The most important achievements of the worldwide Occupy X movement are its opening up into the discourse of ideology and its global basis. The final stage of Ideology is when it has come to say of itself that it is not in fact ideology, as the mainstream press has insisted since the fall of the Soviet Union and into the ongoing crisis from 2007 to the present. Mainstream commentators of the right still now insist that no alternative can be provided to austerity, and spread rumours that the movement is a small cartel of hippies and anarchists artificially inflating their importance by, for instance, setting up empty tents.
By this logic Neoliberals are not in fact the right-wing but the centre, simply the only way to be, as Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism brilliantly describes. Occupy’s initial achievement is to break this spell: whether the movement yet knows what it demands, it has opened the space for such demands. The trick is to fill it.
Slavoj Zizek understands the individual and combined importance of the assertion of ideological space and the later filling of that space with a positive programme, ‘What matters is not today but where you go from here.’
The international nature of the movement begins to address the way in which governments have been superceded by globe-spanning corporations in their ability to shape politics, shape reality, in each individual country. What must be most encouraging to anyone with hopes that the movement sustains itself is the ‘Mexican wave’ pattern it seems to be taking on: The Arab Spring eventually encourages dissensus in the West, the West’s movement then encourages another wave of Arab protests and so on.
There seems to be, however, some resistance amongst the Occupy movement to the idea that we ever pin down our demands. Occupy Wall Street’s website proudly declares that it ‘has no leaders’, but to what extent does this impede the movement’s ability to draw up a positive programme of analysis and demands, if at all?
The debate over the degree of organisation required in leftist movements and whether they form broad-based coalitions or disciplined hard cores has gone on for a century and more, and was probably most critically played out during Lenin’s time in the years leading up the October Revolution and the first years of the Soviet Union.
The differences played out between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks which are relevant to current circumstances can roughly be said to be:
- The Mensheviks were approximating a Social Democratic Party, (though with a more radical programme than that name might now imply; these terms live and breathe in their contemporary surroundings) where the Bolsheviks were Revolutionary Communist.
- The Mensheviks favoured broad coalition, the Bolsheviks a ‘Vanguardist’ approach whereby strength was measured primarily by Party discipline rather than numerical advantage.
- The Bolsheviks decisively had Lenin as their leader where the Menshevik executive was slightly broader.
The ‘postmodern’ leftist position for some decades now falls further to the anti-organisation side than the Mensheviks previously did for a number of reasons:
- Lenin is criticised for his overly ‘top-down’ leadership style, whereby he dominated the Bolsheviks to the extent that this is said to have some bearing on Stalin’s later totalitarian dominance of the Communist Party and therefore the entire Soviet Union and later its satellites in the majority of worldwide Communist systems.
- There is an idea that a leftist movement should ‘be the democracy that it hopes to bring about’ in the sense that hierarchy is the root of evils in a Capitalist system. This is most confusingly asserted at times by the Situationist Internation whose resignations and exclusions left it with a handful of members upon its winding-up in the early 1970s.
- Postmodern academics argue that any assertion of absolute truth is a priori ‘totalitarian’ and Occupy Wall St.’s website’s anti-leadership statement might indicate an agreement with this thinking.
It is important to explain the Bolshevik/Menshevik split because there are critical differences between that point in history and the current situation, but this debate on leadership carries on, and many on the would-be left are frightened off organisation and positive programmes, prefer the nebulous patchwork of opinion currently in play.
Moreover, the differences between 1917 and the present demonstrate that many of the positions outlined aren’t necessarily at odds or have to come as a package, and that some of the tactics might be modified to better fit the present climate.
The Social Democrat/Communist split seems to be semantic more than anything in a situation wherein we are returning to these ideas with very little remaining foundations from the Soviet era, such that we need not use the terms of old, or their implied programmes. As Fisher has suggested, there may be currency in viewing this in the way PR might: a movement point-blank naming itself ‘Communism’, say, out of a fidelity to the original 19th-Century Idea of Communism, leaves itself liable to defend the record of the Soviets where very few have the time or inclination to do so. ‘Post-Capitalist’ as a name avoids the accusation of being ‘anti’, of offering criticism but no solution, and acts as an umbrella under which those who previously would be termed ‘Social Democrats’ and ‘Communists’ can fall under.
Broad coalitions can work as long as they are broad enough to be majoritarian in an absolute global sense (‘We are the 99%’). There have been 150 years of anti-capitalist theory and practice, and much of this has ‘trickled down’ into common currency, such that a number of principles would be fairly obvious to such a coalition: More equitable pay across society, movements towards ending poverty (both within Western countries and the Third World), ending tax evasion and avoidance, curbing ‘fictional capital’ and a market system that has proven itself to unravel too easy, ending military interventionism, environmentalism, providing a baseline in terms of quality of life etc.
A set of core principles such as these should be held closely, especially since there will come a time in the coalition’s life where disagreements arise, at which point decisions one way or another must be made so as not to become a ‘talking shop’ who endlessly debate every point. This is not an argument for the submission of rank and file to an executive at all times, but it’s clear that at some point some direction must emerge so that we are more effective than an aggregation of ‘beautiful souls’ patting ourselves on the back for our dislike of an undead economic system so clearly unfit to sustain the world’s population. Personally, I am in favour of Workers’ Councils as a mode of organisation but these things would have to be up for contention. A participatory democratic process should determine organisation; but people shouldn’t kid themselves that organisation inherently impinges upon freedom, or that Occupy X can bring about change in its current form.
There is another difference we encounter from 1917 at that stage: central governments wielded vastly inferior military power so that minority ‘Vanguardist’ Parties could hope to have an impact where today they cannot. Governments have almost absolute military power over their populaces today, so that they can shut out so-called extremists. That doesn’t change the fact that governments cease to run without the people’s consent: it is through numerical power that we can oppose and undo Neoliberalism.
Where our relative military power as against governments has weakened, our means of communication have vastly improved. The lessons of April 1st a couple of years ago seem to have been learned: property damage (laughably termed ‘violence’ against property by the mainstream media) is ineffectual and hands Capitalists a rhetorical stick to beat us with. Widely accessible internet, and with it social networking and free blogging could provide the beginning of programmes when the physical occupations begin to wind down, to begin the work which the occupations have made possible in the minds of so many. For example Twitter has, for now at least, curbed the police’s ability to kettle and allowed narratives to be heard from within protests where they had previously been unheard.
How powerful might one website become that links to all of the occupation movements globally, left-wing intellectuals, trade unions and various campaigns in accordance with the movement of the majority?