The current debate that has erupted within Occupy circles was built into this movement’s foundation. It has been sparked by much needed soul searching in the wake of a series of confrontations with the police, most notably in Oakland, that ended disastrously. It should be news to no one that the police easily put down these efforts with gut wrenching brutality. What is surprising is that many of the Occupy participants lead these events into an inevitable military confrontation with the police, as though they could rule the day without the necessary numbers, preparation, or moral authority in the eyes of the 99 percent. Whereas Occupy had previously gained wide support from Main Street, in part, because of their non-violent tactics that relied on collectively standing strong to resist police repression, these actions appeared to be led by a different program with different tactics and a different agenda.
These developments are taking place within the context of a shrinking number of Occupy participants and sympathizers. Occupy is still strong and holds great promise. Such ebbs are natural in the evolution of any movement. However, they also pose great dangers. In the resulting isolation, impatience can take hold and it becomes easier for a relatively few adventurists to dominate proceedings without the corrective of more Main Street participants. The more the movement becomes isolated, the more the participants’ feelings of moral superiority can surge unchecked, which in turn can justify engaging in more radical tactics while condemning the remaining 99 percent for their seeming apathy.
Occupy started out as a tiny effort. The original occupation at Zuccotti Park in New York City was mainly built by members of small left groupings, without any backing from larger organizations of the 99 percent, such as the unions. However, their targeting of Wall Street and their call for mass unity provided a broad-based messaging foundation to reach out to Main Street. Without this approach Occupy would never have blossomed into the Main Street movement it became. Hundreds of thousands of people went further than they ever expected they could go in taking direct political action, including, most significantly, the unions. The mass misery created by the great recession, including the rise in the inequality in wealth, the 1percent’s hijacking of any democratic process that even appeared to provide a voice to the 99 percent, the lack of any serious political response to the loss of jobs, the cuts in education and social services while the banks got bailed out, became the talk of the day. However, even with this transformation, many in the activist core of Occupy had not yet shed the narrow political approaches and organizational prejudices that marked its birth. The contradictions of Occupy being both a marginal and Main Street movement are now re-emerging on a larger more urgent scale.
It is without doubt that the capitalist crisis is creating the conditions for a great social movement to emerge. What is at stake for Occupy is whether it will spearhead this development or be left as a predecessor of it that veered off into a dead end before realizing its promise.
The outcome will be determined by a political struggle for leadership within Occupy. Just because many within Occupy describe it as leaderless, does not make it so, even if leadership only amounts to calling a meeting, proposing an agenda for it, and suggesting a facilitator. Any social movement, any mass collective action, requires leaders, whether acknowledged or not. To counterpose leaders to the rank and file or mass of participants in movement building, as though both are not connected, is a bit like counterposing the front and back wheels of a bicycle, as though both are not necessary for the ride.
It is not difficult to see where this prejudice against leaders comes from. Both in the political arena, and within many of our own organizations, the 99 percent is for the most part dominated by unaccountable leaders who live apart from us and pursue policies against our interests. It is an easy jump to conclude that leadership, in itself, is to be avoided, that all movement building should be done on a strictly horizontal basis. This superficial thinking, however, could not be more harmful for doing what needs to be done to build a movement that can challenge the might of the economic oligarchy and both of their political parties.
What is needed is to build leadership structures where the leaders are under the firm democratic control of the rank and file and replaceable if need be. Maintaining that Occupy is leaderless only leaves its leaders invisible, unaccountable and no matter how well intended, free to push a course that will isolate the movement. Likewise, to argue for rank and file leadership within the unions, as opposed to rank and file control of the leadership, leaves the most conservative bureaucratic elements untouched, unthreatened, and free to do what they want.
Consequently, if the current debates within Occupy are not to result in a further fracturing of the movement, an accountable and transparent leadership should emerge. This leadership should be judged on its ability to create the widest possible unity among all working class and grass roots organizations, not simply build Occupy apart from them. In addition, this unity in action should be built independently of the Democrats and Republicans. While it would be folly for Occupy to insist on organizations such as the unions to break from supporting the Democrats as a precondition for uniting on the issues that are most important to the 99 percent, Occupy must insist on its own independence. In doing so, it will be demonstrating to the unions that more can be accomplished by building a social movement than building an electoral campaign for allegedly worker-friendly Wall Street politicians.
Too many within Occupy fret over being co-opted by the unions. And there are grounds for being cautious. For example, Robert Master, the Northeast political director for the Communications Workers of America, described Labor’s attraction to Occupy in these terms: “I think there are going to be tremendous opportunities for labor and the Occupy movement to work together,” Mr. Master said. “We have different roles— as labor we are much more embedded in mainstream politics. But we understand that without the pressure of more radical direct-action tactics, the debate in this country won’t change substantially.” In other words, labor wants to have a foot in both camps: in the Democratic Party which is controlled above all by the 1 percent and in Occupy, which is trying to defend the 99 percent. Contradictions are unavoidable.
Nevertheless, in the immediate present the greater danger is that Occupy will fail to maintain and increase the support it has gathered from Labor by prioritizing its own organizational interests at the expense of unity.