OccupyBritain: 5 Things to Think About and a Question

Come October 15th, there may well be occupations in a number of British cities.

Inspired by, or it might be better to say, triggered by the Occupy Wall Street movement, this will coincide with a number of other occupations going all over the globe. If they are anything like the occupations (insofar as I understand them) that have already taken place, they will be immune to conventional political terminology, meeting neither conventional definitions of left or right wing. Of course, they are inspired by a certain conception justice, or at least outrage about the injustice of hierarchical, finance driven political domination. For my opinion about how we should conceive of the ‘politics’ of these movements, see here. What I wanted to do here was consider some of the potential pitfalls that might confront any British movement, and ask a question that’s been bothering me for a while.

1.Party Politics

Unsurprisingly, as the Wall Street occupation has risen in profile there have been a few, roundly rebuffed efforts by established left-wing groups and left-democrats to co-opt it. Bizarrely, there have also been at least one attempt to form a political party around the issue.

Fortunately, Britain’s main political parties are, in general, so unpalatable that it’s hard to imagine them trying to identify with the movement. Ed Miliband is, by and large, a paper cut out of a person and there is no election in sight so hopefully we’ll be safe from that one. What we will, of course, see in it’s place will be the mushroom-like proliferation of small left-wing groups hawking papers, trying to organize rallies and speaking a lot in meetings. This tends to marginalize and repulse people from the movement, both on the periphery and on the inside, and it’s crucial that it doesn’t happen. This isn’t a matter of my personal animosity towards these groups or the people in them, but simply a recognition that most people have met, listened to and rejected the fringe left and it’s not clear that they make the movement more attractive in a context were mass-appeal is crucial.

2. Not Colonizing the Debate

This links to second concern. So far, the typical model for occupations has been long sessions of deliberation wherein everyone participates equally. After all, Occupy Wall Street was developed on the basis that the gathering would, itself, determine the ‘one demand’ for the movement.

This is crucial for two reasons. Firstly, it creates a forum for developing creative solutions and ideas. This is obviously important because, whatever we would like to pretend, there is a dearth of creative thinking in the British left beyond the short term fantasies about a spontaneous uprising. Secondly, it helps to build the movement and make it more of a ‘singular consciousness’. What’s inspiring partly about Wall Street is the seeming unity, pragmatic if not ideological, between the participants. I’m not there so I can’t speak from personal experience, but this is what I’m seeing and hearing.

What potentially erodes this unity is something that Michael Albert has identified in the Greek occupations, which is a split between those involved for a long time on the left (which he calls ‘ides’) and the ‘newbies’ who are not so entrenched in the left. As you would imagine, the ides tend to dominate the debate with big words, complex phrases and longwinded speeches, and turn off and alienate the ‘newbies’. If steps aren’t taken to reduce this there is no chance of developing a mass movement.

3. Privilege

This ties in with a number of concerns about privilege. In Wall Street, as presumably elsewhere, concerns about privilege – by which I mean class, race and gender, in no particular order – have been raised. (I came across this article here). This isn’t to say these concerns have fallen on deaf ears. Certainly, the participatory meetings are the best forum for this to happen and there are qualified, but partly positive stories.

Again, I’m speaking from personal experience: I tend to find the marches and protests I’m typically involved with are overwhelmingly white. They also tend to be male dominated and the hierarchy tends to follow the logic of the British class system pretty faithfully. I don’t know what the answer to this question, and I wish I did, but again, it will be potentially crippling if it isn’t addressed and dealt with.

4. Not Becoming Oppressive Pacifists

I’m writing something at the moment (translate: writing two sentences, reading them back, deleting them, then closing the document) about pacifism in the movement. It’s in response to a piece in the Scottish Left Review about the importance of ‘teaching’ non-violence to the movement. What is the concern here?

My problem with non-violence isn’t some sort of crazed militancy. The non-violent approach of the occupations so far has been a great source of strength. For some people, it has given the occupation legitimacy and made it possible to get involved.

My concern is more the type of non-violence people are advocating and the way in which they advocate it. There are some people, the writer above included, who believe that there is something almost virtuous about experiencing repressive violence. Added to these sorts of attitude are typically the notion that the spectacle of police brutality a) harms the police and b) generates sympathy for the movement. I don’t’ have space here to explain, in detail, why these positions are wrong, but suffice to say that I’m pretty confident that they are..

This is the type of non-violence I’m concerned about. The way in which they go about it is also an issue. Non-violence advocates or militant pacifists, in my personal experience, tend to act with both hysteria and dogmatism. They refuse to countenance other opinions and take a patronizing approach to people who don’t agree with them, sometimes even going to so far as to claim that police violence is justified in response to certain actions.

So I’m concerned that a split will emerge between the militant pacifists on one side and everyone else on the other. I’ve seen this happen in sections of the anti-war movement, in the environmentalist movement,and I’ve even been forced into exchanges with anarchist groups (university anarchist groups, to be fair) calling for harsh judicial sentences for that guy who threw a fire extinguisher off of the roof at Millbank. What we need is, at least for the duration of an occupation, is a cease-fire between both sides and a relinquishing of the moral high-ground.

5. Not becoming a den of liberals 

Reading the “Criticism Without Critique” reader about the climate camp, published in, what comes across in a number every article is that the descent into liberalism, by which they mean lobbying, state solutions to climate change and a ‘greening’ of capitalism. Having attended two of the camps they refer to, I know exactly what they mean.

But why this happened is not really addressed. Certainly, we can absolutely retain ideological purity and only let people in who swear, with one hand on Das Kapital – if I’m in charge anyway – that they would destroy the state under all circumstances if given the chance. And yeah, we could sit there, drink whatever  the only person who bothered to buy beer brought, tell war stories and maybe have a meeting about whether the dogs should be on leads or not.

I think the reason that the liberalization of the camp happened is because, when it came to promotion the easiest thing to do was contact the NGOs, the non-profits, and utilize their communication channels and networks. This isn’t, in itself, a bad strategy, although it does guarantee a high percentage of ultimately quite liberal people, professional people. The problem is that there – in my experience – wasn’t a great deal of effort to reach anyone else. So yeah, to erode the liberal drift, it’s crucial to expand the circle a little bit wider. This is another area where creating a broad, inclusive debate in a non-privileged environment is crucial.

And finally, a question:

If you’ve made it this far you’re probably, like me, quite excited about the possibility of occupations springing up. What I’m both curious and worried about is the extent to which British people can, to any extent, find common cause. Something interesting about Wall Street is how many people seem to refer to some abstract version of ‘America’ that they’re reclaiming. I keep hearing reference to some imagined time when democracy represented the people, or that America was about everyone, or whatever. None of this is strictly speaking, accurate, but it provides a useful and unifying myth for action.

When it comes to Britain, there is virtually nothing I can think of in our collective history that isn’t inherently incredibly oppressive (i.e. the Monarchy) or overtly racist and imperialist (like Churchill) that people can universally relate to. There is the ‘spirit of the blitz’, but this is far too temporally constricted to be generalized, especially for anyone who was born or migrated to the UK after it happened.

We’re also a pretty fearful, judgmental and frightened people. Whether it’s the old afraid of the young, white people afraid of migrants, or whatever, there are gaping divisions that make it hard for me to imagine what we come together over in a concrete, resonant way. Obviously, abstract principals like equality and justice matter but I wonder if this is enough. I’d really love to hear people’s feedback on this subject so if you have thoughts please leave a comment.

  1. #1 by Keshav on October 9, 2011 - 4:33 pm

    Another great post. Just a comment on point 4. I’m not a pacifist or an advocate of “non-violence” (i.e. not smashing windows etc.) under all circumstances. It seems to me (though I wasn’t in the UK) that the occupation of Millbank radicalized the UK student movement,by expanding people’s horizons of what was possible, and this radicalization wouldn’t have happened if the protests had stayed non-‘violent’. But I really think the non-‘violence’ of the Occupy Wall Street protests has won them a lot of support which they wouldn’t have had if individuals had been smashing windows, because the media has been unable to spin this as a ‘violent protestors’ story. (The same goes for the struggle in Wisconsin earlier this year.) And it certainly seems like the NYPD pepper-spraying incident, one week after the initial occupation, was the thing that caused the movement to gain support and publicity.

    OWS is ‘officially’ committed to diversity of tactics, but at the same time people are usually told before a protest ‘don’t fuck this up’, ‘don’t instigate conflict with police’ etc., which pisses off a small minority who think “non-violence is a limiting tactic” (direct quote). You’d know more about it than me but I get the impression that this respect for diversity of tactics was a feature of Climate Camp, so I’m sure the UK left can pull it off.

    And I completely agree that the US is different because it has a revolutionary history which people can appeal to. No-one in their right mind (I hope) would bring a Union Jack to an Occupy UK protest… I’m not sure that American patriotism is hugely important to the movement, but certainly it has worked (creatively) within the dominant ideologies of the country rather than creating its own…I think the ‘we are the 99%’ slogan is a very clever way of talking about class without using the language of ‘working class’, ‘middle class’ which people have extremely confused ideas about.

  2. #2 by ann on October 10, 2011 - 7:03 pm

    i have just by accident come across this occupy britain site,its amazing that the people are gathering, united in trying to save the globe from what im reading is the demise of the global economy,

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