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The 'Occupy' movement is the latest example of the impact radical action and ideas can have when the system is weak. As a second global slump looms, Ben Wray argues that we need to sharpen our strategy if we our to seize the initiative away from the ruling class.

Rome, October 15, 2011 | image: Reuters/Stefano Rellandini

The European sovereign debt crisis appears to be approaching breaking point. The ruling class have moved from doing everything they can to avoid a Greek default on its debts to preparing to manage a default in their favour. Whatever they do the trajectory of the crisis is towards a second, deep recession. If anyone believed George Osborne’s lie that ‘Britain is a safe haven’ they don’t anymore. Mervyn King has broken that particular dose of fantasy by opting to print another 75 billion of British pounds straight into failing banks coffers, whilst doing so he declared ‘This is the most serious financial crisis we’ve seen at least since the 1930s, if not ever.’

Of course recalling the 1930s makes sense given the economic similarities: the 1929 Wall Street crash was followed by a few years of stagnation before a second, deeper drop into long-term depression. However if we accept the economic comparison, it is difficult to ignore the political outcome of the 30s: fascism and world war.

Crisis, consciousness and totality

History never repeats itself but the comparison with the 1930s should at least make us aware of one thing about the present: nothing can stay the same. At times of turmoil and uncertainty everything has increased malleability. The relationship between structure and agency is rebalanced: the individual’s weight carries a greater potential influence with the rest of society than at times of relative stability. One way or another the crisis will be resolved; it is a question of which force, or more precisely which class, can resolve it in their favour and at the expense of others.

Tony Blair was aware of this moment, arguing immediately after 9/11 that “The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux, soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world around us.”

2011 has not been short of attempts to ‘reorder this world around us’. The Arab revolutions have been the most effective, tilting the pro-American network of neoliberal dictators off its axis in the name of freedom and democracy. The indignados in Spain have called for ‘real democracy- Now!’ in their hundreds of thousands and in Greece they have declared an end to the ‘debtocracy’. Now the #OccupyWallSteet movement has swept across America, in the name of the 99% who suffer at the hands of the elite 1%. On the 15th of October ‘Occupy’ went global with occupations in over 1500 city squares across the world.

All of these movements prove that at a time of economic and political crisis for the ruling class ambition and initiative can be rewarded, even if it’s driven at first by very small groups of people. This consciousness is what Georg Lukacs called looking at the world in its totality; it comes into particularly sharp focus at times of crisis:

‘In periods of economic crisis the position is quite different. The unity of the economic process now moves within reach. So much so that even capitalist theory cannot remain wholly untouched by it, though it can never fully adjust to it…Even if the particular symptoms of crisis appear separately (according to country, branch of industry, in the form of ‘economic’ or ‘political’ crisis, etc.), and even if in consequence the reflex of the crisis is fragmented in the immediate psychological consciousness of the workers, it is still possible and necessary to advance beyond this consciousness. And this is instinctively felt to be a necessity by larger and larger sections of the proletariat.’

What all the movements have in common is a connection of the specific to the global, mediated through the economic crisis: in Spain resentment at years of neoliberalism from the Spanish Socialist Workers Party’s seven year rule as well as huge youth unemployment isolated a generation from the parliamentary process, leading to the demand for ‘real democracy’. In Greece the deep corruption of the ruling elite combined with imposition of huge austerity measures in face of opposition from the majority of society was the inspiration behind the idea of society being a ‘debtocracy’. In the US record-breaking levels of inequality, the cosiness of political elites to big business and rising unemployment and homelessness drove forward the ’99%’ message.

Lukacs argued that looking at the world in its totality is impossible for the bourgeoisie:

‘The tragic dialectics of the bourgeoisie can be seen in the fact that it is not only desirable but essential for it to clarify its own class interests on every particular issue while at the same time such a clear awareness becomes fatal when it is extended to the question of the totality.’

Commentators continually pick up on the indecisiveness of the EU leaders as a key factor in the intensification of the crisis. This is true but it is impossible for the problem to be solved from above: the EU is institutionally uneven between surplus, exporting states and debt-ridden, importing states. The ruling classes cannot understand the system in its totality because they are divided and in competition with one another.

On the other hand the working class’s strength is that crisis and resistance leads its world view towards unity and universality:

‘As the bourgeoisie has the intellectual, organisational and every other advantage, the superiority of the proletariat must lie exclusively in its ability to see society from the centre, as a coherent whole.’

This is not to say that the masses reach a fully revolutionary consciousness when they ‘see society from the centre’: the lived experience of living under capitalism means that whilst some ideas are cleared away, other ideas that limit workers to the confines of the system remain. Furthermore, the working class moves into action extremely unevenly: whilst many individuals will have been inspired by the ‘Occupy’ movement’s internationalist message against the banks and inequality, most have remain untouched or if they have been affected they haven’t been brought into the movement, and therefore the radicalisation is fleeting and immaterial.

So the problem of uneveness- both within the active participants and between those and the wider working class- remains. Hear Marx’s seperation between a class of itself and a class for itself is useful. Marx is trying to bridge the gap between objectivity and subjectivity: workers, whether they know it or not, are a revolutionary class because they have the material possibility of leading society as a whole to this end. But, they have to become consciously aware of this potential power and understand how to achieve it if they are going to become a subjectively revolutionary class. This gap is at the heart of the problem: how do we use the small minority who are moving towards revolutionary conclusions as a lever to raise the consciousness and organisation of ever wider sections of the working class?

The starting point is to promote and participate in the movements as they exist, as outside of this the question of anti-capitalist strategy is abstract. Even as a fragment of a class and a fragment of a class consciousness, the movements represent the potential embryo for a revolutionary consciousness as it captures the extent of the crisis, expresses the anger generally at those at the top of the system and wants to get rid of the system. But if the movement is to go beyond its considerable achievements it must attempt to undermine the uneveness of working class consciousness, raising the confidence and consciousness of large sections of the working class to an anti-capitalist one.

Obama and the movement

How do we do this? Whilst we need to learn the lessons from the best international examples, we also have to recognise that each country has its own particular dynamic that has to be taken into account. Looking at the political landscape in Britain and America can help us understand how anti-capitalists have to be aware of the particularities of their national situation and adjust our strategy accordingly.

The ‘occupy’ movement is now alive and kicking in Britain, largely taking on the politics and image of the US original. In many ways this makes sense as resentments are similar: dominance of finance capital and massive bank bailouts and bonuses; political parties and media that refuse to reflect anti-austerity feeling and have little connection with grassroots movements; rising inequality with an ever smaller layer of super-rich dominating the world’s wealth. However, if the movement is to gain the mass popular appeal that it has done in certain parts of the US it will have to acknowledge that the key contradictions which connect the specific to the global in the UK are not exactly the same as across the Atlantic. The primary difference between the two countries is government.

The American movement’s relationship to Obama’s administration is complex. Many of the activists leading in Occupy Wall Street would have been caught up in the euphoria of Obama’s election campaign which mobilised unprecedented numbers of volunteers for rallies, leafleting and fundraising of all kinds. ‘Obamanation’ was the common sense response to years of Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ and the ’08 banking crisis: ‘change you can believe in’.

In many ways the Occupy movement today is the alter-ego for the campaigners who were inspired and let down by Obama’s message of hope, unity and faith in the system. Now condemnation, vilification and resentment at the system and its beholders, the 1%, are the key themes. Rather than the clear aims and ambitions of the Obama movement – Obama achieving presidency – the declaration of the Occupy Wall Street movement contains broad swipes at capitalism from just about every perspective, with the driving message being that the ‘system has to go’ without any clearly defined plan for achieving this – or as a cynic might say, ‘change you can’t believe in’.

Such a transformation in consciousness from pre- to post- election doesn’t amount to Obama being the target for the protesters’ rage, however. Rarely is he the one on the receiving end of the home-made placards, and Obama himself has attempted to carefully use the movement’s message as a stick with which to beat the American right. This reflects strategic nous on the part of the Occupy Wall Street movement: in the consciousness of the mass of progressive forces in American society Obama is still in many ways untouchable, as the alternative for them is unthinkable. Therefore the feeling that Obama is trapped in a political system that cannot work for the people, that he is held to ransom by the system rather than an active perpetrator of it, is common sense.

This is, whether consciously or not, an acknowledgement on the part of the protest movement of the balance of forces in American society. The right has been on the offensive since the start of the banking crisis with big ‘Tea Party’ mobilisations that have found a voice in the Republican Party and the media. Whilst Obama had first resisted the austerity message, choosing the fiscal stimulus option instead, he has been forced back by the right. The Tea Party showed its muscle recently when what should have been a routine extension of the American debt limit became a national crisis at the behest of Tea-party sponsored Republican representatives. Obama had to announce new attacks on social services and welfare to get the debt limit increased or else America was facing a humiliating default.

The Tea Party movement’s success is a reflection of a combination of factors specific to the US: its declining dominance of the global state system, the fact that the crash of 2008 was centred on the US, an absence of any coherent anti-neoliberal message from the Left or trade unions and Obama’s victory in the last election. The ‘Occupy’ movement is playing a more important role than it is aware of. It is starting the long overdue process of shifting the balance of forces away from the right, as unions are forced to come in behind a radical message and fresh recruits join up inspired by the protest, as well as pushing back the Tea Party movement. If the movement was directed at Obama it’s highly unlikely any of this would have happened.

The Con-Dems and the movement

In Britain we are faced with a fundamentally different administration. The Conservative-Liberal coalition was an ugly, unpopular compromise. The Tories were unable to win a majority due to a permanent minority of perhaps up to one third of the population who refused to be won over to the party of the rich despite the unpopularity of Brown and Blair’s New Labour. Nick Clegg’s Liberals had vowed to be different from the other parties and won voters over by tacking to the left of Labour on issues like Trident and tuition fees. Therefore when the Oxbridge boys had a lash up in the name of austerity in tough times it was widely seen as lacking a mandate, as being a sell-out on the part of the Lib-Dems and fear that Thatcher’s party was back in power. Regular references were made to the amount of cabinet members who were millionaires and came from Eton.

The coalition’s first serious test came in the mass movement that erupted against the rise in tuition fees. The Lib-Dems were reeling as the secretary responsible for the decision, Vince Cable, toyed with voting against it in parliament in the face of a riot at the Tory headquarters, hundreds of thousands marching across Britain and general revulsion at Nick Clegg’s betrayal. In the end the coalition managed to squeeze the bill through parliament. Since then the mood of distrust and impermanence has been prevalent in the coalition, especially as Lib-Dem support continues to be at rock bottom in opinion polls and their embarrassing loss in the AV referendum.

A bigger crisis, however, is that the coalition’s key strategy – austerity to ensure economic recovery – is failing. The IMF, as well as a senior Tory member of the Treasury and Mervyn King have all been willing to criticise Osborne’s economic policy of harsh austerity as the facts show that job losses and wage cuts in the public sector is leading people to buy less and not stimulating a private-sector recovery. The intensification of the European debt crisis is leading to panic stations as the austerity model looks increasingly illegitimate.

Therefore the government has lost credibility over the exact issue on which it staked its whole reputation. This is beginning to create greater tensions between the Lib Dems and the Tories, as the Lib Dems know that failure of economic recovery means electoral oblivion in 2015. Several leading Liberals have now started to make noises about a ‘Green New Deal’ as an escape from the disaster, but Osborne is unlikely to buy it and this only goes to dent the coalition’s credibility further.

Such tensions could snap if the economy once again plunges into the abyss. The response could be for the Lib Dems to pull the plug on the shaky coalition and try to pin the blame on the nasty Tories before the next election. Alternatively, intensified crisis could breed unity, the message that ‘we have to stand together at this difficult time’ could prevail.

Which direction the coalition takes- fight or flight- is highly dependent on whether the movement is willing to make the coalition’s life unbearable. Pressure on the government to resign over the abject failure of its austerity agenda must be our primary message as it unifies and radicalises the movement at one and the same time. This isn’t to take the movement away from its current strengths- internationalism, against the banks and inequality, for real democracy- it is to sharpen its focus on the weak points of the ruling class in Britain.

First as tragedy…

This argument should not just be made inside the left of the movement; the right needs to hear it as well. It is indisputable that the ‘occupy’ movement in Britain received far greater media attention and intrigue from the mass of society than the combined efforts of the STUC demonstration in Glasgow and the TUC protest in Manchester just two weekends previously. The message of the protest in Glasgow was ‘Put People First’, and despite up to 15,000 marching behind this banner in torrential rain, the media were more excited by a few hundred in St Andrews Square arguing that the 1% has to go.

There is a lesson here. The message must connect to the anger within society, exploit the weaknesses of the ruling class and inspire them with a vision and inspiration for something different. In Lukacsian terms, it needs to connect the immediate questions with the totality of the system. ‘Put People First’ achieves none of these things: it doesn’t reflect the visceral anti Con-Dem hatred within Britain, it doesn’t put pressure on the coalition over its weak points (David Cameron could ostensibly say he is putting people first) and it doesn’t connect the struggle in Britain with the international movement.

Alternatively, Occupy Wall Street’s radical message is helping to rebuild the ailing American labour movement. Greg Sargent of the Washington Post, in an article titled ‘What if working class Americans actually like Occupy Wall Street?’, reports that ‘the affiliate of the AFL-CIO that organizes workers from non-union workplaces, has signed up approximately 25,000 new recruits in the last week alone, thanks largely to the high visibility of the protests.’ Another Union Official adds that ‘We thought it was big when we got 20,000 members in a month during the Wisconsin protests. This shows how much bigger this is.’

Rebuilding the Trade Unions from political action on the streets is not unprecedented. After the defeat of the Chartist movement in 1848 there was over 30 years of low-level of class struggle, characterised by the ‘Craft Unions’ that represented workers rather than building fighting unions. The rise of New Unionism at the end of the 1880′s emerged out of two riots: one over home rule in Ireland and the other against unemployment. The rise of previously unorganised workers like the dockers and gas workers was based on protests through the streets of London, in the confidence that their strength lied in the solidarity of other workers rather than on the picket lines.

We don’t have to look to the past to see this model of social-unionism in Britain. The construction workers protests against massive cuts to pay have been marked by militancy on the streets, shutting down roads and occupying ‘selfridges’. This is how the working class can rebuild its confidence and consciousness- challenging the government on the streets.

If the strike on November 30th is to draw the whole of the working class behind it we need to learn from the strengths of the movements of 2011 and relate them to the specific situation in Britain. To get it right we must be clear about four things: the capitalist crisis is intensifying, austerity is failing and only making the crisis deeper,the Con-Dem government is weak because it is divided and staked everything on the success of austerity and, finally, we need mass action on the streets whether it be occupations or marches to draw the wider working class into the struggle.

But November 30th is over a month away. Greece could default at any time and we have a movement on the streets now that is challenging the system. 2011 may have been a year of revolutions and mass movements, but its not over yet. If we are to ‘reorder this world around us’ we have to take our opportunities as they arise. We should be aware of this given our response when the Lehmann Brothers crashed in 2008: Trade Union leaders retreated- a co-ordinated strike over pay was cancelled to stand together at a time of crisis. Of course, most of the Left lamented this decision but no alternative political response was seriously attempted. Those vital days when the whole system was in question and the masses fury at the bankers was felt by everyone was missed. The ruling class regrouped, finance capital regained its influence despite serious embarrassment, and embarked upon a jobs massacre followed by austerity. Neoliberalism didn’t just survive, it was intensified.

There is not much to be gained from dwelling on the impact of the ’occupy’ movement if it had occurred in late 2008. What we must get our heads around is that this time the stakes are even higher. A Lehmann Brothers mark two is on the horizon but this time whole states could go under; the Trade Union movement is once again set for co-ordinated action but this time millions will be out instead of hundreds of thousands. Unless we learn from our mistakes and the successes of the movements across the world, we may be on the receiving end of our very own Karl Marx’s prophetic words: ‘First as tragedy, then as farce’.

From International Socialist website

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