When the future looks back upon the Occupy Wall Street movement that is quickly spreading due to the profound discontent with the status quo it is important to understand how they will conceive of this moment. While various peoples are sure to conceive of it and whatever results may come in different terms, there are several aspects of it that are worth noting for the fact that they will be indisputable.
The call to Occupy Wall Street on September 17th emerged from Adbusters, a Vancouver based schizovocal magazine that bills itself as the Journal of the Mental Environment and is best known for satirizing commercial advertising from the pages of a glossy magazine. The event date and intent, as well as preliminary co-ordination groups were formed, several months in advance via it’s website. As the initial activists started to set up camp and post their arrival to Zucchoni Park online, they immediately heralded it as a call that “resonates around the world“ and encouraged others to join them or create their own version of this in their own country.
As other commentators have noted, such as Michael Moore, this action hasn’t received the amount of news coverage befitting such an action. Especially so, as this was not a group that was directly funded by financial interests in the way that Tea Party events are. However as of now the media’s choice of news is not my concern. What is worth pointing out is that even despite the lack of video news coverage, the number of people that have turned out to the event is extremely low considering the number of people to which it is addressed – the self-proclaimed 99%.
My general criticism of the Occupy Wall Street movement is in its use of gestural politics, leaderless resistance and intellectual incoherence stemming from an idealist conception of politics. Over the past two decades there has been a growing fetishization of such modes of politics despite the fact that these forms of post-left/post-structuralist movements have yet to achieve any compelling results or continued to function as an organization after minor accomplishments were achieved. It is because of an idealized notion of democracy based on radical and anarchist philosophies was the explicit or unintended organizing principle for such groups they have been reified as organizational ideals supposedly unsullied by the dirtiness of actually existing politics. A recurrent theme through the propaganda released by O.W.S. is that one of its purposes is itself the process. The decentralist urge in America politics is an understandable one given our history of frontier democracy, the advanced state of capitalism we have obtained, the subjectivism encouraged by a high level of cultural, racial and ethnic diversity, a traditional proclivity towards individualism and the history of leftist movements in the United States. Yet however attractive such a reliance upon these mores and modes of political action is, it is an yet another form of American exceptionalism which presents false hopes to the 99% of Americans which Adbusters seeks to represent from achieving true political agency.
To critique this form of organization qua itself is not my argument. Within the realm of imagined relationships this will always be a source for inspiration for those that are affected by social, political and economic disenfranchisement and seek to ameliorate the dearth of agency in the prevailing conditions endemic to prevailing relations. However, it is in this, our current specific historical context that we must determine the inherent limitations of such a form of organization and see that it is not compatible with achieving the social change with it tentatively claims it wants to accomplish. Doing so we must first recognize that this form of politics alludes to a specific form of syndicalist politics that inspires it without giving concern to the historical context or content of that time. We must recognize the context in which we now find ourselves and only after all of this is done is it possible to come to any possible conclusions as to the perennial question – what is to be done?
At the zenith of syndicalism’s effectiveness during the fin de siècle it still represented a minority movement that started in Europe and spread to the United States. This is not to say that it did not have a lasting effect on the politics of the time, but they largely had the effect of speeding up changes that were already in process rather than causing them. Direct action was favored over political integration into the existing order, which was conceived of as imposing myriad prohibitions against party actions and thus weakening efficiency. Given the logics of collective action inherent in relation dependant upon property rights and the state’s inherent conservatism this is and was a just criticism. Yet however many of the prominent personages connected to continuing the prevailing economic and political order died after assassinations, the order still remained, changed only by deteriorating social ties. Additionally, the body count mostly consisted of workers and activists during strikes and sieges. Recognizing that this mode of politics wasn’t getting the support it’s theoreticians thought it would – the European syndicalists, such as Kropotkin, abandoned violent propaganda of the deed with those of spectacular actions.
In the United States, the IWW was the first syndicalist group, besides the Knights of Labor, to eschew political action in favor of militant direct action. While at first it was largely composed of unskilled workers who had been established in America for some time, as they saw their jobs increasingly going to new immigrants for lower wages they left the union other groups as the IWW fought for their rights. Thus the IWW became composed primarily of newly emigrated, unskilled workers disenfranchised by the traditional unions such as the AFL. Their idealized tactic, the One Big Strike, was to unite every worker so that at the called for moment they could bring the American economy to a standstill and usher in an epoch of social democracy.
This eschatological notion of syndicalist origins is the forebear of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. The conceptualization of historical change is that after One Big Moment, there will be a sudden change in American politics that changes the beneficiaries from the current model of politics from the owning class to the working class.
OWS has several primary differences from previous syndicalist organizations. For one – it has not organized itself upon class lines for a long period of protracted, multifaceted conflict. In previous syndicalist and working-class movements it was correctly understood that through the crucible of union and class struggles the future leaders of the sundry legalistic and militant movements would arise. In order to achieve popular legitimacy, group-cohesion and organizational effectiveness, roles proscribed by the existing situation needed to be filled. Those with the needed skills and ambition would ascend to then fill them. Depending upon the political context, there would be an active attempt to have a bureaucracy rotating positions and into and out of the work force to prevent concretization of roles and so that others could learn how to function accordingly in different positions. As such, future leaders would emerge from their engagement with these groups as well as youth groups that were also formed to help instruct the next generation. In addition to this, groups for workers interests and women’s leagues were also formed to help find promising people for the struggle and to simultaneously encourage community and class values.
It was these practices that made the I.W.W. as well as the Populist and Socialist parties from the 1870’s to 1930s effective despite being numerically small. While not able to wield any national power, they were able to influence people in regional elections in areas with large populations and pull enough votes away from the mainstream parties such that they forced their competitors to adjust their rhetoric and policies to incorporate those of these more radical groups. For those not as historically aware of this, a similar trend is now visible with the emergence of the Tea Party, which is causing a rightward turn of the already conservative Republicans.
Now while these groups lack of national significance or continuing power might suggest that it is solely due to their flawed ideology and actions that caused their disappearance from the map of contemporary American politics, this is only one factor. When piecing together the non-Liberal Left’s decline it is important to contextualize it during a period marginal gains provided to the conservative unions following the destruction of much of the foreign manufacturing bases in World War II and of repression and institutional marginalization of these groups which increased in intensity following the Russian Revolution. Thus though over the long term they were ineffective unto themselves, they were able to definitely shape American policy and would have likely to have continued to do so have not the various Red Scares given cause to delegitimize such tendencies. And as this influence gradually vanished following a cultural campaign against the USSR, the threat of war and revelations about the true state of Soviet affairs, so did the Democratic parties attempts to appeal to the liberal and non-liberal left. Taking for granted that these groups would continue to support them, the Democrats turned rightwards in order to have a greater opportunity for corporate and conservative donations and single-issue NGO’s started to multiply. Yet whatever relief one may feel by blaming this or that party as the sole cause of the current economic crisis is to overlook the role of the American public, which has been pliant, undeservedly content and willfully ignorant and is only just paying attention now.
Many of those associating themselves with Occupy Wall Street criticize this current incarnation of the American political process and are very insightful into diagnosing its problems. This however it not new nor are they are not alone in disseminating such an interpretation of American Political economy. What is new is the spectacular embrace of rejecting traditional political practices.
Their form of individualizing political practice does not maintain that prolonged engagement with political institutions is the way to achieve social change. It is quixotic in the worst possible way as it presumes a historically false model of social change. Furthermore the skill sets created by engagement with Adbusters form of political practice include only Agent Provocateur identification, buying less material goods and how to Twitter petition for Pizza. While going to the barricades is indeed one aspect of political conflict, Adbusters practically endorses this one aspect as THE means that will lead to the type of social change they will EVENTUALLY describe as desirable.
That said, it is hard to deny the mobilizing power of Occupy Wall Street and those that are popping up in other areas. It is able to represent everything to everyone. Think GMO foods are destroying the earth? Go to the park or organize something in your area! Think the death penalty is cruel? Think that all student loans should be forgiven? Think the minimum wage needs to be raised? Think there should be more government accountability? Think there should be less government so that business can regulate itself? Think that Glass-Steagall should be brought back and everything will return to normal? Go to the park or organize something in your area!!
However it is this ability to mean everything to everyone that it also it’s weakness. Occupy Wall Street will continue to garnish followers in other cities, more drums will be hit, more signs will be made, more marches commence and more mayors will continue to have their police departments use kids gloves to avoid bad press. Occupy Wall Street is a the public announcement of what many within the non- liberal left have been saying for sometime: that the tactics and structures of the working class interest groups are fetid and in need of replacement. Unions predate on other unions members rather than on non-unionized workers as it’s easier to accomplish. The election of Democratic presidents has turned into a ritual wherein candidates promise Leftist reforms and then turn right. However merely occupying space which can only be held precariously doesn’t achieve these changes – merely presents a space wherein they can be discussed.
In many ways Occupy Wall Street will be most successful as a failure despite a full-fledged effort waged on behalf of those involved. It will function as a crash course in political education needed by those still unclear as to the vast diversity and interconnection of problems in an advanced capitalist society as well as deracinating the idea that spontaneity alone is a sufficient political practice. They will soon learn that concerted organization with a wide division of functions is necessary. These positions are not new, and it is to those that have been advocating this position that those at Zuccotti Park or those generally sympathetic to Occupy Wall Street will turn.
Toiling for decades to spread this very knowledge of how bad things were becoming for American workers and how to change it are the various Socialist parties. So much sound and fury has been spent classifying Obama as a Socialist that people, especially the youth that comes to question the still prevailing Cold War narrative. As people come to realize that complexities of these historical problems facing the various models (Soviet, Cuban, Chinese, etc.) bespoke of by talking heads, they will come to see more and more that they do not in any way represent Socialism. They will see that these are bugbears bandied about by demagogues to muzzle those that criticize the current state of affairs and at this point an important fact comes to light – that it is not until Soviet “socialism” collapsed can it possibly rise in America.
While the American socialist groups may now have less interference to pursue their paths of political action today – they still bear the imprint from which they were born. The coat of paranoia, cultish devotion to key leaders, catechistic responses to outsiders and an understandable yet off-putting fixation on specific historical epochs during which heroic actions happened, which, while valuable, matter little to the issues of Americans, has yet to be shed. It is of little surprise that such an option doesn’t seem desirable now, however romantic sentiments doesn’t achieve political change. Disciplined parties do. One need not refer to any great Marxist revolutionary to see that this is the truth, but simply look at the historical record.