Monday, October 17, 2011

Visiting Occupy London

I went to visit the Occupy London site at St Paul's today.  I went with the specific intention of getting people to talk to me about what their goals were, what the strategy was, and how they viewed the politics of the occupation.  To this end, I went round nabbing people for interviews, and eventually ended up talking to someone at the media tent.  Before delving into the politics of Occupy London, I want to describe what's involved in sustaining such an activity for those who aren't able to be there.

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First of all, Paternoster Square, the original target of the occupation, is still sealed off by police.  The cops, though, have relaxed their position since Saturday  Apparently, they've been told to 'dress down', which means adopting a less confrontational approach.  So, a conurbation of dozens of tents has gathered around St Paul's cathedral.  Out front are tents and banners.  Along the side are a free food stand, a small generator powering 'media tech', a media centre where you can usually find someone to answer questions, an information point, a first aid area, a 'surplus' tent where people can donate useful goods, a place where people wash dishes, a space where people make signs, and a regular garbage collection service.  Since the police removed the toilet facilities on the pretext of 'cleaning' them, and did not replace them, the occupiers have had to send out teams to visit local businesses and work out arrangements with them.  All of this infrastructure is run by the occupiers.  It is actually a Herculean labour.  Some of the people working on the occupation are donating an hour here or there after work or between shifts, while some are there full-time.  There are constantly people milling around performing basic tasks, while others engage with the police or members of the public.  It's not unknown for well-heeled City workers to stop and vent their displeasure, before being drawn into very public debates.

Despite the emphasis on avoiding 'leadership' in the traditional sense, there is an elaborate division of labour involving working groups on every area of the work that needs to be done to keep the thing going.  These report back to the general assembly, which tends to be held at between 12-1pm and then again at 7pm each day.  I won't labour the details of process.  The principles of consensual ratification and decision-making are familiar enough by now.  Essentially, when asked to vote on a proposal, you can vote 'yes', 'no', or 'block'.  Only if someone 'blocks' a decision does a majority not result in a motion being passed.  This means that if someone has serious objections, their ideas or interests have to be taken into account somehow.  Of course, this is intended to frustrate the emergence of any kind of centralised leadership.  "We don't need another Scargill, or another Swampy, I was told.  We don't need another leader they can cut down."  At the moment, the swarm is prevailing over the vanguard.  Naturally, I'm sceptical of all this, but it's only fair to say that everyone I spoke to said it had worked quite well.  At any rate, the occupation is digging itself in somewhat and it seems to be well enough organised for present purposes.  

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But where can Occupy London go?  I wanted to dip my toe in the water of the politics of the occupation, so I asked about the heterogenous political elements present, and what people thought was the dominant tendency.  There is an idea, which I heard a few times, that "this is not about left and right".  One person I spoke to said explicitly that it was not just a left-wing event, and explained that there were many present who wouldn't call themselves left-wing.  Strangely, this insistence sits alongside a set of classic left-wing ideological articulations.  Catherine at the media centre said that "these old ideas of political divisions are not necessarily relevant," before going on to add, "because this is about the 99%, this is about the have-nots, versus the have-yachts."

This emphasis on popular unity versus the extremely rich was a recurring theme.  Another person said that he didn't object to anyone earning £50,000 a year.  It was the top 1% concentrating the wealth among themselves; and even within that 1%, increasingly steep wealth gradations.  Worse than that, it's these people who "have an enormous amount of leverage over decision-making in government ... things are happening without consent, in democratic or so-called democratic countries."  One example given was the secret loans by the Federal Reserve to banks amounting to $1.1 trillion in 2008 which - whether justified on economic grounds or not - was conducted in an extremely undemocratic and secretive manner.  So it's the immense political power of centralised capital, especially financial capital, that is motivating this.

Catherine went on: "We're talking about the super-rich who meet in their little clubs and get to divvy up the world according to what suits them."  The apparent rejection of left-right divisions is congruent with a rejection of traditional party politics, "where you just have clientelism and self-serving elites and people who are just trying to make sure they've got a bigger slice of the pie."  This is perhaps one reason why you won't find left-wing stalls or newspaper sellers there - not necessarily because they've been banned, but because at the moment it's hard to know how they would be received: as welcome support, or as interlopers?  Yet, it doesn't come with a suspicion of trade unionism, as is the case in some continental occupations.  The outreach team is building up relations with trade unions and I understand that a delegation of the occupiers will visit a picket line at Blackfriars' station.  Trade unionists visited to speak to the occupation, and deliver leaflets about the 30th November strike, and were extremely well received.  The occupiers' first statement included support for the general strike and the students' action on 9th November.  Moreover, the demands of Occupy London are of a sort that anyone on the Left could embrace; few on the Right could. There is, naturally, a section of the Right that will share the occupiers' hostility to the banks and monopoly capital, but they will agree on nothing else.  My feeling is that the aspiration toward a popular bloc of the 99% against the uber rich is eventually going to prove chimerical.  But people will find that out in due course.

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The next thing I wanted to know about was strategy.  I suppose this comes up partly because of the way the early demands juxtapose concrete proposals for meliorative reforms with declarative statements on the need to move beyond the present system - with no mediating steps between the two.  Given that the entrenched power of the top 1% is considerable, and that the friction they can muster to prevent the passage even of moderate reforms is not negligible, I just wanted to know what thoughts people were having about how to navigate toward that systemic alternative.  Generally, the answer is that it's too early to say what the long-term strategy will be: that's what we're here to find out.  "We're on day three," Catherine reminded me. "The whole point of consensus decision-making is that we don't know what the answer is, and that we have to come to that answer through a process which is inclusive, which is democratic".  The main goal at this point has been to "get the discussion started", another said.  There is a tremendous amount of confidence that the answers will emerge organically in the situation.  We're just getting step one finished; we'll work out steps two and three as we go.

This is related to the political indeterminacy of the movement thus far.  "What we have agreed," I was told, "is that the current system is not working and that it needs changed.  And we have some suggestions for that, which include that idea that we need regulators that are truly independent from the institutions which they regulate, that we need government that works for people not the corporations, and that we put people before profit."  I would say that this combines the social democratic impulse, with an anti-capitalist impulse.  Of course, the 'system' is not named: it could be capitalism, or it could be neoliberalism.  And many of the demands are certainly compatible with capitalism continuing to exist.  Objectively, though, the demand that the "world’s resources must go towards caring for people and the planet, not the military, corporate profits or the rich" is one that can only be realised outside of capitalist social relations.  So, it's a reformism radicalising in the direction of an anti-systemic stance.  The main thing for the occupiers is that whatever the precise manner in which that indeterminacy is resolved, they are creating a sort of working polis in which it can happen democratically.


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If the occupiers are thus far not resolved on any particular strategy, they are much clearer about tactics.  An essential component of their tactical repertoire is, as I've mentioned, the outreach team.  This is where they look for groups of people with whom they have an affinity of interests and seek to build solidarity, and exchange support.  In this respect, they're doing exactly what Occupy Wall Street protesters did, which had the result of bringing the union movement down on their side.  This re-kindled an historic coalition also witnessed in Seattle, and it ensured that when the NYPD tried to clear out the occupiers from Liberty Plaza, union members helped organise their successful self-defence.  In the Sixties, student, anti-war and anti-racist movements helped catalyse and radicalise class struggles.  Today, the students movement and the occupations are playing a similar role, giving confidence to rank and file workers.  I would bet that the 'Yes' vote in the union strike ballots for 30th November will be that bit higher because of the global #occupy movement.  The alliance between the radical left and the labour movement is one that strengthens both sides.

Occupy London are also concerned to avoid unnecessary enmity or friction.  This is particularly important as it would not be beyond the police in this country to use some ridiculous legislation to clear out the occupation.  Getting the support of the canon for their presence on church grounds was thus crucial in terms of their negotiating position with police.  "We are not black bloc," they say, and mean it.  They aren't seeking a confrontation with police.  Indeed, many seem to take the view that the cops are, as some Wall Street protesters put it, "one bounced pay cheque away from being on this side".  I doubt this is actually true.  I know that individual police officers have their own grievances with aspects of the system, and are unhappy with the cuts they're experiencing.  But I also expect their institutional commitments to prevail over any such grievances.  Historically, when state authority has decomposed under the pressure of popular movements, it has been the armed forces rather than the police that has split.  Nonetheless, the occupiers seem to have it right: they have a struggle with the police that is currently conducted in terms of publicity, ideology and negotiations.  Shifting it onto the terrain of conflict, where the police have the overwhelming advantage, would be foolish.  

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The sign on the wall says 'Tahrir Square, EC4M'.  The sneering article on Huffington Post UK, observing this, quoted someone saying "it's not remotely like Egypt".  Well, of course it's not like Egypt.  This isn't a revolutionary situation, but merely a punctuating moment in the temporal flow of class struggle.  But the purpose of slogans mentioning 'Tahrir Square' is to accentuate the internationalism of the movement, to point to its deep systemic roots, to express solidarity with the Arab Spring, to hope that this is the beginning of our own Spring, and to identify the commune as the political form of these aspirations.  At the most prosaic level, it expresses the movement against austerity in its most 'political' moment, complementing the 'economic corporatist' moment of trade union struggle.  It identifies the political class rule of  the 1% as the key problem; the colonization of the representative state by big capital.  And it proposes its own direct democratic answer.  Of course, Occupy London is not yet a commune.  But it is the germ of a commune.  Perhaps its fruition will be when the germ takes seed in the heart of productive relations; when the commune is the workers' answer to the power of the 1%.