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The Word on the Street: Co-optation

Co-optation.

An acquaintance of mine who ferrets about in the White House sends me a text, “We’re discussing the OWS. Seeing how to use it for the jobs bill.” I write back, “Good luck with that. I doubt that the Chicago Boys would like to play with social democracy.”

Connecticut AFL-CIO head John Olsen hits out with a big stick at a rally in Hartford on October 16. Speaking of the Occupy movement, Olsen says, “I’ve been waiting for this for my entire life.” Someone in the crowd tries to heckle him. Olsen says, “Brother, I appreciate your opinion. This is about free speech. Go ahead, have your say. That’s what this is about. Us getting the chance to have our say, and take this country back from the 1%.” Olsen has been saying this sort of thing for years. OWS has enabled the radical sections of the union movement to speak much more forthrightly about economic, social and political inequality than ever before.

The Financial Times decides to endorse the OWS (“America Wakes To the Din of Inequality,” October 16). The text is quite forthright, “The fundamental call for a fairer distribution of wealth cannot be ignored. What is at stake is the future of the American dream. The bargain has always been that all who work hard should have an opportunity for prosperity. That dream has been shattered by a crisis brought about by financial excess and political cynicism. The consequence has been growing inequality, rising poverty and sacrifice by those least able to bear it — all of which are failing to deliver economic growth.” Lionel Barber, the FT’s editor, must have forgotten about his work as unofficial advisor to George W. Bush and returned to his roots as a cub reporter at The Scotsman. At this moment, one forgives all that dross about the “bargain” of the American Dream.

The word on the streets is co-option. Will OWS be co-opted by the Democrats or other political institutions? The formulation is erroneous. Movements seek to widen and absorb all kinds of institutional currents – cultivating themselves as the mainstream, making their ideas common sense. If a core set of principles remains at the forefront (the 99% want state policy to work on their behalf, for instance), then anyone who joins the process would have to do so on the basis of those principles. Consistent principles are an inoculation against co-option by others, on their terms.


Jess and Ken at Occupy New Haven. Photo by Vijay Prashad.

Obama and his team must surely have an allergic reaction to the kinds of straightforward demands that emanate from the various occupied sites. Their temperament is with the bankers (in 2010, Obama called Goldman Sach’s Blankfein a “savvy businessman” in the context of the latter’s $17 million bonus). One top banker told Ron Suskind (Confidence Men) that Finance Secretary Timothy Geithner was “our man in Washington.” If the White House tries to engage with the OWS, it would only look silly. Its métier is elsewhere: at the Bombay Club, over martinis, with the fat cats.

On the Green.

What would Obama co-opt if he came for a walk onto New Haven’s Green?

Would he be able to adopt the agenda being pushed by Jennifer Lopez, who was the first to camp out here as part of Occupy New Haven? She wants to see the city open detox centers that don’t keep addicts waiting for hours (during which time most have a change of mind, dash off for a fix rather than to be fixed). Jennifer wants to see more affordable housing and decent jobs to help restore dignity to those whose lives have been destroyed over the past decades.

Would Obama be able to able to adopt the agenda being pushed by Ben Aubin, who is deeply invested in the creation of solidarity economies and wants Occupy New Haven to become an incubator for a new kind of society? Ben cut his teeth at New Haven’s Free Store, which was on the relatively tony Church Street. It is now located at the heart of the Occupy camp. Ben is inspired by San Francisco’s Diggers who ran a Free Store at 1090 Cole Street in the 1960s and by E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful. His model is quite elegant: collect trashed and donated bicycles; teach and work with anyone interested in bike repair; build bike trailers to attach to the bikes; use these bikes to deliver goods to people who request them. The workers are now bike mechanics and bike delivery people who could earn some money by fixing bikes and by delivering free goods from the Free Store. “We need to go out into our communities,” Ben told me in front of about twenty tents, “and make our economies.”

Would Obama be able to make sense of the lives of Jess and Ken, who have a vision for a world where the brutality inflicted upon them won’t be normal? Jess lost her family when she was very young, and went from foster home to foster home, faced physical and sexual abuse as a routine part of her life, and learned about power through her fraught exchanges with social workers. “I had to learn how the system works to survive,” she said. “If you are poor, you need to educate yourself to have power. You can’t let them take away your free will. No change comes from silence.” Ken lost his job, his apartment and his girlfriend, got on his bike in New Hampshire and began a journey to Florida. He stopped in New Haven four years ago, and now lives by his wits, with his corncob pipe, his bicycle and his friends. “When I lost my job, I lost my life,” he said wistfully.

Homelessness.

Joelle Fishman, who heads the Communist Party of Connecticut, knows a thing or two about sleeping on the New Haven Green. If she gets out her tent and joins the Occupy camp, this would be her third time on the Green. The first time was in the 1980s, when the mothers on welfare protested the state budget cuts. The second time was in 1992 when We the People, an organization of the homeless, went onto the Green to demand funding for homeless shelters and other social service agencies. Joelle is a remarkable organizer, and indefatigable. Often found at the People’s Center at Howe Street, Joelle is, with her husband Art Perlo, at every picket line and in the middle of every struggle (their parents were communists as well, with Art’s father Victor Perlo being the main theoretician of the CPUSA). It is not wonder that Joelle is at the Green, making contact with those who are sleeping out there (with an indefinite permit from the mayor).

Joelle tells me that Occupy New Haven reached out to the city’s homeless from the very first – after all, it has been the struggles by the homeless and the indigent that have kept the question of social services alive in a New Haven that has become absorbed into the obsessions of Yale University and its hospital. A study by the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness finds how easy it is to slip into the shadows – fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in New Haven is at $1,246, which would mean that if a family wants to afford it, its members must earn about $23.96/hour (in a town where the minimum wage is $8.25/hour). No wonder that homelessness in Connecticut has increased by thirty-seven percent between 2009 and 2011. Eviction, drug addiction and domestic violence are the final straws that push the indigent out of their homes.

In 1992, United Homeless Families set up their camp in Hartford’s beautiful Bushnell Park. Bob Thomas, one of its leaders, told the liberal muckraker Mary Otto (then of the Hartford Courant) that the tent city was a “renewal of the human spirit.” Alvin Smith spoke at a press conference in March 1992, “We must take back our pride.” Such sentiments were repeated through the 1990s and into the 2000s, as homeless Tent Cities have sprung up across this very prosperous state that suffers from a malignancy of high inequality.

In the mid-1990s, the homeless and the near homeless felt the cold chill of illiberalism from Washington (Clinton’s welfare to work) and from Hartford (Governor John Rowland’s off the mark rhetoric against the poor: “right now we have twelve year olds that are having children” went one of his 1994 campaign advertisements). To confront this, groups like We the People and Mothers for Justice emerged in New Haven (in Hartford, Vecinos Unidos and Welfare Warriors). Against the political tide, these groups struggled to get their voices heard on the streets and before state legislative panels. As their worlds crumbled, the women and men of these organizations turned to help themselves and their neighbors – forming soup kitchens and a co-op for high-quality food at low prices (the Share program), protesting on the Green against food prices, and creating opportunities for the homeless and the indigent to get further education (raising and distributing grants, providing transportation and child care services). This was heroic work being done by people who were themselves only a few steps away from the shadows.

Occupy New Haven carries on this tradition. I have now been to six Occupy sites in New England (including in New York City). Each one has a different focus, and the best of them are rooted in the struggles that have preceded them in their locality. They are not driven by fashion. Occupy New Haven is grounded in the tent cities that have been on the Green every ten years. It is no wonder. The Green was once a cemetery. The tents are upon what was once the pauper’s gravesite. These are the voices of today’s paupers. Ten years ago, Rod Cleary was at the Tent City. He cautioned those who visited the protest site that they were standing on bones. “That’s what it’s going to be again if we ain’t careful.”

Money.

Money is not evident in the campsite. The food is free, and so are the blankets. Jennifer tells me that the mornings are busy, as the homeless from around the area come to get something to eat. There is talk now of getting a bio-diesel generator to run a media center and of getting involved in some kind of aeroponics organic farming at a nearby factory building. The urge for self-sufficiency is very strong, which means that there is an impatience to cease to rely upon goodwill and donations. “It’s a great opportunity for so many people to do what they have been wanting to do,” said Ben Aubin. They want change through innovation, to see if they can build toward a new kind of social order. It is ambitious.

It also might be the only realistic way to proceed. According to the National Priorities Project’s new costoftaxcuts.com website, the average tax cut for the 1% was greater than the average annual income of the remaining 99%. No wonder that there is no money for the kind of projects dreamed up by Ben Aubin and Jennifer Lopez. There is simply no capital for their imagination.

Whatever eventually happens to the “occupy” movement, there is no question that it has edged open a new, radical imagination. As one slogan put it audaciously, “We will not go back to apathy. We will see this march to its victorious end.”

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu 

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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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