Activism no substitute for class action
The winter months have now placed some distance between us in the here and now and the days when the Occupy Movement created a wave of occupations that seemed unstoppable across the U.S. Was this movement an ephemeral whim of the masses’ imagination, an accident of history, or rather part and parcel of the general and wider struggles put forth by the working class and other non-exploiting strata of society against capitalist oppression? The heat of the movement has clearly dissipated. This seems to be the case when we note that while during the early days of the movement the state’s repressive apparatus had to ‘soften’ its most ferocious tactics of social control in the face of the population’s indignation against police brutality and sympathy with the protesters, by January it was carrying out violent evictions of the most resilient encampments in the nation virtually unhindered. We can also point out that while in Oakland in December the brutal attack against an Iraq war veteran—which resulted in his hospitalization in a coma—sparked the Occupy Oakland blockade of the Longview port and the protest march by thousands of Oakland workers in its support, the social situation today has returned to a relative, if perhaps temporary, calm. Disregarding these signs that the initial vitality and authenticity of the movement have for the moment exhausted themselves, the Occupy Movement’s organizers are planning a ‘general strike’ for May 1st, and are putting forth calls to all affiliated groups to support this action. How successful can this action be in the face of a virtually demobilized movement? Can it develop a perspective for overcoming capitalism -- the root cause of humanity’s suffering-- against which at least initially the movement seemed to be to crystallizing, in isolation, without linking up to the wider struggles of the working class? And, most importantly, who can be the subject of a radical transformation of society today? The activists and organizers who today are largely at the helm of a demobilized movement? The labor parties and attendant unions? Or the non-exploiting masses themselves, consciously and autonomously organized?
Activism: The Need to Understand Its True Nature
As Marxists, we understand that in the period of capitalist decadence the burning questions about the future that decaying capitalism offers –the lack of perspective, the dislocation of a sense of collective, the sense of uncertainty, anxiety, alienation, the never ending wars, the degradation of the environment etc— find expression in spontaneous eruptions, without warning and without being planned in advance, as it used to be the case during the period of the ascendance of capitalism. Then, youthful capitalism had the ability to grant significant and long-lasting reforms. This made it possible to organize struggles with the help of the then existing permanent organizations of the working class –the unions and the socialist parties. But capitalism’s entry in its epoch of decadence irreversibly changed these conditions. The spontaneous nature of the masses’ movement is what has characterized the struggles seen across the globe in the last year and a half. It is what gives them authenticity.
The Occupy Movement in the U.S. did not escape from this fundamental tendency. But once the heat of the struggle is gone, the desire to come together to discuss the big social questions of the day and the determination not to accept the brutalization of existence imposed by capitalism cannot find expression in any permanent form of organization without it becoming co-opted by the superior forces of the state and its apparatus, of which the unions and leftist/bourgeois political organizations have become a part. Without the life given by the spontaneous mobilization of the masses, the call for a general strike is totally voluntarist, when not an outright manipulation by leftist organizations or their activist attendants. An affinity group affiliated with the Anti-Bureaucratic Bloc in Oakland notes how the Occupy Movement has not been able to resist the distortion and usurpation of its originally non-hierarchical General Assemblies by professional activists who established a practice of linking up with the leftist apparatus of the bourgeoisie and the unions. According to this group, this contributed to the de-vitalization of the movement. On http://libcom.com on January 29, 2012, the day after the Oakland Police Department cleared the encampment there for the second, and last, time, the group writes: “…it was beginning to look like a class-based critique was becoming acceptable discourse. With the usual professional Leftist intelligentsia more firmly in control of the content and direction of Occupy Oakland tactics and strategies, however, the likelihood of a return to that initial wide appeal -- based on the workable and attractive principles (although not without their unique problems) of non-hierarchical decision making and the refusal to issue demands -- seems practically non-existent…bureaucratic tendencies began creeping into the open with [the leadership’s] cozying up to Organized Labor, an early self-destructive move (for Occupy as a whole, not for the leadership, for whom it was an astute career move).” We can discuss with the comrades who posted this on the significance of “non-hierarchical decision making” and the (attractive principle) of “the refusal to issue demands”. But we agree with their general assessment. The Occupy Movement, or whatever is left of it, is today in the hands of experienced activists and organizers. As such, we think it is in great jeopardy of missing the opportunity for a genuine development in the direction of class, proletarian positions.
But what do we mean by this? There's certainly a difference between a small group like Student Loan Justice (a group whose signs were a fixture at the original Occupy Wall Street encampment), for whom the campaign to make student loan debt dischargeable in bankruptcy is probably a sincere expression of a desire to improve the deteriorating conditions of life experienced by the younger generations today, and those professionals who hop from social movement to social movement, turning them toward partial struggles, reformism, or premature fights with the cops. Instead of capitalizing on the common grievances of the protesters and the wider working class, such as the necessity to defend one’s self and each other against the concerted attacks of crisis-ridden capitalism, whether they come in the form of precariousness, evictions, student debt peonage, lay-offs, chronic unemployment, cuts to benefits or social spending, the job of professional activism is to take advantage of the movement’s momentary questioning as to whether or which goals to pose for itself, who to turn to for help, and the real causes of society’s impasse to harness the movement’s genuine openness and derail it into reformist and single-issue campaigns. This only contributes to exhausting the potential and initial elan of the struggle into a myriad of meetings and marches, the aim of which is not to build unity and buoy the sense of self-confidence, but rather to weaken their potential.
This was clearly noticeable in the actions of west coast activists who worked in close ranks with the union apparatus there to fragment the potential for unity and solidarity with the working class which was expressed by Occupy Oakland when it shut down the Longview port in solidarity with its struggling longshoremen (see our article online on this issue). While the ‘rank and file’, genuine base of the Occupy movement on the west coast called on workers’ solidarity and organized meetings with longshoremen and other workers, activists worked around the clock and behind their backs to make sure that the unions’ presence would disrupt, intimidate, and discourage attempts by Occupy protesters and workers to build real ties of unity. This is because the more experienced activists and organizers vie for a position of power and status and identify rather with the bureaucratic tendencies of a union’s apparatus than with any spontaneous and autonomous expression of real class solidarity by the ‘rank and file’ protesters. We think these elements have done and are doing their best to occupy the terrain of the struggle ahead on the May 1st general strike in order to be better positioned to dampen all incipient potential for the movement to start at a deeper, wider, more politicized level than when it first started in September. However, even the kind of activism represented by the campaign to reform the student loan system can be absorbed by the ruling class. This campaign, if successful, would integrate more and more with bourgeois legality to "work out a solution" or it would turn to something disruptive and then disappear, but if it was successful the state would seek to bring it into the fold, so to speak, in order to enhance the mystification about its ‘benevolent’ nature.
Activism fully works for the benefit of the ruling class and in its class terrain. It is no coincidence that the Democratic Party uses the issue of the widening income gap between rich and poor as a campaign issue, posing as the party that champions the plight of the least lucky and the purveyor of benevolent relief. In this way, rather than encouraging a deepening of the understanding of how capitalism works, why it can no longer offer long-lasting reforms, what needs to be done to address the social problems of the world, and who is to do so, activism ties the movement to the belief that the capitalist state can intervene on behalf of the dispossessed, and that capitalism can still offer ‘opportunities’ and prosperity. Whether the terrain of the struggle will be diverted from the real issues posed by decadent capitalism into the dead-end of reformism and the democratic campaign or otherwise will depend largely on the general situation of the class struggle both nationally and internationally. This does not prove that the movement was from the beginning an orchestration of the bourgeois left and had no proletarian expressions of its own. Neither does it necessarily mean that any genuine expressions of possible politicization are defunct. It does mean, we believe, that the direction the movement ultimately finds its roots in its original difficulties and weakness. Whether these will ultimately prove to be the death knell of the movement, it is impossible to say today.
East coast and west coast: the Occupy Movement has the same class nature and same weaknesses
As it is often the case in similar circumstances, there are certainly individuals within activism who are genuinely interested in advancing the cause of the struggle of the exploited and who cannot be identified as ‘the enemy’. However, their political development, their clarity as to the goals and methods of the struggle will not advance so long as they don’t break free of the traps of activism, which will make every attempt to steer them away from real class positions. As we conclude from the http://libcom.com post, and as we discuss in the article on the west coast longshore workers’ struggle, this is the situation on the West Coast, but what of the East Coast? New York City is, after all, the birthplace of the movement. However it cannot be said that it provides any clearer leadership and way forward. On the New York City Occupy website there is a very interesting post on the present state of the General Assembly and spokes council there, with interesting replies as well, clearly showing that the Occupy Movement as it was at its birth is now good and defunct. Here is a little excerpt: “Proposal to end spokes and the GA
I propose that we end both spokes council and the GA for several reasons.
…Spokes and the General Assembly are a recreation of the US Congress, without the judicial and executive branches to check the legislative branches power.
Both spokes and the GA have completely screwed over the most vulnerable occupiers. Spokes showed how at a whim it could just end a housing program for occupiers. Essentially people were thrown to the wolves by this decision. Both bodies have shown a complete disregard for marginalized voices such as the mentally ill or homeless. Violence has broken out not just because disruptors are bad, but the total disregard of body itself for certain voices has triggered some conflicts…
A secret organization like spokes does NOTHING for OWS in terms of public relations. As neither body is functional, both OWS and Spokes are an embarrassment to the movement…Ending spokes and the GA would not hamper the movement at all. Individuals and working groups could still work on their projects. In fact as both the spokes and GA absorb time from events or projects that occupiers could be working on, freeing up this time would help rejuvenate the movement. Spokes council meetings in particular take people away from downtown Manhattan, and this divides the movement.
Activists who are fighting against the system and against laws they consider injustice shouldn’t submit to a new system with equally oppressive structures (out of control legislative process)"1
While the post contains a number of confusions regarding the structure and purpose of a general assembly, it nonetheless gives a good idea of the situation today. To illustrate how very difficult it will be for the movement to express its voice freely and openly as it had been able to do initially, we can take a look at the calendar of events leading up to the ‘general strike’ of May 1st which Occupy’s organizers have set up. It is filled with guest speakers and personalities from the union apparatus, leftist activism, and radical academia who will hold teach-ins about most notably May Day and the general strike. This being said, we still affirm that this movement belonged to the working class. A social movement of this importance cannot be understood in isolation. When we place Occupy in the context of the international situation, as the movement itself did at the beginning, when it clearly stated it found its inspiration in the movements of the Indignant in Spain and in the students’ and workers’ protests in Greece, the broader context of its grievances is immediately grasped. But the movements in Spain and Greece themselves are the product of a historic period that opened up in 2006 with the anti-CPE movement in France and the Vigo, Spain massive workers’ struggle, breaking the reflux in consciousness which resulted from the campaigns around the collapse of the Stalinist bloc in 1989. The Occupy Movement of the U.S. is inscribed in this dynamic, both regarding the incipient, even if admittedly confused, questioning of capitalism, and the difficulties it is facing in finding a clear class terrain, class identity and class consciousness. In this sense, it is important to assess Occupy Movement on the basis of both its origin and its development in order to trace clearer perspectives for the struggles to come and in order to more fully understand the problems the working class faces in the present period. This can inform us as to how to help it overcome its difficulties.
However, it is not the scope of this article to present the weaknesses of the movement since its inception. We invite our readers to see this article on the democratic illusions in the movement, and elsewhere in our press and online articles. But we think it is important to at least point out that the Occupy Movement’s confusions regarding its own identity, its goals, its tactics, and its form of organization created the conditions of isolation from the wider struggles of the working class and opened the door to the intrusion and substitution by strata, political groups and individuals that do not belong to the working class terrain and who have expertly manipulated the openness and amorphous state of the consensus process to distort the functioning of the General Assemblies and install themselves at the movement’s helm. Further, the movement’s own illusions in democracy –expressed in its insistence that the ‘injustices’ of capitalism can be addressed by amending the Constitution, or the tax code, or the juridical definition of corporation- block and obscure a clear understanding of capitalism, which is not regarded as a social relationship between exploited and exploiters defended by the state, but as the usurpation of a state otherwise neutral and beneficial by ‘corporate greed’. This can further provide leftists with ammunition to steer the movement in the direction of electoral and reformist campaigns aimed at defending the integrity of the capitalist state. Given these conditions, what can the most genuine elements within the Occupy Movement do to find a way forward to their questioning, to their preoccupations, without drowning in the swamp of reformism and activism?
The proletarian perspective is the only path to the future
Undeniably, the working class is still confronting innumerable difficulties in developing its struggles and its consciousness. It is also true that it has not taken the lead in many of the important mobilizations we have seen in the last year and a half, and that when it has mobilized, even massively, even in general strikes, it has not been able, for the most part, to force the state to relent its brutal attacks. But just as it is impossible to understand the Occupy Movement in the isolation of the U.S., so it is impossible to understand why the working class is the revolutionary class of our epoch if we look at each of its struggles in isolation from their wider historical context. One thing for certain we can say: the string of austerity measures –layoffs, precariousness, cuts to services and wages, cuts to pension and health benefits, cuts to social security in the form of lengthening the stay at work—gives the lie to the ‘theories’ that sprouted up in the 1970’s about the working class having ‘integrated’ as part of some ‘labor aristocracy’! Indeed, one important characteristic of capitalism is that it has created, for the first time in history, a class that is both exploited and revolutionary. This is because capitalism’s mode of exploitation rests on the most developed form of private ownership. The working class does not own the means of production and its existence cannot therefore be based on the exploitation of other classes. On the contrary, it is obliged to sell its labor power to the owners of the means of production. Its conditions of existence are thus completely at the mercy of the market, the general conditions of the production, sale, and realization of commodities. It is this generalization of commodity relations that rests at the basis of the contradictions of capitalism, not ‘corporate greed’, as some occupiers believe, and that generates the crisis of overproduction, with its sequel of layoffs, brutal attacks against the very class that produces all the wealth of society, degradation of the environment as capital desperately tried to reduce its costs of production, wars, etc. A class that produces all the wealth of society without owning a little bit of it has only one interest to defend: the abolition of the conditions of its own exploitation, i.e., the abolition of capitalism itself. This is why the essential place the working class occupies in these generalized relations of commodity exchange puts it at the center of a social conflict which can only be resolved through massive, generalized, and unified class confrontations against the oppression of capital. These confrontations are not inevitable, but it is the working class that will be at their center stage when, and if, they develop. Without a doubt, the working class is still far from developing the capacity to take the system head on and change it through a revolution. But if this task seems enormous from the point of view of the working class, it is because it still needs to find the confidence in itself that when it unites the various threads of its indignation and discontent of which we are seeing the sparks, it will be the unstoppable force in society that can lead the whole of humanity toward the perspective of a new world. For all these reasons, it is when the working class and the Occupy Movement find and forge links of solidarity on a class, autonomous terrain away from unions, activism, and reformism that a real perspective for a real, radical change can open up.
Ana, March 2012