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Home arrow Sociology arrow Bourdieu and Social Movements: Ideological Struggles in the British Anti-Capitalist Movement

Political power and conflict

Although a crisis of doxa can be enough to galvanize citizens into protesting and forming a movement such as Occupy, it is not enough to sustain it over the long term. I argue that this is all the more difficult when the movement itself does not have clear plan of political action - especially when faced with opponents who are well resourced and do have a very clear plan for how to thwart them.

From the outset Occupy was not a formal organization. It was a decentralized network of activists practising horizontalism, that is, a flat network with no hierarchy or leadership structure. It emerged spontaneously and, in keeping with horizontal political movements, there was no overarching ideology guiding its campaign. Occupy activists practised horizontal methods such as consensus decisionmaking procedures, the innovative use of the people's mic, and holding a General Assembly (GA) every evening to reach decisions by consensus.

These practices have their roots in participatory political practice. Consensus decision-making practices involve hand signals that denote approval, veto, time-out and raising direct points to positions expressed. The people's mic was originally developed to overcome the laws restricting the use of megaphones in New York; it is no coincidence that this type of tactic found its way into a horizontal movement since it is a really inclusive and participatory form of communication, quite different from that of more formal political movements that use microphones and address people from podiums. The way it works is an Occupy speaker makes a statement and after a few sentences he/she would pause and then activists close by would repeat the statement so that it would eventually be disseminated throughout the crowd (Graeber, 2013; Roberts, 2014).

The GA is the manifestation of horizontal and participatory political practice par excellence. At Occupy camps all over the globe, including the UK, the various GAs would meet each evening to discuss the key issues and solutions for the movement. The members would then decide through consensus whether to agree with or decline suggestions. This process is used to overcome the problems of hierarchy that might emerge in the more formal political structures that use majoritarian decision-making systems, such as voting, which is seen as excluding the minority opinion.

However, as Smith and Glidden (2012) have pointed out, this type of organizing is not new and the problems it entailed in earlier movements, feminism, civil rights and so on, were experienced in the Occupy movement too. Principal among them was 'reinventing the wheel'. This metaphor is used by activists to denote how rules and previously made decisions are constantly being rediscussed and renegotiated by activists. So while the tyranny of the majority is avoided, a tyranny of structurelessness emerges in its place. Smith and Glidden argue that 'those in the encampment who maintained a continuous presence claimed a higher status in group decisionmaking. Activists who were not able to stay on site often revered those who did or at least were reluctant to challenge their preferences' (2012: 289). Inevitably, the timing and location of the GAs reflected the preferences of a minority who were able to spend large amounts of time in the camp (2012: 289). The suggestion is that certain activists may become more experienced and skilled in politics. As such, they can become dominant within movement. It is not necessarily deliberate, rather it is more a result of the processes that have occurred, the more experienced become more qualified to take on certain roles in the camp/movement.

In the UK one activist recalls: 'a major problem with the General Assembly was trying to implement the General Assembly'. He goes on to say that no discussion of whether consensus-based organizing was desired among the camp took place and how he thought that was undemocratic (Matt).

From my research with activists in London and elsewhere in the UK, there was a clear tension and conflict between those activists who wanted to discuss how perhaps the trade unions might be involved (without taking over) and those who did not, since they felt it might compromise their consensus-based politics in some way. From my research it was the case that local trade union branches wanted to support Occupy, at least informally, so as not to encroach on their camp territory, but there seemed to be hostility towards them from the outset. One activist recalls that trade unions supported the Occupy movement locally, but the 'leaders' of the Occupy camp had hostility towards them, even though the trade unionists had provided some resources:

Local trade unionists visited with food and gifts. For example the GMB fetched them a hundred torches and coffee and sandwiches and things like that on a regular basis. They did that. And I know in other cities union offices had opened up to them and allowed them to use washing facilities and things like that. Even though that had happened, there was still hostility to the trade union movement and the idea of organization. (Gavin)

This stems from a deep distrust of any organized politics. In particular, some activists see trade unions as merely government lobby machines that are wholly institutionalized and therefore have little if any transformative potential. As one member of Occupy, who happened to be a trade unionist recalls, he was accused of trying to take over the movement, although he was one of only two trade unionists in the camp:

'You're here to take over', 'You're here to push your agenda onto us' and all that sort of stuff, which wasn't the case at all. It were just a case of we wanted to discuss politics, but because they wanted to push away organization, anybody that had ideas, political ideas around things were pushed away, because it were sort of seen as 'You're trying to take over the agenda of what this is about.' (Gavin)

Gavin also told me that he felt the Occupy camp he attended really lacked any type of political strategy beyond the basic needs of the camp itself. Some of these issues have been outlined in wider studies on the Occupy movement. For example, Roberts (2014) states how Occupy movements tended to split up and fragment when members could not reach a consensus on a coherent political programme including what their tactics should be, what political alliances they should make, and what their specific demands were (A. Roberts, 2012; J.M. Roberts, 2014: 179).

Gavin also recalls how he was disappointed when he visited the Occupy London camp because he felt it lacked any clear political strategy:

I went down to the London camp for a night, which was an eye- opener to the politics of it all, because people weren't serious really at the London camp. There were a lot of hippies whose solution to the world's problems is 'we all need to love one another'. OK that might be correct. What a better world it would be if we could do that, but we've got to find a way of getting to that. It's not just going to happen by me being friendly to this guy here. It's not going to happen in that way. You've got to tackle who holds the power and how to get your hands on that.

I now wish to theorize why Occupy UK failed, but also consider what it achieved in the long term. It went from exposing a crisis of doxa to fading out and the critique of neoliberalism ended. I argue that the answer lies within field theory of movements.

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