For months now, people have been wondering, is “Occupy” dead? The few active cities which remain have shrunk to tiny fractions of their original numbers, beset by infighting and repeatedly prevented from re-occupying any significant amount of space. Much of the activist world, it seems, has moved on, with the focus shifting to Quebec’s student strike, Russia’s growing anti-Putin uprising and the ongoing plight of Spain, Greece and Italy. The name, the issues, and frequent protests are still making the news, but in many ways, but it does seem to have lost it’s inertia.
Anybody involved in the movement itself can attest to the personal difficulties which arose. Every city faced a slightly different set of issues, but there were some very obvious trends. First would be the development of formal or informal leaderships which came to alienate most participants. Second would be issues of pre-existing power and privilege between participants, (racism, sexism, classism etc) which the ill-defined movement was totally ill-equipped to deal with. And finally there was the central structure of assemblies, melting pots of organizers, activists and citizens who often had very little in common. This was compounded by the ongoing lack of direction and definition and a concerted effort from the Department Homeland Security with local police departments to infiltrate, evict and generally repress the movement.
These are not simply “mistakes” made by participants. They’re structural problems with the movement as a whole. They didn’t just afflict one or two cities, they were present nearly everywhere Occupy set up. Battles like these are a proving ground for ideas, not just a contest to win over the public. Demonstrating an ability to consistently organize people for the basic tasks involved in protesting is a test of both the people involved and the applicability of the ideas. Without it, how can a “movement” be trusted with a larger influence over society? This is why radical ideas are usually set in the context of “struggle”, because if they aren’t, they never leave blog posts and academic journals. At least not for long.
“Occupy” was an attempt at re-branding revolution. This meant conjuring up all kinds of radical imagery on one hand, but attempting to escape the “baggage” of historical movements. The result was a caricature of what people thought a revolution was supposed to look like, without much of the substance required to keep it going. As any veteran activist who took part could attest, one of the most infuriating parts was being constantly lectured on “what works” from people who’d obviously done little beyond reading about these topics from mainstream sources online. In spite of constant fears that a “radical fringe” might make the rest look bad (or perhaps because of them), the ultimate downfall of the movement had far more to do with moderating themselves into obscurity.
A recent post from Adbusters, who helped initiate the first encampent at Zucotti Park in New York, puts things pretty plainly:
Our movement is living through a painful rebirth… “There has been a unfortunate consolidation of power in #OWS,” writes one founding Zuccotti. “This translates into ideological dominance and recurring lines of thought. We are facing a nauseating poverty of ideas.” Burned out, out of money, out of ideas… seduced by salaries, comfy offices, book deals, old lefty cash and minor celebrity status, some of the most prominent early heroes of our leaderless uprising are losing the edge that catalyzed last year’s one thousand encampments. Bit by bit, Occupy’s first generation is succumbing to an insidious institutionalization and ossification that could be fatal to our young spiritual insurrection unless we leap over it right now. Putting our movement back on track will take nothing short of a revolution within Occupy.
As a response, they call for autonomous, self-organized “Flash Encampments” to take action and initative on their own without permission from local “General Assemblies”. Like a number of other recent “tactical updates” from the magazine, this is a timely call. Organizing always involves questions of scale, because groups of a thousand cannot work like groups of ten. As “Occupy” chapters became more entrenched, they attempted to centralize and consolidate local activism in a way which became more constricting than “empowering”. The lowest-common-denominator approach to demands made it very hard to put forward any in-depth critiques or proposals, while the hopeless centralization of municipal activism in one room led to countless explosive personal conflicts which tended to derail almost everything.
It would be hard to argue that Occupy didn’t “succeed” to at least some degree. It raised the issue of nequality and economic corruption to new highs, it lead to an explosion in many types of activism. There is a point, though, where movements must both grow and evolve. People are beginning to realise that there’s no more inherent authority in the dozen “main occupiers” local Occupy camp, or any other self-declared spokespeople, than themselves. That was the real revolution.
The first step toward real “direct democracy” is an acknowledgement of personal autonomy which cuts both ways. That means we’re free to speak for ourselves, but only with the acknowledgement that we’re speaking only for ourselves. Taking “direct action” and breaking all the rules without also surrendering your rule over others is worse than useless, it’s downright dangerous – it leads to monstrosities like the Golden Dawn. Our oranizing efforts need to be based on the admission that they have only as much authority as we’re willing to give them, and only as long as we’re willing to give it. That goes for everybody, and for every organization. Without constantly affirming that collective efforts are based on the free association of individuals, they always tends toward coercion before long.
Centralism is a dead end for social movements, especially those seeking to fight the centralization of society as a whole. Nonviolent resistance groups would do well to learn from violent ones here, who long ago turned to autonomous cell structures because anything else was a very literal dead end for their movements (and themselves). Beyond the inherent vanguardism, centralization imposes practical limitations which are almost always impossible to overcome. On a small scale, a “coordinating committee” can be useful, but even at the municipal level the number of people involved makes any such body an impossible organizational bottleneck. A few savvy activists downtown cannot organize neighbourhood-based groups across even a mid-sized city like Hamilton – believe me, it’s just not possible. Our city is too diverse, culturally, regionally, economically and in a hundred different ways. Any honest self-organization of our population needs to happen at the ultra-local level if it’s to actually represent more than a tiny number of the people. Liberation for the North End is very different from liberation for Dundas, but that doesn’t mean they’re conflicting aims.
This is not an obituary, it’s a call to arms. Whether or not “Occupy Hamilton” is functioning, demonstrations locally have gone from weekly to almost daily as the weather’s improved, and I still see many familiar faces whenever I show up to one. The issues are beginning to diversify – strikes, school closures, solidarity with uprisings in Quebec and others. People are starting to realise that there’s nothing more required to stage a “protest” than a dozen or so of their friends. And so, instead of “taking over”, the movement is “going viral” and becoming something else entirely.
The first step toward liberation is accepting that there’s no leaders coming to save us. This isn’t something we can sign up for or subscribe to. It’s not a club we can join or a card we can carry. And there’s no roadmap or one-size-fits-all models which will work everywhere. This is something we all have to do for ourselves, in our own ways – it can’t be done for us.
So go out there and do it.