Sunday, June 10, 2012

Why I Do Not Support Occupy

Ever since the start of the Occupy Movement back on September 17th, 2011 Socialists have, for the most part, supported it enthusiastically.  The Democratic Socialists of America, Socialist Party USA, the International Socialist Organization, Socialist Alternative, Socialist Equality, and many others all announced their support for Occupy very early on.  For most Socialists supporting Occupy is a no-brainer.  Socialism has always been closely tied with activism; Occupy is a huge national level example of the kind of activism that us Socialists are drawn to.  

Educate! Organize! Agitate!  This link goes to a copy of a letter written in 1918 that talked about how never before had Capitalism been as vulnerable to an uprising from the workers and how the work of educating and organizing those workers to agitate for change had never been as critical.  Sound familiar?  Change the dates and names and that letter could have been written in 2012.  Educate, organize, agitate has been the rallying cry of Socialists for at least the past 100 years and it is still our standard operating procedure today.  Most Socialists I know relish the thought of participating in a direct action, of joining a protest, conducting a march, occupying some politicians office, etc.  These are some of the most passionate, dedicated, and intelligent people that I know and they truly and deeply believe that through activism they will make a difference.

I believe that they are wrong.  I do not believe that direct action, be it in the form of an occupation, a protest, a march, or anything else is the answer.  I believe that the concept of Educate, Organize, Agitate is a long since failed methodology that needs to be abandoned.  I know most Socialists will vehemently disagree with me on this, but I believe that Socialism can never possibly succeed so long as we continue to rely on direct action.  

Think about it, direct action has been our standard operating procedure since the days of Marx.  A hundred plus years of protests and what do we have to show for it?  In 1912 when Eugene Debs ran for President as a candidate for the Socialist Party he received 6.2% of the popular vote, a little over 900,000 votes.  In 2008 Socialist Party USA's candidate, Brian Moore, received 0.01% of the popular vote, barely 6,500 votes.  When Debs ran in 1912 Socialist Party of America had over 118,000 dues-paying members; in 2012 Socialist Party USA is estimated to have only around 1,500 members.  As we've been protesting Socialist Party USA has lost 99% of the membership that their predecessor organization had at its height. 

Socialists and other leftists organizations have been protesting the G8 summits since they were the G6 summits back in 1975.  As we've been protesting the power of Capitalism has increased, with the G6 becoming the G7 and now the G8.  As we protest the power of Capitalism continues to grow with the G8 losing influence to the larger G20. 

A hundred years of protesting has given us exactly one openly Socialist congressman out of 535.  In the first half of the 1900s we had an estimated 200 Socialist mayors, in the latter half of the 1900s we've had 4.  There has never been a Socialist governor.  No Socialist running for president has ever received a larger percentage of the popular vote than Debs did in 1912. 

In the hundred years of protesting we've seen our numbers decline dramatically, we've seen our philosophy become demonized, we are further away than ever from winning high office, we've seen the influence of the Right increase while ours vanishes, we've watched as the Right distort the meaning of Socialism and use the term as an attack on any Capitalist who is slightly less ruthless than they are.  Even with Occupy the message of Socialism has gotten lost.  

While this is happening what do we do?  We protest.  We demonstrate.  We march.  We talk about "raising awareness." We do all the same things we've done over and over again countless times.  We always think that this time it's going to be different.  This time we'll get through to people.  This time they'll see.  They never do.  Yet we keep on doing the same things over and over again desperately hoping for a different result.  Einstein is believed to have said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  Socialists have been doing the same thing over and over again for a hundred years! 

This is why I do not, never have, and never will, support Occupy.  It is a large scale version of the same things we have always done; the same methods that have failed us so utterly and completely.  Sure, thanks to Occupy politicians now pay lip service to the idea of income inequality.  All of our presidential candidates have tried to identify with the movement, but does anybody actually believe this is anything more than political pandering for votes?  Can anybody point to a single bill that has passed to address the issues of income inequality since Occupy started drawing attention to the issue?  No, protest movements have failed Socialism; we must abandon the idea of direct action and find new methods to spread our message. 

The problem with protest movements is that they generally preach to the choir.  They attract people who already agree with, or at the very least are sympathetic to, the goals of that movement.  If we want to win we need to do much more than reach the people who already think like us, we need to reach the apathetic majority of Americans who pay more attention to who wins Survivor than they do to politics.  Data from the OECD shows that America has the lowest voter turnout out of any OECD nation except for South Korea.  Less than half of Americans bother to vote; the average for OECD nations is seventy percent.  We are an apathetic nation.  To effect change these are the people we need to reach.  These people generally cannot be reached through protest; most Americans are trained to tune out protesters.  

There are only two mass protest movements that effected true national change, the Civil Rights movement and Woman's Suffrage.  What separates movements like those from Occupy is that they both had strong, dynamic, and charismatic leadership.  People like Martin Luther King or Susan B Anthony, individuals who could be easily identified; who could convey the message in a very simple and clear manner.  A dynamic and charismatic leader could potentially reach people who might otherwise ignore protesters but Socialism does not have a Martin Luther King or Susan Anthony and the Occupy Movement prides itself on not having specific leaders. 

Protests and other direct actions are enjoyable; I used to participate in tons of them.  It is great to be surrounded by people who think like you, to get caught up in the energy; to feel that you are really doing something constructive and positive.  I can certainly understand the appeal, but the data is clear: for Socialists direct action does not work.  We have to stop using the same methods over and over again hoping that this time will be different.  If organize, educate, agitate was going to bring about a Socialist revolution in America it would have happened back in 1912.  A new direction is desperately needed!  I have some ideas as to how we might move forward in a different ways, but as this is already too long I will talk about that on a later post. 

It is not my intention to antagonize any of my fellow Socialists.  Whether you are a firm believe in Direct Action or whether you think as I do we all want to see the same thing: an end to Capitalism.  I love Socialism, it is the only system that will treat human beings like human beings and I am thrilled to know so many dedicated Socialists.  I firmly believe that Socialism can win; but not unless we change our methods.  


  1. You are somewhere on the mark, but I do think direct action and political action work in tandem. There are many who genuinely believe in Socialism in the United States, however the process of history has divided these organizations. Some choose to abstain from joining an organization altogether due to the issues. To steal a phrase Immortal Technique, "Occupation is not Victory".

    If there are so many socialists in the US, we should make ourselves and our positions clear by running for office and showing just how different the changes we support are from the capitalists. We fight in the belly of the dominant capitalist empire, which will make things difficult, but we should not surrender to wanting to elect a "nicer" capitalist, or relying on a failed strategy of protest.

  2. For periods of intensifying struggle, Karl Liebknicht put out the watchwords, 'Study, Preach, Organize! ('Preach' is my translation of the German form of 'Propagandize!) I think these, including the order of them, are better than what you use here.

  3. This has spawned about 40 comments here

  4. I just wrote a comment but think I lost it here I go again.

    I think the occupy movement has been very important. For many people who got involved in occupy it was the first time being politically active. Just like the first meeting I went to over 45 years ago--we all have those entry points that have brought us into the social justice movement usually start with that step into a particular struggle that moves us.

    Charlie you are right that these mass struggles in and of themselves will not lead to socialism. So the question is what is our role as socialists? I think the slogans fit, which ever one you pick. We need to educate but at the same time learn. We need to build organization, both mass organization and socialist organization, and we need to continue to organize.
    I look forward to talking to you more about this, Charlie, and hearing your ideas.

  5. So what do we do differently? The strong leader theory is easy challenged when the leader is struck personally, the charisma of a leader or a few leaders is no more sustainable than a singular protest approach.

    Being a Debs fan myself, I can make the case that Socialism also failed because it relied on him too heavily--long after his health made it difficult--

    We need leaders and charisma no doubt, but it is oppressive, narrow, and unrealistic to say that is all. Leadership and discipline are but two things we need...among others are redefinition and re-branding to the public, E.O.A., Setting aside straw men and "true Socialist" bickering, working in coalitions-- ours and others--hard work, fresh opportunity and good luck.

    I think OWS was a potential beginning in this...

  6. X, in my follow up post to this one I talk about what I believe we can do differently. As you say, we are in desperate need of redefinition and re-branding. Nothing is more important than educating and reaching out to the people. Visible leaders will help with that but it's certainly not the only thing we need to do.

  7. Charles, I should have read your post before I asked the question in the group RT7 on FB. I'm in agreement with you for the most part. One thing I think was done badly was dismissing the teaparty as a bunch of hacks. We made fun of them instead of studying how there doing it. Sure they were taken over fast by people like the Kochs. It was then they really organized. All that feel good stuff is exactly that..feel good. Until we have a game plan and do as the baggers done, it will just be an annoyance. All those radio left wing shows have done nothing except inform the informed. Anyway thanks and good work Tim