We On a World Tour
The occupy movement which started in North Africa, Egypt, and the Middle East, followed by Wisconsin, and blending with popular and labor movements in Southern Europe and the UK, has spread to the US with a vengeance.
In typical US fashion, the Occupy protest has remained a vague vision, a confused critique, and a couple catchy slogans. Despite its shortcomings the movement hits the populace in the solar plexus with the truth.
How can something come so true, yet be so cloudy?
Our occupation in Oakland has become a focal point for the global movement, gaining solidarity from Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Most recently, global solidarity has been expressed in the form of calls for strikes and renewed protest in solidarity with our decision to have a general strike November 2nd here in the Bay Area where we have a fighting spirit that we are proud to share with sisters and brothers across the country.
What are we fighting for? How do we clarify what we hold to be true?
For years, revolutionaries have been prodding at the US populace to wake up, stop drinking the Bush-Obama kool-aid, and criticize capitalism. We have stood up against the Wars, fought back against the immigration laws, rejected budget cuts, and resisted racist police murder.
Each of these movements has brought together a mass of people that seems to dissipate almost as quickly as it appeared. But enough folks stuck around through each cycle of struggle to give hope that conditions were ripening for a bigger breakthrough in the near future. Each of these struggles has been like an isolated dot on a page. Now the struggles are coming together, dots are being connected and so is a growing mass of people. All these struggles of the past decade have overlapped a little, and now they are coming together as one big picture in a movement that is changing shape every day.
“What do they really want?”
In Oakland, a movement has been growing to fight school closures. The heartbreaking threat of 5 elementary school closings drew a mass of about 500 people to the most recent Oakland Unified School District board meeting. Saving schools is a local issue that helps to give the occupy movement something to actually fight for – a concrete demand. Concrete demands are necessary because we have to know what we are fighting for, not just what we reject. We have to be able to explain to the rest of the working class why they should join us.
Wherever demands have materialized throughout the 3 or 4 years of the economic crisis, they have involved demands on the state to intervene on behalf of the working class in one way or another. We have been fighting to save the services provided by the state.
But to an advanced layer of the movement, mostly based in higher education sector and connected to socialist or anarchist networks and organizations, slogans such as “save our schools” and “tax the rich” do not suffice. These militants with more advanced, anti-capitalist politics are saying that this system is totally broken and that we need to build an entirely new system of some kind of socialism.
The point where the need for immediate next steps, clear articulations of the goals of the movement, and tactical precision, meets ideological values and anti-capitalist logics has been the limit-point of the movement. The potential of a movement is determined by the limit of what the masses of people in struggle can imagine. Advanced militants of a movement usually have the most far-reaching imagination, and it is their role to open the creative vision of the working class.
The ruling class is always trying to chop our imagination to just the next day, the next month, at most the next year, all while erasing history and the working class’s consciousness of it. Capital chops our calendar off at the next cycle of paychecks and bills. Capitalist time is scarce and bitter. Marxism integrates the past into the future by showing materially how older social forms gave birth to the existing ones, and how the existing social form will give birth to a future one. Elements of the past social forms persist in the present, as do elements of the society of the future.
The Hydra Grows New Heads
Key questions for our movement today can be approached from the point of view of past versus future. One theme that has been used a lot is the comparison of our current situation with that of the 1930s Great Depression. The past injects itself into the present discourse not just as a reference point for what a crisis looks like, but also as offering a menu of solutions to crisis. Present-day demands by organizations tied to the Democratic Party include a government jobs program, which was the centerpiece of a Move-On.org march that was organized early on to end at Oakland Occupy. This solution is drawn directly from FDR’s New Deal, a relationship to the past that mirrors calls for defense of the public sector as a whole, which is a product of the New Deal and its successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. We should keep in mind that the New Deal jobs programs didn’t do much at all to alleviate the depression. It was hundreds of billions of dollars in tank, ship, bomb, and plane production that ended the depression. Not only is war a disgusting solution for economic crisis, but today it isn’t even on the menu for leaders of the capitalist system looking to solve the economic crisis. The Iraq and Afghan wars have gone on for a decade, costing trillions, and the economy is still getting worse.
The situation of crisis in the 1930s through the mid-1940s gave birth to a higher stage of capitalist development. The US military, the dollar, and the whole form of multi-national corporations emerged out of WWII to engage a whole new cycle of capitalist development spurred by private enterprise with the support of a state that was stronger than ever. The main role of the state became to create the conditions that supported the expansion of capitalist enterprise, reproducing everything they needed to thrive. Some of these things appeared to be good for the working class, such as free education, unemployment benefits and public housing and welfare for the poor. An important part that the state played in reproducing the conditions for capitalist development was the integration of the working class, the breaking down of borders between nations, genders, and races. De-segregation and affirmative action began as issues in the workplace, where capitalists replaced white men with black men, and women both black and white, during the 30s and 40s. Integrating the workplace was good for women and blacks, because they had access to decent wages like they never had before, but capitalists were still able to pay them less than the white men who preceded them, and thus were able to keep more money for themselves as profits. Later on, immigrants from Latin America would largely take the place of Black workers in agricultural and domestic work with many of the same effects.
But just because these things made life under capitalism more tolerable for many workers in the US, did this mean that they were solutions to the crisis of capitalism? NO! Every decade that went by, the rate of profit was less and less, although capitalists still made big profits, and these profits still went up and up, they went up at a slower pace than they did before. Also, these profits were re-invested less and less in real production, and more and more in financial assets. By the time the mid 1970s came around, there was a surplus of labor and the layoffs began. Black workers were the first victims of the shrinking labor market, losing jobs in factories and distribution that they fought hard for less than a generation before. As the ranks of unemployed black people swelled in the 80s, attacks on benefits for the unemployed and welfare came up. In 1978, California passed Proposition 13, which drastically cut the taxes paid by mostly suburban homeowners in order to defund social services that largely inner city residents depended upon.
This was the beginning of what came to be called the Tax Revolt that defined the core of the Conservative program ever since. This backlash against the Civil Rights movement lasted 30 years. The Occupy movement marks the end of the hegemony of that backlash. On this point, we need to be clear. This is the end of an era, the beginning of a new one. Liberal leftists and Democrats are taking the end of the hegemony of the backlash to be an opening for a revival of that which preceded the backlash – the Great Society and the New Deal. They offer us an even more distant past as the program for overcoming the program of the recent past. They offer the New Deal part II and we can expect the Backlash part II in response. Fascism is what we will get, unless we succeed at stimulating the revolutionary socialist imagination of the working class. We must inspire confidence that a socialist future is more realistic than a New Deal part II.
Rooted in the decades-long economic crisis of capitalism (which started in the early 1970s) but extending toward a whole host of political crises ranging from War on Drugs to the wars in the Middle east, and incorporating a vast social crisis which includes racial re-segregation, reversal of gains for women’s rights such as abortion, and a sharp social antagonism around sexuality whose most concrete expression is in the form of the gay marriage struggle, the movement is still not capable of defining itself.
Method for the Madness / Skip the Pitfalls
Revolutionary Marxism is the key to unlocking the imagination of the working class. Raising up the seeds of the future (socialism) from the soil of the present (capitalism) is a matter of method: what method to stimulate the imaginations of millions of working class people, beyond the limits of mere reform, to the more realistic horizon of revolutionary society?
How we can defend some aspects of the state, and also claim that the whole thing needs to go? The tension in this question has at times propelled the movement forward, and at other times frustrated the movement and layers of people new to the struggle. If it is true, as Rosa Luxemburg claims in “The Mass Strike”, that what remains after each wave of mass upheaval is a “residue of consciousness” that fertilizes the soil of revolution as the flood waters of ancient rivers did the soil of the fields, our richest theoretical gains may derive from the tension between reform and revolution that inevitably arises in times of great crisis.
Rather than being two opposite sides, these aspects of the class struggle here in Oakland are complementary. We can argue they are complimentary because the best way to defend aspects of the state like public education or healthcare is with class struggle strategy and tactics backed by a dialectical materialist analysis of the historical forces in motion. Therefore, by winning these struggles, we build the confidence of the masses in the strategy and tactics that flow from the marxist method, and we develop a hegemonic praxis that is harder to co-opt. Either we win and build the strength and knowledge required to smash the state, or we lose and are forced to create these services ourselves by expropriating the productive property required to create them. Either way, if we defend them with a marxist praxis, that defense will complement the smashing of the state.
From here, we will have to figure out how to synthesize the (still) largely white of middle class origin Occupy movement with the mostly black and brown working class families who produce the value that holds society together. Moreover, we will have to build this synthesis in the context of a worldwide upheaval which is made up of (and in some cases led by) professionals and young people who hope to become professionals one day. We will have to find a way to include millions of people who live in contemporary capitalist world and whose livelihoods depend largely on the economic role of the state, defend the notion that a government bigger than just one group of specific interests should provide for the general well-being of the whole society. In other words we have to defend the concept of democracy, while insisting that democracy be used in the interest of the working class which is perhaps not 99% of the population but pretty close.
One reason we see such vague demands here in the US is that this movement still lacks a real working class base. In general the working class has needs that are not being met, but could and should be met. These needs include high quality free housing, healthcare, and education; good jobs that do positive things for the world and have good working conditions, short hours and high pay for every single person; freedom from state violence, particularly in the forms of police brutality and war. We need to organize on a class basis to make class wide demands that flow directly from these needs, and to ally with strategic sectors of the class that could win those demands, such as transportation workers, food production workers, sanitation workers, factory workers and so on. We can ally with them by preparing support for a strike of that sector and encouraging militant rank and file organization within that sector. By educating workers in strategic sectors about the history of international proletarian revolution and agitating them to take a leading role to win the demands of the class, we can forge a real working class base for this movement.
If the working class decides to draw the line in the sand and battle it out with the powers that be in order to defend their needs, these needs will not only be defended – our dreams of a healthy society based on good work, good working conditions, and free high quality services will come true. No politician will give this to us. We have to build it ourselves.
Occupy Oakland showed how we can build a new society. Yes, it was a tent city in which a lot of people did not have jobs or responsibilities to their families, so they could be there 24/7, but look what they did! They fed 1000s of people, and lived basically in peace for 2 weeks in the middle of a city that is devastated by the capitalist system. This is a drop in the bucket. With a socialist revolution, we could make a system where billions of people have free housing, good jobs doing good things for the people, and a lot of leisure time to do art, learn about politics, make music, and do anything else that is peaceful and constructive.
We need to have confidence that the occupy movement has been just one stage in a growing working class upheaval that is reaching the point where we will have to get comfortable calling it a revolutionary situation. This is the direction that we are going, and we should all be filled with hope. Where does the society of the future have a foothold in the present? Is it in the public schools? Yes, in the sense that the response to the attacks on the public schools might assume the form of school occupations where parents, children, teachers, and members of the working class community determine their conditions, link up with other sections of society that in upheaval, and become bases of the class struggle. The class struggle can become a struggle by the working class to run away from its sectorally isolated jobs, its segregation between home, work, and community.
Build a Working Class Base to Occupy the Means of Production
A school-based struggle would bring elements of the future socialist society into the present, would allow the working class the opportunity to run its own life, govern itself, and be in unity with the class as a whole. Will such a struggle emerge out of calls to explicitly build socialism, or is it more likely to emerge out of defense of some element of the future that has already been won such as public spaces, democratic promises of equality for all? It is a mistake to argue that defending the state sector gives false illusions to the working class that the system can work because it is clear that it can’t work. It is even more clear that the democratic promise of equal education for all that came out of the Civil Rights movement of the past is a principle that will be central in socialism and that it seems as righteous to the working class today as it ever did. It is also a mistake to argue that the working class doesn’t care about lofty ideas like socialism and that we can only reform our way toward an incrementally brighter tomorrow. The working class will need to know why the past reforms have been snuffed out by the same capitalist system that put them in place.
By defending the gains of the past, such as public education, we can build the seeds of the society of the future, and build bases of power for the confrontation against the state apparatus. The movement already has to confront the state in the form of riot police, but we will have much more serious battles ahead. Millions of workers will have to be armed not just with weapons, but with correct ideas. The unity between workers and revolutionaries will have to be total, founded upon a trust earned through struggle, respecting the correct ideas that workers already have about some things.
All politicians–from heads of state to the school board–stand naked in the contradictions of our times. The working class is demanding the simple dreams which capitalism cannot fulfill. Things swing wild in the struggle as the future is pulled into the present at an ever quickening pace, yet is obstructed by the past that tries to hold things back. Revolutionaries can unleash the imagination of the working class, by showing real steps forward for real actions they can participate in and lead that represent their own immediate self-interest yet have positive repercussions for the power of the class as a whole.
What can revolutionaries do to maximize this moment? Demands, goals and visions are necessary. At every stage of revolutionary struggle, we need to see our next step as clearly as possible, and actually take those steps in action. Defending things like public education through direct action such as strikes and occupations lead seamlessly into new social relations that form the strategic basis of revolutionary power – integration of the class across sectors.
Revolutionaries fulfill many roles, play many functions, and often are following behind the masses merely interpreting their actions. But one key function is to illuminate the path ahead with a vision, demands, focus, and strategic next steps. When these resonate, are unified, and articulated by millions of people in more or less the same way, dreams become reality, ideas become material, fuel for the advancement of humanity to a higher stage.
Goals for the whole working class:
End the Wars
Free education, healthcare, housing for all
Positive work for all
Goals for the Oakland working class:
No school closures
Equal rights for immigrants, no deportations
Stop gang injunctions