SEATTLE--Groupings within the Occupy movement here in Seattle and around the country called for a May 1 "general strike" to protest wealth inequality and corporate dominance.
Over a thousand came out to demonstrate against the underlying logic of the capitalist system. However, midway through the day, some Black Bloc anarchist protesters smashed windows and clashed with police.
The methods used here by a few dozen anarchists contrast with how the Occupy movement operated in its beginnings last fall in New York City. By occupying Zuccotti Park near Wall Street to protest the massive wealth and power disparity in the U.S. and organizing mass marches, the movement attracted active support from workers and youth and the sympathy of tens of millions.
When videos of New York police pepper-spraying non-violent protesters went viral on the internet and were played repeatedly on TV news, Occupy protests spread across the country nearly overnight.
Despite the movement's rapid initial success, as a whole it has not been able to move beyond occupying public spaces. When local authorities broke up encampments, much of the momentum and direction of the movement was further dissipated.
Tens of thousands came out to protests and occupations. But millions more were radicalized by the movement's message and implicit criticism of capitalism. Unfortunately, Occupy today remains a shadow of its former self. This leaves those inspired to action left without an active movement to join to challenge corporate control over society.
It is important to ask: What went wrong? What can activists learn from this experience to build a more effective movement to challenge capitalism and corporate power in the future?
While Occupy was successful at bringing tens of thousands of young people and workers into action, many for their first protests ever, it was not able to mobilize the wider mass of the population - the tens of millions that opinion polls showed sympathized with the movement's message. Mass movements of millions protesting in the streets are what have brought about every progressive social change in U.S. history – from the right to organize a union to civil rights for African Americans.
Why demands are necessary for successful mass struggle
What could Occupy have done to mobilize its widespread sympathy? This was heavily debated amongst Occupy activists. The key question centered on the issue of demands.
Socialists and other activists within the movement argued from the beginning that to mobilize more working and young people into struggle, Occupy would have to adopt specific demands. Occupy needed to be seen as fighting to alleviate the problems that affect them. They could have done this by calling for taxing the rich to stop budget cuts to public services, for a massive public jobs program, and for student debt forgiveness, among other demands.
Unfortunately, some within the movement opposed the idea of unifying demands altogether. Some anarchists and anti-capitalist activists opposed demands that called for reforms within capitalism, arguing that consciousness within the movement was ahead of this.
While it's true that the consciousness of many activists within Occupy was more radical than the rest of society, the key goal of the movement should be to pull the millions sympathetic to the movement closer to it. During certain historical periods, consciousness can rapidly leap forward as millions radicalize under the impact of events. Occupy's sudden spread from New York City to hundreds of other cities was a small example. But a larger part of this process is the movement engaging with the broad masses of the population, those whose consciousness is moving towards the movement but who haven't yet moved into struggle.
Demands are a key tool for transforming passive sympathy into active support, turning a supporter into an activist. By showing people that the movement has taken up the issues that directly affect their lives and is fighting for them, millions more can be drawn into struggle.
A good example of this is the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and '70s. Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights leaders and organizations, for example, demanded an end to segregation and the creation of jobs in black communities as a way of pulling wider layers of sympathetic African American workers and youth into marches, protests, and sit-ins. Just protesting existing conditions wasn't enough to motivate them to make the sacrifices needed in order to enter into the struggle. They needed to hear what the movement was concretely fighting for, what it was demanding that would genuinely improve their daily lives.
Having slogans like "for the 99%" is useful, but that alone won't advance the movement if further demands don't explain how it will fight for the 99%. Recognizing this fact, sections of Occupy in certain areas have built effective struggles around concrete demands and specific attacks on working people. In Minneapolis and other cities, the Occupy Homes campaign has fought foreclosures and prevented banks and police from evicting struggling homeowners. This campaign has directly linked Occupy activists with working people and raised useful demands like reducing outstanding loan principles on "underwater" homes and calling for city- and state-wide moratoriums on home foreclosures.
From reforms to system change
At the same time, one of the best features of Occupy was that it didn't focus on just one area of oppression or exploitation under capitalism, but called into question the entire system. Anarchists also played a useful role inside the movement by pointing out that capitalism was the root cause of most of the daily miseries of our society. They correctly argued for calling out and fighting capitalism itself, not just its symptoms.
However, our movement won't contribute to bringing about an end to capitalism by just declaring that we are against it. We need to raise demands that would massively benefit working and poor people, like heavy taxes on corporate profits and the rich to fund jobs and social programs, a single-payer healthcare system, nationalizing the banks, and investing in renewable energy. This would win over millions of supporters, who could be brought into active struggle for these reforms.
But even these basic progressive changes would be completely intolerable to corporate America, meaning that a consistent struggle for these demands will quickly be confronted with the need to fight the capitalist system itself. The illusion that capitalism can be reformed to be more humane must be shattered. Socialists have a key role to play by pointing out the ways that big business and the profit system function as the key obstacles to achieving the reforms sought by workers and youth and offering the alternative vision of a socialist society.
In terms of concrete strategy to win, this means declaring political independence from both parties of big business so as to continue to fight for demands on the basis of what working people need, not on the basis of what is “politically realistic” in Washington.
Unfortunately, most people don't just wake up one day and decide they're against capitalism and for a socialist alternative. It typically takes struggle and bitter experience. But the first step is drawing them into struggle, where they can see for themselves how the politicians, corporate chiefs, media, and police are not on their side. When confronted with a movement that challenges their power, those within the establishment either attack the movement or attempt to co-opt it for their own gain.
Again, on this count the Civil Rights movement provides valuable lessons. When the movement began in the 1950s and early '60s, most activists fought only for immediate reforms like an end to segregation and the Jim Crow laws in the South. But by the late '60s, after experiencing brutal repression, the assassination of leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, along with still being stuck in the worst jobs, schools, and neighborhoods, over a million black people drew revolutionary conclusions.
We can't just declare we're against capitalism and expect millions to instantly agree. We need to engage in a dialogue with communities on the issues facing them, distill people’s anger, hopes, and aspirations into fighting demands, and then explain what strategies and tactics we think will be necessary to achieve them. We as a movement need to build a bridge from existing consciousness to the need for an alternative to capitalism. This is why we need demands that advance mass consciousness towards the movement in steps, to draw in hundreds and thousands more into action.
If millions were mobilized into the streets, some of the more immediate demands could be won. This would embolden more to enter the struggle, as they drew the conclusion that mass movements can change society.
New and larger mass movements will emerge in the near future. Occupy will serve as an important point of reference for these movements, allowing activists to draw lessons on how to more effectively pull wider layers of working people into struggle.
However, you don't have to wait for the eruption of struggle in the future to influence what shape they will take. You can join Socialist Alternative today and help us build the movements we are involved in now in our schools, workplaces, and communities. A powerful socialist movement will help ensure that the lessons of past movements can be applied to put our struggles on a stronger footing.