From its start, there has been a discussion of what Occupy is and what it means. With few camps left around the world, some have asked whether occupy has failed, or lost. Others continue to claim that occupy has a special quality as a new global movement, one with revolutionary potential, perhaps.
At a recent one-day workshop held at Warwick University Business School on the 21 March 2012, around 40 participants avidly discussed these points. Participants came from Occupy London Stock Exchange, as well as a range of academic backgrounds. It was an activists-academics crossover and, perhaps, an attempt to occupy the university and ‘steal study,’ as Occupiers sat in the front and shared their experiences.
Controversy occurred quickly: Occupy was presented as a totally new global phenomenon and as a convergence of diverse social movements into a unified form, with little acknowledgement of its underlying diversity, both regionally and historically. Further claims described occupy as ‘the most successful movement ever’ and as ‘our last chance.’ One participant even described Occupy as a ‘revolutionary movement because camping out in winter showed the bloody determination of participants’.
Divisions in the camp
Objections were raised against those assertions. Did Occupy ‘occupy’? i.e. Did the movement colonise a whole range of social movements across the world, forcing a brand onto the Arab Spring, the M15 movement in Spain, the Israeli housing protests, the British history of protest camping? Does the fact that Occupy did not materialize in India and Latin America indicate a lack of anti-capitalist movements in these places? Certainly not. But what lessons could be learned? The workshop aimed at discussing the politics of organizing. In this context it was very illuminating to hear first hand reflections from the practices and problems developed at Occupy LSX. Their forms of organising around consensus and horizontal decision making (HDM) quickly led to very tangible problems. While some pointed to the well documented ‘magic’ of HDM to produce consensual decisions, there were clear signs of divisions between those that ‘slept in the camp’ and others who came to the general assembly but had not been overnight stayers. The latter tended also to be ‘more [formally] educated’.
The remaining Finsbury Square camp faced a ‘digital divide’ as the on-the ground general assembly and discussions on online ‘groupspaces’ were attended by different groups. Suspicions developed against working groups like the ‘media team’ who were accused of misrepresenting the camp, as well as forming unwarranted leadership of the movement. Such problems occur in a variety of camps, and it is helpful to reflect the discussions on the role of the media team as they emerged, for example in the 2005 Horizone protest camp in Gleneagles.
Occupy LSX also experienced a range of problems that are very different from rural camps. As a camp located in a city, Occupy attracted a much broader range of people, including street drinkers and homeless who came for free food and shelter. Occupy developed a ‘charitable function’ of sorts, a characteristic much less pronounced in rural camps. HDM and other organisational set-ups were also burdened with the more transient character of city space, where passers-by could come and join discussions at any point. Equally the need to make the space ‘safe’ afforded much more attention than in rural camps. This was addressed through the development of a variety of infrastructures and policies over the time of existence in which significant perspectives on what Occupy LSX was emerged and often clashed.
What’s to be done?
Occupy LSX participants told the workshop of attempts to do ‘skill shares’ and rotate roles between working groups. But there were also more fundamental questions about the use and utility of Occupy to advance revolutionary ideas. HDM seemed to work well in specific situations, but questions were raised whether it would be useful when more antagonistic strategies were pursued. Indicative perhaps was the decision to remove a banner from Occupy LSX which read ‘Capitalism is Crisis’ because the camp could not agree on being ‘anti-capitalist’. In this light it might be useful to draw on OccupyLSX’s experiences with HDM in other movement contexts.
In Warwick, we were also reminded that HDM, if used as a blanket tool of organisation, might easily get confused with very liberal ideas of politics. In this light , seeing Occupy as creating a blank slate of social organisation, from which all can speak and deliberate, might have been one of the key limitations of a developing ‘Occupy’ self-consciousness. The occupy movement seems to be a less threatening, liberal version of Tahrir, in which the revolutionary action of the Arab spring is referenced, but the key revolutionary demand remains unspoken: Off with their heads!
Not a Tahrir moment then, but rather ‘Tahrir light’?
The workshop ended on a proposal to ‘steal study,’ to use the university’s resources and intellectual might in order to liberate reflection and research from the constraints of capitals enclosures. This proposal was discussed replicating general assembly decision making, and – perhaps true to many similar discussions in the camps – ended on a consensus to create a working group.