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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.
These days, it seems like there’s another protest or action every time I turn around. I don’t know that there’s been a week in months where I didn’t end up at some sort of action or demonstration. A quick look at news-wires shows this is hardly local – the dramatic rise in popular uprisings we saw last year seems to be continuing, and once again is beginning to spread as winter releases us from its grip. In light of all this, it’s time to have a serious talk about where we’re going.
What is a “movement”?
Movements are characterized not just by what they have in common, but also in their differences. What sets movements apart from single organizations or coalition is the diversity of people and groups involved. Unlike political parties or other unified organizations, there is rarely a single viewpoint, platform or plan. Rather, the strength of movements lies in their ability to connect with vast numbers of people on many levels, unrestricted to a single style or venue. This happens through schools, workplaces, neighbourhoods and religious institutions, and in each those involved come at the issues with their own perspective and critique.
Movements happen when the attention and action around an issue grows beyond immediate conflicts and into broader public questions. Because movements are able to symbolize more than just the immediate issues they fight over, and resonate with large parts of the public. Think of “black power” or “working class pride”, which soon came to mean far more than the right to sit at the front of a bus, or a few more cents an hour in wages. The ability of a movement to exert pressure on many levels – strikes, protests, legal actions, occupations etc – presents a threat that authorities cannot ignore, and can be very successful at winning concessions on many issues at once. Most of the nicer aspects of living in countries like Canada were won in this fashion – labour, feminism, civil rights – without these and others we would likely live surrounded by the conditions Dickens described. Certain organizations and individuals are often given credit for these efforts, but it’s clear from the actual events that none of these victories could have been won without countless acts of individual initiative at all levels.
Any movement harbors deep divisions over tactics, philosophy and direction. This is crucial, since one group/ideology/plan rarely represents the feelings of everyone present, or even a majority. These divisions allow diverse groups to work together by presenting options for involvement that range far beyond one political party, “mass organization” or insurgent army, as well as limiting the influence of any particular group. As a strategy, it leaves authorities in a constant state of siege without a clear target to strike back at. Any form of resistance, on its own, can be easily defeated if the state throws it’s full weight at it – this is true of strikes, marches, occupations or riots. The groups behind them can be targeted, the actions can be me with overwhelming force and supporters can be villainized in the press. When many groups work together, though, the damage compounds while the effectiveness of any single crackdown shrinks dramatically. The Civil Rights movement needed Malcolm X and the Black Panthers just as much as it did Martin Luther King Jr. and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee – if anything, they complimented each other in many ways, with a dramatic inversion of the traditional role of ‘good cop, bad cop’, a pattern seen repeated from Ireland to India. These examples, of course, are extremes, but the same dynamics play themselves out in most serious social struggles.
If there’s one word which describes the overwhelming strategy here, it’s solidarity. When centralized power negatively affects so many groups at once, the natural response is to ally against it. This works for several reasons. First, because it expands the debate beyond the narrow confines of single-issue politics into broader questions about society. Second, because it forges meaningful and effective tactical alliances which can help everyone involved. And thirdly, because it makes power the target of our actions, rather than each other.
Learning From History
What can today’s new generation of rebels and rabble-rousers learn from the movements of the past? When I look at the “Occupy movement” and others like it, I see may of the same age-old tensions presenting themselves. As northern protesters re-emerge from our winter hibernation, questions of direction are weighing heavily. Some are pushing to raise the tone and take actions into workplaces and neighbourhoods, but others are pushing toward more moderate routes – it’s an election year, after all, and we wouldn’t want to lose our champion, the great Obama. Sadly, too often, I’m seeing a lot of the same mistakes repeated as we’ve seen so many times in the past.
In the media-saturated North American arena, the Occupy Movement holds centre stage for many reasons, from the sheer level of attention it’s received to the broad and inclusive approach which relates many issues to core problems with out society. In many ways, it represents a re-branding of revolution in a very accessible form, detached from the controversial connotations of so many more established groups and movements. While this branding has been enormously successful, there hasn’t yet been a solid definition. After the initial euphoria wore off, it became clear that many participants had very different ideas about what the movement itself stood for and intended to do (which is cool), and simply expected everyone else to go along with it in the name of “unity” (which isn’t). The conflicts we’re now seeing are the result of deep-seated divisions, and how they’re mediated will decide much of whether “Occupy” can continue as an “umbrella”, or whether it will become a participant in a much broader movement.
Occupy did not invent revolution or activism. The tactics, issues and critiques are nothing new, and the echoes of struggles past resound with every step it takes. As someone who has been and continues to be involved (but speaks only for himself), we would be wise to heed the warnings of history and avoid the failures of past movements. So far, the approach has been both innovative and inspirational, but if certain participants get their way, it will go instead the way of Greenpeace and the NDP, and instead of scruffy activists protesting downtown, we’ll have workers soliciting votes and donations.
How Movements Die
When is a movement not a movement anymore? Consider the definition above. When it begins to lack diversity of participants, tactics or issues, a singular organization forms which can only really be a participant in other movements, no matter how large. Any given Communist party would be a good example of this – never totally or successfully engaging with the rest of society, even when they came to dominate. The second way a “movement” could begin to fail the definition is if it’s symbols, organizations or ideas stop characterizing dissent. Sometimes this happens as co-optation of language and symbols (“socialist”, “democracy”), or because the organizations involved have themselves become part of the establishment, like many NGOs, unions and political parties. In practice, all of these factors play a role in demolishing “movements”.
Much of Canada’s labour history happened in Hamilton. From the dawn, with the nine-hours movement rallying in what’s now Victoria Park, to the Stelco strike of 1946 which helped establish union membership in Canadian law. Sadly, like America and elsewhere where unions won this battle, it came at a cost. The large, consolidated unions like those in the AFL-CIO would be able to collect dues from paycheques and collectively bargain for pay and benefits, but at a price. These newly established labour bureaucracies were expected to reign in local direct actions like wildcat strikes and could be held responsible if they didn’t. Within a few decades this victory began to fade, with a decades-long increase in inflation-adjusted wages effectively ending in the early 1970s and showing a slight decline since. This institutionalization, which should’ve been a crowning victory for labour, soon turned out to be more of a neutering, and it’s no surprise that so many working-class people mistrust them today.
The environmental movement suffered a similar fate. I’ve known people involved in Greenpeace from the very beginning, and have always had a lot of admiration for what they did. Sadly, I’ve also known people who’ve more recently fought to unionize Greenpeace fund-raising offices. Along with others like the Sierra Club, they often now end up signing agreements with logging companies. Environmental terminology and politics have lost nearly all meaning – there’s a gas station near here which recently declared itself “green”. Perhaps most frightening, unprecedented levels of international organization at the governmental level have achieved next to nothing after decades on issues like climate change.
There are far too many others I could name. What’s most depressing is how “successful” these movements were (and are) by conventional measures in terms of numbers of participants and influence. They did everything they were supposed to, and yet achieved none of the wider goals.
Why does this happen? Because organizing in this way takes an enormous amount of time and energy. Not only does this drain resources from other areas, but a prime focus is put on control and discipline. This generally happens coming from a rationale of “gaining the support of the public” in ways that objectify the public and supporters like pawns in a giant chess game. At this point, all the “others” involved become a lot less important, and rather than a movement which has come to symbolize the struggles of the oppressed, you have struggles of the oppressed which have come to symbolize “The Movement”. At that point, to the oppressed people in question, this “movement” becomes little more than another set of bosses, who now “own” their activism.
A movement is not defined by the size of its membership, the influence it holds in parliament or the amount of funds in any group bank account. Rather, it’s made up of the links between struggling organizations, the overlap in the issues which drive them and the mass actions and the amount of faith that the public has that it’s collection of symbols, actions and theories can lead to meaningful changes in society. They are always chaotic, and always walk a delicate line between diversity and utter disorganization – but in these traits comes a kind of unpredictability which makes them incredibly effective against “orderly” centralized and powerful organizations. More importantly, such a structure helps keep the focus of our work on “resistance” and not working to create yet another institution which will need to be resisted. Movements succeed by allying people against power, not allying with power against others, or attempting to seize power for one’s own ends. Anything else, and it’s just not a movement any more.