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Debates in the Movement – Occupy Needs a Political Voice

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The Occupy movement began as a response to years of deepening inequality, political corruption, and the brazenness with which Wall Street and Washington have colluded to wreak havoc on the economy, and then pay huge prizes to the very same robber-bankers who created the financial crisis.

The movement reflects a significant step forward in consciousness. Its slogans have emphasized the massive disparity between the “99%” and the “1%,” giving it a class character, whereas other recent movements have limited themselves to single-issues, such as the Iraq anti-war movement, or the movement against corporate personhood.

A strong sense of having been sold out was the starting point for Occupy and has given it a justified suspicion of politics in general. This connects to its concern about the development of political demands, political programs, and political organizations.

The movement is correct to be wary of being co-opted by “business as usual,” and its resistance to politics is an understandable response to decades of betrayal by the Republican and Democratic parties and their rotten policies. The well-founded nature of this concern was illustrated in how the corporate media, Wall Street, and the two parties of big business have reacted to the movement itself. Initially, they ignored Occupy and pretended it wasn’t happening. As the movement continued to grow, violent repression and intimidation tactics were directed against it. When repression failed to silence the movement and, instead, led to massive public sympathy and support, a section of the ruling class began looking to see how best to co-opt its energy for their own benefit.

Danger of Democratic Party Co-Option

Obama has begun speaking positively about the Occupy movement, saying in a recent speech that “it expresses the frustrations that the American people feel.” By this and similar statements, he hopes to turn a section of the movement back toward the Democratic Party, and mobilize it for the 2012 electoral campaign.

While the Democrats’ use of progressive-sounding rhetoric can be skillful, their track record of representing the interests of the 99% is abysmal. Despite his words, Obama has done little to challenge the Wall Street agenda. On the contrary, the Wall Street bailouts continued under Obama, attacks on social services and unions have become sharper, public sector layoffs have increased, a massive wave of deportations has taken place, and war spending has risen. Obama filled his cabinet with financial executives, in particular from Goldman Sachs. Recently, he chose Broderick Johnson, a man with a long resume as a Wall Street lobbyist, as his senior campaign advisor.

One of the insights of the Occupy movement has been a growing skepticism toward the Democratic Party among a wide layer of its activists. That skepticism, however, will be challenged by the drumbeat to support the “lesser evil” in November, and to keep Republicans from being elected.

The Democratic Party is also searching for a foothold inside the movement. A recent trend in Occupy has been directed against undemocratic electoral actions by the Republican Party, such as Occupy activists protesting in Iowa against voter suppression and electoral fraud. This trend is being seized on by Democrats to re-focus energy against the Republicans and pull Occupy activists into the Democratic party orbit. Other strategies include bringing Democratic Party representatives to Occupy events as speakers, who then seek to portray the Democrats as the party of the 99%.

Challenging the politics of lesser evilism will require building an independent movement that actively exposes the Democratic Party and puts forward its own program as an alternative to the corporate agenda. A class war is being waged by the 1% and, if the 99% fails to lead the resistance, the Democratic Party will co-opt a section of the movement to fight on the side of big business, as it has done with so many past movements.

The Need for Politics

Equating the resistance to co-option with a rejection of all “politics” would be disastrous for the movement. In the absence of a clear political direction, Occupy will likely be increasingly absorbed in divisive, unproductive internal debates, and make itself increasingly irrelevant in the middle of an election year. Without clear political positions on the key issues of the day, Occupy risks losing its focus, becoming marginalized, and ultimately co-opted.

The movement needs to employ slogans and political demands that can provide a solution to the massive crisis facing tens of millions of Americans who sympathize with Occupy. This will help it grow into a mass movement by connecting with broader layers of the working class and youth who are angry at the economic crisis, but who have so far only passively supported the movement.

One of the most common questions about Occupy, after four months, is still “what is the movement about?” The corporate media has used the lack of a political program or demands as ammunition to attack Occupy as being directionless. While inaccurate and dishonest, this media characterization has had substantial impact. There has been broad support and sympathy for the general ideas of Occupy among ordinary Americans. There is, however, still a lack of clarity about the goals of the movement.

Sections within Occupy have the view that putting forward demands is a sign of watering down the movement, and should be avoided at all costs. Others do not trust such decisions to be made democratically, and want a fully “leaderless” movement, basing itself autonomously on occupation and struggle.

But history shows that struggle alone is not enough. While the Occupy movement has exploded in a wave of class struggle unlike any in recent U.S. history, it is in danger if it cannot agree on a way forward. This is particularly true now that the political center of the movement, the physical encampments, have largely been evicted. Without that center, the question hangs in the air: “What next?”

The Civil Rights movement, and the other movements of the 1960s and 1970s, built their successes by capturing the imagination of wider and wider layers of the working class and youth and developing ultimately into a threat to the establishment. Their initial demands were far from revolutionary, but they resonated with the public and brought new people onto the streets. Through the experience of struggle, activists were increasingly attracted to anti-capitalist and socialist ideas, and new revolutionary organizations developed, such as the Black Panther Party.

New Direction

The Occupy movement has recently begun to develop new structures, such as the formation of local, neighborhood, town, and university occupy groups to take up issues affecting local areas and populations. This is an excellent direction and should be further developed.

Occupy should also call for democratic and participatory regional conferences in the coming months to develop its political direction and program, and discuss the idea of running its own candidates.

An Occupy political program could include demands widely supported within the movement, such as the need for single-payer health care, an end to home foreclosures, an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the repeal of Taft-Hartley, a massive green jobs program, the cancellation of student debt, and an end to all cuts to education and social services. Such demands will also find a strong echo among broader layers outside the movement. But first a challenge must be mounted against the prevailing anti-political mood, and the need for a political program must be patiently explained.

Social movements are ongoing processes that exist within the context of wider class society. To grow and succeed, movements need to take consciousness forward, but can only do so by first reaching out to where consciousness currently is. To defeat Wall Street’s agenda, the working class and youth will need to fight en masse for their interests, become better organized, develop a broader activist base, take massive strike action, and ultimately to overturn this rotten system of capitalism.

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