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Friday, July 10, 2015


Recently, Wallace Stevens has been putting up some lengthy, thoughtful, and interesting comments on this blog.  He contacted me by email with the following short essay, originally written in 2011.  I thought my readers would find it interesting.  Wallace Stevens describes himself in this way:

"As for some context about myself, I'm a Canadian, I have a Masters in economics from many years ago, and am nearing the end of a career in investment and financial markets. I have a broad sympathy for the aims of the Left, addressing inequality being key, but often find myself at odds with regard to the means of achieving the aims. A book that marked a major turning point in my thinking on these issues was Alec Nove's "The Economics of Feasible Socialism." I have also been influenced in my thinking about Marx by people like Jon Elster and Jerry Cohen."

Some Thoughts on the Occupy Movement

What follows are some updated thoughts on the Occupy Movement. I originally wrote most of these observations in an e-mail to a friend in November 2011, and for the most part that is what is reproduced here. But I have also made a few updates and some edits based on some comments from Prof. Wolff. My reasons for wanting to post these thoughts now are twofold: first they relate to the broad theme that this blog has been addressing recently: "What would socialism look like?", and second they address a related, so far not explicitly stated, question that has been in the background of the discussion: "Where does the Left go wrong?"

With that, I'll proceed.

I found the Occupy Movement disappointing overall--particularly given the pressing need for a credible challenge to the status quo.

Like many people I was surprised that this kind of "mad as hell" movement had taken so long to appear on the Left/Centre Left/Liberal segment of the political spectrum. (Why, until Occupy, had we only seen this kind of thing on the Right, in the US, in the form of the Tea Party movement, and in Europe, with its various established and emerging right wing movements--Front National, UKIP, etc.? And why was it only after a truly massive dose of austerity, and widespread unemployment and deprivation, that we saw the formation of Left wing counterparts to these European movements in Greece and in Spain?) But when it appeared, in the form that it did, I had mixed feelings. The phrase that kept running through my head as I watched the events unfold in various cities was, "it's about them." By this I mean that the Occupy participants seemed to be engaged in a kind of self-regarding, preening performance, with themselves acting a part in a melodrama of their own making (at some points it seemed to be more "about the tents" than anything else), that had very little grounding in reality, and that showed very little concern for achieving real political results by truly connecting with the 99% that they claimed to speak for.

First the "occupy." I can see occupying a space that was otherwise unjustly forbidden, as happened with the sit-ins in lunch counters and buses that occurred in the South during the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties. But the latter focussed civil disobedience on a highly tangible and blatant form of discrimination. It had both immediate practical value, AND much broader symbolic value--the movement was never just about lunch counters. In contrast, the Occupy Movement chose to occupy sites that actually show our society at its best: public parks, clean and well maintained, available for the enjoyment of all, regardless of income. So the "occupy" part of the occupy movement, to me, fell flat. Large showings of numbers in marches and rallies would have been more effective I think.
I was also not alone in finding the lack of any goal or program problematic. Occupy seemed to say: Look at me. See how pure I am. How innocent of any oppression--even the ?tyranny? of presenting a political program and attempting to convince other people to support it. Where does this kind of thinking, or lack of thinking, come from? It is as if the Left, in wanting to ensure that all voices are heard, all the time, is left with no voice at all.

Finally, oppression. The tacit assumption that I discerned in the gestures and words of the Occupy Movement people was that we live in a totalitarian state with few public services, heavy censorship of books and other media, and where anything that moves does so solely for the profit of the bosses. This is the "ghost" that the occupy actors seemed to be playing against on stage--like Banco, visible to them, but not to anyone else. This ghostly absence, which I see as part of the intellectual subconscious of the Movement explains, I think, failings of the Movement both large and small: both the refusal to articulate a political program, and the appearance of "Open" and "People's" libraries on the occupy sites.

For if the ghost is a Nazi-like oppressor, then your role is to be everything that the ghost is not--all the way to the point of refusing to have a political program. If the people have no access to books, or the books they DO have access to are only those that support the ideological priorities of the regime, then you need "Open" and "People's" libraries. (Pity poor old Marx, who had to "make do" with the collection at the British Museum when he was writing Capital! Too bad there were no People's Libraries in the London of his day!) The reality of course is that there are plenty of public libraries--warm, well-lighted--and well stocked with books representing all kinds of political views. (Probably one of the few books that you CAN?T get at a public library today is Mein Kampf. It would be interesting to check.) I'm not trying to downplay the forms of repression that actually occurred during the various occupations. I just don't think that it explains or accounts for the terms with which the Occupiers characterised their struggle. Like the occupation of public parks, the provision of libraries seemed like the wrong symbolism--pointing to the things that are actually good about our society and that work.

(One participant at the Toronto occupation was quoted as saying that the police in New York had burned 5,000 books when they evicted protesters from Zuccotti Park. I have no way of proving this one way or the other, but it sounds highly improbable. Zuccotti Park itself is a relatively confined urban space, and it is hard to imagine anyone having an open fire there. But even away from the park, it seems unlikely. It is actually a lot of work to burn 5,000 books, and it leaves a messy aftermath. It is far more likely that the books just went into a dumpster. This is sad--I'm not justifying the destruction of books by any manner. The right thing to do, although less likely to have happened in fact, would have been to allow the owners to pick up the books, or to donate them to a public library. But the fact that the least likely fate of those books--burning--was assumed to be the case, struck me. That ghost again. Because we all know who burns books, don't we?)

Contrast this with the Tea Party movement in the US, which has the Republican Party in an absolute tizzy. These people seem to understand that if you have a clear goal and message, and participate in the electoral process, you can have a big impact on what happens in your society. Money is also a factor, but the 99% don't have to chip in much per person to have a huge budget.
Things have come to a very strange pass indeed when the editorialists at the Wall Street Journal start fretting that Michele Bachmann, with her opposition to publically-funded vaccinations against the human papilloma virus, is presenting a "caricature" of "true" conservativism's goal of smaller government. (They went on to make an impassioned case for state funding of this kind of vaccination program that made them sound positively "New Deal.") The Tea Party has been able to "move the conversation" in the US very far to the right--to where even the WSJ folks fear to tread. I don't see why the Left can't do the same, in reverse.

In a New Yorker article that I am not able to find now, written around the time of the Occupy Movement, Jane Mayer wrote about the movement in the US to block the XL oil pipeline, a movement that had demonstrated some effectiveness in achieving its aims. She contrasted this movement's clear goals, targeted tactics and civil disobedience, and pressure applied to politicians, with the tactics of the Occupy Movement in an interesting way.

My own example of a goal that I think would resonate with a lot of people would be a guaranteed annual income, based on the idea that we as a society will not let the lowest family income fall below X% of the average family income. Or that the highest income cannot exceed X times the average, with the excess being taxed and redistributed as a guaranteed minimum income. Practical implementation of this kind of scheme might involve all kinds of messy details and problems. But as a rallying cry it would be fine. And I think that, given the economic insecurity many people feel today, and the wide-spread disgust with the growing income inequality, this is a message that would resonate. It is strange to me that this is never talked about with any seriousness.

I thank Prof. Wolff for pointing out that Occupy WAS successful in drawing attention to the issue of inequality and, to cite just one positive result of that attention, laying the groundwork for a campaign by Bernie Sanders that might not have been possible otherwise. I think that this is true. But I am also concerned that, through their behaviour and form of discourse, Occupy made the problem of inequality seem like something insurmountable, in the sense that either everything as we know it will have to be completely different--in some ineffable, but beautiful way--or nothing can be done. (There are people on the left that make the problem of global warming sound like this too. It is not helpful.) In fact, you could do a lot to turn the tide on inequality, and have a very real impact on the lives of millions, just by some simple tinkering with the income tax act.



Ludwig Richter said...

Wallace Stevens, thank you for your serious and interesting essay. I can't help but notice how it, in a way, builds on Prof. Wolff's previous post. I would juxtapose your concern--

"But I am also concerned that, through their behaviour and form of discourse, Occupy made the problem of inequality seem like something insurmountable, in the sense that either everything as we know it will have to be completely different--in some ineffable, but beautiful way--or nothing can be done."

--with Prof. Wolff's (or Lenin’s) question:

"What is to be done?"

There are plenty of smart people with excellent policy ideas that, if implemented, could move us toward addressing problems with wealth inequality. I think of Thomas Piketty’s review of Anthony B. Atkinson’s Inequality: What Can Be Done? (Hmm. There it is again.) However, good policy ideas don’t get implemented because they’re good ideas. In many cases, they need a movement to compel office holders to implement them.

Once again, I will draw on the political experience of the left in Seattle because it’s an example I’m somewhat familiar with. Kshama Sawant, PhD in economics (North Carolina State University) and a member of the Socialist Alternative, started with a movement to get the city to adopt a $15/hour minimum wage. She and her fellow members of the Socialist Alternative worked to build a coalition around this issue, but the Socialist Alternative members also convinced Sawant to run for city council. She won, and from her position on the council, she was able to help keep the pressure on the other council members and mayor, and the city ultimately adopted a phased-in plan to adopt a $15/hour minimum wage.

Part of the key to Sawant’s success is that she had a coalition behind her. This coalition consists of a few socialists, a lot more lefty and liberal Democrats, minimum-wage workers, and a sizable number of people from the large LGBTQ community in Seattle. Sawant continues to advocate for housing and LGBTQ issues, and she is proposing that the city build its own broadband service. She is also active in the “Black Lives Matter” movement and has spoken out on Native American rights.

The Democratic establishment doesn’t appreciate Sawant’s challenge to its power in the city. They are running a serious challenger against her for the upcoming council elections. However, I’m reasonably confident that she will trounce her opponent and go on to another term on the council. I’m not alone in believing that she has moved the agenda to the left in Seattle. How far this will go, I couldn’t say. But there is a lesson here. Occupiers and other discontents, if they want to see structural changes in the leftward direction, should engage in coalition-building with concrete political and electoral goals in mind.

Jerry Fresia said...

The Tea Party was a essentially a creation of the establishment (the Republican Party, Fox News, CNBC, the Koch brothers, among others). Occupy was the target of the establishment, having been immediately infiltrated by the FBI among other government agencies. Thus, while Occupy can be legitimately be called grassroots, the Tea Party, at least in terms of it origins, has been aptly dubbed astroturf.

In many ways, Occupy was brilliantly creative. That it focused on corporate power or Wall St. as opposed to political rights or public policy, broadened the discussion of inequality to include a kind of emancipation. The concept of the 99% so perfectly resonated with ill effects of neo-liberalism that it continues to frame discussions of inequality to this day.

Most important was the nature of the activity in Zuccotti park. Challenge after challenge was met democratically and innovatively (think of the human microphone). The sense of empowerment, I am told, - especially as important speakers from so many different fields participated - was euphoric, a kind of “instantaneous ecstasy.” Occupy has been criticized for its lack of goals, but its lack of instrumentalism, I believe, was precisely the subversive element that enabled the leaderless band of protestors to (borrowing the Professors characterization of the thoughts of Marcuse) “keep alive, in powerful and covert ways, the fantasies of gratification, the promise of happiness, the anger at necessary repression, on which radical political action feeds.”

Jerry Fresia said...

I have been grappling with the thoughts of Marcuse ever since the Professor's post on Marcuse back in June. Wallace's critique of Occupy has only served to stimulate these thoughts further. Many left critique's of Occupy (and especially what took place in Zuccotti park) are not unlike Wallace's and I'm wondering if these critics view Occupy participants as essentially "unreasonable" in the Marcusean sense. Here's Marcuse:

“The attempt to draft a theoretical construct of culture beyond the performance principle is in a strict sense ‘unreasonable.’ Reason is the rationality of the performance principle. Even at the beginning of Western civilization…reason was defined as an instrument of constraint, of instinctual suppression; the domain of the instincts, sensuousness, was considered as eternally hostile and detrimental to reason. The categories in which philosophy has comprehended the human existence have retained the connection between reason and suppression: whatever belongs to the sphere of sensuousness, pleasure, impulse, has the connotation of being antagonistic to reason – something that has to be subjugated, constrained.”

Is it possible, then, that the domain of the instincts or the sphere of sensuousness and pleasure might so antagonize the reasonable, in a future socialist society, as to compel them to have reason imposed from above? Just saying.