Friday, November 18, 2011

Why Socialists are Failing at Occupy

(For the tl;dr crowd, just scroll to the bottom and read my proposed solutions.)

Usually socialists are fairly accustomed to leading almost every protest movement in the USA, or at least have led them a lot.

When a movement comes along that is so big and spontaneous that we have difficulty keeping up with it, that’s a good sign. It means we’re not the ones scraping the movement together by ourselves, that the movement has real energy and real mass participation.

However, in my experience, movements have usually benefited from socialist leadership. Socialist organizations give movements a revolutionary, system-changing vision which is inspiring and gives the right view about the way the authorities will deal with us, and how we should deal with them.

At the same time, socialist leadership gives movements a nuts-and-bolts pragmatism of knowing how to get things done, and efficient ways of making the movement as inclusive as possible for everyone who cannot afford a large time-investment. And all of this, without sacrificing revolutionary sincerity!

Why are we having trouble leading this time?

Our first instinct was to NOT take on the fundamental assumptions and organizational flaws of the movement. There were good reasons for this approach. Sometimes, indeed, it is better to go with the flow and build relationships than to take on every argument for the sake of principle. This is probably how arguments against informal leadership and consensus, and for declaring a formal list of demands, may have seemed in the beginning.

Informal leadership and consensus are also two huge reasons that we have been unable to lead in the style which we have enjoyed in the past.

The fact is, most people in the socialist movement are not interested in sacrificing all their time in order to shift the movement. The fact that someone would have to sacrifice all their time in order to shift the movement is a clear sign that there is a big problem. It means that the movement has obstacles to genuine democratic participation.

Likewise, when “no one is in charge” then the situation is biased toward the people who are there the most time being effectively in charge. And who is there the most? Who can afford it? An odd mix of college students, unemployed people, homeless folk, and crust punk anarchists who get a kick out of giving up all their material possessions and eating out of dumpsters (not something that resonates with middle America, even when class warfare does). In short, while Occupy may express the rage of the 9-to-5er population, it only allows them to participate very marginally.

You might argue that in a movement about occupations and encampments, the people who are there the most are the most deserving of having major influence. However, this is no way to include the working majority of the 99% who cannot afford the sacrifice in time which having a real voice in Occupy would require. In fact, if we are making a god out of camping instead of trying to make the movement as inclusive as possible to people who can only attend one or two hour-long meetings per week, we are truly lost. As a movement of the 99%, it should be a primary principle that we make it easy for the 99% to participate.

We have been trying to lead through working groups. Unfortunately, these are often as chaotic, consensus-ridden, and informally led as the entire movement. There are the same problems of the hardcore camping population having an extra moral authority even when their organizing style has massive limitations. This is why we need to lead the movement as a whole. Obviously socialists must unite with each other and our allies to do so because no single one of our micro-groups can do this alone.

Fighting against informal leadership and consensus is no longer a matter of principle, but a matter of tactics. These organizing styles are choking the movement. As socialists, let alone as bolsheviks, it is our duty to overcome anything that is choking the movement.

Such leadership is also what convinces people to join us. If I was an outsider looking in at Occupy, I would see absolutely no reason to join a socialist group. I would instead merely be an Occupy participant. Until socialists groups put themselves forward and take on the debates of the movement like we have in the past, there is nothing making us stand out as something to respect or join.

Furthermore, it is not only consensus that is choking the movement, but the expensive burden of maintaining the encampment tactic. Even more important than fighting consensus or informal leadership is pushing for a transition within Occupy, from being an encampment to being an organization.


Read the bottom of this site’s About page for a list of ideas, the most relevant being an informal coordination between socialist groups and any eager working groups or caucuses of Occupy, where we co-sign each other’s proposals, help distribute leaflets arguing for them, and support each other in numbers at the GAs.

Read this site’s proposal to transition Occupy from an encampment to an organization, starting a "99% Coalition."

Read this info on anarcho-purist organizing styles like consensus and informal leadership.