25 March 2013

What form should our movement take?

My friend and comrade Ed Sutton poses an interesting perspective from which to think about a global progressive movement in his article for Occupy.com. The movement isn’t coming, it’s right in front of us, he argues. If only we’d open our eyes we could see it. Although I differ in my analysis of the reasons behind the Occupy movement’s ostensible fall from prominence in the media, I think that the perspective he suggests is well worth further exploration and debate. As I take it, the central question animating Ed’s reflections on the squatting movement in Europe is, succinctly put, what form should our movement take? Through what social practices can we realize the potential for overcoming the social tensions—between plenty and want, between love for one’s neighbors and hate for strangers—exploding into popular consciousness in this moment of upheaval?

His answer is the “coalescence of various currents and codes based in self-organization” and an “anarchistic ethos” that have taken concrete form in the squatting movement. Ed focuses on the squatting movement not only because it’s an international concern within Europe, but because of the affinity between it and the tactics of Occupy groups in the US.

For him the value of squatting is its potential to resist the depredations of neoliberalism: “[a]s austerity sweeps the continent, squats—among the last remaining scraps of common space (Freiraum) and therefore burrs in the saddle of neoliberalism’s charging horse, privatization—are being systematically cleared out.” He also gives the sense that these “autonomous communities” are a real threat to the status quo, as seen in Greece’s squat-centered anarchist movement.

Of course, I fully agree with Ed about the threat that neoliberalism poses to the potential for a healthy human community. He rightly notes that we are currently experiencing this threat in the form of austerity policies taking a great toll in human life and the potential to create a future better than the present. Ed’s argument seems consistent with an approach that claims that genuine human community is to be found in spaces outside of the institutions of our neoliberal, increasingly privatized society.

Occupy Our Homes Atlanta takes back a foreclosed house
But I would like to argue in contrast that the best chance we have to challenge the dominant social structure is precisely from within it. Global systems of production, circulation, administration, etc., hold the means to provide material necessities for everyone on earth. Our ultimate goal is to make them serve humanity, rather than their own perverse logic of accumulation. Therefore, our salvation will be found not in pure spaces outside of society, but in the future realization of a genuine global community. Our task is not to occupy spaces of freedom, but to work together to free humanity’s future.

Before elaborating on this vision, we need to clarify what is meant by “neoliberal society,” a concept that both Ed and I use to critique the current organization of our world. In my view, neoliberalism is the latest chapter in the story of the creation of progressively larger and more all-encompassing forms of capitalist social organization. It has effectively bound all humans together into one system in which we have become ever more interdependent. This can be confirmed simply by thinking about the many different countries from which the products that we use or consume every day come. Needless to say, the manifestations of this interconnectedness are often horrific and irrational. Financial decisions on one side of the globe quickly metamorphose into human devastation on the other side, and much production for the global market takes the form of sweatshop labor.

Despite these appalling problems, I believe that we should look to our mutual interdependence as our best hope for liberation. Even if it were possible to withdraw from the global system, to do so would only make our struggles irrelevant to global majority, for whom such an action does not hold much meaning. There are billions living in economically poor countries for whom such a withdrawal could only mean absolute impoverishment and relinquishing the tools needed to better their lives. If your daily living depends on scavenging garbage or informal grey market labor, you won’t think of withdrawing from the system as liberating—in fact you would already be on the absolute margins of that system. It is not merely our duty to reach out to those impoverished by the global capitalist system, it is also our only way to form an alliance strong enough to defeat the forces that would defend the monstrous status quo.

In the USA itself squatting and public occupations will not do much for those in desperate need of jobs or access to health care. Even if an aggressive movement based on resisting neoliberalism forced the powers that be to address the issue of housing foreclosures—undoubtedly a worthy goal in itself—how would that alter the system fundamentally, other than alleviating some of the suffering associated with it? That’s not to say that struggles against foreclosure aren’t important in inspiring and enlightening many people. But when we frame our big-picture strategic orientation, we need to be even more resolute and ambitious in our aim. We don't want to treat the symptom, but the underlying disease.

Our strategy must be to strike precisely in those spaces where the globalized pathways of capital cut across, over, and through community boundaries. Imagine for instance, a serious global campaign targeted at a multinational corporation like Walmart. When we stand on the floor of a Walmart store or in one of their warehouses, we stand in the heart of neoliberalism, a place that serves human needs only indifferently in executing its one true purpose—the accumulation of capital.

A massive global system of production and circulation whose product is actually poverty
When we stand there, the human relationships that exist beneath the surface of society become a little clearer—not only the relationship of the customer to the worker, but crucially the relationships among the customers and workers in Walmart stores, suppliers, and warehouses in a multitude of countries across the world. Once these people who have been united in this perverse form can recognize the real human relationships between themselves, they have the potential to cut with the other edge of the world-devastating sword of corporate spatial domination. By turning the delocalized processes of production and circulation into the basis for uniting a new global movement, we would salvage the possibility to fight for the very things that the system promises us and never makes good on—the material and cultural requirements with which we can more fully develop our capacities as human beings, and the truly free time in which to do it.

My argument should not be taken as a wholesale rejection of squatting or occupation of public space as tactics. We have all been heartened at how groups using these tactics have brought questions about the legitimacy of neoliberalism and austerity politics into public consciousness. Nor would I suggest that a global solidarity campaign of the kind that I describe here would be anything other than an enormous and historical challenge, and one that would necessarily take a multitude of different but related forms. However, I think that the scope of the challenge is matched by the enormous importance of this undertaking for humanity.

Only a movement that locates itself in the vital arteries of neoliberal society would be able to reach the billions of humans that have, as yet, only been partially and contradictorily integrated into our global system. For these billions of, for example, Chinese, Indian, and African workers, the experience of the global system is very different from our own. Yet as we have already seen, we are irrevocably connected to them through the system. It is a system from which we must demand the means of creating a human community that will enable all to grow and express their true potential. We must not turn our back on this challenge, but rather proclaim our interdependence and fight for freedom together. Only by making common cause with our billions of brothers and sisters around the world will we find the strength to redeem our future.


  1. I absolutely agree with your points (nuances included) about the usefulness of squatting and other varieties of resistance that take the form of a retreat to safer and more humane spaces. We need those spaces, of course, and some people will spend their lives making them, which is wonderful. But they don't liberate anyone from capitalism any more than collective rural living liberated folks in the late 60's.

    But when I think about organizing from within (as opposed to from without, from a safe/democratic/non-hierarchical space) I often get caught up thinking about ends.

    Intuitively I agree that global organizing centered on Walmart, to take your example, is in a prime position to show people the effects of neoliberalism and capitalism. But is that what we need a movement to do? To educate people, or to put them in a political network of organizations and campaigns? Will that bring us closer to the goal of humanizing our world, reclaiming the gigantic physical and social powers we've transformed into self-moving and self-centered machines (capital)? I don't know. There have been such organizations before, and there has been such solidarity. Building it back up again, and building it higher and more powerful this time, is not just a daunting task. Given the history of internationalist organizing thus far, it might be a futile one.

    Yet I have even more skepticism toward attempts to destroy the master's house with the master's tools. I do not believe it makes sense for us to imagine our object as the taking of the reigns from capital/capitalists/etc. The degree of material interconnectedness produced by neoliberalism, as amazing as it is, seems to be a bad thing for the world (climate, resource use and waste, etc). I for one don't want a better Walmart, I want none at all. I think you'd agree with me there, Deckard?

    So when I think about the future of organizing I become a little bit lost. Consciousness and solidarity building is a good goal, as is the improvement of our power position within the capitalist framework (labor organizing, for example). But do I really think that either one will put us on a path in which capitalism is overcome by something better? I'm a pessimist, but I would love to hear what others think about this.

  2. First of all, I will say thanks to Ed Sutton whose thoughtful and provocative article gave me the opportunity to develop these thoughts and make this contribution to the conversation.

    Eugene, thanks for your comment. Although I'm laying out ideas that we've been developing together both on this blog and off, the question of a movement is still an open one, so I hope that people will continue to share their thoughts on the topic.

    To clarify, I definitely conceive of this movement as one with an aim that is integral to its conception. The aim is that, in pushing back against neoliberalism, we also begin to shape what will come after it. This should be a system in which we assert democratic control of society’s surplus for the purpose of reinvesting it in the places where people have been most denied its benefits. This seems to me to be both an obvious good-in-itself, as well as a precondition to doing away with wage labor.

    What form would such a system take, and do we want to reform or do away with Walmart? I think here we need to be attentive to currently emerging contradictions in the economy. On the one hand, it is obvious that corporate power is incredibly centralized and in many ways greater than ever before. In the US, corporate influence is making a mockery of the political system and guiding the austerity agenda. On the other hand, the very concentration of this power is challenging the forms in which corporations currently operate. Amazon prices items in real time to perpetually undercut the competition, and survives on razor-thin profit margins. The stock market has lauded its performance. Walmart offers low prices by effectively setting terms for its suppliers. It’s set up a vast global network that integrates workers across the world into a single, rationalized system.

    In other words, we have the means to create a rational system of production and distribution that doesn’t rely on the chaos and unfreedom of the market—even though we can now only discern this system all bound up with a different form of unfreedom. Much of the horrible, meaningless work that goes into this system can be mechanized, though of course, we don’t want this mechanization to come as a crisis for workers—so it falls to us to abolish wage labor as a means of earning one’s living, so that we can enjoy the productivity of a mechanized production system rather than suffer from them.

    If we identify Walmart with the first part of the contradiction, anti-democratic corporate power, then clearly we want to do away with it. But we shouldn’t ignore the fact that Walmart’s organization may also show us how to better meet human needs.

  3. I too share many of the questions motivating Eugene's skepticism. Re-building and realizing a true internationalism today seems like a mirage when we can hardly make a dent in the balance of class forces in our own countries. At the same time, I definitely agree with Deckard that trying to form an anti-capitalist politics around the attempt to flee the spaces and circuits of capital into a space allegedly "outside" them is itself an illusion. It's true that #Occupy and the squatting movement in Europe share many similarities. One such similarity is the definite limitations of it as a tactic, which were glaringly on display in 2011 and early 2012. Occupying space can broadcast a powerful symbolic message reaffirming the value of the commons, and certain occupations can have a significantly disruptive effect on the sleek consumeristic unfreedom of neoliberal society, but, at least thus far, such tactics have proved of limited efficacy, both in terms of what effects they've had and whom they have drawn in among the population. If you're struggling at a shitty job working like a dog just to get by day to day, or your employment situation is precarious because your boss is an asshole who is ready to fire people at a moment's notice, how can you participate in a strategy based on sitting around somewhere for an indefinite amount of time?

    I also am not at all trying to denigrate the power and importance of, e.g., the anti-foreclosure fight as it is playing out in the U.S. But it can't be the endgame for our strategy; we have to think in broader terms, and this means meeting the problem of internationalism head on, rather than (understandably) feeling overwhelmed by the monumental nature of the project and turning away from it.

    I think it's important to consider Deckard's point that we have to see phenomena like the multinational corporation, as loathsome as such things are, through a two-dimensional lens, rather than as forms of pure alienation to be abolished and replaced with something entirely new. If we are taking the proposition of a post-capitalist society seriously, then we have to think in terms of where we are now, at this historical moment and in a particular global system of production that cannot be simply destroyed or removed, or at least not without incalculable human cost. This means thinking not just the alienating side of such structures of production, but also how they represent possibilities for structuring a potentially non-capitalist form of production. And it also means attempting, in however tentative a way, to integrate this insight into our praxis. That isn't easy, of course, but I don't think any of us became leftists or socialists because we thought fundamentally changing society would be easy.

    1. Paul: "Re-building and realizing a true internationalism today seems like a mirage when we can hardly make a dent in the balance of class forces in our own countries."

      My response is fairly abstract and ignores all details (where the devil is), but here goes. I feel that the experience of previous generations has shown that labor organizing repeatedly suffers from failures to update targets and strategy as the nature of the economy changes. So worker organizing becomes anachronistic and (as a result) stagnant. The flip side is that there can be transformational bursts of activity when the right target comes into view. When the UAW made the jump from plant-by-plant organizing to taking on the giant of GM in its entirety, at the national level, this was such a moment. Capital was coming to operate as a nationwide system, and needed to be confronted at that level.

      My thought is that, today, we can't make a dent in class forces in our country because class forces can no longer be confronted on the national level; taking on something like the Walmart global supply chain would then be analogous to taking on GM as a whole.

  4. "The degree of material interconnectedness produced by neoliberalism, as amazing as it is, seems to be a bad thing for the world (climate, resource use and waste, etc). I for one don't want a better Walmart, I want none at all."

    We aren't actually that far technologically from an energy infrastructure that could allow material plenty without destroying the planet. The obstacle is rather the organization of the economy, which is incapable of making the long-term investments in research and infrastructure that would be needed, in the entrenched interests of the fossil fuel industry and the political corruption that makes them unassailable, and in the failure of vision and will intrinsic to the neoliberal imagination that make large-scale intentional restructuring of society by the state seem impossible.

    Of course making a sustainable Walmart still leaves you with Walmart, and that's not particularly attractive. But the strategy we're developing here is essentially to restructure neoliberal society along lines that parallel the restructuring of liberal society in the 1930s and 1940s, out of which we got Fordism. That was in many ways a more humane and progressive form of capitalism that could also, incidentally, produce a social imaginary that would be capable of tackling global warming. The most significant difference would be that, instead of the nation-based Fordism, neo-Fordism would have to be global.

    The idea, which we still haven't got round to developing on the blog yet, is that neo-Fordism would generate conditions of both structure and subjectivity that would make a genuine movement to overcome capitalism much more plausible to a much wider part of the global population. That still needs to be substantiated, but bear with us and we'll get there.