The global Occupy Movement swept across Toronto on the weekend of 15th October. For five weeks, protesters engaged in daily protests, coordinated around the St. James Park encampment, until the police-enforced eviction on 23rd November 2011.
Over this period, thousands of youth have, for the first time, entered into political activity. The supposedly apathetic and disinterested young generation erupted into a mass youth movement from almost nowhere. The movement has been able to resonate beyond the youth, and attracted support from working people and trade unionists.
All movements of workers and youth, especially when they arise after a long period of relative class peace, begin with a certain aspect of disarray. The Occupy movement was both creative and confused, energetic and naïve. Nevertheless, it maintained daily protests of hundreds and even thousands.
Such a level of mass political protest has not been seen in Ontario for over 15 years. Most striking of all is, given the disorganized character of the protests, that it lasted for so long – and gained so much public sympathy.
A superficial analysis of Canadian politics would not have seen such an expression of public anger, with such longevity, as likely, or even possible. The Marxists, however, have understood that the world crisis of capitalism, its impact on unemployment, service cuts, tuition fees, increasing household debt and attacks on good jobs, would shake workers and youth into political activity. Above all, the youth have been hit the hardest by the crisis.
The Occupy Protests have provided certain important insights.
First, they point to the huge frustration and anger boiling within Canadian society — that a spontaneous movement could get such broad involvement, and sympathy, displays this. This is also reflected in that, for many participants, this was the first protest they had ever attended. The youth, as often is the case in history, move into action first as they are more sensitive to the pressures and anger in society. This movement of youth foreshadows broader working class participation in the coming battles against capitalist austerity and inequality.
Second, the fact that the movement framed its challenge to poverty, lack of opportunity, and growing inequality, in terms of a fight against the capitalist system or “the 1%”, suggests sharp political instincts. Many youth correctly understand that for their individual problems to be solved, a radical and fundamental change needs to happen in our society.
Third, it has shown bluntly what is a seemingly obviously point — that the struggle to better the lives of the majority of Canadians is not an easy one. Protesting, speaking out, and raising awareness, which are all important, will not be enough to win this fight. There is a vital role to be played by mass direct action, particularly that which can mobilize the power of the 99% in society against capitalism (this will be elaborated upon).
The Occupy Toronto protest was evicted through police repression. The police action was less severe than at Occupy protests in other cities in North America. Part of this was a result of the massive public backlash against the G20 mass arrests and police brutality in Toronto last summer. Nevertheless, it provided another lesson in defining the role that the courts and police will play in relation to future movements.
The early naivety of the movement will have to give way to a realistic and concrete approach to political activity. This is not meant in the “realistic pragmatic” sense that various reformers of capitalism, NGOs, and career politicians (even of the “left”) hypocritically use to draw the movement into “respectable” channels. Simply, what we are saying is that fighting austerity, and the capitalist system that necessitates it, is no easy task.
I aim to draw upon some of the important lessons that this movement has provided. Only blunt criticism and reflection will allow us to digest these lessons, and enter future waves of struggle on a higher footing.
Spontaneity: Strength turns into weakness
The spontaneity of the movement was an enormous strength in the first periods of the movement. In particular, the energy of the movement could not be held back by the often-conservative influence that an established leadership has in many other social movements (such as the labour or student movements).
Without a clear political orientation, the movement could attract many layers in society who were interested in fighting back against inequality and growing poverty, but who are still developing their ideological worldviews. The spontaneity of the movement gave it the ability to capture a broad spectrum of political thought.
Unfortunately, the #OccupyToronto movement, despite its energetic beginnings, began to gradually decline in both mass participation and activity. It is a general rule that when movements lose mass involvement, there is a process of degeneration in the political outlook and activities of the movement.
This manifested itself in the growth of various self-expression symbolic gestures, drug usage, drunken fights, conspiracy theories, and various new-age and obscure politics coming hand-in-hand with supernatural views. In essence, a mass movement against inequality turned into a carnival in the last couple weeks.
These problems all boil down to a crisis of leadership, which was the Achilles heel of the movement. The absence of a concrete program of demands, and solutions to the pressing needs of millions of workers, youth, pensioners and immigrants, weakened the movement. It lost the movement many thousands of potential sympathizers.
Moreover, the activists around Fightback magazine witnessed many who attended the encampment and protests, and who were turned off by the fact that nothing was getting done and that the assemblies were very lengthy and often empty of content.
Workers do not have the time to spend on lengthy meetings that provide no direction or plan of action to actually solve their pressing needs, and that of the broader society. With employment obligations, with children to take care of and a host of responsibility, many working people were turned off by the lack of leadership. Many young people responded with similar frustrations as well.
This resulted in a gradual loss of mass participation, which reflected on the movement’s activities, to which many participants can attest. The fact that a healthy leadership did not develop through the spontaneous movement was a decisive factor in the weakening of the movement.
It is not altogether ruled out that the Occupy Toronto movement will re-emerge, which makes it even more important for these mistakes to be corrected. If the movement does dwindle after the recent eviction, then it is vital for us to take these lessons into the future waves of struggle.
Lack of democratic decision-making
The failure to allow democratic debate and decision-making was a major factor halting the political development of the movement. Political plurality was correctly encouraged. For the movement to develop and react to the political situation, however, it is vital to allow differing political opinions to come into discussion, debate and to clash with each other. These debates would have allowed different ideas to be tested for their worth in front of mass audiences, and with the accumulating experience of thousands of protesters and activists, it would have contributed to the development of viable plans of action.
All movements will make mistakes. A spontaneous movement will be even more prone to making errors. It is unavoidable. Indeed it can be quite healthy, as long as there are the means to examine these mistakes, and to correct them.
Without democracy, we cannot discuss, debate, and most vitally, correct our earlier mistakes or weaknesses. The consensus model of decision-making is undemocratic. It is undemocratic because it does not allow for the majority to make decisions on key political questions affecting the mobilization. It stifles the group from making difficult decisions, and allows a minority to “block” the ideas of the entire group.
Furthermore, it leads to an anti-political atmosphere. Political issues are inherently charged, and polarizing. Deciding on a set of demands, the direction of the movement, or methods of struggle, inevitably leads to sharp debate. This is healthy and should be encouraged.
However, “consensus” assemblies forcibly avoid these sharp and relevant debates. Facilitators consciously avoid them, because they understand that some participants will inevitably disagree. Disagreement isn’t a problem in a democratic structure. In a consensus model, it means that no decisions can be made.
The fact is that, despite any rhetoric to the contrary, decisions always end up being made. Without democracy, decisions end up being made haphazardly and bureaucratically. Media releases are inevitably sent out. Rallies are organized. Technical decisions are made, but so are political ones. Discussions with the police representatives occur. Political demands are made, or are avoided. Unfortunately, many of these decisions were made behind the scenes by an unelected and unaccountable leadership.
What we proposed throughout the Occupy Movement, in a comradely and constructive way, was the pressing need for a voting structure in the assemblies on both technical and political matters. Given the obvious fact that leadership existed, we proposed that leadership should be elected by the assembly (and re-called if necessary) to carry out the will of the assemblies.
Unfortunately these changes were not made, and could not be made, given that they required a consensus agreement!
The eviction of Occupy Toronto
The events leading up to the eviction are a case-in-point that highlighted the weaknesses of the movement. The notice of eviction, distributed by police at 11am on 15th November, served to rally immense support for the Occupy movement. Thousands of people were being mobilized on a moment’s notice to come to the defence of the encampment in the evening. The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) brought hundreds, if not thousands, of trade unionists to the encampment. This signified the immense strength of workers and youth, and the real energy standing behind the movement in its challenge to the injustices in capitalist society.
This movement could have decisively beaten back the attack by Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, through mass mobilization, and could have taken a step on the offensive against the cuts to city services, layoffs, and privatizations that he is carrying through. This could have been a rallying cry against the last period of attacks. It also provided the opportunity, after several weeks of Occupy Toronto being in decline, for a real upsurge in activity.
The unelected leadership of the movement squandered this opportunity, in what was, to be blunt, a betrayal. This leadership, working with several lawyers, decided to take their own initiative to bargain with the courts on behalf of the entire movement. In exchange for an injunction (that lasted less than a week) they promised to keep the number of protesters at the park at a low number, under threat of a hefty fine. They then continued to make a call, through the official Facebook and media outlets of Occupy Toronto, for people NOT to rally at St. James Park on November 15th. This heavily reduced the attendance by creating a false sense that the movement was saved. Despite this, many thousands attended in defence of the encampment over the week.
The unelected leaders, instead of mobilizing the power of workers and youth, decided to make an agreement with the courts, and to actively demobilize the movement. Instead of organizing for the defence of the encampment, the leadership promoted the illusion that lawyers and judges would protect our democratic rights. History has thought us that only our own strength, and our willingness to assert it, has protected our democratic rights.
This is precisely the reason we had pointed to the undemocratic nature of consensus decision-making at Occupy Toronto. Unelected representative acted not only as media spokespeople but also as our representatives in the courts!
The courts promptly came to a decision to evict the camp on 21st November. Apparently in Canada’s democratic system, park bylaws trump our constitutional right to protest. Unfortunately, because of the behaviour of the leadership and the confusions it created, the movement was unprepared for the eviction. The police destroyed the encampment, and evicted the protesters. The eviction was barely resisted, with relatively few in attendance. The fall of the campsite, and the weak resistance mounted to it, actually served to discredit the movement. A show of force, upon the notice of the eviction, against Rob Ford and the reactionary City Council could have re-energized the movement. Instead this retreat may serve to, temporarily, demoralize many participants and sympathizers.
Impact of the movement
Despite this critical appraisal of this movement (of which we are a part of), it is vital to highlight the impact it has had on Canadian politics. It has brought tens of thousands into political activity. It has brought them into a form of political activity where people are taking matters into their own hands instead of being tied to only electoral change or charity work and/or other ineffective avenues for social change.
People are no longer leaving politics in the hands of the “learned” men of society, the captains of industry, the financiers, the politicians, lawyers, economists, and the host of supposed “experts”. It is they who have led our society into economic crisis. They have brought our people into greater misery and destitution. Meanwhile, they ensured that their wealth and profits were protected (and bailed-out by public taxes).
For millions in North America, this marks the beginnings of a growing consciousness that we must work collectively. No longer must we find individual solutions to our economic problems (e.g. getting second or third job, making personal sacrifices to make ends meet). We are beginning to look for collective solutions. This is of enormous importance.
The Occupy Movement thus represents an important step forward in the Canadian class struggle. It is important to re-emphasize, however, that this was largely in spite of the leadership of the movement.
The role of organized labour
The form of protest that many youth took in the Occupy movement can only be understood in the context of relative inactivity on the part of the mass workers organization, particularly the trade unions and the NDP. Most youth have very little understanding or connection to the labour movement, and have rarely seen them as a means through which to defend their interests.
The crisis in capitalism and the austerity cuts being put forward, are attacking the standard of living of millions. Youth are particularly hard hit. The last period has seen the expansion of two-tiered systems that punish new hires, part-time and contract work, low-paying jobs, and unemployment, all which hurt youth in particular. Trade unions must play a central role in fighting against these cuts.
The involvement of organized labour in supporting and mobilizing for Occupy Toronto was a significant step forward. For the first time, many young people are beginning to see organized labour as their allies. This is of enormous significance. The activities of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), and its leader Sid Ryan, have been instrumental over the last couple weeks in building solidarity and a sense of common struggle.
These positive steps must translate into a more concerted effort to organize the unorganized sections of the working class, particularly youth.
Furthermore, labour must mobilize its power against the coming austerity cuts. Direct action and strikes can paralyze the economy, and hit the bosses where it hurts. This type of working class action can move beyond demonstrations and awareness building, and actually win important victories. A good starting point would be in the fight against Rob Ford’s cuts.
It must honestly be said that the New Democratic Party (NDP), which was built as a political vehicle for workers, has thus far failed in providing leadership against austerity. In the current leadership race, there is barely any mention of policy. At a time when the NDP can easily be a pole of attraction for youth, it should be organizing young people, and mobilizing them in the fight for education, employment, childcare, social services and the public ownership of the economy.
The NDP should ask itself why there was a record-low voter turnout in the October 6th provincial election, where only 49.2% of the electorate even turned out. Undoubtedly, even less young people came to the polls. However, the recent movement of youth shows that they are anything but apathetic. They are looking for solutions to their problems. The massive outburst of sympathy when Jack Layton passed away, especially among youth, is indicative of the political sympathies of the broader public. The NDP, as a socialist party built by workers, and which receives no funding from the 1% on Bay Street, should naturally be able to capture much of this support.
At a moment when Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty is planning massive cuts, the NDP must be vocally opposed to the austerity cuts of the Liberal Party. It has an obligation to put forward a socialist platform addressing the pressing needs of workers and youth. Such a platform would resonate and create significant enthusiasm for the NDP, and represent a big step towards fighting austerity.
There is no question that in the coming years, we will be seeing growing fights by workers, youth, students, and immigrants against the austerity cuts, rising tuition fees, and unemployment. Austerity is just beginning to hit Canada. The crisis in the Eurozone, the enormous debts in the USA and here in Canada, will serve to further deepen an already precarious “recovery”.
The fight is far from over. The only way our problems can be solved is by building and preparing for mass mobilizations against the entire capitalist system. Our problems can only be solved in a society where the majority democratically controls the economy, not a tiny minority. Crisis is endemic to capitalism. The only solution lies in building a socialist society.
This will be no easy task as the experience of the Occupy movement teaches us. The building of a socialist society will require us to begin building a revolutionary organization. We will have to take the lessons from prior struggles. We will have to draw upon the lessons that over a century of working class and revolutionary struggle have provided us. Moreover, we will have to engage in patient organizing to bring broader sections of society into the movement.
This requires patient organizing. It requires us to build the foundations for a disciplined organization that is committed to educating itself in revolutionary ideas. Such an organization must be dedicated to spreading these ideas among the millions of workers and youth who have no future under the current capitalist system. This is what the activists of Fightback are building, and we welcome all fighters to join us in organizing for the coming movements.
There are no shortcuts to victory.
We must spread the message that another world is possible. We must build the political vehicles so that people can engage in the struggle for socialism. We must take what the Occupy movement started, into neighbourhoods, campuses, and workplaces across the country.
The struggle has only begun.