In some sense #Occupy will fail: what matters is how it fails (part 2), or purge the drummers.
Jacobin hosted a debate with the Marxist left as opposed to a faction of the anarchist left. Now, I increasing think that Left communists and social anarchists have common case, I essentially agree with Corey Robins here:
There’s a reason so much of American repression is executed not by the state but by the private sector: the government is subject to constitutional and legal restraints, however imperfect and patchy they may be. But an employer is not. The Bill of Rights, as any union organizer will tell you, does not apply to the workplace. The federal government can’t convict and imprison you simply and transparently for your political speech; if it does, it has to paint that speech as something other than speech (incitement, say) or as somehow involved in or contributing to a crime (material support for terrorism, say). A newspaper—like any private employer in a non-union workplace—can fire you, simply and transparently, for your political speech, without any due process.
On this blog, I’ve talked a lot about what I call in The Reactionary Mind “the private life of power”: the domination and control we experience in our personal lives at the hands of employers, spouses, and so on. But we should always recall that that private life of power is often wielded for overtly political purposes: not simply for the benefit of an employer but also for the sake of maintaining larger political orthodoxies and suppressing political heresies. That was true during McCarthyism, in the 1960s, and today as well.
Now one can say that Robin’s is normal liberal defense of the constitutional state, but I see it as something more telling: private spheres of oppression are real. Now, most social anarchists would completely agree with this so let’s not light the night with the fires of burning strawmen. Now there may be naive anarchists that Robin’s is taking about, but that is not really what I see in a lot of the more articulated anarchist frustrations.
Binh from Planet anarchy had a lot to say about this on Louis Proyect blog. Not to the Corey Robins, but more or less in response to Doug Henwood and the notion that this was just a generational divide as many had offered:
I strongly disagree with the notion that the political divides on demands, cops, structure, and prefiguration are reflective of a generational divide. There were anti-Old Left anarchist-types in the audience challenging Henwood (one of them was even older than him!). Most of the panel was of the twenty-to-thirty something age group that sociologically (minus Lennard) is identical to the leadership of OWS. I think of it as an Old Left/New Left divide (ironic that this has cropped again almost 50 years after SDS was formed) in the sense that quite a few seasoned activists and members of established organizations (ISO, DSA, but plenty of others outside of the socialist left as well) have gotten stuck on their preconceptions about what “must” happen immediately if the movement is to avoid failure.
I was in the pro-demands camp early on but after engaging with a lot of the protesters who come from all different backgrounds and politics I concluded that I needed a more flexible approach to the question (I am part of the Old Left I deride). The very lack of demands allowed OWS to be a blank banner on which any and everyone who hated Wall Street could inscribe their own message, their own hopes, their own aspirations. There is a sentiment on the ground that the minute we start making demands we will exclude people for whom the demand doesn’t fit (coming up with any demands that could truly represent the 99% is no easy task). There is also the problem of what will happen if we take up a demand and the government/corporations refuse to grant it. The movement will be judged as a failure since it did not get what it wanted and people will go home demoralized, just as they did when the government ignored us and attacked Iraq in 2003.
This movement bears the stamp of that defeat and I think that is most obvious when we look at the demand question. On the other hand, these people are totally fed up with the idea of getting permits and allowing ourselves to be fenced up in 10 foot by 10 foot “free speech zones” as has been the NYPD’s standard operating procedure for the last decade, another enduring legacy of the anti-war movement’s failure to end the war/occupation of Iraq/Afghanistan.
What has really shocked and bothered me is the Marxist left’s reaction and take on all of these issues. I have read almost literally nothing from our side that captures this movement’s richness, potential, complexity, and internal tensions. After a couple weeks most got on the bandwagon, but so much of the discussion from our end is sterile, unrelated to where people are actually at politically and why, and not organically linked with actual, concrete, practical challenges the occupy movement is running into. Hence why I write overly long comments.
In this I completely disagree with the no one on the Marxist left has noticed the movements richness, potential, complexity, and internal tensions. I feel like that what Ross Wolfe and some of the cadre at the Platypus Affiliated Society have been doing nothing but that.
But this is the tension and its a tension of a left movement that is largely unresolved in about eight or nine completely different tendencies, ignoring, of course, that one of the largest minorities of Occupy Wall Street really does see this as a tactic to move Democratic party to the left. Yet there is a voice of hope here, and this coming from a Marxist:
In the Q&A I introduced myself as “an economics major at Baruch and a Marxist.” My comment to the panel, and question, was almost word for word this — “I see two lefts here. The first left had at one point theorized about why the world is as it is and how it could be changed. It now declares to us that the revolution is impossible, that the best we can do is little changes. The other Left, in a very embryonic form, is thinking about systems and how they can actually be changed. We have been pushing Obama for the last 150 years. We are here, with some of the greatest inequality ever. I could go on. Is the pushing of Obama a viable strategy for meaningful change?”
To complete the paradigm: the historian Kazin did not understand the pun. Obama is not 150 years old, he pointed out. We must push the Democratic Party, not Obama. The OWS organizer had no difficulty in seeing what I meant by the “Two Lefts.”
Seeing the General Assembly of OWS later that day forces me to add to my comments here — OWS seems to believe that the revolution has already been achieved, that the task now is to spread it to more places, occupation is revolution. They have constituted a new society already. But what is to become of them, of this movement, is at least more open-ended than the world of Kazin, in which the power as it is cannot be challenged or replaced, period.
This is a hopeful view, if only there were only two lefts. What is at stake on this occupation that many within it are already burying it, and I even am saying that it will fail, is that this is about what the left’s futures may be. It’s not that everyone isn’t ready. It’s not a premature revolution. It’s that it was an ideological litmus test and so far it has only changed the way people think these things can run in a process centric way. The later is crucial, but I am not sure if it scales up yet.
Meanwhile the obnoxious drum circle debate, of all things, seems to bring a lot of the tensions involved to a head. Notice it was not police brutality that did it. It is this internal tension between an post-political conception and a very real articulated political conception that is a the head more than debates between anarchists and marxists, who are both minorities within the movement itself.
If there is anything more than obnoxious hippie drummers I want to see purged from our dialogue, it’s the idea of the post-political. Politics is the systematic manifestation of human relations. As long as there are systems of humans manifesting themselves, there is the political.
If one outcome of this likely failure is to do away to the concept of post-political like Obama’s Presidency has done to the lie about the post-racial which President Hope supposedly embodied, I will consider it a small victory. I wouldn’t mind pouring lye on that particular ideological corpse. But where do we go from here?
Yet there is much more to discuss here. So much that I can barely keep up coherently. This has only been on the American unfolding, but @Occupy is much larger than that. I’ll get to that in a while.
So I’ll leave you with a challenge by Chris Cutrone of the Platypus Affiliated Society, who I don’t always see eye-to-eye with, but whose challenge to the left I see as vital:
For the pathology of our modern society mediated by capital, of the proletarian form of social life and its self-objectifications, the new forms of humanity it makes possible, which are completely unprecedented in history, grows only worse the longer delayed is taking the possible and necessary steps to the next levels of the struggle for freedom.
The pathology grows worse, not merely in terms of the various forms of the destruction of humanity, which are daunting, but also, perhaps more importantly—and disturbingly—in the manifest worsening social conditions and capacities for practical politics on the Left, and our worsening theoretical awareness of them. If there has been a crisis and evacuation of Marxian thought, it has been because its most fundamental context and point of departure, its awareness of its greater historical moment, the possibility of an epochal transition, has been forgotten, while we have not ceased to share this moment, but only lost sight of its necessities and possibilities. Any future emancipatory politics must regain such awareness of the transitional nature of capitalist modernity and of the reasons why we pay such a steep price for failing to recognize this.
It is this question that lies at the end of all this OWS: will this be a debacle, a spectacle, or a beginning. I suspect it will be all three.
(For the first in this series see here.)