The Occupy movement and the left: The wrong kind of snow?

So now a number of Hollywood actors and celebrities of various types have expressed their support for the worldwide protest movement inspired most recently by Occupy Wall Street, and characters such as this guy (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yhrwmJcsfT0&feature=player_embedded) have selflessly volunteered themselves as ‘spokespersons’ for the movement. This has led to some people, on twitter at least, to disparage the still incipient movement as one that will inevitably sell out to more powerful interests who do not share its primary radical goals and who would prefer it to be a loosely affiliated and easily manipulated lobby group for a nicer, gentler form of capitalism rather than the vibrant and seething core of a life-or-death struggle for the destruction of capitalism and the survival of human society.

Such comments immediately put me in mind of two things. One is a piece I wrote several months ago (http://t.co/gW1n0XEv) in which I expressed similar scepticism about the nascent student movement and the early protests organised by UK Uncut. My perception at the time was that the young people involved in the protests were not protesting against the unjust system of which they were the victims, but rather about the fact of their exclusion from that system, and that similarly those calling for the banks to be properly taxed and regulated were not concerning themselves with the destruction of a system based on inequality and instability, but rather its perpetuation on a more equitable and sustainable basis.

It’s quite possible that I was mistaken about that. Political phenomena such as protest movements are always much more ambiguous and dynamic than they appear through the lens of the media, whether it be the mainstream media or twitter. Some of what I said may be more relevant to the August riots – here were young people who did not want to abolish the game, but rather to be allowed to play it. But the other thing that springs to mind now when I read comments dismissing the Occupy movement as an inevitably short-lived and superficial phenomenon is that notorious phrase used by privatised train companies in the UK to justify impromptu cancellations in winter weather – they famously tend to blame the ‘wrong kind of snow’. What does this have to do with the incipient (let us hope) global uprising against capitalism? Well, it may not yet be a global uprising against capitalism; certainly the numbers in London yesterday were disappointing, and as the movement in the US gains more prominence in the media it is inevitable that attempts will be made to seek some sort of accommodation with its demands along the lines of pop concerts in Central Park where Madonna, Lenny Krawitz and the reformed Backstreet Boys call for more ‘economic justice’, resulting in the historic acceptance by chastened financial institutions of the imposition of a tax of 0.0000000005% on all speculative transactions for a period of three months; it is certain that such a scenario would be very welcome to very many.

However I think something very significant has shifted since 1999, since 2001 and since 2005; the people protesting yesterday and today are furious not about marginal aspects of injustice and inequality, but about how the economic system itself is designed to exploit, marginalise and impoverish them, and they are increasingly aware that the political system exists to make that exploitation, marginalisation and impoverishment viable. Global society is emerging from the deep state of denial which was the initial (though prolonged) response to the events of 2008; the debate about the economic crisis has (at last) shifted to the left and assumed a political character. A clear sign of this is the slogan ‘We are the 99%’, which echoes Warren Buffet’s famous comment that ‘There is a class war all right, and it’s my side that’s winning’; no wonder the 1% are worried, understanding as they do that the economy cannot exist without a society to sustain it; no wonder the more astute of them plead with their political servants to be allowed to pay more taxes. And if Warren Buffet is worried, we should be hopeful.

All of this means that those of us on the radical left should not regard the protest movement through jaundiced eyes, bemoaning the absence of each individual element of the ideal uprising, our own pet fetishes. More union involvement! More centralised organisation! Well yes, this may not be the exact kind of snow we would have wished for (although, personally, it comes pretty close), but to stand aside and condemn the demonstrators for straying from the rightful path which leads inevitably to revolutionary insurrection (or even more patronizingly, for their purported lack of ‘mature political content’), is to entirely miss the point about the nature of radical political identity and organisation today. The formal political left, in both its reformist and revolutionary forms, has catastrophically failed to present any significant defence against the neoliberal onslaught, and it is both inevitable and necessary that new forms of struggle led by those unhindered by the discipline of formal political organisations, genuinely open to both new and old ideas, should take precedence. Left organisations can and must engage with and be involved in this movement, contributing suggestions on the basis of the rich traditions on which they can draw, but there is no sense that they are the owners of the ideas of Gramsci, Luxembourg etc, ideas which will be of huge help to those who may not think of themselves as Marxists, socialists and communists but who
are determined to create some sort of new society which provides for human need and genuinely unleashes humanity’s creative potential. The Marxist left should not delude itself into thinking that it can or should control which kind of snow is to fall.

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