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The Occupy Movement and the Leftist Politics

Once upon a time in the West—that is, from the 17th to the late 18th century—there was Radical Enlightenment—the current of thought and eventually political action that played the primary role in grounding the democratic and egalitarian core values and secular ideals of the modern world.

However, in much of today’s world wherein societies and governments have only very patchily accepted the above mentioned radical enlightenment, it is interesting as also valuable to take stock of the nearly-decade-ago Occupy Wall Street movement on the one hand, and the Left movement of the 20th century on the other. Both these movements took place for the sake of a future egalitarian and democratic society but the former was never explicitly anti-capitalist and certainly not pro-socialist, whereas the latter had mostly emerged, much splintered though later on, as explicitly anti-capitalist and pro-socialist praxis.

The Occupy Movement and the Leftist politics are pitted against each other in terms of the dichotomy, namely prefigurative politics vs. strategic politics.

The Occupy Movement was strongly galvanized in the US, nearly a decade ago, by a militant non-violent direct action against money in politics, corporate greed, surging inequality, unemployment and underemployment, the mortgage crisis, student debt and problems of access to education, and other types of economic precarity. It was led by “the graduate with no future”, so to say. That is to say, it was spearheaded by educated middle-class youth making use of social media. These youth were typically white, and from affluent family backgrounds.

These activists not only rejected mainstream political parties as hopelessly corrupted by corporate power; they also spurned traditional left-wing organizations as overly hierarchical. More influenced by anarchist and autonomist traditions than by the socialist Left, their eclectic political critique and praxis combined elements of all these traditions, united by a tactical commitment to nonviolent direct action and to prefigurative politics, which shaped the ways in which decisions were made as well as the organization of daily life. In self-conscious contrast to the vertical structures of mainstream political parties, unions, and the Old Left organizations alike, the Occupy movement embraced HORIZONTALISM.

The movement, strongly prevalent during September 2011 to July 2012, was ultimately crushed by brutal state repression. Much of the socialist Left did not like and in fact resisted this movement. More precisely, if we divide the socialist Left into Old Left and New Left, the latter sympathized with this movement whereas the former was against it as it indeed felt threatened by it.

The New Left has since long rejected the bureaucratic rigidity, dogmatism, undemocratic politics, and moral bankruptcy of the communist/socialist parties and much of the Old Left. It is favourable to the Occupy Movement as bringing a breath of fresh democratic and egalitarian air into protest politics. Historical experience indeed shows that the Old Leftist movements conducted in an authoritarian and manipulative fashion have not led to any open and democratic political systems and societies. The murderous Stalinism characterizes the Old Left at the extreme.

The Old Left nevertheless has attacked the Occupy Movement as a carnival of the oppressed, instead of being a hammer of the oppressed; that it did not have a purpose and direction due to lack of leadership and “tyranny of structurelessness”. This criticism boils down to preferring ‘strategic thinking’ and “strategic politics” against capitalism. This means that without formal organizations and centralized hierarchical leadership, major structural changes in the political, economic and social orders cannot be achieved.

Let me make myself more clear about these antagonist views as follows.
To begin with, the Occupy Movement had raised the flag of “prefigurative politics”, proclaiming that it aimed at prefiguring a future egalitarian and democratic society through its practice of a direct democracy that does away with hierarchies and eliminates the vices of formal, representative democracy under capitalism. Prefigurative politics centres on “participatory democracy”, understood as an ongoing opposition to hierarchical and centralized organization that requires a movement that develops and establishes relationships and political forms that prefigure the egalitarian and democratic society that it seeks to create. This politics is also integrally connected to the notion of community, by which is meant a network of relationships that are more direct, more total, and more personal than the formal, abstract, and instrumental relationships that characterize contemporary state and society. These new relationships meld together the public and private spheres of life and are to be embedded in the noncapitalist and communitarian counterinstitutions forged by the movement.
This is diametrically opposite to the Old Left’s strategies and tactics. After all, prefigurative politics is a reaction to the Old Left’s horrible failures of the past. However, it is not difficult to synthesise prefigurative politics and strategic politics by way of overcoming the demerits on both sides by proposing that we need a democratic representative model concerned with the development of meaningful democratic choices that prioritize what is important as a fundamental requirement for strategic political action. This would require, at a minimum, the democratic election of representative bodies with the right of immediate recall, to develop political analysis and tactical/strategic plans of action to be brought back to the movement as a whole for discussion, approval, amendment, or rejection.

This synthesis is not new. It refers to democratic centralism. Which is easier said than done, though. What experientially holds good in mainstream politics as also Old Left politics is the impossibility of transcending the “iron law of oligarchy” that grips any vertical organization to the detriment of its rank and file.

The Occupy Movement and the Old as also New Left convey to us that the task at hand is to build a movement to fight against exploitation and oppression so that people can be truly free to create their own lives and institutions, now and tomorrow. But both sides are in a quandary, unable to merge strategic politics with prefigurative politics. All that remains at the end of the day is the eventual impotence that follows from them.

Evaluation of these two contrasting movements leads us, thus, to nothing but sigh either of these ways. At best, they “do demonstrate, though, the need for a new beginning basing ourselves on the revolutionary perspectives of the best of the Enlightenment tradition.” That is, we are back to square one–we have to revisit the enticing radical enlightenment, as mentioned above, based on Spinoza’s political philosophy without the guarantee of learning by doing to overcome the historical drawbacks in its implementation. Or, at worst, we are mired in futility and hopelessness today, and tomorrow is eternally dark even as “The spectre of powerful autocratic states that parasitically mimic democracy, while in reality eviscerating its core, should alarm us.” This spectre of new despotism manifesting as corporate statism is also least bothered about egalitarianism as integral to a good society.

By Annavajhula J.C. Bose, PhD
Department of Economics, SRCC

Dan La Botz et al. 2012. The Significance of Occupy. Solidarity. August 9.
Jonathan Israel. 2010. A Revolution of the Mind. Princeton University Press.
Mathias Hein Jessen. 2020. The Corporate State. Transnational Institute. January 30.
Ruth Milkman et al. 2014. Occupy after Occupy. Jacobin. January 6.
Samuel Farber. 2014. Reflections on “Prefigurative Politics”. International Socialist Review. Spring.
William E. Scheuerman. 2020. Why Do Authoritarians Win? Boston Review. July 8.
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