Occupy Together and ‘Mass Left Radicalism’: Great to see!
Occupy Together and ‘mass left radicalism’: Great to see! By Bill Fletcher, Jr. Occupy Together did not come out of nowhere precisely because it was the result of a convergence of forces and factors without any of which it is highly unlikely that we would have seen the movement gain steam. Credit, however, must go to the Arab democratic uprisings that began in early 2010 and spread, not only throughout the Arab World but also to Africa and eventually Europe…and Madison, Wisconsin! The courage and creativity of the Arab people in response to years of repression and desperation was truly inspirational, and many people in the USA, through the wonders of modern technology, watched and noticed.
The Occupy Together movement, however, is not a carbon copy of other movements, though clearly it has been both inspired by and learned from others. It is an example of a spontaneous eruption against economic injustice and the results of years of organizing which holds the character of what I would identify as “mass left radicalism.” Mass left radicalism refers to a broad-based, systemic critique of the capitalist system that is rooted not in any one Left organization, collection of organizations or even any one ideology. Its base is to be found in that 30% of the population that opinion polls over the last three years have identified as being “open to socialism” and critical of capitalism. To be clear this does not in any way suggest that there is a consensus as to the nature of socialism or what a progressive post-capitalist society would look like. Quite the contrary, what it does suggest is that there are literally millions of people who are fed up with the system for any host of reasons and are looking for alternatives.
The Occupy Together movement, as broad as it is, offers a home for anti-capitalism. Its critique of Wall Street has not strayed into anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories, despite the efforts of right-wing populists such as Ron Paul supporters and LaRouche supporters. The movement represents an open display of distain for the political and economic elites that have ruined the lives of millions and show no awareness of the need for progressive and radical answers to the current crises (economic and environmental). It carries with it the passion of Martin Luther and his posting of the “Ninety-five Theses” which helped to catalyze the Reformation.
The breath of the Occupy Together movement is unlikely to be united in one organizational form. It may parallel the Tea Party movement, in certain respects, with different tendencies emerging. There is nothing wrong with that. Mass left radicalism is the soil in which an on-going movement with a proliferation of organizations can emerge.
Yet, the question that hovers above the movement is a simple though complex one: where do we go from here? There is no one answer in large part because the mass left radicalism of the Occupy Together movement has competing tendencies and the participation of various social movements ranging from student activists to environmentalists to the unemployed to an increasing number of activists of color (themselves representing different movements and forms of activism). That said, there are some intriguing possibilities that can not only push the flowering of mass left radicalism but also help it join with the broader progressive movement toward the building of a progressive majoritarian bloc. With that in mind, the following are some suggestions for consideration.
For one, the movement needs to script its narrative. There is a great popular narrative that has been developing in the Occupy Together movement which describes the deterioration of conditions in capitalist USA. The narrative focuses on Wall Street and other capitalists for their greed and avarice. Yet the movement cannot rely on the mainstream media—the media that attempted to ignore it and later ridicule it—to memorialize the narrative. Rather the movement needs its own scribes, for lack of a better term, that turn the narrative into picture books, pamphlets and the myriad of on-line media in such a way as to connect with the average person. The narrative is more than a story-line. It serves as a framework through which regular people can interpret their experiences and reality. To put it another way, we need 21st century Thomas Paines producing our own versions of Common Sense.
Two, we not only need further actions—more about this later—but we need alternative power centers that bring together the dispossessed and despised, to borrow from the words of African American labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph. In our book Solidarity Divided, Fernando Gapasin and I propose what we term “working people’s assemblies.” We were thinking about gatherings of representatives of various social movements and organizations rooted among working people from specific geographic areas to construct an agenda that speaks to the needs of what the Occupy Together movement calls the “99%ers” (which is actually more like the bottom 80-90%, but who’s counting). We need an agenda around which the broad array of forces that support the Occupy Together movement plus more, can not only gather but within which they see themselves. Such an agenda and assembly could become an on-going juncture and power center challenging unjust and disreputable authority.
Three, there needs to be a range of tactical options. This can include land occupations, i.e., moving into abandoned land and buildings and seizing them in the name of the people in order to create urban farms (with abandoned land), housing for the homeless, and stalls for those involved in the informal economy.
There are myriad of other tactics, but one that should not be ignored is the electoral realm. There has arisen a tendency among some to counterpose the activism of the Occupy Together movement with electoral activism. This is a major mistake. We should see in the Occupy Together movement the sort of energy that can help to propel forward genuine left-of-center leaders into the electoral realm, or support those who are already there. Such forces can translate the energy and direction of the Occupy Together movement into a concrete platform that helps to build and unify the progressive majoritarian bloc we need to both defeat the political Right as well as lay the foundation for the sort of social transformation that ultimately needs to come to the USA.
There is no perfection in the Occupy Together movement but there certainly is beauty. This is a moment to support this effort but also think through next steps before the energy dissipates. This is too important a time and too important a rising.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a long-time racial justice, labor and international activist and writer. He is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, editorial board member of BlackCommentator.com, co-founder of the Center for Labor Renewal and the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.