Occupy: What can it teach the left?

The occupy movement has been a like a powerful cleansing wind blowing over the political landscape – exposing not just the obscenely rich, and criminally irresponsible political elite, but almost every other political player too: cowardly liberals, cautious social democrats, the strangely silenced churches, social movements stuck in the past, and a moribund labour movement. Indeed, that is what is most striking about this movement: it owes nothing to anyone.

As Chris Hedges wrote in a wonderful ode to the occupy movement: “It will not make concessions with corrupt systems of corporate power. It holds fast to moral imperatives regardless of the cost. It confronts authority out of a sense of responsibility. It is not interested in formal positions of power. It is not seeking office. It is not trying to get people to vote.”

Of course to the corporate-complicit media the lack of a traditional list of “clear demands” and “goals” this is a weakness of the movement. But in fact this political-debt-free situation is what gives occupy the ability to stake out a moral imperative of social justice that trumps all the tired, confused and predictable “agents of change” which have been so discredited by their failed response to the worst capitalist crisis in eighty years.

The series we at rabble have been running on reinventing democracy and reclaiming the commons is directed at all of this: the crisis of the traditional – and conventional – left in coming to terms with how to make real change and what kind of change to make. Some would suggest that the occupy movement proves the crisis is ending yet it also confirms the crisis: the “left” is not leading this movement. Reinventing democracy is an extremely complicated, very long process, but as for reclaiming the commons? That, it seems to me, is exactly what the occupy movement has been about. And any reinvention of democracy will rest on a foundation of a reclaimed commons. The occupy movement may well turn out to be a huge first step in achieving both these objectives.

It is confronting not just the facts of inequality, but the ideology that seeks to justify it. The biggest successes of neo-liberalism have been two fold. First, it systematically and dramatically lowered peoples’ expectations of what is possible – that is, what is possible from government in terms of equity and justice. People still believe that government should be a force for good. They just don’t believe it will be. The right has successfully demonized government – more in the US (the Tea Partiers, impoverished by banks, hate government) than in Canada but here, too.

Secondly, in exchange for giving up on government, democracy and what it should provide, people in Western developed nations like Canada and the US have accepted, willingly or otherwise, the offerings of hyper-consumerism. In doing so, they have unwittingly accepted a kind of hyper-individualism, rejecting the promise of the commons as a false promise. Margaret Thatcher’s declaration that there are no such thing as society, just individuals and families, seems very close to becoming true in the US and there are signs of it here as well. I shop therefore I am.

No one on the broad left, from reformers to socialists, has been able to counter these two right wing victories. Having failed to develop a new language of progressive politics that speaks meaningfully to people battered by economic insecurity and a staggering pace of change, we have been ideological punching bags for a determined, focused, enormously well-resourced enemy. We are like the Japanese soldiers, discovered twenty years after the war on isolated Pacific Islands who thought the war was still on. They were still fighting the old war.

The “organized” left is still fighting the old wars using the old tools, the old structures, and old language all contained in a kind of middle class complacency and business-as-usual bubble. There is a global capitalist crisis unfolding before our eyes the consequences of which will be unspeakably miserable for scores of millions of people in western nations – and hundreds of millions everywhere else.

But still we seem unable to respond. The left has been accused of lacking big ideas and in an embarrassing act of self-deprecation, we all eagerly plead guilty. But is it a lack of ideas or as Naomi Klein said recently at an event in my town of Powell River, is it more just passivity and an apologetic presentation of ideas. We have lots of big ideas, says Klein, we just seem meek and mild when it comes to promoting them.

Whichever it is, the occupy movement has given us a message: people are sick and tired of waiting for leaders to provide direction and inspiration. They have woken up, looked for the leaders and discovered, to their shock that they were looking in the wrong direction. The leaders were, inexplicably, behind them.

The act of reclaiming the commons – where we are all (except the 1%) in this together – is wonderfully obvious in the carnival mood of much of the movement’s expression. As Jim Stanford wrote recently, “Their activism has been further unified by a constructive, cooperative and peaceful attitude – disarming those who’ve tried to demonize and criminalize protest in our harsh post-9-11 political culture.”

That there is both anger and joy expressed by the demonstrators speaks not just to their pent up frustration with a sociopathic elite bent on destroying the planet, but also at the sheer pleasure of ending their isolation, even if just for a day or two or three. Tweeting and Facebooking are fine – but there is nothing quite like being in the streets with thousands – even hundreds will do – of like-spirited folk.

A number of American commentators have mused about how the success or failure of the occupy phenomenon will depend on whether or not the middle class eventually identifies with it. It is an interesting observation because historically in Canada and the US while working class organizing led the way to social change, middle class solidarity helped win the day and locked in the gains of the welfare state.

As Stanford points out, one similarity of the occupiers with the 1930s is that the anti-capitalist movement in that decade also started as mass movements, growing out of a seething discontent and was also at times “leaderless.” It took several years to coalesce. But this time around the differences may out weigh the similarities. The passion for equality taps into a deep, some argue genetic, strain of core human values. And that is all to the good. But if the desire for equality is not decoupled from a rampant consumerism, a culture of stuff, then what would that more equal distribution of wealth actually be used for? Can the occupy movement take the next huge step and recognize that equality must be pursued in a totally new context: the need to reject the obsession with so-called “wealth-creation,” recognize that more stuff does not make us happier and destroys the planet, and that we must find meaning outside the shopping mall? The crisis of the 1930 was eventually resolved by a period of stupdendous increases in economic growth. Today’s movement faces an even bigger challenge – de-growth in a era of crushing inequality. Will the middle class sign-on to a movement that dismantles what it built?

Tied to that question is an obvious one. What process will provide the ultimate direction, the ongoing inspiration to continue the movement, and the ideas that will excite more people and broaden it? All the traditional left wing groups have jumped on the bandwagon for fear of looking foolish if they don’t. But can they take from this spontaneous rebellion against savage capitalism the necessary lessons for their own politics. Will occupy give them the courage to take risks and lead their own members from the front? Or will they slip back into their comfortable positions in the bureaucracies that failed people in the first place? Both the movement and the traditional organizations scrambling for relevance have huge challenges ahead. But finally, they are exciting challenges and the potential is enormous.

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