A friendly critique of the “Occupy” movements which urges the protesters to question their assumptions.
First of all, let me say I stand in full solidarity with the protesters; your actions have inspired us all and been the cause of some much-needed debate. It takes boldness and initiative to take these first steps, and you should be applauded for doing so. I believe all of you want a better world, a desire that I share with you.
There has been much talk lately of the “goals” of the protest, and much criticism when a clear 10-point program did not emerge. I must disagree with those commentators who complain of the lack of easily-definable “goals”; such a program is more appropriate to a political party than to a grassroots movement. All of you have had different experiences under capitalism, and therefore all of you emphasize different changes which are needed. A list of demands cannot contain the true spirit of the protests, which are quite simply an expression of rage and frustration with the world as it is.
This rage and frustration is the first step. Rage has been brewing in the working class for years now as the trappings of the “American Dream” are stripped away before our eyes and our rulers openly mock the democratic principles which supposedly bound and restrain their power. In the face of this sorry situation you have come together to voice the rage which is latent in even the most conservative of “the rest of us”. This is the first step and you deserve praise for having the courage to make the leap of faith necessary in voicing this rage. You all have seen that our “democracy” is a lie, that the government serves only the rich, no matter which party is in power. You have watched as the poor are ignored and social programs slashed while the bankers and corporations are showered with tax money; tax money which the richest among them do not even contribute to. This situation has lead many of you to see yourselves as attempting to restore “democracy” and the “middle class”.
Here I think you must re-examine your thinking. One cannot restore that which never existed. This democratic golden age you want us to return to only existed in propaganda and wishful thinking. The government has never served the people; it has always served the rulers and the rich. The postwar years of “middle class” abundance were years of abundance only for privileged sectors of the “99%”. This state of affairs was built on the backs of black, Chicano, and Asian workers, as well as underpaid female laborers and poor whites. The creation of a “middle class” was a compromise between the ruling class and a privileged section of the workers, at the expense of others. During World War Two working people never stopped struggling for better conditions of life. 1946 saw the greatest number of strikes of any year in American history. This working class movement was only quelled with the compromises of the G.I. Bill and other social measures by the state. By offering a few privileges to some workers, the rulers prevented deeper, more fundamental change. Now that these privileges have been snatched back and we are now approaching the same levels of inequality that we experienced in the 1920s, people are agitated and angry again.
This is a great thing, and I welcome manifestations of it such as Occupy Wall Street and the other occupation movements that are cropping up across the country. But we cannot simply fight to return to some half-imagined age of middle class abundance and true democracy. If we do, the same mistakes will repeat themselves. The working class, or the “99%” will be divided against itself. The rulers will try to buy some of us off. Those with the most to lose and the least to gain will be inclined to accept this kind of blood money. I speak, of course, of white workers like me, especially those of us who are “middle class”. We have been tricked for hundreds of years into identifying with our oppressors over our class brothers and sisters because of the system of white privilege. White privilege offers us a few incentives to side with the system, but these are nothing compared to the world we could gain through uncompromising struggle. Ultimately we cannot really fight until we are united. If we fight to restore America to the way it was in the 1950s or 1970s we will simply be fighting for a new House of Mirrors. The system has destroyed some of our illusions; let us not reconstitute them.
Let me be clear; electoral reforms, such as preventing money from being considered speech, will not solve our problems. Politicians manipulated and tricked us just fine during the era of campaign donation limits. The abolition of Glass-Steagle did not lead to this crisis. The crisis is an inherent aspect of capitalism, suppressed for decades by the ruling class and now flaring up again. It is rooted in the falling rate of profit and the fact that there are barely any areas left which are untouched by capitalism and can provide growing markets and unlimited raw materials. We are rapidly reaching the social, political, economic, and ecological limits of capitalism. Campaigning narrowly for tax reform, public works projects, and more jobs is like calling for repairs on a burning house.
So I urge all of you who are involved in these protests to question the limits you have imposed on yourself and the assumptions you have made. Question the assumption that “the cops are on our side”; as long as they wear their uniforms and carry their badges they will serve their masters. The brutality that you have experienced at the hands of the NYPD is not an aberration and it is not “shocking”. It is a taste of what happens in ghettos all across America, of what people of color and the very poor face on a daily basis. Question the assumption that the system can be reformed, that a few legislative maneuvers and a few new faces or even new political parties can fundamentally change this system. Question the idea of the “99%”, which implies that the problem is just a few extremely wealthy banks, corporations and individuals on the top. The problem is the system. Abolish the banks and watch as new institutions arise to take their place. Throw the “1%” out on its ass and watch as a new “1%” is recruited and installed.
The occupations are a crucial first step. People have been inspired and have, for the first time in years, begun to seriously question the conditions of their lives. But the struggle must go beyond occupations. It must begin to actively challenge the relationships and social structures that form the sinews of the system. We must carry the struggle into our everyday lives, and fight not solely in the symbolic and political domain of protest. We must carry the struggle into economic territory by uniting with our fellow workers and fighting against the parasitical bosses and landlords who control our lives, as well as the money-hungry banks foreclosing on houses we worked our whole lives to afford. We must struggle in the social territory of our families and relationships to challenge racism, sexism, and homophobia as they divide us and keep us stepping on each other like crabs in a barrel. We must look at the world and question the lies we are sold, lies perpetuated in school, in the media, and in churches. We must begin to think and fight for ourselves as a class without “demanding” anything.