Occupy in Brisbane - an assessment

Dave Eden 2012

I have to start by saying that I have been pretty much wrong about the Occupy movement from the start. When I first read about Adbuster suggestion to occupy Wall Street I dismissed it as a self-aggrandising stunt which erroneously focused on finance capitalism rather than capitalism as the system. Equally I rolled my eyes when I heard it was coming to Australia – another badly thought attempt to import a politics inappropriate for our conditions I though, and the kinds of politics that were being expressed on the Facebook page (conspiracy theory and generally wing nuttery )didn’t seem to bode well. I have been confidently predicting to anyone who listened about the inglorious defeated of the occupation – and yet it has continued. What I have consistently underestimated is the defiance of a small group of people who are willing to manifest against the odds. So take these following comments of mine with a grain of salt.


Occupy Wall Street(OWS) can be seen as part of a circulation of struggles that has been gaining momentum over the last few years. The threads that swirled together are diverse and open but would include the more obvious influences of the Arab Spring, the struggles in Greece, Spain and Israel, the European Student movement,  older historical experiences of the alter-globalisation movement, the influence of Paris 68 and Italy 77 and complicated histories of the 20th Century. It has been accompanied by a new political debate. It has amplified these precedents at a time when global capitalism is not only still in crisis but is potentially about to face another crisis – prompted by the European sovereign debt crisis and the worries about a hard landing in China. All of this in the context of looming ecological catastrophe.

From afar OWS seems to have a profound effect on the political debate in the US and thus unsettled the ideological coordinates of the globe. As Zizek (2011)has so famously mention it has provided us with the “red ink” to critique liberal democratic capitalism. And this critique is taking material form, the high point possibly being the General Strike launched by the Oakland Commune, but also the spread of Occupy tactics to specific struggles such as around school funding and policing violence in specific cities. The future of these movements in the face of increasing state violence is unsure….but also exciting.

Yet in Brisbane the experience has been far more modest. Considering the prevailing political quietism of our period the month long period of defiance and creativity has been a welcome short in the arm. Yet we must also acknowledge its limitations. For all the hype Occupy Brisbane has been able to only mobilise a few hundred people at best and many of those (for a lack of a better term are let’s call them ‘Left’ or People of the Left) who one would expect to sympathise with this struggle, and are sympathetic to OWS, have remained in varying measure aloof, hostile and cynical. Why is this so?

In part some of the responsibility has to fall on the quality and nature of the ideas and actions that have emerged from OB. OB has not been able to resonate more broadly with the struggles of working class in Australia. Part of this may be due to the political incoherence and downright wackiness of the ideas that have emerged from OB.  Now I reject the charge that OB must provide demands – as often this is simple an incitement to speak and think in a way that plugs into the politics-as-usual of the state and the media. I also think we need to defend the right for people to speak before they have “all the answers” which in itself is only a demand that people must bow down in front of experts.

Yet that said the ideas that have accompanied our mobilisation have been confused, lacked credibility and have no spoken to the lived conditions of ordinary people, preferring rather general sentiments that critique inequality in often abstract terms. These ideas often were expressed as a confused shopping list of points, based on either conspiracy theory or moralistic notions of spirituality. This has also been tied to a jumbled practice of what to do and why, and how this connects to transforming the world more broadly.

What is conspicuous in its absence is any substantial critique of work, of the labour-process of capital, as the well-spring of all surplus-value in capitalist society

In the face of considerable state counter-offensive OB is at a certain level ‘stuck’ – though many people are working hard to keep the movement moving.

There has been three different strategies put forward to move beyond this impasse. The strategy of the so-called and now disbanded Organising Committee has been one of attempting to change the world through changing consciousness. Thus they want a stable and public space to spread a message of Love Unity and Respect. To achieve this they have sort to normalise conditions with the city council i.e the state. Due to a massive misreading of the nature of the state they understand all conflict as emerging from the poor practices of the occupiers themselves – and thus seek to discipline the behaviour of those there. To the point where they themselves were largely rejected by the occupation.

The strategy of Socialist Alternative has been one of attempting to break out of the isolation through a series of political stunts – corporate scum bag tours, taking the seemingly most militant line etc. However due to the highly ideological approach they have to politics they have succeed only in isolating themselves from other occupiers and making no broader connections in the class. They don’t grasp the lived conditions of daily capitalism

The third strategy, and the most popular one, has been to keep peddling. This  has seen comrades invest large amount of time and energy to maintain the camp, to realise democratic practices, to deal with all the messy shit of daily life, including drug abuse, violence, etc. and start to make links with others and fill the space created with events such as the Free University, BBQs etc. Considering the odds that OB faces this has been a considerable success – but it hasn’t been able to move passed the limitations

When asking myself what is to be done I often return to the following quote by Marx and Engels: “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from premises now in existence.” (Marx and Engels 1973:56-57)

What is so striking about this idea is that communism, the alternative society emerges from struggles here today, that it is a movement and that this movement is based not just on good ideas or nice values but lived social relations. Thus when we critique ‘bad ideas’ it is not simple to argue for ‘good ideas’ but to ask ourselves how can we act that connects to the living possibilities of communism. On the flip side we can also say that these bad ideas, these ideologies, are also products of the material conditions of the society we live in.

Thus I think we can both grasp the causes for the limitations of OB and the possible road out through thinking through – broadly – the conditions of the society we live in. On one hand it is a product of what we might call the changes from Fordism, to Post-Fordism and now the new economy. This saw an attempt by capital to maintain and extend its dominance through the radical recreation of society at its molar and macro levels. The world of the mass workplace and all that was attached to that was dispersed and new forms of labour-processes that are increasing immaterial and involve the internalisation of control now typify work. Thus ideas that explain the world through conspiracies or that seeks changes through mental gymnastics reflect in some obscure way our lived experiences. Similarly the fact the crisis emerges on the level of money, specifically in the circulation of financial capital, may work to intensify these phenomena – since financial capital appears so abstract so ephemeral y but so reified, and yet we know that it animates the function of capitalism more broadly, crisis on this level might not lead to critiques that grasp the totality of capital but in fact the reverse: the desire for solidity ( thus we see the entirely illogical demand for a return to the gold standard) and a deep need to blame someone: Rothschilds, The Illumaniti etc. etc.

We must also consider the long terms rot and decline of genuine communist politics and the paralysis the Left displays in attempts to grasp new conditions. One of the greatest tools we have for understanding the world, the Marxian critique of political economy, is unfamiliar territory for even avid anti-capitalists. When was the last time you heard the concepts of value, the commodity-form, the money-form etc. inform our daily practice?

But what understanding of a way forward can we get if we grasp these tools to understand our present condition?

Let’s move quickly. What is unique about Australia’s condition? Unlike most of the world Australia is currently doing relatively well driven by the Mining Boom Mark II. The continual growth of China and India and high resource commodity prices are underscoring this. So much so that capital in Australia faces a peculiar limit: it is running out of labour-power. With unemployment at around 5.3% capital faces pressures of increasing wages, a limit to its expansion and a patch-work economy in which less profitable sectors of the economy find it hard to match wages of those in mining etc.. Capital’s response, and we see this at QANTAS is about to launch an offensive, is  a productivity agenda, in which if high labour cost can’t be escaped overseas then the length and intensity of work needs to be increased.  Workers in Australia thus don’t face unemployment, but rather too much work. But it is too much work in conditions of precarity: lack of job security, high debt, awareness of looming ecological crisis, and intense but unstable hierarchy of gender race and difference which all adds up to stress and alienation, in a society of decreased democratic participation and feelings of impotency and loss of control.

Radical politics today must be about quality of life.

We also have to be aware how much of this takes place in work-places with a radically different form of labour-process, subjectivity and geography than that of the 20th Century

All of this hangs on the knife edge of looming double-dip, a drop in global effective demand, a hard landing in China which could evaporate this boom – something political and organisationally the Australian working class is ill-prepared for.

But more specifically Occupy is a challenge in the heart of the city. But why don’t often ask what the city is? Simple put the city today is an engine of capitalist accumulation.  Following Hardt & Negri (2009) we can say that the city in some ways has begun to supplant the factory as the defining site of capitalist accumulation today. We can grasp this in a simple way as understanding the role that construction plays as source of profitable investment “one of the key ways that capitalist surplus is absorbed”(Harvey 2010:166). Constant real estate development is both a key capitalist industry but also the exact physical point in which capital as money is often invested to realise increasing amounts of surplus value. There is a profound link between financial capital and capital involved in real estate – we should never forget that this crisis emerged as a crisis over sub-prime loans. The city is also filled with other work-places, of services and administrative work, of public transport, security, cleaning and so on….; a vast hive of labour-processes that whilst are owned and organised in complex ways also lie across each other in a complicate weave. And the city is constantly being reshaped in line with the drive to accumulate. One only has to catch a bus from the Cultural Centre to Stone’s Cnr to see the way that capital reshapes and discards the urban environment.  But more than that the very life of the city, the sociality that people generate with each other, the common, is both the thing that capital wants to put to work  and also how people can rebel against it (Hardt and Negri 2009:249-260)

The city is also the place of rebellion and refusal. Every work place is a site of (often silent) refusal, but also there is a constant conflict between how capital organising the city and how people wish to use it.

The city then is a contradictory and antagonist place of investment, work and commodification, and also of disobedience, exuberance, love and joy, of political repression and carnivalesque explosions all jammed together and held in place by security cameras, police and guards, toll-ways and tickets, and cut through by the possibility of things getting out of control.

How then can OB radically intervene on this terrain? Possibly the most important task – that of forming a caucus amongst radical workers in the city can’t directly come from OB – but perhaps OB can provide a space politically to help organise this. One of the best yet unrealised ideas was the suggesting of free lunches for workers in the city, that is the forming of a space for encounter and circulation of experience.  But are there other spots or places or tensions in the city, the empty Borders shop front (an image of a looming future?), the treatment of youth in Queen street mall, the provision of services or their absence, the decline of public transport, the costs and qualities of housing,  etc These are all points of antagonism in which we could think hard about how we might be able to engage with a variety of tactics to pull out and weave together the rebellious threads of the city. The Occupation site itself may contain as a space of experimentation and life – brilliant. But what can we do over the hot summer months to increase the levels of knowledge and organisation of the working class to confront capital as it exists today – and with the challenges we face tomorrow?

For me what seems clear is the need to argue for, not impose, a materialist and dialectical understanding of the world, one that takes the basic Occupy position of democracy and radical egalitarianism and attempts to extend this to concrete sites of antagonism in a way that resonates with both the exploitation we experience but also our hopes: work, time, place, solidarity. Let’s craft some specific experiments around these themes. This is part of how we live as communists today.

Hardt, M. and A. Negri (2009). Commonwealth. Cambridge, Massachusetts, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Harvey, D. (2010). The Enigma of Capital  and the Crises of Capitalism. London, Profile Books.

Marx, K. and F. Engels (1973). The German Ideology Part One. New York, International Publishers.

Zizek, S. (2011). "Zizek in Wall Street – Transcript." Critical Legal Thinking  Retrieved 16th November, 2011, from http://www.criticallegalthinking.com/?p=4415#more-4415.