It has often been said that the United States is a country singularly unsuited for ‘European-style’ protest movements. Its police has no fundamental respect for the right to protest and demonstrate; its government strikes faster and harder than that of other countries; its broad lanes and avenues, often without pavements, do not lend themselves well to pedestrian occupation; the suburban fragmentation and individualisation in spatial-ideological terms impede the kind of collective consciousness required. Yet the United States has no less an impressive history of labor action, protests and rallies than any other country, from the Bonus Army to Martin Luther King’s speech in Washington, DC. The demonstrations against the war on Iraq in 2003 drew tens of thousands in various American cities, if not more. Now a new protest movement is avoiding the usual ‘designated’ protest places like the Mall in Washington, and instead striking the heart of global capitalism itself: the financial center in New York City, centered on the old Dutch fortification line known as Wall Street. (The word ‘wall’ here refers to the Dutch ‘wal’, an earthenwork fortification, not a wall in a modern sense.) This is one of the world’s most iconic urban places, and the movement “Occupy Wall Street” has chosen its target well in terms of public relations.
Although only several thousand people have taken part so far, the persistent presence distinguishes it from the usual ‘show up, chant and leave’ approaches of American demonstrations, and consciously hearken to the kind of continuous ‘occupation’ that has characterized the recent uprisings in Europe and the Arab world. This is a phenomenon not as often seen in the United States, and this alone has garnered it much attention. Under the current circumstances of economic crisis, public sympathy is on its side in a way that it rarely is for demonstrators of any kind in the country. Although the New York Police Department has used the usual repressive measures against the demonstrators, they have already gained the support of several American unions and prominents, in particular the Transport Workers Union; this union has filed suit to prevent the NYPD from transporting arrested demonstrators on the city’s buses. Also unusual is the visible presence of military personnel in support of the demonstrators, something only Iraq Veterans Against the War consistently managed to achieve (and to little effect). With solidarity demonstrations arising in other American cities and with polling indicating general support for the demonstrators, and with the Obama administration at a historic weak point in the face of mass unemployment, loss of living standards, and general dissatisfaction, this is an encouraging sign for all on the left, and has been recognized immediately as such.
Yet the American people’s justified anger against the stock-jobbers and charlatans of Wall Street is not a sufficient basis for a meaningful popular movement that can affect the economic structure underlying the crisis. While it makes for a good political slogan, “bankers’ greed” is on reflection not the most relevant cause of the crisis, nor is it likely to be in any way impeded or prevented by demonstrations of this kind. We know the stock-jobbers did everything in their power to profit at public expense, to prevent regulation of their activities, and even now dole out millions to themselves despite having received unprecedented financial support from the public coffers. But this is what we should expect them to do: in a system which rewards only competitive possessiveness, it is what all humanity is drilled from the very youngest age to do. Putting the blame on intangibles of human nature like ‘greed’ is not a political recipe of any kind, and will allow real systemic causes to go underexamined. In fact, this naturalisation of the causes of the crisis is itself a product of the neoliberal order, which attempts – as capitalist ideology always and everywhere does – to naturalize capitalism itself as an inevitable, inescapable social reality which has always existed and will always exist no matter our intentions. Any meaningful political protest movement must resist this logic and go beyond such explanations to take aim at capitalism itself.
Of course this is easier said than done, especially in a country like the United States which by and large only sees the benefits of international capitalism and besides is so ideologically dominated by liberal thought that the very notion of socialism appears as an insult more often than as a political referent. But as it stands, the Occupy Wall Street movement is as liberal as the phenomenon it opposes – it’s an ad hoc response, a grab-bag of slogans and individual gripes, with no coordination and no leadership and which attacks only the most proximate and superficial causes of the crisis. In the final analysis, this crisis was not a failure of regulation (which is a right-Keynesian slogan), nor was it solely the collapse of a financial bubble in the housing and banking sectors, although it was all of these things. Most fundamentally, it is the outcome of the decades-long inability of capitalism to restore profitability to the worldwide production of value. The so-called globalization of worldwide manufacturing follows the classic Marxist law of the rate of profit to fall, as the cheaper prices enforced by the downward competition at once expands the ‘growth’ of the economy and undermines the worldwide rate of profit. This cannot be compensated for by the parasitical expansion of the so-called ‘services economy’ in the West, which exists only insofar and to the extent that the First World’s inflow of value is dominated by Third World production with a high rate of net exploitation. Some have made the underconsumptionist argument that the repression of organized labor and of the working class’ self-organization by the neoliberal offensive since the 1980s has made the working class’ consumption insufficient to valorize this expanded capitalist production. But although the Thatcherite-Reaganite political offensive against the working class was and is a real thing, in the end supra-political economic factors have determined the current outcome. The shift of capitalist value-producing activity to the Third World is the inevitable outcome not of too low, but of too high living standards for workers in the West, from the point of view of capitalism. The current crisis appears therefore as a classic Marxist case of capitalism’s inability to expand beyond its own given boundaries indefinitely, as it always creates new boundaries which it crashes headlong into, and always at a higher and greater level both spatially and quantitatively. Therefore, we should expect this crisis to be deeper and more prolongued than any since the Great Depression, and we should expect its global reach to persist, one which none subject to capitalist logic can escape (expressly including China).
All this is of course not easily encapsulated for a mass public in political notions that get people moving, and any movement is better than none at all. But the deliberate abstention from program and leadership on the part of the Occupy Wall Street movement hampers it to a degree that it is more likely to invite a sympathetic pat in the head by the ruling class than to inculcate fear. This stands in sharp contrast not only to the direct political challenges, by locally determined and led popular fronts of political groups, in the Arab Spring. It also stands in sharp contrast to the heroic resolve of the Greek nation, which has fought to preserve the very economic existence of their country and their people, and who have shown a strength of organisation against all odds not seen since the days of Plataeae and Thermopylae. We should all encourage any sign of serious organisation against the effigies of capitalism in the United States, and “one step of real movement is worth a thousand programmes”. But the onus is now on the American left to make the case for anti-capitalism, rather than merely a rhetorical demonstration against the inequities of the stock market.