One year ago, Occupy Wall Street burst into the public consciousness. Similar actions had been tried just months earlier, but failed to take root. Up until its second week, OWS itself seemed to be yet another localized action that would fail to make a real splash. But when images of the NYPD’s netting and pepper spraying of a number of Occupy protesters found their way onto televisions and Facebook feeds across the country, the “straw broke the camel’s back.” The occupation of Zuccotti Park showed millions of Americans that they were not alone in their frustration at the stagnation and decay of the country’s economy, political setup, and society generally.
“Occupy” as a tactic was inspired in large part by the Egyptian Revolution, which unfolded live on televisions worldwide in the form of the occupation of Tahrir Square. Tens of thousands in Wisconsin had used a similar tactic when they occupied the state capitol to protest Governor Walker’s anti-union laws. However, despite the symbolic significance of the mass concentration in Tahrir Square, this wasn’t enough to bring down Mubarak. Just as the movement was about to run out of gas, when it seemed Mubarak might be able to eke out a victory and wear out the movement, the Egyptian working class decisively entered the scene of history. It was the strikes of the Egyptian workers, in particular those at the Mahalla textile mills and the Suez Canal that were the decisive blows, forcing the military to remove Mubarak or face the prospect of losing control of the situation altogether.
In Wisconsin, no strikes were organized, and the mass movement was derailed into a demoralizing and demobilizing recall election that failed to inspire and failed to kick out Walker. In New York, and in the hundreds of cities where occupations spontaneously sprung up, the labor leaders likewise did far too little to actually lead the movement to victory. The steam eventually ran out. Repression, cold weather, infighting and tiredness took their toll, and today, Occupy continues mostly in name only, or in small, atomized “affinity groups.” Whether or not the anniversary of Occupy will lead to a renewed wave of occupations remains to be seen. We certainly hope it will. However, what is needed is a strategy to actually win. How can movements like Occupy actually bring about the change the majority so urgently needs?
The key is the role of the working class. While protests against the status quo can raise awareness, they cannot in and of themselves bring about fundamental change. The working class is in a unique position to do this. Due to its relationship to the key levers of the economy, the working class has the capacity to actually bring capitalist society to a halt. After all, whether in Egypt or in the USA, not a wheel turns, not a light shines, and not a single product is made without the bones, brains, nerves, and muscles of the workers! The Fortune 500 CEOs and boards of directors are utterly incapable of running society without the workers. But we can run society just fine with out them. This is the real meaning of the “1%” vs. the “99%.” It is a recognition that while a handful of parasites currently run society in their interests, the majority have the capacity to run things differently.
There was an important collaboration between the labor movement and Occupy, especially in NYC and in the Bay Area. From offering office and storage space, to paying for the publication of the OWS newspaper, organized labor lent essential support to the movement. However, this alone was never going to be enough to stop business as usual. There are hundreds of thousands of organized workers in NYC. Just imagine if the labor leaders had called a general strike and an all-out occupation of lower Manhattan by New York’s powerful working class. Without transportation, telecommunications, electricity, hotel, restaurant, and janitorial services, etc., the Wall Street “banksters” would be left suspended in mid-air. This would have sent shock waves throughout the country, and would have been enthusiastically supported by millions.
After decades of attacks, the labor movement is like an army ready and willing to fight, but receiving no orders to do so from the leadership. There has been a political and organizational void when it comes to organizing a fightback against the austerity being imposed by Democrats and Republicans alike. It is therefore no wonder that a “spark” such as OWS attracted the attention of millions and transformed the national political dialogue. It had an electrifying effect on the rank and file of the labor movement, who would have eagerly mobilized to show their real power and support those braving the cold and police in Zuccotti Park.
But even a mass occupation and the shutting down of Wall Street would not suffice. The labor movement also requires bold leadership, greater organization, majority-rule direct democracy, a political program, and perspectives for changing society for the better. To coordinate all of this on a national scale we need a political party with elected officials that will truly fight in our interests. We need a labor party, under the direct and democratic control of the membership, accountable only to the unions and the working class majority, not Wall Street. Armed with a socialist program, such a party would rapidly transform the American political landscape and decisively defeat the 1%.
“A balance sheet of Occupy Toronto” (26 Nov. 2011)
“Occupy Canada: Expropriate the 1%!” (17 Oct. 2011)