Today I got a FB message from an American living in Italy who has been asked to give a short speech “to one of the many Italian communist parties at the end of the month in Naples concerning class consciousness in current movements in the US, particularly Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, among others.” He asked what I and another North Star editor might have responded to the questions below. As is customary, I will answer them publicly since others might have the same types of questions.
1) what the make-up of these movements is, if they’re vastly working class and poor or if there is a substantial component of middle or even upper class support etc.
Occupy Wall Street was predominantly made up of students and young working people who were willing to camp out in Zuccotti Park in the financial district even if it meant losing their job. Since many young people are part of the “precariat”, it is altogether possible that sacrificing a job as a barista or a bike messenger was acceptable given the importance of the struggle. I have much less contact with Black Lives Matter but feel confident in saying that many of the activists are a mixture of working class African-Americans and students. In fact, I doubt that there is much difference in social terms between the two movements and the Vietnam antiwar movement and Black liberation movement of the 1960s such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that was led by college students primarily. What you will not see to any great extent is representation from the major unions of the AFL-CIO even though they have praised the movements and provided speakers at rallies. The explanation for this is that bus drivers, UPS deliverymen and women, postal workers, etc. tend to be preoccupied with managing their family affairs and unwilling to take the chance of being arrested or fired. This has been true of leftist movements since WWII for the most part.
2) what the role of the working class is, especially among the young, in these movements..and what their contribution has been to these movements towards the development of mass organization
3) if communists, those identifying as such, or communist parties in the US are participating in these movements
Once again I have had more direct contact with the Occupy movement than BLM. Although I am sure that “the communists” themselves would disagree with me but I would say that the anarchists had a much more organic connection to the Occupy movement than the organized left that saw it as an opportunity to pick up members. This is not to say that they weren’t hard workers and did not believe deeply in the goals of the movement. It is just that they have been trained for generations to see the mass movement as a sphere to operate it rather than an end in itself. They are hamstrung by conceptions of “democratic centralism” that entail caucusing beforehand and bloc voting to support the party line. If the party line and the mass movement’s goals coincide, that works out but when they clash, there can be hell to pay. I say that as a veteran of the Vietnam antiwar movement.
4) and what links, if any, there has been to anti war movements in recent years to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan etc.
There has been almost no connection. The anti-war movements tend to be made up of older veterans of earlier struggles such as Vietnam and Central America who belong to “communist” parties that were not particularly suited to the “horizontalism” of Occupy or BLM. I posted an article written by a co-thinker about the “culture clash” between the Leninist parties and the new movements back in December 2011. It is a very astute commentary on the failure of the communists to develop organic ties to Occupy and by implication applies to BLM as well.
Guest post by Pham Binh
Occupy and the Tasks of Socialists
By Pham Binh
December 14, 2011
Occupy is a once in a lifetime opportunity to re-merge the socialist and working class movements and create a viable broad-based party of radicals, two prospects that have not been on the cards in the United States since the late 1960s and early 1970s. The socialist left has not begun to think through these “big picture” implications of Occupy, nor has it fully adjusted to the new tasks that Occupy’s outbreak has created for socialists. In practice, the socialist left follows Occupy’s lead rather than Occupy follow the socialist left’s lead. As a result, we struggle to keep pace with Occupy’s rapid evolution.
Occupy Wall Street (OWS) mobilized more workers and oppressed people in four weeks than the entire socialist left combined has in four decades. We would benefit by coming to grips with how and why other forces (namely anarchists) accomplished this historic feat.
The following is an attempt to understand Occupy, review the socialist response, and draw some practical conclusions aimed at helping the socialist left become central rather than remain marginal to Occupy’s overall direction.
Occupy’s Class Character and Leadership
Occupy is more than a movement and less than a revolution. It is an uprising, an elemental and unpredictable outpouring of both rage and hope from the depths of the 99%.
Occupy is radically different from the mass movements that rocked American politics in the last decade or so: the immigrants’ rights movement that culminated on May 1, 2006 in the first national political strike since 1886, the Iraq anti-war movement of 2002-2003, and the global justice movement that began with the Battle of Seattle in 1999 and ended on 9/11. All three were led by liberal non-governmental organizations (NGOs). They sponsored the marches, obtained the permits, and selected who could and could not speak from the front of the rallies. Militant, illegal direction action tended to be the purview of adventurist Black Bloc elements or handfuls of very committed activists.
Compared to these three movements, the following differences stand out: Occupy is broader in terms of active participants and public support and, most importantly, is far more militant and defiant. Tens of thousands of people are willing to brave arrest and police brutality. The uprising was deliberately designed by its anarchist initiators to be an open-ended and all-inclusive process, thereby avoiding the pitfalls of the failed conventional single-issue protest model. The “people’s mic,” invented to circumvent the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) ban on amplified sound, means that anyone can be heard by large numbers of people at any time.
One of the most important elements that makes Occupy an uprising and not merely a mass movement is its alleged leaderlessness. Of course as Marxists we know that every struggle requires leadership in some form, and Occupy is no exception. The leaders of Occupy are those who put their bodies on the line at the encampments and get deeply involved in the complex, Byzantine decision-making process Occupy uses known as “modified consensus.” Occupy’s leaders are those who make the proposals at planning meetings, working groups, and General Assemblies (GAs) that attract enough support to determine the uprising’s course of action.
The people leading the uprising are those who are willing to make the biggest sacrifices for it.
Since Occupy is self-organizing and self-led by its most dedicated participants, attempts to make its decision-making process more accessible to those who are not willing or able to dedicate themselves to Occupy 24 hours a day, seven days a week will fall flat. “All day, all week, occupy Wall Street!” is not just a chant, it is a way of life for Occupy’s de facto leadership.
This reality has affected the class character of encampment participants, who tend to be either what Karl Marx called lumpenproletariat (long-term homeless, hustlers, drug addicts, and others who have fallen through the cracks of the capitalist edifice) or highly educated (white) students, ex-students, and graduate students. The former joined the encampments not just to eat and sleep in a relatively safe place but also because they hope the uprising will win real, meaningful change. The latter tend to dominate Occupy’s convoluted decision-making process and what motivates them is identical to what motivates the lumpenproletarian elements: hope that Occupy will win real, meaningful change. Many of these people are saddled with tremendous amounts of personal debt, have worked two or three part-time jobs simultaneously, or were unable to find work in their field despite their expensive, extensive educations. They were destined to be secure petty bourgeois or well-paid white-collar workers before the ongoing fallout from the 2008 crisis claimed their futures and put their backs against the wall. This is the material reality underpinning the determination of Occupy participants to keep coming back despite repeated arrests, beatings, and setbacks. Their determination is the stuff revolutions are made of.
The advantage of Occupy’s structure and form is that the Democratic Party, liberal NGOs, and union leaders have been unable to co-opt the uprising before it exploded into over 1,000 American towns and cities and targeted President Obama. The disadvantage is that it limits Occupy geographically to places where authorities will tolerate encampments and sociologically to the least and most privileged sections of the population, to those who have no where else to go besides the encampments and to those who can afford to camp out for weeks at a time.
The undocumented immigrant who works 60 hours a week and the wage slave who works 40 hours a week will find it very difficult to shape Occupy’s decision-making process. Attempts to scrap Occupy’s existing structures and forms to make them more accessible to those other than full-time occupiers carry two inherent risks: 1) opening it up to forces that would love nothing more than to turn the uprising’s fighters into foot soldiers for Obama’s 2012 campaign and 2) diminishing the power wielded by Occupy’s most dedicated participants. In places where Occupy does not take the form of a permanent encampment its decision-making process can be even more diffuse and difficult to participate in.