Occupy's bells still ring

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Five years ago a global movement propelled a new generation of people into activity. John Sinha salutes them, but stresses the key debate remains over the type of political organisation that we need to win.

On 15 October 2011 thousands of people assembled on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral in the heart of the City of London. It was part of a wave of occupations in hundreds of cities around the globe. Millions were railing against the injustices of an economic system which favoured a tiny elite at the expense of the majority. As one of the placards at St Pauls read, “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out”.

The call for 15 October came out of the “Movement of the Squares”, the Indignados, in Spain. They had been inspired by the Arab Spring and the occupation of Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The Indignados had occupied the central square in Madrid, Puerto del Sol, on 15 May, and the movement spread rapidly to other cities in Spain.

The movement in Spain inspired a group of activists in New York known as AdBusters to call for an occupation. As the tweet from Adbusters read, “Dear Americans, this 4th July, dream of an insurrection against corporate rule.” This call to action was taken up by other groups such as Anonymous.

The occupations followed a similar pattern. The first days of occupation would be ignored by the mainstream media. The police would then move in to evict the camps. A combination of police brutality, the organisation of the core group, and the clever use of social media enabled the occupations to cross this “media barrier”. An occupation of a few hundred could turn into thousands overnight.

In the UK the context was an eruption of social protest following the new coalition government’s austerity programme. First students protested at the tripling of tuition fees in November 2010; then public sector workers took strike action over pensions; then in August 2011 the police killing of Mark Duggan sparked off riots across London and other cities.

Singular events are dependent on contingent factors. Paternoster Square is next to St Paul’s. Had not Giles Fraser, the then Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s, intervened and prevented the police from clearing the cathedral precinct, there would have probably been no occupation.

The occupation gave people a sense of their own agency. This was especially true for the young. The feeling of being part of such a large collective endeavour, making headlines around the world, was a deeply liberating experience. St Paul’s churchyard was renamed Tahrir Square; the artist Banksy furnished the camp with large Monopoly board installation. Very quickly the occupation self-organised through a daily assembly and working groups took responsibility for its functioning.

Five years on the Occupy movement may be gone but its influence certainly isn’t. The message that we live in a world of the 99% versus the 1% reintroduced class into the international conversation. Bernie Sanders borrowed from this language in his bid for the Democratic nomination in the US. The fact that none of the US presidential candidates is supporting neoliberal trade agreements such as the TPP and TTIP is a testament to the influence this movement has had in popularising a critique of neoliberalism.

The people occupying at St Paul’s had wildly differing outlooks, motivations and objectives. This meant deciding things could be a long process, particularly because of the insistence on consensus decision-making. People could have wildly differing levels of commitment and stakes in the outcome.

It is interesting to compare this to workplace organisation. Workers have less spare time. Most workplace meetings are far more structured and focused; contributions are more disciplined than in a street assembly. In a strike, workers all have a material stake in the outcome. They will know their colleagues better than a group of strangers in an assembly. Their experience of work compels them to cooperate. This helps in arriving at quick decisions, which can be tested in practice and corrected. No major strike would ever get off the ground if it had to be agreed by consensus.

For many young activists Occupy and the student protests of 2010-11 were a formative experience. A generation of activists (not all young) who were inspired then to become politically active now find themselves in various campaigns such as anti-fracking or housing. Popular new media sites such as The Canary have been created by former Occupy activists. And many of this generation became the £3 members who helped to propel Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign on social media last year.

One of the characteristics of the Occupy movement was a rejection of parties and hierarchy. Today many of those same activists now find themselves defending Corbyn’s right to lead the Labour Party. Corbyn and McDonnell are far more receptive to the message of Occupy than any previous Labour leaders. But there is a danger — many of these activists could be lost to the movements that politicised them, becoming embroiled in Labour’s labyrinth, fighting the right wing of the party.

Nevertheless for many this engagement with institutional politics is part of a process of political maturation. People are grappling with the need for political organisation. It is to be applauded; it is a step that for many would have been unimaginable five years ago.

But the debate about the type of political organisation we need to achieve radical change, a debate that for many the Occupy movement started, is still open. Part of the answer must lie in an organisation and politics that is able to bring together the best experiences of Occupy with an orientation on the workplace and the need for political representation. But we also need a strategy which understands that of these three elements, it is the workplace and the street that will prove decisive.