Occupy Wall Street and the Left

by | 24 Jan 2012

Occupy Wall Street, for all its talk of horizontality, autonomy, and decentralized process, is recentering the economy, engaging in class warfare without naming the working class as one of two great hostile forces but instead by presenting capitalism as a wrong against the people. It’s putting capitalism back at center of left politics—no wonder, then, that it has opened up a new sense of possibility for so many of us: it has reignited political will. In a way, it’s returning to the left its missing core or soul, what has been displaced or denied since we turned our back on the communist horizon. It’s reactivating the Marxist insight that class struggle is a political struggle. As I mentioned before, a new Pew poll finds a nineteen percentage point increase since 2009 of the number of Americans who believe there are strong or very strong conflicts between the rich and poor. Two thirds perceive this conflict—and perceive it as more intense than divisions of race and immigration status (African Americans see class conflict as more significant than white people do).

My claim, then, is that when occupy wall street speaks the language of capitalism and the “no left,” when it disavows representation, exclusion, dogmatism, and utopianism, it’s at its weakest; it’s no different from the left we’ve had from the last thirty years or from its larger setting in communicative capitalism. But, when it re-centers the economy and class struggle, when it focuses on capitalism—Wall Street—on opposition, on collectivism, and on walking new paths, creating new practices, opening up new common modes of producing and distributing, that’s its heart, that’s what brings it to life.

How Occupy Wall Street is re-centering the economy is an open, fluid, changing, and intensely debated question. It’s not a traditional movement of the working class organized in trade unions or targeting work places, although it is a movement of class struggle (especially when we recognize with Marx and Engels that the working class is not a fixed, empirical class but a fluid, changing class of those who have to sell their labor power in order to survive). Occupy’s use of strikes and occupations targets the capitalist system more broadly, shutting down ports and stock exchanges (I think of the initial shut downs in Oakland and on Wall Street as proof of concepts, proof that it can be done). People aren’t being mobilized as workers; they are being mobilized as people, as everybody else, as the rest of us, as the majority—99%–who are being thoroughly screwed by the top one percent in multiple parts of our lives: education, health, food, the environment, housing, and work. Capitalism in the US has sold itself as freedom—but increasing numbers of us feel trapped, practically enslaved. It used to be that people went to college to get a good job, so they wouldn’t be stuck flipping burgers and waiting tables. Now people go to college and are told they have to work without pay in order to get a good job—so they flip burgers and wait tables to try to pay their college debts while working for free as interns.

Because people aren’t mobilized primarily as workers but as those who are proletarianized and exploited in every aspect of our lives—at risk of foreclosure and unemployment, diminishing futures, increasing debts, shrunken space of freedom, accelerated dependence on a system that is rapidly failing (I’m thinking here of the ways corporations file for bankruptcy and thus shed their obligations to pay people their earned and expected pensions as well as the ongoing threats to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid)—because people are mobilized as the 99%, the attack on capitalism takes different forms, forms loosely associated with the ideological span of the contemporary left.

1. Progressive/left-liberal Democrat: constitutional reform, legislative goals (abolish corporate personhood; money out of politics); locate problem in political process.

2. Left Keynesian: jobs for all demand, tax the rich; locate problem in the economy

3. Anarchists—see the state as well as hierarchical and centralized power as the primary problem (capitalism depends on the state); solution is to constitute alternative practices, alongside or outside the mainstream; a politics of refusal and creative production; any attempt to seize the state will just reproduce the structures of power and patterns of behavior in which we are caught.

4. Communists/ revolutionary socialists—see the economy as the primary problem (state as instrument of class power); goal is over-throwing capitalism and establishing communism. Rather than emphasizing specific local practices, more interested in general strike, growing the movement, questions of strategy. To be frank: finding themselves in the position of not having been able to achieve in the contemporary US—mass mobilization—when the anarchists, with their emphases on autonomy, horizontality, inclusion, and consensus have. This is occasioning a great deal of thought and reflection among socialists. Some are concerned with positioning themselves in the vanguard of the movement. Others, rightly, recognize that the movement is itself the vanguard; the movement is itself ushering in something beyond capitalism, even as it isn’t sure what this is (indeed the movement’s very multiplicity makes this sentence pretty awkward and misleading; the movement isn’t singular, it’s divided in itself).

At the same time, faced with multiple evictions (according to Firedog Lake there are 62 remaining encampments in the US), the Occupy movement itself is reflecting, thinking on what has worked, what hasn’t, what’s next for the movement. A number of people, groups, and occupations are addressing problems with the General Assembly structure and consensus. Many GAs have become dysfunctional; attendance is declining. Or, the combination of working groups and GAs is so demanding that the very people for whom the movement is fighting can’t participate—they got a day job and a night job or two or three. A currently circulating memo from a member of the Tech Ops and Outreach groups of OWS highlights the ways this nominally inclusive movement has actually produced barriers to involvement—it’s hard for people to know how to get more involved.

Anyway, back to the different ideological strands: it doesn’t make sense to think of these as a coalition. Rather, the movement is a convergence of the people who bring with them ideas and suppositions that loosely fit under one or two of the four categories. Some are experienced activists with movement and party experience; others have inclinations and intuitions. What unites them right now is the sense that capitalism is not working—but some think it can and should be fixed and others don’t. And this means that there is a primary division at the heart of the movement.

It might be that this division is generative—enabling a division of labor and an attack on our current political and economic system at multiple levels. Yet, it could also be the case that working for some goals precludes working for other goals, not only taking away energy and focus but actually buttressing institutions and practices that some of us should be destroyed and replaced.


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