The spirit of Occupy

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John Sinha and Amy Leather are socialists who have been part of the occupation of St Paul's since it began. They spoke to Jack Farmer about the Occupy movement

What has been the ideological impact of the Occupy movement?

John: It's had a huge impact, which can be summed up in the slogan "We are the 99%". What people meant by that is that we are fighting for the interests of the 99% of people who have lost out as a result of neoliberalism.

Amy: The slogan is also the beginning of an argument about class. It's made people think that it is possible to take on those at the top and do something to change the world.

What were the differences between Occupy in Britain and elsewhere?

John: The movement in Britain was a lot smaller than elsewhere, notably the US. One reason is that in Britain we've seen the beginnings of a working class fightback organised through the trade unions. We've had the enormous protest on 26 March, and the mass strikes on 30 June and 30 November. The occupation of St Paul's became a symbol of the opposition to austerity in the heart of the City of London. There is no wall between the occupation and the struggles of working class people.

Amy: In Britain the Occupy movement reached its peak in the run-up to the 30 November mass strike. The two movements reinforced each other.

The mere presence of the protest created splits in the establishment. But we've not seen the levels of police violence and repression that have been seen elsewhere in the world - or even compared with the way Travellers were evicted from the their homes at Dale Farm during the first week of the occupation. Although the protest had originally targeted the London Stock Exchange, the fact that it ended up outside St Paul's Cathedral created ideological turmoil for the establishment. Would the church take the side of the protesters or the bankers? This made it more difficult for the police to be heavy handed.

What debates were there about how to build the movement?

John: Some people thought that the camp could be an end in itself, while I and others argued that the focus should be to build outwards. Where the Occupy movement connected with other movements, it grew and developed.

The occupation included lots of working groups. I was part of the outreach group - we organised rallies in the square to which we invited disabled activists, anti-cuts activists, people involved in the Tottenham defence campaign, anti-fascists and trade unionists. On 5 November we had a big march to parliament in order to ask the question, what kind of democracy do we want?

Amy: At its height there were hundreds of people staying in the camp - but also thousands coming and visiting, especially at weekends. People wanted to come and be part of the movement. I was able to be part of the outreach group even though I wasn't living there - it was open to anyone willing to take part.

In the outreach group we organised a trade union day, inviting trade unionists to come and talk about the 30 November strike and tour the camp. The electricians' dispute had a big impact - people would regularly get up early from the camp to go and join protests that the electricians were having over attacks on their pay and conditions. The electricians would then come back to the camp - this shaped peoples view of where to look for support in building the movement.

How did the general assemblies work?

Amy: There would be general assemblies of the whole camp every day at 1pm and 7pm on the steps of St Paul's. Everyone from the working groups would report their decisions. The general assembly then decided whether to ratify the decisions made by the working groups. This sometimes broke down if people failed to act on what they'd agreed in general assemblies, but when it worked this introduced an important element of accountability.

John: The democracy was based on a form of consensus decision making, in which people used hand gestures to indicate their views during a meeting. The objective was to reach a common position acceptable to everyone. What's good about this is it really makes people feel that they get involved and make their voice count.

But there were problems too. Often you face a choice between A and B and you don't know which is right, but if you make a firm decision you'll be able to test that decision in practice. If you avoid taking the decision, or allow it to get bogged down in long discussions about the process, you won't be able to find out whether or not you made the right choice.

Amy: In any campaign or trade union meeting there will be arguments about strategy. The difference is that usually at the end of those meetings a vote can be taken and a majority position agreed. The general assemblies were open to anyone to come along and argue about strategy, even though problems arose because decisions were sometimes put off until only a much smaller group of people were actually present. But these problems are not unique to consensus decision making - what really mattered was that socialists and trade unionists got involved and won people to the idea of pushing the movement outwards.

As socialists, how did you intervene in the camp?

John: Many in the camp thought linking up with workers was a positive step, but no more important than linking up with other groups in society. As socialists, we argued that joining up with workers was essential, because of their strategic power to bring capitalism to a halt. To win those arguments we had to fight hard to build the movement, getting fully involved in the practical work of the camp. That way we won an audience for socialist ideas.

Amy: There were some difficult arguments as well. Some people thought that "politics" should be banned from the camp - which I thought was a political view itself! This wasn't the majority view, fortunately.

We held public stalls which attracted a lot of people who had come to see what the camp was about. People were really keen to talk about how we can change the world and what socialists say about that.

What overall lessons can we draw from the movement?

John: Just recently we've heard David Cameron talking about reforming capitalism! He's not serious - but it shows the pressure he's under. Even the Financial Times has been running a series on "Capitalism in crisis". The disenchantment people feel with capitalism has been powerfully articulated by the Occupy movement.

Amy: We have to take up the big questions now - such as the role of the state and who in society has the power to bring about radical change. Socialists argue that workers are the key agents of change. We need to bring the spirit of Occupy into workplaces.