The Occupy Wall Street movement is one of the most significant developments on the American left to have emerged in years. An important victory has been won by the fact that the movement has already shifted American public discourse to now include the recognition of economic inequality as a political issue. This alone is long overdue, and will most likely be of lasting historical significance.
We are experiencing, as Andrew Levine wrote in the wake of events in Madison, Wisconsin earlier this year, the “endgame of the Reagan Revolution.” The U.S. experienced increasing income and wealth equality from the time of the Great Depression until the late 1960s. The U.S. capitalist class began, in the 1970s and even more markedly after the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, to engage in conscious class warfare for the restoration of capitalist class power.
The economic crisis that began in 2007 and has continued to the present is the end result of these three decades of class warfare, and the social movements of 2011 mark the beginning of a new historical sequence that cannot as yet be named. Having, at long last, revived the tradition of egalitarian universalism in American political discourse, the Generation of 2012 must brace itself for the hard fight ahead against the forces of reaction and entrenched power.
The social movements that dominated the late twentieth century were movements that emphasized diversity, and because of them, in the late twentieth century there were important victories in the struggle for more just and equitable societies. The struggle to end racial apartheids, the struggle for gender equality, the struggle to end the oppression of sexual minorities, and the struggle for immigrant rights, each made monumental political gains. But each also quickly reached the limits of what it could achieve within the horizons of capitalist society, and each has experienced painful attacks and set-backs in the wake of 9/11 and in the wake of economic crisis.
The egalitarian universalism of the OWS discourse (“We are the 99%”) contains within it the possibility of bringing into sharp focus the precise nature of the ways in which capitalism presents barriers to the achievement of social justice. The precise ways in which capitalist democracy is an oxymoron, and real democracy can only be achieved when capital is overcome as a barrier. (“This is what democracy looks like.”)
Occupy Wall Street has identified exactly the right target at a moment when there is widespread recognition and agreement about Wall Street as the perpetrator of a great crime, as well as agreement that Wall Street has an inordinate amount of control over the economic decisions that come out of Washington – both from Republicans and from Democrats.
OWS has used publicity strategies that should make Madison Avenue envious. Even in the absence of much early coverage from mainstream news, the movement used social networking media to mobilize a national and an international movement, with tens of thousands taking to the streets in places remote from Wall Street, but integrated into a world experiencing common conditions as a result of their common subjection to the regime of capital.
They have slept on the ground and camped in tents in the public spaces and parks around the world, and have revitalized a space for public protest after a long era of the privatization of public space, and the systematic post- 9/11 assault on civil liberties such as the right to peaceable assembly. They have established an ongoing experiment in direct democracy in the form of their General Assemblies – self-organized decision-making bodies that bear a family resemblance to those of the Paris Commune.
Eight weeks into an occupation of Zuccotti Park, however, it is likely that the movement’s hardest tasks are still ahead. Here it seems that some of the questions that Okla Elliott asked here in March of the movement in Wisconsin are again relevant in the case of OWS. First among these was “Protests are good for visibility, but what are our next or concurrent moves?”
Occupying Zuccotti Park is not the same as “occupying Wall Street”. OWS has not occupied The New York Stock Exchange, or the board rooms of the banks and the brokerage firms. The occupation of the Park itself is a minor inconvenience for capital, easy to ignore for people who find it easy to ignore the connection between their actions and genocide and planetary ecological collapse.
Occupying a park is also not the same as occupying a city, or seizing control of the means of production, or capturing state power. Occupying Zuccotti Park is not capable of achieving any of these things, but what the movement is capable of being is a new model for organizing actions that could achieve broader political and economic goals.
Let me end by making brief comment on four different kinds of actions that are concurrent with or outgrowths of the Occupy Wall Street movement, three of which are economic in nature, and one that consciously aims at affecting the political process.
The first of these economic actions is one that has had mainly a symbolic value, but it also has the value of negative example as one way that it is not possible to change the regime of finance capital: Bank Transfer Day.
Not surprisingly, it was Doug Henwood who was the quickest and clearest in pointing out the limitations to the idea behind Bank Transfer Day and similar actions. I will not repeat his arguments; you can read about them here and here. But I will repeat his main conclusion:
Getting banks under control is a matter of politics, not individual portfolio allocation decisions. Sure, you may get friendlier service and lower fees from a credit union—but you’re not really doing anything politically transformative by moving the money. Move your money and it’s still money.
The second of the economic actions that I would like to mention is one that has more of a chance of having a transformative effect: the participation of the trade unions in the Occupy movement.
In the last weeks of 2010, student strikes in London mobilized quickly and dramatically to express the collective rage that youth felt towards the policies of the Conservative-Liberal coalition government in the U.K. While celebrating the strengths of the student movement, Alex Callinicos also noted that the “students lack the collective economic strength that, for all the setbacks it has suffered, the trade union movement still possesses.” The pressing problem for the London student demonstrations was “how to bring together the fighting spirit and imagination of the students and the collective power of organised workers”.
It is one of the strengths of the Occupy Wall Street movement that, like the movement in Wisconsin, it has involved the participation of the labor unions from the beginning. More is needed, however, than union activists and rank-and-file members joining the Occupy demonstrations as they would join fellow workers in their picket lines. What is needed is the third economic action, one that so far has only been tried in a limited way in a one day action in the Occupy Oakland protests: the General Strike. This still remains the weapon par excellence of the trade union movement.
One can see movements towards more substantive trade union actions in solidarity with OWS, hopefully ones that will escalate. Next week the AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union and the Laborers’ International Union of North America will partner with Occupy Wall Street for a “Day of Action” on Thursday. The actions are not radical actions like a General Strike, however. They are mainly actions that are supposed to lend support to Democratic Party attempts to pass job stimulus bills.
Each of these three economic actions has its own limits, and the limits of each points to the fact that it is political action that will ultimately make economic transformation a possibility. While OWS has focused its attention on Wall Street, as economics is clearly the reason for the world’s current state of crisis, it also has to be recognized that the solution to this impasse will be a political solution.
OWS has also been cautious about appealing to the political establishment to address specific demands because progressives have learned some hard lessons about the ways in which social movements can be co-opted, and the radical nature of their demands sometimes diluted beyond recognition by politicians and the established political parties.
What we should not lose sight of in resisting this co-optation is that in the end real changes can only be achieved by this movement if it makes a conscious attempt to affect the political process in some way. Here we can point to the encouraging example of the NYC March To DC, a contingent of OWS in New York that left Zuccotti Park on November 9th on a walking march south, and aims to reach Washington, DC on November 23rd to join Occupy DC in protesting the continuation of the Bush era tax cuts.
These actions are a long way from actions that could achieve goals of epoch-making proportions, like bringing capital under collective communal control, but they are a clear indication that the OWS experiment in direct democracy is working. The actions that have grown out of the Occupy Wall Street are moving in the right direction.
Regardless of the immediate success or failure of the actions around OWS, the “political enthusiasm” that the movement has generated has changed the terrain of left politics in the United States, in ways that are likely to have implications for years to come.