I first got wind of the Occupy Wall Street action back in its planning stages. I didn’t give it much thought, but considered it a potentially positive thing, especially if it began with a fair number of people participating or somehow captured the mainstream media’s attention. As it continues to unfold, I must admit that the continued growth of the movement has exceeded my expectations exponentially. I have yet to spend a night at an Occupy encampment. However, I have participated in a couple assemblies in Burlington, VT and am in touch with a few occupiers in Manhattan, Washington, DC, San Francisco and Asheville, NC. These contacts have provided me with an overview of the movement and what it hopes to achieve.
It is impossible to put every one involved in this movement into one ideological box. In its current state, it is reasonable to portray the Occupy movement as one where multiple ideologies are competing to be heard. Libertarians and socialists; anarchists and liberals. They are all present and they are all vocal in their attempts to represent the movement. Yet, if there is one dominant trend in the literature, speeches, and encampments of the movement, it would be that of militant liberalism. Perhaps it is best to look at the anarchist classic The Floodgates of Anarchy for a definition of this political trend. In a backhanded manner, the authors Christie and Meltzer describe militant liberalism by “its inability to understand the class struggle, without the recognition of which social change is impossible.” No matter what those signs one might see about the class war, the reality of the movement at this point is better revealed in its mantra regarding the 99% and the 1%. This oversimplification of who owns the so-called means of production ignores the relationship of the so-called 99% to that means and does not demand a change in that ownership to those that actually produce the wealth.
Some in the mainstream media, along with various loudmouths on the far right, have criticized the Occupy movement because it has too many demands. What does it really want, they ask? This is a legitimate criticism and further illustrates the underlying liberalism of the movement in its current form. Every ill that the movement has highlighted: foreclosures, bank bailouts, unemployment, austerity measures and (rather belatedly) the wars of Washington, are related to one phenomenon. That would be the current manifestation of the economic formation known as monopoly capitalism. Call it what you want, globalization, global capitalism or imperialism, the fact is that all of the ills highlighted by the Occupy movement are economic at their most fundamental. The only way to cure them is to end the economic system which by its very nature created them.
Making the banks smaller will not end the housing crisis or end unemployment. Nor will it fix the schools or create single-payer health insurance. It may encourage banks to lend money again, but the very nature of capitalism is for smaller economic units to compete for profit for themselves so that they can buy out their competition, thereby beginning the cycle of monopolization all over again. It is the very competition that creates monopolies, which by their creation end competition. The history of the United States–perhaps the ultimate capitalist nation–proves that government induced reforms designed to prevent the excesses of monopoly capitalism are always temporary, no matter how well meaning the reformers original intentions.
It is no longer possible to reform capitalism. Its current ruthlessness is unsurpassed in human history. The countless millions who toil at its mercy along with those that toil despite its existence can no longer be saved by liberal politicians or reformers. Nor can they be saved by green capitalists or those that operate on the Ben and Jerry’s model. While the efforts of these corporations are commendable in their own limited way, the very fact that they subscribe to the capitalist mode ensures their inability to solve the ills that economic system creates. While it is certainly true that some capitalists are crueler than others, the fact is that when times are tight and profits are squeezed the very nature of capitalism forces any corporation desiring to survive to exact some kind of heartlessness if they wish to survive. This is why monopoly capitalism itself is the problem. If the Occupy movement had only one demand that would address all of those demands attributed to it, it should be to abolish monopoly capitalism.
The left should be heartened by the Occupy movement. It should also be wary of those that would turn it into another MoveOn or Progressive Democrats organization. The reign of Obama should have proven once and for all that there are very few differences between the Democrats and the Republicans in the United States, just like there are few differences between the Tories and Labor in Britain or the SPD and CDU in Germany. All of these political groupings sold their souls to the neoliberal pipedream decades ago and no matter what they do or say, they are no longer in control of their politics or the outcome of those politics. Furthermore, the trends towards free market libertarianism within the Occupy movement should be addressed. Small time mercantilism and entrepreneurship has its place and a certain allure, yet the financial giants behind the capitalist libertarian movement are neither small time nor entrepreneurs. They are some of the cruelest capitalists on the planet.
The organic (as in its free flow and non-hierarchical, not what it eats) nature of the Occupy movement is its strength and weakness. Occupying is in itself a radical statement. Yet, as a veteran of numerous occupations/liberations I can honestly say that the fact of occupying can often become the raisin d’etre of a movement, thereby preventing further political action beyond that involved in maintaining the liberated space. Those of us with an anti-capitalist analysis would do well to involve ourselves in a manner that is neither forceful nor foolish.
Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He can be reached at:firstname.lastname@example.org