The Independence of Occupy: a First Achievement
After months of very successful mobilizations of the Occupy movement across the country, we are in a position to evaluate some of its key achievements and the new challenges it faces. One of them is, generally speaking, the clarification of the relation of Occupy with the bi-partisan electoral system (both with the parties themselves and the Congress system as a whole). And this becomes increasingly necessary given that this Spring, we are starting an important electoral year in the midst of an economic crisis.
Up to now Occupy has not explicitly pledged support to any of the candidates or parties, but it has not formulated publicly and clearly a position of independence from them, nor the reasons for that. It has remained in a safe and progressive intermediary stage, that of the polarization around 99% vs 1%, unveiling the real opposition of interests in this country.We believe that this “intermediary” stage of Occupy is a progressive one, or even a victory, because Occupy represents the only social movement, in the last 30 or 40 years, that has a potential of reaching mass influence and of doing so not only “independently” of the Democratic Party, and without seeking or even accepting its explicit participation, but openly against the ruling class. Indeed, this is not just a movement of one sector of society, but the movement of the 99% against the 1%, where many have expressed their anger at “a system that works for the 1%”, a system where “the 1% has corrupted the political elite”, etc. This victory is an outcome of the crisis and the bailouts of the big banks and corporations, because the crisis has laid out in the open the dire contradictions of our society. It is also our victory: the emergence of a broad movement that has decided to speak up as members of the 99% against that robbery and defy the rule of the 1% – something that seemed impossible before and now seems only logical.
The main reason for this initial refusal to take a position on candidates and ballot initiatives, as well as to articulate demands, is the fear of co-optation by the current ruling class and its apparatus and the fear of reduction of the larger goals of the movement to small demands, etc. This fear, even though it is a healthy one based on previous experiences of betrayed struggles, can become an obstacle if it prevents the Occupy movement from defining itself politically. The Occupy movement needs to provide solid reasons for its independence from the two big parties and act as a leverage point for the rest of the working class organizations (starting with the unions) to do the same. At the same time, it needs to develop its political positions and demands to provide an alternative to the corporate parties and the ruling class in general.
Why unions shouldn’t support the Democratic party
The Democratic party has shown clearly where it stands and whose interests it serves since the last elections and through its management of the economic crisis (and we would argue even way before that). It disappointed hundreds of thousands with continuing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and increased military operations around the globe, with its almost nonexistent health-care reform, with its continuation of tax cuts for big corporations, with its implementation of new programs and policies for mass deportations, and especially with the huge bailouts to the banks and the austerity measures against social services and public education. The bailout to the financial corporations represent the biggest transfer of public wealth (made from taxes on workers) to private corporations in world history. But the last straw was the recurrent and brutal attacks on the Occupy movement.
Although a big part of the 99% voted for them, the Democratic party indeed works for the 1%. And this should be no surprise if we have a look at who primarily funds the Democratic party: banks and corporations (same situation as the Republicans). It is true that unions and individual citizens contributed to Obama’s campaign, but without having any leverage because they could not match the huge contributions of banks and corporations and do not have any organized way to influence its politics. The undemocratic internal structure of the Democratic party (with input from the broad base of the party being limited in voting during primaries) also points to the same problem of who this party is aimed to represent.
By supporting the Democratic party and voting for the “lesser evil”, unions are taking an irresponsible position without considering the real political consequences: more cuts, lower wages, no public health-care and education, etc. The Democrats are the keystone for preserving the political legitimacy of the rule of the 1%. They manage politics according to their business interests, they want to continue to defend the 1%, but with the support of the 99%. They want to keep the situation and the country as it is: to make us pay for their crisis, to generate the profits they accumulate. The Occupy movement has challenged this situation and this is exactly why the Democratic Party is in such a contradictory position: wanting to suppress the Occupy movement and trying to co-opt it at the same time in order to claim real ties with the 99%. If we endorse their candidates, give money to their campaigns, etc, we are giving up any pressure we have built up to now for the old promises we hear every time, we are risking too much for too little (or even nothing).
Some will agree with the above analysis on the Democratic party as a whole, but they will argue that there are “good” and “honest” Democrats worth supporting, who are sincerely committed to our struggle, who come to our rallies and actions, etc. Let’s be clear, irrespective of people’s intentions, which they might be the best, supporting a candidate or a party is a political matter. A question of tactics and strategy. The idea that there are “good” and “bad” Democrats stems from the understanding that there is not a real party line, that the party is a collection of opinions and influential personalities. This impression of “fluidity” or “diversity of views” is a good media operation, but it is far from the truth: the current developments show that there is real unity in implementing a political program. And that program of government is decided at the top of the party and mostly influenced by corporate interests. The idea of “good rank-and file Democrats” is a tactic to capture votes in different working class sectors. It is only rarely that some candidates themselves have illusions about what their role is. This becomes evident when a slightly dissenting voice within a party starts having an impact. It is not uncommon that dissenters are replaced, forced to resign or even kicked out of the party in these cases. So, if there are candidates of the Democratic party that are genuinely on our side, what better way is there to prove it but by breaking with the Democrats and making their alignment with the 99% and the Occupy movement clear?
The real role of the Democratic party is clear to the Occupy movement now, but as elections approach, we will have to face the huge pressure to vote for the “lesser” evil and the argument of “good” Democrats. Most unions are particularly vulnerable to this pressure, as their leaderships have long-standing ties with the Democratic party and, until recently, had abandoned any effort to build the labor movement, concentrating instead on collecting money and votes. In California, some unions have already supported Brown’s regressive tax proposal, accepting the “shared pain” rhetoric of additional cuts and furloughs and have done so without any mobilization of their base. Instead of following this path, we need to expose the serious flaws in these arguments, provide our alternatives for real change and fight for them through our mass democratic movement.
From Independence to Class Independence
We said that the current independence is a victory. But we, socialists, also say that this independence of Occupy is also a very fragile one: Occupy has established some sort of class independence “de facto”, because it is implicitly polarized around economic contradictions. But it has not taken a conscious position of class independence from the Democratic and Republican Party and from all State administrations and bodies. Talking about class independence is not just about the word “class”, it is about concretely developing the politics of our movement in one direction, it is a matter of content and not of form.
First we need to understand the nature of the current independence. For most new activists this independence is truly a lack of political determination of the relation between the movement and the Democrats and the State because this issue has not come up yet in the current struggle in a meaningful way for them. But for some experienced activists there a conscious choice of avoiding or even opposing concretely determining the politics of Occupy, a choice that comes from a confused political ideology (often a self-described “anarchism”) that does not see any value in even discussing “politics” (issues of demands and organization) or addressing the question of “parliamentary politics”- even though they live in a parliamentary democracy.
For us socialists, the question of establishing a clear independence of our movement from corporate parties and city council administrations is not just a matter of “propagating our ideals” or “inscribing our principles” in a piece of paper to be voted on and read out-loud. It has to do with the immediate challenges and the immediate future of our movement, it has to do with the reality of the 99% and where most people are at-and where they could be. There are three things to be considered here:
- The preservation of our “de facto” independence from the 1% and its political organizations during the electoral period
- The understanding and development of this independence along class lines, because the division between the 99% and the 1% is an expression of existing class contradictions.
- The understanding therefore that this independence is not an independence “from politics”, but one full of political possibilities and opportunities: the one to be developed autonomously and democratically by the working class itself.
Given the current composition of the Occupy movement this “de facto” independence will be easily kept in some sites, (like Oakland or New York where there is a clearer understanding of the links between the Democrats and the 1%), but will be fought for with difficulty in many other cities, where City Council elected members have been “part of the movement”, where precisely the class nature of this independence is unclear and the pro-Democratic Party propaganda machines (including unions and non-profits) are effective. There, we must fight to show and explain to all the activists the hypocrisy of the Democratic Party and who it truly represents.
To develop this independence into a class one is not a question of giving more socialist speeches in the General Assemblies, it is about first pushing our movement in a direction that concretely opposes the ruling class and raises consciousness through struggle, while, at the same time, combating the idea that our movement is “a-political” or “anti-political”.
This same debate has also emerged in the labor movement and it is important to remind ourselves that class consciousness is not a matter of lecturing, but a matter of developing the struggle along class lines: “Independence from the influence of the bourgeoisie cannot be a passive state. It can express itself only by political acts, that is, by the struggle against the bourgeoisie. This struggle must be inspired by a distinct program which requires organization and tactics for its application. It is the union of program, organization, and tactics that constitutes the party. In this way, the real independence of the proletariat from the bourgeois government cannot be realized unless the proletariat conducts its struggle under the leadership of a revolutionary and not an opportunist party.” (Trotsky, Communism and Syndicalism, 1929) This is why we must fight for those “political acts”, that is to say those actions combined with demands, that re-group the 99% against the 1%, not only around issues of repression and police brutality (like the port shut down), but against the policies of the government, from the local to the national level, including education, housing, regressive taxation, cuts to public programs and social services, health-care, the banking crisis, immigration, the war, etc.
And at the same time we need to combat those who want to limit our opportunities of real emancipation by depriving this movement of concrete demands, goals and a clear political direction. Our class independence is the condition of our emancipation, not a limitation. It is the only way to address the issues that affect our class. As Marx put it many years ago: “the emancipation of the workers must be the act of the working class itself”, of the working class without the interference and “leadership” of the bourgeoisie and its allies. The point of this independence is to develop our own politics, not to remain silent and agnostic in the political arena, as if we had no ideas, projects and alternatives about how we could run this country! Our class independence must be the starting point to address all the issues that affect the 99% (the crisis, the cuts to social services, the war etc), as well as all the issues that currently divide the 99%, like sexism, racism, homophobia, unemployment, differences in legal status, differences in levels of education, etc.
We need a political alternative to the 1%
The Occupy movement is not only able to formulate an alternative political project to that of the 1%, at some point it has to challenge the current power of the 1%. It is now time that the 99% (or the working class) develops its own political expression that is independent from the 1% (or the capitalist class). The Occupy Movement has brought this division of society to the forefront and the opposite interests of the two classes have become crystal clear during the economic crisis, but the reality is that in the current system, there is no room for our politics, and there is no room to show through practice that our politics do not fit into this system.
This is why we need to build a political alternative to the electoral parties of the 1%, because the 99% desperately needs its own voice and its own spaces: caucuses in the unions, general assemblies in schools and neighborhoods, and a political party, a political expression that of course should not be understood merely as an electoral expression, but as a continuation of our struggle on all fronts, so we start making the changes we need in all spheres of society.
Traditionally, this issue has been addressed in the labor movement through the project of building a Labor Party (especially in the 1920s and 1930s), and later in the Black and Chicano Liberation movements, where some sectors of the Black and Chicano working class expressed the desire of forming independent parties. Today, with the Occupy movement we have another opportunity, where Occupy could call for the involvement and support on the unions and popular organizations around a common independent platform of basic demands. We should start this crucial task sooner than later while we have this momentum for radical changes in the United States.