The Guardian: Occupy has the power to effect change

Occupy has the power to effect change

Peter Hallward

Occupy movements in the US went on the offensive last week, a few days after police forcibly cleared tents in cities from New York to Oakland. In addition to holding their ground in the face of violent intimidation, they began to interrupt business as usual. Rejecting the logic that compels the poor to bail out the rich, they restricted access to New York’s stock exchange, they marched on bridges and subway stations, they targeted banks and corporations, they overwhelmed university campuses. Meanwhile, in defiance of an eviction order, Occupy London undertook a “public repossession” of an abandoned office building and began its conversion into a “bank of ideas”; in its first couple of days, this new variation on a public university has already arranged a full schedule of meetings and talks about privatisation, tax havens, globalisation, direct democracy, the Tobin tax, photography and contemporary fiction. More forceful protests against neoliberal austerity measures and other forms of tyranny, meanwhile, have continued in Tahrir Square and in cities across Europe and the Middle East.

In action after action, Occupy has already sent shockwaves through established centres of power all over the world. If further actions continue and spread they may soon begin to elude the coercive mechanisms designed to hold them in check.

It’s increasingly obvious, after Obama’s budget compromises, after crackdowns in Egypt and Bahrain, after the recent usurpations in Greece and Italy, that only direct action on a mass scale now offers any prospect of an alternative to local variations on market-imposed plutocracy. Small victories can sometimes pave the way for much larger mobilisations. From the call for a general strike in Oakland on 3 November to the virtual implementation of such a strike in the UK on 30 November, this month may one day be remembered as marking yet another qualitative threshold in the revolutionary year of 2011.

The millions of us who are fighting one way or another to cross this threshold will prevail if we can succeed in doing two related things. We will need, first of all, to convert the polemical clarity of the new slogan – “we are the 99%” – into a commanding political standpoint, one that confines the opposing standpoint to the marginality it deserves. As Anindya Bhattacharyya points out, “the slogan doesn’t so much describe a state of affairs as prescribe a course of action”, one that may eventually unite the people against our enemies. We need to take full account of the fact that we are forced to live and work in a system designed to benefit those few who exclude themselves from our “we”.

Karl Marx was right to argue that the logic of capitalist exploitation will tend over time, unevenly but inexorably, to polarise humanity into two and only two classes of people: exploiter and exploited. Competition among exploiters will tend to concentrate their numbers towards the isolation (and hence vulnerability) of the 1%; at the same time, aggressive erosion of the difference between the exploited and the unemployed or excluded will tend to unite, slowly but surely, “the immense majority of the people”. As György Lukács recognised with particular clarity in the wake of Russia’s revolution, Marx was also right to argue that the exploited majority will only acquire the power needed to change this system when we are prepared consciously and deliberately to make and to take this power, in full awareness of what this implies.

Our second task, then, is to develop forms of collective action that exceed the repressive mechanisms set up to contain them. Rallies, protests and the occupation of symbolic spaces can change the balance of power, but they do not exhaust our range of strategic options. Nine months ago, the people who won the battle to defend Tahrir Square demonstrated the scale and kind of action required to hold a public space against direct assault, but so long as an occupation or a protest remains small enough for it to be surrounded or “kettled”, so long as politicians are prepared to issue eviction orders (and so long as their police are prepared to carry them out) then the limits of these actions are clear enough. The demands that are beginning to emerge out of the global Occupy movement – demands that will help to end patterns of exploitation and start to reverse the consequences of neoliberal assault – will only prevail if they are made through forms of collective action that cannot be kettled or cleared. If they are to endure, occupations need to spread and escalate, and be complemented by other forms of action.

Our struggle will prevail once we begin not only to deplore or condemn but also to interrupt the mechanisms that exploit the labour and resources of the immense majority. When workers withhold their labour or take control of their workplace, when the unemployed refuse the exclusion to which they are condemned, when students refuse to pay their fees and debts, when immigrants rebel against discrimination, when householders defend their homes against foreclosure – when civil disobedience and noncompliance acquires a depth and scale that no police operation can break – then the fundamental isolation of the tendential 1% will be exposed for all to see.

In addition to the example set in northern Africa earlier this year, at this juncture we might do well to remember some of the tactics developed at the other pole of that continent in an earlier assertion of “people power”: the mix of strikes, blockades, sit-ins, boycotts and “stayaways” organised in the mid-1980s by South Africa’s UDF and other grassroots organisations as part of a struggle to render their country “ungovernable”. Situations vary, but a collective determination to interrupt work or school, to blockade an institution or a university, to withhold payment of rents and debts, can take all kinds of forms in all kinds of places. Stayaways can concentrate around a particular site, or spread through emulation towards a mass strike. There are few logistical limits on participation in a stayaway, and as participants invent the forms of organisation required to sustain them their duration can range from a symbolic interruption of work or class to an indefinite boycott, walk-out or shut-down.

One way or another, growing numbers of British, American and European students may soon begin to follow in the footsteps of their Chilean counterparts, and start challenging an educational system that offers most of them little more than a precarious chance to pay off a lifetime of debt. At the same time, at a pace and level of integration that defies historical comparison, millions of precariously or unemployed people all over the world are coming up with their own ways of making the point that “we’re all in this together” – and acting like it.

No matter how emphatic its elite bias or “market mandate”, there is no government that could resist a co-ordinated combination of occupations and sit-ins on the one hand, and of mass strikes and stayaways on the other. Where there’s a political will there’s a political way. For the 99%, the power is ours to make and to take.