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Article
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Activism

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

In hindsight, I can gladly admit that my original reaction to the first day of Occupy Melbourne was wrong. As a left-wing cynic, weary from years fighting alongside the fragments of an old and obsolete reactionary left, I noted the usual suspects and assumed too quickly that these dogmatic, semi-cultish organisations would try to succeed in taking over the movement. I wrongly doubted the new faces would survive the first assembly and assumed most passers-by would leave when confronted by an outdated lecture on Marx or Lenin. While the left’s key thinkers are still relevant, their use as a quasi bible by self-righteous crusaders and vanguards sits somewhat uneasily in the struggle against the contemporary form of capitalism. Yet the idealist in me was still alive and I went back the next day to see how the movement had evolved. While the square was much less populated on that Sunday afternoon, there seemed to remain a spirit of freedom and independence which made me optimistic, if not for the future of the movement, for its relevance in the ongoing emancipatory struggle.

A fit in itself, the collective had managed to resist domination or leadership from any group. This was both good news for its long-term public success and quite impressive when one looks at past demonstrations. Highly symbolic, the best-organised socialist group even agreed to remove their huge banner after a much-heated discussion. This was a fantastic outcome as it showed that, despite the peaceful atmosphere, political confrontation was not prohibited or feared and that pointless divisions between the left could be overcome, allowing all to focus on less self-centred issues. The general assembly remained extremely messy and rather unproductive. While this created frustration amongst the public, it was the sign of a healthy democratic process; the symptom of real democracy which cannot but be messy and disorganised if it is to offer an equal voice to all its participants and unleash a passion for politics.

When I later praised the movement for its messiness, I was met with a reaction of shock, or at least unease, as those involved felt it misrepresented or downplayed what they had achieved. When I described the lack of organisation, the insufferable amount of time it took to enact the simplest decisions and the effort it took to make one’s voice heard in this overly democratic space, many took my opinion as an insult to the cause. Their reaction showed the degree to which we have all come to believe that democracy is flawless, clean and sanitised. The logical conclusion of this trend of thinking is that it is best left to experts. The messiness I described in fact demonstrated how radical and refreshing the Occupy movement was, for it stood in opposition to this hegemonic fantasy. If anything, my description of Occupy Melbourne was a tribute to the emancipatory spirit and potential of the movement. Learning, democracy and emancipation are linked in the process of creating a better society and none can be merely granted by the state. None will be achieved without pain and hard work. Samuel Beckett’s words are to me central to what was most important about the movement: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ The democratic mess at Occupy gave me hope that something new could come of it.

Added to the aforementioned disorder, the incoherence and aimlessness of the movements we witnessed across the western world, held by pundits as the very weakness of the Occupy movement, was in fact another of its greatest strengths. Nothing tells us for sure that anything good, or even anything at all, will rise up from these movements. Yet what is already an immense achievement was the will of ordinary people to get together and discuss what they are commonly told to take for granted. The will to challenge a system that is increasingly openly imposed on the population. The will to stand in opposition to the take-over of various European countries by unashamed technocrats hired to save the world from the doom they cast upon us. The will to fight against the economic injustice that has grown immeasurably in the past three decades and is leaving more and more people in social and economic poverty. Their will to think about a different future where those who created this dire situation might no longer be the best to lead us.

Criticising the lack of direction is therefore a response of either denial or fear. Denial about what democracy really is about, and fear that real democracy could come about. Quite logically, these movements started from the beginning, by challenging what they saw as a wrong, unjust and broken system. This is a feat in itself after 30 years of a hegemonic neo-liberalism that made many of us believe history had ended. These movements refused the decisions made by their masters and the apparently implacable logic of the market. It has been said that these movements are not anti-capitalist and yet they challenged the very inequalities embedded in the core of this system. However, they also refused to sign up to any old left-wing dogma which provided a solution already written and which would only require them to follow obediently. Instead, they reclaimed our public space and began to exchange, to communicate, to share amongst equals and to learn from each other. While these movements might well bring nothing, they were essential in providing a new impetus for real democracy.

Reclaiming democracy is central to the Occupy movement and to the future of the left in general, as it is one of those words which have been perverted to represent the interest of the few under the cover of a reactionary form of equality. As Josiah Ober noted in his historical study of the word, accepting that democracy only relates to a voting rule for determining the will of the majority, is accepting ‘fifth-century anti-democratic polemics as an accurate description of political reality’. Democracy, as opposed to monarchy (solitary rule) or oligarchy (the rule of a few) is not concerned with numbers: the many will not hold office or power. Instead, the conclusion is that democracy originally referred to ‘power’ in the sense of ‘capacity to do things’. Therefore, reducing democracy to elections elides much of the value and potential of democracy. As Ober describes, ‘demokratia is not just “the power of the demos” in the sense “the superior or monopolistic power of the demos relative to other potential power-holders in the state”. Rather it means, more capaciously, “the empowered demos” – it is the regime in which the demos gains a collective capacity to effect change in the public realm.’ Therefore, voting is not democratic in itself if it is to promote the status quo that all major parties currently defend. What made the Occupy movement democratic was the will of its protagonists to empower themselves as part of the people. It was the realisation that only by becoming democratic beings could they effect change, that only through a reassessment of what is believed the cornerstone of our society could change happen, through the acknowledgement of the system as more akin to ‘capitalo-parliamentarianism’ and the reclaiming of what is truly democratic.

In Australia, the confused reaction of the media was telling. Only the Herald Sun felt it could side vehemently against the whole movement, even mock the peaceful demonstrators violently ‘handled’ by the police. Others oscillated as the movement proved harder to sideline than previous movements created to defend some limited agendas under banners which had all too often made themselves irrelevant in the present political situation by sticking to their outdated modes of thinking and actions. The democratic impetus of the movement led to the state showing its true face to those who still doubted. The police were sent to most Occupy spaces and riot squads were deployed to deal harshly with the public occupying its own space. The refusal to see beyond the system we live in was manifest in the success of the most incredible spin. How can pepper-spraying the public and fencing of a public square be argued to be a liberation of public space?

Yet while the media machine worked for the government and elite to some extent, the Occupy ideas, if not the movement itself, started to gain sympathy. The people were thinking; the elite panicked. The mask fell. The hatred of democracy became ever more obvious. This hatred is so brilliantly described by Jacques Rancière and so deeply felt by our governments of wealth and science, by those who refuse to admit that at the core of democracy lies equality and the negation of all ‘natural’ claims to leadership; that democracy is not oligarchy or technocracy (the rule of the experts) and needs not be governed by those who wish to do so or are trained to do so; that it is to be realised by all who want to participate, indeed, by all those who are equally and inalienably part of it. The leaderless character of the Occupy movement, the ‘chance’ by which its organisers found themselves there and the lack of personal glory to be taken from the task made the movement democratic. The acts of voting and consensual decision-making were mere tools, not the enactment of democracy itself. As Rancière eloquently wrote, ‘democracy is not a type of constitution or a form of society. The power of the people is not that of the gathered population, of its majority or its working class. It is merely the power of those who have no more rights to govern than to be governed themselves.’ It is this very form of equality and democracy which confused the media and scared the elite. When those who were meant to exercise their illusion of democracy solely in the ballot box decided to reclaim the public sphere, the elite began to shake. When the people no longer accepted waiting for elections to decide who in the hoi oligoi would rule, to vote between one set of elite and another, they reclaimed politics, they acted democratically. In our common understanding of democracy, this was unacceptable. In an emancipatory understanding of democracy, it was a victory, albeit a small one.

It is not surprising therefore that complex measures were put in place to quash the movement. While many places remain occupied, the movement is struggling to gain momentum and pales in comparison to the enthusiasm surrounding trivial events such as the Queen’s visit to Melbourne or horses running laps in Flemington. While the mess at Occupy was a tribute to democratic ideals, the apathy of the population at large and their obedient participation in commercialised and aristocratic orgies is a tribute to the capitalist oligarchy and to its successful creation of a society of alienated, satisfied and selfish undemocratic individuals. Yet this success is only partial as the democratic swell takes new and unpredictable shapes. The Occupy movement shows us that people beyond the usual suspects have become involved in the fight for the public sphere. The left itself is taking new shapes and rekindling what had made it a progressive and creative force in the past. Only with the people aware of their emancipatory democratic and political power will the left revive. Only by challenging its gods in the name of equality will it break the shackles of its past, challenge the present and finally face the future.

More practically, the Occupy movement has demonstrated that the hegemonic dome cast upon us is weakening as the economic system seems on the verge of collapse. For decades now, people have quietly accepted that our leaders led because they were the best and only ones who could do so. If we were not happy, they allowed us to vent our rage through well-coordinated demonstrations, although few believed we were still being listened to. If still unhappy, we were able to vote for the other party. If extremely unhappy, we were offered caricatures of alternatives on both the left and right, to vote for or to align ourselves with on university campuses. This led to increasing disenchantment and powerlessness in those who would have previously sided with the left and to increased frustration and a penchant for exclusivist neo-racist ideas in others. The rise of the extreme right was skilfully interpreted by the elite as popular common sense. The extreme left’s resistance was caricatured and vilified as outside of the democratic realm. If politics happened in this deeply inegalitarian and hegemonic state, it was violent and discredited as extreme or radical, the remnants of a bygone anti-democratic anti-human rights world. It is this state of affairs, this accepted end of history that the Occupy movement has challenged, for the elite failed to discredit it as old-fashioned extremism, despite their best efforts. They failed to caricature it as just another Socialist Alternative/Alliance rally or as a hippie-fest. People from all walks of life gathered and discussed what to do next. The real democrats had no programs, no banner and no personal agenda. They simply saw that something was wrong in their public sphere and that it was time to reclaim it with politics. They are the future of the left if the left is to have one. This future could be bright, for they are any of us.

As the Occupy movement seems to be on the wane, there is still much hope, as no matter what, it will have opened a breach in what was believed to be a consensus on the system which rules over us. It demonstrated to all those who had forgotten it that the people can organise outside of the state and can make decisions themselves. It showed that anyone who is willing to open their mind and work hard can achieve anything. Most importantly, it proved that we can and must take responsibility for what we were told we were not capable of: democracy and politics.

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Comments

  1. Nice one. Though I think the big picture saying ‘Real Democracy Now’ is either question begging or excessive: If democracy is not a state it can’t be instituted, it isn’t something to alienated into public institutions as one may have once said, and there already is real democracy in that movement. I think I just generally have a problem with recourse to ‘real’ and so on, how does one show that their ‘real’ is really the real one? It tends to be a moral argument more than anything, and that is the last thing we need. It also goes to that silly dichotomy between bourgeois and workers’ democracy. My other point would be that there is, in Australia, a total lack of any sort of theorisation of politics (where would that even occur is the first question). From what I understand the living parts of the occupy movement continue to create new forms; in Sydney there is a ‘Free School’, putting on various lessons, which seems like the best initiative out of the end of the occupation on Martin Place. So I think that we’re yet to see the last of this movement, but I think that razor sharp thinking is required, as is a strict avoidance of Vaneigem’s mouth-corpses, to intensify what remains living in the movement.

    • Ahem, the ‘Real Democracy Now’ poster is from the Occupy Melb website. It was about the only one I could load, as I’m still running the internet off my phone at my new place (thanks iinet!), but I thought the post looked lonely without at least one visual element. Sorry, Aurelien.

      • Ha! No problem.

        I agree wrong+arithmetics, we are yet to see the last of the movement. However, I think it is time it moves beyond the mere occupation of public space (growing smaller by the day), and offer something more constructive.

        In a way, that is what part of the Occupy movement in Melbourne in association with the Melbourne Free University is trying to achieve.

  2. I certainly agree that the continued involvement of forces outside the organised left was a strength of the movement in the beginning, and was initially not too fussed with how the whole thing was organised, but if “political confrontation was not prohibited” and ” that pointless divisions between the left could be overcome, ” wouldn’t that mean to socialist banner would remain? In a thriving democratic space, shouldn’t there be space for all tendencies to argue their world views? Certainly, people shouldn’t be forced to subscribe to them, but I find it really troubling when shutting down socialists reminiscent of the Cold War hide behind hypocritical slogans of unity, when all unity means in essence is shutting up about your disagreements and falling behind the lowest common denominator, which isn’t conducive to actually coming to grips with a whole range of ideas, theories and strategies about changing the world.

    I am a member of socialist organisation you implicitly attack, Socialist Alternative, and we have worked in many campaigns, and have always had the attitude of working alongside other forces for a common goal, like we were willing to do in Occupy, but that does not mean we can also discuss our own world view and yes, convince people of it.

    The focus on consensus isn’t democratic at all, stifles the ability to have other points of view and pressures people to all agree on everything for the sake of unity.

    • “I certainly agree that the continued involvement of forces outside the organised left was a strength of the movement in the beginning, and was initially not too fussed with how the whole thing was organised, but if “political confrontation was not prohibited” and ” that pointless divisions between the left could be overcome, ” wouldn’t that mean to socialist banner would remain?”

      The banner wasn’t an act of discussion and collaboration. It was plainly an attempt to brand the occupation site as a Socialist Alternative franchise. I think SAlt get a really bad rap, but I wish they were a bit more honest about their strategic focus on recruitment and branding.

      • The banner was not up to brand the occupation as socialist. It was up to brand the particular marquee as ours, one small section of the site, not the whole camp. But other banners and placards we had to, ones that made political arguments like all the other banners and placards, were attacked simply because the stated a socialist position that some people disagreed with, or had this paranoid fear that if someone outside the occupation saw something socialist they would be turned off, which is quite silly really, because I spoke to many people throughout the time I was there about a whole range of things, including Marxist politics, and people were quite happy, even excited to come off the street and discuss these things.

        We’ve never hidden the fact we recruit people, which isn’t particularly unique anyway, but we disagree with this assessment that recruiting and convincing people of a political position to counterposing the interests of the organisation to the movement as a whole, which is just untrue. People often ignore all of the campaign work we do, the people we happily work alongside who don’t agree with us. SAlt do get a really bad wrap, despite all of the hard work we do. And we would quite happily be amongst demonstrations where we a dwarfed in size, but the onus is on everyone else to get their asses out on the street, not just us to hide and restrain our numbers.

        • I didn’t say it was there to brand the Occupation as socialist. I said it was there to brand it as Socialist Alternative. They’re pretty different things, although it seems like almost nobody realises this, inside or outside SAlt.

          • Well, the banner wasn’t there to do that either. The biggest people to get the difference wrong though has been the red-baiters, basically accusing a whole bunch of people as being part of our organisation, when they’re socialists of a different kind.

            How is a banner that has our name on it, outside our tent, branding the whole occupation? There were a whole bunch of different placards and banners on the boundary of the square, facing out to the crowd, advertising a whole bunch of political ideas that I disagreed with, but never did I day they were branding the whole occupation even though their position clearly could have been construed as such as they were at the entrance, but somehow a banner in one small section was taking over the whole thing? It’s a completely insane analysis of our role the reeks of McCarthyist paranoia that I would argue was one of the things that contributed to the demise as you outlined below, and I largely agree with.

          • Honestly, I can’t believe the Occupy Melbourne website was so arrogant to brand itself as…Occupy Melbourne. How undemocratic…

    • Your argument about all tendencies having the right to be expressed is rather populist. I disagree with the way SA behave in demonstrations so I must be against democracy and against their right to express their opinion. Since SA is socialism incarnated, I must be against socialists in general…

      Of course SA members can voice their opinions. However, there are ways that are more productive and less antagonistic than others. while, like L.K. Giesen,I too agree with many points defended by SA, I massively disagree with the strategy on the other hand and believe it gives the left as a whole a bad name.

      • I’m not saying you don’t have the right to disagree with our strategy, but you incorrectly characterise our orientation as trying to ‘take over’ and the red-baiting and attacks on both SA and other socialist groups was geared toward shutting us out. You can disagree with our banners, but you have no right to say we can’t put it up. You can disagree with our literature, but the GA has no right to try and pass a motion banning the selling of it.

        • I wasn’t aware the GA passed such a motion and the GA does not necessarily speak in my name. I never said the SA can’t put its banner up, just that I don’t support and I’m against it.

          Yet you don’t answer my point about the SA’s strategy not being the most effective for the left in general, and actually giving it a bad name.

        • Hang on, how does the GA have “no right” to consider a motion about selling literature at the Occupation? Does that violate some constitution?

    • I generally don’t understand the reference to ‘forces outside the organised left’. It appears to create a division between the usual suspects as ‘organised’ and those that are organising themselves in other ways as ‘disorganised’ – as though 20th Century conceptions of organisation act as a norm for organisation. That is just bad thinking. The irony is that the inability to break with that old thinking is a sign of disorganisation, in the sense of the general inability of the Left to reorient since the 1980s. To me this idea of ‘forces outside the organised left’ isn’t an idea, or even a thought, at all – it is piece of ideology. It is a little zombie nightmare chewing on the brains of the living.

  3. What a wonderfully optimistic post! From reading this, you’d think the only danger faced by the Occupation was a potential surplus of Leftists, and that now that this has thankfully been avoided by diminished participation from left-wing organisations, we can all just sit around and enjoy the feeling of knowing that someone, somewhere, is Occupying something in Melbourne. You’d hardly know that our movement has collapsed from a peak of around 2,000 to something closer to two dozen, and that we’re now “occupying” Father Bob’s, with permission, which is a bit more like Visiting. Does it not seem wilfully blind, considering what’s happened, to say that the Occupation proves that “anyone who is willing to open their mind and work hard can achieve anything”? In fact, isn’t that line completely inconsistent with the pessimism-of-the-intellect Beckett quote that forms this post’s title? Despite what this post suggests, there are real unresolved problems with the Occupation model that run a lot deeper than the presence of Socialists.

    Yes, we might have hoped that the Occupation would change the existing Trotskyist parties. It could have been an opportunity for them to learn new openness and flexibility in their collaboration with broader movements. There’s some reason to think that this was happening during the first week in City Square, and it’s unfortunate that the police terminated this process so early. But can we not also have hoped for more of a stepping-up from the hippies? It’s always a pleasure for activists to gossip and denounce the socialist groups, but can the hippies not also be denounced? Denounced for their incessant cop-baiting and conspiracy theories, for example? At nearly every Assembly, someone would helpfully point out that this person or that person was a narc, or that this action was a Socialist plot, or that that person is a Socialist catspaw. Partly this is attributable to the 99%-1% slogan bringing out a lot of people with a generally conspiratorial mindset. But it’s also what happens when inexperience goes uncorrected and begins to fester.

    The participation model itself completely disintegrates under the mildest pressure. Everyone saw this during the “Re-Occupation” that began in Treasury Gardens, moved to RMIT, and then ended up outside the State Library. This was both the peak and nadir of the movement. Thousands were in attendance, ready to recreate our previous camp on a bigger scale, with more support. But the mere quiet presence of mounted police put a small minority into a state of panic and no consensus could be reached, so the General Assembly dragged on over half a day, over three locations, with more and more people sloughing off–never to return. The only reason anything got decided was because over the course of the meeting, literally 90% of the attendees vanished out of sheer boredom and frustration and have apparently ceased permanently any association with the movement. The process of Participatory Democracy has led to the vast, vast majority of sympathetic activists choosing not to participate. They didn’t like what they saw. OP talks about the “apathy of the population at large”, but the bigger problem is the fact that vast majority of people who came to the biggest ever and most important GA in our movement’s history were turned off by what they witnessed.

    Of the tiny faction that are keeping things alive at Father Bob’s, the majority are incredibly smart, personally lovely, and hugely energetic and dedicated. But if OP can say the old “reactionary” models have failed, is it not perhaps time to say that OM was also an intriguing failure, and that next time we must fail better?

    • I think you have miscontrued my argument (perhaps because my article was not quite clear). As I said, I don’t think the OM has changed much yet, but I still feel that it brought something new to the table, and that this in itself can give us some hope.

      After all, did anyone really believe the revolution would happen after Melbourne (or even New York) was occupied by a few thousand people? Yet, in the gloomy present, it was a surprise to many of us, and it certainly showed that there is a rather favourable environment for the left to thrive.

      As for your conclusion, I certainly agree, hence the title of the article.

      • Yes, apart from your line about believe-in-yourself-and-you-can-achieve-anything, we probably agree on most points.

        I think the concept of a movement “succeeding” or “failing” is probably unhelpful. On paper, the peace movement “failed” in 2003-2004, and the anti-globalisation movement “failed” in the 1990s-2000s: international lending institutions and militarists are more powerful than ever, and nobody was held accountable for the financial crisis or the ongoing atrocities in the Middle East. But does it make sense to speak of those movements as “failures”? Were they really so goal-directed?

        Maybe it’s better to see them as the temporary form of a single, permanent movement that must reappear at least every 5-6 years so activists have something to work on, infrastructure to build, a place to make connections. In that sense the Occupations were a success from day one, because they’ll help the participants build whatever it is we want to build next year, in five years, in ten years, and in fifty years.

        I think this is more important than the momentary insertion of the concept of inequality into the public discourse, no matter how gratifying that may be; I think establishment Keynesians, particularly Stiglitz, had more to do with that.

    • Perhaps if you hadn’t spent so much time and effort attacking and marginalising the far Left groups, who after all have a wealth of experience in organising, you wouldn’t be relying on the Catholic Church for shelter.

      I am assuming OM will now demand Father Bob’s remove his Catholic ‘banners’?

      • What is the ‘far left’ in your mind? Do you have to be part an organised group to be part of the far left? Can you be critical of SA’s strategies and still be far left?

      • If they had been staying on SAlt’s property, it would have been cheeky to ask them to take down the banner. But that’s not what happened. SAlt plastered their banner atop a stationary public gathering, making it look like a fair they’d organised. Let’s not be disingenuous. We all know what it was for, and SAlt were right to take it down.

      • Of course you can be part of the far Left, not a member of an organisation and critical of groups like SAlt. But to then get all indignant that they take you seriously on your demands for more democracy and debate by clearly stating their positions and trying to convince people of their case is hypocrisy bordering on childishness.

        • Not convinced SAlt ‘takes [me] seriously on my demands for more democracy and debate’. Not sure it was my point either.

          SAlt has acquired quite a strong reputation for refusing debate. Often when I engaged with SAlt members (and members from similar organisations), there was little discussion and I was mostly talked at in a patronising manner. Isn’t that ‘hypocrisy’ for a Socialist organisation (the ‘childishness’ argument is rather obscure)?

          Of course, far from me the idea to say that all members of SAlt are patronising or even wrong. As mentioned previously, we might have much in common. However, this is a recurring problem that SAlt has to address if it wants to gain credibility.

  4. Leaving aside the issue of all the ‘dogma’ references etc as simply personal opinion expressed in a less than productive way, on the issue of the banner these are the sentences which struck me…

    \the collective had managed to resist domination or leadership from any group.\
    \Highly symbolic, the best-organised socialist group even agreed to remove their huge banner after a much-heated discussion.\

    So if there was no dominant group, heated discussion, and SA /chose/ to take it down, how can that be characterised as a focus on consensus? Was SA forced to ‘conform’? Were members silenced, their opinions shut out? Unless that is the case, I can’t see the problem. And I seem to recall similar conflicts in Tahrir over MB banners, which they too took down. I wonder if you found that objectionable?

    There are many ways SA members can signify their organisational allegiance if they wish too. Surely a button or a t-shirt would suffice. And those ways do not, literally, force those who don’t share that allegiance to sit under its umbrella.

    Speaking personally, I loathe that banner. Often at rallies it dominates all else visually and at single issue rallies it is totally counterproductive. And yes, It does leave me wondering whether the SA cares more about their brand’s visibility than the issue itself. If a banner is for communicating, why is the SA /name/ such an important thing to communicate? When I choose to attend a protest, I actively avoid the banner and, considering the size of most Melbourne protests, that isn’t always easy. Sometimes, knowing I’ll have to stand under it, I don’t attend at all.

    At a rally, each body is speech. By what right does the SA think it is entitled to claim the speech of my body or the bodies of others not part of their group? I ask this in all seriousness. That banner is an act of dominance, imposing a label on those who don’t choose it. Unaligned protesters are photographed with it, seen in the papers and on TV with it and /their/ message is obscured.

    The function that banner performs, intended or not, is theft. It steals space from the issue/s and distorts /my/ body’s voice beyond recognition. Yet you suggest it is those who wished it removed who were too focused on consensus? The logic baffles me. If anything, I would say it’s removal assists with equity in free discussion. Its removal creates neutral space.

    I’ll go out on a limb here and bet that I’m far from alone in my objections and I reckon the SA – for their own goals – would be wise to burn the thing.

    There is a lot that I share politically with the SA. And a lot that I don’t. And that’s not a bad thing. We all get to challenge each other’s frameworks and ideas while knowing how many of our aspirations are mutual. Ideally without any one group – however much organising they do – staking a claim greater than the rest.

    • I cannot recall the exact incident where we agreed to remove the banner, but we might of just to keep the piece, but other times we didn’t and stood our ground, and in other cases to where we were told not to sell magazines, that we shouldn’t talk about socialism, that we it’s ‘undemocratic that we’re so articulate’ and a litany of attacks that we shouldn’t do this and that because we’re so big etc.

      I feel that it is taking it out on us when the real problem is the small nature of the rest of the left, or other organisations. At the union rallies, this never comes up because we’re so tiny in comparison, but at a smaller demo, we seem to get attacked for being bigger.

      You actually don’t have to stand under the banner. We never totally dominate like that and often at the smaller ones do not bring red flags, and probably have banner, and it usually has a slogan on it like ‘End Mandatory Detention’ and our name in small print under it.

      This isn’t an issue in the US, where the International Socialist Organisation have banners, and a whole range of propaganda. It actually isn’t an issue for most people either. I spoke to plenty of unaligned people that were fine and expected there’d be socialists there, were happy to discuss whatever and if they didn’t agree, that was fine. At other rallies, this never even comes up, except some, there seems to be a vocal minority quite obsessed with how big we are, when in comparison we are a tiny organisation, with what? 200 members at most.

      • This comes across as a totally bizarre and petty side argument, with little-to-no relevance to contemporary politics. The only basis for arguing that something is wrong with this particular group and their banner is sour grapes, stemming from frustration about reality not being somehow other than it is. It is a purely emotional response with nothing to salve its pain. Making a case about how it brands a whole rally as its own is ultimately to do with an inability to brand it in any other way. I don’t think that ‘can’t we all be nice to each other’ is a political idea. That particular sort of socialist group is going to aggressively try to recruit in that sort of situation: they are precisely the opportunities it will look for. My feeling is that this sour grapes argument simply lacks a materialist account of this sort of socialist group. To put it crudely: bodies will continue to move in their natural direction, they will strive to continue in their own particular existence, process happen without subjects. Why become distraught when a wave breaks on a beach?

        • I think there are two points to be made:

          1. The early dispersal of the City Square occupation seems to have interrupted a small opening-up of SAlt that may have improved their ability to relate constructively to the broader left.

          2. As long as SAlt view every movement as a chance to aggressively recruit at the expense of the movement–say, by scaring off 98% of passers-by with a giant SAlt banner, as long as that other 2% consider joining the party–the rest of Australia’s social movements are going to be very wary about working with them. Even now this stupid banner story has become a fairytale about SAlt’s persecution by the Occupation. Their continued isolation and the mutual paranoia between their party and everyone else is a problem for the Left as a whole.

          • But i don’t see it as an issue at all. I’m unsure why this matters, or even rates mentioning. Why is it a problem for the Left as a whole? I can’t see it.

            The real task isn’t to say that the ‘potential’ of the Left is being ‘repressed’ by some group or another, but to create new forms of politics where this sort of group – and I don’t think this is the only backward-looking grouping out there – doesn’t matter.

            I think that this is how the best elements of the movement are proceeding.

          • Personally, I wish there’d been more banners. Any major union march is dotted with banners and flags, precisely because unions recognise the importance of making public the various supporters of the cause. As a rule of thumb, the less banners you see, the less socially significant a movement is. If a protest is really small, everyone knows each other; when the cause attracts people outside the usual milieu, advertising affiliations seems like simple common sense.
            More than that, I like to see banners because it facilitates debate, allowing you to identify the various tendencies, find out their ideas and decide whether you agree with them. The clear expression of political identity is the first step to any serious discussion — you can’t have debate if everyone pretends to agree.
            It’s notable, IMO, that the argument against political banners is usually presented in terms of such things scaring away ‘other people’, rather than the person raising the complaint. In that respect, it’s a close cousin of the old argument that demonstrators should be enouraged to dress neatly, to cut their hair, etc, for fear they will frighten away the masses.
            This is dangerous ground for the Left, a slippery slope that often culminates in declarations that, if only we stopped being Left, we’d finally reach the people. Not only that, it doesn’t work. People join real struggles because they agree with the demands and they think the campaign might make a difference. When those criteria are met, they don’t care what other protesters look like. If they’re bothered by a socialist banner, they’ll make a banner of their own to put forward their counter slogans.
            In any case, this all seems pretty small beer in terms of the real issues facing the movement. Why, after early successes, did OM and OS fade away? The most obvious reason is the inability to determine a response to the police dispersal of the protests.
            That, it seems to me, is both an important and difficult issue (even now, it’s hard to know exactly what might have been done differently). In the most general terms, the solution lies in building bigger protests (so that repression is less possible). But how to do that?
            I would be keen to hear discussion of that.

  5. It may be appropriate to be circumspect about the descent of ‘occupation’ (a difficult word to being with) into spectacle or hobby-club; but the fact of OWS and its consequences (and we shouldn’t forget that OWS is largely a consequence of the Arab Spring) is something to be optimistic about.

  6. Skip, the SAlt banner was there to state that the group was present at the occupation, supports it and to attract people to their stall. To suggest that they intended this to deceive the occupiers and/or the general public that the movement was an SAlt invention is pure fantasy.

    Let’s cut to the chase though. The strength of OM was its supposed ‘messy’ democracy and I as much as anyone was pleasantly surprised how well the initial General Assemblies acted to both draw people in, give them a sense of ownership and get things done.

    However, to celebrate this ‘messiness’ at the expense of organisation at a certain stage, particularly in confrontation with the state, becomes a liability, not a strength. Certainly it appeared that attempting to marginalise the groups with the strongest tradition of focus on organisation was part of this ‘messiness’.

    To then blame the capitalist media for obfuscating your message does not hold any water. You can’t in all seriousness promote the ‘messy’ aspect of democracy ad infinitum as a principle over organisation and then be surprised that the general public, who actually want solutions to their predicament(s), don’t flock to your cause.

    • Again, a very bias read of my article. I do not advocate ‘messiness’ as the solution. Yet I think it was extremely refreshing.

      While some form of organisation is clearly necessary if the movement is to grow, it seems to me that ‘the groups with the strongest tradition of focus on organisation’ you mention have so far failed to gather momentum.

      It might be something to think about and work on rather than pretend to be a victim.

        • I never said I was supporting the move. Nor did I claim I was part of the Occupy Movement for that matter. Again you are avoiding the discussion.

          • I’m not avoiding anything. SAlt and groups like it continue to exist, organisationally intact and politically coherent while OM is hiding in a church.

            That they are forced to do so is obviously not a good thing, but may indeed be a consequence of their sectarianism towards the far Left groups.

  7. Not convinced SAlt ‘takes [me] seriously on my demands for more democracy and debate’. Not sure it was my point either.

    SAlt has acquired quite a strong reputation for refusing debate. Often when I engaged with SAlt members (and members from similar organisations), there was little discussion and I was mostly talked at in a patronising manner. Isn’t that ‘hypocrisy’ for a Socialist organisation (the ‘childishness’ argument is rather obscure)?

    Of course, far from me the idea to say that all members of SAlt are patronising or even wrong. As mentioned previously, we might have much in common. However, this is a recurring problem that SAlt has to address if it wants to gain credibility.

  8. ‘However, this is a recurring problem that SAlt has to address if it wants to gain credibility.’

    heh, patronising..

    • Its patronising in that for reasons unknown SAlt doesn’t exist to gain credibility in your eyes.

      My replies are commensurate to the level of debate.

      • This is exactly the kind of weird, cranky smarminess that is considered typical of SAlt in their engagement with outside critics.

        • So, let’s recap here, SAlt and groups like it on the far Left refuse to engage in discussion and debate and yet they make themselves visible with banners, set up a marquee, walk around the crowd selling their magazine and talking to people at Occupy?

          Let’s be clear here, its their politics you don’t like, not the fact that they are confident in articulating it and arguing for their positions.

  9. Sorry, I’ve been away from the Internet all weekend, but hopefully this reply (mostly to Jeff’s comment) will not be pointless.

    The argument about banners can justifiably seem trivial. However, if taken as a broader symptom of the Left’s failure to gather momentum, it becomes central to your last point about how to stage more successful demonstrations.

    I do not argue for banners to be removed or affiliations not to be acknowledged during rallies (Although I can understand that my argument might be construed that way). My concern was about particular banners and more broadly about the strategies employed by the organisations waving these banners. I do not think that the left has to disguise itself to become more palatable or to win. Social democrats and third wayers have tried or pretended to do so and we know what happened. Clearly it is important to proudly affirm left wing affiliations and to be coherent and opened with them. What I am against on the other hand is the often undemocratic and counterproductive strategies put in place by organisations like the SA (amongst others). Dave’s comments here are symptomatic to the behaviour of many members of such organisations: ‘if you disagree with me you are not a leftist/socialist…’ That disagreement is central to politics is completely left aside and denounced as some sort of anti-left-wing conspiracy.

    This sounds to me often more like a religious dogma, than the way to foster constructive democratic/socialist discussion. Let’s not kid ourselves here, when the SA goes out to talk to the people, they really talk at them.

    Yet although I disagree massively with the way they act, of course, I am not against the SA putting up banners. As you said, it helps people with knowing who they are interacting with at demonstrations/occupations and act accordingly. What annoyed me was that particular banner which was clearly in tension with the early mood of the protest and was I think unnecessary and provocative (not that this is necessarily always a bad thing). The stands, publications and badges clearly showed the SA was there without needing to have such a big banner. In fact it felt more like the worse kind of in your face advertising than political support or activism. Of course, I too wish there had been more banners, more groups to debate with and more people wishing to voice their concern and offer solutions or at least leads as to how to proceed. What I complained about was this particular example that seems to be recurrent and counterproductive.

    As to what is to be done, it is certainly a complicated one. I will not claim to have the answer to this one, but let me go on a limb and try to explain what I think is key to the struggle.

    In my mind, the activist left must challenge its dogmas and update them. They need to turn more openly and readily to new ideas. Many philosophers, in particular from continental philosophy, offer various visions more in touch with the current situation. Of course, that does not mean that older theories should be discarded or given up on; rather, they should be updated, debated, and (re)built to fight the current hegemony. It is this fight that should be central to the left and to left-wing thinkers and activists. As long as ‘common sense’ capitalism is not constantly, carefully and coherently challenged, a left-wing alternative will fail to gain ground. As I said in the article, capitalism has been extremely successful at convincing people it is either the best system or the only one.

    One lead for this struggle could be reclaiming the communist hypothesis as devised in part by Alain Badiou. Of course, that does not mean forgetting or forgiving the terrible things that have been done in Communism’s name, but simply to start reconsidering its basis and draw from the mistakes a new path to build and follow. While many communist experiments have proven unjustly violent and caused terrible tragedies, it does not necessarily follow that the communist hypothesis as such should be discarded. In my mind, here lies the fight for the left: providing the people with a positive alternative and vision; combating the idea of human nature as selfishness, individualism and greed and drawing new hope from the many movements rising around the world. Nothing new really I know.

    My point is that I have always been shocked at how liberal and capitalist crimes have been easily forgiven and how the liberal/capitalist hypothesis has remained mostly untouched at its core. Of course, it would be pointless to compare the crimes committed under capitalism and communism. Yet one must admit that tragedies such as those which unfolded in various South American countries, in Vietnam, Laos, many African states and, my personal favourite Haiti, should have sufficed to tarnish our dominant ideology the way the communist was.

    The communist hypothesis is no more defeated than the capitalist/liberal, or fascist for that matter. Ideologies are not static entities, they evolve. Just like Communism would be different from the previous experiments, if fascists return, it is unlikely that they wear jackboots and swastikas.

    Enough for now. It’s all a bit confused I admit and I’ll try to work more on it in the coming weeks. Of course, if a debate could happen here, that’d be very useful!

  10. ‘Dave’s comments here are symptomatic to the behaviour of many members of such organisations: ‘if you disagree with me you are not a leftist/socialist…’’

    Dave says: ‘Of course you can be part of the far Left, not a member of an organisation and critical of groups like SAlt.’
    January 6 2012 at 9:02 am

  11. There is no contradiction there. However, I don’t think that the point is worth arguing; I don’t think it advances the real questions that both Aurelien and Jeff have raised; this whole question of banners, sects and movements … I really don’t get it.

  12. As Hunter S. Thompson said, sometimes there needs to be a third alternative to fighting the system from the outside or trying to change it from the inside.

    Sometimes there just needs to be Something Different.

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