“The Four Cs”: Commodity, Currency (Money), Capital, Corporation — A popular lexicon regarding some commonly confused terms, along with some further scholarly notes

The Parisian Arcades

The “Four Cs”: Commodities, Currency (Money), Capital, and Corporations

POSITIVE DEFINITIONS

First we can state briefly what these objects concretely are, so that we can then spell out exactly what they are not.

Commodity A commodity is any product that is produced for sale on the market, i.e. for the sake of exchange.  Like any other product (non-commodities included), it has a certain utility, or “use-value.”  Products, regardless of their salability, tend to be useful in some way or another, to satisfy a certain need.  Use-values are of a qualitative nature.  That is to say, they are useful because they possess certain utile qualities.

Unlike other products, however, commodities also possess a certain value, or “exchange-value.”  As soon as a product becomes available for exchange on the market, it is thereby converted into a commodity.  Exchange-values are of a quantitative nature.  That is to say, they are valuable because they possess a certain quantity of value.

(It must be noted, however, that if a commodity loses its use-value, i.e. becomes broken or useless, it simultaneously loses any exchange-value it might have had).

How is this quantity of exchange-value determined? What is the basis for the following equation: 20 yards of linen = 1 coat? In terms of their material qualities, the two are totally incommensurable.  A coat may be made of linen, but a single coat does not require 20 yards of linen to produce.  Nevertheless, their quantitative equality presupposes an underlying qualitative identity of substance.  The question thus becomes: What exactly is this substance?

The substantial basis for the equality of two dissimilar items or use-values is the amount of labor-power expended upon them, measured in homogeneous units of time (days, hours, minutes, etc.).  This alone determines the magnitude of value that a commodity possesses.

Commodities are not unique to capitalism.  They preexist the crystallization of the capitalist social formation.  However, in precapitalist societies, the majority of goods that are produced are not commodities.  In other words, most products are intended for immediate use or consumption, either by their producer himself or his next-of-kin.  Society’s general mode of production is only properly called “capitalist” when the majority of its products are commodities.

One final point about the commodity-form should be made before passing on to money.  This concerns the extent to which one’s labor (or more specifically, one’s labor-time) can itself be sold as a commodity on the market.  An employer purchases a certain duration of a person’s labor-time in exchange for the services rendered or products produced.  In return, the employee is typically compensated by hourly wages or an annual salary.

Though wage-labor existed in the margins of precapitalist society, the reproduction of the capitalist mode of production requires that there exists a large displaced population of persons whose only commodity available for sale is their labor.  Thus, under capitalism, wage-labor or salaries becomes generalized as the societal norm.

Currency/Money Money is a certain commodity that is set aside to serve as a universal measurement of value.  It is the universal equivalent of qualitatively dissimilar commodities.  Money therefore serves as a quantitative medium of exchange.

In another sense, money (as such) is the circulation of commodities.  That is to say, it provides the means by which the exact quantity of one commodity is traded for an exact equivalent quantity of money, which is then used to purchase a given quantity of another.  Money acts as an intermediary in place of direct barter.

This operation can be illustrated by a simple formula, using these symbols:

C = Commodity.

M = Money.

C → M → C.

One commodity is sold for its value in money, which is then used to purchase an equivalent value in another commodity.  This allows for a more equitable exchange of value between commodities than took place in simple barter, which tended to involve uneven transactions.

Capital Capital is self-valorizing value.  In other words, it is value that becomes more value, or money (which is but an expression of value) that magically transforms itself into more money.  The principle of capitalization is that you start the day with a certain amount of money, and by the end of the day you have more money.

As Marx put it, this process is almost “theological.”  In capital, value becomes at once the subject and object of its own activity, ceaselessly augmenting its own magnitude.  The analogy Marx uses is the differentiation of God the Father from God the Son in the triune theology of traditional Christianity; they are both made from the same substance, and are equally old, yet one begets the other.

The ultimate expression of capital in all its forms is the following:

M → Mº.

(º = “prime.”  Money “prime” signifies the increment of value over and above the amount of value originally advanced.  Once thrown back into the circuit of production and circulation, however, this augmented money or value obtained as a result of capitalization becomes the starting value of the new formula).

Species of Capital

1. Interest-bearing (usurers’) capital M → Mº.  This is the basic formula of money lending or usury.

A certain amount of money is advanced as a loan, in return for a greater amount of money to be received later, the magnitude of which is determined by a contractually agreed-upon interest rate.

2. Commercial (merchants’) capital M → C → Mº.  In its most simple form, this just involves the purchase of a commodity for a certain amount of money and its resale for a greater amount of money.

This can be accomplished in any number of ways.  First, a merchant can simply find a chump who is willing to either sell a commodity for less than its value, or a chump who is willing to buy a commodity for greater than its value.

A more calculated approach might involve the purchase of a commodity in a locale where it is abundant (where it is not as highly valued), and then transport it for sale in a locale where the commodity is scarce (where it is more highly valued).  The difference between the money originally paid and the money received at the end of this cycle is the surplus value.

3. Industrial capital M → C → Mº.  Formally, this circuit is identical with that of merchants’ capital.  The crucial difference consists in the nature of the commodity purchased.  In the movement of industrial capital, the commodity bought is always the labor-time of another person.

Thus, the formula for industrial capital may perhaps be more properly described as M → C(L) → Mº.

Obviously, in this formula the following symbolism is used:

L = Labor.

The labor-time expended by the worker imparts greater value onto the articles under production, thus augmenting the original value of the commodities involved.

Two methods can be used to extract surplus-value in this process:

1. Absolute surplus-value — The capitalist extends the length of the working day, so that the worker invests an amount of labor-time into production greater than the value he receives in wages.  Once the commodities produced in this process are sold in circulation on the market, the surplus-value gained thereby is “realized.”

2. Relative surplus-value — The capitalist reduces the amount of time required to impart a certain amount of value into production below the average of the social aggregate.  This is accomplished by either revolutionizing the social organization of the division of labor or by overhauling the technical means of production.  As a result, the capitalist is able to sell the commodities produced at a level lower than the social average while still realizing the same amount of surplus-value.

Of course, once these new methods of heightened productivity are generalized throughout society, the advantage gained vanishes.  This necessitates a constant revolutionization of the technologies and organization used in production, and an accelerating pace of modernization.  This gives rise to what Moishe Postone has called the “treadmill effect” of capitalism.

4. Finance capital Mx → M → C → Mº → Mºx.  In this formula:

x = x/100, where x ≤ 100.

Finance capital operates by having investors contribute a percentage of the overall money used to supervalue the value originally inserted into the circuit.  Typically, finance is invested into industry, where again the commodity purchased is labor.  Thus, the formula in this instance would appear as Mx → M → C(L) → Mº → Mºx.

Corporation A corporation is an association of capitalists who jointly share ownership of a single enterprise.  This is achieved by making shares of the company’s ownership available for purchase by the public.  Historically, this is connected to the rise of the join-stock exchange in the middle of the nineteenth century.  While corporations tend to be much larger and more visible than smaller private businesses, both operate according to the logic of capital.

NEGATIVE DEFINITIONS

Now that we have indicated what these terms are, we can safely say what they are not, in order to clear up some common misconceptions surrounding them. 

Commodity A commodity is not identical to any other good, article, or product.  Unlike these other products, commodities are not produced for immediate use or consumption by their producer.  Rather, commodities are produced in order to be sold or exchanged, either for money or for other commodities.

Furthermore, commodities are not unique to capitalist society.  Obviously, there existed precapitalist systems of barter, commerce, and exchange.  The point is that throughout most of history the majority of products were not intended to serve as commodities.  They were for the most part produced to serve the most immediate needs of the producer, or alienated without recompense into the possession of one’s feudal lord.  By contrast, capitalism only comes into existence when the majority of products produced by society are commodities.

Currency/Money The value of money is neither imaginary nor arbitrary.  Money is simply the universal equivalent form of exchange, used as a measurement of the value of goods, or commodities.  This is something of which the Alternative Currency working group should take note.

There are quite real and concrete historical reasons for the development of the money-form of value.  Precious metals came to serve as this medium of exchange because of their practical divisibility, and because of their relative scarcity (and thus also their value, given the difficulty of their location/extraction).  It is true that these metals come to be increasingly substituted by paper money representing their value, and even more abstract forms of credit, but this does nothing to diminish the validity or reality of money as an expression of value.

Capital/Capitalism Capitalism does not necessarily entail the existence of a free market.  The libertarian notion that has become fashionable in recent years is that only under the economic conditions of laissez-faire, or government non-intervention, can capitalism flourish and exist in a “pure” form.  They cite Bernard Mandeville or a diluted, oversimplified version of Adam Smith as evidence of this proposition.

Some leftish moderates, accepting this facile rightist notion of what capitalism is, naïvely believe that administrative reform, government oversight, more expansive welfare/social programs, and bureaucratic regulations would help counter the volatility and rampant inequality inherent in capitalism.  They believe that the perpetual crisis at the core of capitalism can be “curbed,” “corrected,” or even “controlled” by such Keynesian, neo-Fordist measures.

In reality, however, state-interventionist capitalism is just as capitalist as free market capitalism.  The fundamental principle underlying capitalism in all its different configurations is perhaps elusively straightforward: capital itself.

Corporation A corporation is not simply any form of capitalist big business.  In fact, in terms of private property, a corporation is actually less tied to the interests of a single individual than non-corporate businesses.  Because the existence of a corporation qua corporation involves an enterprise “going public,” i.e. selling shares of its ownership, it actually reflects (in terms of sheer magnitude) a larger proportion of the public interest than a smaller private enterprise.

Of course, the public character of the corporate enterprise and big agribusiness (the Monsantos of the world) shouldn’t fool us as to their capitalist nature.  A corporation is beholden only to the interest of its shareholders, and not to the public at large.  They have one obligation alone — to turn a profit for those who own a portion of their stock.  And corporations have been known to be exceptionally ruthless in this pursuit.

The only point that I am trying to make by this is to note the irrevocably capitalist character of both big corporations as well as small businesses.  Both operate according to the logic of capital: the supervaluation of value.  In other words, big corporations and small businesses have the same goal at the end of the day.  They seek to turn money into more money. Continue reading

Internal tensions within Occupy Wall Street: The Demands working group and the Drummers’ working group

The ubiquitous drum circles at Occupy Wall Street

In this post I am merely going to document some of the controversies that have been brewing within the space of Occupy Wall Street at Liberty Plaza.  I am not, of course, speaking of the #Occupy movement in general, though I have heard from many in the other cities where demonstrations are being held that similar problems with drum circles have cropped up.

The Demands Working Group

The first major site of dispute concerned the Demands working group.

I circulated the following e-mail concerning some of the internal divisions that have taken place primarily between the “Facilitators” (who for all intents and purposes run the General Assembly) and members of the Demands working group, one of the largest and most serious working groups out there.  I admit that it was based mostly on rumors and hearsay about what was going on at the time, which was incredibly confusing:

There is some major shit going down behind the scenes at OWS.  It’s become a gigantic fucking mess…though they vigorously deny that there is any sort of vertical structure of authority within the General Assembly, this weird unspoken hierarchy exists within the GA and has been systematically obstructing a bunch of the different working groups.

The Demands working group, which consists mostly of (sectarian) Marxists, has been pretty much bullied and marginalized completely by the anarchist clique that controls the General Assembly.

Some of the more militant within the Demands group (mostly Trotskyists of various groups; ISO, Sparts, and others) who have gotten sick of the anarchists rejecting every proposal for demands or vision are planning to basically stage a coup by having all their major union contacts get their members to march on Liberty Plaza

As things stand right now, the club of anarchists who run the General Assembly and have been stifling every sort of attempt at structured organizations have (paradoxically) established a bizarre authoritarian regime under the banner of anti-authoritarianism.  The anarchists who control the GA have been going around to every single working group, in numbers.  And because there are fewer people in any given working group, it becomes basically impossible for the working groups to get “modified consensus” (9/10ths) if the Facilitators from the GA all “block” any proposal at the committee level.

Things have just gotten incredibly tense and fucked up these last few days.  The anarchists in the GA and the sectarian Marxists in the “Demands” group have been going at each other’s throats.

But here are some of the more important documents pertaining to it.  First of all, the official denunciation of the Demands working group on the www.occupywallst.org website from Friday, October 21, which heaped scorn and calumny upon them: “The so-called Demands working group.”  It reads:

A group claiming to be affiliated with the General Assembly of Liberty Square and #ows has been speaking to the media on behalf of our movement.

This group is not empowered by the NYC General Assembly.

This group is not open-source and does not act by consensus.

This group only represents themselves.

While we encourage the participation of autonomous working groups, no single person or group has the authority to make demands on behalf of general assemblies around the world.

We are our demands. This #ows movement is about empowering communities to form their own general assemblies, to fight back against the tyranny of the 1%. Our collective struggles cannot be co-opted.

Having been to several meetings of the Demands working group, I can safely say that these charges are complete bullshit.  Beyond this initial list of accusations, the Demands working group was deleted from the NYC GA’s official site, and many of its members banned.  This decision was never put to a vote, and seems to have been performed unilaterally.  Here was Jay Arena’s testimony of his treatment at the GA that same night, October 21st:

To All Demands Working Group/OWS supporters,

I attended last night’s General Assembly (GA) meeting of Occupy Wall Street (OWS)/Liberty Plaza  that was discussing the new spokespersons council organizational structure that the self-appointed GA leadership was presenting.

I spoke out  against adopting the new organizational structure before the movement addressed the gross violation of democratic norms that have occurred under the present system. I then ATTEMPTED to explain how the treatment of the Demands Working group was a prime example of anti-Democratic behavior meted out by the GA leadership. I was cut off before I could elaborate by the ‘facilitators’, including one, Nicole,  who had been sent to ‘assist’ us at our last Demands Working Group meeting on Tuesday, October 18.

If I had been allowed to express myself, I would have refuted the false statement made against the Demands working group, namely that 1. We claimed, to the New York Times and other news-outlets that the ‘Jobs for All, through Public Works’ demand was the demand of the entire OWS; and 2. That we expelled people from a Demands WG meeting.

Based on these false accusations, the self-appointed leadership, without any vote — consensus, majority-based, or otherwise — took coercive actions  against the Demands Working group and its members without giving an opportunity to the Demands working group or individual members to respond to the baseless charges. These sanctions have included: 1.  A broadside on the front page of the OWS web site repeating lies 1 and 2 above, 2. eliminating the demands working group discussion forum from the OWS website — which was one of the most popular, 3.  removing several demands working group members registration accounts from the web site.

I agree with Chavisa that we should use the accountability forum page of OWS to register our opposition to this gross violation of Democratic norms. The Demands Working group will be discussing further on how to respond to these anti-Democratic attacks and violations, ones that present a serious threat to this important movement. I encourage everyone who cares about Democracy and  this movement to attend the next meeting of the Demands Working Group — Sunday, 6 PM, Tompkins Square Park (meet at the circular area, right off E. 7th street, between avenues B and C).

— Jay Arena

The matter became somewhat elucidated by an exchange on the Transparency and Accountability forum on the General Assembly’s main webpage.  The first, second, third, fourth, and now fifth page of discussion can be found there.

One of the more interesting exchanges occurred between Chavisa Woods and the website administrator, Drew:

This [whole deletion of the Demands working group from NYC GA's fora] goes against the process. I joined this group last week, as did hundreds of others, two days ago. This group exists to discuss issues around DEMANDS; the history of demands in revolutionary movements, methods of and approaches to demands; and to collect data on possible demands (a subgroup of this group is trying to form to gear up to begin working with media and conducting outreach; and to formulate demand proposals to be brought before the G.A.

Again, this group has every right to exist. A Demands group does not discourage people from joining other groups.

I am very interested in understanding the COLLECTIVE process that went into deciding this group cannot exist, or be visible. Since it is not on the website, we cannot list the date and time of our meeting, which more than 100 people wanted to know. That is not transparecy.

If you disagree that there should be demands, that’s fine, and it may consistently be voted against in the G.A.

BUT THIS DELETION IS PROBLEMATIC. It points to the possibility that a small number of people have the final and autonomous decision about what sorts of groups get to exist in OWS. That goes completely against the structure and process of OWS.

– Chavisa Woods

Drew, who is the head of the Internet working group, took responsibility for the action and explained his reasons, though he did end up restoring the Demands working group:

Hello everyone, I understand the concerns about the Demands group disappearing from the site and I apologize for being unable to read through and respond to all the forum posts in detail.

I was the one who removed the Demands Group from the site. I take full responsibility. Before I explain why I would like to note a few things. First off, communication inside (and out) of the park is really hard. Also, getting correct information is difficult and figuring out what is going on at any given time is also a struggle. That’s why we are working so hard on creating the nycga.net site.

A few days ago I was contacted by a number of people saying that there was a demands group that was giving out false information. There was some fuss, and I wasn’t sure how to take it. Information working group did not have any concrete information about the status or contact info for the group. Then on Friday occupywallst.org put out a “burn” notice on a demands group. Editors from that site called me explaining that we have to take the demands group off line.

I am only getting secondhand information. I am a website administrator and I don’t know about the group or about the controversy surrounding it. I did what I was asked.

This brings up the issue: There is currently no official procedure for determining when to add or remove a working group. There is no good definition about what a working group even IS. Perhaps the Accountability and Transparency working group can devise a solution.

Again, I apologize. I will try and make it to the next Demands Working group meeting and discuss this in person.

Solidarity,

Drew

Drew’s candor and responsibility are refreshing, but some troubling questions remain.  Who were these people that were telling him to take the Demands working group off the website? And why would he listen to them? This needs to be remedied properly.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not like I am fully supportive of everything the Demands working group suggests.  I think that concrete demands are problematic (this doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be discussed, however).  The legacy of dogmatic, sectarian Marxism is in some sense just as pernicious as the persistence of weirdly authoritarian anarchoid tendencies.  Still, the Demands working group has been treated incredibly unfairly.

The Drummers’ Working Group (“Pulse”)

Shifting to the other major site of contention, we begin with a relatively diplomatic and charitable article put forth on http://www.occupywallst.org about the drum circles which have been the source of so much trouble:

The occupation of Liberty Square is a symbol of the growing international movement fighting against neoliberal economic practices, the crimes of Wall Street and the resulting income inequality, unemployment, and oppression of people at the front lines of the economic crisis. More than a week ago we successfully rallied to defend our occupation from eviction. Knowing that the neighborhood we built was important to our movement, occupiers reorganized the space and prepared for eviction defense, community board and local elects pressured Brookfield Properties, and local organizations and unions mobilized their members in defense of Liberty Square. Brookfield and Bloomberg backed down in the face of this joint effort. #ows has international support, and is part of a global movement for economic and social justice that is only just starting to take form. It is within this context that we must drill down, look inward and converse with each other about our actions in this space.

For weeks, occupiers, working groups, individuals from the community board, and neighbors have approached the drummers on the west side of Liberty Square in an effort to involve them in conversations revolving around their constant presence. The drummers have been asked to stop drumming during quiet hours, to not drum during GA, and to allow other music to enter the square. The drummers, who feel that they are bringing rhythm to the revolution and have a voice that must be heard have felt disrespected and disparaged. The situation has been heated. A division grew within the square as well as with our neighbors. On Oct 13th, the General Assembly of Liberty Square passed a resolution to limit drumming times to 2 hours a day, between the hours of 11 and 5 as part of a good neighbor policy. Many drummers rejected this. A group of mediators began to work with the drummers and reached an agreement that they would instead drum for 4 hours per day, from 12pm – 2pm and 4pm – 6pm. The OWS Community Relations team, drummers, mediators, and several local residents from the community board spent weeks listening, building trust, and figuring out ways for drummers to work in solidarity with the occupation. As a result, drumming dropped from consistent 10 + hours a day, but is occurring more than the 2 hours consensed to by the General Assembly, and more then the 4 hours consensed to by the drummers.

In the spirit of consensus and community, mediation is still in process. The working group Pulse has been formed by the drummers and is working to bring forward proposals to the General Assembly of Liberty Square. This issue has been talked about in the park, at the General Assembly, on forums, and emails for weeks. This is an example of how we as a community share space and how we mobilize together to build consensus between all members of a conversation. Drumming has a loud voice in Liberty Square. Pulse is an important piece of our movement — they are integral to marches, morale, and the general mood of energy we have created. But many within Liberty Square feel as though their voice is being drowned out by the drumming, that it has become difficult to have the conversations that they think are important. We have created a small, vibrant and diverse community within the Square — it is natural that some issues would and will arise, but we hope to work together and continue to effect positive change in this place and in this world.

If you read the comments in the thread attached to this article, you will quickly see that the drummers, who apparently cannot be reasoned with, are almost universally reviled by the other residents and participants of Liberty Plaza involved in the protests.  But a funnier take on this was communicated in on the NYC GA site, where there was a presentation on how to deal with such toxic elements of society.  Here are the suggestions and points that were raised regarding the drummers.  One of the suggestions proposed (#5) made me almost fall out of my chair laughing, just imagining the insanity of its actual performance:

1. We, the 99%, object to 1% controlling the financial system. Should will let a tiny minority of drummers dictate noise levels that affect everyone’s ability to speak and our continued ability to stay in the park?

2. What if we wanted to read poetry or play acoustic guitar in the space that the drummers occupy?

3. The drummers have been offered space in other parks that do not adjoin residential neighborhoods where people are trying to sleep.

4. One of the ways the US “tortured” prisoners in Guantanamo was by playing music so loud the prisoners were unable to sleep. So, what is the volume at which drumming ceases to be non-violent and cause sleep deprivation?

5. The drummers are reinforced by people watching them and dancing. Should we organize flash mobs to show our disapproval of the drummers with the non-verbal signs that are practiced in General Assembly?

6. With one or two exceptions it is impossible to speak to any of the drummers.

7. Rational discourse with the drummers has failed, there is no point in attempting to talk to them, as opposed to using body language in a non-violent and non-aggressive manner, while still showing our disapproval.

The following comment, however, by Ray Beckerman, sums up the idiocy and absurdity of the nonstop drum circles (but also the insane paranoia in some sections of the park):

The first time I saw the drummers, I immediately pegged some of them for government agents [!!].  None of them showed any signs of knowing anything about music or about drumming.  They were drowning out musician Michael Franti who’d come to Zuccotti Park to sing and show support for #ows. When the drummers stopped for a few seconds…not a SINGLE person applauded.  Nevertheless they went right back to their pounding.

The second time, when I joined the march on Oct 5th, I left after 2 1/2 hours — before reaching Zuccotti Park — because I couldn’t take any more of the noise.  The drumming prevented people from talking, listening, or singing the protest songs which should have been part of the march.

The incessant, loud, rude, non-musical drumming does nothing for our movement.  All it does is

-scare passersby
-annoy neighbors
-stifle conversation and learning
-stifle protest music which is essential to all good political movements
-give government an excuse for shutting things down.

In the words of Bob Dylan, “to live outside the law, you must be honest”. If you are going to be having an alternative society in Zuccotti Park, and other occupied sites, you are going to have to police yourselves, and “poisonous” is a good word for these zombies. And I will wager that many of them are FBI and/or NYPD undercovers… no one else could have that little rhythm. The other drummers are either buffoons, or anti-social types.

Let us all hope that this is not what democracy looks like.  Anyway, this is the decision reached two days ago at the GA.  Let’s see if they can actually enforce it this time:

OWS is over after Tuesday:

Friends, mediation with the drummers has been called off. It has gone on for more than 2 weeks and it has reached a dead end. The drummers formed a working group called Pulse and agreed to 2 hrs/day at times during the mediation, and more recently that changed to 4 hrs/day. It’s my feeling that we may have a fighting chance with the community board if we could indeed limit drumming and loud instrumentation to 12-2pm and 4-6pm, however that isn’t what’s happening.

Last night the drumming was near continuous until 10:30pm at night. Today it began again at 11am. The drummers are fighting amongst themselves, there is no cohesive group. There is one assemblage called Pulse that organized most of the drummers into a group and went to GA for formal recognition and with a proposal.

Unfortunately there is one individual who is NOT a drummer but who claims to speak for the drummers who has been a deeply disruptive force, attacking the drumming rep during the GA and derailing his proposal, disrupting the community board meeting, as well as the OWS community relations meeting. She has also created strife and divisions within the POC caucus, calling many members who are not ‘on her side’ “Uncle Tom”, “the 1%”, “Barbie” “not Palestinian enough” “Wall Street politicians” “not black enough” “sell-outs”, etc. People have been documenting her disruptions, and her campaign of misinformation, and instigations. She also has a documented history online of defamatory, divisive and disruptive behavior within the LGBT (esp. transgender) communities. Her disruptions have made it hard to have constructive conversations and productive resolutions to conflicts in a variety of forums in the past several days.

At this point we have lost the support of allies in the Community Board, and the State Senator and city electeds who have been fighting the city to stave off our eviction, get us toilets, etc. On Tuesday is a Community Board vote, which will be packed with media cameras and community members with real grievances. We have sadly demonstrated to them that we are unable to collectively 1) keep our space and surrounding areas clean and sanitary, 2) keep the park safe, 3) deal with internal conflict and enforce the Good Neighbor Policy that was passed by the General Assembly.

Whether or not you personally feel that the support of the community board and local residents and their reps is needed to maintain our occupation, many of us believe that maintaining Liberty Square (aka Zuccotti Park) as a flagship and nerve center for our movement right now is in fact critical to our efforts that are much bigger picture, longer term, more revolutionary than the internal conflicts that are consuming too much energy right now.

We need to take this seriously, and be clear that if we can’t deal with conflict and self-organizing then we are facing eviction very soon (this week), and the allies that helped turn out mass numbers at the last one will not be around this time, nor will the press be supportive. Additionally, Bloomberg released a statement a few days ago that said that he / the City plans to crack down on any violations as of this week. Once we lose community and ally support at Tuesday’s vote, the door is wide open for an eviction.

What to do? We need an all hands-on-deck clean-up and everyone sharing responsibility for the Good Neighbor Policy, including enforcement of 12-2pm and 4-6pm drumming hours. (While recognizing that the community board has been firm that they can only support 2 hrs/day of drumming). We should also start serious conversations internally about what this movement might I look like without Zuccotti Park / Liberty Square. How can we set ourselves up for continued organizing and momentum without an active occupation? I don’t write this to be dramatic, it’s a serious question. If so much of our organizing time currently (for many of us, 20 hrs a day) is going to putting out fires and maintaining the space, what does it look like if we lose the space?

All of this has resulted from the General Assembly’s total organizational ineptitude and failure to control a tiny (and obnoxious) circle of drummers. The reason this is such a fiasco is because the whole hippie “just do your own thing” atmosphere of OWS is supposed to encourage self-expression, and no one wants to appear “fascist” by trying to shut down the drummers, even though everyone hates them.  Perhaps it is time to reassess how things are handled at OWS.

“The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” by Joreen Freeman (1970)

"Confusion" by Thiagolooney

 

Though it was written more than forty years ago now, Joreen Freeman’s account of “leaderless,” “structureless” non-hierarchical organization during the women’s liberation movement pertains fully to the maddening and inefficacious “horizontal”/consensus proceduralism. Hierarchical structures, so long as they remain informal and unspoken, exist whether they are acknowledged or not. Without some degree of formalization and appropriate delegation, positions of leadership and authority continue to exist de facto, if not de jure.  The whole fetishization of direct democracy, along with its correlate in consensus (the idea of a near-universal “consent” intended to ensure the sensus communis), leads to the virtual tyranny of the sort embodied by the liberum veto during the dysfunctional Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

During the years in which the women’s liberation movement has been taking shape, a great emphasis has been placed on what are called leaderless, structureless groups as the main — if not sole — organizational form of the movement. The source of this idea was a natural reaction against the over-structured society in which most of us found ourselves, and the inevitable control this gave others over our lives, and the continual elitism of the Left and similar groups among those who were supposedly fighting this overstructuredness.

The idea of “structurelessness,” however, has moved from a healthy counter to those tendencies to becoming a goddess in its own right. The idea is as little examined as the term is much used, but it has become an intrinsic and unquestioned part of women’s liberation ideology. For the early development of the movement this did not much matter. It early defined its main goal, and its main method, as consciousness-raising, and the “structureless” rap group was an excellent means to this end. The looseness and informality of it encouraged participation in discussion, and its often supportive atmosphere elicited personal insight. If nothing more concrete than personal insight ever resulted from these groups, that did not much matter, because their purpose did not really extend beyond this.

The basic problems didn’t appear until individual rap groups exhausted the virtues of consciousness-raising and decided they wanted to do something more specific. At this point they usually foundered because most groups were unwilling to change their structure when they changed their tasks. Women had thoroughly accepted the idea of “structurelessness” without realizing the limitations of its uses. People would try to use the “structureless” group and the informal conference for purposes for which they were unsuitable out of a blind belief that no other means could possibly be anything but oppressive.

If the movement is to grow beyond these elementary stages of development, it will have to disabuse itself of some of its prejudices about organization and structure. There is nothing inherently bad about either of these. They can be and often are misused, but to reject them out of hand because they are misused is to deny ourselves the necessary tools to further development. We need to understand why “structurelessness” does not work.

FORMAL AND INFORMAL STRUCTURES

Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. The structure may be flexible; it may vary over time; it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group. But it will be formed regardless of the abilities, personalities, or intentions of the people involved. The very fact that we are individuals, with different talents, predispositions, and backgrounds makes this inevitable. Only if we refused to relate or interact on any basis whatsoever could we approximate structurelessness — and that is not the nature of a human group.

This means that to strive for a structureless group is as useful, and as deceptive, as to aim at an “objective” news story, “value-free” social science, or a “free” economy. A “laissez faire” group is about as realistic as a “laissez faire” society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can be so easily established because the idea of “structurelessness” does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones. Similarly “laissez faire” philosophy did not prevent the economically powerful from establishing control over wages, prices, and distribution of goods; it only prevented the government from doing so. Thus structurelessness becomes a way of masking power, and within the women’s movement is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not). As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware.

For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its activities the structure must be explicit, not implicit. The rules of decision-making must be open and available to everyone, and this can happen only if they are formalized. This is not to say that formalization of a structure of a group will destroy the informal structure. It usually doesn’t. But it does hinder the informal structure from having predominant control and make available some means of attacking it if the people involved are not at least responsible to the needs of the group at large. “Structurelessness” is organizationally impossible. We cannot decide whether to have a structured or structureless group, only whether or not to have a formally structured one. Therefore the word will not he used any longer except to refer to the idea it represents. Unstructured will refer to those groups which have not been deliberately structured in a particular manner. Structured will refer to those which have. A Structured group always has formal structure, and may also have an informal, or covert, structure. It is this informal structure, particularly in Unstructured groups, which forms the basis for elites.

THE NATURE OF ELITISM

“Elitist” is probably the most abused word in the women’s liberation movement. It is used as frequently, and for the same reasons, as “pinko” was used in the fifties. It is rarely used correctly. Within the movement it commonly refers to individuals, though the personal characteristics and activities of those to whom it is directed may differ widely: An individual, as an individual can never be an elitist, because the only proper application of the term “elite” is to groups. Any individual, regardless of how well-known that person may be, can never be an elite.

Correctly, an elite refers to a small group of people who have power over a larger group of which they are part, usually without direct responsibility to that larger group, and often without their knowledge or consent. A person becomes an elitist by being part of, or advocating the rule by, such a small group, whether or not that individual is well known or not known at all. Notoriety is not a definition of an elitist. The most insidious elites are usually run by people not known to the larger public at all. Intelligent elitists are usually smart enough not to allow themselves to become well known; when they become known, they are watched, and the mask over their power is no longer firmly lodged.

Elites are not conspiracies. Very seldom does a small group of people get together and deliberately try to take over a larger group for its own ends. Elites are nothing more, and nothing less, than groups of friends who also happen to participate in the same political activities. They would probably maintain their friendship whether or not they were involved in political activities; they would probably be involved in political activities whether or not they maintained their friendships. It is the coincidence of these two phenomena which creates elites in any group and makes them so difficult to break.

These friendship groups function as networks of communication outside any regular channels for such communication that may have been set up by a group. If no channels are set up, they function as the only networks of communication. Because people are friends, because they usually share the same values and orientations, because they talk to each other socially and consult with each other when common decisions have to be made, the people involved in these networks have more power in the group than those who don’t. And it is a rare group that does not establish some informal networks of communication through the friends that are made in it.

Some groups, depending on their size, may have more than one such informal communications network. Networks may even overlap. When only one such network exists, it is the elite of an otherwise Unstructured group, whether the participants in it want to be elitists or not. If it is the only such network in a Structured group it may or may not be an elite depending on its composition and the nature of the formal Structure. If there are two or more such networks of friends, they may compete for power within the group, thus forming factions, or one may deliberately opt out of the competition, leaving the other as the elite. In a Structured group, two or more such friendship networks usually compete with each other for formal power. This is often the healthiest situation, as the other members are in a position to arbitrate between the two competitors for power and thus to make demands on those to whom they give their temporary allegiance.

The inevitably elitist and exclusive nature of informal communication networks of friends is neither a new phenomenon characteristic of the women’s movement nor a phenomenon new to women. Such informal relationships have excluded women for centuries from participating in integrated groups of which they were a part. In any profession or organization these networks have created the “locker room” mentality and the “old school” ties which have effectively prevented women as a group (as well as some men individually) from having equal access to the sources of power or social reward. Much of the energy of past women’s movements has been directed to having the structures of decision-making and the selection processes formalized so that the exclusion of women could be confronted directly. As we well know, these efforts have not prevented the informal male-only networks from discriminating against women, but they have made it more difficult.

Because elites are informal does not mean they are invisible. At any small group meeting anyone with a sharp eye and an acute ear can tell who is influencing whom. The members of a friendship group will relate more to each other than to other people. They listen more attentively, and interrupt less; they repeat each other’s points and give in amiably; they tend to ignore or grapple with the “outs” whose approval is not necessary for making a decision. But it is necessary for the “outs” to stay on good terms with the “ins.” Of course the lines are not as sharp as I have drawn them. They are nuances of interaction, not prewritten scripts. But they are discernible, and they do have their effect. Once one knows with whom it is important to check before a decision is made, and whose approval is the stamp of acceptance, one knows who is running things.

Since movement groups have made no concrete decisions about who shall exercise power within them, many different criteria are used around the country. Most criteria are along the lines of traditional female characteristics. For instance, in the early days of the movement, marriage was usually a prerequisite for participation in the informal elite. As women have been traditionally taught, married women relate primarily to each other, and look upon single women as too threatening to have as close friends. In many cities, this criterion was further refined to include only those women married to New Left men. This standard had more than tradition behind it, however, because New Left men often had access to resources needed by the movement — such as mailing lists, printing presses, contacts, and information — and women were used to getting what they needed through men rather than independently. As the movement has charged through time, marriage has become a less universal criterion for effective participation, but all informal elites establish standards by which only women who possess certain material or personal characteristics may join. They frequently include: middle-class background (despite all the rhetoric about relating to the working class); being married; not being married but living with someone; being or pretending to be a lesbian; being between the ages of twenty and thirty; being college educated or at least having some college background; being “hip”; not being too “hip”; holding a certain political line or identification as a “radical”; having children or at least liking them; not having children; having certain “feminine” personality characteristics such as being “nice”; dressing right (whether in the traditional style or the antitraditional style); etc. There are also some characteristics which will almost always tag one as a “deviant” who should not be related to. They include: being too old; working full time, particularly if one is actively committed to a “career”; not being “nice”; and being avowedly single (i.e., neither actively heterosexual nor homosexual).

Other criteria could be included, but they all have common themes. The characteristics prerequisite for participating in the informal elites of the movement, and thus for exercising power, concern one’s background, personality, or allocation of time. They do not include one’s competence, dedication to feminism, talents, or potential contribution to the movement. The former are the criteria one usually uses in determining one’s friends. The latter are what any movement or organization has to use if it is going to be politically effective.

The criteria of participation may differ from group to group, but the means of becoming a member of the informal elite if one meets those criteria art pretty much the same. The only main difference depends on whether one is in a group from the beginning, or joins it after it has begun. If involved from the beginning it is important to have as many of one’s personal friends as possible also join. If no one knows anyone else very well, then one must deliberately form friendships with a select number and establish the informal interaction patterns crucial to the creation of an informal structure. Once the informal patterns are formed they act to maintain themselves, and one of the most successful tactics of maintenance is to continuously recruit new people who “fit in.” One joins such an elite much the same way one pledges a sorority. If perceived as a potential addition, one is “rushed” by the members of the informal structure and eventually either dropped or initiated. If the sorority is not politically aware enough to actively engage in this process itself it can be started by the outsider pretty much the same way one joins any private club. Find a sponsor, i.e., pick some member of the elite who appears to be well respected within it, and actively cultivate that person’s friendship. Eventually, she will most likely bring you into the inner circle.

All of these procedures take time. So if one works full time or has a similar major commitment, it is usually impossible to join simply because there are not enough hours left to go to all the meetings and cultivate the personal relationship necessary to have a voice in the decision-making. That is why formal structures of decision making are a boon to the overworked person. Having an established process for decision-making ensures that everyone can participate in it to some extent.

Although this dissection of the process of elite formation within small groups has been critical in perspective, it is not made in the belief that these informal structures are inevitably bad — merely inevitable. All groups create informal structures as a result of interaction patterns among the members of the group. Such informal structures can do very useful things But only Unstructured groups are totally governed by them. When informal elites are combined with a myth of “structurelessness,” there can be no attempt to put limits on the use of power. It becomes capricious.

This has two potentially negative consequences of which we should be aware. The first is that the informal structure of decision-making will be much like a sorority — one in which people listen to others because they like them and not because they say significant things. As long as the movement does not do significant things this does not much matter. But if its development is not to be arrested at this preliminary stage, it will have to alter this trend. The second is that informal structures have no obligation to be responsible to the group at large. Their power was not given to them; it cannot be taken away. Their influence is not based on what they do for the group; therefore they cannot be directly influenced by the group. This does not necessarily make informal structures irresponsible. Those who are concerned with maintaining their influence will usually try to be responsible. The group simply cannot compel such responsibility; it is dependent on the interests of the elite.

THE “STAR” SYSTEM

The idea of “structurelessness” has created the “star” system. We live in a society which expects political groups to make decisions and to select people to articulate those decisions to the public at large. The press and the public do not know how to listen seriously to individual women as women; they want to know how the group feels. Only three techniques have ever been developed for establishing mass group opinion: the vote or referendum, the public opinion survey questionnaire, and the selection of group spokespeople at an appropriate meeting. The women’s liberation movement has used none of these to communicate with the public. Neither the movement as a whole nor most of the multitudinous groups within it have established a means of explaining their position on various issues. But the public is conditioned to look for spokespeople.

While it has consciously not chosen spokespeople, the movement has thrown up many women who have caught the public eye for varying reasons. These women represent no particular group or established opinion; they know this and usually say so. But because there are no official spokespeople nor any decision-making body that the press can query when it wants to know the movement’s position on a subject, these women are perceived as the spokespeople. Thus, whether they want to or not, whether the movement likes it or not, women of public note are put in the role of spokespeople by default.

This is one main source of the ire that is often felt toward the women who are labeled “stars.” Because they were not selected by the women in the movement to represent the movement’s views, they are resented when the press presumes that they speak for the movement. But as long as the movement does not select its own spokeswomen, such women will be placed in that role by the press and the public, regardless of their own desires.

This has several negative consequences for both the movement and the women labeled “stars.” First, because the movement didn’t put them in the role of spokesperson, the movement cannot remove them. The press put them there and only the press can choose not to listen. The press will continue to look to “stars” as spokeswomen as long as it has no official alternatives to go to for authoritative statements from the movement. The movement has no control in the selection of its representatives to the public as long as it believes that it should have no representatives at all. Second, women put in this position often find themselves viciously attacked by their sisters. This achieves nothing for the movement and is painfully destructive to the individuals involved. Such attacks only result in either the woman leaving the movement entirely-often bitterly alienated — or in her ceasing to feel responsible to her “sisters.” She may maintain some loyalty to the movement, vaguely defined, but she is no longer susceptible to pressures from other women in it. One cannot feel responsible to people who have been the source of such pain without being a masochist, and these women are usually too strong to bow to that kind of personal pressure. Thus the backlash to the “star” system in effect encourages the very kind of individualistic nonresponsibility that the movement condemns. By purging a sister as a “star,” the movement loses whatever control it may have had over the person who then becomes free to commit all of the individualistic sins of which she has been accused.

POLITICAL IMPOTENCE

Unstructured groups may be very effective in getting women to talk about their lives; they aren’t very good for getting things done. It is when people get tired of “just talking” and want to do something more that the groups flounder, unless they change the nature of their operation. Occasionally, the developed informal structure of the group coincides with an available need that the group can fill in such a way as to give the appearance that an Unstructured group “works.” That is, the group has fortuitously developed precisely the kind of structure best suited for engaging in a particular project.

While working in this kind of group is a very heady experience, it is also rare and very hard to replicate. There are almost inevitably four conditions found in such a group:

1) It is task oriented. Its function is very narrow and very specific, like putting on a conference or putting out a newspaper. It is the task that basically structures the group. The task determines what needs to be done and when it needs to be done. It provides a guide by which people can judge their actions and make plans for future activity.

2) It is relatively small and homogeneous. Homogeneity is necessary to insure that participants have a “common language” for interaction. People from widely different backgrounds may provide richness to a consciousness-raising group where each can learn from the others’ experience, but too great a diversity among members of a task-oriented group means only that they continually misunderstand each other. Such diverse people interpret words and actions differently. They have different expectations about each other’s behavior and judge the results according to different criteria. If everyone knows everyone else well enough to understand the nuances, these can be accommodated. Usually, they only lead to confusion and endless hours spent straightening out conflicts no one ever thought would arise.

3) There is a high degree of communication. Information must be passed on to everyone, opinions checked, work divided up, and participation assured in the relevant decisions. This is only possible if the group is small and people practically live together for the most crucial phases of the task. Needless to say, the number of interactions necessary to involve everybody increases geometrically with the number of participants. This inevitably limits group participants to about five, or excludes some from some of the decisions. Successful groups can be as large as 10 or 15, but only when they are in fact composed of several smaller subgroups which perform specific parts of the task, and whose members overlap with each other so that knowledge of what the different subgroups are doing can be passed around easily.

4) There is a low degree of skill specialization. Not everyone has to be able to do everything, but everything must be able to be done by more than one person. Thus no one is indispensable. To a certain extent, people become interchangeable parts.

While these conditions can occur serendipitously in small groups, this is not possible in large ones. Consequently, because the larger movement in most cities is as unstructured as individual rap groups, it is not too much more effective than the separate groups at specific tasks. The informal structure is rarely together enough or in touch enough with the people to be able to operate effectively. So the movement generates much motion and few results. Unfortunately, the consequences of all this motion are not as innocuous as the results and their victim is the movement itself.

Some groups have formed themselves into local action projects if they do not involve many people and work on a small scale. But this form restricts movement activity to the local level; it cannot be done on the regional or national. Also, to function well the groups must usually pare themselves down to that informal group of friends who were running things in the first place. This excludes many women from participating. As long as the only way women can participate in the movement is through membership in a small group, the nongregarious are at a distinct disadvantage. As long as friendship groups are the main means of organizational activity, elitism becomes institutionalized.

For those groups which cannot find a local project to which to devote themselves, the mere act of staying together becomes the reason for their staying together. When a group has no specific task (and consciousness raising is a task), the people in it turn their energies to controlling others in the group. This is not done so much out of a malicious desire to manipulate others (though sometimes it is) as out of a lack of anything better to do with their talents. Able people with time on their hands and a need to justify their coming together put their efforts into personal control, and spend their time criticizing the personalities of the other members in the group. Infighting and personal power games rule the day. When a group is involved in a task, people learn to get along with others as they are and to subsume personal dislikes for the sake of the larger goal. There are limits placed on the compulsion to remold every person in our image of what they should be.

The end of consciousness-raising leaves people with no place to go, and the lack of structure leaves them with no way of getting there. The women the movement either turn in on themselves and their sisters or seek other alternatives of action. There are few that are available. Some women just “do their own thing.” This can lead to a great deal of individual creativity, much of which is useful for the movement, but it is not a viable alternative for most women and certainly does not foster a spirit of cooperative group effort. Other women drift out of the movement entirely because they don’t want to develop an individual project and they have found no way of discovering, joining, or starting group projects that interest them.

Many turn to other political organizations to give them the kind of structured, effective activity that they have not been able to find in the women’s movement. Those political organizations which see women’s liberation as only one of many issues to which women should devote their time thus find the movement a vast recruiting ground for new members. There is no need for such organizations to “infiltrate” (though this is not precluded). The desire for meaningful political activity generated in women by their becoming part of the women’s liberation movement is sufficient to make them eager to join other organizations when the movement itself provides no outlets for their new ideas and energies. Those women who join other political organizations while remaining within the women’s liberation movement, or who join women’s liberation while remaining in other political organizations, in turn become the framework for new informal structures. These friendship networks are based upon their common nonfeminist politics rather than the characteristics discussed earlier, but operate in much the same way. Because these women share common values, ideas, and political orientations, they too become informal, unplanned, unselected, unresponsible elites — whether they intend to be so or not.

These new informal elites are often perceived as threats by the old informal elites previously developed within different movement groups. This is a correct perception. Such politically oriented networks are rarely willing to be merely “sororities” as many of the old ones were, and want to proselytize their political as well as their feminist ideas. This is only natural, but its implications for women’s liberation have never been adequately discussed. The old elites are rarely willing to bring such differences of opinion out into the open because it would involve exposing the nature of the informal structure of the group.

Many of these informal elites have been hiding under the banner of “anti-elitism” and “structurelessness.” To effectively counter the competition from another informal structure, they would have to become “public,” and this possibility is fraught with many dangerous implications. Thus, to maintain its own power, it is easier to rationalize the exclusion of the members of the other informal structure by such means as “red-baiting,” “reformist-baiting,” “lesbian-baiting,” or “straight-baiting.” The only other alternative is to formally structure the group in such a way that the original power structure is institutionalized. This is not always possible. If the informal elites have been well structured and have exercised a fair amount of power in the past, such a task is feasible. These groups have a history of being somewhat politically effective in the past, as the tightness of the informal structure has proven an adequate substitute for a formal structure. Becoming Structured does not alter their operation much, though the institutionalization of the power structure does open it to formal challenge. It is those groups which are in greatest need of structure that are often least capable of creating it. Their informal structures have not been too well formed and adherence to the ideology of “structurelessness” makes them reluctant to change tactics. The more Unstructured a group is, the more lacking it is in informal structures, and the more it adheres to an ideology of “structurelessness,”‘ the more vulnerable it is to being taken over by a group of political comrades.

Since the movement at large is just as Unstructured as most of its constituent groups, it is similarly susceptible to indirect influence. But the phenomenon manifests itself differently. On a local level most groups can operate autonomously; but the only groups that can organize a national activity are nationally organized groups. Thus, it is often the Structured feminist organizations that provide national direction for feminist activities, and this direction is determined by the priorities of those organizations. Such groups as NOW, WEAL, and some leftist women’s caucuses are simply the only organizations capable of mounting a national campaign. The multitude of Unstructured women’s liberation groups can choose to support or not support the national campaigns, but are incapable of mounting their own. Thus their members become the troops under the leadership of the Structured organizations. The avowedly Unstructured groups have no way of drawing upon the movement’s vast resources to support its priorities. It doesn’t even have a way of deciding what they are.

The more unstructured a movement it, the less control it has over the directions in which it develops and the political actions in which it engages. This does not mean that its ideas do not spread. Given a certain amount of interest by the media and the appropriateness of social conditions, the ideas will still be diffused widely. But diffusion of ideas does not mean they are implemented; it only means they are talked about. Insofar as they can be applied individually they may be acted on; insofar as they require coordinated political power to be implemented, they will not be.

As long as the women’s liberation movement stays dedicated to a form of organization which stresses small, inactive discussion groups among friends, the worst problems of Unstructuredness will not be felt. But this style of organization has its limits; it is politically inefficacious, exclusive, and discriminatory against those women who are not or cannot be tied into the friendship networks. Those who do not fit into what already exists because of class, race, occupation, education, parental or marital status, personality, etc., will inevitably be discouraged from trying to participate. Those who do fit in will develop vested interests in maintaining things as they are.

The informal groups’ vested interests will be sustained by the informal structures which exist, and the movement will have no way of determining who shall exercise power within it. If the movement continues deliberately to not select who shall exercise power, it does not thereby abolish power. All it does is abdicate the right to demand that those who do exercise power and influence be responsible for it. If the movement continues to keep power as diffuse as possible because it knows it cannot demand responsibility from those who have it, it does prevent any group or person from totally dominating. But it simultaneously insures that the movement is as ineffective as possible. Some middle ground between domination and ineffectiveness can and must be found.

These problems are coming to a head at this time because the nature of the movement is necessarily changing. Consciousness-raising as the main function of the women’s liberation movement is becoming obsolete. Due to the intense press publicity of the last two years and the numerous overground books and articles now being circulated, women’s liberation has become a household word. Its issues are discussed and informal rap groups are formed by people who have no explicit connection with any movement group. The movement must go on to other tasks. It now needs to establish its priorities, articulate its goals, and pursue its objectives in a coordinated fashion. To do this it must get organized — locally, regionally, and nationally.

PRINCIPLES OF DEMOCRATIC STRUCTURING

Once the movement no longer clings tenaciously to the ideology of “structurelessness,” it is free to develop those forms of organization best suited to its healthy functioning. This does not mean that we should go to the other extreme and blindly imitate the traditional forms of organization. But neither should we blindly reject them all. Some of the traditional techniques will prove useful, albeit not perfect; some will give us insights into what we should and should not do to obtain certain ends with minimal costs to the individuals in the movement. Mostly, we will have to experiment with different kinds of structuring and develop a variety of techniques to use for different situations. The Lot System is one such idea which has emerged from the movement. It is not applicable to all situations, but is useful in some. Other ideas for structuring are needed. But before we can proceed to experiment intelligently, we must accept the idea that there is nothing inherently bad about structure itself — only its excess use.

While engaging in this trial-and-error process, there are some principles we can keep in mind that are essential to democratic structuring and are also politically effective:

1) Delegation of specific authority to specific individuals for specific tasks by democratic procedures. Letting people assume jobs or tasks only by default means they are not dependably done. If people are selected to do a task, preferably after expressing an interest or willingness to do it, they have made a commitment which cannot so easily be ignored.

2) Requiring all those to whom authority has been delegated to be responsible to those who selected them. This is how the group has control over people in positions of authority. Individuals may exercise power, but it is the group that has ultimate say over how the power is exercised.

3) Distribution of authority among as many people as is reasonably possible. This prevents monopoly of power and requires those in positions of authority to consult with many others in the process of exercising it. It also gives many people the opportunity to have responsibility for specific tasks and thereby to learn different skills.

4) Rotation of tasks among individuals. Responsibilities which are held too long by one person, formally or informally, come to be seen as that person’s “property” and are not easily relinquished or controlled by the group. Conversely, if tasks are rotated too frequently the individual does not have time to learn her job well and acquire the sense of satisfaction of doing a good job.

5) Allocation of tasks along rational criteria. Selecting someone for a position because they are liked by the group or giving them hard work because they are disliked serves neither the group nor the person in the long run. Ability, interest, and responsibility have got to be the major concerns in such selection. People should be given an opportunity to learn skills they do not have, but this is best done through some sort of “apprenticeship” program rather than the “sink or swim” method. Having a responsibility one can’t handle well is demoralizing. Conversely, being blacklisted from doing what one can do well does not encourage one to develop one’s skills. Women have been punished for being competent throughout most of human history; the movement does not need to repeat this process.

6) Diffusion of information to everyone as frequently as possible. Information is power. Access to information enhances one’s power. When an informal network spreads new ideas and information among themselves outside the group, they are already engaged in the process of forming an opinion — without the group participating. The more one knows about how things work and what is happening, the more politically effective one can be.

7) Equal access to resources needed by the group. This is not always perfectly possible, but should be striven for. A member who maintains a monopoly over a needed resource (like a printing press owned by a husband, or a darkroom) can unduly influence the use of that resource. Skills and information are also resources. Members’ skills can be equitably available only when members are willing to teach what they know to others.

When these principles are applied, they insure that whatever structures are developed by different movement groups will be controlled by and responsible to the group. The group of people in positions of authority will be diffuse, flexible, open, and temporary. They will not be in such an easy position to institutionalize their power because ultimate decisions will be made by the group at large, The group will have the power to determine who shall exercise authority within it.

“What Now?” — The Question Haunting the #Occupy Movement

Protestors assembled in New York

by Ross Wolfe

The remarkable success of the #Occupy phenomenon to date — in terms of its sheer scope and longevity — has caught nearly everyone by surprise.

Since the demonstrations first began last month in Liberty Plaza, deep in the heart of New York City’s financial district, Occupy Wall Street has achieved a number of unexpected victories.  It has received a lot of media coverage, captured the public imagination, and enlisted the support of a number of different forces: prominent leftish celebrities (Michael Moore, Cornel West, Naomi Klein, Susan Sarandon, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, etc.), prominent unions (SEIU, AFL-CIO, AFSCME, and others), as well as young activists who are new to politics.  Moreover, it has spawned a series of similar protests across many major cities in North America and abroad, generating a truly international buzz.  A week ago, the protestors at Zuccotti Park successfully stood their ground against Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to forcibly evict them — under the dubious pretext of sanitation.

Cardboard signs at Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park

But this victory can by no means be considered final.  Rather, it has tasked the protestors with the following, foundational question: “What now?”

If this successful moment of resistance against the coercion of the State is to signal a turning point for this movement, it must begin to address the more serious political issues that confront it.  It is crucial that the participants in these demonstrations ask themselves where they stand in history, and more adequately conceptualize the problem of capitalist society.  Only then can it begin to articulate a political vision of global emancipation.

To this point, most of the participants in the various cities under “occupation” have only expressed a sort of intuitive discontent with the status quo.  In order to get a better sense of what they are up against, they must develop a more comprehensive understanding and critique of the prevailing social order.  This, in turn, will require that the protestors take time to theoretically reflect on the #Occupy movement’s trajectory, thereby determining its political potentialities, its practical exigencies, and the path that it will ultimately take moving forward.

Without such reflection, the demonstrations will degenerate into the political malaise and ineffectuality that has characterized so much of the protest culture of the last fifty years — meaningless gestures of dissent, empty theatrical displays, and directionless activism-for-its-own-sake (l’activisme pour l’activisme).  Over the last half-century, theory and practice have become decoupled to the detriment of both.  On one side, “radical” academic discourse has detached itself almost entirely from the realm of politics, while on the other side activism has become increasingly routine, unreflective, and anti-intellectual.  Most career academics dread the empirical messiness on-the-ground political engagement; most committed activists, for their part, avoid at any cost the so-called “paralysis of analysis.”

"Anonymous" protestors at Occupy Wall Street

Up to now, the participants in the #Occupy movement have managed to organize impressive resources for their daily needs: legal services, a first-aid station, sleeping arrangements, food supplies, defense against police brutality, and a consistent media presence.  The satisfaction of these requirements has doubtless been essential to the endurance of the movement.  However, these pragmatic concerns have so far taken precedent over the discussion of long-term political goals.  The broader question of where the movement is going from here tends to get lost amidst administrative details.

In some respect, the main organizers of these demonstrations have — in a rather studied manner — even actively avoided posing this crucial question.  They raise the specter that this will lead to the inevitable fragmentation of the movement, and warn that reflection on the political content of the protests or formulating specific demands might prove divisive.  Until they pause to think of the shape the movement must take from here, however, #Occupy risks being assimilated to the Democratic Party apparatus — harmlessly reintegrated into the social totality of “business as usual.”

I originally wrote this article for the Euro-Mediterranean Academy for Young Journalists (EMAJ).  They have published this article here.

#Occupy movement roundtable discussion: An invitation to a political dialogue hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society

El Lissitzky's "Beat the White Circle with the Red Wedge" (1920)

FIRST ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION

Friday 7pm | October 28, 2011

Kimmel, Room 406.  NYU

60 Washington Square S., NYC

What is the #Occupy movement? (PDF version)

The recent #Occupy protests are driven by discontent with the present state of affairs: glaring economic inequality, dead-end Democratic Party politics, and, for some, the suspicion that capitalism could never produce an equitable society.  These concerns are coupled with aspirations for social transformation at an international level.  For many, the protests at Wall St. and elsewhere provide an avenue to raise questions the Left has long fallen silent on:

  • What would it mean to challenge capitalism on a global scale?
  • How could we begin to overcome social conditions that adversely affect every part of life?
  • And, how could a new international radical movement address these concerns in practice?

Although participants at Occupy Wall St. have managed thus far to organize resources for their own daily needs, legal services, health services, sleeping arrangements, food supplies, defense against police brutality, and a consistent media presence, these pragmatic concerns have taken precedent over long-term goals of the movement.  Where can participants of this protest engage in formulating, debating, and questioning the ends of this movement? How can it affect the greater society beyond the occupied spaces?

We in the Platypus Affiliated Society ask participants, organizers, and interested observers of the #Occupy movement to consider the possibility that political disagreement could lead to clarification, further development and direction.  Only when we are able to create an active culture of thinking and debating on the Left without it proving prematurely divisive can we begin to imagine a Leftist politics adequate to the historical possibilities of our moment.  We may not know what these possibilities for transformation are.  This is why we think it is imperative to create avenues of engagement that will support these efforts.

Towards this goal, Platypus will be hosting a series of roundtable discussions with organizers and participants of the #Occupy movement.  These will start at campuses in New York and Chicago but will be moving to other North American cities, and to London, Germany, and Greece in the months to come.   We welcome any and all who would like to be a part of this project of self-education and potential rebuilding of the Left to join us in advancing this critical moment.

(The above is a general release intended for activists, organizers, and participants in the recent #Occupy movement who are interested in further exploring its political dimension.  We are open to any number of political orientations or affiliations within the broader spectrum of the Left, whether they be Marxist, anarchist, or more moderate.  Please contact me at rosslaurencewolfe@gmail.com if you would like to contribute or learn more.)

The Platypus Affiliated Society

October 2011

Platypus logo

Two Lefts? (Guest post by Konstantin Kaminskiy)

Protestors at Occupy Wall Street

The following is a post by my friend and fellow Platypus member Konstantin Kaminskiy, a Economics major at Baruch college and a Marxist.

by Konstantin Kaminskiy
Guest Writer
Dandelion Salad
Questions of Political Economy in Modernity
Oct. 14, 2011

This is a report on and some thoughts inspired by “American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation with Michael Kazin,”a panel discussion hosted by Demos.  I have described them before as broadly wanting a New Deal.  I will add to that — they are progressives, or Left Democrats, or “Obama-pushers.”  This constitutes one of the Lefts represented at the event.  The other is Occupy Wall Street, which was represented by one of their organizers.

Michael Kazin’s new book is titled American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation.  Actually the title sums up the framework pretty nicely.  The Left goes through stages.  First it dreams, in the form of Henry George, whose “Progress and Poverty” apparently sold more than anything Marx wrote and Edward Bellamy (“Looking Backward”).  These dreams are utopian and see the complete transformation of society as desirable.  The movement becomes large enough to pressure politicians to pay attention to them and enact some sort of changes.  Communists are important as far as they are a part, and sometimes at the heart, of this pushing.

Examples of this include the anti-monopoly laws and most significantly the creation of the American welfare state, connected by Kazin with pressure on Roosevelt from radical socialists and general strikes in multiple cities.  The argument is that the left has been “culturally successful but politically a failure.”  Anti-corporate films are, after all, successful at the box office, and that is the continued legacy of the New Left.  The Left has also been successful as far as it took society as it is, which means accepting all sorts of religiosity.  The Left is not, however, going to take power, or anything like that — the revolution, for Kazin, is impossible.  The best we can do with our utopian creativity is force what are really cosmetic changes.  He seems to not note the ways in which the “cultural left” has reinforced the system of capitalism.

The comments of Kelly Heresy, described as an Occupy Wall Street organizer, were refreshing by comparison.  OWS has failed to propose any creative demands.  It has failed to push politicians.  That seems like anathema to them, the corporate-funded system is not to be trusted to originate or secure any real changes.  Between the Democrats and Republicans there is no difference.  At OWS they are “having a conversation,” and have found that assembling at the park is a way to do that.  There is a core of devoted organizers, but “some college kids who think it’s a vacation” have also become involved and are bad for the image.

He sees us “at the beginning of a new era in human history” because we are so connected by modern media. OWS is about participatory democracy and direct action.  For Kazin this must eventually give way to the political process, to compromise — for those at OWS a new world of acting as individuals on a direct democracy basis, without representation, seems to be open.

These are two different ways of viewing the world, and the OWS way seems to me to be the more profound, open, and interesting way.  They take for inspiration the Paris Commune and the Greek Agora — to a Marxist there is deep irony in both.  But there is possibility — they have yet to decide that the best we can have is a “more fair” distribution of resources or “democracy in the workplace,” whatever those things might mean.  They hold open the possibility of “taking back the system for ourselves.”

When, time after time, Kelly Heresy defended against the “you must push power and vote” formula with the “greedy corporate funding runs everything” formula I wanted to scream out: “Lenin would agree!” Roosevelt was not funded in the same way that Obama was funded, but this matters little. Lenin says that the “real essence of bourgeois parliamentarism” is “to decide once every few years which member of the ruling class is to misrepresent the people” (The State and Revolution). This can be applied to Roosevelt as much as to Obama — Roosevelt and his class had something to fear, the radical left. Obama and his class have no such fears, OWS has not been able to shut down entire cities while keeping people fed and orderly. Kazin sees that time and time again concessions have resulted from this process — since the left has been able to get something it has been successful, and must do this and only this. OWS, by comparison, seems to hold history open.

In the Q&A I introduced myself as “an economics major at Baruch and a Marxist.”  My comment to the panel, and question, was almost word for word this — “I see two lefts here. The first left had at one point theorized about why the world is as it is and how it could be changed.  It now declares to us that the revolution is impossible, that the best we can do is little changes.  The other Left, in a very embryonic form, is thinking about systems and how they can actually be changed.  We have been pushing Obama for the last 150 years.  We are here, with some of the greatest inequality ever.  I could go on.  Is the pushing of Obama a viable strategy for meaningful change?”

To complete the paradigm: the historian Kazin did not understand the pun. Obama is not 150 years old, he pointed out. We must push the Democratic Party, not Obama.  The OWS organizer had no difficulty in seeing what I meant by the “Two Lefts.”

Seeing the General Assembly of OWS later that day forces me to add to my comments here — OWS seems to believe that the revolution has already been achieved, that the task now is to spread it to more places, occupation is revolution.  They have constituted a new society already.  But what is to become of them, of this movement, is at least more open-ended than the world of Kazin, in which the power as it is cannot be challenged or replaced, period.

The theatrical dimension of Occupy Wall Street: A brief excursus on the “carnivalesque” in politics

The iconic American anarchist Emma Goldman was famously quoted for her opposition to the joyless seriosity that characterized some of the more hard-nosed revolutionaries she had met in America, Russia, and around the world:

If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution!
If I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution!
If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.
A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having.
If there won’t be dancing at the revolution, I’m not coming.

I have up to this point been fairly critical of some of more theatrical elements of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  This is a an issue that is more complex than my dyspeptic attitude toward this aspect of the demonstrations would indicate.  I should like to explore this issue with a little more depth in order to clarify the root and specificity of my critique.

To be fair, staging performances at demonstrations and political celebrations does have some revolutionary precedent.  The role of festivals in the France of the First Republic has been documented by Mona Ozouf in her book, Festivals and the French Revolution.  Likewise, the young Soviet avant-garde produced numerous plays and recreations in the 1920s designed to involve the masses in the building of a new, emancipated society.  An account of these is provided in James Von Geldern’s Bolshevik Festivals: 1917-1920.

The Festival of Unity during the French Revolution, 1793

Compared with the pantomime and harlequinism of contemporary politics, however, these public displays and productions tended to be much less improvisational, less of a free-for-all — they were more organized, coordinated, and choreographed.  But despite the fact that such past festivities were successful in stirring revolutionary emotion among the people, even then they had their shortcomings.  As the famous  19th-century historian Hippolyte Taine described in an account of such a celebration held in 1789, these revolutionary political carnivals often amounted to nothing more than rote theatrical repetition:

Whatever the imagination of the day offers [the Frenchman] to increase his emotion, all the classical, rhetorical, and dramatic material at his command, are employed for the embellishment of his festival.  Already wildly enthusiastic, he is anxious to increase his enthusiasm. — At Lyons, the fifty thousand confederates from the south range themselves in line of battle around an artificial rock, fifty feet high, covered with shrubs, and surmounted by a Temple of Concord in which stands a huge statue of Liberty; the steps of the rock are decked with flags, and a solemn mass precedes the administration of the oath. — At Paris, an altar dedicated to the country is erected in the middle of the Champ de Mars, which is transformed into a colossal circus…Never was such an effort made to intoxicate the senses and strain the nerves beyond their powers of endurance! — The moral machine is made to vibrate to the same and even to a greater extent.  For more than a year past, harangues, proclamations, addresses, newspapers and events have daily added one degree more to the pressure. On this occasion, thousands of speeches, multiplied by myriads of newspapers, carry the enthusiasm to the highest pitch.  Declamation foams and rolls along in a steady stream of rhetoric everywhere throughout France.  In this state of excitement the difference between magniloquence and sincerity, between the false and the true, between show and substance, is no longer distinguishable.  The Federation becomes an opera which is seriously played in the open street — children have parts assigned them in it; it occurs to no one that they are puppets, and that the words taken for an expression of the heart are simply memorized speeches that have been put into their mouths.  (Hippolyte Taine, The French Revolution, Volume 1).  Pgs. 220-221.

Taine was not alone in thus criticizing certain aspects of French revolutionary spectacles.  Even the famed Russian anarchist Petr Kropotkin, who regarded Taine as a vulgar bourgeois historian, had to agree that these festivals had their limitations.  “Taine disparages the festivals of the Revolution, and it is true that those of 1793 and 1794 were often too theatrical,” Kropotkin conceded.  (Petr Kropotkin, The Great French Revolution.  Pg. 177).

Harlequinism: Clowning around at Occupy Wall Street

Harlequinism: Clowning around at Occupy Wall Street

Marat

The OWS zombie march almost recalls scenes from the 1967 British film Marat/Sade, in which the revolutionary Marat is resurrected to witness the Marquis de Sade’s perverse reproduction of the history of the fifteen years after Marat’s death, held in a madhouse during the Empire with all the parts played by the inmates

In contemporary cultural theory, many postmodernists glorify the creativity, spontaneity, and ironic possibilities involved in acts of political theater.  Much of this sentiment is derived from the writings of the Situationists in France and the rediscovery of the works of Mikhail Bakhtin by the French avant-garde journal Tel Quel.  Bakhtin, a renowned early Soviet literary theorist loosely associated with the Formalist school, was the one who perhaps articulated best the way in which the “carnivalesque” can potentially act to transform social consciousness:

Negation in popular-festive imagery has never an abstract logical character.  It is always something obvious, tangible.  That which stands behind negation is by no means nothingness but the “other side” of that which is denied, the carnivalesque upside down.  Negation reconstructs the image of the object and first of all modifies the topographical position in space of the object as a whole, as well as its parts.  It transfers the object to the underworld, replaces the top by the bottom, or the front by the back, sharply exaggerating some traits at the expense of others.  Negation and destruction of the object are therefore their displacement and reconstruction in space.  The nonbeing of an object is its “other face,” its inside out.  […]

Carnival celebrates the destruction of the old and the birth of the new world — the new year, the new spring, the new kingdom.  The old world that has been destroyed is offered together with the new world and is represented with it as a dying part of the dual body.  This is why in carnivalesque images there is so much turnabout, so many opposite faces and intentionally upset proportions.  (Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World.  Pg. 410).

The people sing to Marat: “Four years after the revolution/and the old king’s execution/String up every aristocrat Out with the priests/Let them live on their fat/Down with all of the ruling class/Throw all the generals out on their arse/Good old Marat by your side we’ll stand or fall/You’re the only one that we can trust at all/Fighting all the gentry and fighting every priest/Businessman the bourgeois the military beast/Marat, we’re poor, And the poor stay poor! Marat, don’t make Us wait anymore. We want our rights and we don’t care how, We want our revolution now. Why do they have the gold? Why do they have the power? Do they have the friends at the top? Why do they have the jobs at the top? We’ve got nothing! Always had nothing! Nothing but holes and millions of them. Living in holes dying in holes. Holes in our bellies and holes in our clothes.”

In these passages, Bakhtin tacitly relies on a Marxist concept inherited from the Hegelian dialectical legacy — that of determinate negation.  As Hegel observed:

[T]he skepticism which only ever sees pure nothingness in its result and abstracts from the fact that this nothingness is specifically the nothingness of that from which it results.  For it is only when it is taken as the result of that from which it emerges, that it is, in fact, the true result; in that case it is itself a determinate nothingness, one which has a content.  The skepticism that ends up with the bare abstraction of nothingness or emptiness cannot get any further from there, but must wait to see whether something new comes along and what it is, in order to throw it too into the same empty abyss.  But when, on the other hand, the result is conceived as it is in truth, namely, as a determinate negation, a new form has thereby immediately arisen, and in the negation the transition is made through which the progress through the complete series of forms comes about of itself.  (Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit.   §79, pg. 51).

Hegel himself carried this notion too far in terms of what he thought was its positive speculative power.  This is something Theodor Adorno picked up on: “The nonidentical is not to be obtained directly, as something positive on its part, nor is it obtainable by a negation of the negative.  This negation is not an affirmation itself, as it is to Hegel” (Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics.  Pg. 158).  Nevertheless, determinate negation still underwrites the critical apprehension of the present, and opens up the possibility that a new society could be born out of its negative image.

Celebration of May Day, Petrograd 1920

This was something of which Marx was fully aware.  In an 1846 letter to the Young Hegelian Arnold Ruge, Marx famously called for the “ruthless critique of everything existing.”  More than thirty years later, he repeated this sentiment in the brilliant postface to the second edition of Capital, Volume 1:

In its mystified form, the dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and glorify what exists.  In its rational form it is a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen, because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary.  (Marx, Capital, Volume 1.  Pg. 103).

Dmitrii Menshikov’s poster celebrating May Day, 1920

As I see it, the biggest problem with the rock-concert atmosphere and all the myriad performance pieces one sees down at Liberty Plaza is its quasi-Situationist character.  This French group — loosely involved with the 1968 protests (according to one of their main influences and later their rival, the French Marxist Henri Lefebvre, “they…greatly exaggerated their role in May ’68, after the fact”) — loosely argued for the subversive reappropriation of the spectacle as a sort of homeopathic method by which one could counteract the “society of the spectacle.”

To be sure, Guy Debord, the Situationist movement’s most brilliant exponent, did not prescribe such a course of action.  Debord remained (at least theoretically) committed to a critical approach founded upon the notion of negation, much like what we have been discussing so far and much closer the one advocated by the members of the Frankfurt School:

To effectively destroy the society of the spectacle, what is needed is men putting a practical force into action. The critical theory of the spectacle can be true only by uniting with the practical current of negation in society, and this negation, the resumption of revolutionary class struggle, will become conscious of itself by developing the critique of the spectacle which is the theory of its real conditions (the practical conditions of present oppression), and inversely by unveiling the secret of what this negation can be.  (Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle.  §203).

Enragés et situationnistes dans le mouvement des occupations, 1968

However, not all the Situationists were so prudent, and Debord’s concept of political practice largely involved the creation of theatricized “situations,” intended to disrupt the prevailing spectacular order of society.  This can be seen partially in the Situationist International’s “Report on the Occupation [!!] of the Sorbonne.”  Much like the situation at Occupy Wall Street, primarily youths (or students) set the precedent for the occupation, which were then later joined by the factory workers in the various unions.  The student-led Comité d’Occupation de la Sorbonne managed the occupation of the University of Paris throughout the uprising.  The Situationists defended the students’ “festivity” against the more ascetic and austere measures being called for by the more traditional Marxist organizations:

At the very moment that the example of the occupation is beginning to be taken up in the factories it is collapsing at the Sorbonne. This development is all the more serious since the workers have against them a bureaucracy infinitely more powerful and entrenched than that of the student or leftist amateurs. To add to the confusion, the leftist bureaucrats, echoing the CGT [the Communist Party-dominated labor union] in the hope of being accorded a little marginal role alongside it, abstractly separate the workers from the students. (“The workers don’t need any lessons from the students.”) But the students have in fact already given an excellent lesson to the workers precisely by occupying the Sorbonne and briefly initiating a really democratic debate. The bureaucrats all tell us demagogically that the working class is grown up, in order to hide the fact that it is enchained — first of all by them (now or in their future hopes, depending on which group they’re in). They counterpose their lying seriousness to the “festivity” in the Sorbonne; but it was precisely that festiveness that bore within itself the only thing that is serious: the radical critique of prevailing conditions.

Student protestors marching from the occupied Sorbonne to the Renault factory in May 1968

Within Situationist political praxis, one of the primary means of spectacular subversion was what they called “détournement” — “the reuse of preexisting artistic elements in a new ensemble.”  As the Situationists averred: “Détournement has a peculiar power which obviously stems from the double meaning, from the enrichment of most of the terms by the coexistence within them of their old and new senses. And it is very practical because it’s so easy to use and because of its inexhaustible potential for reuse” (The Situationist International, “Détournement as Negation and Prelude”).  To their credit, however, the Situationists prior to 1968 realized that this tactic of ironic/parodic disruption was itself symptomatic of the political impotence of their moment:

This combination of parody and seriousness reflects the contradictions of an era in which we find ourselves confronted with both the urgent necessity and the near impossibility of initiating and carrying out a totally innovative collective action.  (The Situationist International, “Détournement as Negation and Prelude”).

Since the late 1960s, the practice of détournement has been generalized throughout post-New Left political culture.  According to Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas, “Lefebvre…found [the Situationists'] strategies interesting but partial, too individualistic and theatrical.”  Brian Gallagher correctly noted the connection with this Situationist stratagem and the slogans held aloft by members of Occupy Wall Street in his comment on this post: “[T]he Situationists were attempting to subvert the status quo.  People had jobs but modern life wasn’t fulfilling.  Certainly, we see their legacy in the de facto requisite pithy slogans painted by protesters on Wall Street.”

This method, however, is unfortunately quite prone to narcissism and exhibitionism.  The theatrics one witnesses at Occupy Wall Street are politically empty.  The folk essence of political carnivals staged in societies where the agrarian peasant population still predominated has been lost, along with its freshness and ingenuous naïveté, replaced by the contrived political carnival of hypermediated youth culture.  I hate to be a buzzkill, but this atmosphere provokes my polemical temperament.

Update

A seemingly small — though I would say incredibly important — measure was passed last night (October 13) at the General Assembly of Occupy Wall Street, amidst all the chaos and confusion leading up to the projected eviction.

This was a proposal limiting the deafeningly loud and bombastic drum circles that have hitherto been continuously beating for almost twelve hours a day (every day).  From now on the drum circles are going to be limited to only two hours each day, chosen between 11:00am and 5:00pm.

While this may seem like an unfair concession and an impingement of the protestors’ freedom of self-expression, I have to say — and the other members of the GA pointed this out too — that this will allow the various workshops and teach-ins being held at OWS to be much more effective. Before it was almost impossible to find any place within that cramped park where you could be heard when addressing a crowd of listeners, or engage in a meaningful dialogue.

I am not categorically opposed to festive gatherings or musical celebrations or anything, but I have felt for some time now that this aspect of the OWS protests so far — the pseudo-tribal drumming, chanting, and dancing — has by and large been a distraction, almost a sideshow.  I’m not trying to recapitulate the puritanical attitude adopted by many members of the “Old Left” (Guevarist, Maoist, or Fourth Internationalist) toward the New Left during the late 1960s.  People should be able to enjoy themselves, of course, but I think that the spectacle of costuming and practically nonstop carnivalesque atmosphere down at OWS has prevented some of the participants in the protests from reflecting on the tough political questions more seriously.  A little more politics and a little less partying could be just what the doctor ordered.

Reflections on Occupy Wall Street: What it Represents, Its Prospects, and Its Deficiencies

“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.”