08 October 2011

Is Occupy Wall Street progressive?

We got a good debate going in Earl’s last post on the limitations and possibilities of the Occupy Wall Street movement. A lot of attention rightly focused on the inadequacy of the critique embodied by the protesters, I won’t take issue there. The question I want to raise is whether this is a force we should work with or not, which is a very different question.

We can get a better feel for the occupiers’ position by reading the “Declaration of the Occupation of Wall Street”, which was passed by consensus at the occupation. Contrary to the impression left by slogans like “the 99 percent against the 1 percent” or the symbolism of occupying Wall Street, the targets here are not restricted to bankers or finance capital or rich people. It’s the power of large corporations in general, over all aspects of life, that is opposed.

In some sense the statement represents the grab-bag of left causes – mortgage abuse! gender discrimination! animal torture! death penalty! alternative energy! – that critics always ridicule. But the notorious single-issue parochialism that has hobbled the left for two decades comes together in the Declaration (if not always at the occupation) much more organically than it has in the past. There actually is one issue, which actually does unite all these problems, and that’s corporate power.

The protesters’ position still doesn’t really grasp the nature of capitalism, as everyone quickly pointed out, or even the nature of the crisis, as I’ve argued (herehere, here). But it should allay some of the particular fears that the occupiers are primarily attacking finance and glorifying productive capital.

Frank’s preferred opposition rather than “the 99 percent against the 1 percent” is “workers against capitalists”. He’s certainly right that this opposition gets to the nature of capitalism in a way that demonizing “the 1 percent” never can. “The 1 percent” is a category of distribution: who controls the wealth. “The capitalists”, on the other hand, is a category of production. This crisis and capitalism itself are fundamentally about the control and appropriation of labor, and there’s no way to overcome either one until this recognition can be achieved.

But as we’ve discussed at length, the basis for a “workers identity politics” like that which thrived in the late 19th century and during the Depression, and which took capitalists as its target, has collapsed. Along with it, I would argue, has disappeared the social foundations for the particular kind of reactionary populism that proved so horrific in the 1930s (see Moishe Postone’s “Anti‑Semitism and National Socialism” for an analysis of the nature of that foundation). That doesn’t mean that the danger of exclusionary forms of populism that scapegoat particular groups for the dysfunctions of the entire social system has disappeared. But the sinews of the occupation movement emerged from anarchism, identity politics, unions, and community organizing groups. There is absolutely no danger of anti-Semitism coming out of this.

The collapse of a workers identity politics has certainly crippled the capacity of the left to defend itself, much less mount an offensive against corporations. But there may also be a liberatory moment here. The category of “workers” is one that emerges from capitalism, which is what allowed the drive to secure dignity and decent conditions for workers to be so easily translated into the basis of a new regime of capitalist accumulation, Stalinist Fordism, in the Soviet Union, China, and elsewhere. In contrast, “the human race”, which the protesters invoke, is a category that could point beyond capitalism.

The opposition structured by capitalism is not, however, between “the human race” and corporations, or even capitalists. It is between the human race and capital – not a group of greedy executives but an abstract force constituted by modern society itself. We can leave the specific process for another time. For now the question is whether Occupy Wall Street and its fellow travelers – who clearly understand capital not as an abstract force but as a group of power-hungry individuals or, at best, as a class – harbor a progressive potential.

The first issue is whether the occupation movement will even have a significant impact. As doubters in the comments noted, participation so far has been fairly limited, not even reaching that of the unsuccessful anti-corporate globalization protests of 1999-2001 or the anti-Iraq War protests of 2003. I’m still doubtful myself. But I think we have to admit that, at least for the moment, the occupations have captured the public imagination like no other popular response to the crisis, with the (thus far, far more) significant exception of the Tea Party.

I suspect this is mainly because it has finally given outlet to very widespread feelings that up to now have failed to find expression in the dysfunctional and intellectually paralyzed Democratic Party. But can the occupation movement mobilize these sentiments behind a political project? This has been the difficulty up till now – there has been no shortage of attempts by the established unions and community groups to shift the national debate from antigovernment slogans and post-partisan fantasies to the inequities of the economy, all of which up to this point have failed to gain any traction. Are the supporters of the occupation movement ready to move beyond posting on Facebook to actually taking part in the unfamiliar and often uncomfortable experience of a mass movement? If so, then Earl’s agenda of seeking to understand the significance of the occupations will become extremely important.

We won’t know the answer for some time. But even if Occupy Wall Street marks the emergence of a new political actor, are its intentions actually progressive? Despite the overwrought criticisms that the occupation movement has not enunciated any demands or an actionable political program, it seems clear what sort of changes most of its supporters have in mind: real restrictions on the financial sector, an end to corporate influence over the government, greater equality of wealth, and increased regulation of corporations to protect consumers, workers, and the environment.

I will leave for later a discussion of why this approach produces a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the problems we face. The immediate issue is whether this particular misunderstanding isn’t also capable of generating action that could push us in the right direction. I think it is.

Blaming inequality and corporate abuses on the individuals who fill social roles constituted by capitalist society, as the protesters generally do, is a misrecognition of theproblem. These actually follow structurally from neoliberal social forms rather than from the psychological monstrosity of corporate executives. But modern society generates no end of misrecognitions, and some of them are more reactionary than others, deepening the crisis rather than paving the way out of it. To this point in the crisis of neoliberalism, the misrecognition that has taken pride of place is that the government is to blame for the social dysfunctions we face, and the solution is to unleash the shackles on the “job creators” in the private sector.

Even a naïve recognition that the problem does not reside in the state but in the economy is a welcome advance. The occupiers understand that what is needed is not the freeing of impersonal market forces but an imposition of greater conscious control over economic processes. Most participants may be clueless about what form this would have to take – after all, merely redistributing wealth would only produce new dysfunctions; only a fundamental reorganization of the economy will be adequate. But there’s no way to bring this argument to prominence until the debate has finally been shifted to the economic realm.

Second, the occupiers believe that society exists, and they support inclusive forms of sociality. Sad to say, this is in marked contrast to the other popular political current in the US. It should go without saying that even if the protesters don’t understand the subtleties of a Hegelian subject, they are at least decent people. Even if only to slow the accelerating scapegoating of the poor and immigrants and the general weakening of humanism in the culture, they deserve our support.

But beyond that, a desirable end to the crisis will require a cultural repudiation of the inequality of the neoliberal era and a return to forms of egalitarianism that at least superficially resemble those of the Fordist period. This is necessary, first, to solve the difficulties in realizing value (that is, in order to revive consumer demand) that emerged with the repression of wages under neoliberalism. But it would also be a key part of any project to draw currently marginalized groups, which by subsisting in the informal economy are a drag on growth, into the formal economy as workers and consumers. (This anticipates an argument I haven’t developed yet, but hopefully I’ll be able to return to it in more detail in coming weeks.)

Even the much ballyhooed bias in favor of productive capital (“actually making something”) over finance capital (“making money off of having money”) could have its uses. Frank is absolutely right that this misunderstands the nature of finance under capitalism. But there is also a valid insight here: under late neoliberal conditions, finance has become completely dysfunctional and actually is mainly making money off of money – that is, speculation – rather than coordinating the distribution of capital among producers (I made the argument in detail here). To address the crisis, the excesses of finance will have to be choked off – preferably, I think, by nationalizing the banks – and the anti-finance sentiment of the occupations could be a powerful force helping to achieve this.

Hurling critiques at the protesters, most of which they don’t even have the theoretical background to understand (abstract labor, eg, is a non-starter), is not a productive political response to the possibilities presented by Occupy Wall Street. If the occupations actually do amount to something, there’s still plenty of time to raise awareness within the movement of the complex nature of the crisis. But there’s a long way to go and many battles to be won before that will even become an issue. If we want to be involved in politics, we have to work with the forces that are available (even Marx did so!), and I think Occupy Wall Street gives us something that, for the first time in the crisis, we can work with.


  1. These are the demands proposed by Occupy Chicago. It's a fairly modest list focusing on restricting corporate power over the government and secondarily on restricting the financial sector. The only (very oblique) attempts to address the economic side of the crisis is ending the Bush tax cuts and forgiving student debt. A real failure of ambition. Still, everything on there seems worth supporting.

  2. This is the core:
    "Even a naïve recognition that the problem does not reside in the state but in the economy is a welcome advance. The occupiers understand that what is needed is not the freeing of impersonal market forces but an imposition of greater conscious control over economic processes...

    Second, the occupiers believe that society exists, and they support inclusive forms of sociality."

    I think these are the significant points.

    So here are some thoughts on what also might make the Occupation actions potentially positive.

    The Democratic Party are what we might think of as decisionists: quit squabbling, let's just get something done. In the name of acting, of "just making a decision", they also want to avoid all substantive criticism or discussion of principle. The Republican Party (qua Tea Party) has been more of the hysterics. They don't care if anything gets done as long as they get to act out. In fact, they are happy to sink everything in the name of acting out. And of each position only recognizes its grounds for acting (out) as legitimate.

    In practice, it is hard not be sympathetic with the decisionist, but ethically one is always a little queasy around such Real Politik. It only deals with what is and makes what is into an absolute, rejecting out of hand anything other than tinkering.

    Ethically, it is hard not to be sympathetic with the hysteric. At least they are engaged and principled. However, they usually seem only concerned with their engagement and their principles. Self-righteous, provincial, narrow and exclusionary.

    Both of these positions have been expressed Left and Right, though today it mostly takes the form of Democrats and "rational" Republicans on one side and the Tea Party Republicans on the other. Actual politics would entail neither the position of the decisionist nor the hysteric, but a kind of properly neurotic position.

    Pardon the psychoanalytic language, but the neurotic is the position of politics, living in the aporias of Power and Ethics. Is this Occupation stuff possibly therefore properly political? Quite possibly, though it may differ radically from place to place. I think participation ought to encourage the strengthening of politics against the inevitable plays to manipulate it in the interests of Real Politik (the Left has its own cadre of decisionists in the Democratic Party, NGOs, and union officials) or sanctified ethics (the Left also has its own hysterics, the various sects, anarchists, etc.)

    Of course, I am trying to imagine what that might entail more concretely. Safe to say, it doesn't necessitate convincing everyone of Postone's reading of value or putting forth the right program (the former being a hysterical response and the latter a decisionist one.)

  3. I would also add as emphasis, the best thing about the Occupation stuff so far is that it is putting the connection between power and wealth out there in the public sphere. This is exactly the opposite of those tendencies that either demand the reduction of everything to the private realm, that everyone should be pushed in on themselves, that civil society should be set loose and the only powers of the state should be repressive, or which demand that all decisions be handed over to "qualified professionals" and "rational administration" and all interests should be put aside, as if this was not the self-interested command of power legitimating its own self-governance without real interference from the governed.

    To that extent, I think there is something positive about the Occupation actions already, despite the definite limits of their ideas. However for it to grow it has to find a way to eventually intervene effectively and not merely be content to remain an ethical show, at which point it would be merely one more spectacular moment. I think that is my main concern, that the form of the Occupations itself has a built in limit which it must surpass.

  4. I think an important way to approach the occupations is with Ranciere's notion of the political. The political, for him, is the rupture in a distribution of roles, the see-able and the say-able (the police) that comes from an immanent outside. The political act is the assertion of the right to speak by the subject that has been excluded that right by the police. This could be Greek Demos, the proletariat or African Americans. The occupations are precisely about that right to speak. What's so effective about General Assemblies is not that they get things done, but that they let everyone speak (or at least purports to). I don't think the opening of this kind of politics yet has a subject or any serious content, but it could become meaningful depending on how things play out. To a certain extent that playing out is also up to us as engaged individuals.

  5. One problem with a focus on banks is you end up with groups like Occupy Gainesville which seems to be rife with Ron Paulisms:

  6. One of the most glaring problems with the supporters of Occupy Wall Street and its copycat successors is that they suffer from a woefully inadequate understanding of the capitalist social formation — its dynamics, its (spatial) globality, its (temporal) modernity. They equate anti-capitalism with simple anti-Americanism, and ignore the international basis of the capitalist world economy. To some extent, they have even reified its spatial metonym in the NYSE on Wall Street. Capitalism is an inherently global phenomenon; it does not admit of localization to any single nation, city, or financial district.

    Moreover, many of the more moderate protestors hold on to the erroneous belief that capitalism can be “controlled” or “corrected” through Keynesian-administrative measures: steeper taxes on the rich, more bureaucratic regulation and oversight of business practices, broader government social programs (welfare, Social Security), and projects of rebuilding infrastructure to create jobs. Moderate “progressives” dream of a return to the Clinton boom years, or better yet, a Rooseveltian new “New Deal.” All this amounts to petty reformism, which only serves to perpetuate the global capitalist order rather than to overcome it. They fail to see the same thing that the libertarians in the Tea Party are blind to: laissez-faire economics is not essential to capitalism. State-interventionist capitalism is just as capitalist as free-market capitalism.

    Nevertheless, though Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy [insert location here] in general still contains many problematic aspects, it nevertheless presents an opportunity for the Left to engage with some of the nascent anti-capitalist sentiment taking shape there. So far it has been successful in enlisting the support of a number of leftish celebrities, prominent unions, and young activists, and has received a lot of media coverage. Hopefully, the demonstrations will lead to a general radicalization of the participants’ politics, and a commitment to the longer-term project of social emancipation.

    To this end, I have written up a rather pointed Marxist analysis of the OWS movement so far that you might find interesting:

    “Reflections on Occupy Wall Street: What It Represents, Its Prospects, and Its Deficiencies”


  7. I completely agree that this stuff is very limited, and at times even dodgy, politically. How could it not be? But I have no interest in taking this as "an opportunity to engage." I distrust the bureaucratic-vanguard recruitment odor of such sentiments, the nascent parachuting in to parasitically poach individuals and "educate the movement". I think this is a really inappropriate, but typical, way to relate to people. Of course, a worse one is to go in to pack meetings at events and try to get control over subcommittees or coordinating bodies, which will be what the bigger sects will do.

    I am far more interested in using this stuff as a way to talk to people who I already have relationships with. I think it is profoundly better politically to use the energy from this, regardless of whether or not the Occupation stuff pans out as anything other than spectacle, to broaden what can be discussed without being dismissed out of hand in our own milieus. Among people I know it now becomes possible to open a little bigger conversation just because it looks like tens of thousands of people have broken into the public discussion, however politically inadequate that breakthrough is.

    So I won't be handing out leaflets, seeking individual Occupiers who might be interested in my fabulous understanding of capitalism, trying to invite people to a meeting, or trying to state my positions in a subcommittee at one of the Occupation sites. I will be using this opportunity to expand the conversation with people I actually have relationships with who are not Leftists and where a potential for a public discussion presents itself in a milieu that would not normally engage with the idea that something is systemically wrong, I'll try to play a constructive role and express my ideas (including my criticisms) as clearly as possible.

  8. Thanks for your comment Chris, it's given me a little pause. I've been organizing with Occupy Las Vegas and struggling to figure out how best to intervene beyond simply helping it happen. Though I do think we can be a little bolder with our intervention if we're not showing up with banners and leaflets about "our" program/project but actually committing to the movement and practices at hand. I think we need to figure out how to connect those folks who have gotten energized and engaged by the occupations with struggles and organizations that have existed and will exist. We have to think very carefully though how to do this. I don't have anything clear to say on this point, but we need to figure it out.

    Being vague instead of clear though I think that using this as a job fair for volunteers for your organization or members for your left-formation is unethical and ineffective. Leaders (or merely members) from those struggles committing to the occupation, taking it on it own terms, and drawing the connections in such a way that inspires folks to want to become part of that struggle makes more sense to me. We also need to be sensitive to ways that the occupation changes the landscape for action and changes the exigencies of the work we're already doing. This means understanding spontaneous emergent movements as internal to the historical process existing movements have been engaged in. To this end we need to be listening as much or more than we are speaking. We need to allow these protests to answer our theoretical and practical problems as much as we need to bring our answers to them.

  9. It's not clear what the relationship is between the author and Occupy Chicago, but this was on their site: http://occupychi.org/2011/10/12/they-dont-get-it/

    It brings to attention a potential tension between the movement's (evolving?) self understanding and the demands it presented.

  10. This is certainly is an improvement over the other statements I have read, but I wonder how representative it is. The "internationalist" sign off has the ring of a sectarian group.