Saturday, November 5, 2011

Voluntarist Currents in the Occupy Movement

Check out American Leftist for an excellent roundup (and commentary) on recent events relating to Occupy Oakland. I won't weigh in specifically on anything that's going on there, simply because I don't know enough about the situation on the ground there. I would, however, like to make a rather general argument about the occupy movement as a whole and what it needs to do push the struggle to the next level.

First, all eyes were on Oakland because of the size of the protests, the numbers of people drawn into the movement, and the explicit call for a general strike. As countless commentators have reminded us, the last gen strike in the US was in Oakland in 1946. We've clearly entered a new era of class struggle not seen in a generation or more. Class struggle, on order to be such, has to draw large numbers of working people into a fight against some segment of (or, better, against the entire) ruling class.

Likewise, OWS was able to defend itself from Bloomberg's bid to destroy it because it mobilized huge masses of people, many of them union workers, to defend Zuccotti Park in its moment of need.

Succinctly put, the most exciting thing about the entire occupy movement is that it is --quite explicitly-- about drawing the whole 99% into the fight against the 1%. It's primary strength is that it is a mass movement against a political and economic system of, by, and for the 1%.

It goes without saying that this is an exciting time to be on the Left (and I mean the real Left, i.e. the anti-capitalist Left). Finally, a movement has broken through and challenged the legitimacy of the system through direct actions of various sorts, unpermitted protests and marches, occupations of public space, and now strikes and labor actions.

Still, countless challenges and obstacles remain. How, for example, can the continued occupation of a public space help us to win the changes we're fighting for? And, in cities where the authorities have physically prevented an encampment from taking hold, to what extent is it important to continue trying to occupy a public space on the model of OWS? Or, if occupations are meant to be a spring board for growing mass demonstrations (and, potentially, even mass strikes), how do we get from here to there? Finally, how do we build successful general strikes that have the potential to shut down entire cities? These are not easy questions to answer.

However, in a context where newly radicalized people have had their expectations about what's possible raised astronomically, there are bound to be folks who think that must be easy answers to these questions. There are bound to be folks whose legitimate excitement is driving them toward a position of impatience. This is understandable. All of us surely feel this way to some extent or other. I can say, for one, that this movement has electrified me politically in a way that no other movement has.

Nonetheless, I think we need to focus on how we got where we are in order to see where we need to go. As I described above, we didn't get where we are by way of small-scale provocations attempted by folks who feel that they can, through sheer will-power, force the movement into a more radical direction. That is, we didn't get here by way of voluntarism. Voluntarism is a politics that takes it to be possible for a small group, or even an individual, to more or less will a large-scale social change into existence through clever actions or provocations.

The trouble with voluntarism isn't that the individuals attracted to it lack motivation, political energy, or enthusiasm for changing the world. They have all of that and more --and that is not what I aim to criticize. The trouble with voluntarism is that it presupposes a perspective on social change that is problematic. As I described above, progressive social change happens when masses of people --in open defiance of the powers that be-- pour out onto the streets, occupy parks and factory, blockade capital flow, etc. In short --it happens because of some accumulation of people power that has the potential to threaten the powers that be. The 1% in Chicago, for example, isn't afraid that a small group of activists might roam the city performing street theater, banner drops, or other spontaneous or unpredictable actions. The 1% in Chicago is afraid of a mass movement drawing tens of thousands of working class people into the streets to oppose its continued dominance. That is why Rahm cleared out Grant Park by force and arrested hundreds of protesters.

But, and I'm speaking exclusively about the movement in Chicago at the moment, I think some occupiers have drawn the conclusion that because mass actions aimed at occupying Grant Park were met with police repression, they were failures. Because those actions didn't successfully "take the horse", some are now beginning to wonder whether mass movements are actually the way to change things. Understandably, this has led some to veer toward voluntarism, wherein the way forward involves pulling off unpredictable, small-scale and spontaneous actions (rather than public, mass actions drawing in as many participants as possible). In other words, this sense that we were defeated has led some to lower their expectations about what is possible. I think that perspective is understandable, but it should be re-thought. We have no reason, given what's happening all over the world right now, to doubt that a mass movement is both possible and worth fighting for.

I think we have good reason to be excited about the two failed attempts to take Grant Park. Those attempts weren't unqualified failures at all --both actions drew out more than 5,000 people to march, without a permit, through the heart of Chicago's financial district. Both actions won the movement international attention and coverage. And both actions, where over 300 people were arrested in defiance of the police order to clear the park, have elevated sympathy for movement among ordinary Chicagoans. A crew of nurses got arrested in defiance of the City's hard-line refusal to grant OC a space. A poll after the second attempt to camp at Grant Park revealed that 79% of Chicagoans stood in support of the movement, with only 8% opposed. Those actions were not failures. We should not lower our expectations in their wake --we should collectively assess them so that we can learn from their mistakes.

But why didn't those actions succeed in winning Occupy Chicago an encampment? It's hard to say exactly. For one, we would have needed more people there to actually force the cops to back down from mass arrests. The second attempt to take the horse was voted on 4 days before it went down --and as of the Friday before the action there was still no official flyer, no official Facebook group, no organized publicity or outreach. And nonetheless 6,000 people turned out. It could have been much bigger if we'd have had more time to consciously build the event by handing out leaflets at subway stations, making posters and flyers, etc. One lesson we should learn from the second attempt to take the horse is that the more time we get to build an event the bigger it has the potential to be.

We need the movement to be big if its going to succeed. OWS didn't hold Zuccotti Park because it was the perfect strategic location in all of Manhattan. It held the park because a hundred thousand people turned out to defend it. The cops, and the powerful billionaire mayor who called on them to attack OWS, were forced to back down by the sheer numbers of people who turned out to defend it. That is our fundamental strength as a movement of, by, and for the 99%: we are the vast majority of society!

So, whatever we decide to do to take this movement to the next level, it has to take stock of this fundamental fact: our strength is in numbers. If some folks want to organize small-scale, spontaneous actions meant to raise awareness and critical consciousness, they should go for it. If some want to do banner drops, small-scale bank protests, street theater, public guerrilla art projects, etc. etc. they should be cheered on for their enthusiasm and fighting spirit. But we also have to be clear: these actions are only worthwhile if they encourage more people to join and participate in the movement as a whole. Any action meant to substitute itself for a mass movement is a step in the wrong direction. Any action that discourages mass participation, is a waste of precious time and energy. Any action that isn't building toward the kind of mass 99%-strong occupy movement we all need is counter-productive.

We can't let discouragement or impatience get in the way of fighting for the kind of movement we need. Voluntarism is tempting, but revolutionary patience is what we need. Not passivity, not complacency, not conservatism. Just a sober, patient perspective that enables us to see that building this movement will not be easy. I'm not suggesting that we set aside our sense of urgency. On the contrary, I think we have to be patient in order to think through and discuss precisely how we can convert all of the excitement, energy, and urgency into a victory for our side!

Neither I am saying that we must "work within the system" or ask for modest demands. On the contrary, I am suggesting that we need to think through how to build this movement as big as possible so that it has the power and militancy to challenge the foundations of the system itself.

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