People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 49

December 04, 2011


'Occupy Factories' to 'Occupy Wall Street':

The Distance Travelled


R Arun Kumar


A commentator writing in The Washington Post, November 18, stated, “Occupiers of Zuccotti Park swear that they aren’t going anywhere – that they’ll get back into the park one way or another. But they’ve done something more important: They’ve gotten into people’s heads”. This is, in fact, an important admission about one of the chief gains made by the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. He also admits that “because of the activism of the Occupy Wall Street protests – however naive, however all-over-the-map – issues of unfairness and inequality are being discussed”, which according to him “is a conversation we haven’t been having for the past 30 years”. As has been discussed in earlier issues, 'OWS' is essentially not just any other 'conversation', but a ‘conversation’ debating the veracity of the 'system', capitalism, in the developed world.

In the US, this, in fact, is travelling a lot of distance in just two years. In 2008, the initial days of the global economic crisis, workers had occupied a factory in Chicago. When hundreds of workers were laid off from the Republic Windows and Doors factory, they occupied the factory to demand the severance and vacation pay owed to them and succeeded. For a few days, students had occupied California University demanding the roll back of the enhanced tuition fees. Workers in Wisconsin occupied the town hall demanding the repeal of the anti-worker legislation passed by the governor, curbing their right to organise. Thus, from raising these genuine demands of the workers, students, they are now debating the financial system that has been “warped to serve the interests of a privileged few at the expense of everyone else”.




Interestingly, these 'occupy' protests, apart from their claim of deriving inspiration from the Tahrir Square, have a precursor in Argentina. Mark Meinster, the international representative for United Electrical Workers, the union of the Republic workers, said: “We drew on the Argentine factory occupations to the extent that they show that during an economic crisis, workers’ movements are afforded a wider array of tactical options”. Indeed, the workers' movement of occupying factories in Argentina offers many valuable experiences.


In Argentina, four presidents were forced out of office in a few weeks when the financial system collapsed in 2001. The country went from having one of the strongest economies in South America to one of the weakest. During this economic crash, the financial system collapsed like a house of cards and banks shut their doors. Faced with economic strife, many Argentines came together to counter poverty, homelessness, and unemployment with barter systems, factory occupations, communally-run kitchens, and alternative currency. Neighbourhood assemblies provided solidarity and support across the country. The movements that emerged from this period through their sustained and persistent struggles, transformed the social and political fabric of Argentina. It is because of the implementation of a social welfare agenda, as opposed to the neo-liberal agenda that people reposed faith in Ernesto Kirchner who won the elections and later elected his wife Christina Kirchner to succeed him. She recently won a re-election too.


The Latin American experience shows that Argentina is not an isolated case. In Ecuador, mass uprisings toppled three presidents. Rafael Correa was elected and he had discarded neo-liberal polices and started implementation of social welfare schemes. Bolivia, where Evo Morales has come to power too, is because of the leading role he had played in the 2000 Cochabamba struggle against privatisation of water and the 2003-2005 struggles against privatisation of Bolivian gas reserves. The experiences from the decades of the 80s and 90s – a period of intense implementation of neo-liberal reforms and economic crisis – matured the people, made them question and join the struggles rejecting the neo-liberal policies. Most of the progressive regimes in that continent are a result of such struggles. (Of course, there is Mexico, where the Chiapas struggles, unfortunately, did not lead to the formation of a progressive regime.) These struggles had evolved from finding means to ease their current trepidations, to questioning the very policies that led to their current predicament. The system, though debated, was more or less left untouched.


In Tahrir Square too, what we are witnessing is the rejection of the government – a government which is curtailing their democratic rights and causing economic hardships – both Mubarak and post-Mubarak. Protesters had come back to occupy the Tahrir Square, shouting, “It's Egypt's army, not the army's Egypt”, and “Down with the military State”. The people of Egypt learned a tough lesson over the last few months and understood that “the revolution is still an unfinished business”. The army that had assumed control after the overthrow of Mubarak government, decreed against strikes, working class unions and protest demonstrations. The military rule had even extended the scope of emergency powers. According to reports, the ten months of military rule had witnessed more number of civilians tried in military courts than the entire thirty years of Mubarak rule. Undeterred by all this, working class has been continuing with its protest demonstrations demanding its rights and better living conditions. It is, in fact, they who had kept the flame burning, which today had turned once again into an inferno that had engulfed the whole country. It has to be seen if the Egyptians will go a step ahead from their rejection of the 'government'.


Similarly all the protests in Europe, Spain, Greece, England, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, etc, are essentially rejecting the current economic policies. The OWS, for the first time in many years, had brought to the table, in that part of the world, a discussion about the system that is responsible for such policies. How far this debate will go, where will it lead, has to be seen.




It is here that Chavez's Venezuela stands out. Chavez too rode to power based on the popular rejection of the neo-liberal policies in Venezuela. He went a step further from this rejection and started offering to the people not just alternate policies but an alternative vision – Bolivarian socialism. It is not the purpose here to discuss the merits or demerits of 'Bolivarian socialism', but what is important is to note that an alternative vision was placed before the people for discussion. It is this distinction that distinguishes Chavez from the rest of the Latin American presidents (of course, Morales and Correa too are talking of 21st century socialism now) and also makes him 'a thorn in the flesh' for imperialism.


The transformation in Chavez, from being a populist, elected on the platform of rejection of neo-liberal policies to that of a propagator of alternate vision, took almost six years. (He was elected as the president of the country for the first time in 1999 and it is only in 2005 that he had declared adherence to his version of socialism.) In these six years, apart from many other experiences, he had endured a coup attempt, a recall referendum and the non-cooperation of engineers in the all important oil sector. No doubt all these developments, together with the way US-led imperialist countries conducted their foreign and economic policies in this period, made him pronounce his alternative vision before the people. The role of Cuba and Fidel Castro too is not insignificant. The significance of this transformation in Chavez can be understood when it is located in the background of the setback to socialism. It is this fact that had enthused many progressive forces across the world and brought Latin America to the centre of debates amongst all those striving for an alternative to capitalist system.


The current movements of 'occupation' assume their significance as they represent a step ahead, however small it might be, in people’s consciousness. Even the infamous Lech Walesa of Poland, was forced to come out in support of the OWS and state “We need to change the capitalist system” and fight for “more justice, more people’s interests and less money for money’s sake”. They had moved a step forward from organising struggles on their economic demands to bringing into debate the 'system' in the developed world. This is a welcome development that would enthuse all those fighting against neo-liberal policies, particularly when imperialism is trying to ensure its hegemonic hold over the post-Soviet world. It is our duty to carry forward from here – ensure the firm rejection of neo-liberalism, question the system, challenge it with an alternative vision and work towards its realisation. Of course, the alternative vision cannot be anything else other than socialism, the establishment of which requires an intensification of class struggles.