With upwards of 2,000 gathered for the opening night rally of OccupyMN, myself and other organizers were beaming. As one of the MCs, leading chants and introducing speakers, my voice was almost gone by the time I got to my hardest task that night: rallying people to our first General Assembly, which was to start a few minutes after the rally.
After all, what the hell is a “General Assembly”? Even among the core organizers, different conceptions were rife. Using the “people’s mic” call and response method of amplification, I chose my words carefully.
“We all know / that our democracy is broken / that the elites on Wall Street / and the big corporations / and their paid-off politicians / have completely corrupted our system / but we still need to learn / how to build a real democracy / how to build a bottom-up participatory democracy / where everyone’s voice is heard / tonight we are going to have an experiment / in participatory democracy / we are going / to have our first General Assembly”
Across the country and around the world, General Assemblies (GA) are a defining feature of the occupations. Their specific character and internal processes vary widely, but everywhere most Occupy activists consider GA’s more than simply decision-making bodies for the immediate protests. They are also viewed as a radical experiment in participatory, bottom-up democracy.
“These protesters have not come to work within the system,” explains acclaimed journalist Chris Hedges. “They know electoral politics is a farce and have found another way to be heard and exercise power. They have no faith, nor should they, in the political system or the two major political parties. They know the press will not amplify their voices, and so they created a press of their own. They know the economy serves the oligarchs, so they formed their own communal system. This movement is an effort to take our country back” (Truthdig.com, 10/10/11).
While Hedges’ comments capture something important, setting this protest movement apart, clearly it is one thing to “reclaim” control of parks and plazas, and quite another to transform society. To break the power of the banks and corporations, working people must take democratic control of the dominant economic, social, and political institutions that shape our lives.
So the idea that today’s occupations and General Assemblies should be created to model the future society we want is mistaken. After all, the type of structures we would create to democratically manage our workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods would be very different than type of mass movement organizations we need today to achieve a socialized democracy. You don’t build a house with a house; you use hammers and nails.
The failure to differentiate between tool and product, between creating an organizational instrument to fight capitalism and trying to create the new society right there in the plazas, has caused problems. In Minneapolis that first night, thirty minutes after my lofty invitation, our attempt at a General Assembly collapsed when the first concrete proposal was “blocked.” I didn’t envy the inexperienced facilitators, trying to implement a poorly understood consensus model while managing debate in crowd of 500!
Initially there was wide support for a proposal to have the GA decide things using majority rule following an extensive discussion where all views were heard. But this was repeatedly “blocked” by the insistence of some to reach full consensus before any decisions could be made, which paralyzed our GA for days. The main motivation for consensus was the idea that if we wanted a society where the needs of all were met, that is how we should organize our movement. So while the GA was consumed with unresolvable debates over demands and how to relate to the police, practical work, including big decisions about events, media, messaging, and finances, got worked out in committees.
Nonetheless, across the country, the extensive debates on process, the role of demands, how to do outreach, relations with the police, etc., is playing an important role educating a new generation of activists how to organize and how to imagine a better future.
The working class
More to the point, occupiers’ struggle with city authorities and police to maintain control of the parks and plazas, to erect shelters, and to win public opinion already display partial elements of what Marxists call “dual power,” a contest between the official capitalist institutions and newly established institutions of popular power. For most occupiers, this movement is a challenge to the basic legitimacy of capitalist governments and parties.
Of course, popular control of parks and plazas, while symbolically powerful, does not give our General Assemblies real material power over the capitalists. Especially when compared to waves of workplace occupations seen in past struggles internationally, including the sit-down strikes of the 1930s which transformed living conditions for U.S. workers. Socialists point out that because capitalists’ wealth and power is rooted in their private ownership of society’s productive forces – factories, services, transportation, etc. – working people, if organized along class lines, have the unique power to challenge them.
The potential power of the working class to shut down capitalist production and, further, to democratically manage the economy themselves, is the strategic key to achieve both reforms within capitalism and socialist change. That is why we continue to emphasize the need for the Occupy movement to turn outward and mobilize support in working class communities.
For cynics, attending a messy OccupyMN General Assembly could be enough to conclude that socialist visions of ordinary people self-managing the economy and society are completely utopian. However, in answer to critics of his time accusing the socialist movement of advocating “mob rule,” Marx explained that through the very course of the struggle, the working class would gain experience in self-organization and make itself “fit” to democratically run society.
Marx pointed out that the logic of the class struggle drove workers to build democratic trade unions and to demand ever-greater control over workplace conditions and over financial decisions of businesses. As consciousness and the struggle developed it would move from localized battles between bosses and workers into a wider political struggle, with the working class challenging the capitalists’ domination of society as a whole. Marx explained that workers would fight to establish their own political parties to challenge the capitalist parties for power.
Basing himself on the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871 – the first successful, if short-lived, workers’ government – Marx went on to explain that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.” Rather, revolutionary change requires replacing capitalist government institutions with new institutions of popular, democratic workers’ control.
The revolutions of the twentieth century confirmed this perspective. The experience of Russia in 1905 and 1917, in Germany, Hungary, Italy, and across Europe following World War One, France in 1968, Chile in 1973, Portugal in 1974 – and the list goes on – showed how improvised workplace organizations, when generalized in collective action, begin to provide an alternative governing structure to capitalist rule.
In each case, delegates elected out of workplace meetings formed workers’ councils - cordones in Spanish, soviets in Russian – to coordinate their struggle and challenge the capitalist parties for power. Unlike representatives in capitalist governments, workplace delegates were immediately recallable if they failed to represent those who elected them.
Workplace and university occupations were the hallmark of the ten million-strong 1968 French General Strike. Workers’ councils were formed, and bosses were locked out or held hostage in their offices. TV and radio stations continued to operate under democratic workers’ control. Telephone exchange workers blocked police and government communications. Students and faculty ran their own classes out of occupied universities.
A real situation of “dual power” continued for weeks, with worker, student, and community councils effectively running much of French society while the official government remained suspended in midair. The revolution was only lost due to the betrayals of conservative union leaders and others who fought efforts by many local councils to develop regional and national structures which could replace the capitalist government.
The socialist transformation of France could have been achieved by linking up these worker, community, and student councils into a national assembly that took major corporations and banks into public ownership and democratic workers control.
Recent revolutionary movements in Latin America have followed a similar pattern. In 2005, Bolivian workers and poor farmers rose up against poverty, demanded nationalization of the key industries, and took control of several cities through councils of elected delegates from neighborhoods, workplaces, unions, and social movement organizations.
The same thing developed a year later in Oaxaca, Mexico. The repression of a teachers strike led to a general uprising and the establishment of the delegated Asamblea Popular, which evicted police, federal troops, and government officials, took over radio stations, universities, and other institutions, and ran the city for nearly half a year.
For Occupy activists seeking to understand how a new participatory democracy could be established, these historical experiences are crucial to study.
The Occupy Wall Street protests represent an awakening of American workers and youth. They demonstrate a new confidence that radical change is not only necessary, but possible. The alliance of youthful radicals with trade union activists shown in the occupations offers promise for a revival of the labor movement. However long the current upsurge lasts, however this specific tactic of park and plaza occupations plays out, it has already made a historic imprint on the minds of millions.
The idea that another world is possible, freed from the domination of corporate elites and their paid-off politicians, has taken hold and will only continue to grow.