Occupy London: A Germ of Socialist Democracy in Action

23 Oct
capitalism is crisis banner

Telling it like it is

“Capitalism Is Crisis” reads the main banner at the Occupy London camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral. This new anti-capitalist movement seems to have a lot more going for it than the previous anti-globalisation movements that pursued the leaders of the G7 advanced capitalist countries from summit to summit a few years ago. The difference this time is the economic context. Starting in Spain, with the Indignados protesting since May against the massive austerity imposed by the social-democratic government at the behest of the IMF, EU and bankers, protest movements fuelled by rage at economic disaster and rampant inequality have spread widely.

Most notably to the United States, where the Occupy Wall Street movement rapidly took off in reaction to the continuing economic crisis and impoverishment of working class America. From Wall Street and Manhattan it has spread around the country. In many major and not-so-major cities there is an ‘Occupy’ movement, camps and protests. This has flowed outside the traditional expressions of working class organisation, the trade unions, whose leaders have been co-opted and whose members have been hammered for decades. But this movement could well be a spark that leads to a new radicalism in the unions also.

At the Occupy London public assembly

And now it is underway here. Occupy London is not huge … yet. But it has huge potential. The resonance is palpable, and so is the fear in the capitalist media. The movement itself is highly democratic in the way it is organised, with public assemblies twice a day, and all decisions taken pretty much on a principle of unanimity. It is possible for minorities to vote to ‘block’ a measure that might have majority support which undoubtedly leads to the formulations of decisions that really do have broad support. A ‘block’ can only be overturned with a 75% majority. It could appear that this kind of ‘ultra-democracy’ might lead to paralysis, but it hasn’t yet.

Indeed, the idealism and decency of those involved shines through in the statement of solidarity issued by the occupation with those resisting the eviction of the Travellers site at Grange Farm, Essex. This produced something of an outcry from elements online who claim to support the aims of the occupiers but not ‘divisive’ stands like Dale Farm. But of course, it would be wise take such claims to ‘support’ the aims of the movement with a very large pinch of salt, as indeed the occupiers have done. In fact, as is to be expected, the dawning of this movement has produced a rash of such people, patronising the occupiers that ‘of course’ they support what they want, if only they would refrain from raising ‘divisive’ issues like anti-capitalism, or anything remotely at odds with the status quo.

A whole brace of such trolling critics have appeared in the comments on their website, and it is testament to the energy and openness of the people running it that they have kept it open for free discussion despite such aggravations.

Occupy London statement of principles

Democracy In Action - agreed Occupy statement of principles on public view

I went along this afternoon to the St Paul’s camp for a couple of hours, having been unable to make it last weekend and unfortunately also yesterday. At the public assembly, at this point there was little real controversy among the occupiers. There was considerable cheer at the establishment of a second camp, at Finsbury Square, on the other side of the City Of London, as a further sign that the movement is making progress.

The most contentious point was the closure of St Paul’s Cathedral by the Dean, who after an initially friendly feint towards the occupiers, now has reverted to the archetype of the Church Of England as the ‘Tory Party at prayer’, closing the Cathedral on spurious ‘health and safety’ grounds and complaining bitterly that the Cathedral’s commercial interests are suffering because of the camp.

In fact, the occupiers have made considerable efforts to accommodate the Dean, and have liaised with both the Health and Safety Executive and the London Fire Brigade about issues concerning fire risk and other safety matters. They have written to the Dean and management of the Cathedral seeking details of their alleged concerns, but to date have received no response. Which needless to say, is not surprising.

Their openness also extended to allowing a couple of people to denounce them for supposedly ‘closing’ the Cathedral from the mike at the assembly. One of them was an elderly woman who seemed misinformed, the other was a fairly vehement Christian who oozed contempt for the occupiers, but was counterbalanced by a Christian minister who was supportive and said that not everyone in the Church supported what the Dean had done.

The occupiers are mainly young people, many unemployed, some students, and a smattering of older people, academics, and others who have the free time to devote to something like this, who will undoubtedly be a kind of vanguard of the movement. But the movement is only going to be successful if it works with lots of workers who have jobs and/or family responsibilities who are not going to be able to camp out overnight. As indeed, they seem well aware, and are very welcoming, though for obvious reasons decision-making is the preserve of those actually involved in the occupation itself.

public assembly open mike

Open mike at the public assembly

One thing they are doing with apparent flair is the organisations of discussions, seminars, public meetings etc in the new public space that the occupation has given birth to. I attended a session of ‘Tent City University’, in which a moderator ran a pretty informal discussion on ‘human nature’. It was not the conventional kind of meeting where you have a presentation, followed by a discussion. Rather, the discussion is the meeting, the moderator gives out a printed sheet containing points relating to the topic being discussed, and invites free-flowing comments and discussion on them.

It was a novel way of discussing, and somewhat unfamiliar, but i managed to speak a couple of times in the discussion, putting a communist view of the malleable and socially conditioned nature of ‘human nature’, and found a considerable degree of agreement with many of the participants. Whether this is the best format for discussions of a more complex and controversial nature is open to doubt, but it certainly was a change from the usual format of left meetings where a single person (or sometimes a panel) gives the main content of the meeting in a presentation and the discussion from the floor is something of a subordinate event. Here the discussion from the floor was the main event.

Anyway, Occupy London needs your support. It has the potential to really shake up this country in a way not seen for many years, it has resonance with a very wide layer because it is capturing a mood of anger and betrayal by all the parties that promote the interests of big business. It needs the support of socialists, trade unions and all opponents of oppression and seekers after progressive social change.


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3 responses to “Occupy London: A Germ of Socialist Democracy in Action

  1. John

    October 24, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    The problem is not Capitalism, it is corporatism.

    The right wingers, old commies and International Socialists are trying to make the analysis into their favourite class war but these people are just Red or Blue Corporatists. See Communism did not deliver. Don’t let the old Marxists take over this movement.

    Unlike the end of the nineteenth century, this time around it is not the “capitalists” who are causing the trouble. Modern capitalists are pensioners and people who have saved money. It is the Company Directors and Public Sector Managers and their favoured proteges who are twisting the world in their favour. These people must be stopped. See The Anti Capitalist Protests.

  2. redscribe

    October 24, 2011 at 6:44 pm

    I don’t think Marxists have a cat in hells chance of ‘taking over’ this movement in the manner implied here. In fact, that is not how revolutionary movements work, no one is able to ‘take over’ anything. What is likely to happen is that people will take the elements of Marx’s ideas that are relevant to the situation we are in, and develop those ideas through their own extension. Provided they fit the situation. If the don’t fit the situation, they wont be developed in that way.

    Why the paranoia about Marxists ‘taking over’? It is perhaps because the paranoid anti-Marxists, of whatever type, fear that the method of Marx, which analyses the situation as objectively as possible based on giving primacy to the conditions in which human beings produce and reproduce the conditions of their own life, and the conflicts of material interest that systematically occur during that process, fits the situtation much better than their arbitrary structures or deceptive programmes of minor tinkering.

    We will see what happens. It is ideas, not any shadowy grouping that figures in anyone’s paranoid imagination, that may ‘take over’. That is, that may convince people that they are useful for understanding the world we live in and point to ways to make it better. That is all anyone can say.

    So live in fear of the bogey man if you must. Others have better things to do.

  3. John

    October 30, 2011 at 7:00 pm

    The only “fear” is that Marxist groups tend to be better organised and more represented amongst the young than many other political groups. The branding of the protest with the name “anti-capitalist” appears to have been due to Fox News, no doubt hoping to dismiss it as part of the loony left, but this is chillingly reminiscent of the London Times branding the mid nineteenth century Paris riots as “communist”.


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