Is the #Occupy movement 'socialist'?

Occupy Brisbane, Australia.

For more on the Occupy movement, click HERE.

By Ash Pemberton

October 29, 2011 -- Green Left Weekly -- Some conservative commentators have declared the global Occupy movement to be “socialist”. Right-wing musician Ted Nugent said in the Washington Times on October 14: “Occupy Wall Street is nothing more than anti-American socialism on parade... These useful idiots are clamoring for social justice, as if they don’t have enough of that already.” Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly declared: “The Occupy Wall Street movement is basically socialistic.”

Bill and Ted will be disappointed to learn that the Occupy movement is far too broad and diverse to be defined by any one ideology. The calls for social and economic justice and clean environment from the occupiers that so disturb people like Nugent and O’Reilly do indeed coincide with the long-held concerns of socialists, as well as with people from other political traditions.

The popularity of the movement shows that many people from various backgrounds, including many new to politics, are searching for answers to the social, economic and environmental crises we face.

The global Occupy movement has put the spotlight on the real source of society’s problems — the 1% — and many people are sympathetic to its message.

The 1% — the super rich, the capitalists, the ruling class — are the ones who have the power to make decisions that affect everyone else — the 99%.

This system is geared toward the constant accumulation of profits, no matter what social or environmental costs may be incurred. Ideas about reforming this system don’t take the history of capitalism into account. The results we see today are not a perversion of the system, but the end of a long process of the logic of the capitalist system, which concentrates wealth and political power in ever fewer hands.

From the streets of Oakland, to New York, Sydney and Melbourne, the 1% have shown how they intend to respond to a peaceful campaign that questions their right to rule: not with counter arguments, but with repression. The violent police crackdowns against Occupy protesters shows the 1%’s tolerance for democracy is very limited when people try to assert it in a real way. History shows they will fight to the bitter end to defend their privileges.

Broad and inclusive

The question of how to get to a place where the concerns of the 99% can truly be addressed has not yet been dealt with by the movement.

Many Occupy activists have wisely insisted on keeping the movement as broad and inclusive as possible. They have emphasised that the movement is strong because it is organic: it’s a movement shaped by its participants.

In the long run, the movement will need to address the big questions of what alternatives are possible if it is to make real change. The problems are huge and only society-wide action will resolve them.

What binds the movement together at this stage is questioning corporate rule. It is raising the question of democracy, of who has power over governments and institutions: the 1% or the 99%.

The answer to this cannot simply be a matter of replacing people at the top. For real change to take place, political power cannot be wielded in the autocratic way the 1% has used it for so long. A different type of politics is needed, one where the interests of the 99% are at the fore.

To make lasting change, alternative forms of democratic decision making have to be created. The general assemblies at the various occupation sites hint at the possibilities for a society where everyone can take part in a meaningful way.

Given the huge scale of the problems that need addressing — centuries worth of environmental damage, including dangerous climate change; an economy on the verge of collapse and chronic social problems linked to inequality and alienation — a democratically planned approach, using all resources available, will be vital.

Some people might call this socialism.

Socialism and democracy

There is a lot of misapprehension about socialism in the public mind, many of which are relics from Cold War scare campaigns. Many people who call themselves socialists also have quite narrow views about what socialism can and cannot be.

There is no definitive, textbook version of socialism. But most would agree that it is a society that puts human needs, and the needs of the natural world, before corporate profit. Along with organising the economy for the benefit of society, socialism depends on an expansion of democracy to fulfil its goal of social justice and environmental sustainability.

Socialism is the idea that each individual should have the means to live a life of dignity, without exception. Socialists think each person should have the means to develop to their full potential.

It means a society focused on restoring ecosystems and promoting sustainable human development. It means a society based on ongoing, participatory democracy. It means governments based on people power.

Socialism in itself is not the solution to all our problems, it simply opens the road for people to solve society-wide problems themselves, in a truly democratic way.

The basic vision of socialism shares many similarities with the aspirations expressed in the Occupy movement and this is a source of anxiety for the defenders of the status quo.

Of course, it’s true that most 20th century attempts to build socialism failed, becoming hideous distortions of their original intentions. But they also faced constant attacks from m ore powerful capitalist nations that used war, terrorism and economic sabotage to undermine any nation that tried a different path. But the rebellions in the belly of the beast -- the US and Western Europe -- are cause for hope.

21st century socialism

There are also new revolutions that aim towards socialism are taking place today in countries in Latin America, joining Cuba in seeking an independent path. Despite many problems, frustrations and mistakes, these movements have made big improvements in the lives of the poor majority.

In the past decade, pro-people governments were elected in several Latin American countries on the back of mass movements against the old order. This process has been called “socialism of the 21st century”, distinct from the bureaucratic, undemocratic forms of “socialism” that were prominent in the 20th century.

Most of these revolutions are still in their early stages and face huge barriers. Most of all, it’s clear they can only go so far unless revolutionary movements in other countries join them on the path of fundamental social change. But despite these difficulties, the process of change continues.

These Latin American revolutions are products of their circumstances, and new attempts to challenge capitalism elsewhere may take quite different forms.

The Occupy movement is opening up a new conversation that encourages people to look past the Cold War myths and has the potential to point towards democratic socialist solutions.

[Ash Pemberton is an activist with the Australian Socialist Alliance.]

From GLW issue 901