What next for Occupy Belfast?


The forcible eviction of Occupy Dame Street has once again shifted the spotlight on Occupy Belfast who have moved from their original camp at Writers Square to an iconic and listed vacant former bank building in the heart of the city centre. WSM member and Occupy Belfast activist Sean Matthews asks what next for Occupy Belfast and whether it has reached a critical mass.

Since the liberation of the former Bank of Ireland building in Belfast city centre sections of the established media and local corrupt political class have attempted to criminalise and discredit the occupation. This should come as no surprise as they have a vested interest in upholding the status-quo and crushing any opposition that moves beyond the harmless straightjacket of what the state considers as legitimate or illegitimate protest.

The point is that action is taken, not indirectly by representatives over whom we have little control, but directly by those who are affected without permission from those in authority. It is action intended to succeed, not just to gain publicity or serve the ego of a few activists, or replace the need for a mass movement of the working class for its own interests and in its own interests. At the end of the day Action without theory is blind and often futile, but theory without action is ultimately sterile and no use to anyone

 We need to learn to set the agenda in terms of dictating the terms of struggle. The fact is the state is the greatest practitioner of violence and terrorism and history teaches us that the ruling class will not leave the stage of history voluntarily and give concessions without some of struggle and mass working class resistance. From the rise of the Civil Rights movement in 1960s both here and in the US to the ending of apartheid in South Africa all points to the need for mass direct action and mobilisation.

 Since the occupation in January, the occupation has provided focal point for a range of issues we are campaigning along such as homelessness, workers rights, police harassment and lack of social housing-all of which is arise not because of corporate greed but the result of capitalism which is based on the exploitation and oppression of us the majority, the working class. It is not just a matter making ‘demands,’ or of this injustice or that unfairness – it is the whole way that society works that is unjust and unfair. Poverty, war, racism, sexism and all the rest of the problems we face are not exceptions to the rule – they are the rule. Capitalism cannot exist without the state creating poverty, without fighting wars, without oppressing people because of their race or gender.

The taking of this building received significant media coverage, re-energising the movement, attracting new people and pushing Occupy Belfast back into the public arena and encouraging those who have left the camp to get back involved in some capacity. To date, Occupy Belfast has been unable to attract a significant level of support and solidarity on the same scale as similar movements across the world such in the US which witnessed the largest social movement since the Vietnam War. This mass mobilisation and awakening there has been equally matched by a rise in police violence with the US state effectively declaring social war on the movement by using repression and torture to isolate and disrupt it.  This intense level of state violence also helped to attract more support and involvement from more people. In Belfast the PSNI is yet to replicate that approach (apart from surveillance and attempted forced entry) and probably won't unless we begin to really make a difference and present a challenge to the status-quo.  

Part of the problem is that Occupy has been unable to solve the divide between those who are the core activists claiming official ownership and the wider original support base who have drifted away. Occupations of this nature should be about accommodating as many people to be involved on a level that suits them and their lives, not lambasting those who cannot make every meeting. It must provide a positive environment to encourage people to get involved who might have otherwise (due to constraints of work, family, health or other reasons) never felt able to engage in political movements. We are now in a position of make or break and central to this is the question of organisation and strategy.

We can define strategy from the formulation of answers to three questions:
1.) Where are we?
2.) Where do we want to go?
3.) How do we think we can leave where we are and arrive at where we want to be?

Strategy is, then, the theoretical formulation of a diagnosis of the present situation, the conception of the situation one wants to reach and a set of actions that will aim to transform the present situation, causing it to reach the desired situation. These are all questions we need to ask ourselves or else we will be continuously trapped in the cycle of activism, running about like headless chickens cut off from our fellow workers who have been left behind. A sub class discarded in this so-called new era which has delivered little social and economic benefits to poor working class communities.

General assembly and consensus

Central to this understanding is that occupations and creating social centres is a tactic and cannot be divorced from organising a wider fight back linking the issue of house evictions to cuts in pensions and housing benefit to the erosion of workers rights and conditions.

We also need to recognise that our mode of internal organisation, based on the general assembly is nothing new and can be located and affirmed in social revolutionary upheavals from the early stages of the soviets in the Russian Revolution to the Spanish revolution in 1936 and beyond to the Argentina factory occupations in 2001. It is part of a radical libertarian working class tradition which rejects the illusions of representative democracy and the authoritarian left in favour of collective organisation, self-organisation and self-management.

However, referring to the radical potential of the general assembly model should not blind us to the difference in circumstances, composition and wider balance of forces we face today compared to the workers soviets in the early 20th century. As highlighted by WSM member Andrew Flood ‘It is the process itself that is potentially transformative, even in the most weak and dysfunctional assemblies. If the assembly can be the mechanism by which we organize a camp or organize a general strike then why can it not also be the mechanism by which we organize our workplace, our school or our neighbourhood. And when the assemblies spread and meet up where then is the room for the politicians who instead want to represent us.’

The effectiveness of a general assembly and consensus as a decision making process depends on how effectively it is chaired and managed in terms of the agenda and level of comradely discussion and debate. To date its effectiveness in Occupy Belfast is mixed, as all too often the voices of the many are sidelined and marginalised by the egos of a few or the views of the majority are effectively held to ransom by those who have no interest in a consensus. At the heart of this is a lack of collective and individual responsibility. This ethos has drifted from the camp to the building fostering an atmosphere of division and suspicion. This maybe slowly being addressed by the agreement of rules regulating conduct and a safe space policy but it remains to be seen whether it has a lasting political impact.

Since the wall street occupation the rallying cry of the global occupy movement has been the 99% vrs the 1%. While the rally of the 99% served a purpose in the beginning through mass mobilisation and unity in the face of the greed and injustice of the 1% in the long-term. Cracks soon began to appear in this project such as the promotion of other conspiratoral interests over the central importance of social class and class struggle in our understanding of the world we live in and how we are going to change it.

Class oppression is not simply a small cabal of the ultra-rich in Wall Street or Washington or London it is reproduced in every workplace, every police station, every dole queue, every courtroom, every prison and every territory occupied by Western militaries, and can only be sensibly understood as such. We live in a class system based on the dictatorship by the capitalist class despite the illusion of parliamentary democracy. The ruling class are the people who own or control the places where we work. They make the decisions about what kinds of products the factories make or what kinds of services are provided, and they make the decisions about how this work is organised. All the rest of us our forced to work in these places in order to get the money that they need to live or rely on peanuts from the state. We, the working class, build and provide everything society needs to function. They, the ruling class, suck profit out of our work. We are the body of society; they are parasites sucking us dry.

Occupy Belfast needs to move beyond the limitations and contradictions of the ’99%’ and that the crisis is simply the result of greedy bankers and evil corporations and recognise that the root cause of our problems is capitalism and the state. This understanding is crucial if we are move from the ’activist ghetto’ to building movement with a focus and clear purpose reaching out to the wider public.

As noted by the WSM delegate council motion passed in November 2011 in relation to the Occupy movement, ‘The crisis is not simply a crisis of banking or speculation or 'corruption' even if all these elements are part of the trigger for it. Rather it is a crisis of the capitalist system, the other elements are integral parts of that system and not deviations from it. Reformist solutions, like more regulation of banking, simply repeat the processes that followed previous financial crashes, processes that we know now will be eroded over time to bring us back once more to another crisis of this type.

The debt was created by that capitalist system, it is an integral part of the functioning of that system and so if paid off it would simply be recreated by the system in a fresh round of speculation. That in fact is exactly the 'solution' aimed for by the capitalist class - a return to banking as normal.’

Rejecting the authoritarian left

The outright hostility and rejection of traditional left methods of organising and ready made formulas; and the adoption of anarchist ideas based on direct democracy and self-organisation demonstrates how out of touch the traditional left are with this new wave of social movements in the last decade. Many left-wing activists will argue that it is possible to combine campaigning and participation in elections. Mass direct action and working class self-organisation which anarchists promote is the opposite of this four year spectacle because it is about empowering others to take decision on your behalf resulting in a pervading sense of powerlessness, betrayals and disempowerment in the long term.

The reality is that because of the way in which the electoral system works, the person who is going to be the election candidate has to be the ‘face’ of the campaign, has to be the main spokesperson, has to be seen to be the driving force of the campaign. Thus campaigns can often become the opposite of encouraging mass participation and self-management, campaigners are treated as ‘followers’ or ‘supporters’ of the election candidate not as equal participants.

When this happens we can forget about socialism. A minority is in the driving seat and it is only a matter of time before they develop from a grouping with their own interests into a new fully-fledged ruling class. This is what has happened every time a minority has been trusted to rule a country after a revolutionary upheaval. The building of socialism will require mass understanding and mass participation. By their rigid hierarchical structure, by their ideas and by their activities, both social- democratic and Bolshevik types of organisations discourage this kind of understanding and prevent this kind of participation. The idea that socialism can somehow be achieved by an elite party (however revolutionary') acting 'on behalf of' the working class is both absurd and reactionary.

However, the rejection of the authoritarian left is misguided and compounded by a degree of hostility and suspicion towards all political organisation and in particular the largest social movement in the world- the trade unions. Compared to Occupy Dame Street, Occupy Belfast has built a relationship and connections with the wider labour movement with many activists members of trade unions. This is vital if we are to move from the margins to the mainstream and defend this liberated space from the forces of law and order.

The Future?  Class War!

We are all here at Occupy Belfast because we want to see change. What we want differs: some want new regulations on the financial sector and so-called a return to ethical capitalism, others want to change taxes or the minimum wage, while others like myself believes in uprooting the root cause of all our problems. Regardless of which of these boxes you fit in, if you fit in any of them at all, we all want change. The question we need to ask ourselves is how do we channel this anger and disillusionment towards building an effective mass movement that will shake the foundations of this rotten status-quo, what tools do we use and what change do we really want? How can transform this occupy movement to something that doesn’t just question politicians but decadence of reformism?

Despite these drawbacks, for those who feel able to participate there are many positives to being involved in Occupy especially because of its internationalist nature. The future lies not in making a set of demands to politicians but in creating a space for political education and action, reclaiming and re-politicising public/private space that has generally been taken over by capital. In the process building an alternative to our sectarian carve up in the North connecting with the wider workers movement and communities. In bringing new people into politics, the occupations are helping to radicalise and politicise a wide range of people who previously may have felt disconnected from the way society is run and political parties, and helped them to realise that by working together in solidarity, we can create change.

By taking over this empty building, gradually building a social centre and encouraging others to take similar action in their communities, we have made the first step in a long political journey providing a small glimpse of our potential power, if we take direct action where we live and work around concrete issues, linking with workplace occupations to house evictions and beyond.

What is clear is that Occupy Belfast is not an end in itself and new movements will spring from it which are more concrete and relevant to the day to day issues faced by our class. Ultimately, we need to re-build and re-analysis our ‘movement’ from below upwards combining thought with action in terms of internal organisation and the direction we want to take which cannot be rushed over for sake of running from one action to the next.

For me this process cannot be divorced from the struggle for a better society and question of what type of society do we want? As an anarchist, the solution is in one where we realise our own class power, we can finally take control of our lives, our communities and workplaces’ free from exploitation, alienation and oppression. This future, a libertarian communist one, is truly a future worth fighting for.

Occupy Belfast will be holding a public meeting at The People's Bank at 2pm this Saturday March 24th 2012 discuss how we intend to take Occupy Belfast forward and to establish The People’s Bank General Assembly.

‘Since our symbolic public repossession of the former Bank of Ireland building on January 16th 2012, we have set about repurposing the derelict building for community use. Currently we have housed a number of homeless people and are working toward establishing educational, cultural and food programs. Our aim is for The People’s Bank to be a hub of grassroots community-orientated activism; social and political.

We invite all members of the public, our supporters, community and activist organizers and particularly skilled workers to join us for our first public meeting where we will explain why we publicly repossessed the former Bank of Ireland before opening the floor for a democratic discussion on how best to make use of the building."

WORDS: Sean Matthews