Anti-capitalist turn

Print edition : November 18, 2011

AN "OCCUPY WALL Street" demonstrator at Zuccotti Park in New York on October 21. The encampment in the financial district of New York City is now in its second month. - TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP

The Occupy Wall Street protest has occurred when it appears that capitalism is losing its ability to restructure and reconstitute itself.

A DISPLAY of anger at the unjust American economic system, which began mid-September at Zuccotti Park in New York, has turned into an international protest movement. The protest has named itself Occupy Wall Street, which speaks of what it plans to do and not what it represents. Although termed a movement by many, the protest is amorphous in nature with no well-defined objectives, no formal membership, and no leadership. In sum, it is a spontaneous display of anger for diverse economic reasons as reflected in its slogans banker frauds that blight economies, immoral bailouts that restore Wall Street to profit but show no concern for Main Street, foreclosures that render many homeless, persisting unemployment and gross inequality, to name a few.

Beneath these slogans lies the implicit rejection of a system and a development trajectory that are proving to be the means for a massive state-sponsored redistribution of income and wealth in favour of the few that represent the Capital of capitalism today. But the protest as yet offers no clear-cut programme of what needs to be done or where we need to go. That and its unorganised nature are its weaknesses. But its strength lies in the fact that it has moved far beyond Wall Street and the United States, increasingly taking the shape of a movement.

The protest was possibly triggered by an online call posted by the anti-consumerist group Adbusters. When it began, the Occupy Wall Street movement was seen as the activity of a small group of the disgruntled, inspired, perhaps, by the Arab Spring, that would soon dissipate and disappear. The media largely chose to ignore it. It was noticed, if at all, for its nuisance value. But over time the movement not only gathered substantial support in its initial location but spread to a number of cities in the U.S. and abroad Toronto, Frankfurt, Rome, Hong Kong, Sydney, Tokyo and elsewhere.

Moreover, while initially attracting sections like the unemployed burdened with educational loans, the protest is now finding support among the middle class, workers' unions and intellectuals. This spread and the movement's persistence, despite its spontaneity, are its strengths.

Not surprisingly then, the world has been forced to sit up and take notice, including corporate capital and the media it controls, sections of which are subjecting the protesters to the worst forms of verbal aggression and abuse. But even when they are forced to take note, the media choose to focus on the stray violent incidents in what has been a more-than-a-month-long, widespread and largely peaceful protest. As has been noted by many sympathetic analysts, the corporate media's focus on violence is an attempt to discredit the movement, which seems to be garnering far more support than expected.

Slogans make them squirm

What is disconcerting to the ruling elite is the movement's slogans: they question the legitimacy of finance capital and the unjustifiably huge compensation its functionaries command for activities that fatten the rich and impoverish the rest; they recognise and condemn the gross inequality that has come to characterise capitalism, with increases in social income being diverted to the top 1 per cent with much accruing to the top 0.1 per cent; they rail against the huge post-crisis bailouts that have been offered to financial firms and the bankers, while those trapped in mortgage defaults and rendered unemployed have received no support; they declare unacceptable the bizarre policy of granting huge tax concessions to the financial oligarchs, the rentiers and corporate capital even when public health interventions and pensions are curtailed, subsidies are withdrawn and basic social services are privatised on the grounds of budgetary constraints; and they question the acceptance of unemployment on the grounds that it is the unavoidable plight of an inadequate few.

TENTS OF PROTESTERS from the Occupy London Stock Exchange group pitched outside St Paul's Cathedral, before sunrise on October 17, two days after the demonstration started near the London Stock Exchange.-MATT DUNHAM/AP

These slogans have a number of positive features. They express deep resentment over the outcomes of the capitalist dynamic; they are unwilling to accept these as the inevitable consequence of the functioning of the only available economic and social order for modern-day societies. They dismiss the legitimisation of inequality and the winner-takes-all syndrome characteristic of current day capitalism with the argument that in an efficient economic order the successful acquisition of wealth justifies itself independent of how that wealth is acquired. And they object not to the presence and activity of the state (as the Tea Party movement does) but to its capture by the corporations and the super rich, which transformed the welfare state that characterised the Golden Age of post-Second World War capitalism into a corporate welfare state, as Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz has described it.

Limitations

These features notwithstanding, some people have expressed disappointment over what they see as the limitations of an uprising rather than a movement. These limitations are many. To start with, the anger and opposition of this rebellion is not against capitalism as a system characterised by anarchy and crises but against its outcomes, which the populace, in a situation of a prolonged crisis, has felt in a way it has not in a long time. That anger, as of now, reflects despair more than hope.

Note that the movement arose not when or just after the crisis occurred. There was enough evidence then, often supported with fact and opinion from the establishment, that the system was rotten to the core. Yet, the protest occurred close to four years after the crisis, by which time those who were being railed against and were being threatened with action by the state for their acts of commission and omission had captured the official apparatus. Using the argument that if they were not saved the system would disintegrate, they managed to benefit from an unprecedented bailout of the culpable few at the expense of the still-distressed majority. It was when the full import of this gigantic confidence trick was recognised that the Occupy movement began.

A second cause for disappointment among some and satisfaction among many is that there is no theoretical questioning of capitalism as a system based on private property. The attack on property is physical, sporadic and symbolic. Any notion that the anarchy that characterises capitalism, leading to periodic crises and persisting unemployment, arises because it is a system based on private property and driven by atomistic decision-making is missing.

Critical analysts of a socialist persuasion have noted that individual capitalists take investment decisions with no knowledge of the unfolding future and with vague guesses of the decisions of other capitalists. This is what leads to crises of the kind capitalism experienced recently and in the 1930s. Recognising this requires transcending capitalism in some form in order to resolve the problems that afflict it.

This leads to a deeper inadequacy that afflicts not just this movement but a range of protests, including those subsumed under the broad label of the Arab Spring. With no express desire to transcend the system, there is no attempt by the protesters to define the contours of the alternative society that would be needed to overcome both the crisis-ridden nature and the outcomes characteristic of capitalism. If this does not change, the ongoing mobilisation may temporarily delegitimise finance and ensure a modicum of justice in the way the state intervenes in society, but it will not ensure the return to an era when capitalism itself was under challenge.

These grounds for scepticism from a radical perspective notwithstanding, the political advance implicit in the Occupy Wall Street movement and its offshoots needs recognition. Note that these movements, even if inspired by the Arab Spring, occur not in less-developed or underdeveloped countries but in developed countries. And within the developed, even if the first signs of the rebellion were seen in countries such as Spain, what is remarkable is that in this phase the protest is centred on the more advanced metropolitan centres of capitalism, particularly the centres of global finance, New York and London.

Advanced capitalism has seen a substantial weakening of mass protest, partly because the workers' unions that launched or strengthened such protests have been substantially weakened. The productive sector that assembled a collective of workers has shrunk and insecure employment and substantial unemployment has reduced the proportion of organised and unionised workers in the labour force. While this occurred as a result of the internal restructuring of capitalism, two important developments contributed to the erosion of the base for protest.

Neoliberalism & labour

The first was the launch, in response to the crisis of the 1960s, of a conscious project to consolidate capitalist control, represented by the Reagan-Thatcher onslaught on the working class. The defeat of the coal miners striking against closures and job losses in England under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher epitomised this new phase of class consolidation. This political tendency was facilitated by the ideological shift to neoliberalism that allowed the economic borders of less-developed countries with substantial surplus labour, such as China and India, to be opened up. The resulting access that imperialist capital had to the world's combined and cheap reserve army of labour to an extent sealed the fate of the working class in developed countries. With capital choosing to relocate production of goods and even services to these less-developed locations, the near full employment that gave developed country workers their strength was substantially undermined.

A second ideological blow was struck with the collapse of actually existing socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and the transition to a socialist market economy in China, with features typical of the more anarchic capitalist societies. With the actually existing versions of economies attempting a transition to a more egalitarian and humane alternative to capitalism having disappeared or lost their legitimacy, the argument that there was no alternative gained ground. Apologists even declared the end of history.

This, after the interlude of protest in the mid- to late-1960s, led some analysts to believe that the focus of anti-capitalist protest had shifted decisively to the Third World. Given that background, any sign of a return to mass protest in developed capitalist societies is indeed a whiff of socialist air. What is particularly encouraging in the Occupy Wall Street version is the fact that the movement's protest is directed at Capital in general and finance capital in particular. This compares with a substantial section of civil society protest, which is directed at the state and not at Capital. The state, too, is being questioned because of the support it lends Capital rather than for just being there, as is true of the right-wing Tea Party movement.

This anti-capitalist flavour arises because of the circumstances that have given rise to this movement. Capitalism is indeed facing one of its worst crises over the last century, barring of course the Great Depression. But, as noted, these protests did not arise when the crisis broke. Rather, they have come four years later when the optimism that the state's massive bailout and stimulus effort would reverse the economic decline has disappeared. Rather, the expectation is that the crisis is likely to intensify. Thus, the protest has occurred when it appears that capitalism is losing its ability to restructure and reconstitute itself. It is the resulting loss of economic legitimacy that gives the protest an anti-capitalist character.

Needless to say, this alone is not enough. If this occurrence and spread of a primarily anti-capitalist protest is to acquire the strength to confront the might of finance capital and the state it controls, if it is actually to undermine the power of the Wall Street-Treasury nexus, it must find greater cohesion, with an organisational structure and a programme that goes beyond anger against the unjust system that prevails and the condition to which it has reduced the majority.

Or it must galvanise sections within the prevailing left-of-centre formations, strengthening their hands and serving as a check against the return to a degenerate form of social democracy. If that does not happen, the movement may dissipate and even be exploited by those whose interests lie elsewhere. The developments in Egypt, where fundamentalism and a sinister section of the military are attempting to pick up where the uprising left off, are an indicator of the dangers ahead. But just as the Occupy Wall Street protest has surprised the world by its growing size and spread, it may also spring a surprise by evolving in directions that mount a challenge to the system.

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