Sometimes, to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a sickle.
After three years of asymmetric class warfare and suffocating ideological conformism, it’s wholly understandable that any stirring of organised (but we’ll come back to this) resistance should be welcomed with enthusiasm on the left. The potentially epoch-defining Occupy Wall Street protest represents a slow awakening of class consciousness within the belly of the beast. The copycat movements triggered by OWS throughout the technologically-advanced world, while nowise to be compared to the infectious popular heroism of the Arab Spring, are not without significance.
Its logic may be uniform, but the dictatorship of capital reigns over a wide and varied kingdom, and the occupation tactic is more suited to some quarters than others. Greece, where a volatile coalition of organised labour, political radicalism and popular resistance is forcing the ruling class towards endgame, provides one salutary example. There, the sterile, “apolitical” Syntagma Square occupation inspired by the Democracia Real movement actually sapped momentum from the struggle earlier this summer. In Chile, however, the mobilisation called for the global day of action on the 15th of October fanned the flames of a student revolt which has been raging for months.
In other settings, the Occupy movement (like its stillborn Real Democracy Now twin) has taken on the aspect of an internet meme which made the species jump into the human population and found itself unable to replicate there. Occupy Dame Street doesn’t quite fall into that category, but its contradictions are deep and profound. Whereas Occupy Wall Street wore its union endorsement with pride, its Irish offshoot proved ambivalent to organised labour and outright hostile to the organised left from day one.
There were a variety of reasons for this; the political persuasions of the core group, an understandable (though at times hysterical) aversion to working with the SWP, a reluctance to alienate potential converts gorged on a diet of anti-union editorials.
These proscriptions are gradually being relaxed, potentially estranging those who want nothing to do with the selfish, job-destroying, pension-hogging union bastards, and found such views initially unchallenged by the occupiers. (It could be argued that the influential autonomist tendency have proven their point; it was precisely their maladroit de facto leadership which erected these obstacles to begin with).
This past week, Occupy Dame Street weathered a downpour likely to be the equal of any the Irish winter can muster. It’s still standing, and I’ve no doubt it will go on standing as long as the bodies and minds of the camp residents hold up, and probably well beyond that. The stamina, resourcefulness and tenacity of the residents has been inspirational, and nothing forestalls breaking-point like a comrade at your shoulder. But whereas the boisterous processions from Parnell Square to Dame Street have doubled in size week-on-week, the number of bodies manning the camp itself has yet to see a corresponding increase (not that such an increase could be accommodated in any case).
These natural limitations of the Central Bank site, and its vulnerability to the encroaching winter, are frequently-cited criticisms of the movement. This is unfair; both issues were as unavoidable as they are insurmountable. We shall simply have to add al fresco insurrection to the list of activities for which there is no suitable season in Ireland, alongside cricket and rock festivals.
The physical precariousness of the camp has, however, come to necessitate a sort of liberal sŏn’gun policy, whereby the needs and maintenance of the camp itself take precedence over all else. This has had serious implications for a movement already struggling to resolve its political orientation and terms of engagement with the public and wider working class.
Having sat in on a couple of working group meetings, the overwhelming impression was one of organisational paralysis (actually the strongest impression, to be indelicate, was the class and socio-economic background of those involved, but that may be a churlish observation.) The challenges posed by the consensus-based decision-making model have been freely acknowledged within the movement itself, but the tendency to regard them as minor logistical teething problems is misguided.
In fact, these problems are inextricable from the prevailing political and ideological deadlock. With only the broadest and faintest of parameters to guide them, individuals and working groups are reluctant to be seen to act unilaterally. When referring an item to the General Assembly only serves to further confuse matters, a perfect feedback loop is completed.
All roads lead back (however frustratingly, however predictably) to the question of programme. Aside from the noli-me-tangere warning to the left, there’s nothing objectionable, and plenty that’s commendable, in the Occupy Dame Street mission statement. When organisers address assemblies and rallies, however, the messages become more mixed. The fallacy that opposing the IMF/ECB programme is “not a matter of left or right” enjoys frequent airings.
Three years into a crisis caused by rampant neoliberalism, deregulation, disempowerment of the working class, and the underlying structural paradoxes of the capitalist system, anyone who can proffer this argument is either being incredibly naive or incredibly disingenuous. This non-differentiation between right- and left-wing critiques of the bailout programme is not just foolish, but extremely dangerous. A quick detour to Co. Cork may help explain why.
For the past few months, the tiny village of Ballyhea has hosted a weekly march against the bailing out of bondholders, one frail flicker of resistance on a landscape clouded with apathy. Last weekend, after a visit to Dame Street by the chief organiser, the villagers were treated to an audience with Mr. Declan Ganley.
It’s unlikely that Ganley would be welcome at Dame Street, where the superb Occupy University initiative has witnessed talks and workshops by people like Paul Murphy, Eugene McCartan, David Malone, Gavan Titley and Conor McCabe (if money were no object, I’d have 2,000 copies of Sins Of The Father air-dropped over the next march).
Murphy’s address to the rally on the 15th was passionate, lucid and articulate, but his carefully-phrased appeals to attendees as workers fell on stony ground; largely, I sensed, because most listeners simply didn’t understand the linkage, and nothing they’d heard had served to forge it for them. (As an aside, the CWI’s almost Debordian reverence for the General Strike as exemplary spectacle is even more noticeable when starved of context).
Three weeks into the occupation, the spectre of the SWP exerts as powerful a hold over the imagination of the camp as ever. Dark mutterings of “packed” assemblies abound, along with stern assurances that future infiltrators will be identified (presumably a special derogation excludes SWP members from the 99%). Paranoia and insecurity are deeply unattractive qualities, and a movement capable of being co-opted by a Trotskyist micro-party, however bad its faith, is a movement that has stalled beyond revival.
Occupy Dame Street is not necessarily such a movement, but its window of opportunity for correcting those initial mistakes is closing fast. The crucial instincts and insights which can carry the struggle forward are present, and not entirely dormant, within the group. Namely – that our labour is all we have that the 1% want; that the demand for “real democracy” cannot be satisfied under capitalism; that, historically, Dublin is a city taken by storm or not at all; and that occupying a symbolic location is a poor substitute for occupying our communities, hospitals and workplaces.
George Romero’s lengthy, generation-spanning series of zombie movies describe an arc in which the undead gradually begin to rediscover their human instincts and habits over the course of decades. In a country gasping beneath the death-grip of zombie banks, Occupy Dame Street is perhaps best understood as a kind of zombie protest movement, with depoliticised and disenfranchised victims of the epidemic gradually re-learning the basic motor skills of resistance.
It’s a slow and tortuous process, but consciously turning away from what we know and have always known about challenging power isn’t going to expedite it.