Occupy targets “the free market”, or the capitalist state?

Intending to motivate people to join the rally in Times Square tomorrow, for the culmination of Occupy‘s week of actions against austerity (see: Another City is Possible), the Occupy Wall Street facebook page posted a link to a Guardian article, reporting on the successful massing of tens of thousands of people in Times Square, led by Occupy back in October.

The article persuasively argues that the Occupy movement managed to shift the terms of public debate, enabling one to speak about gross wealth inequality and to attribute it to the economic system rather than to individual failure. By achieving this, they signaled the end of the post-1989 period, the end of the “end of history”, which was emphatically proclaimed following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the global dominance of capitalism.

The article speaks of a “turning point in history”. The Occupy movement has opened:

profoundly new possibilities of debate in a world that so recently seemed to agree about economic fundamentals. [….] What matters is that unfettered capitalism, a force for economic dynamism that seemed unassailable, beyond reproach or reform, a monster we learned to be grateful for, suddenly finds its ugliness widely commented on, exposed among the lights of Times Square. The emperor of economics has no clothes.

It is now common sense to view the Occupy movement — as part of the global wave of oppositional protest of 2011 — as having opened these possibilities:

[The Occupy Wall Street movement] is transforming how we, the 99%, see ourselves. The shame many of us felt when we couldn’t find a job, pay down our debts, or keep our home is being replaced by a political awakening. Millions now recognize that we are not to blame for a weak economy, for a subrime mortgage meltdown, or for a tax system that favors the wealthy but bankrupts the government. The 99% are coming to see that we are collateral damage in an all-out effort by the super-rich to get even richer.

Now that we see the issue clearly–and now that we see how many others are in the same boat–we can envision a new role for ourselves. We will no longer be isolated and powerless.” (Van Gelder in This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement, van Gelder (ed.) 2011: 2).

Yet it remains contested, what kind of critique the movement is actually bringing forth. Like many reports about the movement, the Guardian article speaks of a critique of “unfettered capitalism” and the “free market”. But this implies (1) that capitalism exists independently from states and from politics, and (2) that the movement (inadvertently?) seeks more state regulation. But if you take a look at the movement’s literature, you get a different impression, namely, that its critique is aimed at the state and politics as part of the same problem of “economics.”

In fact, the week of actions against austerity targets the city government’s budget plan, and the cuts in social spending in particular as exacerbating wealth disparity. And the early Occupy slogan, “The Banks Got Bailed Out, We Got Sold Out!”, connects the continuing crisis to political decisions, to a particular form of state regulation based on maintaining the neoliberal mode of capital accumulation.

One might not be able to precisely pin down the Occupy movement’s understanding of contemporary capitalism, but what is clear, is that it recognizes the state’s involvement in the concentration of wealth both preceding and following the crisis of 2007/08. In contrast to the projections of some commentators, who imagine the current political juncture as a conflict between state and market (and therefore a replay of the Cold War system competition between “free” and “control” economies), the Occupy movement appears to be much less interested in this ideological framework, and much more interested in highlighting and combating the concentration of wealth and power that is facilitated by the state.

The end of the “end of history” means also that the new social movements are exploring new political imaginaries and strategies which won’t necessarily conform to the categories of the past.


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