direct working class demands and could be agreed upon by liberals and even Tories: consequently the march was a very middle class affair with the banners of trade unions outnumbered by peace placards from churches, yoga groups, nurseries etc.
The ambience of the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ is much closer to the latter rather than the former, despite it being supported by a growing and impressive list of trade union bodies. And there indeed is the rub. It’s far easier for union leaders, and probably more preferable to them, to sign up to this movement than to use the discontent of their members to make a push towards working class politics. In the same way, it is a golden opportunity for the far left to involve themselves in a readymade, if less than perfect situation, than to pursue the hard slog of pursuing long term work in workplaces or working class communities; the social milieu of the Wall Street protests is also, probably, more congenial to them.
The broadness of the movement is the key to their current success while at the same time, in terms of political cohesion and the ability to move politically forward, it is also their biggest weakness. The slogan of ‘We are the 99%’ has a good ring to it but essentially it isn’t true. As an article in the US paper, The Spark points out: “But while the slogan taps that anger, it hides important class differences in the population. It hides first of all the fact that within this 99%, not everyone is suffering the same way. It’s true that some lawyers and even some stockbrokers may have been out of work for a while, or middle-class college students may not find the jobs they expect when they graduate (and may even be deep in debt when they do).
“But the problems facing this layer of the population dim by comparison to the problems all parts of the working class have faced: the large number out of work for over a year and have run out of unemployment checks; those who were forced onto welfare because they ran out of money, only to have welfare pulled out from under them; those whose wages have been cut in half; those who have lost their homes to a mortgage scam that was consciously directed at them; those whose children are pushed into ever more crowed and dilapidated schools; those who literally starve a little every day.” (99 per cent? Not exactly)
Another key emphasis amongst OWS is the focus upon bankers and the financial system and again it is something that most people can agree with. This is also a problem. Banking isn’t capitalism though of course it is an important part of how it is able to survive and reproduce itself. It’s worth noting that the first major international economic crisis in the post-war period in 1973 came at a time when the financial sector operated under far stricter controls than it currently does. Most of the reforms suggested by OWS adherents amount only to tinkering with the bankers and subjecting them to some tighter regulation. In the unlikely event of this happening, capitalism, and the bankers would adapt and carry on.
Capitalism is an economic system based on the exploitation of the labour of the working class. The profits that the capitalist class make don’t come out of thin air nor are they made by ‘wealth creators’, they come from the surplus value created by the worker in his everyday work. (See ‘How capitalism works-and doesn’t work’: https://rdln.wordpress.com/2011/07/21/how-capitalism-works-%e2%80%93-and-doesn%e2%80%99t-work/)
This is the secret of the rottenness of the system not the undoubted greed of the bankers and their acolytes in the financial system. A system that also, as many in OWS have begun to learn, relies on the armed power of the state.
The main positive thing that OWS has done so far is to provide a propagandist challenge to some of the values of capitalism that are usually readily accepted by the majority of people and that is no bad thing. It needs saying that the priorities of the financial sector are not the priorities of the working class or even a large section of the middle classes. OWS also shows the latent, if incoherent, anger against the system; it also shows up the complete current weakness of the working class as a movement to overthrow and replace capitalism. If there was a strong and growing revolutionary working class movement, it is a good bet they wouldn’t be camping out in a park. But of course there isn’t.
Only fools make predictions…
So here goes. It is not impossible that ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and its global off spins could spark a much more radical and militant movement of the working class. However, I think, given the current situation, it is unlikely. For all the dedication, idealism and anger that they are putting into the occupations and despite the support from trade unions and the involvement of some working class people, they have not yet been able to make the slightest impact on the issues they are protesting about. Its adherents are too amorphous in their class composition, their politics are not independently working class but most importantly of all, it is not a working class-based movement
It’s a sobering thought that despite months of general strikes and violent clashes with the police, the anti-austerity movement in Greece has not been able to make a breakthrough so what chance is there for the much smaller groups actually involved in the series of occupations? Of course, no political movement starts fully formed so I may be accused of not seeing their potential but at the moment I see no way that they can get out of the ghetto they’re in and create something that will truly make a difference. Capitalism will absorb, contain and recuperate any movement that doesn’t directly challenge its power; anything that truly does the latter will either be destroyed or win; it’s as simple as that.