Occupy Providence 5 Years Later: Thoughts and Reflections

Occupy Providence was a pivotal event in my life, radically transforming the way I thought about the world forever. I would call it a crash course in activism I am still learning from. This is intended to have no form or fashion to it and instead is just a mess, a glorious carnival of ideas like the Occupy Providence encampment was.

Kennedy Plaza in downtown Providence is the historic metropolitan transit hub of the entire state of Rhode Island dating back to when pirates, privateers, and colonial slave traders were bringing their illicit commodities into the state. After the Providence River was pushed away from this area in the 1800s, it became first a market square adjacent City Hall during the days of horse and buggies before taking up its current status as the major bus junction that receives travelers from across the state. During the reign of Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, it was given a massive face-lift and became a modern bus station. Adjacent to the lanes of traffic is Burnside Park, named for the local Civil War general, governor, and senator whose inverted surname designates the notable facial hairstyle adorning your local hipster to this day. As a transit hub on top of the center of the city, it is a regular magnet for workers with both white and blue collars as well as the poor and homeless who wander amongst the commuters begging for change and smoking loose cigarettes they can buy from each other.

I was a pretty clueless young man five years ago and I now know less than I did then. We were trying to figure out how to navigate a situation where we had nothing but a slogan and a basic equation, “We are the 99%” and the fact that capital is now concentrated in the neoliberal epoch among a 1% of the population of the globe. There was Artemis Moonhawk, the camp mother who quickly asserted some level of control and turned the operation into a soup kitchen for the homeless and lost while refusing to take shit from anyone. Greg, the steely-eyed guitarist who thought his street savvy and sexual prowess put him well ahead of the curve of the hipster-proles connected to the Trot semi-cult International Socialist Organization, had a delightful pitbull that never bit anyone and made messes everywhere. There was Jayf, the Cape Verdean mystic hippie with an interest in New Wave-style Eastern Philosophy and bongos, as well as a gnarly-grinned young man who everyone called Irish and a quasi-Deadhead who everyone called Sister. In the welcome booth there was Kate and Phil, the California video artist with a camera ever in hand and an analysis from Foucault quick to heart. All these and so many more made up the carnival-like music festival without a band that ended up being one of the most important political statements of the past two decades.

When I read the writings of Andrew Kopkind about his coverage of SDS in the 1960s, there is a determined motivation amongst the activists as they went into the community to build a better world. That wasn’t the case with us. We had no idea that we were part of a massive agit-prop statement whose meaning still has not sunk in. New Left Marxists who recall the days of the Weather Underground, for example, would be quick to note that the 1% seems like simply a clever signifier of the way capital operates. And by explaining how incorrect they actually are we discover the true history of Occupy’s slogan.

Obviously a multitude of groups and agendas were involved in the original encampment in Zuccotti Park taking shape. But the political economy of the event was indebted to the dialectical pair of Michael Hudson, the economics professor, and his student David Graeber, the radical anthropologist whose scholarship on debt included insights provided by Hudson. The two were, in an ironic way, part of the same generation, Red Diaper babies who just happened to be separated by a few decades. Hudson’s father, one of the members of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party who was jailed in 1940 under the Smith Act for opposing World War II, was of the same generation as Graeber’s father, who fought in Spain as part of the International Brigades. It is clear in reading the elder’s recent Killing the Host that the coordinates of the 99% slogan spring from this political economy. Das kapital in this new century has concentrated itself in a monopolist tendency around what Hudson describes as the FIRE sector, composed of Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate. This concentration is such a limited grouping that they can quite easily afford the necessary fallout shelters that will come about as a result of ecological collapse. As such, class warfare takes on a radically new character that requires an updating. In a neoliberal world, we are all the radical working class and distinctions between “proletarian” and “petit bourgeoisie” have been eroded by this wealth concentration. Neoliberal debt, wildly unlike any other seen before in the capitalist epoch, intends to push human society backwards toward a feudal system.

This is what makes the question of tactics and politics so vital. At the time, Graeber wrote “When the history is finally written, though, it’s likely all of this tumult – beginning with the Arab Spring – will be remembered as the opening salvo in a wave of negotiations over the dissolution of the American Empire.” What made Occupy Wall Street so radical was how close they were to the heart of empire, the beating edifice located in the Financial District of Manhattan.

I would propose based on this point the idea of radical tactical geography, meaning that the success or failure of a revolutionary effort is determined by the proximity the revolution has to a source of capital. Soviet history buffs will recall that the Russian Revolution was hindered and ultimately scuttled because of the failure of a revolution in Germany, which at that time was the continental powerhouse that could have fortified the Bolshevik position. This failure has repeated itself again and again over history. The South African Communist Party and the African National Congress were totally defanged and turned into the executioners of neoliberal austerity because their radical tactical geography was so far removed from Wall Street, something seen again most recently in the case of Syriza. When the proximity to capital is so great, the historical forces at play create a logic dictating far more conservative demands than otherwise desired. Unless capital is smashed, meaning unless the FIRE sector is broken forever through nationalization of the American banking system, creation of single-payer insurance for all facets of life (health, auto, home, life, etc.), and radical redistribution of land to American Indians on the basis of their preferred apportionment schematic, every revolutionary effort will only end with minor reforms.

To better illustrate how this dynamic operates, I would suggest two illustrations. On a daily basis I ride through the poor black and brown community in South Providence, a classic example of deindustrialized southern New England urban sprawl. On Broad Street at the City Line, almost on top of each other, are a Citizens Bank and a Bank of America. These two financial institutions are deeply reactionary, predatory outlets for capital to not just accrue value through typical consumer banking but also through fines and fees that drain customer accounts quickly. The reason they flourish is because the population does not have access to cooperatized capital banking sources, also known as credit unions. And so the radical tactical geography presented to these populations is such that their ability to substantially improve their community through self-determination and national liberation is significantly impeded. It is not that they do not want to have better schools or roads, it is that the geography of their struggle in proximity to capital is quite distant, lowering expectations because of the correlation between capital and imperialism.

This in turn should dictate how one grapples with the moral landscape presented by affairs in the Middle East. In Syria and Israel-Palestine, solidarity efforts require a grasp of this distance from imperial capital and how much impact such anti-imperial struggles would have on capital. On the converse, it should also be recognized that, as one gets closer to this heart of empire, the demands can and should become more radical because of the likelihood of striking a mortal blow to the system. Occupy Wall Street, located as close as it was to this heart, had the potential to remake the world in ways other revolutionary efforts do not. This means those who stand in solidarity with worldwide struggles should move closer to the Financial District so to be capable of articulating a radical vision. In navigation terms, this sort of movement is called orientation. We as radicals today need to see Wall Street as the true north of our compasses to be oriented upon.

One other notion I would briefly propose is one borrowed from art, what I would call radical negative space. Negative space, in art, is the space around and between the subject(s) of an image, according to Wikipedia. When you are learning to draw with charcoal, the teacher will tell you to fill in the entire sheet of paper with gray and then use the eraser to draw a shape that you then fill in with details. We need to redefine our notions of solidarity in this sense. I would argue that the abolitionists had this part down and we should follow their examples. They were not in favor of anything, in fact they had a wide variety of ideas about what should happen to freedmen. But they were united in opposition of slavery. Almost all the successful revolutionary movements in history were defined by opposing capitalism, not supporting something. Not every Vietnam war protester was a fan of the Vietnamese Communist Party. The Bolsheviks actually had no idea that they were creating the Soviet experience in 1917, they thought they were either going to get a worldwide revolution or a hangman’s noose! The act of opposing something, creating a negative space which frames the notion of another world being possible, is quite nuanced and less glorious. But six decades ago this year Nikita Khrushchev helped the American Communist Party figure out how badly they had erred in not doing so when he spilled the beans about Stalin. This notion of radical negative space intrigues me in this way, hindering by nature the opportunity for left wing occultism and sectarian squabbles.

Both also present a fascinating moment for the consideration of alliances. The goal of neoliberal capitalism is to push human society backwards into a feudal rentier economy. In this sense, groups like the Libertarian Party can stand as allies. Their effort to uphold the values of capitalism, particularly from within their centrist and left branches not tied to the corporate elements, take on revolutionary standing when opposed to such an effort. At Occupy Providence, there was a presence of Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign that was trying to articulate (and failing miserably at) proving they stood in solidarity with our efforts. Building alliances with such groups is worthwhile.

I say this also because, quite frankly, they bring a certain element with their political economy we lefties can take a cue from. Their notions of “crony capitalism”, while mechanistic at times, do have a shred of legitimacy in that they recognize the 1% clearly. There are problems with this view but, because neoclassical economics is an individualist rather than structuralist view of society, we too must take up an individualist orientation. The playing field dictates a class consciousness upholding the value of civil liberties and human rights and the epoch that did not, the Soviet experience, ended precisely because of those failings. The tactical orientation requires we use the rules presented on the field of battle by the opposition, just as you show up in the same sporting gear that your opponent wears when you challenge them to a sports competition. Clausewitz writes in his classic volume On War about strategy:

It is the employment of the battle to gain the object of the war. Properly speaking it has to do with nothing but the battle, but its theory must include in this consideration the instrument of this real activity—the armed force—in itself and in its principal relations, for the battle is fought by it, and shows its effects upon it in turn. It must be well acquainted with the battle itself as far as relates to its possible results, and those mental and moral powers which are the most important in the use of the same. Strategy is the employment of the battle to gain the end of the war; it must therefore give an aim to the whole military action, which must be in accordance with the object of the war; in other words, strategy forms the plan of the war, and to the said aim it links the series of acts which are to lead to the same, that is to say, it makes the plans for the separate campaigns, and regulates the combats to be fought in each. As these are all things which to a great extent can only be determined on conjectures, some of which turn out incorrect, while a number of other arrangements pertaining to details cannot be made at all beforehand, it follows, as a matter of course, that strategy must go with the army to the field in order to arrange particulars on the spot, and to make the modifications in the general plan which incessantly become necessary in war. Strategy can therefore never take its hand from the work for a moment.

Engels and Lenin both studied Clausewitz deeply. The latter left behind a set of notebooks about Clausewitz that are as worthy of study as his scribblings about Hegel. Radicals need to understand what he grasped, that class warfare is like any other form of combat and requires a strategy that takes into consideration geography, orientation, and landscape topography. Alexander Cockburn’s much-beloved quote comes from a specific time and place, Zurich circa 1917, prior to his departure to the Finland station, that reflected the Bolshevik leader’s fluency in Clausewitz, who he read in 1915 while in Berne. Lenin was being pestered by a Romanian poet and socialist named Valeriu Marcu who was perplexed by what seemed like Ilyich’s hypocritical stance on the Great War. On the one hand, Lenin was opposed to the imperial slaughter, but on the other he argued for transforming the conflagration into a European-wide class war where enlisted men across all the fronts would turn their rifles upon their officers, the representatives of the bourgeoisie, and join with their class brothers. Marcu wrote:

‘How can you expect to foster hatred of this war,’ I asked at this point, ‘if you are not in principle against all wars? I thought that as a Bolshevik you were really a radical thinker and refused to make any compromise with the idea of war. But by recognizing the validity of some wars, you open the doors for every opportunity. Each group can find some justification of the particular war of which it approves. I see that we young people can only count on ourselves […]’ Lenin listened attentively, his head bent towards me. He moved his chair closer to mine. He must have wondered whether to continue to talk to this boy or not. I, somewhat awkwardly, remained silent. ‘Your determination to rely on yourselves,’ Lenin finally replied, ‘is very important. Every man must rely on himself. Yet he should also listen to what informed people have to say. I don’t know how radical you are, or how radical I am. I am certainly not radical enough. One can never be radical enough; that is, one must always try to be as radical as reality itself’.

This passage demonstrates that, if Lenin was anything, he was a Marxist-Clausewitzian. We in the 99% need to also employ this logic and reflect it in our praxis. One of the downfalls of Occupy Providence was our failure to do so.

The folks affiliated with the Center for a Stateless Society have previously argued that a synthesis of Murray Rothbard’s essay Confiscation and the Homestead Principle, a brief ode to joy about the privatization of Yugoslavia under Tito in 1952, should be combined with Samuel Edward Konkin’s critique of political economy. For those who are unclear, Rothbard wrote “Beginning in 1952, Yugoslavia has been de-socializing at a remarkable rate. The principle the Yugoslavs have used is the libertarian “homesteading” one: the state-owned factories to the workers that work in them! The nationalized plants in the “public” sector have all been transferred in virtual ownership to the specific workers who work in the particular plants, thus making them producers’ coops, and moving rapidly in the direction of individual shares of virtual ownership to the individual worker.” Konkin proposed a market socialist system called “agorism”, a vision of freed markets “when libertarian theory meets Counter-Economics, what comes out — in strict consistency, both external and internal — is Agorism.” By Counter-Economics, Konkin proposed a dual-power revolutionary effort, using the struggle of markets rather than political ideology, where the black market economy would replace the regulated and perpetually un-free legal markets. Noam Chomsky has been calling this sort of thing anarcho-syndicalism or libertarian socialism for the past half century but unfortunately never got this far into the details. Perhaps combining it with Michael Polanyi’s notions of free markets and full employment might provide a set of conclusions to create class unity.

The challenge presented by the corporate libertarians who corrupt the critique of cronyism is profound and problematized further by the right wing element of that group that has fascistic tendencies. Yet for all these challenges, the Left in the global northwest has just as many flaws. There are plenty of inbred dogmatic Manichean Marxists who fail to grasp how finance capitalism controls imperialism today. They rely on barricades of shibboleths about “capitalism” and their holy pieties about a litany of Soviet saints that stopped being relevant around the time of the Bretton Woods agreement, engaging in a Eurocentrism that is just as bilious as any kook obsessed with race purity may. Their failure to grasp radical tactical geography results in many a sectarian nonsense games.

Ultimately, the failure of Occupy was learning how to grapple with the Paul campaign and how radical reality was. I still touch base with the Occupy Providence alumni and care deeply about their struggles. Yet I recognize also that there is simply no time left to “let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend” as Mao proposed. The degradation of ecology and the pronounced acceleration of climate change over the past five years has pushed us to a brink that prohibits any further stalling.

It appears clear to me that Bernie Sanders, like Obama before him, campaigned on a platform intending to cater to the Occupy generation, much in the way Bobby Kennedy and George McGovern sought the support of the New Left a generation ago. Now it seems that Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka are steering the Green Party into a position where they would take up this mantle and make themselves into the party of Occupy and Black Lives Matter/Movement for Black Lives. Whether each individual state branch is prepared for such a development and orientation is a difficult thing for me to judge. Their challenge is now to be as radical as reality itself.

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Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.

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