Category Archives: neoliberalism

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.

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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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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Neoliberalism and De-Democratization (in Detroit)

Many are arguing that political crisis management involves processes of de-democratization. The most clear examples lie in the introduction of technocratic leaders in Greece and Italy, to act as fiscal managers for the servicing of (predominantly foreign) debt. Yet this is also occurring in the United States, where a “reorganization of state apparatuses” is taking place involving the “strengthening of neoliberal administrative modes” (Albo and Evans 2011: 287).

The new fiscal control apparatuses are being given greater power over departments; tend to be more insulated from parliamentary oversight; have greater freedom to bypass public sector unions and challenge collective agreements; and are mandated to explore asset sales, commercialization and other modes of administration of policies.

A concrete example? Enter Detroit. Continue reading

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