On Prospect’s website last month Alasdair Roberts gave his interpretation as to “Why Occupy Failed.” Chief among the reasons for this failure, according to Roberts, was the movement’s anti-democratic nature. Roberts admonishes the movement for its unwillingness to compromise, suggesting that Occupy’s “disdain for democratic politics” places the movement in the company of the very neoliberals which the movement sought to attack.
Yet, in criticising the Occupy movement for its lack of pragmatism, its unwillingness to operate through existing political structures, its refusal to “accept results that fall short” of its ideals, Roberts misunderstands the very principle on which Occupy was founded; a principle without which there would be no Occupy.
Consider the standard liberal response to the financial crisis and the ensuing austerity measures that have emerged across the globe. This viewpoint criticises the capitalist system for its recklessness and political institutions for their carelessness. What we need, the liberals say, is some tightening of regulation for the financial sector, a little bit more money spent on welfare, strong penalties against corrupt bankers, and so on. In other words, a series of small adjustments to the system without questioning the fundamentals of the liberal democratic capitalist system itself.
The point of the Occupy movement was precisely not to engage in this standard liberal critique of contemporary capitalism. Roberts’s pragmatised version of the Occupy movement would result in nothing but a replication of this standard liberal narrative. The underlying ideological premise in Roberts’s call for realism is that it is not possible to fundamentally change the liberal democratic capitalist system, and that all we can hope for is a small series of adjustments to that system, achieved through negotiation with existing institutions of power.
Contrary to Roberts’s claims, the Occupy movement was not utopian, precisely because they realised that it was not possible to achieve their aims through engagement with standard democratic processes. They were not utopian precisely in their refusal to believe that we have already found “the least worst system.” It is Roberts who is utopian in assuming that it would be possible to create the kind of just society to which the Occupy movement aimed through engagement with existing institutions of power.
Austerity measures are predicated on the same kind of pragmatic language Roberts uses. It is this language of “realism” through which financial institutions continue to exert their power and influence. By employing this language Roberts reveals that it is in fact he who is in the company of the neoliberals—while they may have their disagreements, both admonish the “utopian” idea that the very framework of our society could be fundamentally altered.
From this perspective Occupy’s reluctance to engage with existing institutions of power was not a sign of the movement’s anti-democratic nature as Robert’s claims; rather, this reluctance was simply a reflection of the occupier’s willingness to be radically realistic.
To read “Why Occupy failed” by Alasdair Roberts, click here