Mark Bergfeld

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Occupy: How do you build a movement?


August 2012

This article was written for Occupied Times, London

Students demonstrate at the Tory Party Conference, Manchester in Manchester in 2011

Students demonstrate at the Tory Party Conference, Manchester in Manchester in 2011

Nearly one year after OLSX set up camp outside St Paul’s, we are preparing for a hot autumn, with strikes, a Trade Union Congress and student demonstrations. Inasmuch as the situation is pregnant with new opportunities, we must not forget where we came from.

We have come a long way from the anti-capitalist movement of the early 2000s and its bitter debates, which led to inaction and navel-gazing. Since then, we have had mass anti-war movements, successful movements against neoliberalism in Latin America, the return of youth revolts and mass strikes in Greece, Spain, Portugal, France and Britain, and, most importantly, the Arab revolutions which continue today.

However, the ruling classes remain as determined and united as ever to crush the rights of workers and other oppressed groups. That’s why it is necessary to build the broadest possible unity on our side. Unity doesn’t mean we should shy away from arguments amongst ourselves. In every movement, there will be a thousand and one opinions on what the way forward is. While this can be a strength, it is also our weakness and can create the kind of inaction that we saw in the latter years of the anti-capitalist movement.

In allusion to the old trade union slogan ‘Unity is strength‘, we need to raise the banner ‘Unity in action’. We cannot, for example, let the students fight by themselves like they did in 2010. Similarly, we cannot let public sector workers of the PCS strike by themselves like they have been doing over the last year.

‘Unity in action‘ means we stand united on the picket lines and support each other’s demonstrations and occupations. It doesn’t mean we brush our differences aside, but requires us to engage in a political dialogue about what kind of strategy and tactics our movements need in order to succeed.

In the course of Occupy London we entered a crucial process of learning from each other and developed common strategies which could unite different political actors. Now we have to lay the organisational foundations for escalation. In Spain, the Indignados have successfully taken their protest from the squares into the universities and built support with Asturian miners.

Our tactics must be based on the objective circumstances we find ourselves in, and in considerations whether tactics such as occupation bring the movement closer to the goal of defeating the neoliberal project. While the students’ movement and Occupy elevated the tactic of occupation above its strategy, the anti-war movement in 2003 did the same with its bi-yearly marches. Our movements need to aim to change the balance of forces inside of society and create the kind of networks that can make us stronger for the next round of struggles. As we have seen with UK Uncut, Occupy or the students’ movement, even a minority can detonate wider social and workers’ struggles. But we don’t want to remain a minority movement. We want to see the 99% joining us in action.

We need to combine two things: develop tactics which can draw people into action against neoliberalism, and develop demands which can offer an alternative to the neoliberal project.

We can start to contest neoliberalism when the 99% aim to shut down the 1%, as we have seen in Occupy Oakland. Additionally, we need demands which present an alternative to the current system: tax the rich, stop tax avoidance, provide free education. Such demands need to be radical enough so that a militant minority fights for them, and broad enough for the wider masses to connect with. The slogan “Occupy Everything – Demand nothing” cannot provide a framework for developing tactics and strategies for the 99%.

As we move into the autumn, we will need to learn from some of the best experiences of the global Occupy movement. Occupy Oakland turned the slogan ‘Unity is strength‘ into action by uniting occupiers, students, the black community and the longshoremen of America’s fifth largest port. Having gained support from Oakland’s organised working class, Occupy set out to shut down the port and called for the first American general strike since 1946. What Oakland activists understood was that the self-activity of workers was key to building a movement against neoliberalism.

In the UK, the electricians who linked up with Occupy to shut down building sites succeeded in challenging the multinational corporation Balfour Beatty. This is the kind of strategy we need.


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