Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 24, 2012

It takes a professor to get the Occupy Movement really, really wrong

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 9:03 pm

As befits a movement that challenged both the “one percent” and conventional leftist understandings of how things get done, it is understandable why the Occupy movement has launched a cottage industry of commentary, much of it written by academics devoted to exploring its alleged shortcomings. One supposes that any movement that fails to achieve a substantial breakthrough in these most difficult times will be susceptible to second-guessing, including the recent strike of Chicago schoolteachers. On the occasion of the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, the commentariat might be expected to have more to say than usual. Please permit me a few words of commentary on the commentary.

While it was originally written in January for an online journal called “Possible Futures” (a project of the Social Science Research Council), its inclusion on the Kasama Project on September 21 surely must have been intended to stimulate discussion among activists involved with the Occupy movement on its anniversary. The Kasama Project, to its credit, has been a solid supporter of the movement and thankfully above the sniping seen elsewhere.

The ubiquitous Jodi Dean, who can be described as a disciple of Slavoj Zizek, and Marco Deseriis, a postdoctoral fellow at the New School, are the authors and state their intentions rather forcefully:

In this essay, we claim that far from being a strength, the lack of demands reflects the weak ideological core of the movement. We also claim that demands should not be approached tactically but strategically, that is, they should be grounded in a long-term view of the political goals of the movement, a view that is currently lacking. Accordingly, in the second part of this text, we argue that this strategic view should be grounded in a politics of the commons.

Before making their case for raising demands, the authors describe three different justifications for not raising them:

ANTI-REPRESENTATIONAL: Supposedly some “anarchists and libertarians” fought against raising a demand for something like a Tobin Tax since that would increase “the size of the government and the scope of its intervention.” Unfortunately, there is no citation for this so it is a little bit hard to know exactly what they advocated. Speaking for myself (and who else matters?), I am for drastically increasing the size of government to the point of returning to the status quo ante of the USSR circa 1925, but find myself sympathizing with my anarchist and libertarian brethren and sistren (if in fact they did make this point) about the Tobin Tax, even if from a completely different angle. The Tobin Tax is the pet hobbyhorse of liberal think tanks and hardly the sort of thing that a radical movement should get involved with.

AUTONOMIST: Dean and Deseriis write: “The autonomist approach, then, emphasizes the creation of autonomous structures and new political organizations and practices. From this perspective, the problem with demands is not only that they provide life support to a dying system, but that they direct vital energies away from building new forms of collectivity ourselves.” Once again, without a citation it is a bit difficult to weigh the autonomist objection even though admittedly I would be usually willing to think the worst of them.

NON-COOPTATION: Once again, we are forced to rely on the authors’ characterization rather than a citation but be that as it may, it does sound rather familiar:

Will the demand for a national jobs plan mean that the movement has been co-opted by the unions? Will a push for a constitutional amendment to eliminate corporate personhood fold the movement into the Democratic Party? And isn’t the support of partisan organizations such as MoveOn a symptom that this co-optation is already under way?

Now I can’t think of anybody who better symbolizes the dangers of cooptation than Van Jones, but in an interview with Keith Olbermann last November, he hardly sounded like someone stressing the need for demands:

I—I think that one of the things that people were saying early on, you know, “Occupy—they don’t have any demands, what are they doing?” Well first of all, it was important that they—it’s not for lack of demands that the progressives haven’t made any headway. We’ve got more demands than we know what to do with. Nobody cared. They were able to get people to care, and to make the problem big enough that people have to look for solutions.

More to the point, Dean and Deseriis failed to engage with the key point made by Occupy supporters around the question of demands, namely that they were implicit throughout. When you protest against the “one percent”, it was not hard to figure out that the thrust was against unemployment, home foreclosure, corporate control of the two-party system, wars abroad both overt and covert, racism, and all the rest. All you had to do was look at the hand-painted signs to get an idea of what the movement was for.

But more to the point, it would be a fundamental mistake to expect a semi-spontaneous movement without elected officers devoted mostly to changing the discourse in the U.S. about who benefits from corporate domination to switch gears and begin operating as traditional movements that did pose demands. In my view, the best of all possibilities would have been a very broad demand for something like “Peace, jobs and freedom” that would have not gotten sidetracked in the fashion described by the authors. That such a demand did not get raised is almost incidental. Everybody understood what the movement sought, a reversal of the current course of American politics. If some demonstrated out of socialist convictions, or others out of anarchist or liberal convictions, that was not a problem. The best thing about Occupy was its ability to get peoples’ asses off their couches and into the streets.

The second half of Dean and Deseriis’s article deals with issues related to problems related to “the commons”, a term with much currency in autonomist literature, especially the journal Commoner, edited by Massimo De Angelis. It is really a bit beyond the scope of this article to deal with the authors’ attempt to explain the movement’s failure to define its relationship to the commons, but do have something to say about this:

Weary of the historical failure of actually existing socialism—and lacking large-scale models of alternative development—most Occupiers seem to content themselves with a neo-Keynesian politics that begins and often ends with demands for fiscal reform and government investment in strategic sectors such as infrastructure, green technologies, education, and health care.

Now I could be wrong, but the last thing that would seem to describe the people who slept in the bitter cold at Zuccotti Park or other public spaces around the country was weariness over “the historical failure of actually existing socialism” or being contented with a “neo-Keynesian politics that begins and often ends with demands for fiscal reform and government investment in strategic sectors”. In fact, this would instead be a rather succinct and on-target description of the Crooked Timber blog, about which the less said the better.

The late and great poet Robinson Jeffers best known poem “Shine, Perishing Republic” contains these memorable lines:

While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire,

And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens,

I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots to make earth.

This pretty much summarizes the intellectual outlook of Morris Berman, a 68-year-old professor who contributes occasionally to Counterpunch. The Waning of the Modern Ages, the title of his latest article there, speaks for his affinity with Jeffers.

As was the case for Dean and Deseriis, but to a much larger degree, the Occupy movement serves as a kind of inkblot upon which Berman can project his fantasies. Most of Berman’s article is a salute to Naomi Klein’s article “Capitalism and the Climate” that appeared last November in the Nation Magazine and that defends a “zero growth” perspective in sync with Berman’s own belief that capitalism is doomed. As he puts it:

In a word, its number is up, and it is our fortune or misfortune, as I said before, to be living during a time of very large, and very difficult, transition. An old way of life dies, a new one eventually comes into being. Of this, the poet Mark Strand remarks: “No need to rush; the end of the world is only the end of the world as you know it.” For some odd reason, I find that thought rather comforting.

Obviously, Berman could have quoted Robinson Jeffers to equal effect.

Part of America being doomed can be explained by its refusal to listen to those with a different message than unimpeded industrial and technological growth based on private property. These are the sorts of prophets that we should have been listening to:

This alternative tradition can be traced from John Smith in 1616 to Jimmy Carter in 1979, and included folks such as Emerson, Thoreau, Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs, Vance Packard, and John Kenneth Galbraith, among many others.

I don’t want to be one to quibble but the inclusion of Jimmy Carter here would suggest that Morris Berman does not really have a handle on American politics. The conservative establishment pilloried Carter for advocating “limits” but the last thing the left should be engaged in is defending his record on such matters. In 1979 Carter made a speech that might have confused Dr. Berman:

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

Trust me. The “piling up material goods” business was not intended for the investment bankers, corporate lawyers, real estate magnates, and entertainment industry movers and shakers who fund the Democratic Party. It was for the benefit of the factory workers who were losing their jobs by the millions during a process encouraged by Carter that some called “globalization” but can be more accurately described as monopoly capitalism. In Bill Clinton’s memoir “My Life”, he described the help that former president Carter provided: “After Al Gore plainly bested Ross Perot in a heavily watched TV debate in NAFTA, it passed the House, 234-200. Three days later the Senate followed suit, 61-38. Al and I had called or seen two hundred members of Congress, and the cabinet had made nine hundred calls. President Carter also helped, calling members of Congress all day long for a week.

Morris Berman does not appear to be all that bothered by the prospects of declining economic fortunes for the masses. Mostly the “99 percent” receive the verbal lash from him. He quotes John Steinbeck about how the poor regard themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” and later cites a Pew Charitable Trust poll that “revealed that most Americans have no problem at all with the existence of a small wealthy class; they just want to be able to join it.” Sounds to me that Berman’s view of the working class is based on the TV show from the 1970s “All in the Family” and the movie “Joe” that starred Peter Boyle as a hippy-hating factory worker.

But worst of all is Berman’s take on the Occupy movement, something advanced despite his admission that he “personally never visited Zuccotti Park.” Well, why let reality get in the way of this?

[B]ut most of what I saw on the Web, including very favorable reportage of the Occupy movement, seemed to suggest that the goal was a more equitable American Dream, not the abolition of the American Dream, as I indicated above. In other words, the basic demand was that the pie be cut up more fairly. I never had the impression that the protesters were saying that the pie, in toto, was rotten…

I was never very optimistic about the movement; at least, not as it existed in the United States. As many sociologists have pointed out, America has no real socialist tradition, and it is no surprise that the serious maldistribution of wealth that exists in the U.S. is no issue whatsoever in the forthcoming presidential election.  In fact, a recent poll by the Pew Charitable Trust revealed that most Americans have no problem at all with the existence of a small wealthy class; they just want to be able to join it—which takes us back to the quote from John Steinbeck. My own prediction, several months ago, was that OWS would turn into a kind of permanent teach-in, where the disaffected could go to learn about a “new civilizational paradigm,” if that would indeed be taught.

I know that Berman has not taken the trouble to visit Zuccotti Park, but the idea that the activists would bother with constructing a “permanent teach-in” where you can learn about a “new civilizational paradigm” sounds fairly ridiculous even though Berman’s own calling—as epitomized by his Counterpunch piece—boils down to such a business, even if it includes Jimmy Carter as an outside consultant.

In fact, the impact of the Occupy movement, as well as the Wisconsin protests that it dovetailed with, can be seen at work in the Chicago teacher’s strike. If you go to the Chicago Teacher’s Union official blog, you can find a reference to some training sponsored by the union:

October 8th –Non-violent Direct Action Training:

Saturday, October 8th 10a-6p @ Teamster City 300 S Ashland Ave (lunch and dinner provided) Non-violent Direct Action/Peace Keeper Training for Take Back Chicago Week of Action led by Lisa Fithian

If you go to Lisa Fithian’s website, you will learn about her qualifications to lead such training:

In 2011 Lisa worked with numerous allied organizations organizing “On May 12″ a week of escalating daily action culminating on May 12 with a 20,000 people in 9 un- permitted marches that converged to Teach Wall Street a lesson.  This mobilization helped energize a community based movement under the New Bottom Line to launch a fall campaign of actions on banks in 8 cities. This work both energized and benefited from the Occupy Movement that launched on September 17th and has lead to important collaborations.

Lisa also offered trainings to the and participated in the  2nd International Freedom Flotilla to break the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza on the US Boat to Gaza, the Audacity of Hope; the March to Blair Mountain, Midwest Rising, United We Dream Network, Chicago SOUL- Southsiders Organizing for Unity and Liberation and was arrested at the White House along with 1200 others to protest the Tar Sands pipeline.

When the labor movement recruits someone like Lisa, you know that we are in a new period. When I was a teacher for a brief period in 1968, Albert Shanker, who would have preferred to drive a stake through Lisa’s heart rather than to hire her to train teachers in nonviolent mass action led the local.

Finally, it is not worth fixating on what Occupy was doing in 2011. History moves on inexorably and the best of its activists appears to be riding on its back, firmly seated in the saddle. Read this to find out how it is faring today. It is fact, not fantasy.

7 Comments »

  1. The anti-intellectualism of this piece is pretty off-putting. Everyone knows that Occupy Wall Street has done some good things. Louis mentions one: getting people off their asses and into the streets. Its slogan about the 1 percent and the 99 percent is probably around to stay, and that is good. But OWS is (was?) a mile wide and an inch deep. It is absurd to criticize it for not playing the role of a revolutionary party to overthrow capitalism (however much a credible one would improve the dismal political situation in the United States, where the left is irrelevant, and even the occupiers are in large numbers sucked into the electoral charade–that happens with all protest movements in the USA). It aroused broad support among the population, despite its chaotic and limited organizational limitations. But since the left has nothing going for it these days, and suffers from a dwindling influence, to put it mildly, some leftists see a Big Change where nothing of the kind is happening, as Louis does when he says “When the labor movement recruits someone like Lisa, you know that we are in a new period.” A “new period”? Not likely.
    I thought Andrew Ross Sorkin’s take on Occupy Wall Street in the New York Times was balanced and sensible. He gives credit where it’s due, but hasn’t been blinded by the revolution fairy: http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2012/09/17/occupy-wall-street-a-frenzy-that-fizzled/. David

    Comment by David Thorstad — September 24, 2012 @ 9:35 pm

  2. ““The autonomist approach, then, emphasizes the creation of autonomous structures and new political organizations and practices. From this perspective, the problem with demands is not only that they provide life support to a dying system, but that they direct vital energies away from building new forms of collectivity ourselves.” Once again, without a citation it is a bit difficult to weigh the autonomist objection even though admittedly I would be usually willing to think the worst of them.”

    Maybe there isn’t a citation, because they are easily accessible actions to the contrary, autonomists in Oakland working with the families of Oscar Grant and Alan Blueford to confront police brutality, working with people in Fruitvale to set up a community library, the Biblioteca Popular, working with people to get schools reopened, autonomists in Portland working with the homeless . . . .

    “Now I could be wrong, but the last thing that would seem to describe the people who slept in the bitter cold at Zuccotti Park or other public spaces around the country was weariness over “the historical failure of actually existing socialism” or being contented with a “neo-Keynesian politics that begins and often ends with demands for fiscal reform and government investment in strategic sectors”. In fact, this would instead be a rather succinct and on-target description of the Crooked Timber blog, about which the less said the better.”

    Well, yes, but there is a thread of truth in this, even if it is misunderstood. Much like Russians who nostalgically recall the living conditions of the USSR, there are those in Occupy who contrast the postwar Keynesian period favorably with the present by implicitly comparing living conditions 30 to 40 years ago with the present. But while they may sometimes advocate neo-Keynesian policies, the emphasis is not on the policy, but on the democratization of society. In other words, they will, in a particular circumstance, support a neo-Keynesian policy because it is considered a step towards a more egalitarian, democratized society. Dean and Deseriis miss the mark by looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

    Comment by Richard Estes — September 24, 2012 @ 9:57 pm

  3. Last week I heard Todd Gitlin explaining the Occupy movement for his new book during an interview on public radio. He mentioned the solid core as being some tens of thousands or less, the genrally youth or marginal nature of the population of the movement, etc. This may be based on his visits to Occupy encampments around the country as he says, but it doesn’t take into account the marches, demonstrations, etc. that the movem,ent has generated. These are invariably larger than the encampments themselves – they are, after all, often on weekends. The difference is that working people can attend them. They have to work during the week not go to an encampment. This point seems lost on Gitlin. Plenty of people who work support the Occupy movement to a depth that he misses because he doesn’t run into them on his pre-rumination wanderings around the country.

    Comment by Wayne Collins — September 24, 2012 @ 10:28 pm

  4. Bergman comes very close to waxing nostalgic about the old Confederacy in his most recent book.

    Comment by purple — September 25, 2012 @ 12:05 am

  5. […] Proyect discusses this article, but we can comment on another issue here. […]

    Pingback by Darwiniana » The waning of the capitalist economic age (and fantasy) — September 25, 2012 @ 5:12 pm

  6. Berman’s a character—a neo-Luddite who runs a nonstop blog; a critic of the U.S. who, like the ever-shrill Glenn Greenwald, has run away out of self-interest and returns now and then to collect lecture fees. However, Berman is quite intuitive about the dominant American psyche: GREED. “Why America Failed,” his newest from Wiley, is worth a read, if not just for the pleasure of seeing another convincing nail put into the coffin of the mythic “American Dream” bullshit.

    Comment by kjs — September 25, 2012 @ 6:26 pm

  7. Personally, I think Berman has it pretty much right on, other than his relatively optimistic view of the future. I say relatively optimistic because he tends to focus more on cultural historical aspects of the waning of the American Empire (and probably soon crash and burn), rather than the eco-catastrophes that are coming down the pike. I don’t think he has ‘run away out of self-interest’; rather he’s doing his best to have a decent life. Very difficult to do ‘in the belly of the beast’. I doubt his lecture fees amount to much more than travel expenses. I seriously doubt he has much $$, judging from the dismal sales of his last book …

    Comment by satyaSarika — September 27, 2012 @ 12:13 am


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