If the Occupy movement did one thing in North America, it put class on the agenda.
By making it easier to forge links between differing struggles, the language of the 99 percent has acted as a social lubricant between struggles previously atomized by elite narratives. This shared language of inequality is perhaps the greatest gift the Occupy movement has given to those fighting for a more socially just world.
Thus, the Occupy movement should be seen as ultimately posing the question: If our society is increasingly unequal, what are we going to do about it?
The ironic twist for OWS activists across North America is that the tactic that has allowed this question to be posed is not a tactic that can be generalized into a strategic response to that very question.
This is ultimately why the OWS spring failed to occur. The tactic of occupying public squares via an encampment can not possibly satisfy the question: what are we going to do about this economically and socially unjust world?
The consciousness raised by the OWS movement must, and to a certain extent has, flowed from the square to other social and labour struggles.
The problem is that if we want to build a collectively just world, we need a collective strategy. We can not simply resist the assaults on our social rights issue by issue. We need to build a mass strategy to raise mass consciousness. This means we need to reach out to people 'where they are at. ' We can not simply call for a general strike or use revolutionary language.
Think about the on-going Quebec student strike. CLASSE and the two other student federations (FEUQ and FECQ) started out by speaking to issues that students cared about – the proposed rise in tuition fees.
After months and months of planning they carefully started protesting and then launched a student strike, which was continually voted upon. The strike has slowly evolved into a more general resistance to neoliberal reforms and the Charest government, especially its implementation of the draconian Law 78.
The specific demand has been generalized. The movement has opened up a space in which the questioning of the whole social and political order is now at least possible (remember France’s 68 moment had a similar genesis, moving from the particular to the general).
We need to carefully build our movements. We need to forge transitional demands that make sense for people and their day-to-day needs, while at the same time opening up a space for more systematic critiques.
These kinds of campaigns are a lesson in collective power. They build skills and confidence in self-organizing and show that victories are possible when solidarity overcomes fear. This strategy also reveals the limitations of the current political and economic system. To build popular movements on the left you need to collectively show that the barriers to reasonable demands are inherent in the current system.
The key here is that this kind of strategic campaign is only possible if it is part a long-term strategy and organizing drive. That means we need to start building democratic structures that are not centred around single issue campaigns, but around long-term social and political change. What these demands or strategies are will differ from one place to another.
For instance, in Halifax, Solidarity Halifax, a membership-based anti-capitalist organization, has launched a campaign to nationalize Nova Scotia Power (NSP), which was privatized in 1992. NSP is highly unpopular as it is a monopoly company that offers poor service, high prices, unethically sourced coal, and only a token shift towards greening the energy grid. The company continually raises rates and lavishes its executives with outlandish bonuses. The demand to nationalize Nova Scotia Power, reduce rates, green the grid, and create a more efficient service, all while generating income for the province, makes it easy to speak to the needs of most Nova Scotians.
This type of campaign allows for organizers to build a broad grassroots network, go door-to-door and win people over to a position of seeing power as a public right instead of a commodity. The campaign does not foreclose anti-capitalist politics; rather, it brings those politics into a conversation with the needs of the majority of Nova Scotians.
In Toronto, the potentiality of the Greater Toronto Workers Assembly Free Transit campaign also puts de-commodification on the agenda. The possibility of forging alliances between workers and transit users, while pushing a rights-based approach to the issue of transportation could, with a little more on-the-ground organizing, begin to shift the debate of public service away from neoliberal economic rationality.
The point here is that we need to take the question posed by the Occupy movement and begin to address it in an open, democratic, non-sectarian, and serious way. The triage mentality of the left, always putting out the most recent and worst fires, is exhausting and ineffective. While this may lead to some victories – most of which are Pyrrhic in nature – we have been unable to truly capture the momentum of fight-back and channel it into concrete gains. But more importantly, when working within a long-term strategy it is easier to learn from defeats and turn them into valuable lessons and long-term strength in organizing.
Occupy activists and others on the left need to start developing strategies that move beyond defensive single-issue battles and focus our energies on building long-term, democratic, non-sectarian infrastructure capable of forging and implementing a way forward – through creative and thoughtful transitional demands – in building the type of society we want.