The Global Occupy Manifesto: A Demand to be Oppressed

June 20, 2012

In early May, a Global Occupy Manifesto, drafted by an international Occupy assembly, was published in “The Guardian” to correspond with the global May 12 actions. The document’s authors aimed to offer a critique of the in-built injustices within economic and political systems globally. Yet they wrote the document without once mentioning either capitalism or neo-liberalism – quite a feat in itself – and published without consulting the Occupy London assembly. The manifesto’s most fatal flaw is not rhetorical or participatory but concerns the substance of the document’s argument itself: By trying to outline an Occupy alternative which could be implemented globally, the ‘manifesto’ ultimately locks the movement firmly into the capitalist paradigm and closes down possible revolutionary alternatives.

Many London occupiers’ first glimpse of the Global May Manifesto was on April 26, when it appeared on an email list with an invitation to comment. It was presented as a “last minute chance” to “feed into the process”. Members of Occupy London wanted to know where the manifesto had come from, who had contributed, why we’d only just heard about it. Was it wise to rush out such a thing just because May direct actions were approaching? Many thought not. More time was requested. Everything from a tidy up of the grammar to abandonment of the very idea of a global statement was called for. Those in favour of the manifesto argued that we need to answer the critics who say we have no objectives, no strategy; we need to play to a media which still claims to not understand what the movement is about. Others questioned the ways in which these demands legitimise the status quo, and argued that concrete demands would weaken Occupy’s position vis-à-vis the one percent.

Indeed, writing a statement which seeks to impose an overarching narrative on the global Occupy movement seems like a betrayal of its core values from the moment the pen is lifted. Occupy does not simply criticise policies, it articulates a different way of doing politics: The movement is based on the concepts of autonomy and horizontalism and consciously defies the ideas of top-down leadership and the soundbite articulation of a concrete agenda. Occupy speaks with many voices but resents being spoken for as a collective. A manifesto which articulates specific end goals and presupposes a certain strategic outlook of the Occupy movement fails to take those ideals seriously.

The manifesto implies: ‘We have declared who we are, what we want and are ready to become a party or an NGO.’ But many of us believe that there is an insurmountable disjunction between our struggle and official institutional structures. We have sought to lay siege to the state by depriving it of its oxygen – our consent – and have found ways to create organisational models outside the domain of the state.

Not everyone within the movement will necessarily agree with that approach, but the plurality of voices captures precisely the beauty, power and perhaps curse of this struggle. In its current form, Occupy is an empty container. A word which facilitates the creation of networks of like-minded individuals. In knowing what we don’t want we are able to come together and fight, infuriating the state, the media and the holders of the status quo by choosing not to declare a common identity. By attempting to impose a common identity in an undemocratic, top down fashion, the manifesto shifts the discourse from one of ‘active becoming’ to ‘passive being’.

In the manifesto’s rhetoric, ‘democracy’ becomes a term devoid of substance, stripped of its energy and revolutionary potential. Instead, it becomes identical to any other catchword used by politicians and media pundits seeking a vague, disingenuous consensus from a notional, abstract ‘public’. In an effort to produce something which every contributor to the Occupy movement concurred with, how could its architects avoid sinking to the lowest common denominator and an inevitable, unchallenging rehash of everything that has already been said by media pundits and commentators?

Lacking any other firm foothold, or any political pretext, the document latches onto the language of legal rights. This discourse can only reinforce hegemony and inequality within society, validating the state’s constituted power to the detriment of the movement’s constituent power. The manifesto appears to demand a new sort of legislation that decentralises power and prevents its renewed accumulation in the hands of self-appointed elites. Few would disagree upon the need to make power localised and the importance of empowering local communities. But can we really rely on those who detain the status quo to bring about sweeping legislative change? If that is the case, then everyone can pack their tents and go home to support Eric Pickles’ localism bill.

By demanding the extension of rights, concessions from the powerful and regulations of that which cannot be regulated, we are not only falling into the classic Capitalist Realism trap but also seeking to be oppressed and dominated in the future. We no longer speak for ourselves, but demand that someone else in power must speak for us. According to this logic, Occupy would simply be another pressure group operating within the liberal framework, not struggling for change but demanding a set of additional privileges. We wholeheartedly believe that the document does not reflect the core ethos and values of the movement, in any of its forms.

“Some of us believe a new Universal Declaration of Human Rights, fit for the 21st century, written in a participatory, direct and democratic way, needs to be written.” At least in this instance the drafters had the decency to write “some of us” – as many of us would disagree with this idea. The present declaration of human rights is a highly contested document, couched in legal language, that has been instrumental in perpetuating or sanctioning oppression around the world. Its alternative vision is often seen as lacking, and its record of enforcement is simply abysmal. Many within the Occupy movement rightly believe that an imitation or reiteration of existing legal documents leads us towards acquiescence, not towards real change.

Furthermore, how could the document claim to be “global” when thousands of people around the world have been instrumental in the Occupy movement, but have not had the chance to be involved in creating the manifesto (or would not care to be involved)?  Few within Occupy and allied movements would disagree that we want to work towards a world based on environmental sustainability, community co-operation, food security, equitable distribution of resources, participatory and inclusive democracy, freedom of expression, and an end to corruption, warmongering and to the power wielded by corporations and high finance. However, no consensus was ever reached that a manifesto was the best way of articulating those general aims. Perhaps due to a tacit acknowledgement of this, the authors of the document propose to give each assembly the ‘right’ to adopt and discard elements of it as they see fit. This not only waters down the significance of the document, but makes the entire exercise of drafting a ‘manifesto’ seem rather futile.

Despite this nod to the rights of individual assemblies, suggestions to call the document a ‘work in progress’ or an ‘organically evolving collection of ideas, aims and desires’ went unheeded and the ‘manifesto’ was released to the press as a done deal – including “demands”, grammatical errors and all.

Lastly, by not discussing the relationship between neo-liberalism and imperialism, the document demonstrates an exceedingly narrow vision for the global Occupy movement. Austerity and privatisation are the initial phases of the neo-liberal blueprint. Struggles against these policies have long since been fought, especially in the global south. How can we create a “world where many worlds fit” without highlighting the importance of decolonising the state rationality? A global manifesto could have achieved a declaration of solidarity with our brothers and sisters around the world who are today struggling against both the legacy and the continuing crimes of imperialism.

The reactions, in the UK at least, were thus marked by frustration, annoyance and negativity rather than the joyous declaration of solidarity and common cause intended by the manifesto’s creators. An impatient rush to meet self-imposed deadlines created something of a damp squib of a declaration, despite the arguably progressive and desirable nature of some of the manifesto’s content.

At the present moment the challenge for 21st century movements consists as much in defending our existing rights from the Neo-liberal advance as in seeking autonomy. While sections within Occupy differ over how this ought to be achieved, a document of this sort achieves neither. It merely seeks to unify divergences by stifling energies and turning occupiers into quantifiable, representable passive voters ready to be captured and colonised by the state apparatus.

Naomi Klein described Occupy as the most important thing in the world. If the most radical change we can imagine are greater civil liberties and economic reforms, we will undoubtedly have failed the real 99 percent.


This article was written for and first appeared on the Anticapitalist Initiative website