Category Archives: occupy

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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Occupy Theory releases “Tidal” #3: Occupy Year Two.

Tidal 3: Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy: Year II.

Table of Contents:

Communiqué #3


The Revolution Will Not Have a Bottom Line. SUZAHN EBRAHIMIAN


Stop and Frisk and Other Racist Capitalist Bullshit. JOSÉ MARTÍN

The Power of the Powerless. JEREMY BRECHER

S17: Occupy Wall Street Anniversary


The War on Dissent, the War on Communities. JEN WALLER AND TOM HINTZE

On Political Repression, Jail Support, and Radical Care. MUTANT LEGAL WORKING GROUP

On the Transformative Potential of Race and Difference in Post-Left Movements. PAMELA BRIDGEWATER

On Transparency, Leadership, and Participation

Where Are We? Who Are We? Occupy, Space, and Community. NINA NEHTA

Letter to the Well-Meaning 1%. THE 99%

Mutual Aid in the Face of the Storm. CHRISTOPHER KEY

Beyond Climate, Beyond Capitalism. VANYA S, TALIB AGAPE FUEGOVERDE, V. C. VITALE

After the Jubilee. DAVID GRAEBER

On Debt and Privilege. WINTER


First Communiqué: Invisible Army

Jodi Dean on OWS, Debt, and Collective Responses to the Crisis

As debt emerges as the central issue for Occupy in the coming year, Jodi Dean argues that the issue locks the movement into an individualist framework, beneficial to the pro-austerity Right, rather than positing a social orientation geared towards the commons. See: Is debt the connective thread for OWS?

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 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.


Physical Space and the Occupy Movement

In a previous post, I pointed to Simon Critchley’s argument that Occupy‘s “task is to create a location for politics.” Here are two more arguments being made in this direction, by Occupy participants.

In Arun Gupta’s “What happened to the Occupy movement?”, the New York City-Occupy activist writes:

The real stumbling block for the Occupy movement is also the reason for its success: space, or now, the lack thereof. Understanding the significance of political space and Occupy’s inability to recapture it reveals why the movement is having difficulty re-gaining traction.

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Video: David Graeber and David Harvey in Conversation

David Graeber and David Harvey discuss the Occupy movements, social movements, the crisis, and their new books.
Filmed on 25 April 2012 at The CUNY Graduate Center

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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.


Global May Manifesto

As hundreds of thousands of people around the world prepare to take to the streets this weekend as part of a global call for change, the International ‘Global Spring’ Assembly – an international and inter-movement assembly formed of supporters of Occupy, Take the Square and Latin American, African, Asian and Middle Eastern social movements – has released its first statement describing concrete suggestions for a ‘global change’.

Keep reading here: International Assembly: Global May Manifesto

FAIR: Bored With Occupy—and Inequality. Class issues fade along with protest coverage


Occupy Wall Street is rightly credited with helping to shift the economic debate in America from a fixation on deficits to issues of income inequality, corporate greed and the centralization of wealth among the richest 1 percent. [….] As Occupy slowed down for the winter, though, would corporate media continue to talk about our increasingly stratified society without a vibrant protest movement forcing their hand? The answer, unsurprisingly, is no.

As mentions of “Occupy Wall Street” or “Occupy movement” waned in early 2012, so too have mentions of “income inequality” and, to an even greater extent, “corporate greed.” The trend is true for four leading papers (New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, L.A. Times), news programs on the major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC), cable (MSNBC, CNN, Fox News) and NPR, according to searches of the Nexis news media database. Google Trends data also indicates that from January to March, the phrases “income inequality” and “corporate greed” declined in volume of both news stories and searches.

[FAIR: Bored With Occupy—and Inequality. Class issues fade along with protest coverage. 05/2012]

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