- guardian.co.uk, Friday 28 October 2011 18.00 BST
The Occupy movement, from Madrid to Wall Street to London, asks: “Why are the bankers in charge when nobody voted for them?” Like its predecessors in the anti-globalisation movement, it is struggling with the thorny question – how do you create economic democracy in an era of global financialisation?
The anti-globalisation movement‘s answer was blockades at economic summits and global finance centres. Occupiers are proposing the direct democracy of general assemblies – consensus-based meetings of active listening and proposal in which anyone can speak – against the tyranny of the financial markets which, having crashed the economy, now demand fealty in the form of austerity, privatisations and bailouts.
But while global networks can be extraordinarily powerful at mobilising these kinds of movements, they can be swept away as quickly as they are created. From Paris 1968 to Seattle 1999, liberatory movements can create powerful mobilisations and change political discourse. Yet despite often winning the argument, after the initial euphoria has passed the energy that launched them retreats, leaving the entrenched power structures of capital to regroup.
So what can give the Occupiers deep roots to weather the storms coming their way and make this vital movement sustainable? For one, the Occupy movements are setting the agenda: rather than being reactive at summits where the powerful determine the terrain, they are occupying in their own neighbourhoods at times of their choosing. And they are staying. With the encampments comes a higher level of public engagement that encourages people to look beyond lazy cliches of protesters, creating what has the potential to be a truly democratic, plural, open space.
And the current cycle of struggle is not taking place in an economic boom: there is a level of antagonism between capitalism and democracy that is being made more and more visible to everyone. It’s easier to convince people that markets are calling the shots when the IMF is dictating not just to Sierra Leone and Nepal but to Portugal and Ireland.
Crucially, then, the Occupiers aren’t movements of people in the north protesting in solidarity with those from the global south labouring under unpayable debt or privatisations that put healthcare and education out of ordinary people’s reach. They are populations in Spain, Greece, and the UK that are, in the terms of the IMF, being “structurally adjusted” too. For the most enduring successes of the anti-globalisation movement were when affected populations took action themselves: when Bolivians who could not afford 400% price hikes de-privatised their water company, or when Argentina’s outraged populace got rid of an entire political class, threw out the IMF and defaulted.
While remaining globally networked and visible is crucial, it is in engaging too with these livelihood-based struggles that the Occupy movements can build deep roots and popular support. For instance, in Spain, the movement did not disappear when the tents were cleared in June. The “indignados” took the model of the general assembly and spread it through the city.
These local assemblies have broken out of the activist ghetto. Full of ordinary citizens, they organise against emergency ward closures, occupy university departments against cuts and prevent evictions of those who cannot keep up mortgage repayments. This has kept the movement plural and grounded, because people of all political persuasions understand the language of solidarity.
To take a recent example in Barcelona, a local assembly working with homeless associations occupied a vacant block of flats that had been repossessed by a bank five years before and moved eight homeless families in. The public assemblies held in the square outside are a moving and respectful interchange between activists, the homeless families and neighbours. Donated mattresses pile up on the pavement outside, and debates about the ethics of a bank holding repossessed property empty for years during a social housing crisis go on into the night.
These transformational moments move the argument from antagonism to radical proposition – the window-smashing public image of the anti-globalisation movement is inverted. Here it is the banks who are the wreckers, the destroyers of people’s sense of safety, social order and dignity, literally smashing doors at dawn to evict people.
Replicating the local assembly from neighbourhood to neighbourhood in this manner sounds impossibly utopian. Yet the only thing strong enough to rein in the power of finance would be for this movement to join with others and win so much support that governments are more scared of the people’s sheer numbers than of the markets.