There has been lots of talk about the “99% Spring” and growing interest by mainstream unions in confronting corporate greed. There has also been a lot of criticism of “99% Spring” by OWS veterans who fear that Democratic Party Hacks will coopt and dilute their movement. Indeed, there is evidence it is a front group for MoveOn.org.
Regardless of the intent or consequences of the “99% Spring” movement, it shares with the OWS a fundamental naiveté and ignorance about the actual source of our financial woes that prevent either movement from achieving many of their stated goals.
The 99% Spring movement wants to “Tell the story of our economy: how we got here, who’s responsible, what a different future could look like. . . “ Yet both the 99% Spring and OWS movements blame the economic crisis on the “1%,” or a “greedy few” who merely need to be reined in with tougher laws and better enforcement. They both accuse the 1% of being “exceedingly” rich (as if slightly rich were okay) because they “cheated and rigged the political system in their favor.”
This critique ignores the fact that our current economic crisis is merely a worsening of conditions that existed prior to the meltdown. There has always been a minority who possessed most of the wealth because they owned the businesses and machinery of production and paid their employees a fraction of the value of their labor. As a result of this relationship, there has always been unemployment, poverty, homelessness, hunger, uncertainty, debt and despair for the rest of us. The American Dream has always been exactly that, a dream, with only a rare few ever rising from poverty into wealth. And the wealthy minority has always controlled the political system. Indeed, it was designed to protect their interests and maintain their power. At its best, the political system gives us the annual right (duty?) to vote for our rulers and oppressors and give our consent to our own exploitation, not to change it in a way that would give us actual power or wealth.
Today’s Crisis is Not Unique
The situation today might seem worse than any in generations, but it is not unique or unusual under capitalism. Indeed, it is often compared with the Great Depression, while today’s wealth gap is often compared with the Roaring 20’s. There were many other historically significant depressions, recessions and panics, too. A terrible protracted depression lasted from 1873-1896, known as the “Great Depression” until overshadowed by the more recent one. The Panic of 1837 began with a collapsed real estate bubble in New York, leading to five years of depression.
Certainly things have been better than they are today. Not long ago it was easier for a middle class family to send their children to college and for one parent to earn enough to support the whole family. Those days seem to be gone. Incomes (relative to the cost of living) have declined steadily since the 1970s (coinciding with the declining power of unions). The costs of college and health insurance have been increasing at a much faster rate than inflation, making them increasingly out of reach for more and more Americans. The gap between the rich and the poor has been growing rapidly since the Reagan era.
If 99% Spring and OWS are only interested in reforms that restore middle class wealth and hope to their pre-Bush or pre-Reagan levels, fine. But they must remember that even if they succeed it will only be temporary. As long as a system based on economic exploitation, wage slavery, and dependence persists, those who profit from it will always try to squeeze more from their employees; reduce wages and benefits; exploit existing laws, write new ones and even break laws whenever it is profitable to do so. Consider that the ruling elite spent decades whittling away at the regulations of the New Deal and the union gains of the 1940s.
The “1%” is Not to Blame
Even when unions were at their strongest or when the wealth gap was smaller or when middle class Americans felt more hopeful, there was still a tiny minority of bosses, landlords, administrators, and CEOS who controlled the economy and political system. This class was (and is) defined by their ability to hire and fire workers, dictate working conditions, and manipulate the political system for their economic and social gain, not by their membership in the group of millionaires making up the richest 1%. Many are not even millionaires, nor members of the “1%” (e.g., most K-12 superintendents and site administrators), yet they maintain considerable control over our working and living conditions. They are allied with the “1%” and tend to make decisions that benefit the wealthiest members of society. They are, indeed, members of the ruling elite, despite their “modest” incomes, and their existence as a class is fundamental to the problems that OWS and 99% Spring decry.
Both movements want to “reclaim our” America, yet the America they want back was never “ours” to reclaim. It has always been “their country” economically and politically. While we might occasionally win a raise, the vast majority of us will remain politically and economically subservient so long as we accept the existing political and economic systems. We will continue to be paid a fraction of the value of our labor, with our bosses pocketing the difference so long as we continue to accept their right to do so, something both movements accept.
Direct Action Gets the Goods
A classic IWW (Wobbly) slogan is: “Direct Action Gets the Goods.” The “99% Spring” movement has been emphasizing nonviolent direct action as their tactic of choice, in the “spirit of Martin Luther King and Gandhi,” but apparently not in the spirit of the Wobblies, who have been discredited by the bosses, politicians and conservative activists as anarchists, reds, saboteurs, terrorists, and wing nuts.
The Wobblies defined direct action as the opposite of political action. They eschewed political action entirely, arguing that it was divisive (since union members came from various parties and political tendencies, including anarchism) and ineffective (since the political system exists to maintain the wealth and power of the bosses and continues to do so regardless of how workers’ vote).
While the Wobblies did participate in protests and street demonstrations, their most effective tactics were the ones that slowed down or halted production (e.g., working to rule, striking, sit-down strikes, sabotage, General Strikes). And while the Wobblies did fight for incremental gains like wage increases, union contracts, collective bargaining, safety rules and job security, they did so with ultimate goal of abolishing wage slavery in its entirety. They understood that the Employing Class (i.e., anyone with the power to hire and fire) was their class enemy and that as long as this class persisted, workers would always have to fight just to survive.
Aside from a few acts of solidarity with labor (e.g., shutting down ports or marching with striking workers), the OWS has focused primarily on occupying symbolic spaces, a tactic that has applied almost no pressure at all on the bosses, had no impact on their profits, and hardly even made them nervous. Now the 99% Spring movement wants to jump in and get union workers and the Democratic party faithful to do the same.
Even if we ignore the problems with their economic critique and assume that they develop a modest, reformist platform (e.g., stronger financial laws; single payer healthcare; pensions for everyone), marching in the streets, transferring money from large banks to local credit unions, and occupying public squares are unlikely to succeed unless they are accompanied with threats to profits. What made the occupation of the Wisconsin State House potentially effective was not the occupation itself, but the fact that so many workers were not at work. Had the mainstream unions not wimped out and sent their members home with the promise of an electoral or legislative victory, the occupation might have evolved into a General Strike, which would have a much greater chance of pressuring legislators to back down on their union busting agenda.
OWS Is Already Sanitized and Mainstreamed
An article in Gawker lamented that the 99% Spring will “likely . . . drown it out and sanitize [OWS], mainstreaming progressive populist outrage by beating it down. . .” An article in the Daily Kos shared this fear.
The problem with this analysis is that OWS was already sanitized and mainstreamed from the moment of its birth by the very nature of its tactics and message. The mainstream media loves the movement. It’s safe and sympathetic, it’s patriotic, and it doesn’t threaten profits or political power. Who could possibly be fearful of college students asking for student debt relief, uninsured people asking for healthcare, unemployed people asking for jobs, disillusioned voters asking for less financial influence on the political system, evicted home owners asking for mortgage relief, and people in general asking that the filthy rich be a little nicer and less greedy?
So long as the movements do not threaten profits or the security of the bosses and ruling elite they will continue with business as usual and the status quo will prevail.