Tag Archives: occupy-wall-street

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.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , ,

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.

Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged

On Occupy, reproduction and the commons

In an earlier post, I pointed to David Harvey’s text on reclaiming the city as a site of the commons. Below, Silvia Federici and George Caffentzis highlight Occupy’s efforts towards “building [the] reproductive commons” as an oppositional struggle. And Jodi Dean and Marco Desiriis discuss “the commons” as a political demand, as well as the limitations of the commons as a practice divorced from an oppositional political strategy. Continue reading

Tagged
%d bloggers like this: