Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Impressions from Occupy Wall Street

By Alex Steiner
Oct 6, 2011

Wall Street in downtown Manhattan is pregnant with the history of the United States.  Although today Wall St. is known as the financial heart of American capitalism, it began as a fortified wall, the Northern boundary of the original Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam.  The young protesters who are now in the third week of their occupation of  Zuccotti Park chose their encampment well.  Barely three blocks from their tent city stands the grounds of that symbol of American capitalism, the New York Stock Exchange.  Diagonally across the street from the marble columns of the Stock Exchange is a giant statue of the founder of the American Republic, George Washington.  He is standing on the steps of Federal Hall,  the site where he was sworn in as the first President of this Republic. Another founding father lies buried even closer to the site of the protesters camp -  Alexander Hamilton, architect of the United States first National Bank, is resting in the churchyard of Trinity Church. Another block or so down the street and around the corner from the Stock Exchange stands the massive fortified walls of the New York Federal Reserve, home of what is perhaps the largest hoard of gold bullion in the world,  approximately 7000 tons worth. More to the point, this is where much of the economic policy of the United States is implemented,  from the setting of exchange rates with foreign currencies to the transfer of trillions of dollars between banks on a daily basis. The building also hosted, along with the Treasury Department in Washington, some of the meetings that brought together the heads of the Fed and the Treasury with the CEO's of the largest banks in the country to work out the terms of what eventually became the TARP bailout of the banks following the crisis precipitated by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008.

This takes us back to a consideration of what is going on at Zuccotti Park.  Several thousand protesters are saying that they have had enough.  They are tired of seeing trillions of dollars being used to bail out the banks whose fraudulent practices in the preceding years left them holding massive assets whose value suddenly went to zero.  The other side of the bank bailout by both the Bush and Obama Administrations has been the impoverishment of tens of millions of people, particularly young people.  My impression as a result of talking with some of the protesters and hearing them interviewed is that the vast majority of those occupying Wall Street do not see any future for themselves under this economic system known as capitalism.

I was also struck by the inventiveness and fighting spirit of these young people.  They have, against great odds, been able to maintain a tent city in the middle of Manhattan, in an inhospitable "park" that is actually a concrete plaza with little in the way of amenities such as grass and trees and no public bathrooms or water fountains. What it does have are some tables and chairs that are normally occupied by office workers sipping their morning coffee or chess players taking on Wall Street tycoons for quarters. Somehow this group has managed to feed itself, with the help of neighbors donating food.  They managed to keep dry in the face of New York's relentless autumn rains thanks to some tarps (no pun intended) they sequestered from somewhere.  Without electricity they have managed to create a communications center, powered by a portable generator, where several people are busy on lap tops round the clock, rain or shine, spreading their message to social network sites all over the globe.  They have created committees in charge of making posters, printing a satirical version of the Wall Street Journal, and organizing their marches and acts of civil disobedience.  There is a constant thump of drums and other instruments in one corner where you can find revelers transfixed by the rhythmic sounds.  There is even a free library stocked with donated books, available for anyone who wants to read them. The highlight of each evening is what they call a "General Assembly" an experiment in participatory democracy wherein everyone who wishes to can speak and contribute to the discussion.  Decisions are arrived at through a torturous consensus process. 

The police have banned the use of megaphones or other audio equipment making it extremely difficult to hold meetings in the open air. But the protesters have once again found an ingenious way to get around this legal obstacle to participatory democracy.  One person speaks who is in turn closely surrounded by hundreds of facilitators.  The facilitators then echo back in one voice the words of the speaker so that the huge crowd surrounding them can hear the proceedings.  The proceedings reminded me of the brilliant movie by Truffaut, Fahrenheit 451, (based on an equally brilliant story by Ray Bradbury) where in a future when the reading or printing of books are banned,  a core group of people dedicate themselves to preserving literature by memorizing entire books that can no longer be printed or accessed physically. They have become living books just as the facilitators at Occupy Wall Street have become living megaphones.

The politics of the protesters, insofar as they articulate one,  is certainly naive and contradictory. I saw signs that at once sounded very radical, calling for an end to the plutocracy that runs this country, along with other signs ("Pass the F____ Jobs Bill Already") indicating that the honeymoon with Obama that many young people had in 2008, although badly bruised, may not be entirely over for some.  The OWS protesters have emphasized that they are contemptuous of the political process and have deliberately avoided putting forward a set of demands. They have clearly been inspired by the example of the massive demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo earlier this year and Syntagma Square in Athens.  They see their action as the spark of the American Revolution.  

This is not a revolution at this point but it is impossible to predict how this movement will play itself out. There are signs that the protesters have tapped into a vein of anger against the inequities of life in 21st century America that has been simmering for years. Their actions have already inspired other protests in other cities.  We saw a preview of this action in the sit-ins in Madison, Wisconsin earlier this year. Unfortunately that movement was sidetracked by the labor bureaucracy and the Democratic Party into abandoning their protests and putting their energy into a worthless recall campaign. The OWS protesters will not be so easily sidetracked. But their rejection of political action is both their strength and their weakness.

What is considered normal politics in this country, support for one or the other of the two bourgeois parties, certainly deserves a heady dose of contempt.  But that by itself does little to bring about the kind of just society the protesters envision.  It can in fact serve as an invitation for demagogues and opportunists of various stripes to come in and fill the vacuum.  And though I saw little evidence of the usual confluence of left groups at the encampment, their presence swells each time there is a protest march or some other action.  The neo-Stalinist Workers World Party has been in evidence as has the International Socialist Organization (ISO).  There was much excitement today at the anticipation of representatives from the unions coming tomorrow to show their support.  Of course, the flacks from the trade union bureaucracy who will join the march tomorrow will be there to try to channel this movement back into the safety of harmless protests and support for the Democratic Party. The naiveté evidenced by the protesters, that they would expect anything else from the trade union bureaucracy, is hardly surprising. They come from a generation almost completely devoid of any political culture or historical education. What politics they have come into contact with has been largely the protest movements of the last decade, the anti-war movement, the global justice movement, etc. They have picked up an education largely on their own, thanks to the social networking sites on the Internet and the example of Egypt and Greece.  Whatever their background, be it working class or middle class, they have now come to the same juncture in this third year of the greatest economic crisis of the capitalist system since the Great Depression.  They are largely unemployed or underemployed and see no future for themselves in a society that has bombarded them from birth with images of a consumer utopia of iPhones and home entertainment centers. The American dream has for them become a nightmare.

They have resurrected many of the symbols and images of the 1960s counter culture and protest movement. This is obvious to any visitor to Zuccotti Park who is old enough to remember the aesthetics of the hippies and the slogans of the 1960s radicals. This borrowing of the imagery of another era was practically inevitable given that the 1960s represented the last great period of political turmoil in this country.  Nevertheless, this is a very a different movement than the 1960s counter culture.  They are not so much protesting the injustice that our country inflicts on others in foreign lands - although that is not absent either - but their primary target is the injustice inflicted on them and their friends and family.  They are not the sons and daughters of the affluent middle class alienated from the culture of bourgeois banality.  They are people who see no future for themselves without a fundamental change in society and they are willing to put their lives on the line to make that happen.  

This past Saturday 700 of them were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge after walking into a trap set by the New York City Police. (The police actually led them on their march on the bridge, did not tell them they were walking into a restricted traffic area, and then when they were 1/3 of the way over the bridge they were surrounded,  trapped by nets and arrested.)  The mass arrests have done little to dampen their spirits.  

I wrote the above impressions a couple of days ago but as the situation on Wall Street is extremely dynamic and changes daily I wanted to add a few thoughts on the events up to today (Oct. 6).

The march to Foley Square on Wednesday, Oct 5, was massive and brought out large number of workers and students in support of the protesters.  Some estimates had the crowd at 20,000 or more. As predicted, the trade union bureaucracy came out and stood with Democratic Party politicians in a pathetic attempt to channel the fury of the marchers back to support for Obama and the Democratic Party.  From what I could observe later that evening, a large majority of the protesters will have none of it.  Their attitude could be summed up by one of the placards I saw in Zuccotti Park that evening: "Class War Ahead".   

The weakness of the protesters was also in evidence that evening.  A group of anarchists suddenly announced that they were going to march to the famous statue of the Wall Street bull and stop traffic in the process.  Several hundred young people took off through the narrow streets of the financial district looking for the bull.  At least as many police followed them.  When we finally got to the bull, it was closed off by police barricades on all sides and several police officers were assigned to stand inside the barricades and protect the bull at all costs as if the fate of Western Civilization depended on them and their ability to guard the bull from harm.  This was certainly one of the more amusing episodes of the day. After a couple of the more outspoken members of the group marching toward the bull got themselves arrested the action such as it was ran out of steam and everyone headed back to Zuccotti Park.  

However that same evening another group of protesters demonstrated more of the remarkable ingenuity that has marked this occupation from the beginning.  A projector located somewhere in Zuccotti Park (I could not find the exact location) was beamed diagonally against a tall building across the street that was devoid of windows, a feature common to many commercial buildings built during the 1960s and 1970s in Manhattan. This attribute turned the wall of this building into a perfect screen for a giant advertisement.  What were the words flashed on this improvised billboard? 


So it seems that the man most reviled and feared by the capitalist class, whose theories were thought to be obsolete and could never gain a foothold on the un-philosophical soil of America  - Karl Marx - has returned and has something to say to the youth and workers of this country. I do not want to make more of this one incident than is warranted. There is still a long way to go on the road from repeating a few words of Marx to assimilating the full implications of his work. But it does indicate that there is perhaps now a receptivity to the ideas of this man, more so than at any time in our recent history.  The ironic quality of this development can only be appreciated if we consider the reaction to the Wall Street events of some of our radical bloggers, a subject I will get to shortly.

We are in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street protesters.  Their spirit and creativity is to be admired and we share their aims. But we would fail our responsibility as Marxists and revolutionaries if we did not warn them of the dangers of ignoring the political struggle and the history and theoretical heritage of those who preceded them in the struggle for socialism. I note that a number of radical bloggers have taken exactly the opposite tack. They are falling over themselves with words of adulation for the protesters and damning anyone who introduces even the mildest, well-intentioned criticism. For instance, one radical blogger launched into a sharp criticism of the ISO for merely mentioning that the protesters have some lessons to learn. He wrote,

"...there is a real disconnect between young activists who are seeking fundamental social change and groups like the ISO that see themselves as somehow better qualified to lead such struggles because they have achieved some kind of superior understanding of Marxism or because they are consciously following the example of Lenin or Trotsky rather than the stumbling and tentative experiments of the young people in Liberty Park."

While we do not think the ISO will be able to educate this movement, we certainly think that they can use an education and Marx's analysis of the crisis of capitalism and an assimilation of the work of Lenin and Trotsky is at least a beginning. The demagogy in this blogger's comment consists in his counterpoising an education in the history and theory of Marxism to the natural creativity and spontaneity of the mass movement. But this is fallacious reasoning. We expect that even with an education in Marxism, the revolution will still face stumbles and missteps and its participants will learn from their experiences. But not all missteps are necessary and not all stumbles have a salutary effect on their participants. Sometimes such missteps have disastrous consequences. Those who go into a situation blind and bereft of theory or history will inevitably fall by the wayside despite their courage and inventiveness. This has been the experience of every previous revolution and we do not expect it to be any different in the 21st century.

The critical question is how to reach these people. It will not be done by those claiming to be Marxists lecturing at people or telling them that they "must" join this party or read this web site. Such efforts will be laughed off and given the rebuke they properly deserve.

Here are some ideas for the protestors to consider:

1. “Socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor” – that's a widely popular way of characterizing the Wall Street bailout by BushObama while tens of millions of workers and middle class people have been foreclosed on, lost jobs or can't find work. But it makes you wonder: if socialism is good for the rich, why not have it for everyone?

2.You need to know where you're going if you're ever going to get there. Movements without a goal have no direction, and become easy to sidetrack or coopt.

3.Don't believe anyone who tells you the system can be fixed and the politicians can be pressured to do the right thing. Nothing is more dangerous in a crisis than wishful thinking. Read what Wall Street reads and you'll quickly see that the best case scenario is for a decade of economic slump and austerity, assuming there isn't an all-out crash. A decade! For young people this means being condemned to blighted lives – to never having a chance at a career, a steady job, a decent place to live. We have no stake in this system. We have nothing to lose – and everything to gain – by getting rid of it.

4.Don't believe those who have stakes in the system, especially Democratic politicians and business union leaders. The only people we can trust are those on the same side of the economic divide as ourselves – the working class.

5. We need to be organized. Our enemies are. Organization is not the enemy of democracy. On the contrary, democracy without organization means that the energy of the movement gets dissipated, reduced to a lowest common denominator. It means the movement will never pose a serious challenge to the system, will never get beyond being a political sideshow.

Police officers guarding the Wall Street bull

Some common posters
The media center

A view of the encampment

Table on Broadway

Meeting during a downpour

Symbolic flag
The New York Stock Exchange building two blocks away


Antonio Baluarte said...

Alex His article is brilliant. Clap, supports the occupation of Wall Street despite its limitations and to present a minimum program for mobilized. Write a description sufficient vigorous mobilization of the poor in America against the Wall Street financial machine, their dreams and bold but naive conceptions. What is happening now in America-although not yet a revolution, perhaps the start of it. Dust comes to making the idea that U.S. workers and the poor do not fight the system or against the capitalists. Those who have lived close to and have participated in similar demonstrations, we can safely set the picture of the political vacuum, though, by contrast, has a courage and revolutionary imagination in action - that accompanies such developments. Is repeated in another context, what happens in the world today between boldness and certainty without the name of scientific and technological revolution and miserable poverty and uncertain social and philosophical conceptions. It reveals how the working class and masses of the world are forced to repeat practices, ideals and organization that were defeated or doomed to failure. Since the Argentine piqueteros to the assembly and outlaws in Ecuador, through the "unworthy" of Spain, there is a common hatred of all politics, is fleeing the nomination of even a temporary policy, attack any possibility of leadership, believe in the absolute spontaneity of movement and realizing the ideals of "justice", "democracy", even "real equality" in the short term, since. Not that we are against a revolution to meet within days, but no direction, no politics on a scale comparable to the deep crisis of capitalism that bends, it is possible to obtain the fulfillment of ideals of true equality and eliminate the cause no name of misfortune suffered by the poor and the working class internationally.

Phill G. said...

This is a very thoughtful piece. It seems to me that the New York protests have been the most radical thus far.

I've been paying attention to the Pittsburgh and Cleveland groups. Things are not so radical there. I wrote down some thoughts earlier, which at points touch on similar topics, although at others they diverge. Here's what I wrote earlier today to a friend who asked me what I thought:

I'll start with the positives. It's good that many of the protesters can admit certain basic, obvious truths like the fact that there are deep, entrenched class differences. For a long time, it was a false cliché to claim that in America "everyone is middle class" and that if one wanted to they "could get rich by hard work." Of course these are confused sentiments, not to mention that they are vague and abstract.

But, on the other hand, stating a fact is not an explanation. Of course there is massive disparity in wealth, war, poverty, joblessness, police violence, and so on. What is important is being able to explain why these negative facts that everyone laments occur in the first place.

This is where the problems arise. These "social ills" must be conceptualized and explained properly if their causes are to be known. Once we understand the valid causes of these "evils" then the conditions that give rise to the "evils" can be removed, and better conditions can be established. However, not too many demonstrators are interested in this. They have a relativistic attitude that sees it as positive that "I believe one thing, you another, and she yet another."

It's also good that there are some socialists, anarchists, and communists present. But the whole consensus shit seems to ensure that their voices will be drowned out. The whole anti-leader thing could perhaps work in small groups where there is already clarity and agreement on a political program, tactics, and understanding of how this society works. People are saying "we are all leaders." Some Marxists groups are like this: but it's a different matter when one has been steeled in the fire of rigorous cadre training and equipped intellectually with the tools of Marxism. But for the protest movement now, it is going to be a bad move.

But a deep understanding of marxism is certainly not the case with this movement. It prides itself on having the most contradictory, inchoate demands. They supposedly defend pluralism, but in the next gasp of air they also explain how unity is the highest goal and political criticism is to be kept out because that divides the group. What results is a lowest common denominator politics that gets things wrong because it assumes the people are stupid and can't grasp what is true, even if it's a bit complicated.

Phill G. said...

However, despite some of the more radical and accurate slogans and signs being put up by the most far-sighted and revolutionary minorities at the demonstrations, my opinion is that most of the "demands," slogans, and claims are misled and false. For instance, many people in the movement see themselves as rallying against "greed" as if it were the moral failings of those at the top of the food chain that causes poverty, war, environmental destruction, and so on-- rather than the normal *social relations* and *economic purposes* of capitalism. This populism smacks of petty moralizing, and because many of the protesters are convinced that it's a matter of "values" and "morals" they already have their false, simplistic explanations about why things are the way they are. If one thinks that "Greed" (as many Christians do) is the cause of poverty in the modern world, then they are mistaken. They will believe that this system can be reformed if only those financial speculators who are "Greedy" (i.e. they want the money they have to turn into more money) find Buddha. Of course, the protesters don't seem to mention that this basic principle of capitalism is also at work in the "real economy" (as opposed to the finance industry) and even the small, local businesses that are held in high regard.

Many of the protesters identify as libertarians (followers of Ron Paul and Ayn Rand), and they are idealists of the status quo (that is, they take their ideals from this form of society). These types are reactionary because they don't want to abolish capitalism and replace it with an economy that actually has the purpose of meeting human needs. Rather, they want to return to this invented golden era of small, local competition in a "true free market." They are convinced that the reason why all the social ills people are protesting happen because the "state has intervened in the economy on the side of the bad banks and corporations." They think that most of the social ills are caused because "the government abolished the gold standard." So, they want to abolish fiat money and the federal reserve and bring back the gold standard-- they have nothing against exchange-value and it doesn't seem coherent to them to advocate a planned economy that produces direct use-values to meet human needs. A lot of these libertarians are also claiming that that the occupy movement "represents the true aspirations of the Tea Party" and they think we need to go back to the original principles of the "constitution."

These libertarian arguments are completely idiotic and incoherent.

Going back to the first point I made (about classes), most of the protesters slogans and demands aren't against this form of society or even the fact that there are classes. Take the slogan, "tax the rich." This slogan implies that it's okay for there to be super wealthy people as long as the State takes some of their wealth and distributes it. As an article I posted below states, 'Not just the rich and powerful, but even the poor and dependent appear in the “new system” in their old roles again. All the economic principles that hold sway in capitalism, and all the social roles this system generates are apparently held in high esteem.'

Phill G. said...

Lots of the protesters are demanding "responsible and accountable rule." They want to be ruled over by a state, but they want the state to "represent the will of the people, and not the rich minority." (As an aside, this, of course, was a basic tenet of fascist populism, along with the call to go beyond "the left/right paradigm.") There have also been reports that some demonstrators have held up signs lambasting "Jewish bankers" but they were told to leave by a majority of demonstrators.

As for me, you won't see me begging to the rulers be ruled over, to create more jobs, to tax the rich or any other nonsense. Capitalism has got to go.

So, to put some of this as concisely as possible, I would say that the protesters need to get over the atavisms of the new left, specifically the prejudices against organization, leadership, a coherent revolutionary program. A few small steps that I would approve: they need to start a differentiation process against right-wing elements, particularly the democrats and the supporters of Ron Paul.

TomB said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Thomas Cain said...

@Phill G.: The steps you list may strengthen the Occupy movement. But how do you propose that they get over their "New Left" prejudices? The structure of the protests themselves, along with the zeitgeist of conflating Marxism with Stalinism, make it very difficult for the majority of the protestors to pay attention to what Trotskyists are prescribing on a blog. Despite recent scholarship, we have not even been able to settle the question of what happened at Kronstadt without enduring thousands of high-pitched screams from this so-called "New Left".

What is needed is sorely lacking: A revolutionary party of our own to intervene on behalf of the working class, that is equipped to fight against the "New Left" prejudices and the right wing. Or since we lack a party, we could have organized efforts to recruit members to this effect. Time is running short. After all, the class struggle waits for no one; the actions that the police have taken against the protestors has proven that. While the SEP dallies about with journalism and nothing else, we should take steps to oppose them and win the working class as soon as possible.

Admittedly, I do not know how we should do that, either. I simply don't see the protests achieving any lasting success precisely because it is disorganized, politically motley, and reformist most of all. My only question is this: Besides simply reporting on and providing advice to this movement, are we really doing all we can?

TomB said...

The economic crisis is throwing many people into the streets (literally). The vast majority of the people involved in the Occupation are college students who face a future of debt slavery and low paying jobs or unemployment. They are very clear that their plight is a class question.

The great weakness of the Occupations around the country is the lack of a program. This leaves them vulnerable to forces detrimental to their cause. In particular, those who follow the theories of anarchism have played a key role in the occupation. The anarchists seek to draw this movement into attacks on symbols of the state but have no interest in a mass mobilization against the capitalist state. They can lead the occupations into a dangerous place where they can be led into actions which will only strengthen the state. (Study the history of the First International and Marx’s fight against the anarchist Bakunin and his secret Alliance of Social Democracy which sought to disrupt and take over the First International.)

It is a tragedy that there is no Marxist movement in the United States which has been fighting for the method which is Marxism, dialectical materialism, for the past twenty years. As a result, this mass movement is dominated by the ideology of the ruling elite, pragmatism. This can only leave them disorganized and leaderless.

This occupation may be a bitter lesson for the working class. It will also be a bitter lesson for those claiming to be Marxists. If the occupiers had been educated about the history of the workers movement, in particular in a broad, persistent education in the history of Trotsky’s struggle against Stalinism, this movement would have a clearer path.

Alex Steiner said...

Tom B. wrote,

"It is a tragedy that there is no Marxist movement in the United States which has been fighting for the method which is Marxism..."

One might as well say that it is a tragedy that Anthony was defeated in the battle of Actium or that Trotsky lost his factional battle against Stalin. History is full of such tragedies. Hegel called the vicissitudes of history a "slaughterbench". It is what it is and we must start with the reality that has been given to us, without any illusions. Yet in spite of these ups and downs, there is a certain logic discernible in the historical process.

Those who wish to make history must avoid on the one hand, wishful thinking - the illusion that the conditions we have inherited are somehow other than they are. But the flip side of wishful thinking is equally pernicious - bowing down before the accomplished fact - the idea that we are trapped by the tragedies that have befallen us.

The failure to build a revolutionary movement on American soil in the past does not mean that it cannot be done. And the demise of all those claiming to represent those revolutionary traditions just means that this is still a project to be fulfilled. The OWS movement, for all its contradictions, poses a challenge to those of us who have fought for the socialist future of mankind. The challenge cannot be met by either adapting to the political confusion of the OWS movement nor by presenting ultimatums to the protesters. Instead we must find the bridge between where they are and the objective requirements of the situation. That is the task.

TomB said...

It is absolutely correct that “we must start with the reality that has been given to us”. The growth of the Occupation movement internationally is cause for great optimism that the working class is finding its way back to the fight for socialism. There is no need for pessimism in spite of the weaknesses of the Occupation movement.

However, the past lives in the present. The Marxist movement in particular must learn the lessons of the past period if we are to give leadership to this movement. We must be careful not to adopt the pragmatic mantra of the Obama administration and all levels of the decaying capitalist state that we must “look forward, not back”. This method is being promoted to cover the crimes of the Bush administration and the U.S. military and the vast corruption that exists in the corporations, banks, and all levels of government.

As adherents to historical materialism, Marxists must examine the past in all of its contradictions, including the role of Marxists in the past period, and learn the lessons of history.