Intellectuals and Occupy: Seven Reasons to Reject Condescension

Paul Street Nov 16, 2011

At 6:30 p.m. Protesters officially re-entered Zuccotti Park, which was completely surrounded by metal fences. (Photo: Nikki Saint Bautista) One of the many refreshing aspects of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is its openness to outside ideas and thinkers. The Occupy Movement (occasionally referred to as “Occupy” below) has welcomed the reflections of writers, professors, researchers and other thinkers at hundreds of teach-ins it has organized across the country in the last two months. Unlike the neo-McCarthyite right wing “Tea Party movement,” Occupy is not at all anti-intellectual. Its message to intellectuals been inviting, almost to a fault: “Come talk with us. Tell us what you know and how it might help grow this movement.”

Many intellectuals and academics have been reluctant to return the affection. They criticize the movement’s lack of clear and specific policy goals. Some charge that the movement is fatally flawed by its refusal to advance leaders or public personalities. Others attack the supposed excessive moralism of Occupy’s opposition to economic inequality and the wealth and power of “the One Percent.” Occupy speaks against egotism and greed. But the real problem, good Marxists know, isn’t simply or primarily selfishness and avarice. It’s structural and systemic. It is the de facto class dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, rooted in capitalism: the private ownership of the means of production and distribution and their operation on behalf of the creation and accumulation of surplus value and profit, leading by its very nature to the ever-greater concentration of wealth, the rise of gigantic corporations, and the inter-penetration of corporate, financial, and state power. The solution is what Dr. Martin Luther King called “the real issue to be faced…the radical reconstruction of society itself.” It isn’t simply less greed and materialism. It’s popular revolution leading to democratic control over the economy and a new politico-economic order that privileges the common good over private profit.

Angry at the Right People

These criticisms of Occupy have at different times formed in my own mind. But they have not taken hold of my sense of the movement for seven basic reasons. First, I think Occupy deserves major credit for getting the structural and systemic enemy right. As the black radical commentator Glen Ford argued early on at Black Agenda Report, the new movement could collapse tomorrow and it would have already performed the great service of identifying the real danger to freedom democracy at home and abroad: the hyper-parasitic financial super-elite, the people with real wealth and power, not the usual scapegoats.

“There’s something happening here,” liberal economist and columnist Paul Krugman wrote five weeks ago. “What it is ain’t exactly clear, but we may, at long last, be seeing the rise of a popular movement that, unlike the Tea Party, is angry at the right people.”

Re-reading Krugman’s comment recently, I was reminded of something that Matthew Rothschild, the editor of Progressive Magazine, said about the Tea Party phenomenon, in October 2010, when the so called Tea Party was the peak of its political significance and media attention. “With economic pain at the highest level ever seen by most Americans, and with minorities especially hard hit,” Rothschild wrote, “we’re seeing a revolt not by people of color, not the unemployed, nor the foreclosed upon. Instead, we’re seeing a revolt by the white middle class. It’s a revolt against the very notion of a positive role for government in helping people. It’s a revolt against Latin American immigrants. It’s a revolt against Muslim Americans. And it’s a revolt against our black president…Opportunistic and rightwing Republicans, politicians, business front groups, and media outlets like Fox have ginned up the hatred…”

By “the right people” (to be angry at), Krugman meant, of course the top 1 percent – the 1. 4 million families that “earned” on average $1 million in 2009[5] and who together enjoy more wealth than the bottom 90 percent of Americans. He meant the wealthy 1 percent that owns well more than a third of the nation’s total household wealth and a possibly larger share of the nation’s elected officials. He meant the opulent masters of a country where multiple trillions of taxpayer dollars were found to bail out the giant financial and corporate institutions that caused the greatest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression but where there doesn’t seem to much available for the record-setting 46 million Americans who now live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level or for the 1 in 15 Americans who live in what researchers now cal extreme poverty – at less than half that miserly poverty level. That’s less than $11, 517 for a family of four, by the way. These forgotten 1 in 15 are the 19 or so million Americans at the bottom of the nation’s two quintiles, the bottom of the lower 40 percent who together own just 0.3 percent of the nation’s net worth, essentially nothing.

A genuinely populist, grassroots, and anti-poverty people’s revolt close to what Rothschild wanted is underway now. It receives considerably higher support than the fake-populist right Republican Tea Party does in public opinion polls, this even as the Tea Party’s infrastructure is funded by the top .001 percent billionaire likes of Charles and David Koch to help enforce the ever more hard right drift of the Republican Party and its presidential candidates.

Nothing Vague About Wanting a World Turned Upside Down

Second, I don’t really buy the notion that Occupy’s goals are inchoate or vague. There’s nothing mysterious about the target of its anger. It is clearly and unambiguously upset over and opposed to the authoritarian control that the nation’s rich, corporate, and elite financial Few – “the unelected dictatorship of money” (Edward S. Herman and David Peterson) – exercise over American and global economic, political, cultural, and personal life. The initial Declaration of the Occupation of New York City includes clear and precise language about the wealthy and corporate Few’s deadly impact on home ownership and foreclosure, worker rights, personal debt, ecology, public health, the political process, public information, income and more.

OWS activist Yotam Marom responded eloquently on AlterNet to the charge of unfocused directionless-ness. “It’s not that we don’t have demands.” Marom wrote, “it’s that we speak them in a different language. We speak them with our struggle. Our movement is made up of people fighting for jobs, for schools, for debt relief, equitable housing, and healthcare. We are resisting ecological destruction, imperialism, racism, patriarchy, and capitalism. We are doing it all in a way that is participatory, democratic, fierce, and unwavering. There is nothing vague about that.” Further:

“We want a political and economic system that we all actually control together, one that is equitable and humane, one that allows for people to self-manage but act in solidarity, one that is participatory and democratic to its core. We want a world where people have the right to their own identities, communities, and cultures, and the freedom from oppression and constraint. We want a world with institutions that take care of our youth, our elderly, and our families in ways that are nurturing, liberating, and consensual. We want a world in which community is not a hamper on individual freedom, but rather an expression of its fullest potential…If that’s not a clear enough statement of demands for you, CNN, I don’t know what to tell you.”

Ultimately, OWSers want a world turned upside down. With good reason: the current top-down world controlled by the 1 percent is slipping into terminal environmental catastrophe accompanied by endless war, horrifying authoritarianism, and shocking mass inequality and misery. The rich are destroying the Earth and annexing the future, holding the rest of us – the 99 percent – hostage to a hopelessly stunted, soulless, narcissistic and totalitarian vision of life and human nature. It is crucifying humanity on a cross of, well, greed.

Getting it That It’s About the System

Third, most Occupiers and their supporters do not in fact blame greed and selfishness outside of any structural critique. A sign held by one young female protestor at an early OWS march in New York City displayed a single word written three times on a cardboard poster: “System, System. System.” I was instantly reminded of a remarkable passage from Winter Solider testimony of a young American Iraq War and occupation veteran Mike Prysnor, who said the following in December of 2009, 11 months into the “hope and change” presidency of the Empire’s New Clothes Barack Obama:

“I threw families on to the street in Iraq only to come home and see families thrown on to the street in this county in this tragic, tragic and unnecessary foreclosure crisis. I mean to wake up and realize that our real enemies are not in some distant land. They’re not people whose names we don’t know and whose culture we don’t understand. The enemy is people we know very well and people we can identify. The enemy is a system that wages war when it’s profitable. The enemy is the CEOs who lay us off from our jobs when it’s profitable. It’s the insurance companies who deny us health care when it’s profitable. It’s the banks who take away our homes when it’s profitable. Our enemy is not 5000 miles away. They are right here at home. If we organize with our sisters and brothers we can stop this war. We can stop this government. And we can create a better world.”

If Prysnor were to speak this passage (or some version of it) at an Occupy site today (perhaps he has), he would receive a hearty round of applause and raised hands making the “twinkles “sign (signifying agreement) from activists who know very well that “the enemy is a system” that concentrates ever more wealth and power in the hands of a small elite while tens of millions of Americans and billions of world citizens have run out of ammunition in the war on destitution. As New York City OWC activist Michael Strom recently told ZNet’s Mike Albert: “Within [the] political diversity [of OWS], a significant majority seems to recognize that the system itself is the problem.” Reflecting the critical contribution of left anarchists and Marxists in building the movement, Strom ads that “those who came to the occupation with visions of a new society and/or strategies for getting there have played a major role in shaping the conversations and message at OWS.”

And make no mistake. The “system itself” is widely understood by Occupy-ers to be capitalism – the profits system.

The Path as the Goal

Fourth, there is significant justice in the movement’s claim (see the Yotam Marom quote above) to itself embody much of the change that it seeks. Combining aspects Buddhism, left-anarchism, utopian socialism, and radical participatory democracy, Occupy “prefigures” its image of the good society (and its critique of the top-down plutocratic charade that passes for democracy in the U.S.) in its process and practice in “the present moment” – the only moment of experience that actually exists. As Strom elaborated in his discussion with Albert:

“Breaking from business as usual and building radically different, liberating ways of being together have become fundamental values of the movement. This consciousness injects a strong commitment to prefigurative politics into decision-making process and structures, strategic planning, and interpersonal relationships…as we work to bring our visions of a new society to life in the present movement…Ultimately, I think this idea – building our visions right now, in this moment – best characterizes the political commitments of the occupiers. An incredible amount of work has gone into creating a political moment where people are recognizing their agency, their ability to make decisions about their own lives and act to make these decisions real….the occupation provides resources, community, and space to experiment with this agency….Sure, some people are bound to leave as soon as politicians and banks start making concessions. But others have gotten their first taste of people’s power, have seen for the first time the real possibility of changing this system. There are many different visions brought to table, but it is in constantly acting to realize these visions that we refine them, educate each other, and further recognize our agency. This has been messy and has left behind the standard organizing practice of setting demands. But it has created a platform from which huge numbers of people can act on the world in ways that reject complacency and prefigure the society we envision.”

This sounds vague and squishy to those who have been unable or unwilling to taste the people’s power that is being served and enjoyed in the occupation movement. For those who have tasted and enjoyed, it is all very real.

Movements That Can Win and Push Beyond Reform

Fifth, while Occupy should and will need to make specific policy demands, there is more danger and loss than opportunity and gain in pressing demands prior to the attainment of a constituency and an organizational capacity sufficient to win changes that open the door to mass confrontation with the deep structures of elite rule. Mike Albert puts it very well in a recent ZNet reflection:

“Should the Occupy movements in London and around the world make demands? On my view, yes, when are ready and able to do so successfully, they should….when they do so in a way that leads forward, they should.”

“But what does making demands in a way that can lead forward mean?”

“It means (a) that movements have sufficient strength to be in a position to win- where such strength is largely a function of the number of people they galvanize and their levels of commitment. And (b) that movements can win in a manner that further increases their membership and the commitment of their members.”

“Demands therefore need to appeal to a very wide constituency. They need to be put forth not buy a small group, but by a large and growing movement in touch with the needs of a still larger constituency. And they need to have a character such that one can fight for them in ways that open doors to new demands and to new audiences, rather than leading back into compliance with a moribund and immoral system.”

Here I might add that progressives in recent years and decades have not really lacked a reasonable and intelligent set of policy ideas to advance democracy and roll back the power of corporations and the rich. What they have more obviously and significantly lacked is an independent popular social movement that fully understands who and what the real enemies of democracy and justice are and possesses the courage and power to enforce progressive policy changes and – beyond that, no small addition – to push for radical-democratic societal restructuring from the bottom up.

Feel Free and Inspired to Advance Progressive Policy Ideas

Sixth, while Occupy itself has been understandably reluctant to roll out a list of specific demands, I do not see it doing or saying anything to discourage intellectuals and others from advancing constructive policy proposals and radical visions consistent with its goals. To the contrary, I see Occupy inspiring and encouraging such good intellectual work. An especially good and welcome example among many is the progressive economist Jack Rasmus’ recent essay elucidating no less than thirteen carefully detailed and realistic methods whereby American government could and should tax the obscene wealth of the top 1 percent to generate trillions of dollars to meet the nation’s vast ocean of unmet social and environmental needs.

Responsible progressive intellectuals with detailed policy knowledge and ideas can waste energy complaining about the movement’s real or perceived failure to embrace and advance such ideas. Or they can follow the example of Rasmus and other engaged radical thinkers by working on and advancing such knowledge and ideas in any way they can. They are free to talk about their ideas at Occupy sites and events, especially at Occupy teach-ins, where Left intellectuals are warmly received. It would help if they would blankets and food along with their ideas – and perhaps a few bags of leaves for the insulation of tent floors.

Capital is Immoral

Seventh, I’m not sure how awful it would be even if Occupy was as over-focused on moral criticism (as opposed to political and structural critique) as some of its radical detractors seem to think. Seventy-two years ago the wonderful democratic socialist and anti-authoritarian writer George Orwell published a remarkable essay on the great English novelist Charles Dickens, a literary moralist if there was one. Contrary to the efforts of Communist Party intellectuals to claim Dickens as a “Marxist” and “proletarian” author, Orwell noted that “Dickens’ criticism of society is almost exclusively moral”:

“It would be difficult [Orwell observed.] to find a point anywhere in [Dickens’] books to a passage suggesting that the economic system is wrong as a system…..he displays no sign that the structure of society could be changed….Obviously, he wants the workers to be decently treated, but there is no sense that he wants them to take their destiny in their own hands….It seems that in every attack Dickens makes upon society he is always pointing to a change in spirit rather than a change in structure. It is hopeless to try to pin him down to any definite remedy, still more to any political doctrine. His approach is always along the moral plane… [for him it is] useless to change institutions without a ‘change of heart’ – that, essentially, is what he is always saying.”

I argued above that, while it might seem to share some of Charles Dickens’ reluctance to embrace specific remedies and doctrines, the Occupy movement does NOT ignore the need to radically restructure society. It is in fact conscious of and focused on systemic problems. Still, even if it were as Dickens-like (exclusively moralistic) as some suggest, how terrible would that be? As Orwell noted:

“the strongest single impression one carries from [Dickens’] books is that of a hatred of a tyranny. …Dickens is not in the accepted sense a revolutionary writer. But it is not at all certain that that a merely moral criticism of society may not be just as ‘revolutionary’ – and revolution, after all, means turning things upside down – as the politico-economic criticism which is fashionable at this moment. Blake was not a politician, but there is more understanding of the nature of capitalist society in a poem like ‘I wander through each charter’d street’ than in three-quarters of Socialist literature ….’If men would behave decently the world would be decent’ is not such a platitude as it sounds.”

The “merely moral” critique of arrogant, egoistic greed that is prevalent in the writings of Charles Dickens is widely shared by the majority of everyday working and poor people the world over. It probably has a lot more to do with mobilizing such people to protest action than do radical systemic and structural ideas at present. It also deserves to play a critical role in checking the tyranny on the part of those who would replace capitalism with a new tyranny like the brutal bureaucratic “collectivism” and/or state capitalism of Stalin’s Russia, where vicious egotism and selfishness and rampant class exploitation reigned in deceptive “Marxist” clothing.

Most importantly of all, perhaps the determination that people should behave decently and morally and non-tyrannically towards one another sets up a standard that the militantly amoral and tyrannical profits system cannot meet and has never been able to meet. As the Dickens fan Karl Marx and Frederick Engels noted as the mid-19th century’s One Percent stood on the precipice of its triumphant “Age of Capital”:

“The bourgeoisie …has left no other bond between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’ It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade. In one words, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation…”

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionary the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society….All fixed, fast-frozen relations…we swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated…All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…[such that] the laborer becomes a pauper and the bourgeoisie is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within its slavery…”

How hauntingly perceptive these words feel in the middle of the greatest crisis of and by capitalism since the 1930s – the first true crisis of global capitalism in its neoliberal phase. Looking across the horrific destructive power of unleashed global capitalism in the long neoliberal era, gauging the terrifying hyper-opulence of the hyper rich alongside the grinding poverty of billions, and taking in the ever-escalating ruination of a sustainable environment for human life by the investor class, it strikes me that there is plenty to work with even just on a moral basis when it comes to organizing people for reform and ultimately (though sooner than we might think)for revolution. The systemic and structural changes involved in turnings things upside down this way are less mysterious than many assume and those aspects of strategy and policy that we do not yet understand can be expected to emerge in ever clearer light during, through, and out of the movement and struggle itself.

This article was originally published by ZCommunications.

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