Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Occupy Everything And Then?

Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
Several major unions have given their support to the Occupy Wall Street movement, as have numerous activist and community-based organizations. Satellite actions are springing up across the country and in Canada and Australia. Clearly, ordinary citizens around the world are fed up with corporate greed, the growing wealth gap, corruption, and most of all, their own declining living standards. Inspired by the demonstrations and occupations of public squares in the Middle East and North Africa, the Wall Street “occupiers” have been making courageous sacrifices of time, comfort and personal safety, as many have been arrested, pepper sprayed and beaten by the police.

So what do they want?

This is not entirely clear. Participants come from a wide range of organizations and perspectives, including anarchists, liberals, 911 conspiracy theorists, environmental groups, labor organizations and advocates for the poor and homeless. However, a common theme heard throughout the nearly 3-week long action has been that Wall Street must pay. This might be a generic or symbolic demand that all the rich pay more in taxes, or it could be a demand that the government levy fees on certain stock market transactions. It might mean higher corporate taxes or a tax on millionaires.

Regardless of the specifics, few if any are calling for an end to Wall Street, banking, speculation, wage slavery or capitalism. Rather, most seem perfectly content with the existing socioeconomic system and share the classic liberal perspective that it just needs to be reformed. From a liberal perspective, increased taxes on the wealthy and their corporations could certainly help fund social programs like education, Medicare, assistance for the poor and for single parents. However, even this is a pretty weak demand.
Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
If people are going to risk jail time and physical injury at the hands of the police, they ought to ask for a lot more than increased tax revenue that might or might not trickle back down to them in the form of government charity. Why not also demand a guaranteed minimum income of $60,000 per year and universal health care for all? This would increase life expectancy and decrease chronic and infectious disease, and it would benefit everyone, regardless of their employment status, while the guaranteed lower middle class income would virtually eliminate hunger, homelessness, material insecurity and privation.

While they’re at it, why not demand an end to the petroleum, coal and nuclear industries, and a reinvestment into energy sources and technologies that are safer and healthier for people and the environment. They could also demand an end to all U.S. military and counterinsurgency operations everywhere and subsidies for repressive regimes like Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Columbia. This would save trillions of tax dollars for domestic needs, while doing far more to curtail the threat of terrorism than continuing the bombings, assassinations and destruction, as it would satisfy many of the grievances that drive people to join terrorist organizations. In fact, the policies of the last ten years have increased the spread of terrorism by pissing people off and making them mistrust and hate the U.S. even more.

These liberal demands are perfectly in keeping with the perspective that our current economic and political systems are by and large good, but just in need of some minor tweaks. In fact, they leave the existing economic and political system intact and virtually unchanged. They allow the ruling elite to continue to rule, and the bosses to continue controlling economic relations, and the wealthy to remain considerably richer than the rest of us.

However, even these modest demands or the demand that Wall Street “pay” cannot be won by simply “occupying” Wall Street. (Massive work stoppages might possibly exert the kind of pressure necessary, but only if workers were able to resist the intense state violence that would be unleashed upon them).

More significantly, these modest liberal demands cannot end the continual cycles of boom and bust, foreclosures, bankruptcies, unemployment, workplace injury and death. These are all hallmarks of capitalism and necessarily result from the capitalist system. We can mitigate some of the negative effects of capitalism slightly for some people through increased social spending, but there will continue to be a small class of individuals who own all of the machinery of production and the overwhelming share of the wealth. They will continue to maintain a monopoly on political power and overwhelming control over our lives at work and in the streets. They will continue to exploit legal loopholes and break the law when they think they can get away with it, or when the cost of the penalties is lower than the profits to be earned. They will continue to pay us far less than the value of the goods and services we produce and pocket the difference as profits. They will continue to mechanize the workplace, speed up production, downsize staffs, and export jobs whenever this helps their bottom line. And we will continue to accept whatever conditions they establish just to ensure that we have a stable income to feed our children.

It is interesting that so many unions are suddenly jumping aboard the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. They had the opportunity to take a stand against corporate greed and criminality when the economic crisis first began. Instead, they accepted the bosses’ claims that it was a “natural disaster” and that “we all must tighten our belts.” Consequently, instead of going on the offensive and demanding higher wages, shorter hours, bigger pensions and better health care, they started from the very weak bargaining position that the best they could possibly get was an already weak status quo and maybe save a few jobs. As a result, they put all their energy into making compromises with the bosses that resulted in cuts to pay, benefits and working conditions, albeit the cuts were often smaller than the bosses had hoped for.

The unions have suddenly awoken to realize the train was about to leave without them. The Wall Street protesters have sparked the imaginations of millions of angry and struggling Americans in a way that the unions have not done for generations (and winning considerable positive press at a time when the unions are being vilified). Thus, they are throwing their weight behind the “occupiers” in hopes that they will become a new vanguard that will rouse and inspire the working class, even if they lack a coherent platform or a strategy for winning their demands (see the comments of Stuart Applebaum, president of the RWDSU, in the Indypendent).

Perhaps one reason for the affinity between unions and the “occupiers” is that neither group seems interested in organizing. The unions have relinquished this traditional and effective strategy in favor of lobbying and campaign contributions, as if they thought they could beat Wall Street and corporations at their own game. Perhaps they thought it was more expedient. After all, $100,000 buys a lot of quick political favors (supposedly), while going out and listening to the grievances of the rabble (er, union members) is a slow, tedious process.

The Wall Street “occupiers,” on the other hand, have confused facebook and twitter announcements with true organizing, assuming that if a few people showed up, others would join in. Of course more people did show up, but without any coherence and logic to their message. The organizers of the protest picked a convenient, easy to hate target that allows participants to feel righteous indignation, much like the attentat or “propaganda by the deed” did for anarchists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Like the political assassinations and bombings of those early days of capitalism, many feel exuberant and thrilled by the occupation, as if convinced it will lead to a positive change in their economic situation.

A problem with vanguardist actions like the attentat and the Wall Street occupation is that they expect millions to join in, without providing any well-articulated or rational critique of the thing they are fighting, as if the action itself explained everything. This is unlikely to happen, as most anarchists eventually recognized, causing the attentat to fall from favor. The assassination of McKinley (or the attempts on Frick and Roosevelt had they been successful) could not have ended wage slavery or even have convinced sufficient numbers of workers that wage slavery was worth ending.

However, let’s assume that millions of people do join the Occupy Wall Street movement and succeed in “making Wall Street pay.” In the end, they will all go home to their same lousy jobs, mass-produced plastic toys, chronic disease and rising sea levels, while the Wall Street bankers and other millionaires continue to live in luxury and security.


  1. I think you need to take a break. You come across as completely cynical and jaded.

    Here you have a large group of people who actually care enough to show up and all you can do is say why it's useless.

    Let me ask you this; Have you ever worked on an issue and gone door to door and raised money on the door steps to fund working on that issue? If you haven't you should. I think you might learn a lot.

    Because if you did, my guess is you would learn that telling people how worthless their efforts are isn't any way to motivate people.

    I wonder what grade McKinley got in science? Not that it matters, but maybe I could work it into a piece about why teaching science is worthless since all science tells us is that in the end entropy is going to destroy any social movement that gets going, and even if we end wage slavery, that we will be eventually sucked into a black hole so why even care enough to show up and teach science let alone show up and protest the vast inequities of our current system?

    Thank you Debby Downer.

  2. Dear Ms. Downer,

    I’m sorry I’ve rained on your parade, but the fact that thousands of people are involved in the protests does not make their critique accurate or their goals logical, any more than the notion that millions of Americans who believe in angels somehow makes angels real. The fact that the “occupiers” are excited and energized is not sufficient in itself to win their grievances. And if their grievances are based on an inaccurate analysis, what they do win is unlikely to actually resolve those grievances.

    I never said it was useless or worthless. I did say that they have succeeded in capturing the imaginations of millions of Americans and that there is potential to win some of their liberal demands. This is positive and optimistic. I have acknowledged that increased taxes on the wealthy would benefit the public by making more money available for social programs like education and I support this relatively attainable goal myself. And I do believe there is potential for the movement to evolve into something more coherent and aggressive, perhaps even a general strike, with attainable demands and tactics that might achieve them.

    On the “downer” side, I accurately pointed out that increased taxes on the wealthy will not solve many of the grievances expressed by protestors like foreclosures, lack of health care, poverty, low wages, and, most significantly, a system in which 1% get rich on the backs of the other 99%. I tried to make the point that ending “too much wealth,” rather than wealth itself, will perpetuate most of these problems.

    Btw, I am an organizer and do go door to door daily, listening to my colleague’s grievances and trying to help resolve them through our union. I have organized mass protests, benefit concerts, affinity groups and civil disobedience. I have been arrested dozens of times doing civil disobedience or by being swept up by police at demonstrations. I have permanent injuries that have resulted from police beatings. I have worked with the poor and homeless in Food Not Bombs and Homes Not Jails. I have worked with immigrants in the Central American solidarity movement. I have been involved with environmental actions, anti-nuke actions, abortion clinic defense, and countless other movements. And I have learned a lot from this, particularly by listening to people.

    And you are absolutely correct that telling people their efforts are useless will not motivate them. With the anti-Wall Street and D.C. protests growing into the largest mass demonstrations in a generation and the incredible world-wide excitement they have garnered after years of social quiescence in the U.S., perhaps I should leave it alone and appreciate the fact that a new generation of Americans is feeling empowered and motivated and learning how to do direct action.
    On the other hand, in my years of activism, I have been involved in many actions and movements that were fueled primarily by emotion, self-empowerment and excitement (and that lacked a logical critique) that suddenly bloomed and then fizzled out with few significant or lasting victories. Powerful movements like the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movement had important victories, but most were short-lived, in part because their critiques accepted the existing socioeconomic relationships and their demands were reformist and easily reversed.