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.
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. 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.
I’m just getting around to reading some of the analysis following Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s successful electoral victory against recall.
First, Abby Scher argues in “In Wisconsin, Union Defeat Doesn’t Mean Tea Party Win” that Walker’s victory did not rely on switching from economic class issues to cultural ones, but rather by framing the economic interests of the population as being opposed to public sector unions.
“While Thomas Frank would assert that blue-collar voters of modest income are swayed from voting their class interest by conservative social issues like gay rights or abortion, [Walker’s campaign] was all about unions and economic issues. [….]”
“Unlike Tea Party voters, who tend to be better off and more likely to slash and burn the social safety net, less well-off voters support government action and a social safety net. But this constituency also feels abandoned by elected representatives who too often ignore them in favor of big donors, he argued. This breeds its own resentment.
If government doesn’t represent them, then why should they support the government workers who make more money than they do?
Instead of a referendum on “economic freedom” and slashing the safety net [which is how the Democratic opposition framed the issue], [Walker’s] attack on public unions managed to focus resentment on workers who are better off than many.
Where government jobs are disproportionately held by people of color, the “government union” talking point can also mobilize racial resentment without mentioning race.
Rather than pure ideology, the Republican strategy of pitting non-unionized private sector workers against unionized public workers is based in the real failures of the union movement, argues Doug Henwood.
In “Walker’s victory, un-sugar-coated“, he writes, “twice as many people (68%) think that unions help mostly their members as think they help the broader population (34%).”
A major reason for the perception that unions mostly help insiders is that it’s true. Though unions sometimes help out in living wage campaigns, they’re too interested in their own wages and benefits and not the needs of the broader working class. Public sector workers rarely make common cause with the consumers of public services, be they schools, health care, or transit.
Since 2000, unions have given over $700 million to Democrats—$45 million of it this year alone (Labor: Long-Term Contribution Trends). What do they have to show for it? Imagine if they’d spent that sort of money, say, lobbying for single-payer day-in, day-out, everywhere.
Like many, on both sides of the political spectrum, Henwood recognizes the weight of this failure for the Left. He writes:
Collective bargaining has mostly disappeared in the private sector, and now looks doomed in the public sector. There are something like 23 states with Republican governors and legislative majorities ready to imitate Walker who will be emboldened by his victory. And there are a lot of Dems ready to do a Walker Lite. If they don’t disappear, public sector unions will soon become powerless.
[I]f unions ever want to turn things around—and I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that we’ll never have a better society without a reborn labor movement—they have to learn to […] act politically, to agitate on behalf of the entire working class and not just a privileged subset with membership cards.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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