A few thoughts on the Occupy movement

OccupyThoughts

The Occupy movement has left a distinct mark on the political landscape. It is hard to overestimate the degree to which it has changed the political discourse, raised the sights of other social movements, and stimulated mass action.

Currently it is in a process of regrouping, hastened by the forced evictions from public spaces in recent months. What direction it will choose to go in is still unclear.

Many readers of this article have participated in Occupy events, some have helped organize them. Though I have attended some Occupy events I can't claim to be an active participant. But I do have a few general thoughts about the Occupy movement in this country.

First of all, the Occupy movement has an important role going forward. That a section of the young generation has battled Wall Street and inspired others to do the same is to be greatly welcomed. But it is ill advised to try, as some have done, to turn the Occupy movement into a "vanguard" organizing center leading a diverse coalition of political/social forces to "a brave new world."

In the late 1990s well-meaning people attached that role to young people in the anti-globalization movement, but it never materialized. Young people bring energy, boldness, and imagination to social struggles. He or she who has the youth, it is said, has the future. But it doesn't follow that the young generation is the main, and certainly not the singular, social force in any assault on entrenched power.

That role lies with the multi-racial multi-ethnic working class and its organized sector, especially in an advanced capitalist society like ours. The working class has changed dramatically in its composition, size and life circumstances over the decades. Not everyone wears a blue collar or carries a lunch bucket to the workplace. But its social power and experience in class and social struggles remain, giving it the potential to be a leading agent for change, and a radical change at that.

Of course, it will fulfill this potential only in close alliance with its main allies - the racially oppressed, women and, not least, young people. Such an alliance is necessary for near-term as well longer-term victories. Go-it-alone strategies in this era by any social grouping are self-defeating.

It follows that an imperative task of Occupy is to deepen and extend its connections to labor, people of color, youth, and other social forces - connections that are crucial to its mission to construct a more egalitarian society.

Second, many of the occupiers worry about cooptation, that is, subordinating oneself to other social forces such as the Democratic Party, labor, MoveOn, Rebuild the Dream, etc. Concern about maintaining its organizational independence and unique style is legitimate. And yet if taken too far it can be counterproductive. After all, any movement that hopes to influence millions has to rub shoulders with diverse social forces who are not always of like mind, and has to participate in arenas of struggle not always of its own choosing.

Which brings me to this year's elections. My impression is that some - maybe the majority - in the Occupy movement see the election process in its two-party form as an invitation to cooptation, and therefore they adopt an attitude of electoral abstentionism.

This is mistaken in my opinion. Such a posture isolates Occupy from the main social forces and organizations in the country whose energies and resources will be focused in the electoral arena of struggle this year.

Moreover, the outcome of the election will set the broad parameters of struggle in the coming period. The defeat of the Republican right will position the people's movement to  address, among other things, the inequality and exploitation that is built into our (capitalist) 1 percent vs. 99 percent society. On the other hand, a victory by the right will set the stage for the right to complete and consolidate a counterrevolution that began with the Reagan presidency three decades ago.

Third, the fight against racism by the Occupy movement is of utmost importance. As the Republican primaries unmistakeably reveal, racism is alive and well. And if victories are to be won against the 1 percent, the 99 percent have to reject divisions along racial lines. Such divisions have always been the Achilles' heel of the progressive movement.

Finally, the struggle for alternatives to the crisis of capitalism, say a sustainable green economy, by Occupy and other left movements for that matter has to combine with full immersion in the struggle for partial and immediate solutions to crisis conditions. To hang one's hat only on one or the other is wrongheaded and self-defeating.

No doubt Occupy has a future. And like any movement, it will learn lessons from its experience and adjust accordingly. May we hope that it continues to be a thorn in the side of the 1 percent.

Photo: (PW/Gabe Falsetta)

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  • Good article, I'm glad that the issue of cooption was addressed, but it's something that Occupy must and will take extremely seriously. It's important for us to listen openly to all sides, as long as they're constructive for the movement. But any person or group that tries to 'claim' or represent Occupy will be, and should be criticized.
    Many have worried that existing institutions will coopt the Occupy movement, but I don't think this is actually much of a threat; interestingly it is Occupy that I believe will coopt other movements. So, for example the Democrat Party can't claim Occupy - Occupy will likely 'claim' the Democrat Party - the Democratic Party will bend to Occupy's demands and not the other way around. The labor movement won't bend Occupy to it's will, but Occupy may very well very well change direction of much of the labor movement, etc. No one should underestimate Occupy's power, nor tell it to "be realistic" - a year ago no one would have predicted that it would get as far as it has, who can say what it's going to do in the next year?

    Posted by Teddy Wood, 01/21/2012 8:00pm (3 years ago)

  • @ Irving I believe you missed the point, it is not about chosing between two evils, it is recognizing that our struggle will go on after the elections and it is up to us to decide what outcome will best position us to move forward and not have to simply hold the line and defend what has already been won.

    Posted by Rossana, 01/21/2012 11:31am (3 years ago)

  • This is an excellent statement. Based on my contacts with the Occupy folks, mainly in New York, I think the movement -- which is largely but not entirely younger people, by the way -- is greatly advanced beyond where it was 12 years ago, at the time of the Seattle anti-WTO protests. The Occupiers are open to critical engagement and argument. They are ready to learn from the Marxist left, so long as we are also ready to learn from them. We need to say it straight out: the way forward lies in forming coalitions, especially with labor; in combating racism and forging links with communities of color; and in pursuing the struggle in the electoral arena (while facing the hard questions about exactly how to do this). I am very glad that Sam has opened up this discussion.

    Posted by David Laibman, 01/20/2012 4:55pm (3 years ago)

  • Must we be forever condemned to choosing the "least" of two evils?

    Posted by Irving, 01/20/2012 5:32am (3 years ago)

  • Sam you are right on as always.I too have attended many occupy events and I have to say I must agree on your analysis of this movement.

    Posted by Robert Levee, 01/19/2012 10:19pm (3 years ago)

  • Good points here. In the Collective Study Group outgrowth of the Little School, http://tx.cpusa.org/school, we've been studying electoral policies for some weeks. Even though we are in general agreement that electoral politics is one very important arena of political struggle and that the working class is our guide in this arena as in all others, I still hear people idealistically promoting abstention or partial abstention from this arena.

    We've just begun to look at the electoral policies of the progressive movement in Germany during the collapse of the Weimar Republic. it seems to have important lessons for today.

    I've also been wanting to review the CPUSA decision to support Henry Wallace's third party effort in 1947 and wondered how the subsequent "witch-hunt" period might have been affected by a different decision.
    --jim lane in dallas

    Posted by jim lane, 01/19/2012 5:58pm (3 years ago)

  • Thanks, I appreciate your work.

    Posted by donny1020, 01/18/2012 11:38pm (3 years ago)

  • I probably will end up voting for Obama, even though I've been greatly disappointed by his willingness to sacrifice labor victories won long ago in a misguided effort to compromise with the Teabaggers. But I must admit I miss being able to vote for CPUSA candidates. Years ago some Communist friends asked me to be an elector for the Gus Hall so he could get on the ballot in Columbus, Ohio. I refused because I had just started a new job and was worried about red-baiting. I've felt guilty about that ever since.

    Posted by Rev. Paul White, 01/18/2012 1:24pm (3 years ago)

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