The People versus the Stock-Jobbers II: Some Lessons

Two weeks on from my previous article on the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement, it is useful to comment on some of the developments since that time; as a wit might say, to take stock of events. Most heartening and most immediately obvious is the great spread of movements of a similar nature in other countries. This is not so much because the Occupy Wall Street movement was itself the first major response to the current great depression; the Spanish and Greek peoples had been moving onto the streets and mobilizing strikes in their hundreds of thousands before it. But it gave the very idea of a popular movement against our prevailing economic system, however widely or narrowly defined, a visibility and a focus that it had not had before. The Western media is chauvinistic and superficial, and easily writes off class struggle even in countries like Greece and Spain as mere indignation from lazy rabble in inefficient countries. Having, for the first time in the living memory of many, a mass movement that is very close to open anti-capitalism in the lion’s den itself is a different thing, and is bound to draw the attention even of the ‘great and good’.

This is not to dismiss the significance of the struggles in southern Europe and elsewhere. They play not only a major role in showing how class struggle can and should be done, and that it can be done anywhere; but they also have a significant effect on the political-economic constellation of forces, since in many ways the very fate of the European Monetary Union depends on the willingness of the peoples of southern Europe to accept any imposition by the north. Their resistance is therefore more than a ‘merely domestic’ affair. A rebellion in Judea will never quite be the same as a rebellion on the streets of Rome, as Jesus was never as much a threat as Spartacus was; at the same time, the latter’s ideological power has greatly outlasted the former’s. So it may well be here. One of the conclusions that must be drawn from events today is the absolute importance of the international dimension of the movement, not just in terms of political strategy, but also in terms of the battle of ideas. So far, one of the weaknesses of the movement has been its character as the ‘awakening of the white people’, the emphasis on the rebellion being an event in the rich countries: but this is only a major event precisely because of its rarity. That it happens at all is to be applauded, but if this movement is to survive, it must become a movement at least as much of the truly oppressed of the globe as it is a movement of the indebted and dissatisfied workers of the West. This holds true at least for as long as the protestors in New York, London and Berlin do not move their demands beyond their own immediate, domestic interests, and as long as they have no intention of actually threatening the rule of international capital in any way. Merely camping outside St. Paul’s does not harm anyone, and therefore achieves nothing.

But here also lies an opportunity. As Marx wrote, “one step of real movement is better than a thousand programmes”, and this movement has taken several major steps in a very short time. Splits and contentions in such a movement are inevitable and a sign of health rather than weakness, insofar as they lead to the further and further confrontation of those involved with the true nature of the prevailing system and its defensive structures. Every further step will lead some to halt in fear of what lies ahead, but it will also lead some to identify and overcome barriers where they had never known them before, and in so doing to grasp more and more clearly the full outline of our capitalist maze. While the nature of the First World is such that it’s ‘aristocracy of labor’ is the least likely to rebel against the dominion of capital, it is also true that if and when they do, it has the greatest impact. The current crisis, as crises tend to do, has opened the eyes of millions to the reality of the system in a way that no socialist pamphlet or labor conference could possibly do. This alone is invaluable. The real nature of this movement is shown precisely by the fact that even in the United States, the tendency within it towards fascism, chauvinism, and petty-bourgeois white populism has been insignificant in the extreme. Neither the ‘Tea Party’ nor the fanboys of Ron Paul have had any success in diverting it from its fundamental political understanding, however undeveloped that may yet be. This, again, is encouraging in the extreme.

If these analyses may seem contradictory, it is because the movement itself is. In fact, it could not be otherwise. Its diversity of goals and aims, and of causes for protest, is potentially a weakness; it is also potentially a strength. As Vijay Prashad, hardly a First World petty reformist, put it about the American branch of the movement:

Our strength comes in our diversity, in our realization that no single issue discounts any other issue. The interconnected web of injuries draws us into our anti-systemic politics. Some see the sheer diversity of our movement as a failing, asking that we concentrate on one or two issues, on the main issue, which more often then not strips bare life into a cartoonish abstraction (is the “economy” really absent race and gender?). To such frivolous objections, here are at least two reactions. First, it is precisely that the American Left is constituted by this vastness that makes it imperative to recognize the right of the many to castigate all wrongs. More people should be welcome into the American Left,certainly into OWS, bringing with them their many complaints and dreams. Our movement must promise more to each of us than what is available in the present. Second, no one claim to human freedom is essentially more important than another. In time, there will be a serious debate in our movement over how to frame our core issues, and how to move one part of the agenda before another. That is inevitable. But that does not mean that at the start we should already be closing our doors to these or those issues.


All that said, anyone who thinks that at this point they know exactly what its historical significance will be, where it will go and whether it will succeed or fade out is deluding themselves. Nonetheless, I suggest a number of political points must be made and understood by all involved if success is to be more likely, at least.

1) We may safely assume that the current Depression will last for a considerable time still. In fact, there is no basic reason in political economy to expect living standards in the West to return to the levels they previously were, or even to expect anything other than slow but certain decline. As in all situations of crisis, this will lead to a radicalization of a considerable number of the population, both towards the left and the right. The natural instincts of the masses in the West may be fascist, but this is not a necessity, and can be opposed with right politics.

2) Such a politics has the absolute duties of both promoting any real movement that, whether it is aware of it or not, is aimed against the formal and real rule of capitalism. It does not in this context much matter under what banner or slogan such a movement operates, as long as its goals are in the fundament incompatible with the current capitalist order.

3) Where the demands of the movement are compatible with the current order, and are merely aimed at one or another form of domestic relief, they are insufficient. But as long as they are made in opposition to the capitalist class, and do not take on a chauvinistic or reactionary character, they can and should be moved to develop in the direction of anti-capitalism. Anything that finds its natural final outcome in opposition to capitalism has potential.

4) Insofar as the demands have chauvinist and labour aristocratic elements, these are to be opposed, but by demonstrating the incompatibility of such demands with true opposition to the rule of capital. This will, in the West, inevitably over time lead to splits in the movement. Such splits are healthy. For example, one must point out the significance of Western imperialism, and this will separate the wheat from the ‘patriotic’ chaff. To do this in such a manner that it promotes understanding of the interrelation between the death of millions in the Third World, the disempowerment of blacks and Native Americans, the endless warfare regardless of the will of the peoples of the West, and the independent power developed by the ‘military-industrial complex’ to the destruction of even any formal democracy: these are the tasks of the socialist in the West. They are not easy, but if even one-tenth of those on the march now and in future months will develop this political consciousness, it will be a very serious gain. It is imperative that we do not forget that for socialism to succeed politically, one does not need an absolute majority of any population being active Party members or the like. This has never happened and never will. All one needs is literally and figuratively a critical mass, and a constellation of political forces such that the great majority will prefer the victory of the socialists to that of their opponents.

5) For socialists outside the West, the task is a much more straightforward one, if not therefore any easier and considerably more dangerous. The popular democratic movements in the Arab world and the Maoists in Nepal and India have nonetheless shown these to be as potently pregnant with possibility as any other, and they have shown that they no more ‘necessarily’ lead to socialism than elsewhere. This is the real stuff of politics, which cannot be reduced to a static, mechanistic view of economic interests.

6) The final target must be to promote a politics which makes the connection between these movements clear: not by papering over the difference in economic and class position between a teacher in New York and a landless peasant in Chattisgarh, but by showing to the former that the target of their rightful anger is the same as which oppresses the latter. Even where their material position is widely divergent, the crisis and the popular response against it are great political and economic forces which push towards a convergence, even if it is nowhere yet near reaching that point. The future of such countries as China and India will determine the future of the United States; but they will no more succeed along the capitalist road than anyone else has, and in the zero-sum game of competition, there can only be so many winners. Any gain by them is a loss for the Americans and Brits and Germans and so forth, but one would be mistaken in seeing here only a problem for socialists in the West: as the current movement shows, this is equally a ripening of possibilities that have not been seen since the years between the great wars.

7) The main power that can divert this movement in the West is the strength of social-democracy, the ideology of the aristocracy of labor. But the more the crisis endures, the weaker social-democracy is. It has no answers that are not either co-opted by the left or co-opted by the right, and the great mass of people is ever more aware of this. Hitherto, disillusion with social-democracy has translated mainly into disaffection with politics altogether. This movement has the potential to change that. The great virtue of mass movements for economic change, however underdeveloped, is that they reveal the workings of many things to many people. Once taught, these are lessons people do not soon forget. This is why all the charlatans and figureheads of social-democracy from Obama to Jeffrey Sachs have rushed to co-opt the movement and to imbue them with their own ‘lessons’, which all amount to nothing else but further debasement before the golden calf of parliamentary liberalism. The fact they saw the need to do so – and no need at all to do so in the case of the ‘Tea Party’ – shows precisely that they are well aware of the ability of movements of this kind to teach real lessons in political economy, once that cannot be found in the books of Krugman or Mankiw.

The Dale Farm affair

An old scrapyard near Basildon, Essex, is not normally a site that would draw international attention and be at the center of a major social and political controversy crossing traditional lines of interest. But when Basildon council decided to request and enforce an eviction order against a Traveller community living on the site known as Dale Farm, it became the focus of activists and political bodies from comrade Vanessa Redgrave CBE to the United Nations. The Traveller community of Dale Farm, some 90 families strong, owns the land legally but occupies half of it without a planning permit for building. Basildon Council points out that the site is officially on a greenbelt site, and therefore no planning permission can be granted despite appeals by the Travellers present there. The greenbelt, after all, was created as a purposely ‘undeveloped’ and non-urban space to preserve open land around the heavily urbanized southeast of England, in particular London and the ring of commuter towns around it. Furthermore, the council claims it is already hosting more Traveller sites than any other nearby borough (although it does not define this) and therefore feels it is being unfairly portrayed as hostile to vulnerable people. What to do?

It is not the specifics of the case that make it interesting as a political question. After all, the law is clearly on the side of Basildon Council, while at the same time humanity seems on the side of the Travellers. After all, even a government inspector noted that there is a distinct lack of Traveller sites in the general area and significant overpopulation. There are no particular indications that the Traveller presence causes problems in other ways, the children attend local schools, and so forth. What makes the case interesting is the ramifications it has in terms of a conflict between political interests that have in the last decades been increasingly allied: left-wing political sentiments and environmentalist ones. After all, any socialist worth their salt is naturally inclined to defend a vulnerable, often exploited people on the margins of society against the authority of a borough council in Essex trying to prevent them from living in the homes they maintain on unused land. But on the other hand, many on the left would in general also be inclined to support the notion of the green belt, and the necessity for preserving open landscape to preserve the ecosystem, for walking and cycling and other forms of enjoyment of open space, and to restrain the limitless hunger of some city councils for covering all England in asphalt for the benefit of dreary ‘new town’ shopping malls. That makes this an unusually direct case of the interest of the human against the interest of the natural.

It will be no secret that the present author thinks the green-red coalition, to put it in contemporary terms, that has formed in the last 40 years or so is an important step forward for a more comprehensive and scientific political understanding of how to achieve a socialist society. But this test case, so to speak, demonstrates the limits to the potential this alliance has. A shortage of housing, especially when it redounds to the discomfort of the poorest and most marginalized groups in the country, is a very serious issue for any socialist. The United Kingdom has suffered from a dramatic underinvestment in public housing construction since the days of the Thatcher government, and the slow deflation of the housing price bubble will do nothing to allay these issues for those not ranked as middle class. One may like or dislike the semi-nomadic lifestyle of the Travellers; certainly, from the point of view of the full development of the individual there serious problems with the isolated and patriarchal nature of some of the culture of this group. But that is not germane to the current case, as there is no indication of any hostility towards the society of Basildon generally on the part of the Travellers, merely a desire to live as they have done for a considerable amount of time. The site itself is indeed in unmistakably green land, but is also a former scrapyard, which implies that even the pretense of unsullied nature would be hard to maintain for Basildon council or the town’s visitors – while of course every critical environmentalist is aware of the relative and invented nature of any ‘open nature’ in any case. This, in turn, raises the question of priorities, and more particularly, the question of for whose benefit a country is planned.

Local planning laws are, as any planning is, a formalization of the recognition of the need for all societies to control the interaction between its members and to create out of the chaos of social relations a particular structure of life as an emergent property, one with a definite political form and purpose. As soon as humans have historically entered into relations with others in a fixed place for an indefinite period of time, such planning is the prerequisite of all human control over our own lives. But at the same time, they are also always a restriction of individual freedom. In this sense, all planning is the victory of the abstract freedom of the social individual, the species-being, over the physical freedom of the individual creature. This can be justified if and only if its actual reality is to enhance, rather than diminish, the mutual recognition of humans in which their full development as individuals depends on the full development of each of the other individuals, the only authentic form of society. This is as true for environmental planning as for any other.

For reasons scientific and aesthetic, taking the human interaction with nature – our metabolism as Marx called it – into account is of prime importance in making political decisions. The days of pretending pollution would not kill the poor, that uneducated people do not care about having green spaces, or that adverse ecological impacts can be limited to any small region are clearly over. Whether we like it or not, we must face the consequences of the global system capitalism has created, and the interrelationship of all the natural elements with each other and with our own production – the crisis of nonrenewable resources being the clearest example of this. But general ecological principles can only be justified insofar as they serve human goals, insofar as they enable a better life in every respect: better production, greater aesthetic enjoyment, more freedom to roam, better health, and a better comprehension of the world we live in and its physical properties. But they cannot be a hindrance or a let, a hard limit to the needs of humans for their own sake. Getting the line right between these requires a very careful understanding of the intricate and contradictory nature of the web of our interactions with our environment, the way it shapes us and the way we shape it – perhaps truly a case where the use of the term ‘dialectics’ would be appropriate. In the case of Dale Farm, the preservation of the green belt on this particular site by means of public planning fails that test.