Many now ask what are the ‘Occupiers’ occupied with? Though heartened by their growth, we are concerned both with the form and the content of their demands. Today, we will discuss only the content of these demands, and hope to follow up with a discussion of form.
Since it began, Occupy Wall Street has spread to a number of other cities, and has shed light on the activities of other, similar groups, already in existence. We had the opportunity to visit Occupy Wall Street last Friday, participating in the march from Zucotti Park to Police Plaza, and we have followed closely the debates over what the new ‘Occupy’ movement means. Some of the contours of the debate are familiar. Critics ridicule their street theater and ignorance. Sympathizers worry about the lack of clear demands. Supporters argue that the process-orientation is the demand, it even ‘prefigures’ the new utopian society within the constraints of the old; or more moderately, they argue it is a necessary tactic to attract a broad base of support. (For the most recent demands at OWS, see this General Assembly declaration). We are somewhere between sympathizers and supporters, but have the following concerns about the ‘movement’ as it currently exists.
The lion’s share of the debate has revolved around the lack of demands and the absence of clear organization. The claim to represent 99% yet unwillingness to erect any formal structure of representation has been a visible worry. Yet our concerns begin with the content of the claim to represent 99%. In a recent post, Doug Henwood quite reasonably pointed to the charm of the claim to 99% – it is universal. For the Left, this is indeed an advance over the highly fragmented, minority-based politics of the last decades. (Though we note the ‘class, race, gender, etc…’ language seeping back into the general demands.) The attempt to articulate the shared interests of a (vast) majority is a more promising direction to go than the more fragile alliance of numerous minorities. Back in the 1990s, the political philosopher Iris Marion Young pointed out that if you add up all the ‘minorities’ victim to some kind of oppression you end up with a vast majority, so why call them minorities? And as we ourselves have argued, roughly 80% have a shared interest in changing the structure of investment in the US economy. (Henwood also believes that 80% is a better marker of class politics.)
So what is the problem? Well, 99% is most decidedly not 80%. In fact, the critique of the 99%, especially when the 1% is exclusively held to be rich bankers and their lackeys at the Fed, has much more in common with American populism than it does with progressive class struggle. The critique of sinister, East Coast interests, the demand for fairer monetary policy, the assault on the ‘big corporations’ in defense of the little guy is just as much, if not more, petty bourgeois as it is working class. The demand for a ‘People’s Monetary System’; the desire to break up big corporations; the defense of local banks against the massive Eastern money interests are all the bread and butter of classic, nineteenth century American populism. The latter, as we know, was just as effective at absorbing and redirecting America’s agricultural and industrial workers as it was at channeling their needs and efforts.
While some populism at the moment is certainly better than nothing, it is too crude a way of addressing the underlying inequalities of economic power and the sources of economic stagnation. For one, it implicitly hives off the financial class from the rest of the economy, rather than connects the growth of finance to problems with advanced industrial economies since the 1970s. As we have attempted to argue, ‘financialization’ is about more than the emergence of the super-rich and the rise of hedge-funds. Moreover, there are more sources of economic unfreedom than simply indebtedness and a massive banking industry – the strikes of the 1970s were directed against employers, after all, and the recent strikes by Verizon workers remind us of that. Finally, a critique focused on the top 1% of the wealthy, and on the overweening power of corporations, at best leaves ambiguous what kinds of social power would be acceptable in a reformed economy. Here, some of the petty bourgeois anxiety of the protests is especially problematic. A modern economy, even run ‘socialistically,’ would of necessity be composed of extremely large agglomerations of machinery and labor, even if these did not take the form of ‘capital’ and ‘corporation.’ It would also include immense global trade networks, which cannot be modeled on anything like a spontaneous barter system.
All of this might seem exceedingly harsh or over-interpreted. Where, one might ask, can one actually find these ideas at the OWS or any of the other movements itself? No single set of ideas can be pinned on them, and that is there virtue. Be that as it may, it is more of a non-response. There is no consensus, but there are clear tendencies, some stronger than others. The 99% claim has emerged as the most powerful tendency, and as far as we can tell, it has the basic content described above. Our arguments are not offered as a reason to reject the movement but in the spirit of reflection and internal criticism. We do not think the current efforts are useless, ridiculous, or pointless. But we do think that, as they develop, some serious disagreements and points of direction will have to be settled. On that front, we hope 99% become 80.