The Occupy movement has really taken off pretty dramatically. I don’t have anything like the ability to summarise everything that’s happened, so here’s a round-up of good sources: Libcom’s Occupy Wall Street tag is still probably the best place to look, while the Commune suggest that this could be the birth of a global anti-capitalist movement, Italy Calling and Struggles in Italy have info on the violent clashes in Rome, Occupy Everything have a general overview of the movement, South London SolFed have written a good statement, Ideas and Action want to move from occupation to a general strike, and Self Negation, some IWW comrades in Minnesota and the excellent recomposition blog have all made attempts to influence the movement’s politics in a positive direction.
The flyer produced by the recomposition folks is particularly relevant to the stuff I want to think about today, as it raises the question of who the 99% actually are. The movement will have to raise its game if it wants to become truly representative: for instance, America is a country where race plays a huge role in politics, so a movement that genuinely represents the most excluded sectors of the population would have to fight back not just against the stock markets, but also against the dehumanisation of Latino immigrants that’s seeing a revival of prison slavery in Alabama. The current crisis is not only about class and race, it’s also having profoundly gendered effects, as the city council of Topeka, Kansas demonstrated when they responded to budget cuts by decriminalising domestic violence. That particular decision was soon reversed, but the fact that it was even considered shows how fucked the situation is, and how any struggle for social justice needs to fight on several fronts simultaneously – an idea which might prove divisive, given the mixed response that feminists in the Spanish movement received, not to mention Occupy London’s willingness to provide a platform for Julian Assange – as an anarchist, I’m against making a cult of any leader, but if people are going to insist on hero-worshipping someone, they could at least pick someone a bit better than Assange, surely?
So, there are limits to how far the current Occupy movement can represent “the 99%”. And, on the other hand, there are also serious issues with who is included in that statistic: debates have taken place on whether white supremacists and the right-wing Tea Party should be welcomed into the movement, but perhaps the most widespread piece of insanity is the idea that the cops are part of the 99%. I can only hope that the repression the state is now unleashing against the movement will dent that idea, but liberal ideology takes a long time to die.
So far, so standard: ultra-left anarcho type looks at popular movement, ultra-left anarcho type complains about how it’s not good enough. To balance out that negativity for a second, I think it’s worth considering what’s genuinely positive about the rhetoric of the 99%: it may be overly inclusive at times, but, on the other hand, it’s inclusive. I really don’t think the protesters could be using a better term: should they be saying “we are the workers”? I don’t think so, since many of them are out of work, and no matter how much lefty politicos insist that we should all think of ourselves as workers, it’s hard to get around the fact that people tend to think of “workers” as meaning “people who work”. And that’s before I even get into the problems of the way that the socialist movement, which should be aiming to abolish wage labour, has often fallen into the trap of glorifying work for its own sake, an issue which would take an entire post of its own to explore fully, but for now I’ll just point to the absurdity of left groups using things like “Right to Work” and “Fight for Jobs” as their names/major slogans at a time when many disabled people are having to fight against being forced into the slavery of workfare as an example of where this trend can lead.
“Working class” is slightly better than “workers”, since it’s slightly broader and it feels slightly less unnatural when we’re talking about students, pensioners and dole claimants, but it’s far from perfect, since the same term is used by communists to describe pretty much everyone who’s not a boss, and by most people who aren’t communists to describe a cultural/sociological category, which many people who are working class in our sense don’t identify with. It’d be nice if everyone suddenly abandoned the standard definition and started using the term the way we use it instead, but I wouldn’t bet on that happening. “Proletarian” may be clearer, but it’s a piece of jargon that no-one other than lefty politicos use, so it’s not really ideal.
Ultimately, I think that, in order to talk about a category that includes manual workers, teachers, pensioners who were once workers but haven’t set foot in a workplace in decades, kids growing up as second- or third-generation benefits claimants, and young folk working crappy low-paid jobs in bars and shops as they get themselves into debt while they study for prestigious arts degrees at top universities, we need a way to talk about the working class without saying “working class”, and “the 99%” may be exactly that. It may not be perfect, but then language is never perfect, and may of the objections to “99%” also apply to more traditional terms: from the National Socialist German Workers’ Party to British Jobs for British Workers, reactionaries have never been shy of identifying as workers, and the idiocy of those protesters who see cops as part of the 99% is just a mirror image of those socialists who see them as “workers in uniform”.
If the idea of the 99% is one of the two most crucial defining features of the current movement, the other is the idea of occupying space. Thinking about occupations, it’s notable how they seem to go in waves: I’m limiting myself to the UK and Ireland here, but I don’t really remember that much talk about them before 2009, when there was a wave of university occupations over the Gaza conflict, which was followed by workplace occupations at Visteon, Vestas, Prisme, Waterford Glass and Thomas Cook, as well as a number of school occupations. After that, things quietened down a bit until the huge wave of uni occupations at the end of 2010 (speaking of which, anyone thinking about being part of a uni occupation might want to consult this handy occupation cheatsheet). There’s an important difference between all these situations and the current trend of occupations, which is that pretty much all the examples I’m thinking of were aggressive, disruptive occupations that took over a space and stopped business as usual from happening; in contrast, occupying a public square or a park doesn’t really disrupt anything. Actually occupying Wall Street or the London Stock Exchange would be a lot more effective than just occupying a piece of ground which is near those places, but to do it right, as with the occupation of Millbank, would mean breaking with pacifist ideology completely, since it’d require fighting the police and winning.
I can’t say what’ll come next: I’m not Nostradamus, and I didn’t predict this. Still, I can set out some ideas as to what I’d like to see happen: I think the general assemblies are going to outlive their usefulness very soon, if they haven’t already, and decentralisation would be a good way to go. Sure, getting 1000 people in a square is impressive, but so is getting 100 people in ten different spots around a city, and it makes the decision-making process much smoother. In a huge mass assembly, democracy can stifle autonomy; splitting up into neighbourhood groups – or into an unemployed group, a students’ group, a public sector workers’ group, a private sector workers’ group, and so on – would make it easier for radicals to get our voices heard. Sure, liberals will probably still form the majority in a lot of places, but there might also be some areas where we can win the argument in favour of effective action, and so take direct action without undemocratically trampling over the rest of the group we’re a part of. And, all other considerations aside, making it to an assembly 5 or 10 minutes from your house is much less of a pain in the arse than making it to an assembly in the centre of town.
Meanwhile, Greece is entering a two-day general strike, and Indian Suzuki workers who’re occupying their workplace are having to deal with company thugs shooting at them, as well as the hostility of the state. Closer to home, the sparks’ struggle continues to heat up – Blackfriars Station in London was blockaded by construction workers this morning, and Unite is calling a national ballot, a move which the World Socialist Web Site critically analyse here. London Anarchist Federation’s take on events is available here. The ongoing struggle at Dale Farm is an example of a situation where a determined mass occupation could make a real difference, cleaners across London continue to fight for the minimum wage, and today also saw action against a workfare conference in the capital. For those interested in the fight to defend benefits, there’ll be a Defend Welfare gathering in the capital this weekend. There may also be something else taking place this weekend that some people might be interested in, who knows?