Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Don't Just Occupy The Streets

The “Occupy” movement that has spread throughout the globe is very welcome. However, its limitations have been shown by the experience of where it began, and was most successful.
At the beginning of this year, thousands of people began to occupy the central squares of Tunisia, then Egypt, and then Bahrain, as part of what became the “Arab Spring”. But, as I wrote at the time, and in relation to previous similar protests, such as those in Burma a few years ago, such street protests have traditionally been a specifically middle class form. They were the traditional form of revolt by the peasantry, extending through to destructive attacks on property, such as the burning down of the Landlords house. They frequently have varied, and at best only vaguely formulated grievances as their base, rather than clearly formulated goals and an alternative vision to establish. As such they are necessarily limited, and more easily demobilised.

As I wrote about the Egyptian revolt, the Middle Classes either own their workplace, or have no workplace – for example students – so they cannot strike against an employer, or challenge some other form of property that directly oppresses them. Only workers can do that. When workers strike the consequence is immediately felt by the Capitalist in a loss of profits. If workers occupy the workplace, they immediately challenge Capitalist property.
The Middle Classes are unable to do that, and so they are led to strike out in other ways. That is not to denigrate such protests, revolutions frequently pass through phases with the leading role being alternately assumed by different social strata. In Egypt it was workers strikes for higher wages, and better conditions that led to students beginning to organise, and to take their lead from those workers. The student movement then assumed the lead as workers struggle subsided, and then as the popular movement intensified, the workers again entered the fray, and was probably the cue for the Generals to remove Mubarak, before that movement escalated into a full blown social revolution.

But, herein lies the weakness. In Egypt, the removal of Mubarak has often been portrayed as the success of the revolution, but as I wrote at the time it was no such thing. Mubarak was merely the figurehead of the Bonapartist regime.
In removing him, the regime only cut off one of the heads of the hydra, in order that the rest of the beast could better continue. In doing so, and offering limited reforms, it was able to buy off sections of the Middle Class and Bourgeoisie, who had engaged in the revolt, having felt a greater degree of solid ground beneath their feet, as a result of the economic development of the Egyptian economy over recent years. The Egyptian, and Imperialist bourgeoisie, had seen the opportunity of removing the corrupt, and therefore, costly and inefficient Bonapartist regime, and putting in its place a Bourgeois democratic state, which, as Lenin said, is, “the best possible political shell for capitalism”. They clearly had no desire to go beyond that to a social revolution, which would be the only means of meeting all the Egyptian workers needs.

So, as has happened so many times before in history, the Bonapartist regime was able to buy off sections of the revolt, and thereby to demobilise the movement against it. In neither Tunisia nor Egypt has any meaningful, and concrete change been achieved. In both cases the Generals remain firmly in control. In Egypt, the military over the last few months has taken the opportunity not only to move against the workers, but also to begin rounding up some of the student activists, to intervene physically against renewed demonstrations, to imprison people through military courts and so on.
In addition, the military has sought new social support for itself having seen that its support amongst the bourgeoisie cannot be relied upon. It has held negotiations with the Muslim Brotherhood, and others, and no doubt the attacks on Egyptian Copts, are part of a move to sow sectarian divisions within Egyptian society, so that, as in so many other Arab States, the Bonapartist regime can raise itself above such divisions, as the only potential force capable of holding the society together. If an election were held in Egypt tomorrow, the most likely winners will be the Islamists of various kinds, the Muslim Brotherhood being the less virulent.

If the Egyptian revolution is to progress, even as a bourgeois democratic revolution, it will only happen if the Egyptian workers take the lead, and, as the means of it doing so, it steps outside the rules and limitations of bourgeois democracy.
It requires that the Egyptian workers begin to take over the factories, shops and offices; it requires that they establish Factory Committees as a basic democratic organ to implement such Occupations, and then to run these workplaces under Workers Control; it requires that the movement they started, of setting up local Workers Militia and Defence Squads be renewed, and extended, in order that they can defend such occupations from attacks by the military and other paramilitary forces; it requires that they establish their own neighbourhood democratic forums, based on direct democracy, rather than waiting for the sham, bourgeois democratic elections that the military may or may not introduce in several months time.

But, these are the lesson the “Occupy” movement should learn too. The Middle Classes, the students etc. can easily demonstrate on a Saturday and return to their lives on a Monday. When workers move to take action it is not so easy – at least if such action is to be effective. A strike once started has to be carried through until it is won or lost.
But, if the “Occupy” movement is to achieve anything really meaningful it will only happen if the working-class is mobilised behind it. The lesson has to be not just to “Occupy” the streets, but to “Occupy” everywhere!!! The basic idea underlying the “Occupy” Movement is sound. It is that we have lost faith in bourgeois democracy to reflect and defend the interests of the “99%”, the vast majority outside the 1% - and its probably less than that – who own and control the vast majority of the means of production, and therefore of power in society. We are supposed to live in “democratic” societies, but in everything that matters that democracy is meaningless.
Money buys power, and buys politicians. The fiasco with the banks and the Credit Crunch shows that the top Capitalists and their Managers can make gambles and mistakes, on a vast scale, from which they are allowed to profit when the gamble pays off. But, when it does not they still win, because the Capitalist State then steps in to bail them out with our money, our taxes!!! Worse, having handed hundreds of billions to them, it tells us that there is no money to pay for schools, hospitals, Libraries and so on. It says because we have the temerity to live a few years longer, we have to work longer to keep providing the bosses with even more profits.

But, we have only ourselves to blame for this situation. It is us, the working-class, that has not only allowed, but has encouraged this huge Ponzi Scheme to develop. It is us, encouraged by some sections of the Left, that has encouraged the growth of this huge Capitalist State standing above us, controlling more and more of our lives, and taking more and more of our money from us to spend in the interests of Capital. When in the 19th Century, workers created a range of their own organisations, from Trades Unions, through Friendly Societies, Co-ops, and even their own Leisure Clubs, Choirs and so on they may not have been perfect, but they were ours, they were under our control, they were capable of being developed by our own agency, and without reliance on any other class force. Over the last 120 years, we have let most of them go. Instead, we have been persuaded to place our faith in that same Capitalist State that is now so effectively screwing us over.

We were persuaded that we did not need the kind of Welfare protection that the Co-ops and Friendly Societies provided, because in return for our taxes, and National Insurance payments, the Capitalist State would provide us with Unemployment Benefits, Health Benefits, and Pensions. Most workers never lived to collect a Pension, and now they are, the State says we have to work even longer!
When Unemployment Benefits were most needed in the Great Depression of the 1930's, even the meagre allowance provided was cut!!! It has been the same every time since. And, week after week, we see that despite billions of pounds of our taxes being swallowed up by the NHS, it fails to provide workers with anything approaching a decent service, still less if you happen to have the misfortune of being old.
Now, tens of billions of pounds more of our taxes that were handed over to provide a minimum level of provision of other types of services, such as Libraries, Schools etc. is being stolen by the State, in order that it can finance the top 1% or less, for the mistakes that they have made.

And, our faith in the impartiality of this State has led us to give up many of those other bodies, including the Trades Unions and Co-operatives.

The idea behind the “Occupy” movement, of creating new forms of democracy, outside the limitations of bourgeois democracy is sound. We need to create a new form of democracy based upon direct, participative democracy. But, the only way that can be effective is if we all “occupy” wherever we are!!!
That means that workers in every workplace, should insist upon that same “democracy” that we are told is the basis of our society, that we are told repeatedly is what our fathers and grandfathers fought two world wars to secure, and so on. The most important place for any of us to exercise democracy is within the place where we work. If the tens of thousands of ordinary Bank workers had been able to do that, then its likely the massive gambles that led to the Financial Meltdown might have been avoided, because they would have been less likely to have made those gambles.
Even if it is not our own workplace, then just as the use of social media has faciliated the coming together of large numbers of people, in specific locations, we should be prepared to support other workers engaging in such occupations.

When Local Council workers “occupy” the Council Offices against Cuts, the rest of us should support them. When they occupy Libraries, Schools, and so on, and continue to provide those services, but now under workers control, we should support them, and join their occupations to defend them.
When workers, such as those at Bombardier, or at Bae are faced with losing their jobs, then we should encourage them to occupy their workplaces, to establish Factory Committees, to democratically run them, to draw up alternative plans of production, so that they can keep working, and we should support them too, helping them to decide what products could be produced to meet our needs, and we should use our existing Co-ops, and so on to provide them with markets, and means of distribution of such goods.

We do not need a detailed, worked out plan of exactly how this should be done, what should be produced and so on. In fact, the whole point about a direct, participative democracy is that these things will be worked out collectively, and democratically as we go. But, we do need to keep certain things in mind. The first principle should be – once workers have collective ownership of something, they should never let it go, be it to the Capitalist State or some other organisation, even if they offer something that appears to provide something immediately better. We may not be able immediately to get everything right, but a condition for doing so is to retain ownership and control. The second thing is that Capital always becomes more concentrated, and in so doing is able to destroy smaller Capitals. We, have to ensure as rapidly as possible the concentration of our own Capital. All Co-operative organisations have to be a part of a Co-op Federation, which acts to ensure the economies of scale, the efficient use of Capital, and so on. We also have to seek to expand the sphere of this Co-operative sector as rapidly as possible. As I've suggested in the past, one way of achieving that is for workers to demand control of their Pension Funds. But, if workers occupy firms threatening closure, there is no reason these should not be simply incorporated into the Co-operative sector. If the bosses do not want them, we will take them. The third thing is that if such a development begins to grow strongly, then the Capitalists – the less than 1% - will not sit back, and see their system replaced. They will resist. They will use their State to implement, and enact laws, probably in relation to Monopoly, to limit our advance. We will have to resist those political attacks. In the first instance, it will require simply defiance, but we should also be prepared to engage in Political action to fight those laws in the arenas of Bourgeois Democracy. “Occupying” where we are, will not just mean establishing new forms of direct democracy in the workplaces, and in our communities, it will also mean “Occupying” those other spaces, the political organisations of our class – the Trades Unions, the Co-operatives and the Labour Party, and introducing that same level of mass, direct democracy to ensure they begin to properly reflect, and defend our interests.

But, as in Egypt and other Arab States, we should not imagine that those that have become used to the exercise and benefits of power will simply rely on legitimate means of hanging on to it. They will have no qualms about using violence if need be. That is why, the lessons of the Summer riots are also important. Then, workers found that they could not rely on the Capitalist State to protect them and their communities. It was the establishment of a growing number of Workers Defence Squads within their communities that brought the riots to an end.
“Occupying” our communities will mean extending that principle, to make such Defence Squads permanent, and placed on a proper democratic footing, through the extension of existing forums such as Tenants and Residents Associations, Co-operative Housing Associations, Neighbourhood Watch Schemes, and so on into permanent democratic committees, that run our communities via direct participative democracy.

In the meantime, it is largely working-class people who make up the bulk of the armed might of the Capitalist State, and which would be turned against us in the end. The only way they can be made to do that is because of the hierarchy, discipline, and culture developed within these organisations that turns them against their own class. We should suggest to these workers that they too “occupy” the spaces they are in. The ordinary rank and file soldier or copper should combine with their comrades to demand a democratic say in their organisations too, including the right to elect immediate superiors. Alongside the development of our own democratically controlled defence squads, and community policing, we should build links with the rank and file coppers, to begin to ensure they maintain an affinity with the working-class communities in which they live, and not with the hierarchical organisation within which they work.
We should do the same thing in building a Workers Militia, and building links with rank and file, working class soldiers, demanding that if money is short, we begin by bringing all the troops home from around the world, in order to focus on defending us, not the overseas interests of British Capitalists in that top less than 1%.

The “Occupy” Movement has also made a great leap forward in that it has overnight become an international movement, with occupations in hundreds of cities in 84 countries. That is good, because, if we are to extend the idea of workers occupying, and taking over the control of their workplaces, their communities, and other aspects of their lives, it can only be successful on an international basis. We should first spread the occupation to all aspects of life, every space, physical, mental, political,social and economic. But, we quickly need to also deepen that occupation, to strengthen the links between each occupation, to bind them together against the attacks that will inevitably come.

1 comment:

Jacob Richter said...

Sans-Culottes 2.0? Or Precariat? To paraphrase Marx:

Considering, that against this combined power of the elite classes the primary producers or precariat cannot unite and act for itself except by constituting itself into a mass party-movement, distinct from, and opposed to, all old parties and movements, that this constitution of the precariat into a mass party-movement is indispensable in order to ensure the emancipation of its labour power,

That such labour power can be emancipated only when, at minimum, the precariat is in collective possession of all means of societal production, all commons, etc., that there are only two forms under which all means of societal production, all commons, etc. can belong to them or return to community:

1) The individual form which has never existed in a general state and which is increasingly eliminated by industrial progress;
2) The collective form the material and intellectual elements of which are constituted by the very development of capitalist society;


That again this collective re-appropriation, or political and economic expropriation of the elite classes, can arise only from the direct action of the primary producers or precariat, organized in a distinct mass party-movement;

Such permanent organization must be pursued by all the means the precariat has at its disposal.