Lessons for generation Covid

Occupy popularised the terms

Occupy popularised the terms “the 1%” and “the 99%”. Photo: Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Helen Pattison, Socialist Party London Regional Secretary

In October 2011, unemployment hit its highest level for 17 years, with youth unemployment on the rise and heading for one million. Tuition fees had been trebled and the public sector pensions’ dispute was raging. Since the 2007-08 economic crash, living standards had begun to fall, throwing families into poverty, with home repossessions reaching a 14-year high.

A generation was going to grow up worse than its parents for the first time since the 19th century. It was on the back of this huge ferment in society, capitalism having bailed out the banks to the tune of £600 billion to protect its system, that protests and strikes began to break out, including the Occupy movement, targeting the banks and financial sectors.

There was growing anger in society that the banks were being bailed out and wouldn’t be expected to pay for the crisis of their making. People were also being inspired by events both here and around the world. The Egyptian revolution had begun when millions of protesters converged on Tahir Square, Cairo and then refused to leave. There were similar movements and uprisings in other countries in North Africa, as well as protests in Greece and Portugal, where austerity was hitting hard. In Spain, the Indignados movement emerged, which laid the basis for the left-wing political organisation Podemos.

Starting with Occupy Wall Street in New York, the Occupy movement spread around the world, taking up slogans such as ‘we are the 99%’. In London, protesters set up outside St Paul’s Cathedral. The Occupy camps were largely young, and understandably extremely angry. People could see their futures crumbling before their eyes and the impact of the growing crisis was being faced. There was an energy to the growing movement, with protests targeting their anger at the rich and tax avoiders.

The Socialist Party was also enthused by the move towards action. This could be the beginning of people turning towards socialist ideas to challenge capitalism. We supported the protests and took part in the huge variety of actions, but not simply to boost numbers. We went to highlight the need for an organised working-class and socialist movement. Such a movement would be strong enough not only to challenge the Conservative and Lib Dem coalition government, but also ultimately challenge the broken system which had produced the crisis.

The Occupy movement was part of the first round of struggles and movements following the economic crisis, along with the public sector pensions and tuition fee battles. Following the previous period of relative calm, working-class people were being forced to make a decision – either put up with being made to pay for the capitalist crisis or organise a fightback. For many, it was their first step into taking action. But that also meant that many of those involved in the movement hadn’t been organised before.

Working-class power

In reality, the Occupy protesters had not really seen in previous years the power of mass working-class struggle and the ability of generalised strike action to bring the whole of the economy and society to a standstill. The impressive public sector pension strikes which occurred in March 2011, and the coordinated strike which eventually took place across the public sector on 30 November, were examples of the potential capacity of the trade unions to mobilise millions of workers. Socialist Party members fought in the trade union movement over the subsequent years for the trade union leaders to coordinate a 24-hour general strike to force the Tories out of power and end austerity.

Because the full strength of the working class hadn’t been clearly shown, people were looking for ideas and methods to fight and win. They asked: ‘Where could the strength of ‘the 99%’ come from? How should it be organised?’ Many looked to those working in the banking sector to revolt against their own industry as a route to solve the problem. They wanted to include those who might describe themselves as capitalists, even the likes of Richard Branson who said he believed capitalism existed to make people’s lives better but had “lost its way”, as people who could help reform the system.

The chairman of the London Stock Exchange urged the protesters to target the government not the banking sector. By appealing to and appeasing this layer, the protesters were probably hoping to build a big and broad movement. In reality, Occupy would have been much more powerful had it turned to the huge layer of disenfranchised and angry working-class people who were being hit hardest by the crash. There was huge sympathy for Occupy, the student movement and strike action by the trade unions, from a layer who hadn’t yet been mobilised into action.

While the Occupy camps were lively places of discussion, the demands which came out of the camps didn’t offer a clear way forward. They highlighted what was wrong with the system and what they wanted – to fight against an undemocratic, unjust and unequal society. But other than standing in solidarity and wanting an alternative, they couldn’t outline what was needed next. Reports in the Socialist at the time mentioned that people wanted to discuss “how to break the monopoly of the top 1% over political and financial decision-making and create a society that would benefit the 99%”.

Mass workers’ party

It was strikingly evident to the Socialist Party the impact that a mass workers’ party could have had on the events. A party which genuinely defended the working class against the billionaires and bosses, which could help organise all those who were angry. The Labour Party had not only been responsible for neoliberal governments in the late 90s and early 2000s, but had also been part of the war in Iraq, which had been opposed by millions of people. It was not a reliable political force to represent the working class.

Then, when the crash happened, Labour had bailed out the banks, leading to huge government debt, which it planned to pay off with attacks on the welfare state. The Lib-Dems had appealed to the youth vote by promising not to treble tuition fees, and then sold them out completely, joining a coalition government with the Tories. There was a huge feeling that particularly the main political parties couldn’t be trusted, and that a new way of organising was needed.

In reality, anger against the mainstream parties resulted in a more general ‘anti-party’ mood, which meant people were even mistrusting of working-class and socialist organisations. There was a feeling that the old traditional ways of organising had failed, such as the trade unions and strike action. ‘Direct action’ and ‘new methods’ were the watch words, and all forms of action were put forward as equally effective.

It’s true that every movement is made up of a variety of actions from protests, to occupations, to strikes. And each action plays an important part, pulling together all those who are ready to be part of the fight. Before a strike you might have protests and rallies, which if big enough, force concessions. But if these protests don’t win, they can prepare the ground for more decisive action, such as a strike which stops the normal running of either a business, or in the case of a general strike, the whole economy.

Occupy, though a numerically smaller movement, was a product of huge anger in society at the economic system – a system which works for a few at the top, but fails millions below. A general strike, bringing the economy and business to a standstill, would have been fitting. But many of the trade union leaderships had become accustomed to the quiet and relatively low level of strikes in the previous decades.

Along with a ‘new way of organising’ was the idea of ‘structureless forms’ which the Occupy camps took. This was a product of both the Labour Party and also most of the trade union leaders failing to offer a lead. In fact, they were politically and organisationally behind the growing mood to fight. The first conclusion was to have no leaders, therefore there would be no one to hinder the movement going forward. But even some commentators and ‘leaders’ from the time now recognise this wasn’t the case. No leaders or structures mean no accountability. It means there isn’t a democratic process from which decisions are agreed, and if they aren’t implemented, no mechanism to hold people to account.

De facto leaders typically step into the gaps and are unaccountable to the rest of the movement. In reality, this means that people who are less able to be involved have no way of having their voices heard in the movement. These so-called ‘leaders’ do not represent the most ardent ideas of the movement, and come under huge pressure to accept limited concessions. Democratically elected leaders, subject to recall by those it represents, are accountable not to the pressures of the media, bosses or capitalist representatives, but the movement which elected them. If they fail to stand up to the bosses they can be removed.

Battle for slogans

It was clear from the beginning of Occupy that the movement would face many pressures to not seem too radical. On the first day of Ocupy London outside St Paul’s, a big banner read ‘Capitalism is Crisis’. It reflected the basic feeling of the protesters, that capitalism had crashed but it was ordinary people who were paying the price, rather than those who had profited from the system. But very quickly that banner was replaced with one that said ‘real democracy now’, following a disagreement in the camp, despite the fact ‘capitalism is crisis’ as a slogan probably more accurately reflected the anger in society and among the protesters.

Events have not just stood still. Occupy was for many, the first step out of the blocks, running alongside the public sector pensions dispute and after the tuition fees movement. It is still remembered as a watershed moment for many who have campaigned on different issues and opposed austerity since.

It only involved a relatively small number of people, but a much greater layer was sympathetic to the cause. Most recently we have seen the huge marches against the attacks on Palestine, the Black Lives Matter movement and, before the pandemic, the student climate strikes. There are huge similarities between the movement a decade ago and the anger which exists in society today. But the last decade has seen services cut, privatised and sold off. The benefits system has been slashed, and millions have been forced to turn to food banks.

The decade since 2011 has been a learning curve for many who have been thrown into struggle. Around the world there have been movements, as well as political parties, which have come to the fore and then faded, sometimes crumbling – unable to stand up to the objective political situation and tasks of fighting austerity head on.

The working class in many countries, including in Britain, continues to search for the formation, the organisation and party that can properly represent it. Corbyn’s leadership of Labour was the most recent attempt, but before the tidal wave of support for him, both the Greens and even UKIP had seen a surge in support and votes. This represented people looking for an alternative, and testing out different political parties. UKIP had given itself an anti-establishment visage, despite being led by a banker and having no answers to the actual reality of problems facing working-class people.

Socialist consciousness

From a raw and anti-capitalist mood which knew what it was against rather than what it was for, there is now a lot more openness and agreement with the need to fight for socialism. When Corbyn was first elected as Labour leader he described himself as a socialist. A flurry of young people, who had only ever known capitalism in crisis, latched onto the word socialist, even if they weren’t entirely sure what it was or how to get there.

It is the job of Marxists to help flesh out this raw mood for change with ideas and a programme, as well as methods of struggle to win. That’s the history of the Socialist Party, from the fight against the poll tax with a programme of mass non-payment to take down Thatcher; to the mass austerity being heaped on the working class through local government cuts, where the Socialist Party has advocated ‘needs budgets’ and councillors to vote against austerity.

As well as pointing a way forward in the Labour Party when the right wing circled Corbyn like wolves, we pointed out the ‘two parties in one’ that the Labour Party effectively was at the time, could not exist indefinitely, and that the Corbyn supporters would need to rid Labour of the right wing and Blairites.

The final big difference between 2011 and today, are the eye opening events of Covid. They have helped draw even clearer class lines between the haves and the have nots. It has helped expose how profit its the driving force rather than the health, lives and livelihoods of ordinary people. As well as showing how it’s the working class that truly makes society run.

There’s a growing understanding that the working class must organise for its own interests. This is what the Socialist Party has been fighting for during Covid. It is why people have joined at the fastest rate in decades. It is no longer enough to know what you are against – you have to know what programme you are fighting for, and do it, and that programme has to be a socialist one.