Reflections on Occupy – Four Years Later

A former Occupy participant reflects on the problems and virtues of a failed movement.

I would like to apply a basic Marxist analysis of the Occupy phenomenon. This is much more difficult than it might appear. There was no clear class orientation, though it often seemed to skew white and declasse. Occupy wasn’t a programmatic organization with a set of points open to critique. It arguably wasn’t even an organization. An event might be the best description, and it could almost be seen as a kind of temperature check of the American left in its moment. Any easy criticism of it will inevitably amount to it not being Marxist enough, i.e. lacking any kind unified program or even a shared understanding of capitalism. Decentralized in the extreme, Occupy was at once pre-political and hyper-political. Like riots or other spontaneous outbursts of indignation, the participants in Occupy agreed more on what they were against than what they were for, but unlike a riot, a great deal of the movement and discussion internal to the phenomenon was dominated by an abundance of conflicting political conceptions. In a way, Occupy was almost an effort to conjure a resistance to the current order out of thin air.

Since it no longer exists, and since it never really had any positions to begin with beyond slogans and complaints, recapitulating the necessary points of programmatic Marxism would largely be a waste of time. So instead I’m going to put on my swamp boots and wade back into the political muck of Occupy as I remember it. There were points where Occupy exhibited traces of latent untapped potential. It could have taken a turn that might have moved closer to substantial class conflict, where some steps were taken in the right direction. Typically however such steps were too little too late, or implemented haphazardly and not treated with the necessary seriousness that meaningful political struggle requires. I will identify some of these points along the way and offer a final summary of this failed movement.

Occupy Wall Street was clearly a response to the global financial crisis of 2007/2008, yet it seems curious that it took over three years for any kind of popular mobilization to take place in response to it. Part of this had to do with the election of Barack Obama, which many hoped would bring some kind of deeper shakeup in Washington politics. The general disarray of the American Left, burnt out from the numerous summit protests of the preceding anti-globalization wave, and the even more apparently fruitless anti-war demonstrations, doubtless played no small part in this as well. The belated response of the left to the financial crisis indicates just how far directly economic questions have been removed from the political conversation in this country. It wasn’t until the revolution in Tahrir square and similar movements that something came a long which seemed to serve as a plausibly functional new protest model. The first effort at this came in the Wisconsin Union protests, which would eventually end in a failed gubernatorial recall against Scott Walker. Old school peace activists planned a similarly styled protest in Washington DC, but for whatever reason the Occupy Wall Street protest is what caught everyone’s attention and energies. This action brought forth every conceivable aspect of the left, along with no shortage of elements from the fringe right, all seeking to reenact past glories or realize future visions. For the politically naïve, and I include myself in this, all of the past accounts of history suddenly seemed to be back on the table for a new settling.

Whenever I have talked to someone about Occupy, either when it was happening or after, I am reminded of the parable of the elephant and the blind men in which several men each grasp a different portion of an elephant and each has a radically different understanding of what they’ve experienced. Some came to Occupy for a hippie jam fest, others brought insurrectionary delusions of grandeur, some wanted to further their political careers, some wanted to fight the illuminati or the Tea Party, some wanted a revolution and others wanted life to be like the 50’s again. It is by no means limited to observers of the Occupy phenomenon that there are numerous conflicting analysis of what the hell the thing was. If anything, Occupy’s participants themselves had the largest spectrum of views on the subject. This was not accidental. From the beginning Occupy was undefined by any particular analysis or political agenda. Nor was there any set of agreed upon tactics aside from “taking public space” in a general populist demonstration against a set of vaguely defined elites. Riding high on enthusiasm over the “Arab spring” and low on the fallout from the financial crisis, this was enough to bring out almost every sector of the American left, as well as many others without any political experience or identification, in addition to Libertarian rightists, tinfoil hat conspiracy theorists, and even the oathkeepers in some places. Lyndon LaRouche and god knows what else. This set the stage for a massive an impromptu political conversation in which the imperative to act brought out all sorts of questions as to what people should actually do. The most famous of the initial calls to occupy wall street was put out by adbusters, in which they called for protesters to decide on “one big demand.” While many were opposed to making demands of the state, there was still a general sense that the discussion would turn to some kind of collective project or at least a concrete decision upon a course of action. But the numerous conflicting ideological dispositions and discourses resulted in an increasing confusion. Ultimately the effort was abandoned.

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To add another layer of complication, every Occupy was different. Occupy Oakland saw itself as a commune and fought the police constantly while Occupy San Francisco endorsed Ron Paul for president. I participated primarily through the Tampa manifestation of the movement, and it is through that vantage point that can discuss it.

From the beginning, Occupy Tampa was both bolstered and hampered by the forthcoming Republican National Convention. Preparation for the event served as a long term goal for people to point to, at the same time it brought up a level of scrutiny by the police and various other interests that many were unprepared to deal with. The initial demonstrations in Tampa, for which I was not present, are purported to have numbered in the hundreds and some have claimed thousands. Tampa was one of the first out in Florida, and so had larger attendance numbers than others, though participants at nearby cities that I’ve spoken to reported similar levels of initial strength. The kind of turnout of the earliest protests would never be seen again, even during the RNC, but the hope seemed to be all along that we could somehow return to that moment. Overlooking of course the numerous people who turned up to take selfies and leave, in Tampa many blamed the initial decline in turn out to the first big split over the question of whether or not to take a park.

The question over whether or not to take a park immediately split the radicals against the reformists. The debate and “consensus” over the matter was subject to extensive procedural manipulation. In short, there was one faction lead mainly by aspiring careerists and DP hacks who sought to position themselves as mediators between the protesters and the city. They negotiated with representatives from the city in meetings that were often rumored but no one knew the content of, and threatened to go to the media and condemn anyone who was arrested trying to take a park as “not being a part of Occupy.” Unfortunately their ploy worked at getting the protesters not to go in the park, but of course it failed to get the city to give us space, their stated aim. When I started attending, Occupy Tampa was in the midst of this debate.

Instead of fighting for a park, we camped out on a 10 foot sidewalk near a busy road. We were routinely awoken violently by the police every morning and subjected to the kind of endless harassment that being in a park probably would have provoked anyway. But instead of one big confrontation, there was a steady withering away of forces over the following months.

Throughout my experience of Occupy, I observed an intensive focus on process. Because of the extreme heterogeneity of the different ideologies of the participants, making any kind of lasting decision collectively could be enervating in the extreme. It makes sense then that boundaries would have to be routinely enforced discursively in order for discussions not to collapse into shouting matches or even fistfights (which isn’t to say that these never happened either). The focus on process also stemmed from the obscurity of the process itself. Consensus decision making, typically utilized by small groups of like minded activists, hadn’t been typically applied to something as large and heterogeneous as Occupy. And for many, consensus decision making was a new concept. Because there was no central decision making body for the movement on a larger level, though the General Assembly of New York was the closest thing to it, clarity over what constituted good consensus practice was lacking. Horizontal decision making was as subject to manipulation and opportunism as anything else. Furthermore people often approached it formally in a way so as to gain an edge in the discussion. Often, debates over process served as proxies for deeper ideological differences, which served to obscure them further. Not to say that there weren’t broader debates over ideology, or attempts to develop a unified platform and strategy. There were numerous efforts at this, and abstract theoretical and historical conversations went on informally constantly. Again, without any underlying basis of agreement, these efforts went extremely slowly and lead nowhere. What could capture people’s attention tended to be instances in which the occupation’s functioning itself was in crisis.

Amid this, the issue over taking a park persisted. Many who were sleeping in the sidewalk wanted tents, others were convinced that things couldn’t go on without some kind of “infrastructure,” even more abstractly some insisted that we weren’t a “real occupy” unless we took public space. Eventually, around November and for all of the wrong reasons, the GA approved a plan to take a park, one that was approximately 1.5 miles from the downtown. What this meant of course was people getting arrested. The park was dark, there were no witnesses, and our popular support was not at the level it had seen initially. Many of those most agitating for this were themselves never arrested. Some never even stuck around when the cops showed up, and it has been later suspected that the “plan” was put together in part by some retrospectively shady people with the explicit intent of draining human resources. The police certainly seemed to enjoy themselves and treated the whole affair like the training exercise that it probably was. GA funds were drained on bail bonds and people were tied up in court. At this point the enthusiasm waned and the occupation limped on into the new year when it moved even further away from downtown to West Tampa to live on a park with the permission of its owner, local strip club magnate Joe Redner.

The narrative goes on for another 8 months, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll cut it off here. The long strange journey things took were probably less typical of most occupies nationally. We eventually reached the RNC with token forces, and whatever protest were managed were so easily contained by the police that things remained fairly ineffectual. Occupy Tampa lasted longer than most, but it was almost certainly a pyrrhic victory. For better and for worse, Occupy Tampa was a transformative experience for many. For me it served as a kind of crash course in American Leftism. I was exposed to a ton of new ideas and was able to test some notions I had in practice. In its best moments there was a sense of camaraderie and rebellion that you could almost get high off of. In the end I was forced to clarify my thinking and get around to studying Marxism more seriously, though not everyone took away the same lessons.

Instead of going through the numerous blind alleys that plagued the movement, the most prominent being it’s Graeberian focus on debt resistance, I’d like to instead point to the more positive tendencies and directions that it leaned in over the course of its existence. In spite of everything, there were a number of points and tactics that Occupy moved toward that showed a certain degree of promise, and that may even contain traces of elements we will see in struggles to come.

Feeding people

The openness of occupations meant that they were often inundated with houseless persons, the neediest people in the social order and sometimes the most dysfunctional. Providing food, aid, and just accommodating their baggage was often a drain on resources, yet it is one of the few concretely positive things that Occupy did. Revolutionary organizations cannot become charities, and there is nothing inherently revolutionary about charity. However, if the proletariat is to recompose itself as a class, developing lines of mutual aid and support will form a necessary be a part of any project of emancipation. In instances of strikes and other struggles against Capital the question of how food and other resources will be administrated becomes an immediate issue for the proletariat. Furthermore, the development of working class institutions capable of acting as a form of counter power is a development that ought to be encouraged. Of course Occupy came nowhere close to this, and never developed a sustainable means of regulating the internal distribution of resources, however its open handed policy with food was much preferable to having images of poor people being turned away. Many liberals, and even one houseless person that I talked to, blamed the collapse of occupy in part on the homeless. This of course is absurd. Again, it was the failure of Occupy as a whole to develop a cogent analysis of capitalism and viable strategy for the developing political power that allowed it to run out of gas. Without an outward sense of direction, there really can’t be any clear metrics through which to determine the allocation of resources anyway. In Tampa this effort has transitioned into a local chapter of Food Not Bombs, one of the better existing organizations in the area.

Land fights

On a national level other occupations had some level of success fighting home evictions. Having access to free legal representation, sometimes in the form of the National Lawyers Guild tended to be important to these efforts. Much of the struggles against home evictions involved civil disobedience i.e. getting arrested. For this struggle to work, there would need to be more extensive political institutions capable of representing the proletariat, or a set of tactical actions undertaken in such a way capable of challenging or evading the law on the ground. There were efforts to attempt this in Tampa. Foreclosure rates in the area were astronomical and so in theory Tampa would have made a good place for such an effort. Few were willing to come forward to make their living situation a media circus/political issue and no one involved were willing to take the risks directly themselves. Eventually local activists attempted to import the Take Back the Land model of squatting in foreclosed homes. This already problematic model was implemented poorly. Contrary to what some involved were being told, the one house that was taken however ended up serving more as a publicity stunt for local paid “organizers” before the RNC. The house itself was stocked with homeless people who were told by one organizer that they were getting the deed to the house.

Fighting pigs

Occupy Oakland became famous for its routine Fuck the Police Marches and overall fighting spirit. Confrontation with the police, and any other armed representative of the state, has always formed a crucial component to revolutionary struggle. In recent decades, the United States prison population has skyrocketed, and it is no coincidence that this has taken place midst a period of de-industrialization. Rising populations, surplus to the needs of capital accumulation, must be increasingly managed by the armed force of the stat). For those outside the immediate circuit of productive capital the police stand in as the primary enforcer of capitalist social relations. The problem of the police, who enforce property relations, is one of the central problems of capitalism and will continue to remain central to future struggle. This has been borne out further in recent years.

Internationalism

Occupy started out as an effort by leftists and internet libertarians to recreate the Arab spring in the United States. As insane as this sounds, the fact that the protest was inspired by international action, and consistently saw itself as a part of a global movement is important. Again, due to its extreme decentralization this internationalism never really evolved beyond signs and salutes over the internet, but the spirit was in the right place.

General Strike

Perhaps the biggest missed window lied in OWS’s attempt to revive the myth of the General Strike. Slated for May 1st, the events ended up being more of a May Day rally than anything else. Getting organized labor back behind a “red holiday” wasn’t nothing but it wasn’t a lot either. From the beginning many sought to develop one demand in the style of Egypt’s one demand to get rid of Mubarak, and I think that a General Strike could have fit the bill. It wouldn’t have been addressed to anyone in power, but instead to the whole of workers everywhere, which would have satisfied a good deal of anarchist concerns over placing demands toward those in power. The effort to organize something approaching a general stopping of the capitalist economy would have required the development of a level of coordination and labor organization that doesn’t currently exist. If the notion had been taken seriously as a long term goal, the efforts needed to bring it into being, or even close, could have served to elevate the level of class organization and bring the efforts of occupies into the realm of legitimate political struggle. Not to say that there aren’t problems with the concept of the General Strike, but a serious effort would have been streets ahead of anything else they had going and might have given things an outward orientation beyond trying to keep occupation going. Of course, there is no guarantee that the meme of a General Strike, even with the full backing and support of Occupy would have caught on the same way that the take the square protests did, and it even leaves out the question of what the general strike would be for exactly. But the relocation of Occupy’s organizational energies from camping and street marches toward the realm of wage labor could only have been an improvement, and in my opinion stood to open new possibilities.

Of course, the extension or intensification of any of these aspects would not in itself have translated into a more meaningfully revolutionary organization. But had things continued along these lines, new sets of problems might have opened themselves up, prompting new theoretical and analytical needs. Occupy’s lateral thinking worked best when it was able to avoid the normal blind alleys of American leftism.

Occupy was the apotheosis of the neo-liberal, post-modern protest. If the term rhizomatic could be applied to any type of protest, Occupy fit the bill. Occupy perfectly demonstrated the failure of a leftist discourse in which all struggles are theoretically equal, and randomized action will somehow additively total up to something. In order to shape the world there has to be some kind of “shared grand narrative” or at least an agreed upon “worldview” of its participants. We must understand class as the axis through which to understand the totality of social relations. Through this lens we can have a meaningful political orientation and begin to conceive of tactics that don’t just amount to persistent agitation and well, activism. This requires not only clear points that can be critiqued and refined against experience but an open identifiable, accountable leadership.

Since the post-war recovery from the great depression, capital has seen numerous crisis. Due to new modes of state capitalist economic management none have resulted in the same kind of panic and sudden catastrophe of past crises. And yet in 2008 we came close. If Marx was correct about the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, and there is some empirical evidence that he may well be, then the contradictions which compelled protesters to take to the streets will continue to develop. Capital will respond and the proletariat will also respond.

Occupy well demonstrated the limitations of franchise activism. Having a highly decentralized organization based around some popular slogans has the virtue of bringing in large numbers of people, and spreading geographically very quickly. The problem comes when these groups have to act in accord and represent something that has captured the public imagination. We can see this now with the Black Lives Matter movement. Formed in response to a series of uprisings against police brutality, BLM is similarly decentralized, with no accountable leadership beyond the admins of the original website. BLM has a tighter focus, but it is also coming up against questions of what its relationship should be towards the police and how it should relate to the state in general and electoral politics in particular. As with Occupy, as with any movement there are currents within it who hold higher aspirations for human liberation. But without a clear analysis of capitalism and an adjoining program that can build power and win reforms it seems headed directly into the old currents of activism and DP political machinery.

It is easy to mock the more ridiculous aspects of Occupy. In fact this was a favorite past time of many of its most loyal adherents at the camps. It is also easy to dismiss it out of hand as being insufficiently class based. But many of those who were stirred by the actions of the camps shared a strong imperative to “do something.” It makes sense then that the somethings that they latched onto consisted of whatever was closest at hand in existing American politics. It is up to us then to develop a new current, and advocate for an alternative to activism and the NGO complex, and to articulate a clear theoretical understanding of capitalism and how to abolish it. Only with a proper map can we hope to get anywhere from here.

Weekend at Bernie’s

However fed up they may claim to be, a certain portion of the Left in the United States remains sympathetic if not outright loyal to the Democratic Party. Many of these people are coming to support the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, and for them, the legacy of the postwar American economy looms large. When not focusing on identity politics and fear of republicans, Keynesian economic policy tends to be the ideological basis of the left wing of the Democratic Party. However, that same institution is incapable of bringing forth such reforms, not only due to the capitalist nature of the organization, but also because the leadership understands, at least unconsciously, that such reforms are impossible in the current historical moment.

pool_lounginIn the dark comedy classic Weekend at Bernie’s, two reformist insurance employees discover the corpse of their boss at his weekend beach house. In order to protect their lives and keep the party going, they spend the rest of the film working to maintain the illusion that the lifeless corpse of their boss is still alive and is having the time of his life. To their surprise, and the delight of most of the unknowing spectators, the ruse is successful, and the dead guy brings more joy to everyone who encounters him as a corpse than he probably would have were he still alive.

Bernie Sanders has frequently identified himself in interviews speeches etc. as a “socialist.” When pressed as to what this means, he usually mentions something about Sweden and/or sticks the “democratic” moniker in front of it, presumably to be less scary. Yet Sanders is deliberately appealing to something bigger and more powerful than what is normally found within the bounds of typical political rhetoric. While most of the Democratic Party stoically marches right, Sanders has veered left, raising the specter of old school populism and attempting to appeal to growing outrage over economic inequality. His seemingly unpolished style, appearing and talking like your old socialist uncle who probably still mimeographs his own newsletters, Sanders appeals to the legacy of American unionism and a nostalgia for its former strength. During this period of escalating election time hype it is important to remember that this remains within a framework of mainstream left-of-center politics. By using his position within Democratic Party primary politics, Sanders has drawn more attention to this type of rhetoric than one might have thought feasible. Since Sanders has nowhere to go but up, this has been the key to his appeal. Raise the specter of working class strength, state directed social development, and populist economic outrage, but contain it within a palatable framework and channel it into the old political currents. This is nothing new. If anything this is the new normal. This same self-congratulatory politics could be seen during the 2008 Obama campaign. In his tone and diction Obama sought to subtly evoke the legacy of Martin Luther King, and would later famously install a bust of the man in the Oval Office. Today the Eugene Debs poster in Sander’s office is a similar object of note for reporters. Obama also acted as insurgent candidate against Clinton, filling a necessary power vacuum in the Democratic Party’s shallow bench of celebrity politicians. Obama promised a new kind of politics, albeit of a vaguer sort than Sanders, and sailed in on a wave of popular outrage toward the Bush administration and panic at the sudden emergence of the economic crisis. During Obama’s rise, all of the usual useful idiots pressed the line, excited that someone is able to appeal to loftier notions in anything resembling a mainstream context. To his credit, Sanders policies and political history go slightly deeper than Obama’s, but at the same time this poses a greater hurdle for him. A good deal of the Democratic Party base identifies as moderate or conservative. If Sanders hopes to actually secure a nomination, like Obama or anyone else, he will be forced to make concessions to those components of the party. All of this is moot anyway. Whether or not Sanders gets the nomination, or even if he somehow gets elected, the Democratic Party as a whole and as an institution is both unwilling to and incapable of implementing the kind of economic policy Sanders is touting. For now, Sanders has skillfully exceeded the extremely low expectations surrounding his candidacy and made great strides in closing the gap in the polls against Hillary Clinton. There has been a great deal of euphoria on some sectors of the American Left (to the extent that a Left can be said to exist in America). There has also been a growing chorus of dissident voices pointing out that Sanders platform is much less radical than some are touting it as. I suppose that I stand in the latter camp, but rather than listing the numerous political sins he’s probably committed over the years through his special relationship with the democrats, instead I’m going to examine and critique some of the assumptions underlying his appeal and then briefly look at just how meaningless Sanders conception of socialism really is.

Reformism and Neo-Liberalism

The extent to which one can place hope in reformist efforts today, depends in part as to one’s conception of neo-liberalism. It can be tough to characterize the economic opinions of the Left, since so little of it can be said to hold any kind of economic conception of capitalism. For many people, in today’s environment Clintonite stooge Robert Reich has come to constitute some kind of substantial economic guru for many people. Still, a unifying theme, from soft Marxists like David Harvey and Richard Woolf to liberal reformists like Robert Reich is that the period encompassing neo-liberalism roughly amounts to an attack on the working and middle classes by the rich. That the gutting of US manufacturing, international trade deals, the welfare state, and dying off of trade unions was the result of a concerted effort, lead on a political front by greedy elites who were not satisfied with the previous equilibrium that had been established in the economy. This skillfully and self-servingly reduces structural economic problems to a question of political leadership, and from this standpoint, it makes sense to expect that the United States could return to “peace and prosperity” through the policy decisions of elected officials. Unfortunately this picture does not conform to the reality of the last forty years or capitalism in general.

Capitalists and state planners have adopted neo-liberal economic strategies for a reason. Liberals and soft soc-dems like to paint different accumulation strategies as “irrational” as a basis for justifying opposition and advocating for reform. What all of this ignores is how, under capitalism, the fate of the working class is tied to the needs and trajectory of capitalist accumulation. Following the great depression, and a series of escalating strike waves in manufacturing, a post-war boom in economic prosperity affected many sectors of the American working class. Relatively generous welfare and more progressive tax rates were feasible and prosperous policies in the wake of a robust profit rate. Fueled by the massive capital devaluation of the depression at home, and the literal devaluation of resources as an outcome of the war, the United States emerged as the strongest manufacturing center for a growing and rebuilding world market. Decades of militant labor agitation had strengthened the position of the American working class, allowing it to bargain for a greater portion of the surplus. Constituting a sort of golden period for the “middle class,” the mid-1940s-(1960s) far from being the norm, instead constituted a sort of detente between certain sections of the working class and capital. This came to a halt in the wake of the financial crisis of the 1970’s.

Following the war, Western European and Japanese manufacturers were able to enter the world market with newer machinery operating at higher rates of productivity. Combined with a precarious workforce and targeted market development, these economies were able to undercut American producers, many of whom were still holding fixed capital assets that had yet to yield their full returns. Typically, as in the Great Depression, such crises are followed by a period of capital devaluation. Instead, capitalists opted for a different set of strategies to avert crisis and maintain the course of capital accumulation. Amongst these strategies were privatization, financialization, debt expansion, and a host of strategies to manage increasing surplus populations (incarceration, education, underemployment). What is important to understand is that this turn was driven by the trajectory of the capitalist economy, and not simply reducible to “corporate greed.” The rising organic composition runs as an undercurrent to all of this and has never been satisfactorily addressed. Instead what we have are increasingly sophisticated forms of state economic management. This does not meant that politics are in command, just the opposite, that the state is necessarily commanded by the needs of the economy.

The politician must understand just as well as the capitalist that all functioning of the state is predicated on the maintenance of a robust profit rate. Policies which have a negative effect on the increasingly precarious capitalist growth are a nonstarter, and even those proposing them will typically recoil when forced to consider the real consequences of their decisions (see Syriza). Attempting to bring back Keynesian style redistributive policies under completely different historical economic and political circumstances would be foolish and unrealistic without a militant fighting working class which was fully prepared to tank the capitalist economy in order to build a new one. In periods of a decreasing underlying profit rate, such reforms would heighten class antagonisms and social contradictions rather than reconcile them. And that is far from the story Sanders and company are selling. When leftists go around promising that easy reform and robust economic development can go hand in hand, all they are doing is setting the stage for reaction. Fortunately, we know they are not serious. For Democrats, these ideas can only prove useful to the extent that they will never be realized. But the show must go on, and so they’ll raise the corpse of liberalism every so often, bask in the glow of the party, and return to business as usual the next day. Cause if you step back, from a distance and at a glance these appear to be serious measures. Look at all these people in the crowds, they’re so excited. This many people can’t be getting worked up for nothing, right?

Democratic Party : Unfit for the Working Class

Sanders has spoken of running his campaign “more like a movement” but the fact that he is choosing to lead his “political revolution” within the Democratic Party, and has promised to support whoever the candidate would be (read: Hillary Clinton) should tell anyone who is serious about some kind of substantial political change everything they need to know. But for the sake of clarity, let’s briefly review why it is the Democratic Party is unfit to bring about the kind of change the proletariat needs and many sections of its own base would like to see.

The relationship between the Democratic Party and the American Working class has been opportunistic from the very beginning. Representing the slaveholding interests in the South, the Party used class discontent in the north between workers and bosses as a part of its overall strategy to retain its political foothold in the federal government. Even after the Civil War, this basic class arrangement remained in place, embodied as late as the 1960’s in the white southern populism of George Wallace. Going forward, after the destruction of slavery, the Democrats acted as a force of loyal opposition to the industrial expansionism of the Republican Party. For many however, this is irrelevant. Instead they point to the New Deal of FDR, and Great Society Legislation of Lyndon Johnson in order to shore up political credibility for the Democratic Party. This relies on a form of historical amnesia in which the broader context of each administration is completely forgotten, and this kind of lineage of peace and prosperity is projected across administrations from FDR to Carter to Clinton and sometimes even Obama. In the same breath, the historical lineage tracing back to the Democratic defense of slavery and its current complicity in imperialism is completely disavowed. If we understand the Democratic Party not as the vanguard of American Leftism, or even a bulwark against rightists, but instead as a recuperation mechanism for a particular faction of the ruling class, the political continuities and discontinuities between administrations and eras comes into much clearer focus.

The first Democratic Party president that leftists will point to is Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Kennedy left little of substance behind during his short tenure as president, and Johnson’s legacy, in spite of his welfare and civil rights legislation, is remains largely tainted for many by the Vietnam War. By contrast FDR stands as architect of “the good war,” savior of the economy, and redistributor of wealth. However FDR’s New Deal can only be understood within the context of American Capitalism of that era. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the American Working class was gaining serious ground in developing its own political organs and institutions. This era saw the rise of trade Unionism in the AFL and CIO, the fighting syndicalism of the IWW, the developing socialist parties as well as the Communist Party USA. However imperfect these organizations were, their existence indicated a possibility of an American working class capable of asserting itself as an independent political force. Perhaps more importantly wildcat strikes had been taking off in the United States and would continue to escalate through his administration and well through the war. Workers were thus taking on modes of direct action independent of the developing bureaucracies of the representatives of labor. All this boded poorly for the American ruling class, who had enjoyed a relative degree of political hegemony in comparison to much of what had taken place in Western Europe. FDR rode into office on top of a massive economic crisis, and governed in the shadow of dictatorships throughout Europe and growing inter-imperialist conflict globally. FDR’s reforms fell well short of the demands implicit in the actions of the American working class at the time. His penultimate solution, a war economy, served to redirect the trajectory of production and after the war served to place the U.S. as the foremost global superpower. This mode of war production, later termed the “military industrial complex” has been more or less in place ever since. The coexistence of state expansion and welfare spending and a broader imperialist spending and foreign policy could be seen in starker relief under the Johnson administration decades later. While the military spending has remained more or less invariant and essential to capitalist accumulation in the United States, the particular class, economic and historical conditions that produced the former reforms have been gradually eaten away at ever since, often with the direct complicity of the very Democrats who are allegedly supposed to prevent this. Yet still we are promised a return to this, and Sanders brand of cruise missile socialism continues it. Herein lies the focal weak point of Sanders form of left-liberalism. In spite of the frequently hysterical anti-war activism of the left (“no blood for oil man”) here sits no room in this outlook for any meaningful internationalism. When military spending is even seen as a problem, it is understood either as simply an irrational expenditure, or it is opposed on moral terms, as if the U.S. economy received no material benefits from its imperial hegemony and all spending could simply be shifted to infrastructural development with no economic downside.

For many, the strongest case to be made for Sanders insurgent candidacy to be made stems from the fear of repeating the example of Ralph Nader, who acted as a “spoiler” in the 2000 presidential election. In spite of the largely inconclusive evidence regarding Nader’s role, this event has loomed large in the liberal mindset, turning Nader from being the reformist hero of the 1970’s into a pariah responsible from everything from the War in Iraq to 9/11 depending on who you talk to. What followed in the subsequent anti-War movement was a redoubling of efforts in support of the Democratic candidacy, leading to the pathetic spectacle of John Kerry’s run. But what is strange, even on its own terms, about the “lesser of two evils” argument his how the people making it paint this grim picture of our current situation but seldom paint any kind of portrait of how to get out of it except through acquiescence to it. This might have made a modicum of sense to the politically naive during the height of the anti-bush anti-war demonstrations in 2003, but after nearly 8 years of a democratic administration, and following the failure of a Democratic majority to pass meaningful health care reform that wasn’t just a glorified coupon system, the Democrats today are in sore need of credibility. After decades of moving to the right and an eight year presidential term that has produced little reform to speak of, it is becoming I think increasingly difficult for Democrats to sidestep the glaring contradictions between what is expected of them and what they actually do, facilitated in part through the increasingly open information exchange of the internet. Sanders may represent a last ditch effort to recoup the left wing of the party and get people #readyforhillary. What both Sanders, and Nader missed was the basis of political power. Nader believed that it was necessary to build a political institution outside of the Democratic Party. However the Greens have no basis in a strong class capable of acting politically, and their platform remains a sterner variation on the basic liberal schema.

Really-Ideal Socialism

A great deal of the novelty surrounding Sanders campaign is his refusal to completely disavow the term “socialist” whenever it is applied to him. Partly this represents a form of savvy on his part, it is said that Obama’s poll numbers went up the more the term was applied to him by his detractors, and partly it serves as a useful rhetorical maneuver. At the same time, the seemingly increasing receptivity to more leftish politics suggests something about our current moment.

Sander’s vague allusions to Scandinavia and Democratic Socialism, seldom run into the concrete or even link up directly with his policy proposals. Instead it serves as more of a rhetorical function. Even as we near the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union, red baiting remains useful for rightists, and an effective measure for shutting down any discussion of reform or even any criticism of the current acceptable functioning of capitalism, no matter how minor. Thanks to the sustainable functioning of the Scandinavian welfare states, left-liberals have a relatively inoffensive model they can point to. In other words, Sander’s “socialism” is really just a way for him to call the bluff of rightists his actual policies themselves are liberal reformist at best.

Historically, socialism as a political goal amounted to more than simply generous welfare spending, public works programs, or highly progressive taxation. Socialism was a project to overcome capitalism and transition to a higher, better mode of society. Even in the classical Social Democratic Party of Germany, the philistine right theorist Edward Bernstein, in all of his gradualist reformism, agreed that capitalism was only a transitional point to socialism. In fact, insofar as he was convinced that said transition was inevitable, he was far more optimistic about the prospects of proletarian triumph than most leftists or even many Marxists today. Sanders and the rest of the “socialism worked in Sweden” school, cannot even comprehend or envision mankind’s social transformation through history. It ignores the class basis of most of the political parties which implemented the said reforms, and it ignores the limitations of the nation state. The Scandinavian examples, as beneficial as they may be for the people living there, are just as symptomatic of the failure of socialism as its success. Because in both cases, and this is true for Europe to a lesser extent, the very national basis of such a system presupposes an anti-immigration politics. Because the benefits and higher wages are secured for a certain set of workers through the reproduction of the particular state and national economy, it must necessarily exclude other workers from entering the economy at a faster rate than growth allows them to integrate, as well as take a place within the broader international system of capitalism. This being the case, it should come as no surprise that Sanders has such shitty attitudes toward immigration:

“Open borders? No, that’s a Koch brothers proposal…That’s a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States… It would make everybody in America poorer…You’re doing away with the concept of a nation state, and I don’t think there’s any country in the world that believes in that… “

If you turned the last sentence on its head, you might have a statement from an actual socialist. It is entirely inconceivable to Sanders that the abolition of nation states could be something desirable or necessary as an eventual goal. This glaring but inadvertent cluelessness is fairly typical of old-school unionist DP politics. Sanders doubles down on state protectionism. He even goes so far as to threaten to put the genie back in the bottle on NAFTA, as if all the Mexican farms run off the land by American agri-business will somehow re-sprout again and the “illegals” will just go back home to their plows. As of yet, Sanders offers no vision on how he might control capital flight, or do anything to deal with the cheaper labor and newer equipment that inevitably emerges in a world market. A globalized market only points even more starkly for international organization and solidarity of the poor and working classes worldwide. Instead Sanders hopes to recreate some kind of accord between the working class and the ruling class. He refers to this accord as “the middle class,” and he refers to it often. This sort of nationalist strategy of cross-class amelioration in the form of expanding the old buffer is, in the light of a genuine class politics, fundamentally reactionary.

The Communist Line

Finally, this brings us to the question: what does the phenomenon of the Bernie Sanders campaign mean for Communists? It is very easy to adopt an oppositional stance, and begin rattling off a laundry list of Bernie Sander’s political sins, but I think it is even more important for Communists to cut right to the heart of the matter. Bernie Sanders is not a socialist, because Bernie Sanders does not seek to move society beyond capitalism. A socialist program must be necessarily transitional to Communism, or it will necessarily transition to failure.

If Sanders represents and capitalizes upon a reviving interest in socialism, then it is our task to clarify what socialism really is and what it means. We must critique the limitations of Sanders overall strategy, and in the process underline what directions things must take in order for there to be real change. We cannot look to sell people on easy magic bullet solutions either with the intention of winning people’s interest or counting on such solutions tanking in order to prepare people for the “real alternative.” Instead we should recognize that people are beginning to recognize some of the limitations of Democratic Party politics. We should push them further. Another component of this as that a lot of mainstream American news and politics runs on fear. The truly skilled politician knows how to transcend this and appear to offer people something beyond this schema, it’s not for nothing that the central word of Obama’s campaign was “Hope.” In his promises of reform, and his seemingly different way of doing things Sanders appeals to a similar mindset. In deconstructing the politics of the Left, we must at the same time point to an alternative politics and a vision for a higher and better form of society. Still, even within this, it is hard to escape the nexus of the current political schema. What is required perhaps more than anything else is a longer and deeper view both of the past and of the future. So long as the lessons and implications of history are ignored, any capacity to imagine future change or long term development will remain necessarily stunted. We must not only oppose all bourgeois political parties, but also the conception that the outlook of our political horizons cannot extend beyond the next four years.

The Party is Over

Weekend at Bernie’s ends with the two main characters getting everything they wanted. An assassin goes mad repeatedly attempting to kill Bernie, and is convinced he is still alive even when he is being taken to jail. The two young men get to keep their jobs, one gets the girl, and the corpse slips out of the ambulance to fall on the beach and be symbolically buried by an indignant youth. So far Sanders has been able to placate the latter element, but if the savvy activists and staff of his campaign have their way, they can take this thing all the way to the general election. There might be more appeal to the Sanders pitch than it seems. Republicans could come off as hysterical (as they did with Obama) crying socialist and communist long after the DP party mainstream, or anyone else, have ceased to really believe it. Whether he wins or is forced to go back to his Senate seat, at the end of all this, careers will be made. And Sanders and his specter of sewer socialism will be wheeled back to be buried in the place that all American working class politics go to die: Washington DC.

Notes on CLT’s Praxis

“What are you actually doing?”

This is a fair question. We have a website, whose front image is of a barricade during the 1905 Revolution in Russia. We have a lot of notes about the state of questions of organization, general historical development, and a set of points of unity regarding what we consider correct positions on a level of struggle internationally. All of this might seem a bit grandiose for a group of less than twenty people in a third rate city of the most ridiculous state in the US. This is why, in the same way that it is important for those engaged in the practical politics of Capital to hold tightly to and nurse their illusions (“if the Democrats just get that super majority then we can really have some reform”), for us whose aims are ambitious in the extreme it is necessary to approach things practically.

LARPfight

In previous pieces Donald Parkinson alluded to LARPing (Life Action Role Playing), a pejorative popular among leftcom internet circles used to describe groups whose politics are based around the replication of past historical moments and organizational forms, usually lacking the very necessary historical context to understand how those movements developed in their time. It is easy to simply mock this, but it is also easy to fall into this trap. After all, since there is no clear historical continuity between us and major past revolutionary organizations, doesn’t trying to “bring back” modes of politics that have been abandoned for decades constitute a form of “historical reenactment?” The underlying problematic, of which LARPing is only the most absurd outward manifestation, is of how to realize an emancipatory, anti-capitalist politics in a period of high subsumption like the one we are living in, particularly in the United States. Our group will be no less immune to the dangers of marginalization, sectism, etc. than anyone else. But we believe that if we approach organization in an open manner that retains a certain sense of self-awareness, a sense of humor, along with an honest, clear-eyed analysis, we can hope to avoid the kind of toxic interpersonal environments and needful opportunistic thinking that plagues much of the rest of the phantom left.

I’d like to discuss here in a concrete manner what our organization is, and what we want it to be. For those who want the short (tl;dr) course, right now it’s a discussion group that would like to include more people in the discussion. Now, for the remainder of this piece I’d like to reflect on this in a bit more detail, as well as our broader aspirations to share, develop, and implement these ideas within our particular local circumstances with a sober sensibility and realistic sense of historical scale. The real question that we have is less “what are we doing” and more, “what can we do?”

What is to be done (if anything)

Roughly around 2012, an ex-Occupier, two IWW members and a couple of non-political friends formed a reading group to work through all three volumes of Capital. After this, the group continued to read Marxist texts and expanded the number of people circulating in and out of the reading group. The membership had engaged in differing forms of activism. We had worked together at one point to start a solidarity group and help a man fight his slumlord over bedbug issues. After a couple of years of decreased political activity and intellectual development we decided to form a new organization.

Communist League of Tampa is intended as a platform for us to engage the working class with a Marxist analysis of capitalism and a dialogue about the idea of communism. We seek to do this with a relatively realistic outlook regarding the broader political configurations of the present moment. Given the high degree of subsumption under capital, the massive political-historical defeat of the working class, and the current state of class composition in Tampa, we view it as entirely likely that opportunities to spread these ideas, and general public interest in them, will remain necessarily limited in the foreseeable future. So what do we do with this? Well, for one thing, we intend to focus on activities that are actually enjoyable for those involved. Without the capacity to pay professionals to carry out organizational functions, we must limit ourselves to what our members volunteer to accomplish. And with a limited pool of membership to draw on, one basically has to rely on people’s good will. In circumstances where there doesn’t seem to be a lot of return for time and effort invested, or even a clear, foreseeable future for our politics (i.e. living in a non-revolutionary moment) there is a high risk for burnout, wasted energy, and the loss of perhaps our most precious personal resource: time. In these circumstances, most activist groups use guilt, cult like social pressure, and high turnover in order to ensure themselves a steady pool of what is essentially unpaid labor.

We absolutely reject this sort of “solution” and its attendant voluntarism. We won’t become a mass organization or serious political player simply by trying really hard. Instead we should focus on simpler activities which can function as ends in and of themselves even if they don’t open any doors to new possibilities. To this end we can look toward one of the few other decent organizations in the area, Food Not Bombs, which if nothing else, is at least getting some food and relief to people who need it, and is able to operate on a scale practical to the people participating in it. As for our group, whose task is a bit more amorphous, as long as everyone involved is enjoying themselves and we are honest about the functioning and role of our organization, if we try to keep ourselves open, accessible, and available to more people, then there is nothing wrong with simply being a communist social club for the time being. Since our group as of present is largely made up of self-selected radical nerds, albeit of a largely working class orientation, the real organizational challenge will be to engage a wider section of people with these ideas. We will have to ask ourselves: how do we reach and include those who might not necessarily be inclined towards lengthy discussions of theory and historical material?

The core of our organization is currently based around a weekly reading/discussion group. The conversations tend to progress organically surrounding a text, which leads to different sets of questions to investigate, and new texts that help to expand the analysis of the group generally. There is a core membership that is there nearly every week, with a peripheral set of members who attend less frequently. We are also in the process of developing short classes on Marxist theory to be given through the local “Free Skool” as well as hosting biweekly radical movie screenings.

We have begun focusing on publication, primarily through our website. We have also begun putting together pamphlets for instances in which a physical copy might be a better distributional means for the material (tracts for demos, installation in zine libraries, tabling etc.) Our writings will run the gamut from comments on current events, more in-depth theoretical articulations and polemics, as well as introductory literature aimed at a lay audience.

The Communist League of Tampa could also act as a platform for intervention in local struggles (or when impoverished enough on this point, pseudo-struggles) that we may not have had a direct hand in organizing. Having a collective voice and platform can help to amplify our influence (or annoyance) as a tendency and help us to think about what might actually be worth engaging in. It can also serve to focus our engagement with these struggles, by bringing an articulated perspective to them. Rather than attending events as individuals in a haphazard uneven manner, seeing business as usual, and then bitching about how dumb everything was afterwards, we can act as a group and attempt to articulate our perspective both in the form of literature and in our actions.

As mentioned previously, a good deal of the membership was involved in an effort to organize a Solidarity Network. Some were also involved in efforts toward direct workplace organization in the mode of the IWW. Though the return we sought on these kind of efforts was not perhaps what we had hoped, we still leave open the possibility for this form of organizing, and we hope to be able to assist in direct labor and proletarian organizing, should the possibility for it open up in the future. As we take stock of our experiences in efforts at local organization, and as both our understanding of communism, and the real movement of the class develops, the forms and types of work through which we attempt to engage the class will change. For now, let us say that we remain committed to some measure of indeterminacy; that the possibility for the recomposition of proletarian organization exists, if only as some kind of latent potential energy.

What education means (for us at least)

In our studies and development, more and more we are coming to the conclusion the real function of a revolutionary organization is educational. Our role in any “real movement” is to work do develop class consciousness. Since we are a part of the working class (and even if we weren’t) this includes ourselves both as individuals and as an organization.

There is still a great deal of theoretical development to be done. The history of proletarian struggle, buried under the trauma of its failure and the cover ups of its existence, is still in a period of excavation facilitated by the rapid information exchange made possible by the internet. This also applies to Marxian economic analysis, whose renewed interest and investigations have been boosted by the increasingly apparent flaws in the “end of history” ideology of late neo-liberalism. Understanding and developing this analysis, often denigrated as intellectual masturbation, in fact carries tremendous implications. We reject this notion that our current historical impasse is simply the result of a lack of political will, the stupidity of the public, or the increasingly absurd sectarianism of the left. These phenomena, poorly characterized but descriptive of something, are much symptoms as they are causes. If we are serious about seeking to abolish capitalism, then it would be helpful to actually understand what capitalism is, and what has happened in the past that lead others attempting the same thing to go astray. Without some measure of theoretical rigor, people fall into activism, grasping on to whatever notions are floating around in their milieu and whatever flatter their prejudices elsewhere. This sort of needful, opportunistic thinking is the basis of the burnout that inevitably occurs after a period of indefinite campaigning.

That our analysis is incomplete should not be a source of discouragement. It is entirely appropriate that the questions of the proletariat today are our questions. We should be open to engaging with emerging movements and points of apparent class struggle. We should also be completely open about our positions, and be as ruthlessly critical of the ideas of other movements as we are of everything else. We are not out to further sectarian division with this, but rather to advocate our ideas and foster a healthy culture of internal debate and educational development. We strive to make our ideas comprehensible to as many people as possible, but we are absolutely uninterested in obscure pedagogical exercises in which we lead potential recruits through the 36 Chambers of the Death of Capitalism until they are ready to pay dues to our awesome cadre. Marxism, like any other strain of science, can be explained to a general audience without watering down or distorting the core content. We obviously reject the ideology of mass lines, or united front induced self-censorship, in which it is concluded that the proletariat has to be deceived before they can be shown the truth. This sort of intellectual dishonesty is an ideology of political opportunism. We need to be as forthright about our aims and ideas as possible and advocate for them today, not the promised tomorrow that never comes. It also presumes that there is some kind of pure ideological understanding held by a core elite. A lot of this is connected to the bureaucratic tendencies in post-comintern political parties which have somehow outlived their historical failure. The “real movement” of the proletariat should inform our analysis, but it must remain within a scientific framework. We acknowledge an inevitable division of labor in the work of communist analysis, but assert that this process, while based upon certain theoretical principles, is dynamic and informed by new developments. It is a process which, in principle, anyone can be a part of.

Towards regional and international organization (eventually)

What of the future? This is always less clear. Many of the questions we have been grappling with in the reading group, including but not limited to: class composition, crisis, the nature of industrial development, surplus populations, ecological horizons, and potential communist societal organization, all have tremendous bearing on this. Unfortunately only time will tell which direction history will take. In the mean time we can engage in research and work to develop our own theoretical frameworks for understanding these phenomena. As our understanding comes more into focus, and if class struggle heats up, it will become easier to make this theoretical knowledge into the basis for practical decision making. To this end it will be necessary for communists to have some basis for organization on which to act at a higher level. This will likely entail having links to the leading actors in class struggle locally, as well as broader organization regionally and internationally.

We should avoid undertaking the latter tasks on too early. In terms of local class struggle, attempting to seek out leading actors would likely consist of talking to tired trade union bureaucrats. The more militant outbursts occasionally seen outside of this, tend to be too spontaneous and dispersed. These moments, like Ferguson or Sanford, are reflective of the pre-political quality of the moment and would be too difficult to reach or influence concretely in advance. As to the matter of regional or international organization, this takes a tremendous amount of work. With a limited membership pool, flimsy relationship to the broader class, and lack of practical tasks in front of it, such organization could easily fall into Fourth International syndrome, if not outright failure. For now we encourage people to develop local groups based upon shared principles and tailored to the needs of their region. Seek out others, develop understanding, and attempt to share it with a broader public. In the immediate future perhaps some conferences or collective publications will be appropriate, and it is my understanding that there are already talks of bringing this into being. The road to a renewed proletarian struggle will not be an easy one, and will likely take a very different path from what we’ve seen before. But if we commit to a basic set of principles, keep an open mind, and exercise a healthy amount of revolutionary patience, we can prepare ourselves for a new beginning.