When Occupy came on the scene back in October – both here in Grand Rapids and in the United States more generally – it was characterized by a broad skepticism (if not outright rejection) of electoral politics. Moreover for us as anarchists, there was also a healthy skepticism and rejection of “the left”–which was quite welcomed. Rather than “the usual suspects” of the activist scene in Grand Rapids, Occupy attracted people that were generally untouched by that crowd. At the same time, most of the traditional leftist groups in town stayed out of Occupy and those that did try to participate were largely marginalized. The unions had little luck in channeling Occupy’s energy into vague middle class politics and other leftists – from the socialists with the International Socialist Organization (ISO) to the Green Party – didn’t find a much better welcome.
Enter the Left and MoveOn
Unfortunately, the left constantly tries to co-opt social struggles in order to bring them into its framework of how “social change” happens. It’s not a one time deal—if they aren’t successful at first, they will try a new approach. Now a large coalition of these leftist groups (including MoveOn.org, various unions, Greenpeace, Progressive Democrats of America, etc) have formed a group called “The 99% Spring” to shift the direction of Occupy towards their own ends. The left (from Democrats to the socialists) always fears what it cannot control—and because Occupy is a force that exists outside the left—it is essential that these groups try to bring it back into the fold, especially in an election year.
To that end, The 99% Spring is hosting a series of trainings across the country (including here in Grand Rapids) to train Occupy sympathizers and participants in “direct action” skills. The focus is of course on “non-violent civil disobedience,” thereby ignoring ongoing debates in Occupy about “diversity of tactics” and violence. However, more dangerous is that the trainings are pushing only certain actions—primarily those that have the most minimal impact and fit most easily into the existing system. The trainings promote actions that do not question the system as a whole (in contrast to the many within Occupy who reject capitalism and everything about the rotten world we live in): moving money to “less evil” banks, increasing taxes on corporations, getting money out of politics, and making politicians accountable. Various reports from the trainings held thus far around the country show what you won’t get: no talk of the May Day general strike organized by numerous Occupy groups (see also: strikeeverywhere.net) or upcoming protests against NATO in Chicago.
MoveOn, Occupy, and Iraq Summer Redux
This is similar to a MoveOn event back in February where the group held a screening of the film Inside Job. There were handouts and sign-up sheets that used the language of “the 99%” and that had clear references to Occupy. However, once the discussion took place, those facilitating put the blame squarely on former President George W. Bush and his policies and said that the most important thing to do was to mobilize to vote for President Obama because he was going to be facing a tough re-election campaign. When someone from the audience started to ask a comment critical of Obama’s record, the discussion was cut short. The event was clearly designed to recuperate the Occupy phenomenon and to use it to re-elect Democrats.
In many ways, this was similar to an effort back in 2007 called “Iraq Summer” when Democrats and related groups—including MoveOn.org—invested in a “grassroots” campaign to channel anti-war energy into an effort to get Democrats re-elected. Locally, the Iraq Summer campaign also tried to take anti-war work being conducted by a largely anarchist group called ACTIVATE and shift it towards the local Republican representative rather than focusing on the fact that the Iraq War was a thoroughly bi-partisan affair. Whereas ACTIVATE pursued disruptive street protests and other such actions, Iraq Summer emphasized the non-confrontational and disempowering tactics of petitioning, yard signs, and press conferences.
Look out for the Left… and not just the Democrats!
It’s easy to criticize MoveOn and the Democrats, but what’s harder for many (even some anarchists) is to criticize the left more generally. Nevertheless, it’s critical to do so as their attempts to influence Occupy have been every bit as bad. Here in Grand Rapids, unions have had a negative influence, trying to get Occupy to seek recognition from the City Commission (a moved seemed as much designed to make one of the union organizers look good in front of his Democratic “contacts” as out of any real practical concern) or in neutralizing Occupy’s class analysis by making it about the loss of middle-class privilege rather than the destruction of the class system.
In other cases, the corpses of authoritarian socialism have tried to shift Occupy in their direction. At a recent “Inter-Occupy Summit” in Grand Rapids, three out of six breakout sessions were led by people connected to the International Socialist Organization (ISO). As would be expected, the talk was what you usually get from the ISO: condescending rhetoric and them saying that they know best. At the “Occupy & Labor” session, much of it was aimed at criticizing the General Strike planned by numerous Occupy chapters across the country. As is generally the case, because it isn’t being initiated by people that fit their textbook definition of “workers,” the ISO is opposed to it. Moreover, it’s dangerous because the “ultra-left” doesn’t think about how “alienating”it will be to “workers.” It’s the same old song and dance: because they aren’t controlling it and because it doesn’t fit a more than 100 year old formula of how “change” happens, it must go.
Occupy – both in Grand Rapids and elsewhere – has its problems to be sure. But this is a clear example of how the left works and why the left is an obstacle. And it’s not just the more obvious power plays of the Democratic Party, it’s across the board—from the Democrats to the socialists in the ISO who claim that “the time isn’t right.” They always want to control the uncontrollable.