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(en) Britain, Obituary for a movement yet to be: Occupy UK one year on by Collective Action*

Date Fri, 19 Oct 2012 20:50:58 +0200


Collective Action analyses the experience and draws lessons from the Occupy movement almost a year after the establishment of the first Occupy camps in the UK. ---- Introduction ---- The global Occupy movement (often referred to as #Occupy) has been popularly presented as the beginnings of an organised, popular resistance to austerity. Although all but dissolved in organisational terms in the UK, the rhetoric of the “99%” still retains strong resonance within both corporate and social media as representative of the conditions of proletarianised workers, students and sections of the middle strata faced with the increasingly brutal logics of capitalist accumulation and the social disparity between themselves and the “1%” (more controversially largely represented as the CEOs and big financial firms continuing to benefit from the crisis).

While for our counterparts in the US, Occupy still appears to have some mobilising potential, in spite of continuing contradictions of the organisational model (at least that is our perception as outsiders), in the UK Occupy was a largely geographically and temporally fixed phenomenon – being largely represented in a few cities over a time-scale of approximately late 2011 to early 2012.

In spite of this, the experience of Occupy UK illustrates a number of critical concerns for British anti-capitalists. Strategic conclusions can be drawn from analysis of the camps themselves, there are questions left open by the general lack of a sustained anarchist presence (and the subsequent drift of already quite politically plural camps into wholly liberal reformist positions) or whether it is possible to “camp” popular opposition to austerity (all of which are addressed below). Occupy UK, or to put it more concretely the failure to actualise of the popular anti-austerity movement that Occupy UK was premised upon, also raises a broader concern for us – what, if any, will the shape of popular resistance to capitalism take in the UK in the 21st Century? Occupy UK indicates a two-fold failure in this respect – failure to mobilise a popular movement around anti-austerity positions (and win a broader public debate concerning austerity) by Occupy itself and a failure of anti-capitalist intervention to expunge anti-austerity positions of the illusions of liberal reformism or to offer meaningful analysis and orientation of the barriers experienced in building that movement (in terms of a class-based approach to social change).

We should be honest about this balance sheet. There has been a tendency within the wider anarchist movement, and we were witness to this at the recent international gathering at St. Imier, to champion Occupy as a demonstration of the “victory” for anarchist ideas. Not only does this show a misunderstanding of the content and composition of Occupy itself, as well as being misplaced in terms of the general absence of clear anarchist involvement and influence, but shows an unwillingness to really take stock of the genuine position of disorientation that many libertarians find themselves in the current context. The state is determined to plunge the working class into ever deeper conditions of poverty and insecurity, and this is a situation replicated across Europe. In the face of this escalating onslaught resistance does not appear to be forthcoming. In the wake of the burning passion and creativity of the student occupation movement we have been offered only the disorientating and muted action of the Occupy camps on the one hand, and the disconnected and tired politics of (trade union led) anti-cuts coalitions on the other. More importantly the ultimate ineffectiveness of Occupy UK is not something we should wish to claim as a mantle for our tradition. Such a position only bolsters the arguments of the authoritarian Left who locate the weaknesses of the movement in its commitments to autonomy and self-organisation and the absence of a centralised leadership – elements that we ultimately celebrate.

The questions to which we turn in this article and the analysis developed from them are the product of collective and self-critical discussions between Collective Action militants as well as drawn from our own experiences of the camps as participants in this movement.

Occupy UK: origins and aims

On October 15th 2011, the first incarnation of the then international “Occupy movement” established itself in the UK when a coalition of activists and organisers occupied the forecourt of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The original intention, following the Occupy Wall Street model, was to create a visible presence of anti-capitalist activity within the economic heart of the capital; in the case of London, the Stock Exchange and the “Square Mile” where the majority of international financial and banking services are based. Like its American cousin in Zuccotti park, Occupy the London Stock Exchange (“Occupy LSX”), initially fell short of “reclaiming space” directly from financial institutions (attempts to occupy Paternoster Square were quickly thwarted by the police) and was instead based at St. Paul’s Cathedral nearby.

This was a decision, perhaps unforeseen at the time, which was to later cause a great deal of difficulty in terms of clarifying the message of the camp with a particularly zealous campaign by the right-wing press to “clear the cathedral” and the majority of the initial negotiation for the space taking place in relation to the Canon of St. Paul’s. That is not to say that action against religious institutions is necessarily an exercise detached from campaigns for social justice – in Sheffield it was joked that the Occupy camp closing the cathedral may have been the only perceivable victory the camp there could claim – but in terms of building an explicit anti-austerity message it certainly contributed to the camp failing to make substantial gains as the debates it sought to provoke were often overshadowed by arguments about the camp’s location and disruption to the cathedral. It also immediately threw up some difficult issues for organisers to grapple with in terms of religious tolerance and co-operation with the church.

In spite of this, Occupy LSX did coalesce around a specific set of aims, to be followed in the months after by camps set up across the UK. On October 16th, a gathering of over 500 Occupy London protesters collectively agreed upon and issued the following 'Initial Statement':

Quote:
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, sexualities dis/abilities and faiths. We stand together with occupations all over the world.

3. We refuse to pay for the banks’ crisis.

4. We do not accept the cuts as either necessary or inevitable. We demand an end to global tax injustice and our democracy representing corporations instead of the people.

5. We want regulators to be genuinely independent of the industries they regulate.

6. We support the strike on the 30th November and the student action on the 9th November, and actions to defend our health services, welfare, education and employment, and to stop wars and arms dealing.

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. The present economic system pollutes land, sea and air, is causing massive loss of natural species and environments, and is accelerating humanity towards irreversible climate change. We call for a positive, sustainable economic system that benefits present and future generations.

9. 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.

This was later synthesised by Occupy LSX to:

Quote:
Reclaiming space in the face of the financial system and using it to voice ideas for how we can work towards a better future. A future free from austerity, growing inequality, unemployment, tax injustice and a political elite that ignores its citizens, and work towards concrete demands to be met.
It is fair to say that a great deal of what Occupy claims, or claimed, to be about lies in its processes – movement-building, participation, direct democracy, collective living, etc – and as a result it is perhaps unfair to judge it on the basis of its objectives alone. It was also very clear that many participants considered objectives to be secondary to a far more inclusive process of uniting progressives under the banner of anti-austerity (a commitment which will be discussed in more detail later). Nonetheless, in spite of this the camps clearly did, initially at least, have a driving rationale, and however embryonic in practice this may have been after a little over a year since the occupations, media coverage and public attention, it is necessary to reflect on these aims, their viability as means of struggle and whether future incarnations can be successful. It should also be emphasised that even in an embryonic state the content of these initial aims had immediate practical effects in terms of the processes themselves. Many, for example, cite the errors of a failure to include a more concrete “safer spaces” policy (a commitment to create spaces free from discrimination and prejudice) within the Occupy platform as a contributing factor to the incidents of sexism and rape reported at certain camps.

Occupy UK: a balance sheet

As already stated the actions of the police, along with the fact that Paternoster Square is private property and, therefore, was easily granted a High Court injunction, meant that Occupy LSX was not able to follow its initial plans of a camp in the centre of the financial district. This was later, at least partially, rectified by the “public repossession” of disused offices owned by UBS and their conversion into the “Bank of Ideas,” which hosted teach-ins, seminars, film screenings and, probably most widely covered by the media, a free gig from the bands Radiohead and Massive Attack (the site was evicted January 30th 2012). The picture across the UK, however, was much the same as the London camp with Birmingham, Brighton, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Manchester, Sheffield and many more cities and towns failing to occupy a financial space and being based in public squares and parks instead. Following the religious building trend, Occupy Sheffield squatted the “Citadel of Hope”, an empty Salvation Army Citadel, for the Occupy National Conference, but this ceased to be operational after the event and is now only used by a circus training group.

Of course many pointed to the successes of Tahrir Square as a precedent for public occupations that did not rely on such a direct, physical confrontation with the “spaces” of power. However, sentiments to “Take the Square” - aiming to recreate the scenes in Egypt - marginalised the significance of wider social mobilisations present in these events, for example the April 6th Youth Movement which supported striking workers. More profound ideological changes such as the newly found solidarity and confidence within the Egyptian working class was absent from spectacular media coverage and this led to the emphasis on the form, as opposed to the content, being reproduced in many of the copycat protests that followed.

Confrontation with financial and political institutions, leaving aside the role of the church, actually largely occurred on a terrain in which activists were weakest – through the courts. This was where the City of London Corporation was able to secure a forcible eviction of occupiers in a move that was replicated by councils and local authorities across the country. It also forced Occupy into a position in which it had to adopt bourgeois legalism – freedom to assemble, freedom of speech – to justify its activity.

What then of the politics?

In many ways it is difficult to judge the goals of Occupy here even on its own terms. Certain positions are barely distinguishable, particularly in terms of the call for “a positive, sustainable economic system that benefits present and future generations”, from the language of Westminster (this may have been appropriate given the presence of MPs such as Caroline Lucas and John McDonnell within the London camp) and, therefore, makes it difficult to gauge what objectives are actually being proposed here. It would be fair to say that Occupy did not necessarily talk about “an” alternative but of the need for alternatives. So to what extent was it successful at building and mobilising others towards a political spectrum of progressive currents against austerity?

It is impossible to create a complete picture of every camp across the UK here but it is our aggregate experience, particularly outside London, that praxis was largely limited to creating a camp site and creating a community within it. These are the immediate practical tasks which arise from forming an ad-hoc community with very loose over-arching values, in often quite adverse conditions (exacerbated by poor weather and anti-social elements). In all cases the priorities of refining and developing political positions were secondary to the cohesiveness (or lack thereof) of the camp as a whole – the lowest common denominator being a liberal pluralist position of hoping to keep everyone happy at the expense of following any specific initiative in a sustained way. The camp environment also threw up other issues in this respect. The longevity of the camp site is unclear, making long-term plans uncertain. Such an environment may be familiar territory for activists but may alienate other members of the working class. Many camps did hold public assemblies as a means of opening up the processes and forming a more inclusive space for those unable to camp, but when the principle agenda items are the practicalities arising from camp life it would be easy to question what relevance such a gathering has to the wider public. In light of this it is necessary to reflect on whether camping is compatible with the original Occupy aim of mobilising alternatives to austerity (if alternatives can be said to exist in the Occupy platform).

In this respect the British Occupy movement could perhaps learn from aspects of the North American Occupy. Under strong influence from revolutionaries in organisations such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) the movement has made tangible links to the working class and local communities. For example, they joined in on the struggle against the foreclosure of homes, made common cause with labour struggles, while in Oakland they shut down the docks there. Like Occupy in the UK these were ultimately limited in both duration and scale, although less so, but they were important added dynamics in two senses. First that it showed the potential of Occupy as a tool for broadening social struggle in terms of using the model to build and solidify links within and between otherwise stratified or partially stratified sections of the class. Secondly, it set the course for moving the occupation tactic away from spectacular assemblies and public protest to occupation in the true sense - seizures and appropriations. These are tactics that are not only more economically disruptive in practical terms (and therefore a stronger and more sensible basis for promoting the use of Occupy as a means of fighting austerity) but also orientate strategy towards the true location of social power – collective struggle driven by class unity.

It is hard to say as outsiders what the key to Occupy US’s increased size and radicalism was. It could be speculated that a) the US camps contained more united elements than the UK’s loosely networked and multiple anti-cuts groups, b) that there existed a degree of self-reflection and criticism lacking in the UK, c) that Occupy US was more successful in reaching out beyond the physical camps; or a combination of all these things. Perhaps the experience of Occupy UK simply stands as an indictment against the willingness of British anti-capitalists to fight for their ideas in a comparable way to their US counter-parts. Whatever the weaknesses of the camp model, elements within the North American occupiers have at least acknowledged that to be effective anti-capitalists you have to disrupt the flow of capital. Hence the moves towards the “General Strike” as the principle demand there. In the UK no such connection has been made on any organisational level. Occupy can barely be described as anti-capitalist in most UK incarnations with many campers displaying open hostility to anti-capitalist ideas and practices. In the case of Glasgow, for example, statements were issued on behalf of the camp that argued for more “ethical” capitalism.

Likewise no direct, explicit link was made to the student movement, even at a time when student militancy was reaching escalating levels and the state was employing massive repression against them. In London, Occupy also failed to make any strong connection in the sparks’ struggle, as electricians shook off the inadequacy of union bureaucrats to take workplace grievances into their own hands – an ample opportunity for Occupy to provide support and assistance. More importantly Occupy didn’t really offer anything substantial to these struggles in terms of their ability to escalate resistance or offer alternative means of widening or broadening methods of struggle, other than just a wider constituency of potential supporters. In spite of the diversity of the camps the actual repertoires of action offered by Occupy was surprisingly limited – camping and the occasional squatting of buildings – a poor record to even the “Climate Camps” and summit camps of recent history, which although also limited in different ways were at least geared towards facilitating action and interventions beyond the gathering of activists.

Occupy: critical reflections

As the practice of a tactic Occupy is unusual in that traditionally occupations are an advanced organisational expression of the escalating resistance of social movements. While the more immediate public memory of occupations is of Tahrir Square and the (seemingly) spontaneous mobilisations of the Arab Spring, it would be more consistent to think to the actions of the striking teachers of Oaxaca in 2006 and the APPO (Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca) as well as the occupations of town halls and municipal buildings during the 2008 Greek riots as better contemporary representations of the practice. In both cases occupations were not a starting point but emerged both out of concrete necessity of the struggle and as a practical consequence of the solidification of communities in resistance. In Greece, occupations provided a base for activity that replaced the spontaneous communities of insurgents in the streets, as well as reflecting the ideological evolution of the struggle, e.g. the occupation of trade union offices against the class collaborationist position of the trade unions. In Oaxaca the public square occupation was a hub for solidarity with striking teachers bringing together all manner of social movements against the state’s governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. Barricades in this sense were indications of the emergence of community bonds and networks of solidarity through the struggle while acting as a very practical defence of the violence of the state against militants. In both cases, although ultimately facing some limitations, occupations posed a direct threat to the resumption of social order on both an economic and political level.

By contrast, occupy camps in the UK emerged as a mild and not very disruptive social or economic force. Neither did they emerge from a specific struggle but rather a more general ideological climate of pro-austerity ideas and policies. This is not to say that there have not been material struggles arising from cuts to public services and declining living standards, it is just that these particularities are unrelated to the formation of Occupy camps. The reality is that camps have acted more as "publicity bureaus" or public forums for anti-austerity organising – where this practice has been successful. This is not necessarily a negative thing in itself, but the limitation of the form, political maturity and the lack of self-awareness have meant a failure to capitalise on this as a specific tactic. Tailoring Occupy more concretely to the need to build anti-austerity alternatives could shed new light on the tactics that are used, e.g. is camping the most effective tactic which can be used? Are there other means of intervention/outreach that can be explored? Could Occupy be transformed, for example, to form something along the lines of the Zapatista Consulta, e.g. radicals doing outreach within and amongst communities?

Material struggles carry within them a potential trajectory for a) generalisation and b) systemic critique (anti-capitalism) by virtue of the terrain in which they are situated (confrontation within capital along class lines) and, more importantly, the social location of their participants – their class. While it is almost always the case that class struggle finds some form of accommodation within the system, e.g. a pay rise, more welfare, or is simply defeated, it also carries within it at least the potential for supersession in respect to the conflict between capital and the class. There is a logic contained within class struggles that ultimately leads to the constitution of class as a negation of capital. Occupy was based more on the need for "alternatives" as a reaction to the pervasiveness of the all-consuming austerity narrative. It is of no surprise in this sense that unity often devolved to the very practical tasks of maintaining camps (and in the worst cases an insider vs. outsider mentality amongst some campers). With the absence of a material condition that brought campers together, e.g. as students fighting cuts or workers on strike, and the absence of a clear political programme; being an occupier represented anything from an anti-capitalist anarchist to a reformist liberal or conspira-loon. This absence of basic shared values meant huge obstacles for the next step of a radicalising process - assigning the means and methods by which we collectively tackle the austerity narrative. As opposed to representing a spectrum of radical ideas, this pluralism simply delivered the base assumptions of the camps – that campers are against austerity – while delivering no practical means to actually act on these assumptions.

Occupy is far more continuous in respect to existing protest activity than is often acknowledged. It expressed a model of militancy essentially voluntaristic in character, not especially distinct from the existing composition and practices of Leftist groups. Crucially, Occupy offered no sustained or integrated way of introducing anti-austerity activity into working life. Camping is simply not a viable practice for the majority of workers, so what to do when you cannot camp? Occupy was largely built and mobilised by the unemployed, students, the homeless and those off work. This did not necessarily have to be a point of weakness. If Occupy was to give rise to a movement of the jobless sections of our class this would be a positive achievement. But a lack of self-criticism and particularly the need to be seen to be being “representative” of a wider constituency - under the rubric of representing the "99%" - meant missing opportunities to develop the strategy and tactics of camps into a definitive programme suited to the needs of those involved.

The problem with the 99%

As popular and as useful as the slogan of the “99%” may have been in propagandistic terms, from a communist perspective a number of issues arise from the analysis associated with this slogan. Many of these criticisms have been covered extensively elsewhere, and some raised in the context of the movement itself, so here we believe it is sufficient to only provide a summary of key issues as an extension of our critique of Occupy’s inability to mobilise or extend resistance against austerity. As anarchist communists it is our position that austerity is only one facet of the management of capitalism and that it should be understood as a particular manifestation of systemic structures rooted in the existence of social classes. As a result we argue that the only means of creating a society based on social justice is through challenging these fundamental structures via revolutionary confrontation with the state and the capitalist class. The slogan of the “99%” is therefore problematic to us for a number of reasons.

The “99%” overlooks important stratifications that exist within and between members of our class. Those who are, for example, not millionaires and city bankers but still benefit from capitalism or play a part in its administration, e.g. the managerial strata, the police, bailiffs, border agency staff. The confusions associated with this analysis led some Occupiers to claim the police, the likes of the English Defence League and other reactionary elements as part of the “99%”. Technically they are correct, but this exposes exactly the problem with this analysis. Inequality is not simply about ownership and wealth but relations of power. Class relations often manifest themselves in and between communities in spite of a very similar economic context, e.g. racism, sexism, homophobia. In fact these stratifications are exactly the divisions that capitalists periodically stoke up to ensure that workers are competing against each other and perceive each other as a threat rather than the power of the bosses. Likewise with the adoption of liberal policies, the capitalist class has found that providing a little privilege and power to certain sections of workers, effectively stratifying the class and providing the illusion of ‘social mobility’, allows capitalists to stabilise social order through the creation of a strata of middle-managers who do not appear so removed from the workers themselves. The police and the border agencies similarly play critical roles in maintaining class relations and carrying out the institutional violence that keeps workers in their place. These forces will inevitably come into conflict with movements that attempt to challenge the social structures that underpin our society. Confusion on these issues creates obvious organisational problems some of which were clearly apparent in the camps, e.g. co-operation with the police, lack of a safe-spaces policy and incidents of sexual violence against women.

The 99% analysis represents the problem of austerity as an issue of unconstrained finance. Finance, however, is only a part of the circuit of capital whose influence is, in contemporary terms, predicated by a number of more fundamental structural changes in the management of capitalism, including the declining profitability of the “real” economy. It is impossible to provide a comprehensive analysis of this here but this does include the increasing internationalisation of capital, the move away from Fordism (and with it social democratic corporatism) into neoliberalism and increasing reliance on debt to maintain standards of living. A more complete criticism should be tied to the organisation of capitalism as a whole and how finance is simply one aspect of class control that is exercised by the capitalist class. Critics may point to the way that finance has played a particularly prominent role in undermining (bourgeois) democratic values and subverting state accountability. Our critiques of capitalism are, however, far more fundamental than this. Even a “democratised” capitalism (should this ever be possible) would be reprehensible to us given the coercive nature of the system itself – a system whereby workers are forced to work to survive and where the full product of our labour is stolen from us through our work. What is required is not a levelling of the system, raising up the 99%, but a humanisation of the values which structure the economy away from the motivation to accumulate profit to one based on human need, where products are fundamentally social in character (and not present as spectacular commodities) and where time away from necessary labour is maximised.

The extent to which the “99%” slogan has seeped into public discourse is impressive and an indication of how well it speaks to a common feeling of injustice, but as the above indicates, it also very comfortably lends itself to reformist ideology – injustices are seen to need to be rectified. The mobilisation of the Greek movement “We Won’t Pay” might be an interesting comparative example here in terms of a popular movement organised in response to austerity. “We Won’t Pay”, as its title suggests, is an organisation that uses direct action to disrupt what it considers to be unfair or exploitative levies on public services. This has included raising barriers on the toll booths on private roads, encouraging mass rides of public transport, sabotaging of ticket booths, sharing the skills to allow people access to free electricity as well as community-based work that organises the distribution of free food and clothing to those who need it. Like the “99%”, the “We Won’t Pay” slogan is expressed as a statement of outrage and injustice – we won’t pay for a crisis we claim no responsibility for! It is also, more importantly, a discourse of expropriation, of seizure of those necessities that communities depend upon, all of which is facilitated by direct action. “We Won’t Pay” gives a clearer sense of the immediate confrontations that are involved in social struggle, e.g. security staff who protect toll booths, fascists thugs who roam public transport, while also sowing no illusions in the state’s ability to mediate the injustices visited upon working people. It provides a more forthright assertion of the strength and objectives of collective action as well as a positive vision of the autonomy of communities in struggle, i.e. “these things are necessary to my continued existence and I am entitled to them without your (the state/the boss/the security guard) interference”.

Wot, no resistance? Broader questions

A basic reality that we must face here in the UK, and the experience of Occupy broadens this perspective, is the collapse of mass-based challenges to capitalism. That is either in the form of popular, militant trade unionism or as mass workers’ parties, however inadequate these may have actually been in superseding the conditions imposed by capital. If we are to look to the role (or the absence, as was actually the case) of anarchists in respect to Occupy this is a perspective that needs to be adopted. Occupy was treading new ground in many ways in that fundamentally, as inadequate as its answers ultimately were, we do not know what concrete shape popular resistance to austerity will, if it indeed does, take in the current context. There have been ongoing localised struggles of both workplaces and communities against specific cuts and state policies. Both the student occupation movement of 2010 and the August riots of 2011, without drawing too strong an equivalence between the two, suggested at least the emergence of a new resistant subject against the austerity regime – the newly proletarianised youth. This was only to be subsumed by parliamentarism and state repression, in the case of the former, and the absence of any basis for coalescence and the criminality in the case of the latter. The sparks likewise showed the propensity for the British organised working class to re-activate resistance, but this seemed to express more the resilience of a long-standing tradition of struggle, conditioned by black-listing and other cultures unique to the industry, as opposed to anything emerging against austerity per se. Since then the only general mobilisations have been in the form of the TUC (Trades Union Congress) “days of action”, themselves an exercise in the defeatism of the trade union bureaucracy and their wholesale retreat from workplace action. These have only served to reinforce the existing schisms evident during the riots, resulting from the 26th March 2011“March for the Alternative” when thousands marched to listen to Ed Miliband’s (leader of the opposing Labour Party for international readers) address in Hyde Park while just a few hundred radicalised youth rioted through the heart of the city.

In respect to Occupy in particular it was necessary to recognise the continuities, in the form of cross-class umbrella organising, something very familiar within the context of the workers' movement, and discontinuities – the dimensions of Occupy that were "demand-less", sought to transfer consensus on austerity into an attack on private space and debt and build popular opposition to austerity – present within the embryonic movement. This required an awareness of the underlying structural problems the Occupy project highlighted (at this point we really don't know the current social basis for any fight back against austerity, if indeed there is one), while also arguing those positions on which we, as anti-capitalists, are certain of: resistance has to be rooted in working class unity and emerging from the politics of everyday life. The management system of capitalism may have changed but its essential logic - and the transformative role of the proletariat - remains the same.

This is where anarchists perhaps squandered an opportunity to use the, albeit often quite limited and even politically hostile, space that Occupy opened to argue for this orientation and really investigate what mass resistance can and cannot look like in the current context. As it stands we really didn't learn anything other than those self-fulfilling prophecies with which we were already aware - that a cross-class movement with no root in material struggles and premised on a manufactured community of resistance was likely to collapse into reformism, peter out or get crushed by the state (or often all three simultaneously). This is while, ironically, many anarchists were claiming the mantle of Occupy as a vindication of anarchist methods and ideas. Undoubtedly there was a lot of resistance to genuine anti-capitalist positions among campers, and we experienced these ourselves, but this was compounded by the failure of anarchists to effectively intervene. Both factors together allowed the anti-capitalist position to be easily characterised as extremist, when the intention was actually the opposite in terms of bringing Occupy as a meaningful thing to the class, and allowed pacifistic and activist methods to dominate. In London, the camp descended into in-fighting after some campers erected a “Capitalism is Crisis” banner, with liberal and pacifistic campers arguing that ‘capitalism isn’t the enemy, greed is’.

Anarchists advocate mass movements against the capitalist system. In the present condition, these are clearly lacking. The so-called ‘labour movement’ doesn’t do much ‘moving’ at all and the UK is as devoid of militant unions now as it has ever been. Anarchists uphold that mass movements have to be organic in order to create transformative social change. Why then did so many uphold Occupy as a vindication of anarchist ideas? Could it be that without any existing mass movements, and without any modern ideas of what form mass movements today should take, we were simply blinded by a romanticism that something was kicking off?

Conclusions

While it is possible to muse over whether the downfall of Occupy UK came from its failure to claim Paternoster Square, or to adopt a more anti-capitalist stance; it should be clear that even if Occupy had successfully taken the Square, and even if it had outright advocated ‘camping for communism’, substantive change cannot come about through camping. Yes we should welcome that libertarian modes of organising based on direct democracy are becoming more popular, however, as previously stated, we should also critique Occupy to the grounds of what it claims to be ‘about’. In this sense, Occupy failed to increase participation in anti-austerity struggles, and also failed to make links with ongoing struggles, such as the student movement, the sparks’ struggle and striking public sector workers. Beyond this, Occupy UK also failed to reflect on this and seek to remedy it. Here lies one area where anarchists could have intervened and attempted to take the well-meaning organisational sentiments of Occupy to ongoing and organic struggles in actual communities such as workplaces, neighbourhoods and educational institutions.

Occupy was successful in terms of its ability to express a commonly felt sense of injustice and outrage towards further shifts of wealth away from the class - e.g. cuts in public services and to benefits, erosions in living standards, declining wages - and into private hands. The speed and spread of the mobilisations, something that cannot be explained by the new role of social media alone, was a strong demonstration of this. However it lacked purpose and was plagued by many of the issues which continue to alienate activist cultures from wider communities. Occupy needed to provide more concrete answers, practical solutions and, most importantly, a more thorough critique of the social system. It needed to engage more strongly on the issues of practical necessity that are being thrown up by austerity politics showing how social solidarity is a viable and sensible alternative to the alienating and hope-less politics of Westminster. It could have done more to catalyse existing groups in struggle and speak to those groups at the harsher end of the austerity drive, embracing specificity over the woolly narrative of the “99 per centers”. It could also have spoken more about itself, both in terms of the discourse that emerged out of the camps but also the need to address how composition and experience relates to the kind of actions a movement can take.

This analysis can be situated in a wider social and political context; a context which helps to explain the immediate appeal of Occupy (and some of its failures). Principally, we find ourselves amidst a de-politicised political culture in which organised anti-capitalism is not a viable alternative to a more pervasive radicalised liberalism, such as that propounded by Occupy, where class identity has been dislocated by an onslaught of capitalist realism and where activists, where they are present, often lack the skills and experience to act as organisers mobilising and strengthening communities in struggle. Almost a year since the first camp it seems unlikely that Occupy will re-emerge as a continuing tool for anti-austerity struggle. What we should take from it, however, is the desire for an alternative to the present system. The only way to achieve this is through the self-organisation of the class in the communities of everyday life, and if we want libertarian communism to be that alternative, this is where we have to start.
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* Collective Action is an association of anarchist communists based in the UK.
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