The two challenges that could make or break #occupyLondon

Will the activists who tried to occupy the London Stock exchange be part of the start of a revolutionary movement?
Anthony Barnett Sunny cropped.jpg
Anthony Barnett Sunny Hundal
16 October 2011

This article is part of a series on the #Occupy movements. Sunny Hundal has just published the report and argument that follows in Liberal Conspiracy. We cross-post it and Anthony Barnett responds.

Yesterday I went to report on the #occupyLSX event, and though I didn’t join in as an activist, I support the event in London as well as those across the world.

But the movements in New York and London are not the same, and there is a real danger that this will never take off across the UK.

But first, it’s worth noting and explaining how the “We are the 99%” movement is different to the “anti-cuts” protests earlier this year.

Most Britons think the scale and speed of cuts to public services are wrong. They think the cuts are unfairly targeted. But a big majority of Britons also think the cuts are necessary to bring down the deficit, and that Labour wasted too much money – helping create an unsustainable mountain of debt.

The Occupy / 99% movement has a different, broader focus: how society is becoming more unequal; failing a new generation of people who worked hard and yet still end up deep in debt; the general sense of pessimism about the future. The sense of unease about the bailout of the banks goes deep into Middle England.

The 99% narrative cuts across the political spectrum. And it will only become more prominent with the impending Eurozone crash and a decade of economic stagnation. Even Ed Miliband recognises this.

So the big questions are: how will this impact politics across the world? How will “the 99%” force politicians to listen? What direction will politics take during and after a decade of stagnation and poverty?


There are two big challenges here:

1. Expanding beyond the usual suspects
The #occupywallstreet movement grew rapidly after two concurrent events: the brutality and kettling by police (videos of which instantly went viral) and the involvement of major New York unions.

But there’s a second reason why the US protests have spread so widely: they genuinely attracted a broader range of support from the start, including libertarians against bank bailouts, students who just want a good job, small business owners hit by recession, and academics etc. OWS did not have an overwhelmingly socialist or anti-capitalist outlook – even the 99% blog features plenty of middle-of-the-road Americans.

This was in sharp contrast to OccupyLSX on Saturday – which brought together familiar faces from climate camp, blac flag anarchists, usual lefties and of course Socialist Worker newspaper sellers. There was some general public too of course but they weren’t a majority.

The problem, as anyone vaguely involved with UK left-activism will know, is that many hardcore left-activists will rather swallow a cyanide pill than work with people who are slightly less radical than them. They would spend the whole day actively trying to wreck pluralistic coalitions.

It happened during the anti-cuts protests and it will happen again. Some have even gone as far as trying to wreck UKuncut (with one calling UKuncut a ‘populist group no different to the EDL’). These people would much rather pretend they represent the 99% than ever come into contact with the varied opinions of that 99%.

But I’m not sure how how #OccupyLSX could expand beyond the usual suspects (which the government will easily ignore). Perhaps they could hold a series of comedy and music sessions to bring in new people?

Either way, if the UK occupations don’t look like they involve some elements of the 99% then they will fail.

2. How to force political change?
The Tea Party movement, despite its unpopularity, was able to force the Republicans to listen because they focused on voting for and selecting their candidates. They fund-raised for candidates, knocked on doors for them and spread the word. The Republicans were forced to listen.

It’s unclear how the 99% movement will force the political system to pay attention long enough to drive through real change.

Newsnight’s Paul Mason, in his review of Fight Back! OurKingdom's book on the winter protests edited by Dan Hancox, asked the same question: what’s your strategy, yo?

Right now the strategy goes something like this:
1) Occupy everything!
2) Erm, national strikes (hopefully)? That will cripple everything and bring the government down (hopefully)?
3) ???????
4) Revolution!
The danger is that the despite being more popular and widespread than the Tea Party movement, it actually ends up being less politically effective if it loses momentum.

In support
I was sceptical of OccupyLSX’s effectiveness before it even kicked off. A prominent left-wing activist at the occupation somewhat agreed when I expressed the above sentiments, but said the same was said about OccupyWallStreet when it started. The financial crisis did change everything and the impact may be felt years or even decades later. But it doesn’t necessarily mean a shift to the left, as some European countries have shown.

If there’s one thing lefties are good at, it’s trying to keep their movements as small as possible and denouncing anyone who differs as a traitor or sell-out. Whether it will be different this time around remains to be seen.

I write this in support so people can recognise and also focus on the bigger picture. We need these occupations to work, and that requires constructive criticism, not just blind cheerleading.

Anthony Barnett responds:

There is something important in what Sunny is saying. Unless the new movements become popular, in the way that the Spanish movement has been, mobilising tens of thousands and influencing hundreds of thousands, it could be a flash in the pan. In Spain too issues of strategy and influence are unresolved but it has already changed a generation.

And Sunny's is a much more engaged response than Anthony Painter's frankly complacent argument about the need for popular support, which says face it guys, the 99 per cent largely support the right and anyone who does not like this had better support the Labour Party.

There are two things that need to be borne in mind. First, we are at the end of an epoque that was dominated by neo-liberal market fundamentalism. The change taking place is political in the largest sense: 1) the collapse of the hegemony of Wall Street and the City and their model of finance capital, combining with 2) the end of unrivalled USA supremacy, and 3) the massive technological/communications shift (see, eg Carlotta Perez) - not to speak of climate change.

We are all, but especially those who are now becoming adults, trying to work out how to build a life under circumstances where the existing system is intolerable. But, and this is the second thing that must be born in mind, parties of the left helped blow the bubble in the first place. It was Gordon Brown who in his Mansion House speech a year before Lehman Brothers, celebrated the "new golden age" of the City of London, creating a new world order greater even than the industrial revolution, not least thanks to his support for rejecting calls for financial regulation. You don't believe me? Read the opening of his speech here. Anthony Painter foresees a major victory for the right in Spain. But after eight years of a socialist government youth unemployment is close to 45 per cent. That's a system failure. You can't simply respond by saying tch, tch, children vote back in the party that delivered this.

To put it another way, accompanying the historic crash of market fundamentalism is the slow death of social democracy. Tony Judt has lamented it. It seems to me to be undeniable. This is why it is unconvincing to say that making Ed Balls Chancellor is going to do much more than improve things marginally, even though Ed Miliband has had the judgement to see that something deeper has gone wrong. 

Sunny asks what is the strategy of the movement that Aaron Peters has argued 'needs no name'. This is a fair question. But, Sunny when Paul Mason asked the question in response to OK's Fight Back! - click for free download - he realised there is an implicit strategy and set about trying to work this out. In his post today he says "the movement is a kind of replacement social democracy".

I agree this means it has to become a lot more popular. But what Paul Mason has grasped is that its impetus is rooted in the system failure of the financial crisis, that it is to say it is rooted and what we should all be asking is how to make it popular.

Because none of us can carry on as before. We are all deep in the same mire (I am putting it politely). For sure, the 'movement' needs to be saved from the sectarian hyper-arrogance of calls for 'revolution' as if everyone is supposed to know already what kind of society this would lead to. Those voices also belong to a failed past  But strategic modesty is called for even more from those critics whose political party played a key role in taking us here.

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