Thursday, November 17, 2011

More notes on #Occupy

Cross-posted at the Third Estate

One of the most depressing things about the period after 9/11 was the rapid disintegration and recuperation by the trad left of the energy of the 1990s “anti-capitalist” movement. The 1990s movement had several flaws – its narrow concentration on institutions like the IMF and World Bank as shadowy cabals directing the economy, the culturally conservative critique of globalism, the creation of a self-contained protest ghetto divorced from ordinary people and with its own exclusive dress and behaviour codes, the mindless insurrectionism of the movement’s “spiky” wing and empty-headed pacifism of its “fluffy” wing, and the routine repetition of spectacular but pointless counter-summits as a dominant activity – but it was also very inspiring. Its utopian promise of the possibility of another world, its clean break from the drab industrial statism of the workerist left, its sense of fun and pleasure, its affirmation of the transformative power of participatory democracy, and the sophisticated way it connected different local everyday struggles into a planetary worldview. (In fact, the concept of the planetary, put on the agenda by the Zapatistas, was a tremendous step forwards from the internationalism of the trad left, which was always an inter-nationalism rather than a genuinely global view.)

After 9/11, and especially after the start of the 2003 Gulf War, radical energy turned increasingly towards inter-nationalist geopolitics, and the orthodox left’s pseudo-anti-imperialist politics subordinated local struggles in both the global South and the global North to an overwhelming imperative to break American (and Israeli) “imperialist” power. In the pursuit of this imperative, radicals increasingly entered into alliance with reactionary nationalist powers and clerical-reactionary movements because of a common enemy. Radicals embraced the conservative idea of a clash of civilisations, taking sides with jihadists and authoritarian demagogues. Democratic, participatory, networked modes of organisation were repressed in favour of centralist party-building.

While the 1990s movement had been inspired by events in Chiapas, Porto Alegre, the Sertao, the townships of South Africa and the slums of urban India, the radicalism of the 9/11 decade became single-mindedly obsessed with the Middle East, as the lens through which everything was viewed and judged.

The #Occupy movement clings to some of the noughties themes – in particular, it seems obsessed with Israel/Palestine, and anti-Americanism seems a feature of its European incarnations. But it returns to many of the themes of the 1990s movements, and this is encouraging to me. However, it suffers from some of the flaws of the 1990s movement too. For example, just as many 1990s activists focused their fire on institutions like the IMF rather than the system as a whole, the new movement is obsessed with bankers and financiers who have been the folk devils of mainstream political discourse since 2008 but are in fact just a tiny part of the problem. “We’re not against capitalism; we’re against corporate greed”, say some of the protestors. And often this is related to a nationalist discourse, with protestors in Germany objecting to the propping up of Greece, and protestors in America arguing that (to quote Bill Weinberg) if Wall Street brokers acted with greater patriotism, capitalism could "work."

Second, the movement is narcissistically concerned with the form it has taken – the occupation of the squares – rather than the content of the politics, as it is the form which enables the survival of a big tent of contradictory impulses – reformers and revolutionaries, futurists and primitivists, ordinary folk and harder counterculturists. I like this populist, big tent aspect of the movement and like the fact that it expresses criticisms rather than demands. But the danger is, as with the summit-hopping of the late 1990s, the form is more and more fetishised and becomes an end in itself rather than a means, which will make it increasingly boring and irrelevant.

Another weakness of the 1990s movement was that it never understood class conflict as central to its struggle, partly because it emerged in the space opened up by the fall of Communism and the discrediting of old workerism. It understood the struggle as a simply war between humanity and neo-liberalism (as the Zapatistas put it). The 2000s resurgence of the trad left did nothing to address this, as the more successful Leninist parties grew through opportunistically playing to an abstract resistance to imperialism. The new movement again speaks for an abstract humanity (the 99%) and so far class politics has not had much traction in the rhetoric. The absence of class politics, and of the materialist analysis that used to come with that, leaves the movement open to all sorts of bad idea, including conspiracy theories, new age dreaming, and technocratic fixes.

The remainder of this post collects a few recent observations on the #Occupy movement, before returning to the ideas I started with here to come to some kind of provisional conclusion.

#Occupy as viral
It is more or less impossible to talk about “the movement”, as I have been here, because of its diversity. It has spread vitally, and like a virus it mutates as it spreads. For example, the violence in Oakland contrasts to the insistence on non-violence in London; the overwhelmingly white composition of the protestors in London contrasts to the increasingly diverse profile of some of the North American protests.

I had an interesting conversation with Scholem Libertad (the main blogger at Contested Terrain, who I met for the first time last week) about Occupy. He felt that one of the most inspiring things about the movement in America, which seems more or less absent in the UK and Germany, is the way it has been a platform for all sorts of people to express their grievances We are the 99%, although a problematic slogan, has opened up the space for people to talk about losing a job, keeping a job but being scared of losing it, having a job but being badly underpaid, losing a house, keeping a house but getting into unbelievable debt to keep it, paying underpaid, getting ill with no health insurance. Through each of these stories, everyone who participates brings their own meaning, their own vision, into the protests, and this makes for something rich but also incoherent, and thus for everything I say here there will be counter-examples. So, please take all of the following points as provisional and tentative.

Antisemitism in the movement
Antisemitism is only one thin thread in the rich tapestry of the #Occupy movement, but a thread worth tugging at. Zombie at PJ Media catalogues several more incidents from the US. From OWS Zuccotti Park, we have a bizarre mix of different antisemitic stereotypes from a protestor who claims to live off the earth and an anti-Israel protestor claiming Jews would put Palestinians in ovens if they had them; Israel Lobby conspiricism from Occupy LA; and so on.

Occupy Judaism
Occupy Judaism continues to develop its interesting but incoherent vision within the Occupy movement, mainly in the US. In New York, OJ put out a statement against antisemitism in response to the pogrom in Brooklyn’s Midwood, which was adopted by the General Assembly of OWS in New York.

In Oakland, Jewish OWS activists are signed up to the “Occupy Oakland, not Palestine” slogan, which seems completely meaningless to me. At the Meretz blog, Ralph Seliger gently points out their earnest reduction of complex issues to foolish simplicity.

Matt at Ignoblus is even more critical. He notes the failure of Occupy Judaism to deal with antisemitism in the movement; instead, he argues, Occupy Judaism seems more concerned with giving the movement an alibi for antisemitism and with blurring the lines between anti-Israel protest and undermining the possibility of Jewish cultural life in the diaspora. I recommend you read the whole of his short post.

Matt links to Marc Tracy in Tablet, who talks about some of the sillier targets of Occupy Judaism, including Hillel, but to be honest I find Tracy’s post pretty incoherent. Another post by Tracy, though, is more disturbing: on the “ethnocentric” obsession with Palestine in the American Occupy movement, from Mondoweiss-connected Occupy Judaism groups like “Young, Jewish, and Proud” and “Occupy the Occupiers”.

The commodification of protest
Another interesting feature of OWS is its sophisticated use of branding, and the way the creative energy involved in détournement of corporate branding is identical to that involved in recuperating it. Rocawear, the fashion line owned by rap entrepreneur Jay-Z, have brought out T-shirts with the words “Occupy All Streets”. Top Shop have a line in peace sign leggings and sweaters; modelled sitting outside tents, fashion pages use it to illustrate “the coolest protest-appropriate fashion options” for today’s political young things. Vivienne Westward, modelling her own naff “I’m not a terrorist” T-shirts, has been touring Occupy London, hot off the plane from touring China, where her garments are doubtless produced by not the most ethical of factories. Is this smartly putting neat slogans into public discourse, cynically and parasitically feeding off the movement’s energy, or what? And does Occupy London suffer from an excess of politeness in its mode of protest?

The astroturfing of the movement
On this side of the Atlantic, I was fascinated to read “The occupation will not be astroturfed” by Lisa Ansell, reporting on Blue Labour guru Maurice Glasman and his attempt to “atroturf” OccupyLSX and target its energies against the City of London. Ansell mentions the Ed Miliband camp’s use of methods derived from the US Democrats, and then claims that “This breed of politics does not work in a changing, leaderless organisation where consensus is needed.” In fact, it seems to me that the acephalous, networked, viral mode of Occupy’s organisation actually lends itself perfectly to this sort Alinsky-lite social marketing strategy.

Equally interesting, and not noted by Ansell, is the affinity between Glasman’s reactionary socialism (the dignity of labour, the nobility of industry, the virtue of vocation) and the prevalent defence in the movement of the “real economy” versus finance capital. In fact, it is precisely the City of London (and, in the US, Wall Street) that is targeted by the movement already, and not capitalism as such.

Right-wing populism and OWS
Among the efforts to come to terms with the deformities of the movement are Matthew Lyons’ “Rightists woo the Occupy Wall Street movement” and Bill Weinberg’s “Yes, we are anti-capitalist!” Lyons catalogues some of the unsavoury groups attaching themselves to OWS, from neo-Nazis at Occupy Pheonix and Seattle, the creepy Zeitgeist movement, right-wing libertarians, tea party groups, the anarcho-nationalists of Attack the System, the Lyndon LaRouche cult, and all sorts of other far right oddballs.
There is always a danger that some rightists will come to Occupy movement events to harass or attack leftists, or act as spies or provocateurs. More commonly, rightists see the movement as an opportunity to gain credibility, win new recruits, or build coalitions with leftists. When pitching to left-leaning activists, these right-wingers emphasize their opposition to the U.S. economic and political establishment--but downplay their own oppressive politics. In place of systemic critiques of power, rightists promote distorted forms of anti-elitism, such as conspiracy theories or the belief that government is the root of economic tyranny. We've seen this "Right Woos Left" dynamic over and over, for example in the anti-war, environmental, and anti-globalization movements.
Weinberg similarly runs through some of the parasites attaching themselves to the movement from the populist right, as well as antisemites.
Inevitably, anti-Semitism emerges in right-wing populist exploitation of rage against financial elites... [And] just because right-wing pundits use the charge of anti-Semitism as a baseball to beat OWS with doesn't mean (as the movement's defenders reflexively argue) that it is free from any taint of anti-Semitism. In fact, OWS web pages are positively infested with Jew-hating comments—possibly left by mere Internet trolls rather than actual activists, but still met with little protest or repudiation.
Weinberg suggests that instead of wooing rank and file tea party followers from their toxic leaders, there is a danger of “our own movement being subject to a stealth take-over by our worst enemies.” He concludes that “Bad ideas don't just go away. They have to be opposed.”

Some Estonian anti-authoritarians have alerted the world to another far right group, PrisonPlanet, who have taken the name “Occupy Tallinn”. Their communiqué talks about the movement being “hijacked” by the Nazis.

However, Facing the War suggests that Weinberg and his ilk are over-optimistic about the movement: he “suffers from the misplaced certainty that its ideas are somehow the true heart of Occupy, rather than a minority position that needs to be defended, explained, and promoted.” In other words, perhaps, the core of OWS is muddled thinking, populism and crackpottery, and it is the clear-thinking radicals who are the interlopers.

Occupy versus the real economy
Scholem Libertad, when I spoke to him last week, said that, although it is important to expose the antisemites, conspiracy theorists and cults who swim in Occupy’s murky waters (as we have been doing at Contested Terrain, and as our comrade Spencer does in Shift), we also need to pay attention to the weaknesses of the “mainstream” of the movement, including those weaknesses of which the presence of antisemites is a symptom.

For instance, the valorisation of the good, honest, organic “real economy” against predatory tentacular finance capital is not just a feature of the Zeitgeist movement and antisemitic cranks. Indeed, this was the main message Archbishop Rowan Williams took from the St Paul’s protestors the other week. (In fact, it is a deeply Christian message, which is perhaps why it resonates so well with the theologian Glasman and the Anglican hierarchy.)

The idea that capitalism would be fine if we removed all that smoke and mirrors finance stuff and got back to the “real” production of stuff is both deeply reactionary (based on nostalgia for something that never existed, and with a close kinship to the “socialism of fools” that thinks the problem is Jew-financiers) but also empirically nonsense. Sweatshops where adults and children labour for long hours in appalling conditions to make clothes and electronic components are part of “the real economy”. As are the biofuel plantations that are eating up the rainforests that produce the air we breathe. As are the oil wells and oil pipes that poison our river deltas; the manufacture of weapons of torture and warfare; the coltan mines that central African child soldiers kill and are killed for; the soybean and rapeseed monocultures that we rely on for our daily meals, the beds we sleep on wrought from rainforest lumber; and so on. All wage labour involves exploitation, whatever part of the capitalist economy you’re in. The “real economy” may be realer, but it is ultimately no better.

Beyond “corporate greed”
Ross Wolfe of Platypus deconstructs (at some length) the romantic populist nonsense in the Liberty Plaza Blueprint, described as a “half-literate blob assembled by the self-appointed anarchoid vanguard of OWS”. Central to that document is something very close to “the real economy”, which is “an economy in harmony with nature”. In an earlier post, he had criticised the limited focus on corporate greed within the movement. He quoted Max Weber on this:
Unlimited greed for gain is not in the least identical with capitalism, and is still less its spirit. Capitalism may even be identical with the restraint, or at least a rational tempering, of this irrational impulse. But capitalism is identical with the pursuit of profit, and forever renewed profit, by means of continuous, rational, capitalistic enterprise. For it must be so: in a wholly capitalistic order of society, an individual capitalistic enterprise which did not take advantage of its opportunities for profit-making would be doomed to extinction.
The corporate greed idea takes an “epiphenomenal” feature of capitalism and acts as if it is central. It focuses on the bad moral behaviour of “the 1%” rather than on the problems with the system – a “’diabolical’ view of society — the idea that all of society’s ills can be traced back to some scheming cabal of businessmen conspiring over how to best fuck over the general public.”

In fact, he argues, the “1%” need to constantly expand their capital if they want to stay in the game; the alternative is falling back down into the “99%”. That’s the rules of the game, not a matter of personal immorality.

Reconstructing solidarity
Earlier in this post, I said that I thought that bad ideas spread in the space left when class politics dies. Increasingly in the last decades, solidarity has weakened. Some of the political fault-lines of recent times have been about the absence of solidarity. As Emma Dorling and Begüm Özden Firat write in Shift,
It did not take people very long after the recent unrest in the UK to notice how alienated we are from one another within our supposed ‘communities’. But there is more to this than simply getting along with those you happen to live in close proximity with. What we have seen playing itself out in the media and on the streets in recent weeks are the multiple lines of conflict that weave their way through society, pitting white against black, black against brown, the less poor against the more poor, the unemployed against the workers, the looting youth against the small business owners.
Private sector workers have no solidarity with public sector workers, who they see as tax-eating parasites with cushy pensions. Working people have no solidarity with the benefit claimants who are falling into deeper and deeper poverty because of austerity measures, because they resent them not working. The low-paid have no solidarity for the “squeezed middle”, who they see as privileged whiners. The settled have no solidarity with immigrants, who are among the most vulnerable in the crisis, because they see them as jumping the queue and taking what others are entitled to.

How much the movement can reach out to and give voice to these different constituencies, across the trench lines of the culture wars, is the extent to which it is a space of hope rather than another version of the same old activist treadmill.

The slogan “We are the 99%” – idealistic, bland and vague as it is – points towards a reconstructing of solidarity. It emphasises the threads of common experience that bind us, rather than the identities that divide us. Dowling and Firat argue that:
The current protests and insurrections erupting in the wake of the crisis are – unlike the previous cycle of counterglobalisation struggles – much more explicitly directed to the politics of the local and everyday whilst recognising the connections across local and national boundaries... Of concern is how to connect the different struggles against austerity measures and cuts, debt, climate change, gentrification and housing, the crisis of care and social reproduction.
This challenge, the reconstruction of solidarity, is the most important task facing the Occupy movement. 


Further reading: Marc Tracy: Could OWS be killed off by annoying drummers?; P. Naberrie: Observations From Zuccotti Park; Spencer Sunshine: Occupied With Conspiracies?; Adam Holland: Occupy Wall Street and the perils of the big tent; eM: Why Occupy Wall Street Won't Work; Salman Shaheen: Paternoster Square is not Tahrir Square, but OccupyLSX’s Goals are Clear; Jacob B-R: Why #OccupyLSX should be wary of Liberty; Reuben B-R: When are comments about “Zionists” not really comments about Zionists? A few tips on working it out.

11 comments:

eamonnmcdonagh said...

great stuff

Matt said...

Hey, Bob, Since that post, I've come across this story, which is really good. While it shows Dan Siedareski in more positive light, arguing for the inclusion of Zionist Jews (though he himself is not a Zionist), I think it justifies the Marc Tracy article. Anti-Zionists aren't just protesting places like Hillel (which really is offensive), but protesting against the inclusion of Zionists in OWS.

modernity said...

Bob,

Solid point about the OWS and beyond.

I am in favour of them, accepting as you point out their weaknesses.

Surely (taking a class analysis on it, slightly) its all to do with social base and make up, that's why parts of the OWS, etc, come over as strange.

It's a bit like the boy scouts for middle-class adults, a bit of camping a bit of roughing it, feeling good about themselves, arguing with vicars and the clergy.

All very English and, hmm, Christian (if you followed the exchanges between the protesters and the clergy at St Paul's that becomes most obvious.)

Thanks for the link to Reuben's post, a very pleasant change.

Shame about the incoherent comments there and the inability to separate anti-Jewish racism out from the Middle East.

It would have been really good if some Lefty (leaving aside Steve Cohen's work) had written a definitive guide years back, so that those without much up top (seemingly a fair few antizionists) wouldn't have to think for themselves and could merely read off a checklist, thus making their lives much easier and less error prone when it comes to getting in bed with unsavoury types, politically speaking.

Yet, what is striking is that it never seemed to occur to any of them before that many racists use "Zionist" when what they really mean is "Jew".

A quick 5 minute study on any major extreme right blogs would have told them that in a tick.

Still, good that it has happened, even this late on.

The Contentious Centrist said...

The Egyptian journalist Samuel Tadros asked: "is it possible to be a genuine liberal and an anti-Semite at the same time? Of course not. Egyptian anti-Semitism is the starting point of a political ideology that has dominated the region for more than 60 years ..."

The same kind of question ought to be asked here: Can anyone claim to speak for human rights and making for a better world while simultaneously and actively seeking to exclude a specific portion of humanity from such objectives?

bob said...

thanks all for comments. third estate have kindly cross-posted this there. matt, the jta article is useful. letwin seems like a very unpleasant person, and it is interesting that it is jewish activists like him and "ewish Women for Justice in Palestine", "Young, Jewish and Proud [of what?]" who are most vociferous in witch-hunting "Zionists" out of the movement. incidentally, letwin's outfit "Labor for Palestine" has a track record of forging black trade unionists' signatures to validate its denunciations of "apartheid israel".

Mobius1ski said...

Hi Bob,

Just to clarify a few misconceptions in your article:

The statement against antisemitism was drafted by core occupiers and did not emerge from OJ. We simply promoted it once the resolution had been passed by the GA. OJ, instead, had been working on an amendment to the Principles of Solidarity that explicitly rejected all forms of discrimination, including antisemitism, and the scapegoating of any ethnic or religious group for the world's economic woes, but which may have been obviated by OWS's new Statement of Autonomy and thus has not been a top priority in the last couple of weeks.

Occupy Oakland is a very different community from Occupy Wall Street and their Jewish contingent is not directly affiliated with Occupy Judaism. They have no representation in our national working group (despite our efforts to bring them in) and have not coordinated with us on any of our national campaigns.

The post at Ignoblus mistakenly attributes to Occupy Judaism the actions of Young, Jewish & Proud. While some YJP members are also participants in Occupy Judaism, their action was organized independently of and was not endorsed by Occupy Judaism. There's makhlokes in OJ over their action, with some for and most against. I will say for myself that I think it's completely appropriate for Jews to occupy Jewish spaces in which we feel that our voices are neither respected nor heard, and to resist the oligarchy which dictates Jewish communal policy frequently in contravention of majority Jewish public opinion. I may not have hinged such a critique of moneypower in the Jewish community on the Israeli occupation, though I do think it is one of the larger points of contention needing to be addressed.

In terms of dealing with antisemitism within the movement, the fact is that the presence of antisemites is vastly overstated -- it really is only a couple of kooks -- but we have nonetheless been quite active both in opposing their presence (as have the resident occupiers themselves, Jewish and non-Jewish alike), including the work we had done on the aforementioned amendment. Short of tarring-and-feathering them, what would you like us to do? The police would not allow us to evict them from the premises insisting that if we had a right to assemble, so did they. And why should we not inoculate the movement against a lie? I lived in a sukkah at Occupy Wall Street for a week and the only people who had anything negative to say to me about being Jewish were right-wing Jews. Easily 20% of the people at OWS are Jews, from the effete liberal intellectuals to the most hardcore crusty punk radicals. They are not in the closet about it. They joined us in our high holiday and Shabbat celebrations, dancing with the Torah for the whole encampment to see. So where is this pernicious antisemitism? One drunk, homeless dick with a sign about Zionist bankers out of hundreds of protesters does not a "deep undercurrent" make.

Mobius1ski said...

Finally, I actually think JTA's representation of the anti-Zionism issue is rather misleading. I do think the Israeli occupation is more of a symptom than the problem itself, as some anti-Zionists would have it, and thus dispute its primacy to the question of economic justice. However, my bone of contention is not that Palestinian solidarity activists are shedding light on the connections between the Israeli occupation and U.S. economic policy at OWS, but that some have attempted to exclude Zionists, others have expressed support for Palestinian militants at OWS which is an explicitly nonviolent cause, and others yet have issued statements on behalf of OWS without authorization of the GA. I have objected to these activities which I believe harm the movement, and not because I reject the substance of opposing the Israeli occupation, though, again, I do not consider it primary to the issue at hand and thus see it as a potentially harmful distraction.

In response to Matt: As I wrote recently on my blog, "On any given day of the week, I vacillate between between a variety of positions on Israel and Zionism. I often say that I am a religious anti-Zionist, an ideological post-Zionist, a pragmatic progressive Zionist, and (mostly kidding) a Kahanist under fire. To be clear: I believe in the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in their ancestral homeland. I believe the Jewish people have an immutable connection to the land of Israel." Thus it is not accurate to say that I am not a Zionist. I just have a very complex relationship to Israel and Zionism that is hard for folks who are used to thinking about these issues in black and white to wrap their heads around.

bob said...

Thanks very much Daniel. I welcome your factual corrections. I realise, looking through, that I have been fast and loose in my use of "OWS" to stand for the whole Occupy movement. I made the point that Occupy is extremely diverse, and you're absolutely right that what happens in Oakland should not be used to indict what happens in NYC etc. I should probably re-write to edit some of my "OWC"s into "Occupy"s. Likewise, I was fast and loose with "OJ" to include other groups.

Matt said...

Dan,

First, you mis-characterization the post at ignoblus. It doesn't accuse Occupy Judaism off the actions taken by smaller groups. It accuses Occupy Judaism of not doing enough to fight it.

And your post here deals with antisemitism in a way that I find useless. You highlight the worst offenders and say, "they're all by themselves." But antisemitism, like all forms of racism, is more than that. That is what it means when the post at ignoblus begins, "Yes, this is serious. Yes, it is structural."

And until you are willing to deal with antisemitism as a structural oppression, then you are, in many ways, "mostly refusing to see it."

negative potential said...

"In fact, he argues, the “1%” need to constantly expand their capital if they want to stay in the game; the alternative is falling back down into the “99%”. That’s the rules of the game, not a matter of personal immorality."

Yes, but that's incomplete. It has to be noted that the "99%" assent to the rules of the game; by and large they obviously see some personal advantage in the game itself, otherwise they would be arguing to end it.

I don't understand this constant desire to pit the structural aspects of capitalism against its subjective elements. Capitalism is a system, but that system is an emergent property of millions of individual acts of agency. Those individual acts of agency are of course conditioned by structural factors, but in a historical sense those structural factors had to **emerge** at some point.

As you already know, I agree that it's truncated to merely attribute the malfeasances of capitalism to individual agency. On the other hand, this blog and related ones seem to want to strip capitalism of any subjective component whatsoever, as if it's a magically self-reproducing force of nature completely outside of human agency. That is precisely the fetishistic understanding that Marx sought to critique.

P.S. There's a reason for the Poulantzas renaissance in some sectors of the theoretical left in Germany. It's not enough to analyze capitalism in terms of being a self-moving dynamic of the commodity form. You also have to take into account the form of the state, which establishes a structural framework for commodity production and exchange. And you don't need me to tell you how much subjective agency and decision-making occurs at the state level.

negative potential said...

D'oh!

When I wrote 99% above, I meant of course 1%. Sort of changes the whole point I was trying to make.

Namely, that the ruling class isn't merely the passive victim of structural factors, but also derives a benefit from the system.