Sunday, October 02, 2011

First we take Manhattan

Wall Street's famously chaste, humble bearing may not be the secret of its charm.  When you ask what is, you begin to realise what the Right has accomplished.  It has plausibly retailed something as banal as markets, and all the variations and derivatives thereof, as a libidinised field of popular (competitive) participation, the final source of all wealth/value (stock markets delivering oodles of the stuff like ducks farting out golden eggs), and, if this isn't a tautology, a genre of erotica.  The insurance company as an aphrodisiac.  Yet it had to occur to someone to give Goldman Sachs and allies something to worry about, a something from which they have thus far been protected.  Under the Obama administration, which treats the quack orthodoxies of investment bankers as technocratic panaceas, the politically dominant fraction within the US ruling class has rarely seemed more powerful and at ease.  In their home city, the banks and traders have colonised the political system to the extent that one of their own sons, Michael Bloomberg, can take office and actually run the city as a favour to them.  (Bloomberg declines remuneration for his services.)  This is 21st Century philanthropy.

On that very subject, it must be a felicitous coincidence that JP Morgan Chase donated $4.6m to the New York Police Department on the same day that the same department engaged in a mass arrest of hundreds of #OccupyWallStreet activists marooned on the Brooklyn Bridge.

"The whole world is watching," the protesters chant. No doubt. The question is whether any of those watching will take this as a cue to join the occupation in solidarity.  Admittedly it is already an over-worked reference, but there are compelling, if distant, echoes of Tahrir Square in New York (and now, I understand, financial districts in Boston, Miami, Detroit, San Francisco, etc.), in the sense of a nascent attempt to find a new model commune.  What the occupiers seek to create is both a rallying point for oppositional forces, and a model of participatory democracy that, if replicated, would give popular constituencies the ability and authority to solve their problems.  We'll come back to the model of self-government being debated in Zuccotti Park, but as far as rallying opposition forces and pricking the mediasphere goes, the occupation has been having some success. The critical moment has been the participation of the organised labour movement, with the direct involvement of transport and steel workers, and the solidarity of Tahrir Square protesters.  (A mass strike by transport workers in Egypt has just won a major victory, gaining a 200% pay rise, just months after the army outlawed strikes).  The context of which it partakes is a germinal revival of class struggle in the United States.  Doug Henwood, who initially expressed reservations about the (lack of) politics of the initiative, describes the situation as "inspiring".  This is why the initiative has been greeted with the predictable sequence of tactful silence from officials, followed by open hostility, police brutality, threatening murmurs from Bloomberg and, finally, last night's mass arrest - which I would imagine follows orders from the mayor's office. Bloomberg, you'll be relieved to know, is not exercised on behalf of multi-billionaires like himself, but those Wall Street traders on a measly $40-50k, inconvenienced by anticapitalist wildlife. 

As far I can tell, the occupation began with a deliberate strategy of having minimal concrete politics and no demands.  The idea was that the politics and tactics of the occupation would be agreed in the context of a participatory, open-ended symposium.  No doubt some of this is mired in what I would consider a destructive and caricatured anti-Leninism, but I can imagine it comes from real experiences and expresses legitimate desires.  Some participants reportedly argued that what was important was the process, not a set of demands.  The process itself, the decentralised, participatory system, should be the main 'demand' in this perspective.  "Join us," would be the slogan.  I can't imagine this approach being effective.  There was an early fear that this could mean that right-wing elements would easily take over the movement and distort its agenda, and indeed some of the Tea Party websites have been vocal in their support for the occupation.  Yet they aren't setting the agenda in New York.  The political messages vary from the extremely abstract ("Care 4 Your Country") to the bluntly specific ("End Corporate Personhood"); from the maximalist ("Smash capitalism, liberate the planet") to the broadly populist ("I am the 99%").  The best slogan I've seen is, "How do we end the deficit?  End the war, Tax the rich."  This has the virtue of being a popular demand, a concise point, and right on the money.

On the issue of populism, I see that Doug Henwood has reported some misplaced sympathy for small businesses among some of the occupiers.  Perhaps this would be a fitting moment to revive the old Stalinist/Eurocommunist idea of the "anti-monopoly alliance".  I'm not being completely sarcastic.  While the petty bourgeoisie is largely a bedrock of reaction, it can have its radical moments, especially when capitalism is wrecking the lives of small traders, shopkeepers, homeowners - as we've recently seen in Greece, where the lower middle class is overwhelmingly on the side of the working class and the left in this fight.  I'm just saying that while one wants ultimately to win people to consistently anticapitalist politics, a sort of leftist, Naderite populism opposing the 99% to the 1% (the people against the ruling class in other words) is not a terrible place to start.  The main thing is what the most organised and militant sections of the working class do - if they throw their weight behind the movement, they will probably lead politically.

But what I find most interesting is not the immediate politics, the tactics and the process - which I think tends to become an obsession - but what these say about the strategic orientations of the occupiers.  In the broad outline, there have been two major strategies for those challenging capitalism.  The reformist strategy has been the dominant one, and immense human capital and potential has been sunk into its promise.  It posits society as, above all, a body of intelligent, rational citizens who can judge capitalism as wanting by reference to standards that transcend the system itself - ethical precepts that are universal, rational and humanistic.  The influence of Kant on such thinking is well-known.  The goal is therefore firstly to mobilise people behind a community interest favouring the gradual supercession of capitalism.  This allows for a certain elitism, since it requires the dominance of those deemed most articulate, rational and intelligent in their advocacy of socialist values, as well as those most equipped to handle office.  Secondly, those people are to put their trust in parliamentary means, using the power of the executive to impose abridgments of capitalist relations.  Those advocating this strategy have differed immensely on the degree to which such an approach needs to be supplemented by industrial militancy and mass pressure.  But it is ultimately the parliament which asserts the community's interests versus capitalist interests.

The revolutionary strategy rests on a different analysis.  It judges capitalism by standards immanent to it, and raises socialism not as an abstract, supra-historical project, but as one situated within a specific historical moment - a technologically advanced, complex socialism has become possible because capitalism has created the material preconditions for it.  Its universalism is not abstract, but class-anchored; rather than the sane, adult citizenry being the repository of universal values, it is the working class that is the 'universal' class, since it has a direct interest in the abolition of capitalism and an historically produced capacity to bring it about.  Finally, it sees parliament not as an ideal democratic space in which socialist values can be elaborated and implemented with the authority of the executive at its back, but as a component of the capitalist state that is hostile to socialism.  It follows that the aim is to create alternative, working class centres of sovereignty capable of implementing democratic decisions made at the level of the rank and file.  Whether such a counter-power was to call itself a soviet, a commune or a Committee of Public Safety (as envisioned in News from Nowhere), its purpose would be to work as a rising alternative form of legitimate authority that would eventually be in a position to challenge the capitalist state.  Through a period of dual power, the working class would learn to govern itself, acquiring the skills and self-confidence it would need, resisting attempts by the state to suppress it, until it was in a position to win a majority for taking power.  This counter-power would logically centre on the process of production, but extend well beyond the workplace.  It would have its own media, its own budget, its own leisure, and its own pedagogy.  It would be the material infrastructure of the socialist order it sought to create.  This doesn't preclude parliamentary strategies, as a means of helping legitimise and even attempting to legalise extra-parliamentary power.

Where does Occupy Wall Street fit into this?  It is not my objective to pigeon-hole it as either a revolutionary or reformist strategy - it is neither, in fact.  To put it in what will sound like uncharitable terms, it is baby-steps, the experimental form of a movement in its infancy, not yet sufficiently developed theoretically or politically to be anything else.  There is a sort of loose autonomism informing its tactics, while its focus on participatory democracy is redolent of the SDS wing and the Sixties 'New Left', but it is not yet definite enough to be reducible to any dominant strategy or perspective.  It is, however, potentially the nucleus of a mass movement, and how it relates to the problems addressed by both reformists and revolutionaries now will make all the difference in the future.  At a certain point, the severity of the state's response to it will force a theoretical and political clarification on its (official or unofficial) leadership.  Recall how the high watermark of Sixties radicalism in 1968 was also the moment at which the state got serious in its repression.  This was the year in which the term "police riot" was invented to describe Chicago cops' response to protesters outside the Democratic convention, where police mercilessly assaulted protesters and bystanders alike, while students chanted "The whole world is watching".  This was the year in which the FBI murdered several black leaders.  It was in the years that followed that the movement was forced to crystalise politically, to become a much more grim undertaking - though with the unfortunate drawback that many of the leaders were drawn into the most ultra-Stalinist politics while others simply took their 'community organising' schtick into the Democratic fold.  So, I would say that if a mass movement emerges from this, the early orientation of Wall Street occupiers to the major strategic questions will make a big difference.

The very attempt to mimic Tahrir Square implies a goal of creating an oppositional, popular sovereignty - a goal also hinted at in the rhetoric about "being the change you want to see in the world".  It implies an aspiration, at this stage no more, to take and keep control of public spaces, conveniences, workplaces, government buildings, etc.  This is a good, radical development.  For the moment, it would be an improvement if they could march on a public highway without being arrested for it, and that is why it is so important that the movement spreads and enlarges.  To that end, the evidence of class-anchored analysis and tactics by the occupiers is hopeful. For example, Pham Binh reports that Occupy Wall Street won the support of the Transit Workers' Union after engaging in a solidarity actions with workers at Sothebys and the post office.  In this respect, the movement is already light years ahead of some of the early New Left trends, while the union movement is politically in a much better place than it was in, say, 1965.  As in Wisconsin, the fate of this movement will partially depend on how much it defers to the Democratic leadership.  I see no evidence of Obamamania or any other form of Democratic filiation among these occupiers.  Indeed, the movement arrives just as Obama's support is crumbling among all sectors of his base (despite the efforts of apologists such as Melissa Harris-Perry to reduce this to the carping of white liberals), and could work as an alternative pole for its scattered elements, much as the left and various fragments of Clinton's disaffected base were fused together into a movement in Seattle in 1999.  The achilles heels of the movement will inevitably be any tendency to exaggerate the suspicion toward centralism, which would tend to leave it vulnerable to repression, and also any tendency to over-state novelty as a virtue in contrast with the ideologies of the 'old left', which would leave it ideologically disarmed - as if any movement can do without the condensed learning and experiences of past generations facing similar problems.

At any rate, there is much to be said for the idea of an American Spring.  And beginning the arduous process of experimenting in self-government is not a bad way to herald its advent.