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The Vacancies of Capitalism
Throughout the first several weeks of Occupy Oakland’s existence the analysis and discussion at the General Assembly and elsewhere has been about the need to construct an entirely different social order. It is not so much that “the system is broken” but that it is, and always has been, set up to deliberately benefit, a small minority. The few social provisions that allowed many people in Oakland to survive off of low or no wages have been cut, largely to maintain a police budget that consumes 2/3rds of the city budget. Budget cuts to education and services, police brutality, unemployment and housing foreclosures all serve to multiply the pain and precariousness of a growing number of Oaklanders, displacing many more, including 25% of Oakland’s black population in the last 10 years. This reality is not unlike many other cities and towns throughout the country and not entirely dissimilar to the realities of most people throughout the world living through the last four decades of neoliberal, free market capitalism.
The goal of this piece is to illustrate how the vacancies of capitalism, shuttered homes, abandoned factories, closed schools, de-funded libraries and social programs are a vacancy in two senses – and how Occupy Oakland, as well as cities and towns throughout the Occupy movement, are attempting to fill them. First, they are an obvious gap or a lack – a lack of jobs, housing, affordable healthy food, medical care, etc. – that are either embodied in empty homes and factories or in emptiness inside the residents of Oakland, whether a physical hunger from lack of food, or a metaphorical hunger for a better world. Second, these vacancies are not just a lack, they a political, social and economic opening within the existing social order that capital and the State have ceded for the sake of short-term profit. The long history of the failures of the existing order, and the current crisis we find ourselves in, are an opportunity to fill the vacancies of a dying world while building a better one. We have seen this all over the globe – Argentina, Greece, Egypt and elsewhere – when the social order makes life impossible for a large number of people, and relatively deprives another large group that is not accustomed to barely getting by, they self-organize their communities while fighting for a just society that meets peoples’ needs. Oakland, and cities all over the US, have begun this process and are preparing to take this next step – occupying these multiple vacancies.
The Power of Solidarity: Occupy Strikes Back
The vacancies of capitalism in Oakland overlap each other and effect different communities in different ways. Undocumented day laborers from the Fruitvale face different struggles than the 50% of black young adults who are unemployed and over-policed in East Oakland. College students who contribute to rising rents that even they can’t afford with their massive student loans in North Oakland are in a different position than single mothers who can’t afford $1000 every month for childcare for one child in West Oakland. The language of the 99% tends to lump people in a way that erases relative class privilege as well as gender and race inequalities. While we need to develop this conversation and what it means for our short-term and long-term political work – we should also appreciate the fact that despite our differences in lived experience, and unsympathetic media efforts to highlight them, a large portion of Oakland’s population support the anti-capitalist goals of Occupy Oakland for a radically different society. Our potential grows out of our own strength and solidarity, but also out of the vacancies of capitalism – economically in its inability to provide jobs or decent wages, and politically in its inability to learn from its past and current crises by attempting to lessen peoples’ pain. Though this pain is not evenly distributed among us, the key to its alleviation is collective action and solidarity.
Oakland is preparing for several major actions in the next two weeks. On November 30th, there will be a rally in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland in solidarity with efforts in Arizona to shut down the ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) summit which constructs policies that criminalize communities of color, including crafting SB 1070. On December 6th, Oakland will be participating in a nation-wide day of action against foreclosures, helping to put evicted families back in their homes. On the 12th, all of the ports on the West Coast will be shut down in solidarity with longshoreman resisting scab labor on the docks in Longview, WA as well as highly exploited independent truckers. Major banks have their hands in all of these efforts to criminalize and exploit workers. These are not just fleeting days of actions, but ongoing political work in Oakland and elsewhere, harnessing our collective social power to transform the existing society through solidarity and collective action.
The System Isn’t Broken, the System Needs to be Broken
The housing and economic crises as well as social cuts do not exist in a vacuum, nor are they particularly new. They are however being exacerbated by record levels of racialized economic disparity. The distribution of resources in a society is an easy way to evaluate not just economic inequality, but political power of various groups in society as well as the values and morals of those who are in a position to decide the allocation of those resources. Economic inequality nationally is at the highest level ever recorded. 71.5 % of all wealth is controlled by the top 10%, with the 1% controlling 34% by themselves. The racialized economic wealth gap shows an even greater contrast, with median white wealth 20 times greater than black wealth and 18 times greater than Latinos. Our cities also visually illustrate this stark economic disparity. Of all the cities in the entire world New York has the 9th highest level of economic inequality. The Bay Area metro region has the 7th highest level of inequality in the country.
This inequity is, and has been, compounded by political policies designed to shift money away from the poor and working class and towards benefits for the rich and State apparatuses of social control – with police, prisons, and foreign wars topping the list. At the national level, the federal budget that spends almost half of its money on the military also gave several billion dollars to the banks that recklessly created this crisis – not so they can help people stay in their homes, but so they can buy smaller banks in the aftermath of the crisis they created, deny people loans and mortgage modifications, and (often literally) take our last dollars in bank fees, or leave us to the predation of check-cashers and pay-day loans.
In Oakland the city budget gives the best overview of the priorities of those in power. The police control 2/3rds of an indebted and shrinking budget, with social services making up roughly 20% of city expenses – facing heavy budget cuts again this year. School funding, which comes out of a separate budget, has been steadily de-funded, compounded by the social costs of housing foreclosures (discussed below), leading to 5 school closures this year and the potential for a much higher number of school closures next year. The politico-economic system works in mutually beneficial ways for the rich and mutually detrimental ways for the rest of us – their splendor is our pain. The Occupy movement in Oakland is addressing this through coordinated direct action and solidarity, not through petitioning a system that is deliberately designed to do exactly what it has been doing for decades.
Factories and Housing: From Usefulness to Speculation
Banks, other financial institutions and major corporate players in real estate have thus far succeeded in making their crisis our crisis. The several billion dollars in bailout money, and the billions more loaned out of the Federal Reserve, are only one part of the story. Through a combination of international competition and waves of deregulation in the last four decades, capitalism has permanently shifted to pursuing profit through unstable forms of speculation. Noam Chomsky points out that in the early 1970s 90% of global trade (market exchanges) were of real goods and services (i.e. cars, food, teachers’ salaries) and 10% was speculation (i.e. hedge funds, stock futures, etc.). Today 90% of trade is speculation and 10% is in real goods and services. This means that our economic system is firmly rooted in real estate speculation, complex financial instruments that the banks don’t even understand, government, corporate and household debt, currency speculation, and various insurance and bailout schemes to protect these corporate gamblers from risk.
US taxpayers are currently paying several billion dollars for bailouts on declining wages from the most current crisis that began in 2008. To compound the situation these same banks and assorted speculators have used this money to take advantage of those most harmed in the crisis. As homeowners lose their houses due to predatory loans or outright bank fraud, and renters get evicted because they either lost their jobs or can’t pay continuously rising rents in cities like Oakland, the already bloated vultures have swept in to flip foreclosed houses into gentrification pads and have bought whole portions of neighborhoods in Oakland at rock-bottom prices, speculating that the aforementioned gentrification will increase the value of their investment in the coming years. This leaves a landscape of empty homes and homeless families. This is modern primitive accumulation in US cities, where market processes destroy peoples’ ability to get by with the intention of appropriating resources – land, homes, city budget funds. Plainly, this is economic profit through perpetuating social crisis. This process is not new, nor is it unique to Oakland.
The extent of this housing crisis in Oakland is acute, with 33% of homeowners behind on their mortgages, as real estate developers like the Fitzgerald Group take advantage of declining property values, in neighborhoods like West Oakland, to speculate on future gentrification. California has the second highest foreclosure rate in the US. In Oakland 1 in 241 homes were foreclosed on in just one month, this past August, at a cost to the city of $20,000 in city services to evict each family. While the costs to the City of Oakland to carry out these evictions, in a city with a population below 400,000, has totaled $224 million, an additional $75 million has been lost in property taxes. This $75 million is a rough estimate of the overall budget deficit of the entire City of Oakland for this coming year. From 2008, Oakland property values will have fallen by $12 billion by the end of 2012. The gutting of the tax base, will further decimate what little is left of Oakland’s social services and the public schools, forcing more families out, bringing in more privatization. This accumulation through dispossession is a deliberate political policy designed to perpetuate a social crisis for the potential economic enrichment of the few.
They Have Made Their Crisis Our Crisis; Now It’s Time to Make Our Crisis Theirs’
The government, both locally and nationally, have met the crisis of capitalism and the Occupy movement that has grown out of it with an extraordinary amount of hubris. At the federal level, bank bailouts and corporate tax breaks, failure to provide medical care to tens of millions of Americans, unending wars and continuous saber rattling, school budget cuts, and continued criminalization of immigrants and communities of color, demonstrate an overwhelming bipartisan commitment to the unholy alliance of trickle-down economics and militarism, both outside and inside the borders of the US. The federally coordinated raids on the Occupy movement in recent weeks and perpetual rounds of police violence around the country mark a conscious effort to suppress dissent with military tactics.
As the movement spreads deeper into communities of color facing eviction and police profiling, to immigrant communities being criminalized and ruthlessly separated from their families; to college students going into lifelong debt in exchange for a steadily degraded quality of education and lack of job prospects; to rank and file unionists tired of the boss and the business unions that have steadily compromised their interests; to the much broader working class that scrapes by paying a second or third mortgage or holding off grocery shopping for weeks to be able to pay rent while working long hours or multiple jobs, as 36% of the workforce are excluded from full-time employment – a growing number of people are seeing beyond the weak, racist scapegoat arguments, empty nationalism and media distractions that have worked in the past. There also exists a vibrant and viable movement pursuing a set of radical social changes that are increasingly being seen, not only as desirable, but necessary. By the time the State scrambles to make concessions it will be too late for them and all of those they tirelessly represent.
When Your Politics Make Life Impossible, “The Politics of the Impossible” Become Reality
The US is undergoing heightened neoliberal “restructuring” after decades of subjecting the rest of the world to structural adjustment programs and free trade that guts the public sector and social safety nets, and bleeds workers to subsidize corporate profit from a number of angles. The response from around the world has been militant resistance, the construction of democratic counter-institutions, and revolution. As E.P. Thompson so eloquently described in “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the 18th Century,” when they raise the price of bread people have bread riots; this is as old as capitalism itself.
In Argentina when they closed factories, workers occupied them and now run them collectively. When school budgets were cut in Mexico City, the students took over the university. The Brazilian labor movement, along with masses of the urban poor, have addressed poverty by winning control over city resources to provide development, services and jobs to the poor through directly-democratic, participatory budgeting. Elsewhere is Brazil, landless peasants have been occupying the idle land of the rich in order to survive for decades. South Africans have steadily fought privatization, South Koreans waged a massive General Strike when asked to make sacrifices. Venezuela has taken control of their resources to fund free hospitals and build decentralized democracy, amid US coup attempts. In Greece, anarchists and other militants have responded to austerity with widespread ungovernability. From Tunisia to London to Oakland, the people have rioted against the prevalent violence reaped by the police on the poor and racialized. In Egypt a broad-based movement led to the ouster of a neoliberal US-propped dictator through occupying public space. When the police attacked them they burnt the police station to a crisp. This movement didn’t start with Occupy Wall Street and it won’t end with a bunch of camps getting raided or with pepper spray from lazy cops.
The dynamics that shape the conflict between the Occupy movement, workers and the dispossessed on one side and the State and capital on the other are being made clear as the struggle progresses. The coming together of various tensions is putting the radical transformation of society on a realistic horizon. With protracted socio-economic crisis and record inequality being facilitated by an unaccountable government, forming the political ground upon which we stand, a growing anti-capitalist consciousness, mass mobilizations, solidarity and self-organization are beginning to coalesce as we march towards that horizon to build a new day.
Mike King is a PhD candidate at UC–Santa Cruz and East Bay activist. He can be reached at mking(at)ucsc.edu