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.