“99%” Populism Is No Solution
Internationalist contingent in October 5 march called by New York City unions that brought out 30,000
to protest mass arrests of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators. (Internationalist photo)
Occupy Wall Street: A Marxist Analysis
abridged version of this article
appeared in Revolution No. 9
(November 2011), the newspaper of the
Internationalist Clubs at the City
University of New York.
NOVEMBER 14 – In the two months since Occupy Wall Street burst onto the scene it quickly swept the nation. By late October, the clearing house Occupy Together listed over 600 occupations in cities across the U.S., and many more around the globe. In New York City, “All day, all week, Occupy Wall Street” is not just a protest chant but an accurate description of local politics. The “Occupy movement” has crystallized a popular mood of anger and frustration as the world enters the fourth year of a full-fledged economic depression. Thousands of students burdened under a mountain of debt and college graduates unable to find work have taken to the streets to protest. Unions have given different kinds of support. But while denouncing the filthy-rich “1%” in the name of the other 99% of the population, it has not put forward any program for what is to be done. And the various demands and proposals floated by Occupy proponents do not challenge the capitalist system.
#Occupy has mushroomed, spurring thousands of young people to take action. Many are joining protests for the first time. So much for all the media talk of a passive “Generation Y”! It has also energized a lot of older folks: trade-unionists discouraged by so many defeats, veterans of antiwar marches from Vietnam to Iraq. It has shifted the political climate, so even bourgeois politicians now talk about inequality. “Occupy” has brought out many who voted for Obama in 2008 hoping for “change,” and are now bitter that all they got was the same old, same old. The Democratic Party also has its oar in, hoping to tap the energy of the protests for the 2012 elections. Occupy Wall Street embraces contradictory forces, including more than a few rightist Tea Party types. But whatever the weight of different currents, its political center of gravity is well within the spectrum of “mainstream” bourgeois politics. Rather than a “new New Left,” it’s more like a New Center, seeking a “new New Deal.” But in the course of the struggle, particularly under the blows of repression, political outlooks can change sharply.
Called for September 17, on the anniversary of the 2008 collapse of the Lehman Brothers investment firm, Occupy Wall Street got off to a shaky start. Instead of the hoped-for 20,000 occupiers, at most a tenth of that number showed up. But OWS quickly caught on, for several reasons. To begin with, it was a spark that lit the social tinderbox that was already there. Moreover, everyone expected (some fearing, some hoping) that with all the economic pain, sooner or later something would set off an explosion of unrest. The media were asking when the phenomenon of Tahrir (Liberation) Square in Cairo, Los indignados in Spain and Syntagma Square in Greece would arrive in the U.S. And then heavy-handed repression by the New York Police Department spurred the protesters on and won them widespread sympathy. Tens of thousands of NYC unionists demonstrated in support of OWS. A month later in California, the bloody police eviction of Occupation Oakland backfired even more spectacularly.
30,000-plus marched on Port of Oakland, California November 2, shutting it down, in response to brutal
police attack on Occupy Oakland. (Photo: James Fassinger/Guardian [London])
In recent weeks, as trade unions have endorsed the Occupy “movement,” local occupations have become a point of reference and organizing center for different protests. In New York, Teamsters locked out of the Sotheby auction house and Verizon phone workers locked in hard contract bargaining have been supported by OWS demonstrators. In turn, when billionaire mayor Bloomberg threatened to evict the camp in Zuccotti Square on October 14, labor was key in mobilizing well over a thousand people at 6 a.m. to defend Occupy Wall Street. And in Oakland after the October 25 cop assault on Oscar Grant Plaza and the subsequent protest demo with tear gas and all sorts of “less lethal” munitions, some 40,000 people responded to the call by Occupy Oakland for a “general strike” on November 2. The massive march on the port that evening effectively shut it down, highlighting the centrality of labor despite the fact that the union bureaucracy refused to call their members out on strike.
Now, in mid-November, local rulers are deciding: so much for democracy, it’s time for the fist. In NYC, the rabid right-wing New York Post has been screaming for blood, with a front-page editorial “Enough!” (4 November) calling on the mayor to have the NYPD “throw the bums out” of Zuccotti Square. This was followed the next day by another front page, “Zoo-Cotti!!” screeching that “Occupy Wall Street animals go wild” Over the weekend, following an earlier eviction in Denver, Portland, Oregon police evicted the occupation there, a SWAT team with automatic weapons cleared out protesters in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and cops arrested occupiers in Albany, New York. And on November 14 some 700 and 1,000 police drove out Occupy Oakland. Instead of the usual polyannish refrain, “This is what democracy looks like,” this time the crowd chanted, more accurately, “This is what a police state looks like.” While raising our Marxist program – including sharp criticisms of OWS – the Internationalist Group has mobilized and had urged labor militants to mobilize to defend it against police repression.
Greed and Corruption
The Occupy protests have taken aim at corporate greed, political corruption and growth of income inequality. Although the bourgeois media routinely portray OWS as a radical left movement, there is nothing particularly leftist about these issues. Being against greed is like coming out for the Ten Commandments. And who other than convicted insider trader Ivan Boesky or the fictional Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street is going to say “greed is good”? Everyone including the terminally corrupt denounces corruption. Even the United States Congress, that exclusive millionaires club, is on record against the obscene bonuses Wall Street bankers awarded themselves after getting trillions in government bailout dollars. The OWS focus is deliberate. The call that launched Occupy Wall Street, put out last July on the web site of the Vancouver-based anti-consumerist satirical magazine Adbusters, explicitly said they were looking for “something all Americans, right and left, yearn for and can stand behind.”
This helps explain the extraordinarily wide appeal of Occupy Wall Street and the other occupations. More than a movement with specific goals, they are a phenomenon. Early on, an October 9-10 Time magazine public opinion poll found that over half (54 percent) were favorable to OWS, while 86% thought Wall Street and its lobbyists had too much power in Washington and 79% thought the gap between rich and poor in the U.S. had grown too large. More recent polls show between a third and a half of “the public” in favor of Occupy Wall Street, still far more than those who support the right-wing Tea Party. But while most people agreed with what OWS is against, many were (and are) unsure of what it is for. That will change if and when the occupiers put forward a concrete agenda.
For now, Occupy Wall Street and the other “Occupies” have the scribbling classes all atwitter, while OWS heads the list of trending topics on the social media twitter, beating out teen idol Justin Bieber for top spot. In part, that’s because the occupations began with a somewhat older milieu. As in Europe and North Africa, many of the initial occupiers were college grads in their twenties who in the wake of the economic crisis can’t find work. We have detailed how many of the initiators of the indignados (the outraged) in Spain and Portugal were highly educated professionals who feel their talents are being wasted. This is a petty-bourgeois layer, some of whom are rather well-off, instead of the most oppressed. And, at least in New York, it is noticeably white, in a city whose population is majority non-white. This is not a put-down: it can be a good thing that middle-class youth are protesting the effects of the capitalist crisis. Many Vietnam War protesters and New Leftists came from these layers. But the politics are key.
The Occupiers popularized the slogan “we are the 99%.” In social (not statistical) terms, there is no 99%. This slogan poses the fight as one of income distribution. The top 1% has indeed greatly increased its share of total income in recent decades, from roughly 9% in 1980 to almost 24% in 2007, almost exactly the percentage as in 1928 on the eve of the last Great Depression. In terms of wealth, the top 1% is even more dominant, with 43% of financial assets. But underlying this is the more fundamental issue of class, and class power. The 99% slogan is pitched so it does not challenge the fundamental property relations of capitalism. Moreover, many of those who enforce this system of exploitation and oppression – such as the police (commanders and beat cops alike), military brass, private security contractors and the like – make far less than the “1%.” Ending the vast inequality produced by capitalism will not come about through the IRS (“tax the rich”). Occupying symbolic spaces is not enough, it is necessary to expropriate Wall Street and the whole of the capitalist class, through socialist revolution that brings down the whole system of production for profit.
Cops and Flags
There have been a number of hot issues at Occupy Wall Street that are barely papered over by the anti-democratic “consensus” decision-making process. First and foremost is the question of the police. Following the early attacks on OWS demonstrators on September 24 and October 1, the Internationalist Clubs at the City University of New York put out a Revolution leaflet (October 5) titled “NYPD: Guard Dogs of Finance Capital.” We recounted how even after the New York Police deliberately trapped protesters and arrested hundreds, gratuitously pepper-spraying women snared in the cops’ orange netting, many OWS supporters called on the police to join them, claiming that these uniformed thugs are also part of the “99%.” We reported how a team of official march “pacekeepers” tried to shut us up as we chanted “We are all Sean Bell, NYPD go to hell,” referring to the young black man murdered on the eve of his 2006 wedding by a police death squad.
make misdirected appeal to cops the day
after NYPD evicted Occupy Wall Street. The
police are the armed fist of capital.
While there has been some dissent over the appeals to the police, OWS “facilitators” have taken the position that the “blue shirts” (the patrolmen), unlike the “white shirts” (supervisors), are potential allies. This promotes the bourgeois myth that the police are there to “serve and protect” the population. This is a lie. Anyone who lives in the police occupied barrios and ghettos of New York City or who has experienced the normal operations of the NYPD would have to be blinder than Stevie Wonder to believe that fairy tale. But then, the non-leaders of the OWS don’t live there. They also are oblivious to the lessons of history. An article in The Occupied Wall Street Journal (No. 3, 22 October) says: “Prior to the massive protests at the WTO in Seattle, protest policing in the U.S.. was a largely casual affair punctuated with isolated outbursts of police misconduct.” What racially blind arrogance! Were the constant, vicious police attacks on civil rights marches in the South (remember Selma and Birmingham) just “isolated outbursts of police misconduct”? Or how about the 1964 cop riot against blacks protesting police brutality in Harlem?
A main reason why there are relatively few black and Latino participants in Occupy Wall Street is this positive attitude toward the police, who day-in and day-out persecute the oppressed. This was also a factor in the huge protests against union-busting legislation in Wisconsin earlier this year, which were even whiter than the state’s population. Organizers praised the Dane County sheriff who said he wouldn’t provide a “palace guard” for the governor. But this same sheriff was notoriously turning over undocumented immigrants picked up on traffic violations to the migra cops for deportation! In a conversation at an Internationalist literature table in Zuccotti Park, an occupier disagreed with our sign denouncing racist police repression. He said he agreed with our criticism of police actions, but why didn’t we talk to them? We asked if he were a black youth in Brooklyn, would he try to talk to cops? Or if he were an undocumented immigrant in the Bronx? He replied “no,” it would be too dangerous. But, he said, since he wasn’t either of those maybe he could reason with the cops not to beat up demonstrators. Hopeless.
As Marxists from Karl Marx on have written, the police (along with the courts and military) are the backbone of the capitalist state. Unlike the army, which can be split along class lines in a social crisis, the cops are professional repressors. Their job is to impose bourgeois “law and order” and guarantee the functioning of capitalism. The police are the armed fist of the ruling class. It’s not about income distribution but the class nature of the state. Security guards, who typically get paid far less than the police, as well as privately owned jails and “security contractors” (mercenaries) are also part of this repressive apparatus, as capitalism increasingly privatizes. Any unclarity about this can have deadly consequences. The problem for the pro-cop non-leaders of the OWS, as an article on the web site of the London Guardian (1 November) noted, is that “Occupy protesters have invited cops to join the movement, but so far, the response has been with tear gas and batons.” Now the Oakland Police Officers Association has picked up on this, declaring:
“Oakland police officers are the 99% and we understand and sympathize with your message…. Our police officers are the 99% struggling in Oakland neighborhoods every day to contain the 1% who rob, steal, rape and murder our law-abiding citizens. The Occupy Oakland protest … is taking our police officers out of Oakland neighborhoods and away from protecting the citizens of Oakland.”
–quoted in The Lede blog, New York Times, 11 November
Three days later they launched a second assault on the occupation at Oscar Grant Plaza.
The article in issue 3 of The Occupied Wall Street Journal on “The rule of law vs. the forces of order,” criticizes the “mostly unnecessary arrests” and “expensive control of these demonstrations,” while saying that “some protests have been illegal and disruptive.” Police have no right to declare political protests illegal, put up barricades, pepper spray and mace demonstrators and the rest of their “crowd control” arsenal. It is the cops who are disruptive, by assaulting our rights. The CUNY Internationalist Clubs call on students, workers and defenders of democratic rights to demand that all charges against all the demonstrators be dropped!
Another hotly disputed issue, at least by us, is the proliferation of American flags, most of them the real Stars and Stripes (see our photo display, “Isn’t That the American Flag They’re Waving”). Their presence is not accidental but conscious and calculated flag-waving patriotism. Even when flown upside down, it signals “nation in distress.” The first issue of The Occupied Wall Street Journal featured the Adbusters version, with corporate logos instead of the field of stars. Issue No. 2 included “reports from intrepid, heartfelt, truly patriotic occupiers everywhere.” An Adbusters “tactical briefing” by the Internet hacker group Anonymous is directed to “jammers, dreamers, patriots.” But American patriotism means support for U.S. imperialism. Against “take back our country,” a CUNY Internationalist spokesman at Occupy Wall Street on October 1 said:
“This was never our country. It was always their country. The American flag is the flag of slavery, of empire, of police repression, of pepper spray. Our flag is that of the working class. It is red.”
–see the Internationalist4 account at YouTube
From the time of the 1848 Communist Manifesto, the workers’ cause has been international in scope. We Internationalists have always objected to “social-patriotic” appeals of the “antiwar movement” – for “books not bombs” “education not occupation” and the like – as if U.S. wars were a matter of budget priorities and a particular foreign policy rather than a system of imperialist domination. (We called instead for workers strikes against the war.) But there is nothing “social” about the patriotic appeals at Occupy Wall Street. Thus on the night before the threatened October 14 eviction by the NYPD, at the end of a briefing where it was explained that the occupiers were not leaving, someone suggested singing. But it wasn’t the Civil Rights song “We shall not be moved,” which one might have expected. No, they broke into the national anthem! We stomped out in disgust. In protests at OWS, CUNY Internationalist Club supporters carried a sign saying: “Not Our Country, Not Our Flag! ‘The Workers Have No Fatherland’ – K. Marx.” And when we encountered a nest of U.S. flags in a march to NYPD headquarters, we chanted: “No to the flag of imperialist war, workers revolution is what we’re for!”
Occupy Wall Street and Bourgeois Populism
The Adbusters call which launched Occupy Wall Street was for “ democracy, not corporatocracy,” because “cleaning up corruption in Washington is something all Americans, right and left, yearn for and can stand behind.” This was coupled to a “one simple demand – a presidential commission to separate money from politics ,” which would “start setting the agenda for a new America.” Simple-minded would be more accurate. The idea that the millionaires who run Washington politics would agree to banish the influence of corporate cash is laughable. And the notion that President Barack Obama – whose 2008 campaign cost over $400 million, who turned down public financing and who got big bucks from Wall Street long before winning a single primary – would set up such a presidential commission, or that it would do anything, is equally nonsensical. Scandals about big business buying elections and politicians go back to the dawn of capitalism. So long as they are the ruling class, the capitalists will get the best “democracy” their money can buy, and no presidential commission or mere law will stop them.
A number of observers have noted parallels between Occupy Wall Street and the right-wing Tea Party, at least before that hot property was snatched up by New York financiers like the Koch brothers. Any resemblance is purely intentional. The early Tea Party also yelled about corruption in Washington and the bank bailout. The architects of Occupy Wall Street want to play on the same turf. The point was not how real the “one simple demand” was, but to have an issue that would not be seen as leftist. An entry on the Adbusters Blog (11 August) spelled it out:
“[I]f we naively put our cards on the table and rally around the ‘overthrow of capitalism’ or some equally outworn utopian slogan, then our Tahrir moment will quickly fizzle into another inconsequential ultra-lefty spectacle soon forgotten. But if we have the cunning to come up with a deceptively simple Trojan Horse demand… then we just might have a crack at creating a decisive moment of truth for America, a first concrete step towards achieving the radical changes we all dream about….”
The idea that by being “cunning,” donning a Guy Fawkes mask and just “hang[ing] in there day after day, week after week, until a large swath of Americans start rooting for us and President Obama is forced to respond” one can sneak “radical change” past the rulers of American capitalism is beyond some kind of movie fantasy. It is based on swalling whole the kind of faith in “democratic” U.S. imperialism taught in high-school civics courses.
In an article “Inside Occupy Wall Street” in Rolling Stone (24 November), Adbusters founder Kalle Lasn is quoted as saying that, for all the talk of following the example of Tahrir Square, “We knew, of course, that Egypt had a hard regime change where a torturous dictator was removed, but many of us felt that in America, a soft regime change was possible.” Even today, they think that “#OCCUPY has the magic and the ear of the world, and anything seems possible. We could see a soft regime change in America…” (Adbusters Blog, 26 October). Oh really now? Mayors and police forces from New York to Denver to Oakland are making clear how misguided that feeling is. OWS organizers try to counter the mounting barrage of hostile propaganda by studiously avoiding saying anything that “all Americans” can’t get behind. But relentless efforts to appear oh-so-moderate will not be enough once the capitalist rulers decide to use their state power.
We have noted that, “While almost all of the left has devoted itself to uncritical enthusing over OWS, the fact is that bourgeois populism has been the ideological glue holding together (so far) the mélange of forces assembled there” (see “What the Hell Was Economic Hit Man Jeffrey Sachs Doing at Occupy Wall Street?”). When used by the bourgeois media, the term “populism” is often an insult, accusing some wayward politician of “pandering” to the masses instead of “responsibly” defending the interests of the capitalist rulers. In Latin America from 1930s on, bourgeois nationalist regimes and movements such as those of Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina, Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, Lázaro Cárdenas in México, or more recently Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, have been described as populist for using state action (resource nationalization, education, social welfare programs) in order to win popular support against imperialism and entrenched oligarchies.
In the United States, “populism” refers to a strain of bourgeois politics that goes back to the late 1800s. After the abolition of slavery during the Civil War and the democratic interlude of Radical Reconstruction that lasted up to 1876, the remnants of the Southern plantocracy and the Northern industrialists made a pact to crack down on the former slaves and wage slaves. Military force was used on workers’ strikes and Ku Klux Klan terror to intimidate freedmen, while rigid Jim Crow segregation was introduced. This was initially resisted by a populist movement of small farmers and sharecroppers, white and black, leading to a Populist Party in the early 1990s that quickly fell apart after endorsing the Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 elections while its leaders embraced Jim Crow.
In Europe, right-wing populism fueled anti-Semitic attacks on “Jewish bankers.” In the U.S. in the 1930s, populism often took a right-wing bent, with leaders like Louisiana’s Huey Long and the clerical-fascist “radio priest” father Coughlin. In more recent decades, “Klansman in a suit” David Duke ran for president using the name Populist Party; while right-wing populist Ross Perot and fascistic ideologue Patrick Buchanan ran as candidates of the Reform Party. But there are also more liberal variants of populism such as Ralph Nader. Though lionized by many leftists due to his opposition to the Iraq war, when Nader was Green candidate in 2004 the Reform Party backed him because he demonized “illegal” immigrants, denounced abortion and bashed China. Whether in right-wing or left-wing versions, populism lays the blame for society’s ills on “a few bad apples” seen as specially corrupt and greedy. Its political function is to divert working people from struggle against the capitalist system and the ruling class as a whole.
By focusing on Wall Street, and explicitly opposing calls to “overthrow capitalism,” the “Occupy movement” promotes this bourgeois populism. This explains the presence of right-wing Tea Party forces at the occupations. Although Congressman Ron Paul is a big backer of corporations, he opposed the bank bailout and wants to abolish the Federal Reserve (his supporters carry signs to “End the Fed” in OWS demonstrations), echoing the 19th century Populists’ opposition to a national bank. (Paul, who recently met with French fascist Marine Le Pen in Washington, also wants to abolish the income tax, is a racist opponent of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and a columnist on the web site of the Council of Conservative Citizens, the current incarnation of the White Citizens Councils, the front for the KKK during the 1960s Civil Rights struggles.)
The present economic depression came after years of frenetic financial speculation, as one “bubble” after another burst, the last being the housing bubble. This occurs repeatedly under capitalism after periods of a sharply increased rate of exploitation. As employers drive down the cost of labor they accumulate vast hordes of money for which they find no productive investment as the rate of profit falls. So instead they turn to speculation, eventually leading to a crash. This is what happened in the Gilded Age leading to the stock market panic of 1893, it happened in the Roaring Twenties culminating in the 1929 crash, and now it has happened again. The resulting economic depression (in contrast to a cyclical recession) typically produces a decade of mass unemployment and destruction of capital as capitalists refuse to invest. And every time this happens there are two responses: one, those like the Populist Party of the 1890s and Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s who denounce greedy speculators (“economic royalists” was FDR’s term) and seek to keep protest within the bounds of capitalism; and two, class struggle, such as the 1894 Railroad Strike and the growth of industrial unionism in the 1930s (the CIO).
By portraying the enemy as a tiny layer of the super-rich (“the 1%”), Occupy Wall Street is pretending that everybody else (“the people”) has common interests. The frequent chant, “The people united, will never be defeated,” promotes the same false idea. So does the “consensus model” of decision-making. In fact, there are fundamental divisions among “the people” between the working class (proletariat) and the capitalist class (bourgeoisie), with middle-class layers (petty bourgeoisie) in between, vacillating between the two fundamental classes depending on which is stronger. Dissolving the working class into “the 99%” is similar to union leaders constantly referring to workers as “middle-class” – it echoes the myth that America is not really a class society. By supporting populist movements and politicians or by means of a “popular front” tying workers organizations to sections of the capitalists, the working people, the poor and the oppressed are “united” with their class enemy. This means one defeat after another for the working class, while capitalist depressions typically end not through tax tinkering but all-out war.
The present wave of occupations, from North Africa to southern Europe and now the United States, has been initiated by petty-bourgeois layers who have been hard-hit by the economic crisis. Where they have achieved some success, as in Tunisia and Egypt, it has been because the working class entered the fray and brought down the regime. Even then, though the dictators were overthrown, the military-based dictatorships remain, because imperialism (decaying capitalism) cannot tolerate “democracy” in its impoverished semi-colonies, nor can those countries escape poverty without a revolution. The task of Marxists is to win the most advanced militants to break with all wings of the bourgeoisie and undertake the struggle for a revolutionary workers party to fight for a workers government.
Break with the Bourgeoisie!
Contrary to the portrayal by the right-wing media of Occupy Wall Street as “lazy/dirty hippies,” “an unfocused rabble of ragtag discontents” (New Republic) and “collection of ne’er-do-wells” that “no one seems to care very much about” (Wall Street Journal editorial), the occupation has from the beginning had significant support from … Wall Street. The profile of OWS in Rolling Stone waxes lyrical about the initial meetings of the New York General Assembly: “They had no money. And they were planning to take over one of the most heavily policed public spaces on the planet.” Actually, as a revealing article in the New York Times (18 October) pointed out, OWS started out with a stash of cash, from Robert S. Halper, the former vice chairman of the New York Mercantile Exchange. In a visit to Vancouver last June, Halper gave Adbusters editor in chief Kalle Lasn a check for $20,000 explicitly to fund “a plan to fill Wall Street with protesters as a way to galvanize anger on the political left into a revolutionary movement resembling the Arab Spring.” Brokers always like to hedge their bets.
Twenty grand may not seem like a lot on the Street, but for organizing street protests it can do a lot. (Barack Obama also got seed money from Wall Street, but presidential campaigns are more expensive: he took in $984,000 from Goldman Sachs.) Adbusters has also been funded over the years by the Tides Foundation of San Francisco, but contrary to right-wing conspiracy mongers who see the hand of billionaire George Soros everywhere, the supposedly “socialist” financier insists that the dough from his Open Society group to Tides is earmarked, and he has never given a dime to Adbusters or Occupy Wall Street. In this case, the relationship may be the other way around. Occupy Wall Street has received over $500,000 in contributions which are funneled through the Soros-funded Alliance for Global Justice, which in turn takes a 7 percent cut for administrative expenses. The point here is that while many participants early on were anarchists, OWS is also part of the “Non-Governmental Organization” (NGO) milieu.
Big surprise, the Democratic Party would like to co-opt Occupy Wall Street. It’s hardly news that the (Soros-funded) pro-Democratic Party NGO moveon.org (also Soros-funded) has joined with Occupy Wall Street protesters at various points. For example, it built the October 5 labor-sponsored protest in New York City that protested the mass arrest of 700 OWS demonstrators on the Brooklyn Bridge. But some Occupiers need no co-opting. Contrary to the OWS myth that it has no leaders, the big business media have been closely scrutinizing prominent “non-leaders.” An article in Crain’s New York Business (13 November) on the “emerging leaders” of OWS highlighted an organizer from the American Dream Movement of former Obama adviser Van Jones, a canvasser for the Working Families Party, an adjunct professor who serves as “cultural ambassador” for the U.S. State Department, and an advisor to the World Food Program in Haiti.
While, as we have shown, a number of the initiators of the indignados movement in Spain were lawyers, cyber-entrepreneurs and business school types, their American equivalents come from liberal NGOs. And their attitude toward the Obama administration is far from uniformly hostile: OWS supporter put an on-line petition on the White House petition site “We the People” calling on the Democratic president to “recognize the men and women who are occupying Wall Street.” Their supplications were answered when Obama “gave a shoutout to the Wall Street protesters,” saying that the occupation expressed “the frustration of the American people” (New York Daily News, 6 October). Even Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke says he “can’t blame” protesters for taking to the streets. But that hasn’t stopped liberal Democrats like Oakland mayor Jean Quan (a former Maoist) or Portland, Oregon mayor Sam Adams (a gay Democrat) from ordering the police to break up Occupy protests.
The occupations aren’t about to endorse Obama in 2012, nor do the Democrats want that. They’re quite content to siphon off protesters as primary season rolls around and many figure they have no choice but to go for the “lesser evil.” (In the same way, popular-front antiwar protests regularly wind down every election year in order to provide foot soldiers for the Dems.) Exactly this perspective was put forward by Angela Davis at an Occupy event in New York’s Washington Square Park on October 29. After first saying that there should a “radical third party” in the U.S., she then backtracked. Right now, she said:
“Much as Obama has disappointed us, we can’t permit the election of a Republican. This movement reflects the social forces that made the election of Obama possible…. The situation today is qualitatively different [than under Bush].”
This left many in the crowd shaking their heads, saying no, the situation is qualitatively the same under Obama and Bush. The same bank bailouts, the same unemployment, the same wars. But Davis was right about the of the social movement behind the occupations. Overwhelmingly, these are the disappointed Obama voters. The question is where will they go.
Some Occupy activists may be attracted to a “third party,” like the Populist Party of yesteryear or more recently the Greens, figuring this represents a break from the two-party system. Adbusters is pushing for a “True Cost Party of America,” which whatever it means sounds like another attempt to steal the thunder of the Tea Party. Yet these are only minor league bourgeois parties, and almost all “third parties” end up being satellites of the partner parties of American capitalism. Some are openly so, like the Working Families Party backed by unions in New York, Oregon and a few other states, which (like the American Labor Party in the late 1930s and ’40s) is just another ballot line so you can vote for the Democrats while holding your nose. Others like the Greens pretend to be independent but are really just a vehicle for forlorn “progressives” to pressure the Democrats. Even where they have independent origins, like the Midwestern Farmer-Labor parties in the 1920s and ’30s, these capitalist “third parties” were formed to prevent a workers party from arising.
Occupy Wall Street protesters who reject electoral participation cannot avoid politics. The demands that the OWS initiators have put forward as “pragmatic solutions” – like the so-called “Robin Hood tax” (a 1% tax on financial transactions, supposedly to increase market stability by slowing down turbo-charged computer trading) or restoration of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1932 (reregulating financial institutions) – are thoroughly capitalist measures. But even the “occupy everything, demand nothing” crowd is tacitly going along with the populist program, in the name of “diversity of tactics.” So liberals do their nickel-and-dime reforms, anarchists do some street theatrics with the police, and then what? To actually combat the devastation wrought by Wall Street’s would-be masters of the world, it is necessary to fight capitalism politically.
“Education Should Not Be a Debt Sentence,” said an protester’s sign at Occupy Cal in Berkeley. For sure. But free public higher education and canceling student debt will not be achieved without doing away with private ownership not just of the banks but of all the means of production. OMG, money influencing politics?! When has that not been the case in (capitalist) democracy? Under the U.S. Constitution you originally had to be a white male property owner to vote. There were plenty of electoral reforms to fight corruption in the “Progressive Era” from the 1890s on. Recall the overthrow of “Boss Tweed” and his control over patronage through the Tammany Hall Democratic Party political machine in New York. Monopolies were ordered broken up by the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The graduated income tax was instituted by the Sixteenth Amendment. Such superficial populist reforms altered nothing fundamental. Greed, corruption, income inequality, mass unemployment, racism, imperialist wars – all of these are part and parcel of capitalism, and cannot be eliminated short of a revolution overthrowing the profit system.
“From New York to
Oakland, the system is broken,” chanted Occupy
Wall Street protesters after the October 25
cop assault on Oscar Grant Plaza. Broken or
not, the answer is not to fix it (which is
impossible) but to get rid of it. The
“pragmatic solutions” of the founders of
Occupy Wall Street will probably go nowhere
and in any case can accomplish nothing. The
occupations will peter out, or polarize.
Indeed, a polarization along class lines is
what’s needed, breaking the stranglehold of
the Democratic Party and unchaining the power
of the working class. While it has no real
answers, the Occupy movement – and the social
crisis it emerged from – have led many youth
to ask big questions among the society we live
in. It’s necessary to get at the root – which
is what radical means. The root of the problem
is capitalism. 99% populism is no solution –
we’re fighting for socialist revolution. ■
 At present, U.S. banks are sitting on over $1 trillion in cash, while non-financial are hoarding another $2 trillion which they are refusing to invest. (By way of comparison, the entire amount of goods and services produced in the U.S., the gross domestic product, is currently around $15 trillion.)
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