On organising OccupyLSX and the new rebellious politics

Jake Stanning
10 November 2011

This article is part of a series on the #Occupy movements.

Having spent some time at the occupation at St Paul's I have lately begun to hope that it signals the emergence of a new way of practicing politics. Those of a left political persuasion are known for being a sectarian lot, the butt of many a Judean People's Front/People's Front of Judea joke.

While the new student movement rose above the usual splits for a while, they soon re-emerged, most notably that between the hierarchical and anti-hierarchical camps. I incline to the latter, but it was depressing that some stopped feeling able to work with the differently politically slanted, and I heard a few people express regret that the divisions were undermining the momentum of the movement.

The splitting tendency within the left is partly down to what we might call ideology-led organising. Politically-minded people have often been suspicious of those with different ideologies, even suspecting that somehow those with different beliefs will betray them. What kept the student movement acting together for a time was what we might call action-led organising. That is, a focus not on what people believed – except on the very specific issue of fees – but on the actions they wanted to take.

On the first day of OccupyLSX, enclosed by a wall of police who were clearly itching to clear the camp before it was born, people of many political persuasions put their differences aside and established the camp in the face of police hostility. I felt once more that unity in action that made the student movement so exciting for a time.

There are limits to the action-led approach of course. In the Iranian revolution socialists teamed up with religious radicals, and won, only to find their victory taken from them – the fears of betrayal are not all unjustified. We might also suspect that our opponents, those with power, engage in action-led organising and doubt its worth for that reason. There are real dangers here but I think the occupations also embody two methods of defence against these dangers.

The first, and perhaps more interesting method, is to add to action-led organising what we might call behaviour-led organising. Rather than focussing only on the action, we can focus on how we behave towards each other while planning and carrying out actions. This can be seen throughout the St Paul's occupation, both in the formal structures and within the positive informal interactions – with everyone from tourists, through homeless people, to other campers. If we are willing to create new ways of behaving toward and caring for each other, then fake allies with ill-intent will soon be caught out by their behaviour, while between others trust will develop. Behaviour-led organising is not new - perhaps feminists have focussed on it most strongly - but the instinct to adopt it in large-scale action-led organising would be new. What is interesting about the Assembly form being used at the occupations is not that it is definitely the future of organising (I'm not so sure), but the focus on mutual respect behind it.

The second method is to never stop talking about the ideas, as distinguished from ideology – a fixed framework of thought. I have been heartened by the open-mindedness of many people at the London occupations, and the few party zealots stood out like sore thumbs. The ideas do indeed matter, including the debate between hierarchical and non-hierarchical organising. The point is not for us all to agree on everything: there will not be a United People's Front of Judea, thank god. This new way of doing politics does not need a name, or agreement on an ideology. It is an awareness of others and a self-education in the midst of action. I hope it can help more of us throw ourselves into the fight with the passion that burst out with the windows of Millbank Tower.

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