Gregor Gall: Occupy left no trace as it was all over the place

The movement’s failure to connect with the unions and to take over
assets valued by the 1 per cent saw it fail, writes Gregor Gall
The Occupy protesters in St Andrew Square were eventually forced to move their camp to the Meadows. Picture: Greg MacveanThe Occupy protesters in St Andrew Square were eventually forced to move their camp to the Meadows. Picture: Greg Macvean
The Occupy protesters in St Andrew Square were eventually forced to move their camp to the Meadows. Picture: Greg Macvean

Two years ago, the global Occupy movement had just been born and was freely flowering, with camps being set up in most major cities in Britain including Edinburgh and Glasgow. It began on 17 September in Zuccotti Park, New York. The park is part of the financial district of Wall Street. Hence, the movement was originally known as Occupy Wall Street.

By 15 October, Occupy in London had come into life around St Paul’s after an attempted encampment in the heart of the financial centre was thwarted by police. The same day, Occupy was established in Edinburgh’s St Andrew Square and Glasgow’s George Square. Nineteen other cities in Britain saw Occupy encampments.

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The list of other countries with Occupy movements stretched far and wide: Armenia, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Czech Republic, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Malaysia, Mexico, Mongolia, Nepal, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, South Korea, Switzerland and Turkey.

Occupy pre-occupied itself with issues of global social and economic inequality and undue influence of corporations upon governments. Its key slogan was “We are the 99 per cent”, highlighting that the super-rich which own the vast majority of the world’s wealth comprise just 1 per cent of the population. To achieve its goals, Occupy advocated direct action after decision-making through consensus-based general assemblies.

Occupy dominated the news for many months, bringing back to the top of the political agenda the neo-liberal form of capitalism that puts the free market on a pedestal. This was no mean feat after the earlier collapse of the anti-capitalism (or anti-globalisation) movement – it had sprung into life after the Battle of Seattle in 1999 but was knocked apart by the impact of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq.

Above all, Occupy signified that after the beginning of the financial crash from 2007-08 there was a widespread and popular form of opposition to the wreckage imposed upon the world by the economic system favoured by the 1 per cent.

Yet a mere two years later, Occupy is nowhere to be seen. It has left behind no visible trace or impact. Governments and political parties today are no more critical of neo-liberalism than they were before. The 1 per cent is no more shackled today than it was before.

If anything, the reverse is true. Neo-liberalism is even more embedded in the economy and society than it was before, and the 1 per cent are richer and more powerful than before.

The fundamental explanation for this sorry state is Occupy never occupied anything of strategic worth, and from which it could then have exercised leverage for its objectives over governments, corporations or financial institutions.

In New York, Occupy occupied a park and not a stock exchange. In London, it occupied the area in front of a cathedral and not a bank. In Edinburgh, it occupied a public park and not a financial institution. Of course, Occupy was prevented from occupying important buildings by the police. But that does not detract from the reality that Occupy did not as a whole seek to take from the 1 per cent something which they valued or needed. The ensuing battle was mostly about contesting who controlled public spaces and for what ends. Even this battle was lost – in Edinburgh, protesters had to move to the Meadows while in Glasgow, they had to move to Kelvingrove Park.

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Fighting for the right to have a protest rather than fighting for its aims drained the movement. Internal disagreements over acceptable sexual and collective behaviour within the camps dissolved the will of many. But there is another reason why Occupy melted away. This is that Occupy never managed to connect with the unions. After the financial crash and the beginning of the recession, redundancies and workplace closures were aplenty. The way in which such job losses can most easily be fought by workers is by occupying the workplace.

Choosing to strike against redundancies puts workers in a weaker position – outside the workplace, and only able to stop asset-stripping by mass picketing. By contrast, occupying a workplace gives control to workers of the building and any assets inside, so putting the workers in a stronger position.

If it’s true to say Occupy did not extend the hand of friendship and solidarity to the union movement, it’s also true to say the union movement did not extend the same back. At the very time of the need for occupations against job losses, the two were like the proverbial ships that pass in the night.

As it was the union movement in neither Britain nor America was capable of resisting on its own the welter of redundancies and closures through using the occupation tactic. Less than 20 occupations have taken place in Britain since the crash, and in the US there have been just two occupations – ironically of the same factory in 2008 and 2012. In Scotland, this disjuncture seems even starker. Since the early 1970s, the central belt has experienced a chain of high-profile occupations. The major ones were most obviously the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ work-in (1971-72), the Lee Jeans occupation in Greenock (1981), Caterpillar in Uddingston (1987-88) and Glacier Metals in Glasgow (1996). Not only were occupations undertaken but three were successful so providing a positive demonstration effect – or so one would think. But in the event, the Prisme packaging works in Dundee in 2009 was the only occupation in Scotland since 2008. It was then transformed by staff into a co-operative called Discovery Design and Packaging. Unfortunately, it did not survive.

So the failure of Occupy in Scotland, the UK and elsewhere to make a lasting, positive impact cannot entirely be laid at its own door. Context was critical – if only to show an inhospitable environment demanded greater strategic thinking.

• Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford and a resident of Edinburgh