Monday, October 17, 2011

Occupy Wall St vs Stop The City

Another must read post over at Autonomous Mind looks at the 'occupy Wall Street' and the associated 'we are the 99%' movement. Following on from the mass media reports from the States - while at the same time the protestors insist that they are being ignored - we have seen similar protests across Europe and beyond. Does this represent the beginnings of a global movement that we lead to positive change? AM suggests that the movement has missed the point and that it's not Wall Street to blame, but the state itself. He also suggests that the movement is largely a creation of the Left rather than a spontaneous outpouring of anger. To quote:

Occupying Wall Street will change nothing. Sleeping outside St Paul’s Cathedral will change nothing. The first thing to do is focus a campaign on the politicians – because it is they who have encouraged and embedded this situation – and demand a change in the scandalous government spending priorities and regressive policies which are driving up the cost of food and energy, hitting the poorest hardest.

I have a lot of sympathy with this viewpoint. I write this as someone who was very active in Anarchist politics a long time ago, so I write from a position of some experience (including being arrested at a Stop The City protest in London back in the 1980s). And, to some extent, Occupy Wall Street is Stop The City brought bang up-to-date.

The first thing to note is that, like the original Stop The City, there is no single and over-riding issue that drives the protests. While there is a very obvious 'anti-capitalist' theme, this is a very broad church - environmentalist, third world debt, poverty, climate change, anti-war activists... Any and every grievance is welcome and represented in the movements and actions. For many this is a good thing, as it brings together a variety of grievances and then points the finger at 'neo-liberal' capitalism as the cause of all of them. In point of fact what it does, primarily, is bring together activists from different campaigns together. How much it really involves 'ordinary people' is open to question. It draws towards it those who are already motivated and active.

And, like the original Stop The City movement, it uses Anarchist organising principles - it purports to be non-hierarchical, leaderless, non-authoritarian. In point of fact there are always some activists who have privileged positions thanks to being more closely involved behind the scenes. They are influential but largely hidden from view, not leaders in the conventional sense, but leading all the same.

But there are differences between now and back then.

First is the influence of technology - social media, mobile phones, tablets and the like make it easier to organise quickly. Actions are documented immediately and contact made directly with like minded individuals regardless of geography. The fact that this technology is expensive and produced by big corporations (like Apple), is largely glossed over by activists who hate big corporations but love the technology produced thanks to the profit motive. And, ironically, the technology adopted by Wall Street is also the technology adopted by the new generation of activists.

Secondly, protests like Stop The City were met with violent repression from the police and largely ignored by the mass media. Who can remember the day when over 1000 people were arrested by the Met in the 1984 protest (including yours truly)? Today's protests, in contrast, have received mass amounts of publicity from the mainstream, much of it sympathetic. We are also seeing the establishment desperately trying to associate themselves with it. Politicians and celebrities alike will want to associate themselves with the protest - they'll empathise in front of the cameras right on cue. Witness, for example, Al Gore seeking to breathe life into his faltering climate change agenda by associating with the protests. For the hard core Anarchists they'll do their best to stop this happening, but they'll fail because many of the activists drawn to the movement will want to bask in the approval of the liberal establishment.

Why this change? Why is that the new generation of protests is able to garner the approval of the likes of Al Gore? Because, as Autonomous Mind rightly points out, the focus of the protests are the big bankers, who are public enemy number one for Anarchists and liberal media alike.

This neatly side-steps the role of politicians in the current crisis. The bankers, so long the darlings of politicians, are now seen as the sole cause of the economic crisis that edges closer to melt-down every day. Politicians have been able to successfully shift the blame. So, it's the bankers at fault for the collapsing Euro - not the profligate politicians who wasted billions building up the size of the state and extending their influence to all spheres of life. It's not the politicians who are making things worse by pumping more and more money into failed economies, making the problem far worse. It's not the politicians who demanded greater access to finance to people who couldn't afford it and which lead to the subprime disaster. It's not the politicians who are decided the banks were too big to fail rather than letting them sink (which is what free market capitalism really demands). It's not the politicians who have pumped billions of our money into wind farms, bailing out banks, bailing out the Euro etc.

In other words, politicians have screwed us over and shifted the blame solely onto the bankers.

But all of this is ignored by the protestors and those politicians and establishment figures who will seek to co-opt the protest. There's almost a symbiotic relationship between the actionism of the Anarchists, the wider and more diffuse activists from different campaigns and the liberal media and politicians. For the hard-core Anarchists the only way to disrupt this cosy relationship will be to provoke violent confrontations with the police. And even then, it's not certain that the media sympathy will evaporate.

In the end, the movement will dissipate. Part of the problem is that by nature these 'spectacular' are divorced from most people's daily lives. This was a problem with the original Stop The City protests, the later Carnivals Against Capitalism, protests again the G20, WTO etc. These protests attract huge numbers, create a real sense of 'movement' and then die away as people get back to real life. For those who aren't full time activists, the protests are something they see on the news and far removed from daily concerns.

To create real change we need both to know who the targets are and to be organising close to home.

And our targets go beyond the simplistic 'greedy bankers' narrative. For sure the bankers should pay - the banks should have been allowed to fail, not saved at our expense. But it's the politicians who are the real power - they are the ones we should be targeting first and foremost. And this means focussing locally. It means doing the boring leg-work of campaigning on local issues - against profligate councils, crooked deals between elected officials and businesses, against the effects of central government on our communities, against the state at the level that is nearest to us and most amenable to action.

For those with a sense of history, we do have a model of this. The anti-Poll Tax campaign.

In the mean-time we can see some examples of this at work already. There's Richard North's campaign against illegal bailiff activity. There's Autonomous Mind using the Freedom of Information Act to expose what's going on in local government. There's the activities of the Independent Working Class Association and the slog of working on local issues in Oxford. For my own part I think we need to become a Thorn In Their Side.

If there's a movement that aspires to make deep-seated change, then it has to arise from here, not from the media-hungry activities of full-time activists and those who seek legitimacy from them.

1 comment:

Mark said...

There's another model: the Tea Party.

They work within the system very effectively. And they shun very publicly those who try to ride their coat tails without really supporting them. (How can a fat mainstream politician like Gore really be anti-capitalist?)

It won't work though, because as much as the new Left don't like it, the Tea Party is popular, and they are not. 99% my arse!