Occupy in History
It has been said by some of the original Black Panthers that, in their view, it wasn’t their armed self-defense against police violence that brought the full weight of state repression down on them. What brought it was their establishment of alternative institutions—schools, food programs, and medical clinics etc., based on collectivist principles. What the (economically) captured state fears most, then and now, is factual demonstration that the established ways of doing things not only aren’t the only ways to do them; they aren’t even in the range of sane and workable ways of doing them.
The Occupy encampments that arose around the country last Fall offered a similar contrast. While I only knew the encampment at Zuccotti Park in New York, multiple reports had it that the same collectivist principles of mutual aid and the establishment of alternative institutions such as free medical care, food programs, open schools, free stores and the free library began to fill the broader needs of nearby communities. In so doing, the absence of a functioning political economy within the capitalist-state was laid bare.
Most readers are likely unaware of the breath and intensity of the state strategies of repression against Occupy. And given the high level of rampant criminality in the boardrooms and executive suites surrounding Zuccotti Park, it is no accident that the state chose to focus its energies on crushing what it believed to be the actual threat to the existing order. Systematic criminality is what the NYPD and the FBI are being pitted against Occupy to protect.
This undoubtedly reads like brave talk for what Occupy has accomplished to date. But the scale and scope of state repression suggests that the state doesn’t think so. Additionally, the premises that lie behind the criticism of mismatched scale: wee little Occupy as in some sense a model, or series of models, to replace the giant, integrated plutocrat-state, assume (1) that we, broadly speaking, really want or need most of what the plutocrat-state “provides,” and (2) what could be recovered in terms of functional political economy and institutions couldn’t replace what currently exists. I believe neither of these to be true.
The for-profit economic system is premised on economic elites taking what they can from us and returning as little as they can get away with returning in ‘exchange’. This describes our health care system, our educational system, our food system, and to the extent that they still exist, our jobs. As health care, education, food and sustaining economic existence are basic human needs, it is the profit system that stands between nominal and factual provision of these services.
The plutocrat-state claims that it is the only political economy that can provide these services and then it doesn’t provide them. If it is agreed that these are necessary for human well being then the choice is to stay with the system that by design doesn’t provide them or to establish alternative institutions without the restraint and withholding of the profit system. (The plutocrat’s claim of scarcity might be more credible if they didn’t have so much of our social wealth in their own pockets).
Sure the experience at Zuccotti Park (and Oakland, Chicago, etc.) has to date been limited, and supported in some measure from without. But what was demonstrated is that not only is the profit system not the sole motivation of political economy, for most of us it only enters as a consideration when it is forced on us. A large part of the liberation felt at Occupy encampments was freedom from market mediation of our relationships. And ongoing resistance to co-optation springs from the insight that other modes mediation similarly mis-directs our efforts.
The anarcho-collectivist model that broadly describes my experience with Occupy has (rightly) been challenged from the left, but to date for the wrong reasons. The questions proffered presuppose the shell of nation-state and ask how an anarcho-collectivist model would populate that shell with workable institutions? First, to put the question back—how has the existing order done so and would we be out there protesting if we found it workable?
Certainly the current and recent past governments in the U.S. and their masters in the oligarchy don’t take the object of nation-state as indelible fact, as evidenced by their wiping their asses with founding documents like the Constitution. Furthermore, they use our institutions as instruments of control and repression and us as cannon fodder and slave labor to make themselves ever richer.
And in a real sense, form has followed function in the U.S. in that three hundred years of varying degrees of plutocratic and oligarchic control have gone into building the existing nation-state. Could the shell serve, in the sense that Marx and Bakunin debated the issue, as a container into which a different political economy could be inserted? Or would it remain an irresistible attractor back toward oligarchy and plutocracy?
While Marx may have had it right for his time and place, my reading of U.S. history tends toward the irresistible attractor thesis. (Bracher’s The German Dictatorship outlines right wing strategies of state control that credibly require military annihilation of the state to undo. A number of these strategies find their mirror in recent U.S. history). And the tragedy of the Egyptian Revolution seems at the moment to lend credence to this view. If the existing order can’t be shoved aside, it must somehow be gotten around.
Alternatively, what isn’t being confronted with ‘efficiency’ critiques (radical democracy often results in nothing being decided) is that it is the efficient systems that are killing us. What is capitalist efficiency in the local sense is world-ending environmental destruction in the global sense. This is both fact and metaphor. So while it is unlikely that a system of amended consensus (90% or more vote in favor) would take us into yet one more pathetic slaughter (war) for the benefit of a few connected insiders, what possibly could be regained through it is community and an unmediated sense of ourselves.
The idea that Occupy was, or ever would be, a ‘military’ threat to the established order, given that killing and crushing people is the one thing that the American plutocrat-state does really well, makes no sense. The state has had to manufacture phony “terrorist” plots to even plant the idea that we could be. This suggests that even the state doesn’t believe that this is the threat Occupy poses.
Rather than obliterating our institutions (medical care, kitchen, library) in the raids on Occupy encampments, why didn’t they just pack up their contents and tell us to pick them up in some distant county? The answer is that it was our community and our alternative institutions that the state sought to obliterate. The Panthers were most probably onto something in arguing that it is the building of alternative institutions that the plutocrats and their state find most threatening. (Flip the question: if we had stayed at Zuccotti Park without the protests, would they have let us stay? No way).
Forty years ago capitalist reformers took the stage. At this point the burden of proof that their system could under any circumstances ever work lies squarely with them. If we are to provide for basic human needs, the plutocrat-state has given every indication that we are on our own. We can accept the increasingly meager crumbs that those institutions drop in our direction or we can provide for ourselves. This includes fighting to retain the social wealth that is still nominally in our hands.(homes, pensions, insurance schemes etc.).
Hindsight is with the cautionary tales from the moderates from the 1960s, but not for the reasons that they think. The treatment that the original Black Panthers received from the state became personal tragedy, but it was also a series of crimes committed against them by the state. The murder of Fred Hampton in his bed next to his pregnant wife was a crime. Sending the Panthers to prison for decades on false charges (the state admits this) was a crime. The Panthers built schools so the state murdered them. So who’s to blame, the criminal state or the Panthers who fought for their communities?
The Weather Underground blew up buildings and occasionally themselves. What they didn’t do is murder three million Vietnamese. The Weather Underground was right in their condemnation of the war in Vietnam. The critique from the moderates was with their tactics. But had the Weather Underground succeeded, would the subsequent wars for plutocratic profit have occurred? (I don’t know). The moderates can criticize action, but what did they achieve? Neither the Panthers nor the Weather Underground caused the capitalist revival that is decimating the world. So at what point does personal tragedy become collective tragedy? What part of ‘not in our names’ don’t the moderates get?
The choice at present is not between competing institutions. If we need health care, schools, food and jobs the plutocrat-state has put us on notice that we are on our own. Occupy has provided a hint at possible alternatives. The state and their plutocrat masters will fight us even if we surrender today because in their system, our loss is their gain. It is our subjugation that sustains them.
Last, as a believer in radical democracy, this is my voice. Others can, and should, speak for themselves.
Rob Urie is an artist and political economist in New York.