All great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice… first as tragedy, then as farce.
-Karl Marx, 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
October 15th has a double significance in this country, as both the day of the 2007 invasion of the Ureweras, and the day the global ‘Occupy’ movement arrived here in 2011. On October 15th 2011 thousands were mobilised across the country; turnout in Auckland was particularly impressive, while the hundreds who showed up in other centres were largely new to ‘the usual suspects’ (such as myself.) Smaller occupations cropped up in New Plymouth, Marton, Invercargill and elsewhere, showing the resonance of this new political language.
Numbers have fluctuated since. Commentary by Socialist Aotearoa accuses the left of ‘vacillating,’ however the reality is that occupiers have vacillated in general; while Occupy Auckland mobilised thousands on its first day, its current battle with attempted eviction involves a relative hard core. We have to learn from this downward trajectory: what happened and why?
While it undeniably resonates, Occupy does not drawn in the breadth of support here that it does in the US. This in large part follows from different economic conditions; while this country is relatively sheltered from the global financial crisis, in the US it rapidly destroyed significant chunks of the middle-class. Mass foreclosures provide Occupy Wall Street, and the other US occupations, with a steady stream of radicalised forces. There are concrete forces pulling people into being involved, whereas New Zealand has seen a more moral aspect to many people’s involvement.
Things are not peachy in the land of sleeping hobbits either. While our comparatively limited financialisation, and close relationship with the booming Australian economy, keep our economy stable for now - real wages have fallen 25% in the last 30 years. Instead of mass foreclosures, a steady build up of pressure is developing within the housing market, with the rate in the first 6 months of 2011 being 1008 as opposed to 230 mortgagee sales in 2007, a pattern identified in the US before the crash. We’ve seen over five billion dollars of mainly working class savings, frittered away in a silent tragedy affecting hundreds of thousands of people, in the US everyone was affected, in New Zealand it has been the working poor. Our sleep-walk leads either towards an awakening or a cliff, towards socialism or barbarism.
Political character of Occupy
People’s attraction to Occupy stems partly from its “non-political” nature, that is non-parliamentary and non-party political. In 2011 NZ had its lowest turnout since women got the right to vote in the 19th Century, so this rejection of formal politics certainly resonates. The politics of Occupy come through in support for locked out meat workers, for evicted public housing residents in Glen Innes and Pomare, for the homeless - it’s a movement that sides with the working class when it matters.
There are limitations to the (anti)politics of Occupy. Raising existing divisions within “the 99%” is frowned upon. Myths and hierarchies that run throughout society, such as victim-blaming attitudes toward people who bring up sexual abuse, are reproduced. The initial understanding of the 99% concept is for a homogenous unity of the majority that leaves those not straight, white, pakeha, either having to keep quiet for the sake of unity or being consciously or unconsciously pressured to leave.
Idealism makes this harder to address. The notion of “horizontalism,” of networks that go across rather than top-down, in effect mean attempting to wish away concrete power structures. The consensus process (replaced with 90% majority in some places) means that a conscientious majority cannot respond to immediate situations, for example destructive behaviour. Protracted processes of ‘defence’ for destructive behaviour (sometimes concieved in a quasi-legal language) outweigh concerns such as respecting those who’ve been harassed, with a reactionary minority able to filibuster.
In Wellington in the middle of December, after the majority of people had left, the focus changed to concentrating on the issues facing the homeless, who unlike other occupiers have nowhere else to go. The issues faced by those with mental health issues, recent releases from jail or other situations that leave them without shelter are serious and are not dealt with enough. The political collapse of occupation, and the solidarity and goodwill felt at the start, has isolated occupiers, leaving them vulnerable to attacks by the state, seen already in the repeated attacks on Occupy Auckland.
Some insist on the form of commune-style camps over the content of organising communities. After a number of women and queers left over destructive behaviour, one person stated at a General Assembly: “Occupy Wellington is this campsite, and if you leave the campsite you leave Occupy Wellington.” This is very different from saying “we are the 99%.”
Councils and cops are finally coming down hard on the occupations, after appearing for a while to put up with or actively condone the various occupations. It is an important principle to support all progressives under attack. Right now, councils are bypassing the legal process, arresting people and releasing them an hour later with no charge. The key strategy right now seems to be the straight up theft of occupiers tents and personal possessions, in an effort to make their lives as difficult as possible.
However, the state is not the primary risk in the long term; occupations in the US have outlived many evictions; the real risk is that we don’t learn from our mistakes.
Ian Anderson and Joel Cosgrove