Commentators assessing Occupy

In the United States, where it began, Occupy is very uneven. In some places, like Oakland, it seems to have connected directly with wider working class struggles. In some other places, however, it has had the look more of hippy encampments. This was certainly the case with Occupy sites I saw in in Ireland and Britain (Belfast, Dublin and Brighton), as well as here in NZ (eg Christchurch). In London, the Occupy folk are camped  outside St Paul’s cathedral, with the blessing of the cathedral authorities.

Below, we present three views of Occupy from liberal and radical commentators. The liberals are Simon Jenkins of the Guardian and Francis Fukuyama; the radical is Tariq Ali.

Jenkins devoted his column in the Guardian of October 28 to making the point that “The street protests of western capitals are no Tahrir Square but mere scenery”. He writes:

“Street protest ‘against capitalism’ appears to have nowhere to go. The rioters of Athens and Madrid, the marchers of Milan and Frankfurt, the squatters of London and New York can grab a headline and illustrate a story, but then what? With no leaders, no policies, no programme beyond opposition to status quo, they must just sink into the urban background.

“Travelling this week from the protest camp at St Paul’s in London to Occupy Wall Street in New York, I found the message as thin as the attendance. These are not the mass movements that have briefly upheaved the Arab world, let alone those that toppled Euro-communism in the 1980s. They needed colossal numbers, the threat of violence and regimes already lapsing into self-doubt and insecurity. Only in Athens have protesters shown a fury, driven by potential loss of livelihood, that is seriously threatening a government.
“The scenes in London and New York are engagingly similar. The slogans recall those that have been so ineffective in challenging the outrageously vacuous G-summits, or the no less outrageous American and British wars of aggression, that euphemised as ‘wars of choice’. There are the usual tents, plastic sheets, naive slogans and obsession with press coverage. Guy Fawkes masks are the fashion. Everywhere is ‘in crisis’, money is theft, bankers are loathsome and, our old friend, ‘the revolution will not be televised’.

“The iron law of insurrection holds that it must grow in menace or lose momentum. Once it subsides into encampment, it becomes mere scenery. By last weekend, St Paul’s displayed what looked like pilgrims come to worship or the homeless looking for soup. With their tenancy conceded by the cathedral authorities, the protestors face the bind of every invading army: you can establish a bridgehead but moving out of it is the hard part.

“New York’s Zuccotti Park squatters, equidistant from Wall Street and Ground Zero, have received the widespread support of New Yorkers and the quiet endorsement of a succession of Democrat politicians. The squatters seem meticulously concerned about being clean, quiet and of good community behaviour. The place is already a tourist attraction.

“For celebrities, turning up at Zuccotti has become a publicity must.  Susan Sarandon, Jesse Jackson, Kanye West, Roseanne Barr, Michael Moore and Tim Robbins have dropped by. A freesheet ironically demanded: ‘Where are you Bono, Brad Pitt and Sean Penn?’ A new Batman movie is to include a scene shot in the square.

“The camp has settled into New York’s ever vital ecology. Donors have stepped forward with ‘five-star’ soup kitchens, ‘occu-pie’ pizzas and a Sheraton chef with a ‘chez Zuccotti menu’ of salmon cakes with dill sauce and ‘pasta bologna with grass-fed beef’. The New York Post felt obliged to send its restaurant critic to taste the fare. . .

“The banker told ‘you will go to hell’ as he strolls past St Paul’s may feel unsettled, but he smiles at the quaintness of it all. . .”

Tariq Ali, who had visited several Occupy sites, told John Harris of The Guardian (Nov 16), “Oh, you know, it’s very sweet. It’s lovely seeing young people being engaged again. . . But I think you have to recognise it for what it is: essentially, a symbolic protest.

“The most striking feature of these uprisings is that nobody has yet demanded a totally alternative social and economic programme – apart from Greece, but even they are in a confused state: they say no to austerity, but there isn’t even a charter of six or eight demands. (If they carry on thinking like that, they will be defeated. Without any doubt. It’s a huge weakness.” (Nevertheless, Ali felt Occupy actions represent the first signs of some kind of searching process which he sees as important.)

Fukuyama told Harris, “There’s no question that the new social media make it much easier to mobilise people on a short-term basis. But what’s missing is a broader set of ideas that govern that mobilisation: that really unite all these people in a sustained and coherent critique of the current system. You don’t get a broad social movement from a bunch of unhappy kids. You get it from much larger classes of people that have a real social grievance. That class exists, but until they’re mobilised in a more effective way, it’s not going to have the political impact that it ought to.”

Interestingly, liberal commentators like Jenkins and Fukuyama have a better appreciation of social dynamics, and what a real movement is, than many of the radical participants in the Occupy events. The Occupy activities are, as Tariq Ali notes, symbolic. That may well be all that is possible in many imperialist countries right now, including New Zealand. Nothing inherently wrong with that – it simply reflects reality, in particular the lack of any significant motion within the working class and the lack of any significant social movements.

Unfortunately many leftists can’t just leave it there. Instead, they have to massively inflate the political and social significance of the Occupy encampments. This may help some of the needy elements on the left to not feel so lonely, but it doesn’t help clarify the actual political situation and how best to proceed. Rather the left’s spin will have the result of more self-obsession, more self-delusion and a lot more political confusion and demoralisation.

Philip Ferguson