Category Archives: class struggle

Anti-Debt Struggles, Occupy and the State: A reply to Maisano

In a new Jacobin article, Chris Maisano takes issue with the way Occupy is supposedly approaching the issue of consumer debt. He writes:

As Doug Henwood pointed out in his critique of Strike Debt’s Rolling Jubilee initiative, debt is not a system. It’s a symptom of the restructuring of the U.S. state and its priorities away from social provision toward capital accumulation, both at a national and a global scale. If the scourge of student debt is to be confronted in any kind of meaningful way, Occupy and its offshoots will need to struggle on a terrain that they have assiduously avoided – that of politics, public policy, and the state.

True, debt is not an independent system, but rather a critical component of the neoliberal accumulation regime. And this has implications for political strategies. But like many critiques of the Occupy movement, Maisano slips into simple mischaracterizations. Yes, Occupy has expressed its desire to be an autonomous movement. But in practice, the movement is less ideological.

Look, for example, at the Principles of the Occupy Student Debt Campaign (OSDC), one of the group’s behind Strike Debt!. It explicitly calls for policy changes that Maisano might agree with: Tuition-Free Public Higher Education, Zero-Interest Student Loans, Private Colleges Must Open Their Books, Student Debt Written Off In The Spirit of Jubilee.

Maisano’s alternate suggestion, that Occupy should focus on reforming bankruptcy laws to “make it easier for student debtors to file for bankruptcy and to win at least a partial discharge of their debt” is nothing qualitatively different than the demands of the OSDC. Both are demands on the state; both seek policy reform. While OSDC’s demands are further going than that called for by Maisano (and Henwood), I imagine Strike Debt! and other Occupy activists might applaud such an initiative, and would welcome its inclusion in their own literature and campaign.

The only major difference then, between the position of OSDC/Strike Debt! on the one hand, and Maisano, on the other, is of political strategy. I don’t think Occupy and Maisano necessarily disagree with the need to “struggle on [the] terrain […] of politics, public policy, and the state”. Or rather, the difference has more to do with how and in what form this struggle ought to advance.

Here it is true that OSDC and Strike Debt! are vague; they are inspired by the anarchist movement’s desire to fight at a distance from the state, rather than through direct reform strategies, but this doesn’t mean they want to leave politics and the state alone, and merely want to build a harmonious new society in the interstices. In fact, OSDC says this explicitly that it is a matter of the form of struggle:

The pathway to this outcome [ie, towards free public education, zero-interest student loans, fiscal transparency, and cancellation of student debt] does not lie in futile pleas for economic reform, but through a political movement, driven by self-empowerment and direct action on the part of debtors.

Yet while many criticize the anarchist influenced form of struggle that OSDC and Strike Debt! take, most Occupy participants would probably agree with Maisano on the value of the Quebec student movement’s victory for struggles in the U.S. Yet, theirs was a clear and limited struggle against a particular, and harsh policy reform. The Quebec movement did not emerge with the notion of using politics and the state to advance class struggles. It was a direct response to an example of political class struggle from above, just as Occupy‘s precursor in the Wisconsin uprising of early 2011 was. The situation of debt and student debt in the U.S. is however clearly different, trends which have developed over the course of three decades. In this context, you are going to have to build a base for long-term struggle, and can not simply chip away at the debt-based aspects of this accumulation regime.

Maisano’s problematic might therefore be reframed, with the help of OSDC’s emphasis on direct action: How can forms of self-empowerment and direct action be developed as both forms of struggle towards the achievement of political reforms, and as new robust forms of mutual aid and self-governance in everyday life?

A closer look at the Occupy movement reveals that it is not dominated by an anarchist purity of purely outside struggles, but seeks deep transformations of both civil and political society. Instead of false portrayals and false dichotomies, this question is on the horizon.

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Reply to Richard Wolff on Class Struggle from Above and Below

In the Guardian, Richard Wolff argues that the U.S. Right has adopted an explicit class war rhetoric for advancing its political objectives. In “Class war redux: how the American right embraced Marxist struggle”, he writes:

Conservatives and Republicans are classifying the population into two key subgroups. Gone are images of the US as one big happy middle class. Instead, one class […] comprises self-reliant, hardworking taxpayers: true social givers. The other class comprises […] takers who give little as long as dependence saps their creativity, responsibility, etc.

Romney’s campaign showed that conservatives and Republicans increasingly use this class analysis to understand society and construct their political programs. Romney’s campaign also proved the increasing determination of conservatives and Republicans to pursue class war explicitly in these terms.

True! But this was already clear a few years ago (as I wrote here) before the presidential race of 2012.

Wolff is right to observe that “the political terrain has shifted” so that class conflict has become more openly expressed, particularly from above. Yet following the emergence of the Occupy movement, public opinion polls showed that the perception of class conflict amongst the broad public has drastically grown over the last few years, and its “intensity” more deeply felt.

A new Pew Research Center survey […] finds that about two-thirds of the public (66%) believes there are “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between the rich and the poor—an increase of 19 percentage points since 2009.

Not only have perceptions of class conflict grown more prevalent; so, too, has the belief that these disputes are intense. [T]hree-in-ten Americans (30%) say there are “very strong conflicts” between poor people and rich people. That is double the proportion that offered a similar view in July 2009 and the largest share expressing this opinion since the question was first asked in 1987.

Compared to other societal conflicts, the study shows, class conflict now tops the polls, and is the most significant conflict in U.S. society, above those centering around “race”, nationality, and age.

In response to the class war from above, Wolff argues, is a class war from below, ie. the Occupy movement and similar movements abroad, as was anticipated here.

But I take issue with Wolff’s interpretation of these new movements, or of precisely how they “borrow [and] depart from earlier socialist traditions.” Certainly, he is right to observe that the movements today do not explicitly frame the problem in terms of market vs. economic planning — (though I do think you can to a degree find that implicit in the movement). What I find less convincing about Wolff’s portrayal is his claim that the new (class struggle) movements are focused on building worker cooperatives. He writes:

Champions of the exploited class aim to change the system by ending the division between worker and capitalist inside the enterprises.

If he is referring to Argentina or Spain (where he cites the Mondragon Cooperative), he is on solid ground, but these forms of organisation and articulation are marginal in the current U.S. social movements. I think he is mixing up a normative position with an empirical observation. (Wolff is a strong advocate of workplace democracy.)

If you look at the new class struggles over the past few years in the U.S. — be it, the Wisconsin uprising, the Occupy movement, the Chicago teacher’s strike, Walmart strike, fast food strikes, etc. — the fundamental issues do not resolve around workplace democracy. They are expressed in class terms about wealth disparity, democratic participation and social protection. The Occupy movement in many ways, goes a lot further, posing much deeper questions about cultural and societal transformation.

Yet, hardly any workplace occupations have taken place in the last years. In fact, only one, rather high-profile one, comes to mind. This is the Chicago Republic Windows and Doors Factory, originally occupied by employees against wage and benefit theft, and later turned into a worker cooperative. While this may have inspired some people to think about workplace cooperatives elsewhere, this has not been a significant development in the movements.

Instead, the Chicago factory occupation has had other implications for the new movements. Occurring in 2008, it was the first oppositional action taken against the economic crisis. It was a high-profile case, with supportive statements coming from Obama, against the layoffs and rising unemployment. But the employees’ use of a corporate campaign targeting Bank of America for refusing to extend loans to the bankrupt and corrupt company — funds which BOA had received from the federal bailout — made this conflict into a much broader one, at least on the symbolic level.

There was widespread identification with the workers’ struggle because it was seen as a reflection of broader dynamics and tensions in society following the crisis. It was in the heat of the Chicago factory struggle that the slogan “The banks got bailed out, we got sold out!” emerged.   

That is, the factory occupation did not inspire a movement for workplace democracy. The argument could be made that the movements, in an amorphous way, desire economic democracy, but this has not been developed in the direction of workplace democracy, which is only one specific articulation of it. Instead of worker coops, the Chicago factory occupation aroused a broader democratic movement, expressing disaffection with the state bailout of the financial sector at the expense of the broader population, the lack of social protections, drastic wealth disparity in the face of widespread material deprivation, and the state’s failure to ameliorate this situation. This is the content of the new class movements against the crisis (in a general sense), even if in many ways, the Occupy movement in particular, goes far beyond this.

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Occupy, Debt, Finance, and Class Struggle

This is the text of a talk I gave in October 2012, “Occupy, Debt, Finance, and Class Struggle”.

I was asked to talk about Occupy, the crisis and class struggle. I work on the topic of the Occupy movement as a form of social contestation within the context of the neoliberal crisis. In this talk I want to hone in on the movement’s recent organizing projects around debt, and to connect them to theory about finance and the financial crisis. The intention of this is to clarify some questions about political strategy in the current conjuncture. This is, as you will see, somewhat experimental, so I look forward to the discussion.

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Anticipating Occupy

In a journal entry in Summer 2011, a few months before Occupy Wall Street began, I jotted down:

There is a vicious campaign underway at the moment against ‘communism’, this despite the utter lack of a Left with any social power. The most meager Democratic Party proposals, or defenses of remaining aspects of the social safety net, minor extensions in unemployment aid, are branded ‘class warfare.’

This comes off as completely unnecessary in face of the absent Left, unchallenged neoliberalism, and the further concentration of wealth following the financial meltdown. Is it a preventative measure against a potential Left? An attempt through discursive power to disarm any possible counter-hegemonic forces from emerging? Do they hear and anticipate a coming insurrection (like Glenn Beck did back in 2009)?

It seems like the Right is pushing too far though. Are they not inadvertently creating an opening for a Left with all this talk about ‘communism’, a potentially different form of society, and about ‘class’, the unacknowledged fact of social life? Are they not over-stretching themselves and putting themselves in danger, by pushing (in the middle of a recession) to raise taxes on low-income households on the grounds that those households are not really poor because they in fact own luxury items like refrigerators? (This is when record percentages of people are living below the official poverty line, alarming levels of malnutrition are being recorded, increasing numbers of people are skipping meals to get by, and even taking their own lives). Is the Right not producing the very discourse which at any time could be turned against them?

Where the Left has been incapable of politicizing the issue of class, the Right has done it instead, creating an opportunity for the politicization of class conflict from below, for a Left offensive. We’ll see if something will be made of this.

David Harvey: Middle Path Between Autonomism and Statism

Here is a selection from David Harvey on the shortcomings of autonomist and statist approaches, and his view of a “middle path” that could work as an “antidote to the power of capital”. (“The Urban Roots of the Financial Crises: Reclaiming the City for the Anti-Capitalist Struggle” in SOCIALIST REGISTER 2012): Continue reading

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