Possible futures for Occupy

April 26, 2012

Paul Le Blanc is a veteran activist, a history professor at La Roche College in Pittsburgh and author of numerous books, including most recently Marx, Lenin, and the Revolutionary Experience: Studies of Communism and Radicalism in an Age of Globalization.

On April 21, Occupy Pittsburgh held a meeting on the topic of "Where Do We Go from Here?" The speech below was one of several presentations made by different activists to contribute to a discussion about the next steps for the Occupy movement.

THE OCCUPY movement in Pittsburgh has been central to my political involvement since last October. I was active in various demonstrations, camped out at People's Park (renamed from Mellon Park) for three different nights and helped with dishwashing and garbage disposal for longer, participated in innumerable General Assemblies, was centrally involved in a few Working Groups (especially the Education Working Group, which organized a couple of major teach-ins), and more.

Since the eviction, there has been an increasingly dramatic decline--leading up to the present "Where do we go from here?" discussion. It is not clear to me whether Occupy Pittsburgh is basically finished or whether we can have a future--but what I have to say in my contribution to this discussion indicates what my vision is for a possible future.

I want to start with a summary. The fundamental perspective of the Occupy movement has been to replace the power of the wealthy and oppressive 1 percent with the power of the 99 percent (the great majority of whom are working class, whether blue collar, white collar or unemployed). This power shift from the wealthy few to the great majority of people is a revolutionary goal, and it can only be achieved through the struggles of more and more of the 99 percent for social and economic justice.

Occupy Pittsburgh on the march in December
Occupy Pittsburgh on the march in December (Mark Haller)

The next stage for activists of the Occupy movement, in my opinion, is to develop a labor and community orientation, reaching out to increasing numbers of people, to help advance such consciousness and struggles of the 99 percent. Those are the basic ideas I want to elaborate on here.

The modern-day system of corporate rule and exploitation overseen by the wealthy 1 percent (and their servants in the upper fringe of the 99 percent) is what some of us mean by capitalism. The heart and soul, and the great majority, of the 99 percent are the working-class majority, which potentially has the power to bring about the fundamental goal of the Occupy movement. That goal of establishing the democratic control of the 99 percent over our economic and political life is what some of us mean by the word socialism.

But labels are not as important as realities, and the reality is that this movement of and for the 99 percent involves waging a struggle for human rights for all, a central aspect of which is economic justice (the possibility of a decent life for each and every person), and rule by the people over our economic and political life.

THIS ACTUALLY reflects radical traditions that run deep in the history of the United States. It was, for example, Martin Luther King Jr. who emphasized that the triple evils of racism, exploitation and war are interrelated and deeply rooted in the very nature of the U.S. social-economic system, insisting that the "whole structure must be changed...America must be born again!" Whether we use vocabularies coming from socialist or anarchist or communitarian or religious or other traditions, this is the kind of revolutionary goal that we are all basically agreed upon.

What the Occupy movement did, and the way it defined itself--uncompromisingly challenging the corporate power structure of the super-rich 1 percent--resonated powerfully among millions of people in the United States. We in the Occupy movement have a responsibility to be true to that, and to sustain and expand it to the best of our abilities.

What we are about, as defined in the Occupy Pittsburgh statement of principles, involves winning the overwhelming majority of the 99 percent to support and struggle for the commitments and goals of replacing the power of the 1 percent with the power of the 99 percent.

Two things that were part of the Occupy movement at its best were essential in freedom struggles and class struggles of the past, and are essential now.

One of those things is the absolute commitment to reaching out to the 99 percent, seeking to generate their involvement in their own liberation. The other is the uncompromising radicalism--standing up to, calling out and opposing the 1 percent, and being absolutely open and honest about that. That is what the actual physical occupation represented. It is not clear to me that we can reproduce another physical occupation anytime soon, but this revolutionary commitment has been central to our movement's vitality.

Being committed to the self-liberation of the 99 percent means not cutting ourselves off from the working-class majority. It means not getting all wrapped up in specialized in-groups or focusing on utopian communities that most people cannot participate in or make sense of. It means helping to organize actions, protests and movements that normal working-class people can understand and relate to.

Being honest and uncompromising in our opposition to the power structure means being independent of the politicians. Mitt Romney and the Republicans use phony "populist" rhetoric developed through the well-financed and manipulated Tea Party movement. But we know that they really represent the 1 percent, and we say that out loud. In the same way, we know that Barack Obama and the Democrats have their own friends and financiers among the corporate capitalists of the 1 percent, and they are just as much part of this system as the Republicans, even though they hope to use our rhetoric to get themselves elected.

We have absolutely refused to let our movement be used for anyone's electoral purposes. That would kill our movement and make it phony. We would be transformed into a tool of one part of the 1 percent. Some who feel differently about the Democrats certainly are and should be part of Occupy, but Occupy as a whole must be politically independent.

WHAT MAKES sense is to further something that we have been engaged in from the start--fighting to build the consciousness and the power of the people, mobilizing more and more of that 99 percent that we are an organic part of. I think this means ongoing, politically independent struggle and education.

It means working with others--in coalition with unions and community groups--helping to build mass struggles that reach out to and include more of the 99 percent, around struggles for social and economic justice in the here and now. Right now, that means flowing our energy and radical creativity into such things as defending public transit, fighting to secure health care for all as a matter of right, fighting to secure decent housing for all as a matter of right, stepping up the struggle to end student debt, and always building opposition to such things as racism and war.

As we do this, we should carry out ongoing radical education about the nature of the present power structure and its destructive policies, and that this structure and its policies must be opposed and replaced with something better. This education and also activist training and skills development needs to be ongoing, and permeated with the central revolutionary perspective of the Occupy movement, for the replacement of the power of the 1 percent with the power of the 99 percent, political and economic rule by the working-class majority.

In regard to education, my own personal ideal is the creation of something like the Highlander Folk School that trained so many working class, labor, community and civil rights activists in the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s and 1960s--people who consciously changed history, made history, as we are committed to doing. Whether we would help to set up an institution like that or would more modestly focus on a series of teach-ins and organizing-and-activist training sessions is something to work out later, depending on material possibilities.

Our developing network of Working Groups--especially those involved in education and action and outreach and communication--can lead the way. The Occupy Pittsburgh Working Group Council that is already set up could coordinate the effort to develop and build this community-labor orientation. Such a community-labor Occupy could dovetail with other offshoots of the Occupy movement--for example, those who want to be engaged in building collective living situations and developing community networks that can at least partially free themselves from the dynamics of consumer-capitalism. It can also connect with international liberation struggles associated with such efforts as the World Social Forum.

All of this can be connected to the manifestation of the Occupy movement being urged here, a community-labor Occupy that joins with unions and community groups, joining with sisters and brothers organizing throughout our country, in helping to build effective struggles that include more of the 99 percent in reaching for greater social and economic justice in the here and now, and for the rebirth of society, an economic democracy in the foreseeable, in which all can live in freedom and dignity.

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