Category Archives: crisis

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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What does School Privatization Have to Do With the Crisis?

Following the Chicago teacher strike over the Democratic Party’s push to privatizae public schools, with the “Race to the Top” initiative, I was reminded of a couple texts about the relationship between the current crisis and the thrust towards the privatization of the public sector, with the latter becoming an increasingly important site for the profitable investment of over-accumulated capital.

Reclamations, a journal that emerged out of the California student demonstrations of 2009, has been producing very interesting material relating the crisis to the university. They argue that by the late 1990s, “the leading edge of restructuring [centered around “privatization, neoliberalization, financialization and commercialization”] shifted from the university’s rationalization to its integration as a site of accumulation and investment in the circulatory system of capital.” (emphasis added) (Whitener/Nemser, ;”Circulation and the New University”, 06.08.12)

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A crisis occurs, sometimes lasting for decades. This exceptional duration means that incurable structural contradictions have revealed themselves (reached maturity), and that, despite this, the political forces which are struggling to conserve and defend the existing structure itself are making every effort to cure them, within certain limits, and to overcome them. These incessant and persistent efforts (since no social formation will ever admit that it has been superceded) form the terrain of the ‘conjunctural’, and it is upon this terrain that the forces of opposition organise. These forces seek to demonstrate that the necessary and sufficient conditions already exist to make possible, and hence imperative, the accomplishment of certain historical tasks (imperative, because any falling short before an historical duty increases the necessary disorder, and prepares more serious catastrophes). (Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, International Publishers, New York, 1992: 178)

Gramsci: Crisis, Conjuncture, Opposition

Occupy’s relationship to capitalism

In a recent interview in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Mark Greif, participant in the New York City Occupy movement, editor of the magazine n+1, and literatur professor at The New School, commented about the movement’s view of capitalism:

The central figures of the movement want a radical transformation [of society]. For them, capitalism is the enemy. They want, like the sociologist [sic] David Graeber who established the “99 percent” statement, a non-violent anarchism. There is also the group of part-time protesters, for whom they, like myself, come on particular days, after work for example. They have a completely different attitude. I saw a woman speaking to the business people in front of the stock exchange: “I am not against capitalism,” she said. “I believe in the idea of hard work, but I have so much healthcare debt, that it doesn’t matter how much I work, I will never be able to pay it back.” For her, capitalism is not the problem. On the contrary — she wants to be part of the system. The problem is a kind of capitalism that makes it impossible for those people who play by its rules to lead an orderly middle-class existence.”

While Greif is right to identify this distinction within Occupy, the movement’s initial success rested on its capacity to turn this question around. Instead of answering on ideological grounds about its desired social, political or economic alternative to capitalism, it challenged U.S. capitalism to face its own failures.

Slavoj Zizek demonstrated this from atop a soap box in Zuccotti Park when he said: “They tell you we are dreamers [ie. that we are ideological or utopian]. The true dreamers are those who think things can go on indefinitely the way they are. We are not dreamers. We are the awakening from a dream that is turning into a nightmare.”

It doesn’t seem to me that the initial success of the Occupy movement rested on its opposition to capitalism on the ideological level. Rather, it challenged neoliberal capitalism to face up to the material reality it had created, hence the thousands of testimonies on the wearethe99percent.tumblr.com blog attesting to the material deprivations caused by three decades of neoliberal restructuring, the current crisis and recession: lack of access to healthcare, homelessness, overwork, unemployment, insurmountable debt, skipped meals, exploitation, and so forth. The apparent political difference between the anarchists (or socialists or communists for that matter) on the one hand, and those who supposedly “just want to be part of the system” on the other hand, is not significant. All are “waking up on the wrong side of capitalism.”

What drives the movement forward is its most simple demand, that the societal configuration ought to respond to the material needs of the population, and not the other way around. (What some refer to as “economic democracy”, in the widest sense of the term). The question the movement implicitly poses through its actions, is whether the current configuration is up to that task or not.

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Reclamations Journal: Circulation and the New University

During the 1990s, a rationalization of the workplace in American universities occurred, a process that critics described with terms like privatization, neoliberalization, financialization, and commericalization. By the late 1990s, however, the leading edge of this restructuring shifted from the university’s rationalization to its integration as a site of accumulation and investment in the circulatory system of capital. Notably, however, our discourse hasn’t changed, and today we continue to talk as if all that was happening in the university was the same process of rationalization. This is not to say that words like neoliberalization or privatization have nothing to tell us, but rather that, because the majority of gains were received from these changes by the end of the 90s, these words no longer capture the leading edge of change in universities today. [….] What we want to do here is to briefly outline the new insertion of the university into the reproductive circuits of capitalism.

The university is no longer primarily a site of production (of a national labor force or national culture) as it was in the 1970s and 80s, but has become primarily a site of capital investment and accumulation.

There are two key mechanisms through which the university has been coupled into circulation—or, to be technical, coupled into the circulation of both productive capital and money capital. The first is the cycle of wealth transfer that moves federal dollars directly into corporate and bank coffers. [….]

The second mechanism, the emergence in the post-crisis context of capital over-accumulation—that is, a surplus of capital with no profitable investment outlet—has helped to transform universities into privileged sites of capital investment. Due to market conditions and credit availability, universities have been able to increase tuition without limit (for example, at the University of Michigan, tuition has gone up 297% since 1990), which in turn has driven up their credit ratings and made borrowing cheap for them.[6] As a result, banks, hedge funds, and institutional investors have begun investing heavily in and through universities, buying up construction and other bonds as well as student loans. In this way, some of the money that once was put into the faltering credit and mortgage markets has found a new home in the student loan and secondary student loan markets.

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“American Depressions”: on the “moral, economic, psychological, and social landscape” of the recession

From: “American Depressions” by Harriet Fraad in Tikkun. [Hat tip: Richard Wolff].

An unnatural economic and psychological disaster has struck America. Five contributors, each interacting with and shaping the others, have devastated the American moral, economic, psychological, and social landscape. Each is fed by related streams, but each contributes its own force to the disaster. The American dream in which each generation surpassed the previous generation in real wages has all but disappeared, along with dreams of an intact family, a steady job, a home, and an honest supportive community.

This article looks at each of five collaborators in the crisis in order to answer the following questions:

How did this happen? What forces are responsible?

Why are Americans passive as millions lose their homes, their jobs, their families, their hopes of justice, and the American dream?

Why do Americans remain disorganized at home while their European and Asian counterparts flood into the streets and strike in militant, organized protest? Why do others believe in their potential to reclaim their lives while we do not?

What happened is a result of at least five major, interrelated forces. One is a transformation of American morality, and with it the loss of belief that the social and political realms could be shaped by morality, ethics, and secular spirituality. Another is an economic depression. A third is a transformation of the family, which has been the foundation of American emotional life. A fourth is the decimation of Americans’ social participation in all areas, from bridge clubs and PTAs to political parties. A fifth is the tranquilizing and numbing of the American population with psychotropic medications.

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Tea Party and Redistributive Struggle

In “The Tea Parties in Historical Perspective: Conservative Response to a Crisis of Political Economy”, Charles Postel describes the Tea Party as a particular social actor involved in a redistributive struggle. The movement emerges as a defense of the material gains of upper-middle class whites that have accumulated in the post-war economy. It targets both real and imagined redistributive state policies that threaten to extend the social safety net to the uninsured, the working poor, blacks, immigrants, youth and others.

Postel intelligently criticizes the “populism” label that is commonly used to describe the Tea Party movement. According to him, it fails to deal with both the tradition of American populism as a progressive movement, and the contradictions of the Tea Party movement regarding its selective anti-elitism, and selective “anti-government” positions, which sets it rather in the tradition of the anti-democratic, U.S. right. The article is well worth reading. Here is a selection from the introduction:

On February 5, 2009, Rick Santelli, an entertainer and financial commentator on CNBC cable news unleashed his now famous scream against the Obama administration’s economic policies. In the months leading up to this episode, Presidents Bush and Obama had provided hundreds of billions of dollars under the Troubled Asset Relief Program to the Bank of America, Citibank, and other giants of American finance. But what pushed Santelli over the edge was word that the Obama administration might provide mortgage relief to distressed homeowners. Fox News proceeded to explain what had happened: The community organization ACORN had conned the American taxpayer into subsidizing mortgages for people that Santelli defined as “losers,” that is mainly black and Latino families that managed their money badly and did not deserve to own a home in the first place. ACORN, with the aid of its liberal supporters in Congress, had brought the American economy to its knees. Fox and friends had had enough. The tea party movement burst onto the national stage on Tax Day 2009.

In the midst of the most severe financial and economic crisis in over seventy years, the tea parties have been able to tap deep veins of resentment and anger over potential shifts in the post World War II political economy. Since the Second World War, mainly white homeowners – beneficiaries of untold billions of federal subsidies for mortgages and suburban development – have counted on rising home values to anchor their economic security. As home values tumbled in 2008 and 2009, the federal government contemplated coming to the aid of black, Latino, and other minorities historically excluded from the web of federal support. This added insult to injury. Although such aid was never forthcoming, the mere suggestion provoked a storm of opposition. The ensuing debates about health care reform poured gasoline on the fire. At a time of declining retirement portfolios, rising health care costs, and fears about the viability of Social Security and Medicare, the administration’s efforts to extend a health safety net to the forty million Americans without protection appeared as a bitter betrayal of those who already had such protections.

Santelli’s scream also provides clues as to the historical context of the tea parties. It sounded an alarm with deep resonance in conservative politics in America, and especially with the far right that has been locked in a trial of strength for the control of the Republican Party since the 1940s. The tea parties have tapped into fear and anger over potential shifts in political economy to form a grass-roots movement following in the historical traditions of the anti-New Deal American Liberty League, Joseph McCarthy and the witch hunts, Robert Welch and the John Birch Society, and Barry Goldwater and the right-wing Republicans of the early Cold War.

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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.

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