“Populism, not Corporate Fascism” – Placards from Occupy Wall Street
When I posted my first impressions of the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon, I had been down to visit the raucous scene down at Liberty Plaza only once. On that particular occasion, I ended up staying there for barely two hours. By that point, I felt I had seen enough for one day. Many of the things I witnessed there were simply all too familiar to me. The endless beating of the drums, the pseudo-tribalistic dancing and chanting, the call-and-repeat sloganizing (“this is what democracy looks like” and other populist banalities, etc.), the predictable placards, the black-bandanaed anarchist chic — all this smacks a little too much of what has become par-for-the-course in the post-New Left political culture of orgiastic partying & protesting (it is no longer clear whether the two are separate activities). Combine this with the more generally confused hodgepodge of vaguely leftish political sentiments expressed at the demonstrations — anything from “End Corporate Greed and Corruption” to “We are Killing our Planet,” “Jobs not War,” “Endangered Species,” and “Nazi Bankers” — apparently disconnected one another as well as any broader project of social emancipation, and there you have it: Occupy Wall Street in a nutshell.
As my rather caustic tone would imply, I was not very impressed with what I saw there that first day I visited. My initial write-up of the events on Wall Street reflected this skepticism. The feedback I received was, as one might have expected, almost uniformly negative. To be sure, this response was not altogether unwelcome. My post was largely intended as a provocation, a polemical volley aimed at some of the more superficial elements of the protests. In light of the overwhelmingly hostile and defensive reaction it elicited, I can safely say that it achieved this goal.
Nevertheless, I realized then that to simply criticize Occupy Wall Street from the sidelines was not enough. The significance of this sudden surge of political pathos was more serious than its more superficial aspects would suggest. To simply dismiss these demonstrations out of hand — on account of their somewhat carnivalesque character — would be all too easy.
Of course one cannot demand ideological purity from a nascent political phenomenon, and these are still early days. So far, the only thing uniting many of the participants in the Wall Street occupation is a generalized, intuitive discontent with the status quo. The task incumbent upon the Left (or what remains of it) must be to push these demonstrators to articulate a political vision of social emancipation, to actively engage with the protesters. We must seek to understand their reasons for being there, ask them what they hope to accomplish through their actions, and pose the broader question of where we stand in our own historical moment.
“The Left is Dead! Long Live the Left!” – Platypus at Occupy Wall Street (I am in the blue under the black umbrella; Jeremy Cohan is the other speaker)
Since my first trip down to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, I have returned three separate times. Much has gone on in the interim — OWS’ endorsement by leftish celebrities such as Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, and Susan Sarandon; the alliance of various unions in support of the protests; the mass arrests that took place on the Brooklyn Bridge; and copycat occupations projected to take place in a number of cities in North America.
The movement seemed to be gaining momentum, and was at the very least drawing more media coverage.
This last Sunday, I joined a dozen or so members of the New York chapter of the Platypus Affiliated Society (a Marxist organization with which I identify) as part of a “coordinated intervention” into the muddled political mise-en-scène of the Occupation. Yesterday and the day before I went down on my own, equipped with a DIY placard and some free time. There I wound up bumping into a couple people visiting on behalf of the Kasama Project, one of the more thoughtful Marxist political groupings that’s cropped up in the last few years. All in all, I feel like I’ve got a better sense of what’s going on down in the heart of the financial district, having now spent more time there.
Me holding a homemade sign (proudly made at the #Occupy Arts & Crafts station) with the Platypus slogan “The Left is Dead! Long Live the Left!”
In light of all the recent developments that have taken place at Occupy Wall Street, and with the added insight I feel I’ve gained through my participation in it, a follow-up piece to my original post on the demonstrations is well in order. Though I will not hesitate to criticize those elements of the protests that I continue to find problematic, this post will be more of a reflection on the movement to this point — its significance, its possibilities, its deficiencies, etc. I hope to take stock of all that’s gone on so far, situate it in terms of its greater historical context, and perhaps speculate as to what potential outcomes it might portend for emancipatory politics as a whole.
I will therefore ask the broadest and most basic questions: What does Occupy Wall Street represent? What kind of possibilities does it open up? What sort of scenarios can we realistically expect to result from it? What are its greatest strengths? And by that same token, what are its most glaring weaknesses?
What Occupy Wall Street represents
What is Occupy Wall Street? How does one classify it?
Answering these questions is not as simple as it might initially appear. For the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon seems too ideologically nebulous to truly constitute a political “movement,” in the strictest sense of the term. One might argue that its status as a movement is not dependent on its having a shared platform, list of concrete demands, or clear doctrine of beliefs. Indeed, many have suggested that Occupy Wall Street’s great strength as a movement resides in its very flexibility — its all-encompassing “inclusiveness,” its ability to entertain a plurality of political positions without necessarily endorsing one over the other. But this would seem to run counter to the generally-accepted idea of a political movement, which tend to possess a unified set of tactics, a common Weltanschauung, and a more organized structure.
Dress-up at Occupy Wall Street
On the other hand, labeling Occupy Wall Street merely as “demonstrations” or “protests” fails to capture its remarkable longevity, especially considering the connotations these words acquired during the anti-war years. (This despite the fact that the opposition to the United States’ overseas military adventures was never all that impressive to begin with, and has almost disappeared entirely ever since Obama took office). During this period, the idea of a “demonstration” or a “protest” was typically a quite ephemeral affair, lasting no more than a couple days. Protestors would come out to rally for the march but then go home at the end of the day. Such gatherings tended to be quite temporary in their duration. One of the most noteworthy features of Occupy Wall Street, by contrast, has been its sheer endurance over the course of more than three weeks now (and counting). Thus, the occupation would seem to defy classification as a mere “demonstration” or “protest,” at least of the variety seen in recent years.
Costuming at Occupy Wall Street
To be certain, however, some of the scenes one finds on Wall Street bear an undeniable resemblance to the kinds of antics that were witnessed at the antiwar marches of the last decade, as well as at the nearly annual anti-globalization demonstrations that have followed since Seattle 1999. Without portraying myself as some sort of seasoned, world-weary veteran of Left activism, I have no reservations pointing out some of the more clear-cut congruencies that exist between the activist milieu at Occupy Wall Street and its earlier counterparts in the antiwar and anti-globalization protests of the last ten years.
One encounters many of the same things: the same catchphrases and sing-a-longs, the same Black Bloc ostentation, the same pseudo-bohemian pomp and pageantry, the same multi-generational mix of leftover hippies, blue-collar unionists, aging punk rawkers, along with the more recent horde of dissipated hipsters flowing in from Brooklyn.
Apropos the various similarities shared by the post-Iraq invasion antiwar demonstrations and the current occupation of Wall Street, we might briefly highlight a rather pointed irony that exists between them.
For years now, all I have been hearing at protest marches has been “End the occupation!” Now all one hears from protestors is “Occupy [insert location here]!” It’s all very confusing.
(I won’t bother going into some of the quasi-imperialist overtones of the ongoing “Occupy!” phenomenon because I find this to be a somewhat vicious criticism, but still).
Given all its festive features, might we perhaps classify Occupy Wall Street as a sort of quasi-political festival? The atmosphere there is largely celebratory; for some it seems like nothing more than an excuse to play dress-up or hold impromptu musical jamborees. As Ashley Weger observed in an article on the G20 protests in Toronto: “Costuming and all, modern protests feel increasingly like a less sophisticated version of live action role playing, thriving off a spectacular but imaginary conception of one’s political context, walking and talking and Molotov-cocktail throwing like a revolutionary.”
Staging performances at demonstrations has some precedent, as with this 1920 Constructivist reenactment of the Storming of the Winter Palace
Encouraging creativity at political rallies also has a long history: The unveiling of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1918)
So what is it, then, if not a movement, demonstration, protest, or festival? Some have proposed the more generic catchall of “resistance” to describe the Wall Street occupation. Perhaps this might be the most fitting title for the occupation, given its own self-description as a “leaderless resistance movement.”
This moniker, however, comes with its own set of problems. Ever since the close of the Second World War, the concept of “resistance” has risen to prominence within the discourse of the Left, ennobled by the French experience of La Résistance (mostly led by French communists) during the Vichy regime. Unfortunately, the teleological valorization of resistance as a sort of virtue unto itself has had a rather perverse effect on protest culture over the last several decades. Instead of calling for a broader project of social revolution, activists have substituted the notion of simply “resisting” the forces of structural domination that surrounds us.
Somehow — though the precise way that this operates is never made clear — this is supposed to “subvert” or “disrupt” the powers that be. “Resistance” thus becomes fetishized as a supposedly heroic act of defiance, no matter how effective or ineffective it might ultimately be.
“Occupy/Resist” at Occupy Wall Street
Young woman arrested as part of the OWS march on the Brooklyn Bridge
On this point, members of Platypus have offered some analysis which is relevant to the present situation on Wall Street, especially insofar as it regards itself as a form of resistance. In a panel discussion they hosted back in 2008, on “The Three Rs: Reform, Revolution, and ‘Resistance,’” Chris Cutrone noted how
[t]he Left today almost never speaks of freedom or emancipation, but only of ‘resistance’ to the dynamics of change associated with capital and its transformations.
With respect to this linguistic shift of emphasis from questions of freedom to questions of resistance, Cutrone finds “the current self-understanding of the Left as ‘resistance’ to express despair not only at prospects for revolutionary transformation, but also for substantial institutional reforms.”
Another member of Platypus, Laurie Rojas, drove this point home even further at a discussion of “The Politics of the Contemporary Student Left” that took place at the 2009 Left Forum in New York. In the following passage, Rojas was specifically addressing the reborn Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), but her observations have equal application to the self-proclaimed “leaderless resistance movement” of Occupy Wall Street:
In the absence of effective leadership and long-term goals, these campaigns amount to a politics of acting out, an unreflective and compulsive desire for “agitation” and “resistance.” The new SDS [or if you prefer, Occupy Wall Street] has become nothing more than an umbrella organization for participating in activism and resistance without strategy or goals. The activism-for-its-own-sake in SDS [or at Occupy Wall Street] indicates that it “refuses to reflect upon its own impotence,” as Adorno once said of the student activism in the ’60s.
If Occupy Wall Street doesn’t entirely fit into any of these readymade categories, however, then what exactly is it?
The answer, I think, is that it is an amalgamation of all these things we have mentioned. It is important to recognize, as one of the observers in the Kasama Project reminded me, that this phenomenon should not be treated as a dead object, with static components that can be mechanically picked apart. Rather, it is better to conceive it as a still-evolving subject (albeit one that is in large part unconscious of its own activities and motivations).
Of course, this is not to say that it defies any attempt to make sense of it. Occupy Wall Street is — at least in its present configuration — part protest, part party, some parts solidarity, other parts hangout, and so on down the line. At least tentatively, it might be most correctly termed a “sustained demonstration.” (For lack of a more accurate definition, we may still fall back on the terms that are now regularly applied to this phenomenon). Even at this early point, though, Occupy Wall Street appears to represent the most substantial upwelling of anti-capitalist sentiment in the West that has happened in some time. What it ultimately signifies, however, remains to be seen.
Potential prospects for Occupy Wall Street
What might the occupation of Wall Street potentially lead to? What possibilities might it realistically present?
1968 demonstrations in Germany
Rio de Janeiro protest, 1968
A related question for those on the Left might be: How can we prevent Occupy Wall Street from turning into a farcical repeat of 1968? Though the younger generation of activists might not have much in the way of an historical memory, there are those among the protestors who participated in and remember the momentous events that took place in May through June of that year. For that brief period of time, it seemed, the student and worker populations were radicalized to such an extent that it appeared that revolutionary social transformation might be imminent. Unrest in Serbia and Czechoslovakia led the latter country to proclaim its independence from the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. In the West, mass protests swiftly spread across France, Germany, Britain, Mexico, Japan, and the United States, reacting against a variety of issues — from the war in Vietnam to the greater problem of “the administrative society” of high-Fordist capitalism, with its tripartite alliance of Big Business, Big Labor, and Big Government.
Protestor injured by police in 1968
1968 student uprising in Paris
Of course, the Soviets ended up crushing the attempts at democratic reforms that occurred in the short-lived “Prague Spring.” Following the series of relatively spectacular protests, takeovers, walk-outs, and sit-ins that were orchestrated by members the New Left, the political turbulence that the major countries of the West were experiencing was calmed, and conditions generally stabilized. Though it received a great deal of fanfare, the great political uprisings of 1968 came and went without doing much to change the existing state of affairs.
Ironically — at least compared with the radical politics of the 1960s — many of those who belong to the more moderate sections of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations today dream for nothing more than a return to either the Clinton boom years, Johnson’s “Great Society,” or even further back, to a sort of Rooseveltian new “New Deal.” They lament the systematic deregulation of business, the high wages, and the gutting of government social programs that have followed from the collapse of Fordist capitalism in the Oil Crisis of 1973 — which thus inaugurated the era of neoliberal capitalism, in which we are still currently mired. As the leftist historian William Sewell has noted, such “progressives” as exist in the Occupy Wall Street movement, who hope to reinstate Glass-Steagall and return to the prelapsarian social-democracy “lite” of pre-1973, are trying to reestablish precisely the thing that student radicals in the 1960s were trying to overturn:
Sixties radicalism, especially its “countercultural” moment, must be seen as a rejection of the corporate political and cultural synthesis of “big government, big business, big labor” that became dominant in the 1950s and 1960s — what has since come to be called “Fordism.” The term Fordism designates the mode of macrosocial and macroeconomic regulation that underwrote the long postwar economic boom, which stretched from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. The Fordist package combined mass production technologies, relatively high wage levels, stable systems of collective bargaining, Keynesian management of aggregate demand, full employment strategies, welfare state institutions, and highly bureaucratized forms of both public and private management…
From the perspective of the hypercompetitive, predatory, and extraordinarily inegalitarian American capitalism of the early twenty-first century, the Fordist mode of regulation may seem remarkably humane, a kind of quasi-social-democratic “world we have lost.” But from the point of view of young critics of the system in the 1960s, its benefits (for example, economic stability and steady productivity gains) were hardly noticed…Meanwhile the defects of Fordist capitalism — especially corporate conformity, bureaucratic monotony, repressive morality, and stultifying forms of mass culture — were highly visible and repugnant, at least to the youthful political intelligentsia who made up the student movement. (William Sewell, The Logics of History. Pg. 30)
Let us not deceive ourselves:
This is certainly one potential outcome of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. The more radical elements of the movement would be pushed to the sidelines as the Democratic Party machine assuaged the more moderate participants in the occupation.
MoveOn.org already has shown some interest in “co-opting” (to use the fashionable term) the grassroots political energy on display at Wall Street. With some luck, Obama might then come down from on high offering various concessions and campaign promises — doubtless as empty as the watchwords of “hope” and “change” used in the last election — even if he talks specifics. This reassurance may be enough to calm down the vaguely left-of-center demonstrators that have been so outraged by Obama’s impotence in the face of (and indeed complicity with) the Republicans.
Abandoned by the more “mainstream” constituencies of Occupy Wall Street, the anarchists and the various paleo-Marxist sects would be left to fend for themselves. The former (usually the default political orientation of young protestors) would probably soon grow bored now that no one would be paying attention to their theatrical gimmicks, while the latter (which tend to claim the allegiance of the older radicals — whether Maoist, Guevarist, or Fourth Internationalist) would pack up as soon as the media circus left town, returning to their more workaday activities of pamphleting and organizing strikes.
Another possibility, unlikely though it may be, is that Obama might promise all these things and then actually deliver them in his second term in office. Let us say that Obama reinstitutes the old legislative and bureaucratic oversight and regulation of free market practices, taxes the top 1% more steeply, and funnels money into jobs programs, welfare benefits, and rebuilding infrastructure. Would the protests thus have been a success? Certainly they might seem to have been in the minds of the more moderate members of the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon. But this would be to simply replace one form of domination for another, exchange one capitalist constellation for one that is ostensibly more “humane.”
One thing that moderate, left-of-center “progressives” seem to share with the libertarian ideologues of the Tea Party movement is the delusion that laissez-faire capitalism is the only “true” form of capitalism. In truth, however, state-interventionist capitalism is just as much capitalism as free-market capitalism. Only superficially are they distinct; the underlying category of society remains the same — Capital.
This is, then, another potential outcome of the Occupy Wall Street protests:
The occupiers choose reformism over revolution, piecemeal legislation within the bounds of the existing (national) state rather than its abolition and replacement by a new state. Such an outcome may seem preferable to some, but not to those who wish to fundamentally transform society and thereby emancipate all humanity. Palliative reforms put in place under the aegis of bourgeois society treat only the symptoms of injustice, while leaving the disease, capitalism, untouched.
But what of the more leftist components of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations? What more radical alternatives might possibly result from their activities in these events?
The storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution, 1789
Depiction of the 1848 Spring of Nations revolutions
In his immortal Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Marx contrasts the political character of two separate periods of revolutionary activity, the Revolutions of 1789 and 1848. He famously remarks that
Hegel observes somewhere that all the great events and characters of world history occur twice, so to speak. He forgot to add: the first time as high tragedy, the second time as low farce. Caussidière after Danton, Louis Blanc after Robespierre, the montagne [democratic socialists] of 1848-51 after the montagne [Jacobin democrats] of 1793-5, and then the London constable [Louis Bonaparte], with a dozen of the best debt-ridden lieutenants, after the little corporal [Napoleon Bonaparte], with his roundtable of military marshals! (Karl Marx, from Later Political Writings. Pg. 31).
The trouble, as I see it, is thus: If 1968 was simply a farcical attempt to reenact (or perhaps even supersede) the tragedy of 1917, then what should we make of this latest wave of protests? For if 1968 is already a distant memory for some, then 1917 is even more remote from the public’s historical consciousness these days. Of course, the danger here is that this new round of radical activity is already modeled on a farce, and might reduplicate its slapstick and its idiocies on an even grander scale. If this proved to be the case, if we thus took 1968 the model for our action, we would thus be placing ourselves in a position twice removed from the tragic failure of 1917 — the moment at which the most concrete opportunity to realize a postcapitalist society was fatally missed.
Now, it is important that I not be misunderstood on this point.
I am not singling out 1968 as a total failure and exalting 1917 as a partial success.
The revolutionary enterprises that were associated with both of these years were failures. (The revolution of 1917 was a failure at least by 1918-1919, when the Hungarian Soviet collapsed, and when the German revolution stalled out after Luxemburg and Leibkneckt were murdered — if not earlier, when Kautsky and the mainstream SPD voted to support buying war credits in 1914). My only contention is that 1917, and the various figures and organizations that took part in those events, illustrate the most viable approach to the accomplishment of a worldwide revolution that have been seen to date.
Before someone leaps to correct me, I am fully aware that political and social conditions have changed drastically since that time. That might even be the point of my contention — that certain conditions need to be fulfilled once again in order to establish a new society in the future.
One might well ask, what might be the best possible outcome we can expect from the Wall Street occupation?
Any sober analyst of our current situation, who has an adequate understanding of history and society, realizes that the Occupy Wall Street movement will not lead to the immediate toppling of the U.S. financial system, or even its spatial metonym in Wall Street.
From a leftist perspective, then, what might one hope for as the best-case scenario in which this could possibly play out?
In my view, Occupy Wall Street at best represents an opportunity, not for the immediate overthrow of the prevailing social order, but rather for the Left to engage with those who have become dissatisfied with the status quo. The aim must be to turn this more or less intuitive sense of disenfranchisement, this generalized discontent with the capitalist social formation, and help them better understand the roots of the problem.
This is not, to be sure, a one-way street, in which elite circles of leftist intellectuals, academics, and theoreticians descend from their lofty position above the mêlée and simply “educate” the social masses. In order for the inchoate anti-capitalism of Occupy Wall Street to acquire a more adequate historical and theoretical self-understanding, the Left must be responsive to the messiness of empirical reality, and sensitive to the legitimate grievances being voiced by those in Liberty Plaza.
Reciprocally, this will require a willingness on the part of the public disaffected by capitalism to deepen its understanding of the problem that confronts them, and commit itself to a longer-term program of political emancipation. This means not getting impatient with the so-called “paralysis of analysis” and not simply showing up for the protests. It will, moreover, involve a dedication to the greater project of reconstituting the Left.
Problems with Occupy Wall Street
What have been the shortcomings to the Occupy Wall Street movement so far? What are its most glaring deficiencies?
As I see it, the most problematic aspect of the Wall Street demonstrations is its inability to adequately conceptualize the capitalist social formation.
If you ask the protestors what the root of society’s woes is, one common response you will hear is “greed” or “corporate greed.” Greed, however, is hardly unique to the capitalist mode of production. Max Weber made this abundantly clear in his outstanding introduction to The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism:
Unlimited greed for gain is not in the least identical with capitalism, and is still less its spirit. Capitalism may even be identical with the restraint, or at least a rational tempering, of this irrational impulse. But capitalism is identical with the pursuit of profit, and forever renewed profit, by means of continuous, rational, capitalistic enterprise. For it must be so: in a wholly capitalistic order of society, an individual capitalistic enterprise which did not take advantage of its opportunities for profit-making would be doomed to extinction. (Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Pgs. xxxi-xxxii).
Beyond this basic point, the problem with seeing “greed” as the root of all society’s evils is that it mistakes an epiphenomenal characteristic of capitalism for something more fundamental. As my friend Jeremy Cohan (also of Platypus) pointed out with reference to this text, it is remarkable the way that capitalism tames the traits of greed and competitiveness into our everyday patterns of behavior. Capitalism exists in such a manner that it normalizes these personality traits throughout the whole of society.
Another consequence of blaming the gross disparity of wealth that exists between the highest echelons of the capitalist social order and the rest on a mere personality flaw (the poor moral constitution of the top 1%) is that it ignores the way that the capitalists themselves are implicated by the intrinsic logic of Capital. This misunderstanding ultimately amounts to what might be called the “diabolical” view of society — the idea that all of society’s ills can be traced back to some scheming cabal of businessmen conspiring over how to best fuck over the general public.
(The “diabolical” view of society is not all that far removed from conspiracy theories about the “New World Order,” the Illuminati, or “International Jewry.” Indeed, it is not surprising to see that shades of anti-capitalism misrecognized as anti-semitism have cropped up amongst some pockets of Occupy Wall Street; see Moishe Postone’s excellent essay on “Anti-Semitism and National Socialism”).
Capitalism is not a moral but rather a structural problem. Though he obviously enjoys the benefits that his great wealth affords him, it is not as if the capitalist acts independently of the (reified) laws of bourgeois economics. He is constantly compelled to reinvest his capital back into production in order to stay afloat. In this way, even the capitalist is made subject to forces beyond his control.
The critical theorist Max Horkheimer picked up on this in a fragment from one of his early essays on “The Little Man and the Philosophy of Freedom”:
The businessman is subject to laws which neither he nor anyone else nor any power with such a mandate created with purpose and deliberation. They are laws which the big capitalists and perhaps he himself skillfully make use of but whose existence must be accepted as a fact. Boom, bust, inflation, wars, and even the qualities of things and human beings the present society demands are a function of such laws, of the anonymous social reality, just as the rotation of the earth expresses the laws of dead nature. No single individual can do anything about them. (Max Horkheimer, Dawn & Decline. Pg. 50).
These laws of the capitalist mode of production are regarded by bourgeois economists as natural and thus transhistorical, operative in every society past and present. This misrecognition of dynamics peculiar to capitalism as eternal laws of nature has been termed by Marx as “commodity fetishism,” and conceptualized by later Marxist theorists like Lukács as “reification.”
Such mistakes bear some relation to the old notion that wealth is acquired through the older (precapitalist) tactic of simple money-hoarding. Marx himself pointed out the difference between the premodern miser and the modern capitalist, stressing the compulsive character of the logic of capital:
Only as a personification of capital is the capitalist respectable. As such, he shares with the [precapitalist] miser an absolute drive towards self-enrichment. But what appears in the miser as the mania of an individual is in the capitalist the effect of a social mechanism in which he is merely a cog. Moreover, the development of capitalist production makes it necessary constantly to increase the amount of capital laid out in a given industrial undertaking, and competition subordinates every individual capitalist to the immanent laws of capitalist production, as external and coercive laws. It compels him to keep extending his capital, so as to preserve it, and he can only extend it by means of progressive accumulation. (Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I. Pg. 739).
The logic of capitalist accumulation demands that value be ceaselessly thrown back into the circuit, the perpetuum mobile, of production and circulation. Not even the highest 1% can afford to act outside this logic. If they try to defy it, they go under, and swiftly rejoin the so-called 99%.
Another deficiency I commonly see in the Occupy Wall Street movement is its narrow understanding of the scope of the problem of capitalism.
Perhaps understandably, protestors often frame social inequality and class oppression within a merely national context. They talk about the various ways in which “the American dream” has been abandoned, express their disbelief at the fact that America has allowed such rampant government corruption and the infiltration of special interest lobbyists into Washington, etc.
Now there is nothing wrong with such sentiments per se, but they fail to comprehend the scope of the capitalist world economy. For capitalism is fundamentally a global phenomenon; it does not admit of localization to one single nation, even when it comes to such economic powerhouses as the United States. This overly narrow understanding of the problem of capitalism is what has given rise in recent years to the equation of anti-capitalism with simple anti-Americanism.
The exclusive significance of United States is absurdly overemphasized in what might almost be called an inverted “American exceptionalism,” ignoring the fact that the European Union, Russia, and China are also heavyweights within the global market, with their own imperialist interests and networks of oppression.
If capitalism is to be overcome, it cannot be done on a merely national scale; it must be accomplished internationally, at least in the most advanced capitalist nations of the world (initially). For this reason, any radical political movement that aspires to take up the mantle of the Left must intersect with anti-capitalist groups overseas and around the world. Such action requires coordination, organization, and communication. Occupy Wall Street-esque gatherings may be spreading throughout North America and in Europe (where demonstrations have actually been going on independently for some time), but their focus is still too much on national reform rather than international revolution.
One might object to the fact that I take issue with Occupy Wall Street on this score, especially in light of the fact that these protests were closely modeled on recent events that have transpired in Egypt and Greece. To be fair, there is some inkling of international solidarity at least in this respect. But the unique circumstances of the Greek and Egyptian protests (not to mention the armed rebellion in Libya) are all-too-often overlooked. One cannot simply transpose the tactics employed in one national situation and expect them to produce the same results in another. The claim that some overzealous protestors have hastily made is that Occupy Wall Street is “America’s version of the Arab Spring,” a delusion if ever there was one.
In truth, the demonstrations on Wall Street have much more in common with the protests and uprisings that we have seen in Spain and Greece than it has with any of the nations of the Arab Spring. For the nations of the recent “Arab Spring” — Tunisia (oft-forgotten), Egypt, Libya, and Syria — the primary issue at stake has been of an almost entirely political nature. That is to say, the grievances of the public in these countries had mostly to do with the suffocating and backwards dictatorships that had held sway in the region for so long. The protests in Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria along with the bitterly violent struggle in Libya have all aimed to overthrow their existing governments, to redraft new political constitutions.
(It is important to remember that the success of the “Arab Spring” remains incomplete. Dictators have been removed in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, but the Ba’athist regime in Syria continues to hold a deathgrip on power).
Occupy Wall Street, though it patterns itself after the Egyptian experience, concerns primarily socioeconomic grievances. Very few of the protestors down at Liberty Plaza seem to be calling for the dissolution of the existing state apparatus; all they want to do is clean out the corruption so endemic to the system. Likewise, in Greece and Spain — which are in far more dire straits economically than the U.S. — the demonstrations have been mostly the result of rampant unemployment, decreasing wages, and austerity measures that have been put in place. Youth unemployment in Spain and Greece is approaching an astonishing 50%.
To continue in this vein, it is interesting to note the Wall Street occupation’s selective use of examples to be followed in their demonstrations. Now I understand that the tactic of principled and categorical non-violence and civil disobedience is contentious among certain elements of the occupation, but the overwhelming attention paid to the example of Egypt is telling in this regard. In Egypt, of course, non-violent demonstrations were successful in ousting the country’s longtime president and dictator Hosni Mubarak, this being accomplished in a relatively short period of time.
By contrast, similar measures proved completely ineffectual in Libya, where the Gaddafi regime violently suppressed peaceful demonstrations. The Libyan people were forced to resort to armed conflict in order to carry out their political revolution. In Syria, non-violent protesting has so far failed to overturn the ruling Ba’ath Party regime. Passive resistance and peaceful protesting hardly produce uniform results.
Just to be clear, I am not interested in empty militant posturing on the part of the protestors. At this point, there are neither the means nor the ammunition to seize power in some sort of violent overthrow. Still, I find the blind adherence to the pacifist principles of Tolstoi, Gandhi, and King to be very problematic.
In connection with this, I feel I must touch on a problem associated with one of these celebrated figures — Gandhi. To be more specific, the issue I have concerns a motto attributed to him (one that has since become so ubiquitously quoted amongst “progressives” that its significance has almost been reduced to a mere bumper sticker): “Be the change you want to see in the world.” At the one General Assembly meeting I attended at Wall Street, this phrase was almost immediately trotted out, which instantly set off alarms in my head. For while (on the surface of things) this phrase may seem unobjectionable, the thinking behind it and the ideology it gives rise to is actually quite pernicious.
What I am referring to is what has been termed by many on the Left as prefigurative utopianism. In other words, what this phrase implies is that one must accept the various evils of the world, understanding that one individual alone cannot change them. But at the same time, it suggests that if everyone simply lived their own life the way they would if they lived in a perfect world, that perfect world might somehow be realized. The concept of prefigurative utopianism is thus closely linked with the phenomenon of lifestyle politics. This mentality is captured by the line — so often delivered by pontificating Hollywood celebrities — that “it all begins with YOU.” As Chris Cutrone has noted in an article on “Adorno’s Leninism”:
Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” This ethic of “pre-figuration,” the attempt to personally embody the principles of an emancipated world, was the classic expression of the moral problem of politics in service of radical social change in the 20th century. During the mid-20th century Cold War between the “liberal-democratic” West led by the United States and the Soviet Union, otherwise known as the Union of Workers’ Councils Socialist Republics, the contrasting examples of Gandhi, leader of non-violent resistance to British colonialism in India, and Lenin, leader of the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and of the international Communist movement inspired by it, were widely used to pose two very different models for understanding the politics of emancipation. One was seen as ethical, remaining true to its intentions, while the other was not. Why would…[a] Marxist [choose] Lenin over Gandhi? [A Marxist’s] understanding of capitalism, what constituted it and what allowed it to reproduce itself as a social form, informed what he thought would be necessary, in theory and practice, to actually overcome it, in freedom.
Lately I have noticed that some of the protestors actually believe that what they are doing is constituting a real-world alternative to capitalist society. They believe that Occupy Wall Street and its method of organization can serve as a model for an emancipated society. While I perhaps understand this sentiment, I can’t help but find it incredibly naïve. Nevermind that these “occupations” are nothing more than isolated pockets within capitalist society, largely funded and maintained from without through the normal mechanisms of the exchange economy.
Another related fallacy I have noticed among many of the Wall Street occupiers is their rather bizarre fascination of the notion of “direct democracy.”
For them, direct democracy is the undistilled expression of what Rousseau would have called the general will, bypassing the republican practicalities of representation in favor of the mass caucus (at Occupy Wall Street, this is embodied by the nightly meetings of the General Assembly). The chaos, disorder, and confusion (and consequent inefficacy) one witnesses at these conventions even on the small scale of several hundred protestors makes one rightly wonder how such a political practice could ever become effectively generalized throughout the total population of a country, state, or even a single city.
The doctrinaire non-hierarchical stance taken by the “facilitators” of the General Assembly, and the amorphous political form of organizational “horizontality” that results from it, severely inhibits the potential for the Occupy Wall Street movement to formulate specific demands, coordinate decisive actions (beyond marches), and articulate a broader program of social change. It might allow individuals to freely start up clubs or “workshop groups” by acting on their own initiative, but the nearly endless proliferation of such groups only adds to the confusion and the unstructured free-for-all of the protests.
Here the vaunted notion of direct democracy reveals itself t0 be the fetish-form of what protestors believe is the most “egalitarian” mode of coordination and administration. In the general atmosphere of ahistoricism that permeates the demonstrations on Wall Street, people seem to forget that the only historical instance of any political organization that even resembled a direct democracy was in the ancient Greek polis of Athens, and that even on that limited scale it proved a failure (not to mention condemned Socrates to death).
This brings me to my final point of criticism of the Occupy Wall Street protests.
One of the other pervasive problems that is encountered amongst the activists on Wall Street is the stunning lack of any greater historical perspective on what is going on there. This is perhaps symptomatic of cultural post-modernism, with its short memory and seeming obliviousness to any knowledge of the past. An understanding of history is vital to any emancipatory politics, not in order to resurrect past slogans or party platforms, but to understand where we stand in terms of the sequence of events that has led up to our present moment.
Of all the conversations I had with the people down at Zuccotti park, one of the most stimulating discussions I had at Occupy Wall-Street by far was with a member of the Kasama Project, over the role of intellectuals and the Left with respect to spontaneous political formations like the protests at Liberty Plaza:
We went over the nuances of the famous Russian term that Lenin used to describe the position of the party in relation to the masses in What is to be Done?: “авангард” (which can be variously translated as either “vanguard” or “avant-garde”). The member of the Kasama Project pointed out the useful distinction between these two terms that exists in English, as a political “vanguard” standing immanently at the forefront of the mass movement versus an artistic “avant-garde,” which seems to stand outside of the mainstream and tries to influence it from without.
This all led to an important historical revelation for me: When Lenin spoke of a revolutionary party standing as a vanguard to mass political movements, he was referring to a very concrete object — the international anti-capitalist workers’ movement, which had been building and amassing support continuously for nearly seven decades. Today, we can speak of no equivalent movement that has either such continuity or consistency as the workers’ movement of Lenin’s day.
Paleo-Marxist groups might still cling dearly to the notion that their organization must act as a vanguard to mass political movements, but the question is: What mass political movement? What exactly is there that one can be a vanguard of?
The historical recognition of the extent to which the conditions necessary to foment social revolution have disappeared over the course of the last century is vital to any emancipatory political project in the present. It indicates to us that there is much work that remains to be done, in order to sow the seeds of social consciousness that might lead to a more sustained opposition to the capitalist social order.
To be most optimistic, we might speculate that Occupy Wall Street and the other demonstrations it has inspired might portend a reawakening of the political Left from its decades-long torpor, a revivification of anti-capitalist sentiment in social consciousness that has for some time now been all but comatose. The cultivation and elaboration of an historical understanding of our present moment, and the possibilities that the future might hold, is vital if Occupy Wall Street wants to be anything more than a fleeting glimmer of political radicalism that is then harmlessly reintegrated into “business as usual.”