Anticapitalism and Occupation

19 Dec

At a recent panel discussion hosted by the Platypus Society at Harvard University, the moderator asked the participants whether Occupy Boston and related Occupations were ‘anticapitalist.’ The panelists had all been participants in Occupy Boston before Mayor Menino ordered the clearing out of Dewey Square. This question initially sounded like the kind of question hopeful radicals always ask about some incipient form of social protest. The implicit question seemed to be something like ‘is it the revolution in waiting, or should we not bother?’ Each of the four panelists handled the question in their own way – it is “objectively anticapitalist, even if subjectively reformist,” “not yet,” “some are anticapitalist and some aren’t,” “Occupy isn’t one thing.”

Upon reflection, it seems like the questioner and the panelists may have missed the point. All of them seemed to share the view that anticapitalist is a placeholder concept for something else – socialist, communist, anarchist, democratic socialist, whatever. Each respondent struggled, then, to show how the socialist or anarchist aspect of the Occupation was something like its (hidden) essence, and how the more reform-minded elements were somehow more superficial or tangential appearances. Or, a bit more plausibly, they argued there had to be a struggle for the soul of the Occupation, between its anticapitalist (read: socialist/communist) and reformist tendencies. That struggle had to happen now that the clearing out of many Occupations has opened up a ‘phase 2’ of the movement.

The difficulty with this way through the discussion is that it skips over the ‘anticapitalism’ itself. Anticapitalism is not socialism, communism, anarchism, Marxism, or just a demand for fair trade and financial regulation. It is a historically specific phenomenon. It is the halfway house that has emerged over the past decades, perhaps most spectacularly in 1999 inSeattle, reflecting the state of suspended animation into which ‘the Left’ has passed since the end of the Cold War. To say it is a halfway house does not mean it is necessarily moving in one direction or another. Rather, anticapitalism is a halfway house in the way that it balances between the most piecemeal, single-issue reforms and utopian visions of radically different societies. The reforms are not clearly related to the over-arching background utopias, and there rarely seems to be much of an attempt to integrate the elements of reform into a totalizing vision or coherent ideology.

For instance, at the Harvard panel, two of the participants noticed that one frequently finds calls for a millionaire’s tax, better financial reform, and ‘End the Fed,’ which they dubbed the reformist tendency of Occupy. But it was also said that Occupy was somehow objectively more radical, more ‘anticapitalist’ than these modest proposals. And it is of course true that there is plenty of utopian aspiration, as well as structural critique, to be found. But an equally ‘objective’ feature of these Occupations, and of the wider anticapitalist trend, is the political unwillingness to go further. This political unwillingness is objective in the sense that it is widely enough shared to be a kind of condition of possibility for the existence of the Occupation in the first place. While one finds a uniting aspiration to be more than a series of piecemeal reforms, one regularly encounters strong resistance to seizing the state, or doing what it takes, to transform the economy – whether seizing means revolutionary acts or just party politics. To be sure these are generalities, and one finds many particular counterexamples. But there is nonetheless something that has held together anticapitalism in the past few decades, and it is the curious blend of radical gesture and piecemeal reform. The ‘anticapitalism’ is not just the radical gesture, the broad intimation of ‘alternatives’, but also comprises the rejection of past alternatives – which ends up producing a tendency to invest piecemeal reforms with decidedly more moral and political weight than they deserve.

The novelty of Occupy in relation to the past decades of anticapitalism has been to introduce one other way of thinking about alternatives – the camp itself as a kind of autonomous, self-sufficient community, with a new kind of political structure that, in (one) theory, prefigures a new society.* Of course, none of the camps are actually self-sufficient, and increasingly the General Assemblies have proved to be cumbersome political apparati, with many of the bureaucratic features that its advocates wish to reject (procedure is truly the name of the game). But more deeply, it has been a way of dealing with some of the problems of anticapitalism by turning inward – creating an alternative that does not require either mass political support, nor trying to exercise collective power to directly transform wider society, nevermind thinking about how one could possibly scale up that model to a national and international economy. As such, the small-scale autonomous collective strategy has stood in some tension with the claim to represent and act in concert with the 99%.

In that light, despite the repression, and in some cases illegality, that went into the clearing of many Occupations, it may not have been such a bad thing for the Occupation movement itself. It has forced the Occupation back into society, and thus forced it to find the radicalism there, among the majority, rather than just among the deracinated elements that can maintain a camp. If it does then it has a chance to be more than anticapitalist.

* The self-sufficient camp certainly has a number of recent, and long-standing, antecedents. We are told that similar anarchist inspired self-sufficient communities, run by a General Assembly decision-procedure, go back to Genoa/2001 and Seattle/1999. The difference is that those camps were as temporary as the IMF/WB/G8/WTO meetings they were set up to protest, and probably for that reason were not nearly as central as they are to the Occupation. Moreover, the creation of a permanent camp ‘occupying’ the enemy’s territory is familiar from activism of the 1970s and 1980s, such as the Greenham Common Peace Camp although these were not seen as ‘prefigurations.’ In the longer time horizon of modern political action, there is a robust tradition of occupying factories and land, a tradition the current Occupation sometimes overlooks – though there the difference is that the aim is to seize means of production from owners, not to secede from mainstream society by occupying public property.

16 Responses to “Anticapitalism and Occupation”

  1. Paco Barragan December 19, 2011 at 8:38 pm #

    I dont’ really think it’s a definition problem or either/or, id est, capitalis vs socialist, capitalist vs communist, capitalist vs anarchist and so on.

    Most people in the Occupy movements, who on its turn are inspired on the 15 M indignados movement in Spain, just want a better distribution of the cake, that is, have a better job, housing, health care and so on. Which is totally acceptable.

    It has nothing to do with being anti-capitalist because they’re not questioning the essence of capitalism nor trying to overthrow it.

    Paco Barragán

    • herzfeld December 20, 2011 at 5:25 am #

      Really Paco? Did you ask “most people in the Occupy movements” where they fall on the reformist/revolutionary axis and their intentions vis capitalism? Are you sure you’re really privy to the conversations, as a curator in Madrid, rather than just piecing together an impression based on highly filtered mediated representations?

      • Paco Barragan December 20, 2011 at 12:06 pm #

        Dear Mr. Herzfeld,

        I’m sure we can have a fair exchange even if you don’t agree with my opinions.

        I, as a curator who has made 33 trips these year worldwide -from Sydney, to Helsinki to Bogota to Caracas etc etc- wouldn’t like to take advantage of my situation and privileged information which is first hand.

        So, it’s not good to make assumptions about ‘filtered representations’.

        I’m stating this because I have been out there in Madrid many days and talked to people myself (and to the revolting students in the streets of Bogota and Caracas) and I have experienced first hand that it’s not about changing capitalism nor changing the system.

        This is not the Arab Spring!

        We live in democracies for the good or the worst.

        If the economy weren’t that bad, people wouldn’t have gone out on the street, let alone thinking about changing the system.

        Now the real question is WHY?

        WHY people have ONLY gone out on the street because of the economic crisis?

        Not because they felt their liberties had been seriously cut down, because for example in the USA since the Patriot Act liberties have been severely cut down in the name of democracy, and in other countries in Europe as well, but, that wasn’t a reason enough for people to go out on the street and complain (yes of course some minor groups and on a representational level, id est, in social media mainly).

        So, it was merely an economic reason, and if the economy starts working again, people will soon forget.

        And now, the final question is WHY are people not wanting to change the system if it’s clear that it is an unfair, repressive, and even anti-democratic system? If it’s the 1% against the 99%…

        Kind regards,

        Paco Barragán

      • herzfeld December 21, 2011 at 4:35 am #

        That you’ve been fortunate enough to travel a great deal does not make you an authority on the Occupation movement. You are grossly generalizing and ‘mind-reading’. I’ve been to several occupations in the US and been directly involved, talking with a wide array of other participants. You may’ve been to Caracas and Helsinki — that’s nice — but this conversation centers on Occupations in the US, which is hardly satisfyingly “democratic” to many in the US (hence the anger at the influence of corporate money, etc.). I wouldn’t generalize about countries as different as Finland, Columbia, Spain, the US any more than I’d compare these to North Africa — they’re too different as societies. It’s senseless to gather anecdotal evidence at sites of resistance/protest at each of these and — rather than compare and contrast carefully — generalize some aggregate character of all of them, like “they’re not anti-capitalist!”

        “Not because they felt their liberties had been seriously cut down, because for example in the USA since the Patriot Act liberties have been severely cut down in the name of democracy but that wasn’t a reason enough for people to go out on the street and complain” Let me point out that your logic is highly flawed. That some significant curtailment of civil liberties did not all at once spark a mass movement all at once does not prove that is not at the forefront of people’s concerns. It is and if you knew what you were talking about, you’d know this. It’s as ridiculous as arguing that “since the financial collapse really occurred in 2008, and now the US is technically not in recession, the movement that began this past year must not be about the economy”. There is a lag sometimes before enough people are angry enough to reach critical mass such that you would notice. You are trying to deduce the causes and motivations for this movement in the US by making guesses based on media coverage, rather than conducting research or even simply asking a sufficient many people.

        Another point where you are simply generalizing yourself into incorrect assumptions is that people in the US occupation movement don’t want to fundamentally change the system. Some people think a few reforms would either be sufficient or all that is possible. Some people think a great number of changes should be made without a total revolution/reconstruction. And many people want revolution or radical structural transformation. Maybe most people are somewhere in between, trying to figure out where they stand. You are generalizing and attempting to articulate what you think people aim for — stating this not as a guess, inference, or question, but as a fact, as if you are an authority — and lumping a huge range of sentiments and opinions together into a solid whole.

        You are also claiming the ability to predict the future. “if the economy starts working again, people will soon forget”. You don’t know that. Historians, journalists, political scientists are usually careful to couch their predictions in honesty and humility, but you state your assumptions as facts. Bad habit. Careful observes have already been surprised, and will admit they don’t know exactly what will happen.
        kind regards,

      • Paco Barragan December 21, 2011 at 8:38 am #

        Dr. Mr Herzfeld,

        It’s really unpleasant to have an exchange with you because you need to be offensive all the time.

        Even if I was totally wrong, you don’t need to use all the offensive adjectives, assumptions, and other rhetoric you’re using all the time. Just review your answer and you can see for yourself.

        Just say what you want to say, explain your point of view.

        And yes, I’m of the opinion that the 99% are not against capitalism, not even 1% of them I would dare to say. Its not not about changing the system.

        And that is the real problem.

        I can understand that you don’t like this statement.

        Fine, I can accept it.

        But give me some arguments and be polite, otherwise this conversation will simply vanish.

        Kind regards,


  2. Pamela AuCoin January 3, 2012 at 9:36 pm #

    Mr. Barragon,
    I understand that Mr. Herzfeld was a bit touchy, but nevertheless, I see his point.

    “This is not the Arab spring…We live in democracies.” Not so fast. In the USA, we have lost our habeus corpus rights, our Congress has been hijacked by lobbyists, corporations are people (sounds fascist, no?) and Europeans have lost the right to fight austerity, since the EU can dictate austerity measures, for member nations. I suspect many Greeks don’t feel they are living in a democracy, since they had no say in the new budgetary measures, dictated from…Merkle of Germany?

    Finally, without referencing actual studies/polls, I wouldn’t assume that there aren’t a lot of anarchists and socialists out there, who clearly are interested in overturning capitalism. I worry that if we don’t acknowledge this, we discredit their important role in the movement. I have spent some time in Zucotti Park in Manhattan, and encountered quite a few radical leftists, along with, yes, Ron Paul supporters and those interested in kinder, gentler forms of capitalism.

    • Paco Barragan January 3, 2012 at 10:05 pm #

      Hi Pamela,
      Thank you for your reply.

      The problem as I see it -and we can see it now in Spain with the new right wing government who has introduced radical cuts in education, health and research, most people, me among them- we are just accepting all these measures because we think or at least we are not able to imagine a new system beyond capitalism because the ones we know nazism, communism didn’t work out. And we thought that the third way social-democracy, the European aura mediocritas of democracy didn’t finally worked out because our leaders are afraid of the markets and, like Obama, are not assuming a political role, i.e., ruling over the economy and stop financial speculation.

      But, having said that, I acknowledge that there are people that a radical, anarchists, left wing, socialist, whatever, but as of today there is no quorum to change the system. They are just too small and insignificant, and most people, the traditional Joe is not really thinking about changing the system, he just wants to have work.

      And if the economy starts to recover, nobody will think about changing the system. We will just think that this was just another crisis like the oil crisis, and we will continue and forget about it.

      Idealism is great and necessary, but realism is also a must.


      • Pamela AuCoin January 4, 2012 at 7:37 pm #

        Thank you, Paco, for a very civilized response — this is very much appreciated. My feeling is that social democracy was working fairly well for nations in Europe, until the recent banking crisis, which was about a failure to regulate. I strongly feel that there is plenty of wealth to go around, and Europeans, Americans — well, everybody deserves better than to suffer from austerity.

        We needn’t fall back on old structures which failed, like communism. It doesn’t seem to work. Neither, apparently, does American-style corporatism, which leaves people hungry, hopeless, often without any kind of job security.

        Brazil is a fascinating example of a country which used to be in terrible shape, a dictatorship, even — but now is incorporating a mixture of capitalism and socialism within a political democracy. They have lifted tens of millions out of poverty.

        Anyway, love your country, and your indignados — a real inspiration for those of us all over the world.

  3. gweaverii January 6, 2012 at 12:29 am #

    I believe that Pamela and Paco have it right. Corporatism does not work. However, it is so powerful and entrenched that it will endure for the foreseeable future. The Occupiers will continue to occupy although they are being virtually ignored. My question is not about their vision of a workable society, but whether their voices will affect any change at all.

    Thank you all for an insightful discussion.


    • Paco Barragan January 6, 2012 at 11:07 pm #

      Hi George,

      For me the dilemma now is: to vote Obama knowing that he’s not doing his job properly or to vote a Republican who will do a worse job.

      And it’s hard to think that these are the only options and another 4 more years of hardship.

      • Pamela AuCoin January 7, 2012 at 5:21 pm #

        I really appreciate these exchanges. Sadly, I suspect both George and Paco are more right than I care to admit. But, I will go ahead and share this fear: Yes, it seems like the protests are only somewhat heard. And we’re looking at possibly years of harsh austerity measures. yet, we must continue.

        In the USA, there are, as Paco mentioned, no choices. Or barely any choices — it’s the 1% versus the 1%. The biggest fundraiser almost always wins.

      • Paco Barragan January 7, 2012 at 7:06 pm #

        Yes, Pamela, and strangely enough it was first Clinton who beat for the first time a Republican in corporate fundraising and later Obama had the biggest sum ever from corporations. Of, course we know now what they both had to deliver in return.

  4. Kevin Barrington January 8, 2012 at 4:15 am #

    Here’s another take on the issue:

    • Paco Barragan January 8, 2012 at 1:13 pm #

      Dear Keivn
      Thank you for your articles an your link. They speak for themselves.

      Now, I would like to add 2 things:

      1) The organizers of many of the Arab Spring revolts didn’t use social media for their meetings, strategies and actions. Actually they used a manual, a book. (I’m sorry I forgot the link to the interview where this was explicitly explained as they knew social media were being monitored by most regimes.) They used social media as an information tool.

      2) We are at the very beginning of social media, internet is still very young, webs 2.0 and so on, and what used to be a promised land, a new utopia isn’t so new nor so utopian at all. What used to be an amateur, open, and unstructured information has become totally corporate run by a few corporations who are deciding which information we get to see and which not, with pre-packed information which deemphasizes the individual. Basically we are being locked in by corporation power again -be it facebook, google..etc etc-.

      it’s good to embrace social media, the web and new technologies, and its very practical and fascinating, but I feel we lack a sense of critically towards it as of today.

      Thank you

  5. superspivvingdon July 12, 2012 at 10:37 pm #

    Pillar of Capitalism Falls. Read all about it:


  1. Anticapitalism and Occupation | Cesran International - March 30, 2014

    […] This articles first published at The Current Moment. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: