Occupy movement: Anti-capitalism versus populism

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Occupy Wall Street is one of the most exciting political developments in years, but like any social movement it has its contradictions. As I noted briefly at the end of my previous post, the Occupy movement is vulnerable to right-wing overtures to the extent that many progressive-minded activists lack clear anti-capitalist and anti-fascist politics. While some Occupiers have put forward a radical class analysis, others have voiced a sort of liberal populism, which identifies the problem as specific institutions, policies, or subjective behaviors rather than the capitalist system. Several leftists on other websites have addressed this political limitation and its unfortunate resonances with right-wing ideology. Here I want to summarize some of their main points, then offer an important counter-example of Occupy movement anti-capitalism – the plan by West coast Occupy movements to blockade ports on December 12th.

Against “corporate greed”
Bill Weinberg has urged Occupiers to take a clear stand against capitalism, rejecting the defensive slogan, “We aren’t against capitalism, we’re against corporate greed.” Weinberg counters: “The assumption behind this response is that with enough public oversight or (in the more reactionary versions) if Wall Street brokers acted with greater patriotism, capitalism could ‘work.'” Failing to target capitalism as a system, he argues, offers more room to “gold-standard crankery, Federal Reserve fetishism and other right-wing, pro-capitalist responses to the crisis” – including antisemitism.

Ross Wolfe similarly criticizes the tendency by many protesters to blame greed for the inequities of capitalism, arguing that this “mistakes an epiphenomenal characteristic of capitalism for something more fundamental” and “ignores the way that the capitalists themselves are implicated by the intrinsic logic of capital.” Even the capitalist who enjoys the benefits of great wealth “is constantly compelled to reinvest his capital back into production in order to stay afloat.” Thus “capitalism is not a moral but rather a structural problem.” Wolfe further argues that blaming capitalist inequities on rich people’s moral failings “ultimately amounts to what might be called the ‘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. (The ‘diabolical’ view of society is not all that far removed from conspiracy theories about the ‘New World Order, the Illuminati, or ‘International Jewry.’…)”

Glorifying the “real” economy
The Occupy movement’s focus on banks presents a related pitfall, depending on whether banks are targeted as a major component of the capitalist system or as a parasitic growth on it. As BobFromBrockley points out in a wide-ranging discussion of Occupy, “the valorization of the good, honest, organic ‘real economy’ against the predatory tentacular finance capital is not just a feature of the Zeitgeist movement and antisemitic cranks,” but has also been taken up, for example, by liberal Christians. Bob continues:

“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.”

West coast port shutdown and class politics
In contrast with liberal populism, the plan by West coast Occupations to shut down West coast ports on December 12th defines the movement as confronting structural, class inequality. The action is specifically planned in solidarity with labor battles by port workers in Longview (Washington) and Los Angeles, but more broadly to “economically disrupt ‘wall street on the waterfront.'” The website for the action declares, “U.S. ports have…become economic engines for the elite; the 1% these trade hubs serve are free to rip the shirts off the backs of the 99% who turn their profits.” Occupy Seattle’s port shutdown statement declares further that “the Occupy movement is part of the workers’ movement,” whether its members are union members or non-members, unemployed, students, or homeless. The Seattle statement also draws connections between corporate union-busting, government budget cuts that target working people, and police violence and harassment of Occupy activists worldwide. (Occupy Seattle organizers have issued an emergency fundraising request to help charter buses for the port shutdown. Donations can be made at https://www.wepay.com/donate/42135.)

Anti-capitalism versus liberal populism is only one dimension of the Occupy Wall Street movement. This issue doesn’t capture the movement’s dynamism or fluidity: the way it has opened up important new space for people to tell their stories and debate what is happening in the economy and society, and the way people’s politics can shift and change – sometimes very quickly – when participating in mass activism or facing police repression. Critiquing capitalism as a system isn’t a full recipe for radical change, but it is a necessary ingredient.

4 thoughts on “Occupy movement: Anti-capitalism versus populism”

  1. Interesting post. It seems though like you are equating "class politics" with anti-capitalism. This is too simple, as many working class movements aimed to secure better living and working conditions, and not the abolition of capitalism. Of course, the latter is no easy goal. But it also does not come automatically, or simply incrementally. Strikes and port shutdowns are however good *strategies* for stopping capital, and putting on pressure.

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  2. schalom libertad: Good point. I did not mean to equate class politics and anti-capitalism, but did not address this clearly. Thanks for the clarification.

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  3. This is an ok piece, but ultimately the main thought behind it is that mass social movements are not uniformly anti-capitalist, and anti-capitalist ideas within them are a minority current.

    That's true, but it's also kind of banal. Is the argument then that explicit anti-capitalists should be promoting a rigorous critique of capitalism among their movement contacts? I agree with that, but even then, I think such perspectives, short of some kind of revolutionary crisis, are not likely to win a majority of social movement activists.

    I'm not a "spontaneist" by any means, but I think consciousness matters a lot less in mass movements than most leftists think, and are likely to fail due to a confluence of factors that often have nothing to do with the ideological convictions of participants.

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