The politics to take Occupy forward

January 19, 2012

Matt Camp and Brit Schulte look at a debate inside the Occupy movement about strategy and tactics--and argue that activists need to start raising concrete demands.

THE PAST four months of the Occupy Movement have brought the American left to new heights. For the 99 percent, who represent the vast majority of the world's population, the Occupy movement was long overdue.

Occupy has been a podium from which muzzled mouths have made a militant microphone. From this platform, we have mic-checked the 1 percent, and finally, it seems that we have found a voice of our own.

As with any movement, Occupy has fostered an internal debate about what tactics are necessary to take the movement forward. It's an important question that requires careful consideration of the relation of social forces at play, the existing support outside of the movement and, perhaps most importantly, what possibilities lie in front of the movement--that is, the tangible goals the movement can set for itself.

Some Occupiers feel strongly that the movement should demand absolutely nothing from the economic and political system it's rising up against. After all, the argument goes, the strength of the Occupy Movement thus far has been its potent indictment of the ruling class, coupled with its refusal to make any discernable demands or empower any official spokespeople.

However, by taking direct aim at the relationship between capital and the state, Occupy has raised the issue of class struggle in the U.S. That gauntlet having been thrown, the question in front of the movement is how to advance the interests of its class: the 99 percent.

In a sense, Occupy has diagnosed the ailments of the American political system, but hasn't yet prescribed any cures. Having raised the level of political awareness, the movement must now fashion class consciousness into political action.

This task cannot be accomplished by maintaining a dismissive attitude toward the 1 percent and the state that represents them, or by failing to articulate demands against them, but by equipping ourselves with the political tools necessary to develop our movement.

To the ruling class, Occupy has been aggressive, but maddeningly oblique. "What are the demands?" Who are the leaders?" the fat cats of high finance ask. Occupy's tactics have certainly been effective: the ruling class stretched itself thin to receive Occupy's attack, overcompensated violently and exposed its ideological flank.

The legitimacy of the system failed, revealing its true nature. The democracy of the 1 percent is a sham; their police are but armed mercenaries. Their rebuttals to our encampments: Sanitation! Safety! Security! They are pale cover words for: Repression! Repression! Repression still! As if we are to believe that suddenly they care for the people who live every day of their lives in squalor and crime.

THE OCCUPY Movement should be least concerned with what the 1 percent thinks of us, and only concerned with what the 99 percent thinks about us. And to this end, we do need demands, not to explain ourselves to the 1 percent, but rather to anchor Occupy in the daily lives of the people whom we aspire to involve in our movement.

The exposed hypocrisy of the ruling class has provided us with a blank slate. We can leverage the capitalist state's claims to democracy against their determination to squelch free speech and the right to assembly. We can fashion the violence of the police into a tool revealing the true nature of the armed thugs "policing" our streets.

The state is the executive board of Wall Street, but Occupy is the anvil of the people. We can build our base. We can craft a culture of the 99 percent to counter that of the 1 percent. We have the ability to forge our movement into a hammer that can shape a new reality.

But what is needed to advance our movement to these bold new positions? Again, Occupy's tactics have been effective so far, but we must anticipate that the ruling class will adapt. The coordinated repression against encampments nationwide speaks to this--as well as the 1 percent's penchant for answering a challenge with blunt force.

Just as we must continue to challenge the 1 percent, we must also do so on a radically inclusive basis with concrete politics rooted in our daily lives. This means formulating demands and crafting slogans. However, some feel that to propose demands is only to legitimize the status quo. Take, for example, the arguments put forward by Deric Stingh in a recent Occupy Chicago DIY publication The Supplement:

Some of us have spontaneously conjured reformist schemes trying to divert us back into the very status quo we rebelled against, speaking in the voice of the Masters, "The Occupy Movement needs to have a set of concrete demands." By doing so, we will "explain" and "justify" to "mainstream America" our actions. This is fatuous, a false prerequisite and a reflection of the poverty of imagination. These reformist schemes have been expressed in seemingly innocuous forms like "Tax the rich" or "Where's our bailout?"

This, however, is a misstep made all too often in the movement. We can draw new people into the movement not just with our opposition to the 1 percent, but also with a message that has the potential to resonate within the awakening consciousness of the 99 percent.

In the U.S., the Occupy movement has attracted a vast layer of supporters who are not yet involved. What is needed to activate them? Politics! Not in the abstract. But concrete. With demands we can demonstrate to all the soulful refrain of the Paris Commune: "Our interests are the same."

Furthermore, the demand of "Tax the rich" implicitly operates beyond the scope of this current capitalist economic system. This demand represents a dialogue of wealth redistribution beyond the scope of the 1 percent's project of capital accumulation.

Likewise, the rallying slogan of "Where's our bailout?" directly calls into question the bank bailouts of 2008 and begs the question of why the 99 percent were expected to sacrifice under this tremendous recession, while those responsible for crashing the economy have raked in billions of taxpayer dollars.

"Where is our bailout" is a fair statement in favor of both wealth redistribution and for a just and equal society. After all, let's consider what kind of government would enact these demands: a government comfortably ensconced in the pocket of the 1 percent, or a government of the people?

This isn't a question of asking for table scraps from the 1 percent--this is about taking a stand on issues that directly impact our lives. Giving the proverbial bird to the existing power structure in the face of unbearable living conditions the world over isn't enough at the end of an equally unbearable day.

Remember that demands for reforms may also germinate broader, more radical platforms. Rather than dismiss them as the murmurs of sold-out activists lacking imagination, the sincere left must claim these slogans and demands for our own, infuse them with radical politics and demand greater concessions still. Will the 1 percent not concede? Then we will continue to expose them! This is our political legacy: fight for reforms to realize our collective strength and power in struggle, then continue on to actualize our revolution.

CAN THE historic task in front of Occupy be accomplished in its current form? It cannot. This presupposes a unity that the heterogeneous ideologies that flow under the surface of the movement have yet to achieve. Occupy rests across a spectrum of politics ranging from liberal to radical, from revolutionary to reformist. Some activists are still developing their political opinions, while others carry the blueprint for a new society.

Despite this broad spectrum of views, Occupy has gone from public square occupations to attempted general strikes, from skirmishes with police to national days of action against police repression.

It is necessary to articulate demands, and grievances that are bound under a unified set of independent political principles. We cannot ignore the 1 percent--who control the media, poison our skies and seas, and whisper consumer nothings in our ears. We must topple them--they who oppress us as people of color, they who condemn us as the poor to ignorance, they who bash us as queer, they who destroy and degrade our earth, and they who have stripped us of our people's history.

What is needed is a more potent injection of politics, reclaimed history and the fortitude to continue to fight back. We have to heal the fissures of the left--we have to scrape out sectarianism, bandage coalition and promote solidarity. When they beat us back with repression, we will return the blows with democratic organization.

The success of concrete political tactics is measurable. We can see perspectives play out, we can assess our collective actions, and we can structure our strategy to be most effective. "Going off the grid" isn't an option; we have to face a brutish system that wants us to lose.

There are tangible ways to measure our progress--student activity, the involvement of organized and unorganized labor, and the activation of sympathetic, community support. All of this is made possible with politics.

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