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The Rebellion of the Poor

Grahamstown, South Africa.

In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s novel about the Great Depression, Tom Joad, the novel’s central character, a man who has been made poor and who is on the run from the law, tells his mother in the climactic scene that: “I been thinking about us, too, about our people living like pigs and good rich land layin’ fallow. Or maybe one guy with a million acres and a hundred thousand farmers starvin’. And I been wonderin’ if all our folks got together….”

That wondering is a red thread woven through American history with the promise of a way out of what Martin Luther King called “life as a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign”. In recent years a lot of Americans who have not been born to life in that desolate corridor have been forced in to it. The time when each generation could expect to live better than their parents has passed. Poverty is rushing into the suburbs. Young people live with their parents into their thirties. Most can not afford university. Most of the rest leave it with an intolerable debt burden. It’s the same in Spain, Greece and Ireland. England is looking pretty grim too. The borders that surround the enclaves of global privilege are shrinking in from the nation state to surround private wealth.

If the problem was that there just wasn’t enough money to go around, people would have to accept the situation. But when there is plenty of money, when there is, in fact, an incredible abundance of money but its being held by a tiny minority, its perfectly logical to start wondering along Tom Joad’s lines.

The financial elite who had, for so long, successfully presented themselves as the high priests of the arcane arts of economic divination on whom our collective well being was dependent caused the financial crisis of 2008. The problem was not a miscalculation in some algorithm. It was the greed of a caste that had been allowed to set itself up above everyone else. As a character in a Bruce Springsteen song about the deindustrialisation of America observes “Them big boys did what Hitler couldn’t do”. This caste has developed so much power over the media and politicians that it has been allowed to dictate the resolution of the crisis. Their plan, of course, comes down to the proposal that they should continue to profit while the shortfall is recovered from society. That means more people losing their homes, no longer able to afford health care or child care, dropping out of university, sliding deeper into debt and working two or three crappy jobs just to keep going.

There was resistance from the start. But for a long time it looked like right wing populism would be the dominant popular response in America. But with the occupation of Wall Street inciting occupations and planned occupations in cities throughout the United States, and as far away as Hong Kong and South Africa, it seems that a response that targets the real source of the problem is gaining more traction.

The choice of Wall Street as the target for the occupation is, in itself, a perfectly eloquent statement. And slogans like “We’re young; we’re poor; we’re not going to take it any more” are incisive enough. But if the occupation of sites of symbolic power in cities across North America is to win concrete rather than moral victories, and to make a decisive intervention against the hold that finance capital has taken over so much of political and social life, it will have to do two things. It will need, without giving up its autonomy, to build links with organisations, like churches, trade unions and students groups, that are rooted in everyday life and can support this struggle over the long haul. It will also need to find ways to build its own power and to exercise it with sufficient impact to force real change.

Wall Street is usually a world away from Main Street and bringing it under control is no easy task. But its encouraging that what links Tahrir Square to Liberty Plaza, the protests in Athens and Madrid and the movements that have emerged in the shack settlements of Port-au-Prince, La Plaz, Caracas and Durban, is a concern with democracy. In Tahrir Square the primary point was to unseat a dictatorship but elsewhere there is a global sense that the standard model of parliamentary democracy is just not democratic enough. This is a crucial realisation because, in many countries, America being one of them, you just can’t vote for an alternative to the subordination of society to capital. But a serious commitment to dispersing power by sustained organising from below can shift power relations. It is the only realistic route to achieving any sort of meaningful subordination of capital to society.

The idea of an occupation as a way to force an exit from the long and desolate corridor to which more and more Americans are being condemned is not new. Martin Luther King dedicated the last years of his life to the Poor People’s Campaign. In 1968 he travelled the country aiming to assemble “a multiracial army of the poor”, “a new and unsettling force” that would occupy Washington until Congress enacted a poor people’s bill of rights providing decent housing and work or a guaranteed income for all. Reader’s Digest warned of an “insurrection”. King was assassinated on the 4th of April 1968 but the march went ahead on the 12th of May 1968. Up to 50 000 people marched on Washington and occupied Capitol Hill. Thousands built a shanty town known as Resurrection City and held it for six weeks, in which it seemed to rain incessantly, before it was bulldozed.

In that same year there was mass protest, sometimes verging on insurrection, from Prague to Berlin, Paris and Mexico City. Much of it was inspired by the war in Vietnam and much of it took the form, against both the state and the authoritarian left, of direct democracy and collective self-organisation. In 1968 armed third world peasants became the most compelling image of a revolt that, while not global, was certainly international. With the defeat of these struggles the human rights industry was able to recast the third world poor as passive victims requiring charity and guidance from the North.

Debt, often mediated through dictatorship, became a key instrument through which the domination of the North was reasserted over the South. Debtors don’t just have to wring every cent that they can from life. They are also without autonomy. But the servitude of the debtor is increasingly also the condition of home-owners, students and others in the North who are paying for much of the financial crisis.

When some people are living like pigs and others have land lying fallow its easy enough to see what must be done. But when some people are stuck in a desolate corridor with no exit signs and others have billions in hedge funds, derivatives and all the rest it can seem a lot more complicated. And of course it is more complicated in the sense that you can’t occupy a hedge fund in the same way that you can occupy the fallow land of a billionaire.

But the point about finance capital is that it is the collective wealth of humanity. The money controlled by Wall Street was not generated by the unique brilliance, commitment to labour and willingness to assume risk on the part of the financial elite. It was generated by the wars in the Congo and Iraq. It comes from the mines in Johannesburg, the long labour of the men who worked those mines and the equally long labour of the women that kept the homes of the miners in the villages of the Eastern Cape. It comes from the dispossession, exploitation, work and creativity of people around the world. That wealth, which has been captured and made private, needs to be made public. Appropriated or properly taxed under democratic authority it could fund things like housing, health care, education, a guaranteed income and productive investment.

When a new politics, a new willingness to resist, emerges from the chrysalis of obedience, it will, blinking in the sun, confront the world with no guarantees. But we need to get together and commit what we can to try and ensure that 2011 turns out differently to 1968 or, for that matter, 1989. Here in South Africa the immediate task for the young people inspired by the occupations that have spread from Cairo to New York via Madrid and Athens is to make common cause with the rebellion of the poor.

Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University in South Africa.

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Dr. Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University in South Africa.

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