Vera Weghman, a participant observer of the Occupy the London Stock Exchange (LSX) movement, recently gave a most interesting seminar to the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ) at the University of Nottingham. Weghman’s analysis was extremely well structured in describing the movement, who the participants in the protest were (predominantly white, educated, middle-class people who have been affected by joblessness and government cuts), and some of their key practises of participatory democracy. Occupy is clearly an anti-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian movement that has seemingly become somewhat bureaucratised and therefore hierarchical although perhaps not authoritarian.
This German national who studied in the UK, participated in the movement since its inception in October through December 2011, when she took a break and left for her home country. She then returned on 1 February 2012. Vera was evidently passionate about the movement, excited about her participation, and very keen to share her experiences. She also described her animated involvement in her role as the recording secretary at meetings of one of the many committees or the general assembly of the Occupy experience, as this allowed her to make the most sense of what was happening and how things were evolving.
Some questions that emerged for me in her talk involved the following:
- What relation is there between those who protest and wider divisions between the reform and anti-capitalist strands of the movement?
- Is there any relation between those who protest and their relatively-privileged access to social media?
- How does the movement coordinate its international relations?
Some key contrasts between the Occupy movement and the Alter-Globalization movement (AG) Weghman brought up are key and interesting:
- The AG sets up its gatherings around counter-summits, i.e., in terms defined by capitalist leaders; Occupy defines its own time and rhythm.
- Occupy is non-hierarchical, while AG reproduces the hierarchies of capitalist organizations.
- AG may be focused on the “Global South” or its issues, while Occupy is focused on the “Global North”.
A big question Vera raised in relation to Occupy is: can top-down leadership structured by further professionalization be avoided?
Vera questioned the 99%-1% slogan of the Occupy movement. On one hand, the slogan does allude to existing inequalities as the core issue in the sense that protesters are not recruited merely by economic interest. On the other hand, however, the slogan eludes highlighting class contradictions which are vast within the 99%. Clearly, this is a very perceptive point and one that may go a long way toward explaining the main class composition of the movement.
In a self-criticism, Vera admitted that Occupy did reproduce leaders and hierarchies of power. For instance, the movement was marked by many more lectures than workshops, thus reproducing hierarchies. She also cited name-brand “authorities” such as Naomi Klein and Slavoj Žižek that have supposedly defined what Occupy wants.
Vera finished with a quote from Gandhi, to highlight the importance of the struggle: “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it”. It’s a magnificent quote which parallels what Marx told his daughters when they asked him what happiness is: “the struggle,” he said; that is to say, the struggle for what you believe in. In this regard, one of the members of the public raised the question of whether there were efforts in the movement to go from some formulation of economic division to some kind of zeitgeist.
Vera clarified that Occupy banned the explicit presence of political parties, such as the Socialist Workers Party, in order to avoid division in the movement and, centrally, to avoid becoming co-opted.
Questions from the audience raised issues about the practices of the movement leading to a “talking shop” rather than a movement that really challenged the status quo. Vera seemed ambivalent about this but conceded that the campaign had its limits.
Overall, Vera Weghman’s lecture was very enlightening about a refreshing—if limited—social movement in response to growing inequalities under neoliberal capitalism. Her contribution underlined the significance of growing mobilisations around the world against neoliberalism. It is high time for mobilisation that focuses not just on the so-called “Global South,” but on the financial centres of the world economy. The question is how can a movement based on peaceful protest introduce further innovations that can help seriously disrupt the centres of power for progressive change at the capitalist core? Vera’s talk also highlights the importance of institutions such as CSSGJ in creating space for critical reflection about social and global justice.
Prof. Gerardo Otero, Simon Fraser University
Centre for Advanced Studies, Highfield Fellow, at the University of Nottingham (January-April, 2012)