On #Occupy

This post was written by Guest Post on November 17, 2011
Posted Under: Uncategorized

This is a cross-post from Bob From Brockley.

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 againstcorporate 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 Seligergently 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 Palestinein 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 beentouring 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 libertarianstea party groupsthe 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.

 

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Reader Comments

Since I posted this, I had a comment from one of the main people in Occupy Judaism correcting some of the things I said:

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.

The rest of the comment is here: http://brockley.blogspot.com/2011/11/more-notes-on-occupy.html?showComment=1321630067053#c8651048078074749743

#1 
Written By BobFromBrockley on November 18th, 2011 @ 4:32 pm

Oops, entered my name url wrong…

#2 
Written By BobFromBrockley on November 18th, 2011 @ 4:33 pm

ASTROTURFING

Bob, the point Lisa Ansell was making was that Glasman was trying to “astroturf” OccupyLSX and target its energies against the City of London Corporation (the part private, part charitable body that has local authority powers and responsibilities for the square mile.)

When you say “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.” I presume that you are using the term ‘City of London’ as journalistic shorthand, so to speak, for UK financial interests.

#3 
Written By Bill Ellson on November 18th, 2011 @ 7:03 pm

Good points Bill. I guess part of the problem is the slippage between the City as Corporation, the City as in the square mile, as location of the Bank of England, as UK financial interests, as finance capital in general, or as capitalism as a whole. (Similarly with “Wall St”.) This slipperiness makes the term powerful, but allows for incoherence.

#4 
Written By BobFromBrockley on November 19th, 2011 @ 10:22 am
Lisa Ansell

Hi, sorry I meant to respond ages ago. While Glasman may cite Allinsky- Allinskys model was about grassroots organising to create a political force. That cant really be done when it is an organisation co-opted by politicians from mainstream political parties. Glasmans ideology of Blue Labour is not to do with community organising. It is the creation of artificial divides so that people dont notice Labour have not changed their economic policy.

Blue Labour itself is based on fallacies. The communities Glasman idealised would have to be homogenous for his ideology to fit. My community is not homogenous and the divides blue labour highlights are potent divides at the moment.

And ultimately Glasman is a political theologian charged with the task of creating an ideology on which Labour can base policy. Nothing to do with community organising. Very much astroturfing and simulating the appearance of it.

#5 
Written By Lisa Ansell on November 26th, 2011 @ 11:40 am
Lisa Ansell

Sorry- pressed post too early. Have not had time to respond, wanted to. Thanks for reading.

#6 
Written By Lisa Ansell on November 26th, 2011 @ 11:42 am
Lisa Ansell

Also wanted to say the article followed an attempt by Glasman to deliberately subvert Occupy to aims coherent with his, and Labourds demands. That was pointn in article. TO tell him he was being a daft sod and he had been sussed ages.

#7 
Written By Lisa Ansell on November 26th, 2011 @ 11:48 am

Thanks Lisa. The more time passes, the more get suspicious of Glasman and Blue Labour. I am basically very sympathetic to your position and didn’t mean sound like I was setting out to criticise you. However, I am not sure that there is a clear distinction between community organising from below and astroturfing from above. What was London Citizens? It was a pre-constructed agenda developed by a small number of Alinskyite people (living wage, strangers into citizens, against usury, etc – all good things), activated via Alinsky methods from below and at the same time through mainstream parties, both Labour and Tory. Cameron used some of its messages (community organisers) in his election campaign; Miliband in his leadership campaign; and both Boris and Ken. Is this grassroots activism or astroturfing? It seems to me that social movements always contain both, and when they are viral and leaderless can be simultaneously very dynamic and empowering AND susceptible to co-option. Not sure if that makes sense.

#8 
Written By Bob on November 28th, 2011 @ 9:59 pm

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