Wednesday, September 18, 2013

From Bob's archive: #Occupy, contested terrain

I have been a very occasional contributor to the website Contested Terrain, which addressed antisemitism and other reactionary forms of thought in the anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation movement, from an emancipatory perspective. Its domain has lapsed and so it is currently residing in the where are they now file - hopefully temporarily. You can see it still at the wonderful, but I am going to re-post some things from it here. In this re-post, I will focus on the Occupy movement, whose second birthday it is right now.


I think we first looked at Occupy in in late September 2011, when we published an extract from Nathalie Rothschild (of Spiked) on the antisemitic hate mail she received for her criticisms of the nascent OWS. Then again in early October , re-posting Seth Weiss's Marxist-Humanist Initiative article "Wall Street Protests Marred by Anti-Semitism", quoting Rothschild, which we took from the New Jewish Resistance blog. Shortly afterwards, Jews for Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ) held a workshop at Occupy Wall Street on anti-Jewish oppression, responding to some of this talk. Contested Terrain published these observations from P. Naberrie:

The workshop was very much coming from a social justice perspective, where the term “anti-semitism” also includes “racism towards other ‘semitic peoples’”, i.e. “islamophobia” – hence in this workshop the use of the expression “anti-jewish oppression”. Apart from a little introduction to “anti-Jewish oppression” it was focused on an exchange of experiences of oppression on the intra-, inter-personal or institutional levels, in pairs. These were brought together and shared, followed by some talking. It had about 9 participants that stayed til the end, most of them Jewish.

It was acknowledged that antisemitism had been an issue here and there at OWS, but people had the perception that it was mostly a fringe phenomenon that gets criticisized when it pops up. Also, there was overall excitement about various Yom Kippur activities and JFREJ workshops that happened all over the week without any disturbances.

Meanwhile, a guy with a “Why do the Arabs hate the US?” sign was passing out leaflets on the Broadway side of Liberty Plaza with following passage:

As long as the great majority of Americans remain totally ignorant and uninvolved in our Israeli policy, the US government will continue to be hostage to Israel, Zionist Christians and American Jews. I am not a Jew hater. In fact, I consider them the smartest people in the world. This small minority of Americans, less than 3% of our population, have enormous power in all segments of American economy and government. Unfortunately, when it comes to Israel, these gifted people turn off their brains and think only with their hearts.”
Argued with him for a while, seemed to be some US nationalist (“Pro-Palestinian? I am not an Arab lover!”) who said he wasn’t affiliated with any group. No other people seemed to take offense…Had another argument with a US-flag carrying whacko with no coherent political idea that sooner or later was talking about the 1% being the “rich Rothschilds and other such families” while he had no problem with capitalism or imperialism as such: “If you only work hard enough, you can be whatever you wanna be”.

Best sign of the day: “Shit is fucked up and bullshit”. Not antisemitic, and to the point.


I posted my own first responses to Occupy on my own blog in mid-October, when the movement had arrived in the UK. At Contested Terrain, I re-posted an extract from that, along with some very insightful reflections extracted from History is Made at Night. This led to a short debate at Contested Terrain. Negative Potential quoted Martin Glaberman from 1997:
“Marx believed that the conditions of life and work of the proletariat would force the working class to behave in ways that would ultimately transform society. In other words, what Marx said was: We’re not talking about going door-to-door and making workers into ideal socialists. You’ve got to take workers as they are, with all their contradictions, with all their nonsense. But the fact that society forces them to struggle begins to transform the working class. If white workers realize they can’t organize steel unless they organize black workers, that doesn’t mean they’re not racist. It means that they have to deal with their own reality, and that transforms them. Who were the workers who made the Russian Revolution? Sexists, nationalists, half of them illiterate. Who were the workers in Polish Solidarity? Anti-Semitic, whatever. That kind of struggle begins to transform people.”
Schalom Libertad responded that it it is the struggle rather than the people who are as likely to be transformed - which seems more accurate in relation to Solidarnosc in Poland, which helped birth a deeply reactionary clerical nationalism, or "socialism in one country" in Russia, which ultimately became a nationalist, authoritarian and deeply conservative force not averse to mobilising popular antisemitism.

NP: Sure, always a risk. But you yourself agree that the cranks and weirdos are a minority. As for the mainstream, well people have all kinds of wrong shit floating around in their heads, but the course of a social movement depends upon many more factors than the subjective ideologies of its participants. In fact, I think it’s an odd paradox that the very same critics who otherwise vehemently maintain the objective, abstract nature of capitalist rule nonetheless ascribe huge power to subjective agency when it comes to the confused ideas of activists.

SL: The “cranks” and “weirdos” of the Anonymous bloggers are however not minor players. And their conspiracy theory propaganda opens the door to outright antisemitism. Adbusters too is not marginal, and their previous antisemitic statements (see here: ) make it permissible to blame Jews for the economic crisis.

NP: Eh, I dunno. Antisemitism is definitely a conspiratorial worldview, but I don’t think conspiratorial worldviews lead to Antisemitism (I assume your useage of “opens the door” means something like “leads to”). Somebody has to have a tick about Jews in the first place, and if that’s so, then they were already an Antisemite. I know Anonymous has that video where they condemn “the bankers”. Most people will watch that and think “Bankers = Bankers”. Antisemites will watch that and go “Bankers = Jews”. So we haven’t gained any insight here, just the tautology that Antisemites hate Jews and blame Jews for everything.
I should note that I’m not saying that people who don’t have a conception of capitalism as a mode of production shouldn’t be introduced to a deeper critique of capitalism. I wouldn’t translate so much Marxology if that were the case. I’m just saying that hastily drawing an association with antisemitism might close off people to a critique they were otherwise open to hearing. Especially if, you know, they’re not antisemites.

SL: That sounds very static. Nobody is born an antisemite. Social conditions and social context (and yes also social movements) create the conditions for antisemitism to become prevalent as a social trend in society, and that is the purpose of this site, of identifying these trends and combating them.

NP: Nobody is born an Antisemite, but it seems to me that Antisemitism is sort of a package deal, something people embrace when the ideology is presented to them, and not an ideology they start to embrace only after they’ve been prepared for it by a conspiratorial worldview.
The “capitalism = bankers” thing is wrong because it’s incorrect, not because it’s potentially antisemitic. I’m fully on board with the idea that capitalist automatically generates fetishistic perceptions of social reality in the minds of its subjects, but this is a mode of production that encompasses almost all nooks and crannies of society. To say that the spontaneous forms of thought it generates are “potentially” antisemitic is as trivial as saying that they’re “potentially” communistic, or “potentially” affirmative of the status quo, or “potentially” bourgeois liberal or conservative. In other words, capitalism “potentially” generates all sorts of diverse ideologies that people use to try to make sense of the world.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t fight actual, real antisemites in social movements. Of course we should. I’m just taking issue with the idea that a truncated critique of capitalism is fertile ground for antisemitism. Of course it is, but that’s a totally trivial observation. It’s also fertile ground for a lot of nice ideas that we’d like these people to take up. One course of development isn’t necessarily more “likely” than the other.

SL: “Antisemitism is sort of a package deal”. Why? It seems to me much better to understand antisemitism — as well as racism — as something that operates in gradations and something that does not necessarily lead back to identifying “the antisemite” behind the act. It can emerge unconsciously, even from people who think of themselves as being opponents of antisemitism. I think some people who respond to charges of racism by saying “I love black friends” are infact genuine *in their conviction* that they are anti-racist. It does not however mean that what they do and say doesn’t nurture racism or contribute to an environment in which it can grow. I see antisemitism and racism as social and ideological forms which are much more dynamic than how you are treating them.

The discussion continues on, and gets deeper into the issue of "structural antisemitism" and the antisemitic valency of truncated forms of anti-capitalism (what the German debate calls "verkürzte Kapitalismuskritik", i.e. the focus on the moral failings of personalised finance capitalists rather than the system as a whole).


P. Naberrie wrote another guest post in November, on OWS and responses to antisemitic violence in Brooklyn:

There was an antisemitic arson attack in Midwood, Brooklyn a few days ago, with three cars torched to the ground and swastika/SS and KKK graffiti on surrounding benches, right in the middle of an Orthodox neighbourhood. A “Daily News” article the following day quoted a local resident tying the attacks to OWS, because of the antisemitic signs that could be observed there.

The OWS General Assembly agreed upon following statement against antisemitism on the 12th and called for people to go down to a community rally today. 

When I came down there it was mostly around 70 Orthodox/visibly religious Jews from the neighbourhood, lots of media, one Israeli flag, and some speeches by local politicians and NY state senator Eric Adams (focusing on a general “hate is bad” line), some attempts at Black-Jewish joint efforts against AS and racism, and then ending in a law-and-order tone stressing the need to track down the perpetrators and lock them up. One person held a sign saying “Orthodox Jews welcome OWS”, and got verbally attacked by somebody else, who said he didn’t want to have anything to do with antisemitic OWS.

After an hour or so around 30 people from OWS came down and joined the little march, handing out the flyer above and talking to people. There was a bit of interaction here and there, until 3 folks from Neturei Karta showed up with a sign saying “Judaism is not Zionism” and a swastika=Star of David drawing. They shouted fairly loudly, until one of them got beaten up and thrown to the floor. The attacker – apparently some Jewish man – got stopped or even arrested by the police, the Neturei Karta people got walked away.

So – one could argue that OWS has only come up with this kind of rally support because they have been under attack from the media/the right and want to get their public image straight. Most likely, without these attacks OWS would not have called for this kind of action (which wouldn’t be a sign of worry in itself – OWS endorses mostly stuff having to do with economic inequality, and sometimes police brutality, but not necessarily issues beyond that). Nevertheless, it seems to me from talking to people who came down there that there was a genuine concern about the arson attacks, and about making clear that antisemitism is not accepted. Also, no weird mixing-in of Israel-Palestine issues at all.

Apparently, the General Assembly made a pretty clear decision about this statement as well. To me, this just strengthens my perspective that antisemitism is not really an issue among the large part of the OWS crowd – at least not in any kind of open form, as the right would want to suggest. But I’d be curious to hear if other people have a different experience or analysis.


I will conclude this post by re-posting the final part of my later long post on Occupy, from later in November of that year, and focusing more on its UK franchise than its US incarnation:

Occupy versus the real economy
Schalom 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 [Maurice] 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.

Now, two years on, it seems to me that the Occupy movement, in both the US and the UK, has utterly failed to live up to that task.


Richard Armbach said...

Latest on the Stephen Sizer thing

Anonymous said...

The real mystery here is why you are bothering with any of this when there are more important and interesting things to write about.
As some of us predicted when it started, Occupy turned out to be a total joke, a phantom movement that made a lot of noise for a short time, and got a lot of attention from people with too much freee time and too much desperation for novelty (academics, journalists, bloggers). Then it vanished, leaving not a trace behind - apart from long, repetitive, boring and pointless pieces by academics, journalists and bloggers.
The Paris Commune is still being studied 143 years on. Will Occupy be remembered at all in 2154? I doubt it very much.

bob said...

I just realised I failed to save the right version of this post, and missed out my concluding sentence, which was a bit of a massive oversight. I how amended.

Richard, I have no idea why you think I or my readers should be interested in your bizarre conspiracy theories, especially as you are unable to name my union without turning it into a swearword. Goodbye.

Anonymous, sorry to be long, repetitive, boring and pointless; I can't help it.