Australia’s #occupy protests: When ‘politics’ is no longer just a game played by elites

by · November 4, 2011

Occupy Sydney: photo by Kate Ausburn

This week ABC’s The Drum published an article by Tad on the Occupy Movement and the demand from many that it list its ‘demands’. Below is the article in full. Tad was also interviewed on ABC Brisbane about this question.

It’s been remarkable to see the sheer number of public lectures and admonishments – delivered by assorted politicians, pundits, bloggers and Tweeters – that Australia’s #occupy activists have had to endure since they started their protests on October 15.

Indeed, there is a glaring contradiction in the fact that so much attention has been paid to a movement by detractors who also claim it is irrelevant to local conditions and therefore has no chance of attracting wider recognition.

You’d think the protesters had launched an armed insurrection to overthrow modern civilisation from the hysterical tone of some conservative critics, who have also lavished praise on aggressive police operations to evict camps in Melbourne and Sydney. Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle, for example, justified the crackdown not just with invective against protesters (“a self-righteous, narcissistic, self-indulgent rabble” and “a hard core of serial and professional protesters, hell-bent on trouble”) but also (twice in one article) made the bizarrely inflated claim that the protesters were holding the entire city “to ransom”.

Others soon joined the fray, spraying ridicule and anger at those daring to find systemic problems of inequality and lack of democracy in our society. Gerard Henderson complained that the protests were merely a reflection of left-wing “narcissism”, not noting the irony of devoting an entire SMH op-ed to draw attention to this fact. Perhaps most disturbingly, the Daily Telegraph’s Tim Blair went as far as advocating water cannon, torture techniques and even Wicker Man style witch-burning to deal with protesters in an apparently “satirical” attack on the movement. Even many, like Treasurer Wayne Swan, who acknowledged that the movement was pointing to real social problems, felt the need to criticise it for descending into “violence” (here defined as doing something other than disbanding your protest the moment the authorities tell you to).

Yet relatively small and not especially militant protests captured much attention. The key to understanding why is, as I have argued elsewhere, in the fact that:

The protesters occupying public space may still only have the passive support of large sections of the Australian population, but they have done something very important – given a voice and shape, however inchoate, to a new culture of resistance and rebellion. By doing so they have also exposed a crisis of authority from which our rulers are no longer immune.

To grasp why this is, it is important to dispense with one of the most erroneous claims made against the movement, retailed by its conservative haters as well as some progressive voices keen to point out its deficiencies. Put simply, these critics claim that the movement lacks politics, by which they mean easily defined demands or policy prescriptions.

Why demanding demands is a road to nowhere

At first sight, the #occupy movement has been frustratingly short of what is these days commonly understood as a political program, instead mostly producing consensus statements about what is wrong without articulating a clear agenda for what should be done about it. Yet, rather than being an immediate liability, this actually reflects a strength in the current circumstances, and in fact points to how the movement’s politics are actually more significant than the bread and circuses we get from Canberra and the commentariat.

Firstly, this is a brand new movement, united by the belief that there are deep systemic issues that lie behind rising poverty and inequality, and that social and political institutions have been subordinated to corporate interests, thereby rendering them unrepresentative of the vast majority. This is the politics summed up in the slogan, “we are the 99 per cent”. It is therefore inane to argue that it must also immediately have a simple, digestible set of policies to deal with problems on such a scale. The very open nature of the protests, their invitation for people to join working groups and assemblies to debate alternatives, is a statement about the need for a genuine democracy. By stipulating that the movement have a ready-made program, critics also reflect their view of “democracy” as work done by minorities in opaque back rooms, with a complete lack of public involvement.

Secondly, there is often an exhortation that the movement should repackage its anti-systemic critique into piecemeal reform proposals that can easily be inserted into the machinations of mainstream parties. This was the kind of line taken by some progressive critics of the protests. Yet such an approach would automatically defeat the purpose of the movement, which has been to call attention to the fact that more radical change is needed. Such a line of argument reflects the way that politics, government and economics have been reduced to a kind of “technocratic managerialism” in the neoliberal era, where markets must be allowed to operate on their own steam and policy is about making small, (allegedly) ideology-free tweaks to get better outcomes.

As Slavoj Zizek warns, the protests should be wary of false friends who argue that the movement should come out and support progressive agendas being run from above, as Bill Clinton has in both praising the protests and saying they should get behind the Obama jobs plan. Zizek argues:

What one should resist at this stage is precisely such a quick translation of the energy of the protest into a set of concrete pragmatic demands. Yes, the protests did create a vacuum – a vacuum in the field of hegemonic ideology, and time is needed to fill this vacuum in a proper way, as it is a pregnant vacuum, an opening for the truly new.

Thirdly, the protests are not a break with politics-in-general, but with a specific kind of politics: That of the official political system. Such a phenomenon can be seen most clearly in the Spanish indignados movement, where fury with political parties and trade unions led to a ban on all organised and visible involvement by such organisations in the occupations. But in all cases around the world there is a clear sense that really existing structures of liberal democracy have failed; that popular sovereignty has no expression through the “usual channels”. In Spain the slogans “Real Democracy Now!” and “No-one represents us!” captured this sentiment adroitly. Thus, a refusal to “come to the party” and play the game like the politicians do is a powerful rejection of official politics, which at the same time opens the space for a politics from below, where ordinary people debate and decide their own futures rather than leaving it in the hands of a political class that serves the rich and powerful.

Finally, the movement’s anti-systemic critique, however embryonic, is tied up with the notion that an alternative is both necessary and possible. Thus, accusations of utopianism are really beside the point because in this context they really mean demanding that alternatives must not be entertained. Liberal shadow minister Christopher Pyne got closer to this than many of those hostile to #occupy when he argued on ABC’s Q&A that opposing capitalism was wrong because the only possible alternative was 20th Century Communism – i.e. Stalinism. But, as Zizek points out:

The only sense in which the protesters are communists is that they care for the commons – the commons of nature, of knowledge – which are threatened by the [capitalist] system.

In the context of a deep and mutating crisis of the global economy that has robbed even the ruling elites of confidence that they can repair the situation in their own interests, the refusal of demands and the positing of alternatives have been able to demand the attention of millions of people. The absurdity of the critics who “demand demands” is that they have been forced to recognise and respond to the movement so hysterically, thereby disproving their own contention that it is irrelevant until it plays the games they prefer. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more relevant movement in Australian society than this one – right here, right now.

Where the real challenges lie

There is, however, an important sense in which a strategic debate over demands will be inevitable within the movement as it develops – but one that must build on the movement’s fundamental social critique rather than negate it (as mainstream critics would prefer). It is essential, then, to read the recent debate and subsequent comments on Overland Journal’s blog, where activists thoughtfully discuss exactly these problems from an insider perspective. While I completely disagree with Mike Stuchbery’s view that the movement should orient on giving itself the “best possible shot at winning some concessions from government and corporations”, reducing it to an NGO-like pressure group, he also raises something that supporters of the movement have often not addressed – the role of demands in mobilising active supporters.

This is especially vital because for the movement to grow in strength it needs to draw in much wider layers of the 99 per cent. The evictions in Melbourne and Sydney, and now the scenes of police terror in Oakland, show that, unless the movement gets bigger and better rooted, governments will try to break it through the use of force against small groups of protesters. One reason the Wall Street camp has been so successful is that has rapidly managed to inspire and draw in significant sections of organised labour. It is here that the question of “demands” takes on a new meaning – in terms of finding ways to articulate the movement’s anti-systemic critique with the concrete situation ordinary people – the 99 per cent – find themselves in.

Even in Manhattan this has been an underdeveloped feature of the movement, as was explored in a fascinating debate on Left strategy and #OWS held two weeks ago. The formation of a Demands Working Group has attracted controversy within the movement but reflects an attempt to address these strategic needs.

UK writer and activist Anindya Bhattacharyya (recently arrested while reporting on the Wall Street protests) has argued that effective demands:

Should be addressed diagonally, ie to both the ruling elite and the popular movement simultaneously, or more precisely, they should formally pose a demand addressed to the elite, but actually raise a slogan that engages and resonates with the movement – mobilising it and thereby subjectivating it from within.

Reversing the old Situationist concept that one should “be realistic and demand the impossible”, Bhattacharyya calls for slogans that are technically feasible but considered completely unrealistic within official political discourse. Rather than simply accept what “concessions” elites are prepared to give, this kind of “demand forces its own possibility and reconfigures the frame of what is considered ‘realistic’.”

There is no formula for such demands – they come from the concrete situations in which people find themselves. But one could imagine the Australian #occupy movement demanding, for example, a complete end to mandatory detention of asylum seekers, or a big rise in taxes on corporations and the rich, or guaranteed paid employment for all adult citizens, or the replacement of the failed superannuation system with properly funded government pensions, or massive government investment in renewable energy and public transport – shutting down carbon-emitting industries as these come on line.

Yes, these are “demands”, and ones the #occupy movement may choose to consider in order to spread its reach and strengthen itself. But while they are all within the realm of what’s “possible” and “necessary”, they are certainly not what critics will see as being politically “realistic”. The importance of such demands is that they start with the idea that we cannot trust the 1 per cent to be nicer to us if we simply ask. Rather, such demands – and the movement itself – start by declaring that the 99 per cent must take matters into their own hands.