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Past tents, future perfect?

Occupy London tents‘So, did Occupy make a difference?’

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked this. It’s usually at social gatherings after the inevitable ‘what do you do?’ question and my reply that I write about social change. Until recently the question was slightly different – I was asked whether I thought Occupy would make a difference. But now it’s always in the past tense.   

The view that Occupy is dead is slightly awry. Although the tents have been (mostly) absent from St Paul’s for a year now there is evidence of the movement’s influence living on. Who, for example, would have predicted a year ago that a senior Bank of England official would come out and endorse Occupy’s critique? Or that The City of London’s cash accounts would be released in line with the movement’s demands? Or that an alliance of squatters and residents would save a library by occupying it for five months on end? The list could be much extended. Yet for all that there is to celebrate, these steps are still small change compared to the ambition of the movement’s demands. What can we learn?

In From Dictatorship to Democracy, nonviolence theorist Gene Sharp advises that every regime has an Achilles’ heel – a weak point. If strategically targeted, nonviolent action can not only win concessions but bring oppressive structures crashing down. So what is the Achilles’ heel of the current financial system?

In Occupy Part 1 – implicitly at least – there was an assumption that the system’s Achilles’ heel was the financial districts of city centres that can be occupied physically. There is plenty of evidence for the efficacy of the tactic. In recent history, almost every successful close-down of a stock exchange, summit meeting, political party office or tax-dodging shop has had some kind of impact. But there’s a difference between that and the tented cities of Occupy that – for the most part – only bore witness in the parks and squares outside. For all of the movement-building reasons for a tented occupation, there wasn’t a successful closedown of a bank or stock exchange in Britain. However many tents were pitched, the imaginary digits of global finance still ticked away.

There are alternative suggestions. Perhaps the Achilles ’ heel of financial capitalism is labour. Again, we can certainly point to historical and present times and places where a strike (or threat of a strike) could influence the direction of our economic system. Theoretically, trade unionism amongst finance sector workers could make some difference to the direction of the economy; a general strike would be a genuine challenge to the rule of the coalition, and a rise in employee-run workplaces could signal the beginnings of a quiet revolution. But what about full-time parents? The unemployed? The retired? Children? Students? The precarious mass of freelancers who disguise the severity of Britain’s employment statistics? All of these people are amongst those most hurt by the current regime and least able to participate if the withdrawal of paid labour is seen as our principal method of resistance. A strike of unpaid labour would be a very interesting idea, but still problematic when nappies need changing and relatives need caring for.

In the past few months there have been murmurings about the development of another form of resistance. It is based on the view that the central commodity of the British economy is not stuff but debt, which banks create, buy and sell. Proponents make the case that the one per cent are overwhelmingly creditors and the 99 per cent are largely debtors or ineligible for credit. With this analysis, the beginnings of what could form a new focus for the movement are being born. Already in Spain, movements resisting house repossessions born of debt are bearing fruit in the shape of a moratorium on evictions. Already we are familiar with the longstanding movement demand of a debt jubilee for developing countries. What if that could be escalated into a full-blown debt rebellion?

In May 2012, a new strand of the Occupy movement began. Following a 50,000-person march on Wall Street, a General Assembly was called where debt was declared an instrument of coercion that makes democracy impossible. In actions growing out of it, people burnt their bills and threw them in the river – a physical action helping to build the consciousness of participants as being not only part of the 99 per cent, but having a more specific identity, a new subjectivity usually laced with shame: the debtor.

Next came the idea of a ‘Rolling Jubilee’  – involving Occupy Wall Street activists fundraising to buy cut-price debt on secondary markets, but then instead of suing for it, simply cancelling it. Donations of over $500,000 have led to millions of dollars’ worth of debt being written off. Now the movement is contacting all the people whose debts have been cancelled, and telling them that Occupy Wall Street did it. No-one thinks this alone will cancel all debt, nevermind bring down capitalism, but it is exposing the injustices and vagaries of the debt system. Alongside this, more challenging action is being encouraged through a freely available ‘Debt Resisters’ Operations Manual’. Strike Debt UK was formed later in the year.

But we shouldn’t expect the peak of the rebellion to take place immediately. Analyses of movements that came before show that after the initial consciousness-raising stage of a movement (perhaps in this case manifested in the form of the encampments) comes a co-ordination stage, when activists become organizers and seek to build the networked resilient mass movement that will be necessary to move to the next stage of nonco-operation taking place on a large enough scale that it is capable of being effective. If the Occupy movement (or whatever comes next) is to succeed, then now is the time to plan: how many variations of resistance could there be? Which would be most targeted? What preparation and training needs to happen?

By understanding movements through stages, we change the way we evaluate actions. It means that next time someone asks whether the first stage of the Occupy movement was a success, the answer can be that it is impossible to say. This is partly because we often don’t know the effects of our actions until long after they’ve happened. But it is also because of a bigger point: whether Occupy Part 1 is judged in the future to be a phenomenal success or little more than a footnote largely depends on what happens next.

Tim Gee's e-book You Can't Evict An Idea is published by Housmans and is available as a free download here.

This article first appeared at guardian.co.uk

Photo: Neil Cummings under a CC Licence