Friday, October 21, 2011

OWS: anarchist chickens come home to roost

OWS: it never stops!

Edited version of my October 22 radio commentary.

Sorry for repeating myself on Occupy Wall Street, but it seems pretty important. An acquaintance in Australia posted this to a discussion group the other day:

This is I truly hope the very beginning of the reconstruction and the rediscovery of an American Left. I keep banging on about this, but American comrades must understand how this is galvanising the world. If the Left in America re-emerges as an historical agent, then a lot will become possible.

All this, from what started as a small encampment in a small park at the narrow southern tip of an island off the coast of America, as Spalding Gray once called Manhattan.

A major controversy of the moment is whether to make demands, and if so, of what kind. The demands working group has come up with a list I find quite admirable, perhaps because it bears a lot of resemblance to things I’ve been saying all along. I’ve already posted the text here. That draft must go to the OWS general assembly for approval—approval that may be in considerable doubt.

There are objections on specifics. No mention of the prison–industrial complex. (Mass incarceration is a horror, but the role of prison labor is wildly exaggerated.) No mention of, as one critic put it, the racialized nature of poverty. I think there’s a great virtue to simplicity, instead of getting into the usual laundry list. And should by some miracle something like this be enacted, there’s no doubt that it would disproportionately benefit people of color, even as it also benefitted many people of no color.

But there are objections to the very notion of demands. Some think that “demands” are for terrorists, not peaceful assemblies. It’s a good thing that the labor movement never thought that way in its heyday. A lot of anarchists believe that demanding remedies of the state legitimizes the state. I wonder who else could mobilize the resources to meet the challenges of deprivation and environmental destruction. They also believe that jobs suck, and demanding more of them would only make things worse. I doubt that that would resonate with the 25 million un- and under-employed. To this camp, making demands are an opening to being co-opted. They might also be the way to win adherents and win something good.

The twinklers have come up with their own manifesto, the Liberty Square Blueprint . It’s remarkably vague, invoking a rambling set of principles, which they weirdly refer to as “bullet point visions.” (There’s a strange New Age Corporate cast to a lot of their language—a mix of cybertopianism and orgo-localism.) They want to “empower marginalized people to express themselves, build community, and engage systemic/cultural discrimination”? Who are the “we” that grant “them” this power? And how?

The economic planks include:

“Create an economy in harmony with nature…based on sound ethical assumptions and observed individual and market behavior through behavioral economics and econometrics.” I have no idea what that would mean in practice. Could you generate electricity that way? And econometrics? Vector autorregressions will set us free.

Also, “Implementing and improving community currencies, barter, sharing, and trade systems.” Barter is a major waste of time, and as David Graeber has been arguing, hasn’t really existed in a major way in any society known to anthropology. Community currencies are fine for haircuts, but scissors? Steel? It seems they haven’t thought through the role of economic scale at all. Perhaps their devotion to open-source software has obscured the institutional complexity required to produce the computers and networks it runs on.

And “eliminating financial/resource speculation that supports the current economy at the expense of future generations.” Who exactly would do this, if not a state?

This is hard stuff. I do worry about this movement being hijacked by Democrats for electoral purposes. I think that working for candidates would be a disastrous compromise. We don’t want to lose long-term utopian desire in the course of devising shorter-term concrete demands. The key is to pressure the powers that be without becoming their pawn—to make practical demands that are not death to passion or the imagination.

Full employment is no small demand to make. The bourgeoisie hates it, because it would strengthen the bargaining power of the working class. It, plus the other planks of an expanded welfare state mentioned in the Demands draft, would give people the confidence and freedom to think about a better world. This isn’t fictional: it happened in the 1970s, as the transformation of consciousness among middle-class college students spread into the working class. Quality of work life—in a real, not a GM sense—became a central concern in organized labor, at least among the rank and file. It was one of the things that alarmed elites, leading to the crackdown of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Spontaneous gatherings will not replace the state any time soon, and if we want a better world, we need a better state. To use the jargon, this is extra-parlimentary pressure on the parliament. Relying on the state involves trusting an institution that has demonstrated itself to be often violent, corrupt, and oppressive. But I see no alternative to the state.

This is a very important discussion to have, and one of the great things about OWS is that we’re having it.

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