Occupy Sheffield: non-political politics

Michael Copestake has been talking to the occupiers at Sheffield Cathedral

99%: not quite

Remarkably there are now 21 ‘Occupy’ camps dotted across the urban landscapes of Britain’s cities. The largest and most prominent is, of course, the one in London outside St Paul’s Cathedral, and one could be forgiven for not being aware of most of the others, which have not attracted or been given the same attention in the media. On Saturday November 5 – a date perhaps chosen deliberately – the Sheffield incarnation of the Occupy movement appeared and pitched its tents on the open yard of Sheffield Cathedral.

The camp itself was set up following, I was told, “discussions online”, which then led to a meeting outside the town hall and a discussion and vote on which location to occupy. The council and police were apparently least unhappy with the choice of the cathedral and neither church nor state has attempted to shift them since. The dean has officially denied them permission to use the yard – partly for insurance purposes, I was told – but nevertheless has taken the line that the church feels the protestors raise “genuine grievances”, now the standard church response, it seems.

The camp itself presently consists of some 30 or so individual or two-person tents, a portaloo, a medium-sized tent with cooking facilities, a small one at the entrance covered in political and campaign literature of one sort or another, and a larger marquee filled with all sorts, from books to chairs, to musical instruments. The outside wall of this larger marquee is covered with large text versions of the official statements that the occupation has so far produced, various slogans against corruption and inequality, and entreaties to the people of Sheffield to join in/express solidarity.

The occupiers hold a variety of politics and are unlikely to produce a concrete programme or much in the way of proposals for action for that reason. The preponderance of single-issue leaflets and my own conversations with the occupiers indicate strongly that these are mostly unaffiliated people or those who support single-issue campaigns of one type or another. The organised left makes sporadic appearances, particularly the Socialist Workers Party, whose comrades have occasionally set up a stall just outside the main tented area.

When I asked people what they thought of the far left they did not really have much to say. The fact that I was a member of a communist organisation did not mean much to most present either – as far as they are concerned, all ‘parties’ have failed and the far left is just as much a part of this failure as the mainstream. All this is very much ‘anti-politics’ and, in common with most of the occupations in the developed world, is against structure and leadership, whether elected or not. I was even told that it was considered bad camp etiquette to “preach” your own political views to other people. Capitalist politics is so obviously corrupt and malfunctioning that it seems many view the creation of a space without politics as the answer. This is a testament to the failure of the Marxist left to provide an alternative, democratic politics, programme and organisational form in a period crying out for all three. The unity of Marxists remains the urgent responsibility of the left, one it continues to unrepentantly shun.

Insofar as political views are expressed by the occupiers, they take the general form of a scream of outrage and disgust at capitalist society and its problems, but without anything in the way of solutions. There is an instinctive understanding that the majority suffers at the hands of the minority, opposition to the government’s cuts programme, support for the upcoming November 30 strikes and certainty that the mainstream parties are committed to and dependent on the existing system. But politics to these people means only bourgeois politics and they cannot contemplate the construction of any political organisation that functions in a different way from the mainstream parties. Corruption and incorporation into the system is seen as inevitable, so why bother?

The attitude they take towards capitalism (or rather corrupt “corporatism”, as they refer to in their official statement – a phrase that is taken, unconsciously or not, from libertarian groups in America, who are usually for a ‘small state’ and a free market) is moralistic and uncertain. One man was at pains to explain to me that the Occupy movement is not against capitalism as such, but rather greed, and that what they wanted was “capitalism with a conscience”. When I expressed my doubts about this possibility, he remarked that we could all do without using money at all and that he himself had not had a bank account in nearly 30 years. Upon my questioning the feasibility of this approach for the masses, he then suggested credit unions – if people must remain part of “the system”, that is. A sort of abstentionist economics to accompany the abstentionist politics – we all just opt out as individuals.

Others, however, have very clear ideas of the reforms they would like to see implemented (by some, as yet unknown, agency). A levy on financial transactions, or Robin Hood tax, has support, and others believed that the regulators of the City of London and the banks should be appointed from outside that particular sphere. The official statement says that, in order that it may remain free from “the system”, the Occupy movement does not call on the existing powers to do anything. So the demands are addressed to nobody and no agency is identified which can bring about change – except “the 99%” – and it is not understood how they can do so. I put it to more than one of the occupiers that, if anything, the camp was more of a discussion forum than a political project, to which I received expressions of general agreement.

It is, of course, welcome that many well-intentioned individuals, some of whom are involved in their first activity that could be called political, are thinking and talking about an alternative social and economic arrangement (‘order’ or ‘system’ do not seem appropriate words), just as it is positive that there is agreement around the deficiencies of capitalism, even if it goes by another name. Certainly the camps reflect a much wider social discontent, but they are unable to define and focus these feelings, or translate them into proposals for action with definite aims. Even in countries where the situation has been much more dire, as in Egypt, or where Occupy has been of a much larger and more militant character, as in Spain, the movement has not been able to articulate anything approaching a substitute for a revolutionary, democratic-centralist party, armed with an emancipatory programme.

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