In Greece this spring, workers and students occupied Syntagma square in Athens and the space at the White Tower in Thessaloniki.
They were drawing inspiration from the Tahrir Square mobilisation in Egypt. Now their example, and Egypt’s, has spread worldwide, first with the “Occupy Wall Street” movement in the USA, and then on Saturday 15 October with similar demonstrations and occupations across the world.
As we go to press on 18 October, hundreds of people are camping outside St Paul’s Cathedral, in London, seeking to establish a rallying-point for a democratic solution to the economic crisis.
In Greece, socialists — in particular, activists from a group called OKDE, with whom we from Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty have discussed and cooperated — went to the occupations of the city squares and discussed ways that the occupiers could make their movement to help the workers’ movement win the battle for a democratic alternative to the capitalist cuts.
The socialists argued against the use of divisive symbols like the Greek flag and nationalist slogans, which were prominent in Greece as they are not, for example, at St Paul’s.
They argued for attention to be paid to the struggles of migrant workers.
They suggested slogans like the expropriation of the banks and the placing of the whole financial system under democratic control. They argued tweaking-around-the-edges like the Robin Hood (or Tobin) tax would not work.
They organised working groups to go out to campaigns in working-class communities and in workplaces, to offer help and make links.
Occupiers at White Tower square in Thessaloniki went to help restaurant workers who were occupying a local Applebees’ restaurant, and received aid from local trade unions.
The socialists argued that the occupations should put pressure on the trade union leaderships to call for action. In that way they helped along a proliferation of organisation which is now bearing fruit with waves of civil disobedience and industrial action in Greek workplaces.
Actions, slogans and strategies like that — clear demands for the conquest of the economy, and turning-out to the organised working class — can allow the “Occupy” movement to shake capitalist society and feed new life into the 200-year fight for socialism, as the socialist movement renews itself after decades of Stalinist falsification and capitalist triumphalism.
The November 2010 edition of the Financial Times magazine, helpfully devoted to the theme “How to spend it”, contains adverts for watches (commercially-produced items, not one-off antiques) costing £1.4 million, and, to complement them, watch-winding machines at prices varying from £150,000 to £2,000.
A few months later, Save the Children released a report which revealed that one in four children in Manchester and Tower Hamlets live below the poverty line.
In February this year, 200 executives of the publicly-owned Royal Bank of Scotland received bonuses of £1 million each.
In the first three months of 2011, 16,025 homes were repossessed in the UK.
The current crisis of capitalism, and the drive by the capitalists to shift the cost of the crisis onto the backs of working class people, has created obscene inequalities. Contrasts where some wonder whether to spend £1,400,000 or only a few hundred thousand pounds on a watch, and others wonder how to survive. Inequalities that defy belief.
The economic plundering, political corruption, hypocrisy and straightforward lying that constitute capitalist “business as usual” have been sharpened to extremes.
The “Occupy” protests which took place on 15 October and following days right across the globe — from Dublin to Santiago, Zagreb to Madrid and London — are a howl of protest against these obscenities.
Many hundreds of thousands of people, activists young and old, and those not previously involved in politics, have come to protest and camp out in the streets. They have the sympathy of many millions more.
The sight of thousands of ordinary people making sacrifices, putting themselves in danger, fighting the police for a more just, less unequal world, building infrastructures of a movement through self-organisation, fellow-feeling, generosity and solidarity — all of this offers a glimpse of the possibility of a new, better society.
The boldness and honesty of the occupiers stands in contrast to the pathetic, craven crawling of the leaders of the “official left” who still scrape and bow to the capitalists, and to the timidity of the likes of Ed Balls who can think of no better slogan than “yes, cuts, but slower cuts!”
How can this movement avoid petering out as the wave of protests at IMF, World Bank, World Economic Forum, and G8 meetings after Seattle in 1999 eventually petered out? How can the anger and creativity of the protesters and their sympathisers become a force that shakes governments and the capitalist system?
The logic of the protest is to demand an end to all class inequality. It is to work to reorganise not just the banking sector but society as a whole.
What holds us humanity captive is not a conspiracy of bad financiers, but a whole system of economic exploitation and political subjugation. All of society needs to be reorganised from top to bottom, and put under the democratic control of the majority, the 99% as the protestors put it.
The banks should be taken under public ownership and run democratically as a single public banking, pensions and mortgage service. The vast wealth of the banks should be seized and used to transform our lives: to provide a dignified retirement, free education, housing, the best quality of healthcare for all, free public transport and a system of renewable energy.
To achieve that, we need to fight for a government which can push through such a transformation — a workers’ government, whose elected representatives are controlled from below and subject to recall by democratic assemblies and workers’ organisations.
The rule of profit in workplaces can only be smashed, and replaced by economic democracy by the people who work in those workplaces uniting against their bosses and pressing their claims — to reorganise work, to run the industry in a more humane and socially useful way, to claim a share of the profits that allows them to live with dignity.
This has to be achieved in the workplaces. It cannot be done from a city square alone.
The occupations can serve as a beacon. Their daring and radicalism can be an inspiration to the workers’ movement. They can help blast away the cobwebs of decades of conservative mis-leadership and the memory of years of defeat.