Occupy and UK Uncut: the evolution of activism

Occupy Sandy gained the attention denied to Occupy Our Homes because it replaced militant Occupy! with "do-it-yourself" Occupy. Feel-good mutual aid displaced attention from the underlying contradiction between public housing and private utilities onto the quick fix of digital media. Occupy Our Homes, on the other hand, confronts the system with its failures ? predatory lending, homelessness, and empty bank-owned houses. The problems it addresses can't be solved by rolling up our sleeves and getting involved; they require political solutions.

Mutual aid is not the only innovation enhancing the mainstream popularity of formerly radical activism. Another is chasing tax-dodgers, a campaign pursued by UK Uncut. From a US perspective, the puzzling aspect of UK Uncut's focus on finding alternatives to austerity is its resemblance to the current Republican party line. Republicans also want to pursue tax-evaders, close loopholes, and enforce the tax code. UK Uncut does the government's work for it. Like Occupy Sandy, it takes over services left undone by a government concerned more with protecting finance than serving the people.

Where Occupy Sandy has been an efficient prosthesis for a community crippled more by capitalism than by a hurricane, UK Uncut has become the strong arm of a state too weak to enforce its own laws. Their activities, like those of Occupy Sandy, can be seen to maintain a system rather than challenge it.

Viewed from another perspective, however, the tactical shifts suggest a different evolution of radical activism. Occupy Sandy's mutual aid connected the hurricane to a critique of capitalism for failing to provide infrastructures adequate to the needs of an urban population in a changing climate. It has used its access to the community as an opportunity for consciousness-raising. Similarly, UK Uncut links its attack on Starbucks and Google with a larger analysis of the connections between profits for corporations and cuts for people. It channels anger at corporations' failure into an exposition of the deeper unfairness of the system itself.

Both movements are embedding themselves deeper into society. Instead of jumping from issue to issue or rising up only to sink back down, they are building solidarity. They're organising for a longer struggle, finding ways to create spaces for debate within a broader commitment to collective, egalitarian solutions. The challenge they face is how to grow without becoming instruments of the systems they contest.

These are the challenges that have long confronted radical political parties. Too many on the left construe co-optation in terms of an iron law demonstrating the inadequacy of the party as a form for radical politics. But this is a failure of imagination, an inability to see how the vanguard activists in Occupy and UK Uncut are developing not just new tactics but also new approaches to organising. Adapting to an environment where constant change ensures that everything remains the same, theyapproach actions and demonstrations as components of a larger struggle requiring critical research, discussion, analysis and planning as well as the training of activists, organisers and even leaders. Their work is the work of parties: not the mass parties of electoral democracy, but the responsive and revolutionary parties of the previous century.

December 31, 2012