Two of the most prominent leftwing websites in the U.S. have recently published articles finding fault with the Occupy movement to one extent or another. Counterpunch was the first to weigh in with an article by Michael Neumann titled “Love the Occupiers” that had the ominous subtitle “Why Blaming the Fat Cats is Retrograde” filled with the sort of jargon normally expected from the Spartacist League rather than from a Canadian philosophy professor.
On ZNet, an outlet with ideological affinities ostensibly much more favorably disposed to the sort of free-wheeling anarchism associated with OWS, there’s an article by PARECON guru Michael Albert that echoes Neumann’s article but with a gentler tone. Titled “We Are The 99% – But Are We?”, it dispenses bookish advice along the lines of “I would prefer that we call the 1% capitalists.”
Neumann’s article starts off quoting Donald Trump to the effect that the occupation is “kind of cool”. I don’t know if the good professor has access to Lexis-Nexis but a cursory search will reveal that in the 10/30 CNN interview Trump was referring not to the occupation but the possibility that he would be interviewed in tandem with some OWS activists:
TRUMP: Somebody called me before from CNN, actually, and they want me to do — I have a big building right there, 40 Wall Street. It’s actually the tallest building in downtown Manhattan, and unfortunately because it used to be the World Trade Center, but it’s now the tallest building in downtown, and it was very interesting because they want me to do an interview with representatives from the group “Occupy Wall Street.”
MORGAN: And how do you feel about that?
TRUMP: I sort of think it’s cool. I mean there’s something I like about it. Like I said, might do it.
As I have noted on previous occasions, fact-checking is not exactly Counterpunch’s forte. More to the point, Trump is on record as calling OWS agents of “class warfare”–something in line with what is heard on Fox News every day of the week.
Doing a little math, Neumann wondered why OWS aligns itself with those whose incomes may be as high as $503,566, those relative “fat cats” who are indeed part of the 99 percent. Maybe it never occurred to the philosophy professor that creating a dichotomy between the 99 and 2/3 percent and the 1/3 of one percent does not exactly lend itself to chants on a demonstration unless you have training as an auctioneer.
He also has trouble with some OWS activists wanting to “rein in rogue speculators, re-erect the firewalls between banking and investing, and so on” since the Fat Cats like George Soros and Warren Buffett have been demanding the same thing for years now. Of course, one would not expect either Soros or Buffett to camp out in Zuccotti Park risking police brutality and illness to press such demands either. Perhaps his long-time roost in the Ivory Towers has convinced him that politics is mostly about what people say rather than what people do, an understandable confusion to be sure.
When he finally gets around to invoking Karl Marx, it a Karl Marx of a rather bloodless sort:
Whatever Marxism’s faults, one of its virtues was a consistent refusal to blame individual capitalists for anything: hate the game, not the player. This extends to individual enterprises such as Goldman-Sachs.
While it is true that Marx’s main emphasis was in analyzing the nature of the capitalist system, he was not above spotlighting the Lloyd Blankfein’s of his day, as this quote from “Class Struggles in France 1848-1850” should demonstrate:
After the July Revolution [of 1830], when the liberal banker Laffitte led his compère, the Duke of Orléans, in triumph to the Hôtel de Ville, he let fall the words: “From now on the bankers will rule”. Laffitte had betrayed the secret of the revolution.
It was not the French bourgeoisie that ruled under Louis Philippe, but one faction of it: bankers, stock-exchange kings, railway kings, owners of coal and iron mines and forests, a part of the landed proprietors associated with them – the so-called financial aristocracy. It sat on the throne, it dictated laws in the Chambers, it distributed public offices, from cabinet portfolios to tobacco bureau posts.
The rest of Neumann’s article is a rather woeful attempt to explain the current economic crisis in terms of the overproduction of commodities:
A mob of nations – Korea, India, Pakistan, China, Japan, and much of the West – can and do make, say, socket wrench sets, but not everyone can sell them to everyone. That’s why I can get a socket set that used to cost $300 on sale for $100 – this is not like computers becoming a commodity, this is the same product with the same manufacturing process getting overproduced. Excess capacity may not lead directly to deflation, but it seems a constant deflationary pressure, and it has driven manufacturing out of the US.
Leaving aside the question of what this has to do with what Marx wrote about (namely, an overaccumulation of capital), the more important point is how to convey this analysis politically.
Back in 1967, not long after I joined the SWP, I was still susceptible to SDS type ultraleftism that had not yet mutated into full-blown Weatherman insanity. I was concerned that the Vietnam antiwar movement was not sufficiently “anti-imperialist” and shared my hesitations with Bob Vernon, the brilliant African-American intellectual I looked to for advice. Holding up a leaflet promoting some antiwar demonstration taking place that year, I asked him why we didn’t point out that imperialism was the cause of the war and that as long as there is imperialism, there will be future Vietnam’s.
He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Why limit it to imperialism? Why not point out that it is capitalism that is the root of war and while you are at it, explain the falling rate of profit? In fact, maybe the best leaflet would be one that reduced volume one of Capital to tiny print that can be read under a microscope.”
The light bulb went on over my head at that point and has remained on over the years. Too bad it never went on over Neumann’s.
Michael Albert does not read (or misread) Karl Marx to the OWS activists. Instead he reads them some Michael Albert. It is difficult to decide which is worse. In the quotation from his ZNet article below, you will note the PARECON jargon including the business about a “coordinator class”:
But here is my heresy. I believe there is a very strong dynamic by which if we don’t give some serious attention to the differences between the roughly 20% – let’s call them the coordinator class – and the disempowered roughly 80% – and we can call them the working class – the former coordinators will wind up dominating the latter workers, transforming working class aspirations for classlessness into coordinator class agendas for coordinator rule.
Without going into endless detail here [as he does 99 percent of the time] – the point is that the coordinators have a monopoly on empowering work. They are not smarter. They are not more industrious. They are not more worthy. Rather, they are elevated by their backgrounds, luck, better schooling, and mostly by their position in the division of labor. The workers are subordinated by their backgrounds, luck, worse schooling, and mostly by their position in the division of labor. All this can and must change. A successful movement needs to attend to it all, not least by fighting to change the division of labor.
While I don’t want to paint Michael Albert in the worst possible colors, I am obligated to state that his attempt to develop a new kind of communist theory (along with his occasional writing partner Robin Hahnel) to supersede Marx and Engels’s is hubris of the most egregious sort. Except for a few acolytes, Albert has had no impact on the American left. A few months ago ZNet made a rather pompous declaration on behalf of what amounted to a new communist international that would be hosted on his servers up in Massachusetts. Delusions of grandeur does not begin to describe this enterprise.
With little fanfare, a group of activists have fostered the growth of a movement that has shut down the Oakland ports and transformed the political debate in the U.S. Instead of lecturing these people about the overproduction of commodities or the dangers of adapting to the “coordinator class”, Neumann and Albert should study what they have done.
While I don’t want to take up this question here (but may do so down the road), the young people who constituted OWS have lived up to the dictum of Karl Marx in his letter to Bracke that is a preface to Critique of the Gotha Programme: “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.”
Because of the fall of the USSR and other reversals, Marxism—especially in the developed nations of the West—has lost the audacity that it once had. Plagued by routinism and what Trotskyists once called “commentaryism”, it has been satisfied to intervene in movements that other people launch. It is being put to the test by this movement that resists all attempts to superimpose this method of operation upon it. While it is too soon to tell where it would eventually lead, it has the possibility of becoming transformed into a mass movement that will force the traditional revolutionary left to either fuse with it or to wither on the vine. History made a sharp turn two months ago and there is every chance that many people who have been thirsting for revolutionary change will not recognize that moment when it arrives. For the rest of us, my advice is: people get ready.