Occupy first. Demands come later

Occupy first. Demands come later
Occupy first. Demands come later

What to do after the occupations of Wall Street and beyond – the protests that started far away, reached the centre and are now, reinforced, rolling back around the world? One of the great dangers the protesters face is that they will fall in love with themselves. In a San Francisco echo of the Wall Street occupation this week, a man addressed the crowd with an invitation to participate as if it was a happening in the hippy style of the 60s: “They are asking us what is our programme. We have no programme. We are here to have a good time.”

Carnivals come cheap – the true test of their worth is what remains the day after, how our normal daily life will be changed. The protesters should fall in love with hard and patient work – they are the beginning, not the end. Their basic message is: the taboo is broken; we do not live in the best possible world; we are allowed, obliged even, to think about alternatives.

In a kind of Hegelian triad, the western left has come full circle: after abandoning the so-called “class struggle essentialism” for the plurality of anti-racist, feminist, and other struggles, capitalism is now clearly re-emerging as the name of theproblem. So the first lesson to be taken is: do not blame people and their attitudes. The problem is not corruption or greed, the problem is the system that pushes you to be corrupt. The solution is not “Main Street, not Wall Street”, but to change the system where Main Street cannot function without Wall Street.

There is a long road ahead, and soon we will have to address the truly difficult questions – not questions of what we do not want, but about what we do want. What social organisation can replace the existing capitalism? What type of new leaders do we need? What organs, including those of control and repression? The 20th-century alternatives obviously did not work.

While it is thrilling to enjoy the pleasures of the “horizontal organisation” of protesting crowds with egalitarian solidarity and open-ended free debates, we should also bear in mind what GK Chesterton wrote: “Merely having an open mind is nothing; the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” This holds also for politics in times of uncertainty: the open-ended debates will have to coalesce not only in some new master-signifiers, but also in concrete answers to the old Leninist question, “What is to be done?”

[Extract. Appeared in The Guardian on October 26th 2011.]

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