Down on the steps of St Paul’s, they’re preparing for a third night of the occupation. The tents are up, the perimeter secured, the food bank and free library established. The canon of St Paul’s has given the movement his blessing. There was a violent gang hanging around, but he persuaded them to leave, and they took their horses and batons with them. In New York’s Zuccotti Park it continues. In Italy more than 150,000 turned out. In Madrid, in Canada, in dozens of other cities around the globe, they are occupying, and hunkering down where they can.
After the longish lead to the Wall Street occupation, the process of expansion was instantaneous, travelling at the speed of the global social network, currently branded and enclosed under various names — Facebook, Twitter, etc — mimicking a process that occurred over months and years during the period of the global anti-capitalist movement around the turn of the millennium. Indeed the process has speeded up within the “Occupy” movement.
OWS took a week or so to morph from a continuous process into an occupation, replete with infrastructure; at OccupyLSX (the London stock exchange), it has happened in three days. The movement, which began with relatively small cores of activists, has built to larger numbers. In places such as Italy, also engaged in specific national crises, it joins to existing local movements. Movements of resistance will, and should, take on the form of what is oppressing them — after all, the oppressors must be doing something right — and turn it around, whether that repression be military, industrial or whatever.
Thus in this era, the occupy movement has taken on that ultimate reality of our time — the franchise, the brand, the chain, in order to extend and energise itself across vastly different situations. The whole point of a franchise is to crush locality, down to zero; that of the occupy movement is to fuse with it, and create something universal and local.
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That has, as they say, its costs and benefits. The global anti-capitalist movement was criticised for being a catch-all for various causes, but in terms of explicit program and credo, it was the Jehovah’s Witnesses compared to “Occupy”. In the late ’90s, when the neoliberal order had been consolidated via the WTO and GATT, the abolition of Glass-Steagall in the US, and the like, the demands were clear — a global trade order that did not blackmail societies into surrendering all local autonomy to larger groups, a development ideal based on a genuinely sustainable plan, and a set of social rights and protections established within those.
The obvious contradictions could be contained within that. The adversary defined the movement, not merely because it was so clear, but because it was so exultant in its triumph. Those who criticised the movement for its purely oppositional nature misunderstood. The big “no” was an enormous “yes” to something else.
Now, as the protests and meetings spring up at the end of a wire, or around each hot spot, the thing they’re opposing is not characterised by certainty but by quivering doubt. There has been no recovery, either under the tepid pump priming of the US, or the bracing semi-austerity of Britain. No major economy is willing to try either a full Keynesian reboot, or a genuine austerity package, and the only country that has done so — Greece — has become a cautionary tale, contracting to a point where the choices appear to be either paralysis or upheaval. The banks are awash with money coming in the bank, and refuse to lend it out, the degree zero of socialising losses and privatising profits. The result in Britain is an inflation rate that is officially 5%, but is 10% on staples, and the latest scheme to restart growth — credit easing — will simply entrench stasis and more inflation.
The EU-eurozone cannot float a stabilisation fund of any power, because 17 nations must agree to it, and their publics don’t. Meanwhile at the global level, it has finally been admitted that world trade integration, a la the Doha Round, is dead and has been for some time. Margaret Thatcher made famous the notion of TINA — There is No Alternative, to her plan, to which the first reply was simply refutation. Now the state of affairs is TINP — There Is No Plan. With the eurozone lurching towards a Greek default, the world is bracing for a fresh “correction”.
Because the movements that might have suggested a positive alternative — Marxism, radical social democracy — with a concrete program, are long since dead in any mass form, the “Occupy” movement has thus faced the dilemma, very early on, of having nothing to rally people around. What has bounced around the world is a program, of 5-15 points, of the most extreme generality. Here’s excerpts from the London one:
1. The current system is unsustainable. It is undemocratic and unjust. We need alternatives; this is where we work towards them.
2. We are of all ethnicities, backgrounds, genders, generations, s-xualities dis/abilities and faiths. We stand together with occupations all over the world.
3. We refuse to pay for the banks’ crisis …
7. We want structural change towards authentic global equality. The world’s resources must go towards caring for people and the planet, not the military, corporate profits or the rich.
8. We stand in solidarity with the global oppressed and we call for an end to the actions of our government and others in causing this oppression.
To point out this generality is not a criticism of the participants, and there are often specific demands attached to specific local campaigns. There is nothing else that could occur at this stage. But in normal circumstances, such a program would leave it open to the most withering criticisms of the Right, and the Liberal centre. Yet by far the most interesting part of this whole process is the degree to which that hasn’t occurred. There’s plenty of wilful incomprehension if you want to find it — from the (quite funny) baiting of Mark Steyn on National Review to the New Republic’s tremulous response that what is required is not an anti-capitalist movement, but the mild Frank-Dodd banking regulations bill.
But you’ll also find a lot more circumspect commentary from the mainstream too, many going out of their way to concede the basic justice of the “Occupy” movement’s arguments about inequality, failed strategies, etc, etc.
Why is that? It’s not out of any regard for the individual participants, among whom the TV networks can always find the most dreadlocked and Texta-graffitied members, with an, erm, unfocused verbal style. It is simply because there is now very little to say back to them.
Many on the Right have spent so much time and energy denigrating banks — the Tea Party in particular — and corporations, in the name of a fantasy virtuous capitalism, that there is nothing to say back to those who also refuse to pay for the banks’ crisis. The corporate world now has no confidence that the political Right will impose state spending cuts; more importantly, there is no great confidence that this would actually have a desired effect, of lowering wages without crippling demand.
In the US, the fantasy nature of the politics has had the inevitable effect. Love objects of the Right last no more than a fortnight, Palin falling to Bachmann, to Perry, and now to Herman Cain, with his 9-9-9 back-of-the-envelope tax plan. Furthermore, despite the “get a job” rhetoric, the Right realise that there is an increasing degree of worker and public support for such movements — from the canon of St Paul’s, to the New York transport workers who let attendees ride free. The “Occupy” movement is many things, but in the first instance, it is a challenge to Right-wing populism, since it echoes many of their anti-corporate, anti-systemic themes, but is not tied down with the masochistic Randian worship of “success” that the Tea Party tries to impose on its followers.
That challenge may become a crisis, should a new and sudden global economic reversal occur. For then the simple message of the “Occupy” movement will become compelling, in a way that Right populism no longer is. Should that occur, the movement’s separate occupations will serve as nuclei for something that may grow as fast as the movement itself spread across the world.
Without that system crisis, it may collapse or die down, or change form. But should conditions prove right, that lack of specificity will prove the movement’s supreme virtue and advantage.