Monday, 26 September 2011

Some thoughts on #OccupyWallStreet

Despite receiving little attention from the press, Occupy Wall Street has managed to capture the imagination of the American Left. The reason why is obvious - since Tahrir Square, the idea of occupying public space as the means to enact social change has become a powerful meme across the world. But it is also too simplistic, and those hoping for a repeat of events in Egypt are setting themselves up for disappointment.

The idea for the occupation of Wall Street arose in July, originating in a call out from Adbusters but not taking any direction from the organisation. The US Day of Rage - with its openly reformist slogan of "one citizen, one dollar, one vote," has also been connected to the action. But it is the General Assembly, operating on the basis of consensus decision-making, which is responsible for what happens on the ground - as well as for their poignant and poetic "one demand."

Like many similar initiatives around the world, the movement has drawn in people from a wide variety of backgrounds and is thus fraught with contradictions. This in itself isn't much of an issue, as most broad-based action is. What is important is that though the media chose to studiously ignore it, it was deemed at least enough of an irritation to draw a rather angry, illiterate counter-protest from Tea Party members as well as jeering snobbery from the suits on Wall Street. It has also faced continuous harrassment and violence from the police, from mass arrests to open and public beatings.

Certainly, it is a radical enough action in its own right that it cannot be dismissed out of hand. It is also true, if there were the numbers for a much deeper and more solid incursion into the financial district, the economic impact would be significant. That is not something to be sniffed at, since the power of the working class lies in our ability to collectively shut down sections of the economy through direct action.

The problem that the action faces is that it is happening almost in a vacuum. Though America does not lack for class antagonism - most notably of late the longshoremen's struggle in Longview - a broad movement to connect the struggles against austerity and the capitalist reaction to the recession hasn't flowered. It could even be argued that since the battles in Wisconsin declined into electoral politics and ended in defeat there has been a vacuum left behind. US Uncut couldn't mirror its UK forbear in forcing the unions forward for fear of being outflanked from below, and Americans aren't even facing the limited prospect of a coordinated public sector strike over pensions.

This is important because, for all the Tahrir-fetishism that has consumed the left, it wasn't the tents in the square which were pivotal in forcing Mubarak to stand down. It was the wave of strikes and economic disruption. The Square occupation played its part, and served as a useful focal point for people looking to coordinate resistance, but liberals and the soft-left have overstated it to fit direct action (of which more people are realising the importance) into the narrative of "peaceful protest" and omit the centrality of class combat to revolutionary events.

Occupy Wall Street organisers have grasped at least some of this, it seems, with stating that they have "had to start scrambling to relearn how to make fliers, reach out to membership organizations and find people where they are to make the movement's numbers grow." Initially gripped by the idea that all you have to do to make something happen is announce it on the internet, they have acknowledged that this is erroneous and adapted their tactics accordingly. By the same token, there is no reason to presuppose that the necessity of such actions feeding into the working class and to broader class struggle in order to be effective could not be similarly learned.

We are not witnessing, despite's headline, a "revolution in formation." Pitching tents in Wall Street will not be enough to bring about the collapse of capitalism. But by the same token that does not mean it's entirely a wasted venture. Even if all it achieves is to drive home the message to young would-be radicals that you need more than a tent and a Twitter hashtag to bring about social revolution, it will have done some good.