On the Occupy Wall Street Movement

Capitalism Can't Be Fixed — Expropriate the 1%!

Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan sits across the street from the former site of the World Trade Center. Renamed “Liberty Square” by demonstrators, it has become Ground Zero for “Occupy Wall Street” (OWS), a modern-day tent city that evokes images of the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression, and the 1932 Bonus Army encampment of 43,000 World War I veterans in Washington D.C. that was brutally dispersed by General Douglass MacArthur and Major Dwight D. Eisenhower.

While tens of thousands have participated in the rallies and marches, only a few hundred are actually sleeping in the park. But their encampment has inspired a movement that has powerfully resonated with tens of millions of Americans:

“A new AP-GfK poll shows that 37 percent of the American public supports OWS, while research firm Chitika shows that online interest in the movement has swelled 150 percent over the past month.
“‘This will have major implications on the upcoming elections,’ says Gabriel Donnini, analyst at the Westborough, Mass.-based online analytics firm, Chitika. ‘The movement is not dying out or going quietly and candidates will need to address the concerns and demands voiced by those on the streets and making a buzz on the Internet,’ he adds.”
Christian Science Monitor, 24 October

The popularity of OWS is partly attributable to its largely undefined politics—it presents itself as a blank slate onto which almost anyone can write their own demands. The slogans carried on the homemade cardboard signs reflect the eclectic and somewhat politically primitive character of the participants: “I’ll Believe Corporations Are People When Texas Executes One”; “The Wall Must Fall”; “Lost My Job, Found an Occupation”; “CNN: Where is Our Embedded reporter? It’s a War, Man.”

Many of the key initiators of OWS cut their teeth in the “anti-globalization” milieu that made its debut in the December 1999 “Battle of Seattle.” While the media initially tended to play up the youth angle, the median age of OWS “facilitators” is a lot closer to 30 than 18. They are not naïve guitar-strumming college students, but veteran activists with considerable organizational experience.

Reasserting the Centrality of Social Class

The impact of the OWS movement can be attributed to the fact that it speaks to the deep anxieties of ordinary working people, who are already experiencing growing material hardship at a time when the economy appears headed over a cliff. The courage and initiative of the OWS protesters have tapped into these concerns and not only given tens of thousands of Americans a chance to express their pain and fear, but have provided a forum to discuss how to go about solving their problems.

While there is a considerable spectrum of opinion among participants, the dominant ideology of the leading activists (in what is supposed to be an essentially leaderless movement) can be loosely characterized as anarcho-liberalism. Their worldview has been shaped by the contemporary radical liberalism of Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein and Barbara Ehrenreich, rather than the classical anarchism of Mikhail Bakunin, Emma Goldman and Peter Arshinov. Many of them have supported the Green Party, and in 2008 some undoubtedly voted for Barack Obama (perhaps holding their noses) as a “lesser evil.”

The speeches and writings of the leading figures in OWS tend toward militant reformism. While denouncing corporate greed and the manifest injustice and grotesque inequalities of U.S. society, they demand a better deal for Wall Street’s victims. In the 1 October issue of The Occupied Wall Street Journal (distributed at an OWS rally on 5 October) Arun Gupta lists the following demands: “end corporate personhood; tax stock trading; nationalize the banks; socialize medicine; fund government jobs with a real stimulus; lift restrictions on labor organizing; allow cities to turn abandoned homes into public housing; build a green economy.” The unspoken presumption is that the evils of the “free market”—hunger, poverty, inequality and war—can be eliminated or at least tamed. But capitalism is an inherently predatory social system premised on the principle of a permanent struggle of “each against all.” It can’t be fixed—and rather than wasting time and energy trying to do so, it is necessary to build a movement committed to overturning the whole system of wage slavery and establishing organs of working-class power.

Capitalist Democracy: ‘a system of minority rule’

The Occupy movement, by pointing out that the “1%” are the cause of the misery of the vast majority, has touched on the ugly reality of the one-sided class war that has raged for decades in the self-proclaimed “World’s Greatest Democracy.” It is hardly a secret that Wall Street is the home of many of President Obama’s biggest backers, as well as key figures in his administration. The growing recognition that the two-party system of U.S. capitalism is a fraud has been a crucial element in the success of the OWS movement to date. To co-opt the protests and channel the discontent fueling the Occupy movement into dead-end bourgeois electoralism, the Democrats (and their labor lieutenants) have to convince capitalism’s victims to identify with their oppressors. Conversely, to the extent that participants and sympathizers in the OWS movement begin to understand that poverty, inequality, racism and imperialist war are integral to the capitalist social system, the possibility exists for a rebirth of a mass socialist left in the American working class—a development that would change the face of global politics.

Under capitalist “democracy” every dollar is equal; every citizen is not. The game is rigged in favor of the “1%” on top because they have more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. The OWS critique has generally failed to point out the necessary link between political rule by and for the majority (“democracy”) and the radical reconstruction of the economy to meet the needs of the majority (“socialism”). But James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism, spelled it out quite clearly in a talk he gave in 1957:

“The authentic socialist movement, as it was conceived by its founders and as it has developed over the past century, has been the most democratic movement in all history. No formulation of this question can improve on the classic statement of the Communist Manifesto, with which modern scientific socialism was proclaimed to the world in 1848. The Communist Manifesto said:
“‘All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.’
“The authors of the Communist Manifesto linked socialism and democracy together as end and means. The ‘self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority,’ cannot be anything else but democratic, if we understand by ‘democracy’ the rule of the people, the majority.”

Cannon pointed out that working people (the majority) have little influence over the decisive factors that shape their lives as long as the capitalist ruling class (the “1%”) controls the economy:

“In the old days, the agitators of the Socialist Party [SP] and the IWW [Industrial Workers of the World]—who were real democrats—used to give a shorthand definition of socialism as ‘industrial democracy.’ I don’t know how many of you have heard that. It was a common expression: ‘industrial democracy,’ the extension of democracy to industry, the democratic control of industry by the workers themselves, with private ownership eliminated. That socialist demand for real democracy was taken for granted in the time of [SP leader Eugene] Debs and [the IWW’s Big Bill] Haywood, when the American socialist movement was still young and uncorrupted.
“You never hear a ‘democratic’ labor leader say anything like that today. The defense of ‘democracy’ by the social democrats and the labor bureaucrats always turns out in practice to be a defense of ‘democratic’ capitalism....”
.     .     .
“Capitalism, under any kind of government—whether bourgeois democracy or fascism or a military police state—under any kind of government, capitalism is a system of minority rule, and the principal beneficiaries of capitalist democracy are the small minority of exploiting capitalists....”

Most anarchists would agree with Marxists that capitalism is “a system of minority rule” that operates for the benefit of a tiny layer of the population. The divergence between these two tendencies within the workers’ movement has historically tended to revolve more around means than ends. The anarchist influence in OWS is particularly evident in the organizational framework of the General Assembly (GA), where all decisions are supposed to be arrived at by “consensus,” with participants employing hand signals to indicate agreement or disagreement with speakers. On one level the GAs appear to be genuinely democratic and fairly egalitarian, but they can also be terribly inefficient. As a rule, things only get done through the interventions of “facilitators” who attempt to guide the flow and content of deliberations. In the end, whoever is most charismatic, has the loudest voice and/or the most friends, usually has their view declared by the facilitators to be the “consensus.” Where disagreements are particularly sharp, “consensus” is sometimes reached only after supporters of a minority position are worn down and drift away from the discussion to take up some other project. Despite the stated intent of its practitioners, the time-consuming (and sometimes chaotic) process of reaching consensus often ends up being no less “hierarchical” than a democratic discussion in a properly chaired meeting with decisions by majority vote.

From Tunis to Cairo to New York

The history of class struggle is one of waves, with successful uprisings in one country inspiring renewed resistance elsewhere. The Tunisian produce vendor driven to immolate himself last December after years of police harassment, unleashed a wave of popular protest that ultimately toppled long-time dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. This success in turn inspired disaffected Egyptian youth to occupy Cairo’s Tahrir Square for 18 days, beat off attacks by hired thugs and eventually compel the hated Hosni Mubarak to step down on 11 February. Among the tens of thousands of workers who occupied the Wisconsin state legislature a few days later to protest Governor Scott Walker’s union-busting attack on public-sector collective bargaining rights, some carried signs saluting the Tahrir Square protests. Participants in the huge anti-austerity actions in Greece, as well as the indignados who occupied Puerta del Sol in Madrid last summer also acknowledged the inspiring struggles undertaken by youthful Tunisian and Egyptian protesters.

The OWS initiative, modeled on the Arab Spring, has sparked a wave of similar protests in hundreds of cities across North America with Occupation encampments full of youthful protesters decrying the power of the capitalist financial elites and the growing gap between rich and poor. As Paul Krugman, perhaps America’s leading liberal intellectual, has pointed out, the gross inequality of income in the U.S. today closely parallels that of the late 1920s on the eve of the Great Depression. Krugman also observed:

“For the first time since 1917, then, we live in a world in which property rights and free markets are viewed as fundamental principles, not grudging expedients: where the unpleasant aspects of a market system—income inequality, unemployment, injustice—are accepted as facts of life. As in the Victorian era, capitalism is secure. . . because it has no plausible alternative.”
The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008

Krugman is right that the growth of inequality is connected to “the fundamental political fact of the 1990s: the collapse of socialism,” by which he means not only the destruction of the degenerated Soviet workers’ state but also of the very idea of an egalitarian economic order (i.e., socialism) “as an idea with the power to move men’s minds” Ibid.

But Krugman is no advocate of social equality. His concern is to find a way to channel the energy and enthusiasm of the Occupy movement into some sort of “grassroots” Democratic counterweight to the right-wing Republican Tea Party. This would signify the death of the hopes that OWS has inspired, but so far there is little evidence of such a development. Certainly the decision by Oakland’s Democratic mayor, Jean Quan (a member of the party’s “left” wing) to launch a brutal assault on the Occupy encampment in her city on 25 October can only complicate Krugman’s project. Various professional reactionary demagogues, like Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, have recently begun worrying that if Democrats are unable to control the Occupy movement we could soon see the emergence of a genuinely radical left-wing movement in America, which could destabilize the whole two-party shell game that has functioned so well for so long. After years of paranoid denunciations of imperialist chieftain Barack Obama as a “big government” crypto-socialist, these representatives of racist capitalist reaction fear that popular anger with the “1%” may give them some real radicals to contend with.

Occupy Wall Street Touches a Nerve

The OWS project was initially proposed in July by Adbusters, an anti-consumerist, environmental magazine. It was subsequently promoted via Twitter by the internet-based U.S. Day of Rage and the anarcho-hackers of Anonymous whose signature look is the Guy Fawkes mask worn by the protagonist of Alan Moore’s “V for Vendetta,” a 1980s graphic novel that Warner Brothers made a film version of in 2006.

The mood in America today is very different than it was in May 1970, when right-wing “hard hats” attacked an anti Vietnam war demonstration on Wall Street after the Ohio National Guard murdered four protesters at Kent State University. These days many construction workers passing through Zuccotti Park make a point of expressing their own hatred for Wall Street. New Yorkers have opened their homes to OWS members who need a hot shower or a solid night’s sleep. The social polarization of American society is evident in the growth of inequality in New York:

“From 2009 to 2010, 75,000 city residents were pushed into poverty, increasing the poor population to more than 1.6 million and raising the percentage of New Yorkers living below the official federal poverty line to 20.1 percent….
.     .     .
“Manhattan continued to have the biggest income gap of any county in the country, with the top fifth of earners (with an average income of $371,754) making nearly 38 times as much as the bottom fifth ($9,845).”
New York Times, 22 September

Between 1980 and 2005, roughly 80 percent of the total increase in U.S. income was scooped up by the top one percent of the population. For decades most Americans accepted social inequality as not only inevitable but justified—rich people got rich, they believed, by working harder, saving more, coming up with new inventions and organizing more efficient means of producing and marketing products. But the fallout from the financial meltdown of 2008 has changed all that, as Glenn Greenwald observed in a perceptive article posted on “Tom Dispatch” (25 October):

“It’s not that Americans suddenly woke up one day and decided that substantial income and wealth inequality are themselves unfair or intolerable. What changed was the perception of how that wealth was gotten and so of the ensuing inequality as legitimate.
“Many Americans who once accepted or even cheered such inequality now see the gains of the richest as ill-gotten, as undeserved, as cheating. Most of all, the legal system that once served as the legitimizing anchor for outcome inequality, the rule of law—that most basic of American ideals, that a common set of rules are equally applied to all—has now become irrevocably corrupted and is seen as such.
.     .     .
“It is now clearly understood that, rather than apply the law equally to all, Wall Street tycoons have engaged in egregious criminality—acts which destroyed the economic security of millions of people around the world—without experiencing the slightest legal repercussions. Giant financial institutions were caught red-handed engaging in massive, systematic fraud to foreclose on people’s homes and the reaction of the political class, led by the Obama administration, was to shield them from meaningful consequences. Rather than submit on an equal basis to the rules, through an oligarchical, democracy-subverting control of the political process, they now control the process of writing those rules and how they are applied.
“Today, it is glaringly obvious to a wide range of Americans that the wealth of the top 1% is the byproduct not of risk-taking entrepreneurship, but of corrupted control of our legal and political systems.”

This explains why support for the Occupy movement spread so rapidly and why attempts to repress it by police action have backfired. On Saturday, 1 October, when cops trapped 700 marchers on the Brooklyn Bridge, and then commandeered five Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) buses to haul them off, the Transportation Workers Union (TWU) vigorously objected. John Samuelsen, the union local’s leader, declared: “TWU Local 100 supports the protesters on Wall Street and takes great offense that the mayor and NYPD have ordered operators to transport citizens who were exercising their constitutional right to protest—and shouldn’t have been arrested in the first place” (Daily News, 3 October).

There has been considerable opposition to attacks on Occupiers in other cities as well—particularly in Oakland where protesters have gained some union support for their attempts to organize a general strike for Wednesday, 2 November (see “An Important Step Forward”). In New York, the city’s Central Labor Council voted in favor of a mass trade-union centered march in solidarity with OWS set for 5 November. The outpouring of support for OWS shows the potential for the explosive growth of leftist sentiment within the unions and oppressed communities, although thus far the Occupy movement has yet to succeed in actively engaging the participation of the black and Latino masses—traditionally the most militant sectors of the American proletariat, who are also hardest hit by the capitalist economic crisis.

Capitalism Can’t Be Fixed—Fight for Socialism!

It is necessary to build a new class-struggle union leadership committed to a program that links the fight to undo the effects of the capitalist attacks on unions over the past several decades with an offensive to improve the lives of working people—including a fight to win full citizenship for “undocumented” immigrants. A class-conscious leadership of the workers’ movement would not shrink from openly advocating the expropriation of the banks and corporations and the need to establish a workers’ government.

The leading core of OWS militants, lacking any sort of coherent socialist program, are politically incapable of even approximating such a leadership—despite the fact that their (necessarily transient) actions have galvanized mass resistance to the devastation wreaked by capitalist irrationality. They are however, correct that the “1%” who own and control most of society’s wealth have devastated the lives of many tens of millions of Americans, and hundreds of millions of others. The estimate that the other “99%” have essentially common interests is a considerable exaggeration—because this would include millions of cops, screws, military officers, managers and others whose material interests bind them closely to the ruling elite. On a global scale the estimate of 99 percent is probably considerably closer to the mark, but in all cases the vast majority of the population has interests which are objectively counterposed to those of the “1%” on top. Within this majority, however, the strategic core is composed of the workers who operate the transport, communications, manufacturing, agricultural production and everything else upon which a modern economy depends.

The political consciousness of this strategic section of capitalism’s victims—the working class—is critical, because it alone has the material interest and capacity to organize and operate a planned, egalitarian economic order. This is only achievable on the basis of the expropriation of the bankers and bosses and the suppression of whatever violent attempts they make to thwart the will of the majority. Such a revolutionary overturn cannot be achieved through Congress; an insurgent workers’ movement will need to create its own “congresses” rooted in workplaces and working-class neighborhoods, as well as new armed bodies committed to “serve and protect” the interests of the oppressed majority against the “1%” of capitalist parasites and exploiters.

The situation today has many similarities to that described over 70 years ago by Leon Trotsky:

“The strategic task of the next period—a pre-revolutionary period of agitation, propaganda and organization—consists in overcoming the contradiction between the maturity of the objective revolutionary conditions and the immaturity of the proletariat and its vanguard (the confusion and disappointment of the older generation; the inexperience of the younger generation). It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist program of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.”
Transitional Program

Trotsky’s reference to the “inexperience of the younger generation” points to the importance of studying the lessons of the past in order to avoid making the same old mistakes. A lot of time can be wasted trying to reinvent the wheel. The energy and mass enthusiasm generated by the Occupy movement demonstrates that many of the best and brightest members of a generation have seen through the capitalist mantra that “There Is No Alternative” to the rule of the monied elites. What excites them about the Occupy movement is the apparent possibility to participate in a struggle which asserts that fundamental social change is possible.

As Karl Marx observed in the German Ideology, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” The dominance of the “1%” is defended not only by their enormous police, intelligence and military agencies, but also by a vast array of ideological instruments. Only a disciplined political organization which wins the allegiance and respect of the most advanced layers of working people and the oppressed on the basis of popularizing a program of consistent class struggle can pose a serious threat to the capitalist rulers. A movement with no clear program, and (ostensibly at least) no leadership, like the Occupiers, can help raise the general level of political consciousness and galvanize opposition to some of the most egregious crimes of capitalism, but it can only end up modifying, not ending, the tyranny of the “1%.”

A revolutionary workers’ party would put forward a program that addresses the growing inequity in American society with demands for raising wages and ending unemployment through a massive investment in public infrastructure and shortening the workweek from 40 to 30 hours with no loss in pay. It would also include calls for affordable housing, free quality daycare and healthcare, the elimination of tuition and the cancelation of student debt for post-secondary students. A class-struggle workers’ leadership would fight all manifestations of discrimination based on color, creed, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. It would also unconditionally oppose all foreign military adventures and alliances (including support for apartheid Israel) and oppose any funding for the capitalist police and armed forces.

The problems that the Occupiers seek to address are inherent in the nature of capitalism. They cannot be addressed by replacing evil right-wing bankers by friendly community-oriented ones, or by breaking up big oligopolies into smaller scale enterprises. The capitalists act as they do in accordance with the dictates of profit maximization, not because they are particularly wicked or irrational individuals. If the core of active participants in the Occupy movement are to go forward and participate in the creation of a viable mass, militant left in North America, rather than ending up as shills for the Democrats or simply disappearing from political life, they must begin by recognizing that “Capitalism Can’t Be Fixed.” And that the only way out of the capitalist madhouse is the road of revolutionary socialism mapped out by Marx, Lenin and Trotsky.