These are some very provisional thoughts on Occupy Wall Street, which is showing signs already of having a rippling effect across America. With recognition by both the protesters and commentators sympathetic and hostile that the Arab Spring has inspired the movement, we are dealing once again with the phenomenon of movements that cross borders, and that can even become global. This is not just something that the Internet has spawned. Back in 1968, when I was about the age of the people occupying Liberty Park, the May-June events in France were midwifed by the American antiwar movement and eventually served as a model for the movement for a “red university” in Yugoslavia.
The most notable aspect of this movement is that is the first to confront the new realities of the economic crisis and to articulate the grievances of the American people without being subject to the constraints of a reformist leadership. Obviously Wisconsin erupted over the same sense of economic resentment but the movement suffered from being under the control largely of the trade union bureaucracy and local Democratic Party officials. Instead of taking on the system full-bore, activists were diverted into a sterile recall campaign. As the activist I interviewed in the video that accompanies this article stated, he is not that interested in “politics”. I had asked him what his political experience amounted to before coming down to Wall Street, assuming that he would talk about Amnesty International or Greenpeace. It turned out that he understood “politics” to refer to ringing doorbells for candidates and he was not having any of that.
The intuition that the activists of Liberty Park had that they were speaking for the “99 percent” of Americans has resonated with the working class in a way that the organized left has never achieved. Starting with the traditionally left-of-center TWU leadership, the OSW activists are on the verge of winning over the heavy battalions of organized labor to their side. This is not because they have any special skills at winning over workers to their side. Rather it is because their action has resonated with deep grievances among working people.
It is also significant that the movement has developed just at the moment that Obama has launched his faux left turn clearly intended to persuade the “professional liberals” that he derided only a year or so ago that they still had reason to “hope”. The young people (and not so young) at Liberty Park appear to have given up on men on horseback.
Much of the left, both of the organized variety and nonaffiliated variety, has voiced qualms of one sort or another about OWS. Mostly they are based on the protesters’ failure to articulate any kind of program or set of demands. To some extent, this is based on their own misgivings about traditional political approaches. You can find the best example of this “reviewer” approach from the ISO’s Lee Sustar who seems to regard the occupation in Liberty Park the way that a professor grades a term paper. To his credit, he gives them what appears to be a B+ but one can’t shake the feeling that he is a bit disappointed:
Nevertheless, there is a question that must be tackled by all participants in the movement: Can the “no demands” approach sustain and develop a movement that’s rapidly spreading across the U.S.?
There are, of course, crucial differences between the global justice movement and the today’s occupations. The late 1990s were years of an economic boom, and those drawn to activism were often students and youth who focused on the environment and the struggles in developing countries against the WTO, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Unions, focused on trade issues, were also involved. But the alliance of “turtles and Teamsters” didn’t withstand the political pressures of 9/11.
Today, young activists and veteran union members alike confront the prospect of a pathetic economic recovery lapsing back into full-blown recession. Today’s activists aren’t struggling on behalf of their brothers in sisters in Africa or Latin America, the chief focus of the global justice struggle. They’re fighting alongside them against the ravages of a crisis-wracked international capitalist system.
Left-wing writers are therefore right to link Occupy Wall Street with the mass struggles taking place on the streets of Athens, Cairo and Madrid. But it is important to remember that those movements took off as the result of years of smaller struggles–from militant walkouts and workers’ demonstrations in Egypt to the series of general strikes in Greece to the general strike in Spain.
In the U.S., by contrast, the weakness of the labor movement–and the ties of union leaders and liberal groups to the Democratic Party–have led to a low level of struggle in recent years. Demonstrative action by a minority, no matter how committed, can’t substitute for mass action.
So while the creativity, flair and visibility of the occupation movement has been crucial to spreading the struggle, a lot of patient and systematic organizing is necessary, too–as any Egyptian or Greek activist will tell you.
All of Sustar’s points are correct but somewhat beside the point. In all of the struggles he alludes to above, including the ones going back to Seattle, 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.
There is a very strong possibility that over the next five years or so the mass movement that is taking shape today might take on epic proportions and mount a serious challenge to the powers-that-be. It will be absolutely incumbent upon Marxists to figure out a way to relate to that movement not as learned professors chiding it from above but as dedicated participants whose loyalties are to the movement rather than their own group. If they can meet that challenge, the movement will be all the more powerful as a result. If they function in a narrow and self-interested manner, they will have nothing to offer. As someone who has been impressed with the relative open-mindedness and transparency of the ISO, I wish them well.