Occupying an impasse: learning from mistakes?

All great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice… first as tragedy, then as farce.

-Karl Marx, 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

October 15th has a double significance in this country, as both the day of the 2007 invasion of the Ureweras, and the day the global ‘Occupy’ movement arrived here in 2011. On October 15th 2011 thousands were mobilised across the country; turnout in Auckland was particularly impressive, while the hundreds who showed up in other centres were largely new to ‘the usual suspects’ (such as myself.) Smaller occupations cropped up in New Plymouth, Marton, Invercargill and elsewhere, showing the resonance of this new political language.

Numbers have fluctuated since. Commentary by Socialist Aotearoa accuses the left of ‘vacillating,’ however the reality is that occupiers have vacillated in general; while Occupy Auckland mobilised thousands on its first day, its current battle with attempted eviction involves a relative hard core. We have to learn from this downward trajectory: what happened and why?

Different situation
While it undeniably resonates, Occupy does not drawn in the breadth of support here that it does in the US. This in large part follows from different economic conditions; while this country is relatively sheltered from the global financial crisis, in the US it rapidly destroyed significant chunks of the middle-class. Mass foreclosures provide Occupy Wall Street, and the other US occupations, with a steady stream of radicalised forces. There are concrete forces pulling people into being involved, whereas New Zealand has seen a more moral aspect to many people’s involvement.

Things are not peachy in the land of sleeping hobbits either. While our comparatively limited financialisation, and close relationship with the booming Australian economy, keep our economy stable for now – real wages have fallen 25% in the last 30 years. Instead of mass foreclosures, a steady build up of pressure is developing within the housing market, with the rate in the first 6 months of 2011 being 1008 as opposed to 230 mortgagee sales in 2007, a pattern identified in the US before the crash. We’ve seen over five billion dollars of mainly working class savings, frittered away in a silent tragedy affecting hundreds of thousands of people, in the US everyone was affected, in New Zealand it has been the working poor. Our sleep-walk leads either towards an awakening or a cliff, towards socialism or barbarism.

Political character of Occupy
People’s attraction to Occupy stems partly from its “non-political” nature, that is non-parliamentary and non-party political. In 2011 NZ had its lowest turnout since women got the right to vote in the 19th Century, so this rejection of formal politics certainly resonates. The politics of Occupy come through in support for locked out meat workers, for evicted public housing residents in Glen Innes and Pomare, for the homeless – it’s a movement that sides with the working class when it matters.

There are limitations to the (anti)politics of Occupy. Raising existing divisions within “the 99%” is frowned upon. Myths and hierarchies that run throughout society, such as victim-blaming attitudes toward people who bring up sexual abuse, are reproduced. The initial understanding of the 99% concept is for a homogenous unity of the majority that leaves those not straight, white, pakeha, either having to keep quiet for the sake of unity or being consciously or unconsciously pressured to leave.

Idealism makes this harder to address. The notion of “horizontalism,” of networks that go across rather than top-down, in effect mean attempting to wish away concrete power structures. The consensus process (replaced with 90% majority in some places) means that a conscientious majority cannot respond to immediate situations, for example destructive behaviour. Protracted processes of ‘defence’ for destructive behaviour (sometimes concieved in a quasi-legal language) outweigh concerns such as respecting those who’ve been harassed, with a reactionary minority able to filibuster.

In Wellington in the middle of December, after the majority of people had left, the focus changed to concentrating on the issues facing the homeless, who unlike other occupiers have nowhere else to go. The issues faced by those with mental health issues, recent releases from jail or other situations that leave them without shelter are serious and are not dealt with enough. The political collapse of occupation, and the solidarity and goodwill felt at the start, has isolated occupiers, leaving them vulnerable to attacks by the state, seen already in the repeated attacks on Occupy Auckland.

Some insist on the form of commune-style camps over the content of organising communities. After a number of women and queers left over destructive behaviour, one person stated at a General Assembly: “Occupy Wellington is this campsite, and if you leave the campsite you leave Occupy Wellington.” This is very different from saying “we are the 99%.”

Solidarity is fundamental.

What next
Councils and cops are finally coming down hard on the occupations, after appearing for a while to put up with or actively condone the various occupations. It is an important principle to support all progressives under attack. Right now, councils are bypassing the legal process, arresting people and releasing them an hour later with no charge. The key strategy right now seems to be the straight up theft of occupiers tents and personal possessions, in an effort to make their lives as difficult as possible.

However, the state is not the primary risk in the long term; occupations in the US have outlived many evictions; the real risk is that we don’t learn from our mistakes.

Ian Anderson and Joel Cosgrove


  1. Richard D. Bartlett says:

    I agree with so much of what’s been said here but winced at the line that horizontalism amounts to wishing away power structures. I concede it is a difficult beast to come to terms with, and we didn’t do particularly well at ‘learning on the job’, but I strongly feel that a comprehensive understanding of horizontalism is the key to the future of global social and environmental movements.

    David Suzuki’s /Good News for a Change/ is largely a story of the how horizontal movements are bring about dramatic improvements to environmental activism all over the world. His idea of horizontal involves lots of small, highly diverse, autonomous groups operating on consensus.

    An even better read is Marina Sitrin’s /Horizontalism/, a book I keep recommending to everybody every five minutes. The introduction is online and it on it’s own is a must read:


  2. http://kasamaproject.org/2011/09/25/the-struggle-for-revolution-the-illusion-of-procedural-solutions/
    http://links.org.au/node/2095 (Mexico: Opportunism and sectarianism hamper left’s resistance to neoliberalism)
    http://links.org.au/node/161 (Contours of the Mexican left)
    http://kasamaproject.org/2010/06/24/study-guide-on-indigenous-people/ (lots of links within this one)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnhmRLvT2TI (Erik Olin Wright’s THE CHESS GAME) this is a great watch, you’ll appreciate it.

    I guess what I see missing from you discussions of radical change are the issues of power relations.
    So many examples of horizontalism either ignore power relations or change the chess pieces around without smashing the chess board. A lot of these examples, MONDRAGON is another, offer clues to what the future could look like, but are still fundamentally wedded to capitalism. You don’t have to have a boss to be exploited.
    Just look at the Occupy movements, the revolution is not going to be welcomed anytime soon.

    Brendan M Cooney is a smart dude, I think you’d like some of his stuff.

  3. I find a lot of prefigurative approaches dodgy for “Tyranny of Structurelessness” type reasons. The link being that informal, unacknowledged leadership structures can be among the least accountable.

  4. Nice concise background and situation piece. How do you suggest that we learn from our mistakes and move forward from here?

    • Cheers. Currently in Wellington we’re trying to get a resource centre going in conjunction with the Wellington Peoples’ Centre, which advocates for unemployed and low-income workers. There’s some passive support in the wider community, which needs to be engaged.

      We don’t have a blueprint, but being willing to ask questions (and not shoot the messenger) is a good starting point.

  5. I guess for me, acknowledging, empowering and making accountable leadership and within that, empowering the people involved in general.
    Part of what wasn’t written within the piece was that the comms group became the defacto leadership body within Occupy. Unacknowledged power structures are much more dangerous at our level than acknowledged structures.
    We need an info tent that won’t blow away (heh, cause it totally did, twice!).
    I think also we need a place where we can start developing responses to the points raised. As Ian said, there’s no blueprint of how we will do it better, but we do need to start talking and discussing this. This comments thread is one such starting point.

  6. Richard D. Bartlett says:

    I feel like we are maybe talking a bit at cross purposes. Or maybe we are looking at the same question from opposite ends, I’m not sure. I put a good effort into reading all those articles and I get about half way into each story before my brain just putters to a stop: “So what?”

    I can totally see the intellectual importance of all this discussion and can recognise the scholarly rigour of the debate and the wisdom of my elders and so on but it is SO DRY. There’s no subjectivity left in it, I can’t empathise with the writers, I don’t feel any love for them. (This sounds pretty flakey but I’m really trying to encapsulate something that does not fit well in sentences.)

    Let me try to clarify.

    I’m not really thinking so much about how to plan and implement a revolution, or how to organise a new society. I think it is necessary for people to think about these things, to do what the Marxists and the Zapatistas and the anarcho-syndicalists and every other group are doing.

    But I don’t think any one of them are going to have the answer.

    My idea of an ideal society is one that embodies the principles we are beginning to learn from nature: extreme diversity, continuous evolution, global interconnection and local autonomy being among them.

    I don’t think there will ever be a static manual called How To Run The World For The Benefit Of All. It is always going to be a dynamic set of principles. I think our best hope for arriving at those principles is through communication. We need the Marxists and the queers and the free market capitalists and the indigenous groups and the mentally ill and the children and the Trotskyists and the ignorant and the biologists and the janitors to learn how to talk to each other productively.

    How do you get this communication to happen?

    First and foremost you need these people to be activated: to give a shit about each other and about their shared future, to be creative protagonists.

    I’m interested in the question, how do you activate people? From my brief experience, horizontalism is a powerful tool, it seems like a pretty good answer. It’s also pretty good at getting these activated people to talk to each other. Within a certain scope it even proved effective at highlighting and eradicating implicit power structures (far from ‘wishing them away’).

    Remember that GA early on, when I made a fool of myself by speaking in an uncareful way that made me sound like an ignorant chauvinist? The horizontal nature of the group meant that I got slapped down immediately, which was a great lesson for me and for the whole group about how deeply entrenched these power structures are and about how much work it takes to not inadvertently strengthen them.

    I learned that lesson through a single dramatic incident but I saw a lot of people learning it more gradually over the course of the (early, productive) GAs: in order to communicate effectively, without contributing to alienation, each of us has to alter our language, challenge our own assumptions, and spend a lot more time listening than speaking.

    I think anyone that is unchallenged by diversity tends towards ignorance and bigotry over time. I feel that horizontalism promotes diversity. And I feel (in an intellectually indefensible sense, at this point), that aspects of my current understanding of horizontalism are going to be central to whatever these dynamic principles are that will govern our post-capitalist future.

    Ism’s are always problematic, because they reduce a complexity to a simplicity that can be more easily dismissed. Consequently I’m not sure how useful it is to discuss horizontalism as a goal. I am convinced however that it is a useful tool.

    What were we talking about again?

    • “I don’t think there will ever be a static manual called How To Run The World For The Benefit Of All. It is always going to be a dynamic set of principles.”

      Yeah, well that is the historical materialist method proper. Dialectics, education, criticism and self-criticism.

      “I think our best hope for arriving at those principles is through communication.”

      This seems to be one point where we depart. I think good communication is a *precondition* for good revolutionary work, but we’re not going to talk the 1% out of their system.

  7. In Invercargill, the occupation was totally apolitical, most nights I spent there they were on the piss. Those of us who were political before occupy now have occupied a radio station curtsey of the station manager who started it a year ago with an Xbox in his garage.

    Most of us watched the video of the evictions from our make shift newsroom while we worked to sell ads and bang out mainstream news articles saying “they’re f#cking it up, stop fighting you’re making it worse”. Have we sold out?

    We do news on Syria, Eurozone debt, the TPP and Bollard’s policies not the Karadasians or the tea tape. We play Rage, Dylan, Bragg, the Clash etc alongside the popy crap advertisers want. One by one we’re infecting the DJs with libertarianism, socialism, reformist Keynes all wrapped up in Punk Rock DIY attitude, cos it’s about making people think, not telling them how to think.

    What killed the camp was the apathy of the public, not enough people joined. Those of us who saw no benefit going to jail for drug charges or violating a liquor ban left before the camp closed down Those who wanted a party (or a holiday like one family who saving on rent and/or camping fees) left once the political hardcore got pissed of feeding freeloaders.

    The spirit we picked up from states has become a propaganda spirit (is it propaganda when it’s the truth?) as for selling out none of us get paid we either bludge the dole or have a second paid job. The advertisers pay for more gear/rent/coffee cos you can’t be a news junkie without stimulatants.

    Things aren’t peachy, they just aren’t. There no well placed country ’08 proved that. We reported the other day that without the Christchurch rebuild we’d be in an official recession. rthat we face Quantitative easing, probably the reason Bollard quit. That next week a law will be passed stating you have six weeks until your dole gets cut back. We’re trying to tell Invercargill that.

    No spin just the truth, something that’s neither left nor right. That’s Invercargill’s occupy legacy. If the rest of the country cares.

  8. This continues to disappoint me. maybe I didn’t read into some of this salad correctly and have a don’t care about your invert perspectivism (it’s a word not your nitche) viewpoint (mine too). but words like key,and,structure,cropped-up,occupations-ala-noun. FAAAAAAAAAAAAAAK

  9. Andrej Falout says:

    Protesting everything and proposing nothing. When I asked “occupiers” in Christchurch Hagley park, what is they want, I was told they want to expand peoples minds and reach critical mass (digest, summarized). When I proposed that an idea worth fighting for might inspire more support, I was told that they do not wish to “contaminate” the idea with practicalities.

    “Dream no small dreams for they have no power to move the hearts of men.” – Goethe

    So the question is, do we count noble thoughts and aspirations as something to move the hearts (and foot) of men. I think not.

    Leadership and communication skills? Fail and fail. Need and need.

  10. I’ve heard the phrase that NZ’s inequality is the fastest bandied around a lot, but hadn’t heard that we are now the second most inequal, so I decided to look it up. I was stunned to discover that neither of those statements are true: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/dec/05/oecd-ineqaulity-report-uk-us
    I’m not sure that I agree with supporting those ‘progressives’ left in Occupy in NZ, as they’re generally people who haven’t examined their own privilege. Does solidarity happen by default or is it gained? I’m not sure any more. I know more about what happened in Auckland, so correct me if I’m wrong.

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