Occupy Wall Street protests: the capitalist system itself is the enemy

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Readers have undoubtedly been following the events surrounding the OCCUPY WALL STREET (OWS) movement. Since mid-September, thousands of protestors have occupied Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan, just blocks from Wall Street. Protests have now spread to hundreds of cities around North America. Tens of thousands have taken part in occupations, demonstrations and general assemblies that have shown levels of self-organization and direct participation in political activity unseen in the US for many decades. The exploited and angry population has raised its voice, shown its indignation against the ills of capitalism. The international impact of OWS across the world should not be underestimated: protests have taken place in the most important centre of world capitalism, raising slogans and frustrations that echo those raised throughout Europe and North Africa.

However, the future of the movement seems uncertain. While many protestors vow to continue their occupations indefinitely, it is becoming increasingly clear that the movement’s initial spontaneous energy is in reflux, as its hallmark general assemblies (GAs) are transformed more and more into a passive echo chamber of the “working-groups” and “committees,” many of which appear to be dominated by professional activists, leftists, etc. The situation remains fluid, but we think it has reached a certain level of development that we can now attempt to make a preliminary assessment of its meaning and identify some of its strengths and weaknesses.

The ICC has been able to participate in these events in New York, where several militants and close sympathizers have made a number of trips to Zuccotti Park to speak with occupiers and participate in the GAs. ICC sympathizers elsewhere have sent us reports on their experiences in these movements in their cities. A vibrant discussion has also started on our website’s discussion forum[1]. This article is a contribution to this debate and we welcome our readers to join in the discussion.

How to respond to capitalism’s attacks? The struggle to find the class terrain

First we must recognize that the current occupation movement grows from the same source as all the massive social revolts we have witnessed over the course of 2011: from the movements in Tunisia and Egypt to the emergence of the indignados in Spain, the occupations in Israel and the mobilizations against austerity and union-busting in Wisconsin and other states, the frustration and desperation of the working class - in particular the younger generations hit hard by unemployment[2].

Thus we see a direct continuity between OWS and the growing willingness of the working class to fight back against capitalism’s attacks on an international level. OWS is clearly not a bourgeois campaign to derail and co-opt the class struggle. On the contrary, it is the latest in a series of movements, largely organized through the internet and social media - outside the unions and official political parties - through which the working class is seeking to respond to the massive attacks being unleashed against it in the wake of capitalism’s historic crisis. The movement is thus to be welcomed as a sign that the proletariat in North America has not been completed defeated and is unwilling to suffer capitalism’s attacks indefinitely. Nevertheless, we must also recognize that there are different tendencies at work in the movement, that a combat is taking place between different wings. The dominant tendencies have a strongly reformist outlook, the more proletarian tendencies are having a very difficult time locating the class terrain of its struggle.

In defence of the sovereignty of the General Assemblies

Perhaps the most positive aspect of the OWS protests has been the emergence of the General Assemblies (GA) as the movement’s sovereign organs. That represents an advance over the mobilization in Wisconsin, which despite its initial spontaneity, was quickly taken over by the organizational apparatus of the unions and the left of the Democratic Party[3]. The emergence of the GAs in OWS represents continuity with the movements in Spain, France and elsewhere, and stands as marked evidence of the capacity of the working class to take control of its struggles and learn from events in other parts of the globe. Indeed, the internationalization of the GAs as a form of struggle is one of the most impressive features of the current phase of the class struggle. The GAs are, above all else, an attempt by the working class to defend its autonomy by involving the entire movement in the decision making process and ensuring the widest and broadest possible discussion with the class.

However, despite their importance in this movement, it is clear that the GAs in OWS have not been able to function without considerable distortion and manipulation from the professional activists and leftists who have largely controlled the various working-groups and committees that are supposed to be nominally responsible to the GAs. This weight has contributed to a severe difficulty for the movement in maintaining an open discussion and has worked to prevent it from opening a discussion of extending itself beyond the occupations to reach out to the working class as a whole. The 15M movement in Spain has also encountered similar problems[4].

Early in the occupation, in response to persistent calls from the media for the movement to identify its goals and demands, a press committee was formed for the purpose of publishing an OCCUPY WALL STREET journal. One of our comrades was present at the GA when the first issue of this journal - which had already been produced and disseminated to the media by the press committee - was taken up. The predominant sentiment of the GA was one of outrage that a journal had been produced and disseminated to the media with content that did not reflect the consensus view of the movement, but seemed to reflect one particular political point of view. A decision was made to remove the person responsible for the production and dissemination of the journal from the press committee. This action represented the power of the GA to assert its sovereignty over the committees and the working groups. An embryonic expression of the “right of immediate recall,” the offending member of the press committee was promptly removed for exceeding his mandate.

However, at a GA several weeks later—on the eve of Mayor Bloomberg’s threatened eviction of the occupiers from Zuccotti Park—our comrade found a remarkably different atmosphere. With the eviction looming, the GA was virtually devoid of meaningful discussion. The majority of the GA was taken up by reports from the working-groups and committees without discussion. The only discussion that was permitted by the GA facilitators was regarding a proposal by the Manhattan borough President to limit the performance of movement drummers to two hours a day. This GA never broached the issue of the future of the movement. It did not even consider the question of how to develop a strategy and formulate tactics for extending the movement beyond its current limitations and almost certain demise in Zuccotti Park.

At this GA, one of our comrades attempted to propose that the occupiers look to the future by reaching out beyond the park’s boundaries to the working class of the city, where they were likely to receive a warm reception. Our comrade was told that the intervention was not on the topic of the proposal to limit drumming and that the time limit for interventions (arbitrarily set by the facilitators at one minute) had been exceeded. Another proposal was made by a participant to form a delegation to speak about the movement to students at several area colleges and universities. Her proposal was also rejected, with many protestors indicating that they had no desire to spread the movement and that if the students wanted to support the occupation, they should come to Zuccotti Park.

How, then, can we explain the tendency for the working groups, committees and facilitators to progressively assert control over the movement as time passed?

The danger of Anti-Politics

The OWS movement has been characterized from the start by a certain ‘anti-political’ spirit that has served to deaden discussion, prevent the polarization of conflicting ideas and the development of class demands. This has made it possible for leftists, political celebrities and politicians of all stripes to step in and speak for the movement, and allowed the media to present the OWS movement as the early stages of a “Left-Wing Tea Party”[5].

OWS’s almost militant refusal to take up the question of goals and demands, which we think represents a general reluctance to consider the question of power, presents something of a conundrum for revolutionaries. How do we understand this phenomenon, which has also been present in other movements? As far as OWS is concerned, we think it flows in large measure from the following factors.

The continued weight of the bourgeoisie’s ideological campaigns around the death of communism

While it is true that the main social force behind these movements appears to be the younger generation of workers, many of whom were born after the collapse of Stalinism in 1989, there remains a genuine fear in the working class to take up the question of communism. While Marx may be in the process of rehabilitation in terms of his critique of capitalism, there is still a great fear of being associated with a system that many continue to believe, “has already been tried and failed” and which runs counter to the goal of establishing “true democracy”. While it is possible to see many signs and slogans at these occupations quoting Marx to the effect that capitalism has become unworkable, there remains total confusion regarding what can replace it. On the other hand, the longer term perspective is for the weight of the ‘nightmares of the past’ to weaken and pose less of a barrier to those searching for the genuine content of communism, for a new rethinking of the future of society to flourish.

The predominance of the young generation

By and large these movements are animated by the younger generation of workers. Although older workers affected by the massive destruction of jobs that has occurred in the U.S. since 2008 are also present in the movements, sociologically the driving force of these protests are workers in their 20s and 30s. Most are well-educated, but many have never held a steady, secure job in their lives. They are among the most deeply affected by the massive long-term unemployment that now haunts the U.S. economy. Few have the experience of the shop floor in anything other than a tenuous way. Their identities are not rooted to the work-place or their job category. While these sociological qualities likely make them more open to an abstract broad solidarity, they also mean that most lack the experience of struggles defending living and working conditions through the formation of specific demands and goals. Having been largely exiled from the production process, they have little concrete left to defend other than their dignity as human beings! The necessity of developing specific demands and goals is thus not so apparent. In a world where no real future can be seen, it is not surprising that the younger generation have difficulty thinking concretely about how to develop the struggle for the future. Thus, the movement becomes trapped in a celebration of the process, of the occupations themselves, as the occupation site becomes a community, and in some cases, even a home[6]. Another aspect that can’t be ignored is the weight of post-modernist political discourse, particularly on those who have been through the US university system, which instils a mistrust and rejection of ‘traditional’ class politics.

That being said, we shouldn’t ‘expect the infant to be a man’. The mere existence of general assemblies is a victory in itself, and they provide excellent schools where the young can develop their experience and learn how to combat the forces of the bourgeois left. All this is vital for the struggles to come.

The specifically American context

OWS remains stubbornly trapped in the context of U.S. politics and history. There is often little mention of the international roots of the crisis and social movements in other countries. The predominant belief of the movement continues to be that the immense problems facing the world can all in one form or another be traced back to unethical behaviour by bankers on Wall Street, aided and abetted by the U.S. political parties. The stripping of regulations governing the interaction of commercial and investment banks, the unscrupulous running up of a real estate bubble, the growing influence of corporate campaign money on the U.S. state, the immense gap between the richest one percent of the population and the rest, the fact that Wall Street sits on billions of dollars of surplus cash that it refuses to reinvest in the American economy, remain the movement’s chief grievances. Moreover, the identification of the main problem as “unregulated financial capital” has served to maintain illusions in the ultimately altruistic nature of U.S. bourgeois state.

Clearly, the OWS movement’s anti-political ethic has served to hamper it from going beyond the level of the process itself and in the end has only served to reproduce the kind of political domination that it rightly feared. This should serve as a powerful lesson for future movements. While the movement is right to be sceptical of all those that would seek to speak for it, the working class cannot shy away from open discussion and confrontation of ideas. The process of polarization, of working out concrete goals and demands—as difficult as it is—cannot be avoided, if the movement is to advance. In the end, a movement dominated by an extreme eclecticism of ideas “all demands are equally valid” will ensure that only those demands that are acceptable to the bourgeoisie will advance. The goals of re-regulating capitalism, of taxing the rich and breaking the stranglehold of corporate money on the electoral process are actually goals shared by many factions of the U.S. bourgeoisie! Is it not a little coincidental that Obama wants to pay for his jobs plan with a surtax on millionaires? There is a strong risk that the main factions of the bourgeoisie could steer this movement in a direction that serves their own interests in its factional fights with a resurgent right-wing. However, in the final analysis the bourgeoisie’s complete inability to solve its mortal crisis will see the illusions in ‘American Dream’ smashed, replaced by the nightmare of existence under capitalism.

Only the working class offers humanity a future

For all its weaknesses, we must recognize the profound lessons that the OWS protests hold for the further development of the class struggle. The emergence of GAs—probably for the first time in decades on North American soil—represent a major step forward for the working class as it seeks to develop its struggle beyond the bounds of the unions and bourgeois left. However, we must argue that a movement that falls in on itself rather than seek extension to the class as a whole is doomed to failure, whether that failure comes as a result of repression, demoralization or eventual co-optation behind the campaigns of the bourgeois left. At the current juncture of the class struggle we face a situation where the sectors of the working class with the least experience of collective labour are the most combative. On the other hand, those with the most experience of concrete struggles in defence of their living and working conditions still remain quite disoriented by capitalism’s attacks and uncertain of how to fight back. Many are just glad to still have a job and have recoiled under the weight of capitalism’s offensive against its living and working standards.

Moreover, in the U.S., the persistent campaigns of the right wing to smash the unions have actually had the effect of revitalizing the union straitjacket in the workers’ eyes to some degree, and have further disoriented this sector of the working class[7]. In fact, to the extent that this sector of the working class participated in the OWS movement, it was largely under the union banner, but with the unions working systematically to segregate their members from the occupiers. It was clear that under the unions, the workers were there to support the occupiers, but not to join them! It is in the working class’ struggle to defend its living and working conditions, at the location where society reproduces itself, that the organs that can actually implement the transition to a society of associated producers —the workers’ councils—can emerge. It is here where the fact that capitalism can no longer offer lasting reforms can be discovered, as the working class’ struggle to protect its living standards are constantly frustrated by the persistent economic crisis. It is at the point of production where the fact that today human society can only reproduce itself on a global level will become apparent to the working class.

That said, we don’t minimize the immense difficulties facing the working class in all sectors today in finding the class terrain and developing the willingness to fight back against capitalism’s attacks. On the first score, we think the OWS movement has remained trapped on the bourgeois rhetorical terrain; however, on the latter it is of immense value in showing a glimpse of how the working class can take control of its own struggle.

Internationalism, 10/19/2011.

1. See the thread on our forum.

2. See our article "The movement of the Indignados".

3. Although in contrast to Wisconsin, where for a moment the spectre of a general strike across the state was raised, OWS represents a much less “massive” mobilization, characterized as it is by a core group of protestors and those who stop by to participate on an irregular basis.

4. See our article "‘Real Democracy Now!’: A dictatorship against the mass assemblies".

5. See Peter Beinhart, “Occupy Protests’ Seismic Effects” for a statement of how the bourgeois left thinks OWS could be of use as a grassroots adjunct to the Obama Presidency.

6. Over the last several weeks, the media has reported on several cases of young people who quit low-paying jobs or dropped out of school to participate in the occupations.

7. See our article on the recent Verizon strike.