Blog post about anti-foreclosure and eviction struggles, and reformism and radicals in mass movements more generally.
Occupy vs Eviction: Radicals, Reform, and Dispossession
In the first part of this post I discuss the anti-eviction work of Occupy Homes. In the second part I discuss some of the demographics of home ownership in the U.S.. In the third part, I discuss political reformism. In the fourth I take up radicals acting in reformist movements, and in the last part I discuss the current push by capitalists and their politicians to impose worse live on many people. Since I started working on this a lot has happened in relation to Occupy Homes, including an exciting day of action across the US over the Cruz house and against PNC Bank. I urge people to get involved if you can, and to pay attention to these developments, by checking http://occupyourhomes.org/ and Occupy Homes MN on facebook.
1. Stop Evictions: Occupy Homes
Across the United States police force people out of their homes as banks foreclose on home-owners. In response to the foreclosure attack, Occupy Homes has arisen. Occupy Homes has taken action in many cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Portland, Minneapolis, and Atlanta. Many of these actions have included violation of eviction orders, resisting police eviction efforts, moving people back in to homes emptied by police, and putting pressure on banks to negotiate. Right now there is a network of Occupy Homes groupings coming together around the country.
Occupy Homes is an exciting development in general. Anyone with a conscience wants people not to lose their homes, and it’s hard not to like anyone who is giving police and bankers a hard time. That said, there are some issues here for people with a communist perspective. I think there is a rising current of reformist forces within social movements today, as I’ve written about elsewhere much more briefly than I do in this post. I think these dynamics will be particularly intense after the first round or couple rounds of the Occupy movement, as Occupy rebuilds, reconfigures, or dissolves. Some reformists in social movements will encourage working within existing institutions through measures like elections, lobbying, lawsuits, referenda and recalls, and so on. These reformists will fail as much or more than they succeed at least for the short term. Other reformists will get more militant and these militant reformists will play increasingly important roles, providing funding and personnel to movement. Their militancy will minimize differences with them and radicals. The militant reformists will work together quietly behind the scenes with less militant reformists on some occasions. For example, the militant reformists will agree with other reformists that electoral reforms are needed, but will place less priority on pursuing that goal immediately in the near future, perhaps based on a different analysis of where institutions are at currently. The militancy of some reformists, and often their sincerity, will confuse good-hearted radicals who will not understand (or be able to act against) the militant reformist forces. In my view Occupy Homes is an example of these dynamics.
Occupy Homes involves a mixture of political perspectives, which is no surprise. More important is the tendency or trajectory of this mixture – “where is heading?” is more important than “where it is at?” There are some forces within Occupy Homes that will exert pressure to pull it in a more reformist direction. Among the forces involved in Occupy Homes are numerous neighborhood-level nonprofit organization, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and SEIU. Stephen Lerner, until recently an important strategist at SEIU, has written and spoken repeatedly about anti-eviction and foreclosure work. (See here and here. It’s notable that there’s a clear sense of SEIU’s involvement in Occupy Homes, but SEIU does not show up in the list of supporting or participating organizations here. Occupy Homes did participate in a local SEIU initiative, though.) This emphasis grows out of SEIU’s understanding of the importance of financial institutions in the current economic and political moment and an effort to push on financial institutions in order to shape outcomes in the present. The AFSC is a Quaker organization that pushes nonviolent civil disobedience as a tactic and has been involved with Occupy Homes in Atlanta. Occupy Homes has also applied for funding from a nonprofit grant-giving organization set up by wealthy progressives including one of the people from Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. (The applications are online here and anyone who is doing work within Occupy Homes or other foreclosure work probably should read them. I plan to do so eventually as I think they help get at important developments in the present with regard to NGOs and reformist pressures. There’s a lot more research that could be done here to figure out all the players and their interests and ideologies, including that funder, the Movement Resource Group.)
A number of individual radicals are involved and providing important work within Occupy Homes. It’s possible that their role plus the experience of struggle will radicalize reformist elements within Occupy Homes and it will become more radical over all. It’s also possible that radical elements will organize within the emerging Occupy Homes network to push out reformists. It’s also possible that reformist elements will set the agenda and draw on the energy and militancy of radicals to accomplish reformist aims.
One problem that Occupy Homes has in relation to the rest of Occupy is demographic. Occupy Homes is about home-owners; most Occupiers have been renters. On the other hand, Occupy Homes has been a step forward away from open-air camping and the power of general assemblies of whoever happens to show up and operating through long consensus-process meetings. Furthermore, Occupy Homes represents a push to organize and actively reach out to people not already disposed to camping and mobilizing around Occupy Wall Street. These are positive developments. But it’s not clear that they’re radical ones. I say this with a great deal of hesitation, for several reasons. For one, I do not have any real ideas as to alternative practices in the short term. For another, a lot of people tend to use ‘radical’ as a compliment, such that anything a radical does and cares a great deal about is thought of as radical and it’s an insult to say it’s not. I don’t mean it this way. Rather, I think it should always be an open question whether and how something is genuinely radical and how and in what ways, rather than something we assume is a closed matter with an obvious answer. I should also admit I’m using the term ‘radical’ here in a narrow and yet vague way; I have in mind Marx and Engels’ remark in the German Ideology that communism is the real movement which abolishes the present order.
In addition, while Occupy Homes has described its actions as direct action, what people in Occupy Homes seem to mean by this is quite close to nonviolent civil disobedience. I have no interest in arguing about what direct action really means; those conversations are rarely fruitful. Many people use terms in a variety of ways. Rather than argue about the One True Direct Action, I would prefer to talk about versions of direct action. The things that are important to me about the versions of direct action that I care about are a matter of who does the action and what its effects are on the people who do it. In my experience, people fighting on their own behalf over something with real effects for them can be deeply transformative. Occupy Homes is not carrying out direct action in the sense of people acting on their own behalf without intermediaries. To the degree that there are people having radicalizing collective experiences through Occupy Homes, I think home-owners are in the minority. Occupy Homes is primarily a matter of non-home-owner activists mobilizing on behalf of home-owners. Furthermore, defending a home against police eviction means having people there all the time or at least available all the time. This ability to mobilize is relatively limited by demographic. People who work in nonprofits and people who are partially-employed or unemployed will be able to mobilize for these defenses more than other people will. I expect that there will be tensions between these demographics over time in Occupy Homes; currently the nonprofit staff are largely the strategists, with the part-time and unemployed workers being largely a rent-a-mob of mobilizers or at best tacticians. This could change, however, if, for example, people involved were to push for general assemblies to determine tactics and strategy, or if some were to pick neighborhoods with high foreclosure rates and organize home-owner assemblies as representatives of Occupy Homes. This would force reformists into having to choose between discrediting Occupy Homes by swearing off the actions of some involved, or going along with the new developments.
Occupy Homes’ increasing openness to militant tactics is positive and the experiences of those tactics and of confrontations with the police will be important formative experiences for the people who pass through them. There will likely be tensions with Occupy Homes over these tactics. This will especially occur if there continue to be confrontations with police over evictions. Openness to militant tactics, however, is not necessarily openness to or spreading radicalism. In addition, the type of militant tactics used matters. Occupy Homes talks about direct action but in one sense, as I said, it’s not direct action so much as it is advocacy on behalf of homeowners. These direct actions also differ from other actions that people often associate with the term direct action as carried out by anarchists. Some types of activity that get called direct action are illegal in such a way that participants hide their identities and seek to avoid arrest. To put it another way, I suspect that currently reformist forces are setting the over all agenda for Occupy Homes and that radicals are involved at the level of tactics. If the tactics carried out involved, say, smashing bank windows and otherwise seeking to raise costs for banks in ways that are in no way legally defensible, and if the tactics involved smashing police car windows and unarresting the arrested and otherwise seeking to prevent the police’s repressive actions from working, the response from the reformist forces would be a much more polemical one. (This is distinct from the current response to police repression which is above all to try to publicize it and make it cost the existing official powers that be in such a way that will eventually limit use of police force in the first place. This is not to say that direct action tactics against police repression are actually the best ones in the current moment; I suspect that they’re not. My point is simply that this situation of reformist strategy with militant tactics carried out by radicals could have multiple combinations.) Currently, the tactics carried out are basically intense civil disobedience leading to arrest and somewhat sympathetic media coverage. I’m fairly sure this is a good set of tactics for Occupy Homes’ current aims and strategy. These tactics will have some transformative effects on participants. They may also suck up a lot of energy from radicals doing jail support and a lot of time and money. They may also reduce the room for talking about the politics of Occupy Homes and its direction, because people will be hesitant to disagree too much or criticize in light of the important stakes like jail-time and so on. This arrangement will help keep the reformist strategy-setters in charge and the radicals as tacticians.
Another aspect of Occupy Homes involves use of the local official political infrastructure in the attempt to keep the police in check or at least keep their use of force to a minimum and in the attempt to put further pressure on the banks. This use of the local official political structure is in tension with a positive part of Occupy Homes. Occupy Homes is in part linking eviction proceedings to those responsible, that is, pointing out evictions are political and that there is a chain of command involved and everyone in that chain is responsible for eviction. This politicizes eviction rather than seeing it as a natural course of events. All of that involves an attack on political officialdom, which is in tension with using the officialdom. This article from a trotskyist organization talks about working with local politicians to pressure the mayor about foreclosures and evictions. The article also claims that that SEIU used its clout within Occupy Homes to push anti-eviction efforts not to attack the mayor publicly, and instead to allow SEIU to pursue some behind the scenes negotiation. (It has clout because of donating time as well as the informal leadership role some of its staff are playing, including through some level of participation in direct action or creating the context for direct action.) The article attacks SEIU for this but it’s worth noting that these are two different strategies of using politicians to negotiate with the repressive arm of the state and with the banks. That’s another component, negotiation with the banks. Both of these aspects, use of the official political power structure and negotiation with banks, is the province of experts with some level of credentials and respectability, another aspect which reinforces the dominance of reformist forces within Occupy Homes.
As long as the Occupy Homes stuff takes place at the level of fighting over the terms of loans these dynamics will probably play out. The issues of the terms and consequences of mortgages and defaults makes them strongly predisposed toward legalistic forms of negotiation, with the action at the houses being essentially a pressure tactic to bring the banks to the negotiating table where the experts will handle it. There's also a strong ideological conceding of ground here. From some of the public calls by Occupy Homes, there’s a lot of “why are the cops acting against a family who are still in negotiation with the bank?!” That rhetoric is understandable and temporarily useful, as is the real outrage over the dealbreaking here but there’s a way in which this is not about evictions per se but about wrongful evictions. This is analogous to some news stories about wrongful deportations where legal immigrants and US citizens were accidentally deported, as if some deportations are okay). As long as this is a fight over ‘wrongful’ evictions and the terms of evictions, as opposed to a fight against eviction per se – as in, a fight for genuinely illegal continued residency – it will probably have greater limits. That is not to say that Occupy Homes can immediately leap to fighting off ‘rightful’ evictions by a sheer act of will. My hunch is that fighting ‘wrongful’ evictions may eventually be useful for building the base and experience and commitment needed to declare a full moratorium on evictions in an area. That would require the residents of a relatively large area to get involve, I think. (And wouldn’t it be great if it moved toward a moratorium on paying mortgages and rents…?)
2. Who owns homes and what is the role of home ownership in the U.S. economy?
A key part of white supremacy in the post-world war two U.S. was access to home ownership. (One important institution for shaping home ownership was the GI Bill, which predominantly helped white soldiers. There were other important factors as well; two good books that cover all of these dynamics are Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis and Lizabeth Cohen’s Consumer’s Republic.) Home ownership probably cost less than renting did in the long run and it allowed home owners access to credit. Racial stratification in home ownership maintained earlier inequalities and it meant that in the post-war economic boom that a much greater share of rising U.S. prosperity went to whites, over the long term.
Home ownership is quite racially stratified today as well. (In the year 2000, 71% of white households lived in a home owned by a member of the household. Only 46% of Black and Hispanic households lived in a home owned by a member of the household. This information comes from here.) It’s also gender and age stratified. Single mothers own homes less often single fathers. Few people under thirty own homes (between 1/5th and just over 1/3rd of people under 30 own a home) while 80% of people over 65 do so. (See here and see “Homeownership Rates by Age of Householder and Household Type” here.) This makes some sense. Men tend to make more money than women, and buying a house is more likely the longer that people have been working and able to save money to buy a house. There’s a good reason to think that the current economic crisis will disrupt these dynamics. A large portion of recent college graduates are unemployed – about 25% - and an equal portion are considered ‘underemployed’. (See here. College graduates are of course no more important than anyone else but this is a decent approximate measure of the restructuring that’s happening right now in the US economy.) It’s likely that the effects of this unemployment will be life-long. (See here.) People who go through this labor market experience, as just over half of college graduates are, will never bounce back fully, meaning that they will be consistently financially below people who had jobs and who weren’t ‘underemployed’. All this is racially stratified as well. All of which is to say, the likely trends in future home ownership are probably going to look worse. Fewer people will own homes, the gap between home owners and everyone else will widen in the long term, and the home owning population will be whiter.
At the same time, the foreclosure attack is hitting blacks and latinos harder than white homeowners. More than half of all foreclosed home owners are white, but black and latino home owners are much, much more likely to be foreclosed on. What this means for action is hard to say. On the one hand, the foreclosure crisis is in many respects a downward restructuring of many people in the working class and it’s hitting black and latino home owners harder. Those are good reasons to prioritize fighting foreclosurers. On the other hand, fewer black and latinos in the U.S. own houses than whites do. Foreclosure work doesn’t address the majority of blacks and latinos in the US. That suggests that anti-foreclosure work might be better pursued as one facet of a push around housing, and not in an abstract way (“we’re for housing for all even though our organization just focuses on foreclosures”) but in a practical way (“we fight banks and landlords in this area, whenever people have a problem with their housing.”)
It’s also worth noting that “home ownership” is a slippery term. A recent report by the New York Federal Reserve Bank distinguishes between effective home ownership and home owners who effectively do not really own their homes. In an important sense all people who paying a mortgage don’t fully own their homes, but the New York bank is talking about something slightly different. They note that a lot of home owners owe more on their home than the home is worth. The New York bank calls this “negative equity home ownership” which it does not count as effectively owning a home. The report is worth reading, it has a good overview of some of the benefits of home ownership. It also has a table listing official home ownership rates in major cities and then the effective home ownership rates. Areas where there’s a big gap, that is, where a lot of home owners owe more on their homes than the homes are worth, may be places that are prone to friction around home ownership. People doing housing organizing might want to check that out (I’m sure people in SEIU and similar strategy-setting organizations are doing so). The report’s online here.
The government and lenders are quite concerned with foreclosure rates and home ownership rates as well. Home owners who are underwater on their mortgages are going to try to pay off their mortgages rather than spend money elsewhere, restricting consumption and so slowing economic activity. I have to admit I don’t really understand the foreclosure crisis. I found this article helpful but I haven’t read much beyond that. That article suggests that part of the crisis came from financial institutions pursuing short term income in a way that built up to a crisis. That approach made sense as long as there was boom; once the collapse started, lenders didn’t want to get caught holding the bag, and the costs were, of course, unevenly distributed. In a sense this is a pretty classic story of capitalism – short term shortsighted behavior makes a lot of money for some people and ultimately results in a lot of misery for a great many people while many of the ones who got richer are basically fine.
So, fuck capitalism, let’s burn it down and get on to the better phase of human history. But that’s not the response of capitalists and the state; their response in these situations is to try to fix the particular short term problems to get the ball rolling again so a few people can keep getting richer… until the next time something big and awful happens to a lot of people, then there will be a minor corrective response again, and so on and so on and so on. A boot stomping on a face forever. Anyway, the government response here, and the response of lenders with vision, is to figure out how to organize the situation to alleviate the short term problems as much as possible in a way with minimal costs to call involved. And course the largest shares of the costs will be paid by those lowest on the food chain. Foreclosures hurt lenders to some extent in the short term; this article argues that they cost lenders and banks about $50,000 a pop. (See here and here.) This is the kind of situation that is fixable under capitalism, it just takes some figuring out to understand how it can be fixed in such a way that is more or less in keeping with everyone’s short term interests, then some pressure to bring various actors into line with their interests so they’ll be willing to compromise. (As an aside, I think it's worth pointing out that interests are at least much created by people politically and ideologically as they are the result of people's objective social position. I discuss this for working class people in a section of this document called "Shared Interests And Mass Organizations Make And Remake Each Other." More recently I've been thinking a lot about the state as part of the process of capitalists getting organized and constructing their interests, and disciplining individual capitalists to get in line with the capitalist class's over-all interests, or with the interests of the dominant fractions of the capitalist class.)
I think the signs point to a growing willingness to negotiate on the part of lenders and a growing interest on the part of the state in facilitating that negotiation, minimizing conflicts, and preventing this kind of fallout in the future. (This of course depends on who wins elections to some extent.) If I’m right about this, and it would be worth testing this a lot more, then I’m sure that the SEIU and similar people involved are aware of these dynamics too. That may be why they’re involved, because they think this is a winnable issue. I think this is another reason among many to pay attention to fights around housing because if it is possible for militant reformists in movements to find some traction with reformists in positions of official power this will probably be an area where that happens. That means that it may be an area that offers examples of dynamics that are likely to occur (within movements and within state and capitalist responses) during this time of crisis.
It’s also worth noting that some of the time capitalists and their politicians are willing to throw some of their own under the bus if it’s necessary or temporarily useful. Capitalism does this to some extent in its ordinary operations. “One capitalist always kills many,” as Marx put it. If need be, the banks or at least some banks may well take a real hit from their fellow capitalists. That’s important, but its political meaning will be ambiguous. One capitalist taking a fall is not necessarily anti-capitalist. The destruction of the present form of capitalism – the shaking up of actually existing capitalism – is how capitalism has changed over the time. Pro-systemic reforms require attacks on parts of the system as it’s currently constituted. This is not speak against attacks on the system, but rather to say that the response when not repression is attempted innovation and specifically attempts to harness attacks into helping carry out needed creative destruction and generation of new institutional arrangements.
3. Militant reform: Theoretical points and issues for further inquiry
At a theoretical level, it’s important to think of the contending forces in the present in a rich, multidimensional way. That is, culture and ideas matter; the actions of forces in the present are political and not economic in a narrow sense. Our understanding of people’s interests alone will not help us understand and predict their behavior. We also have to try to understand how they understand themselves and how they formulate their steps forward. Another point at a theoretical level, if I’m right that we are seeing a rising militant reformism, this confirms aspects of the analysis put out by Miami Autonomy and Solidarity that what they call ‘the intermediate level’ is the most active component right now in society, meaning relatively advanced and committed individuals outside of radical political organizations and without much of a mass base. Militant reformism is one version of action by intermediate level elements. I think it’s worth trying to further analyze the conditions that encourage or facilitate militant reformism and the conditions that discourage it. This is part of why it’s important to look closely at Occupy Homes; this is not going to be the only grouping of its type. It’s also worth trying to understand the characteristics of Occupy Homes in order to try to get a sense of the dynamics of militant reformism. Every example will be different, but there will be some common elements and we should begin to try to notice them in order to try and prepare for future developments. Improving, testing, finding the limits of, and making more concrete the analysis and critique of militant reformism seems to me an intellectual/theoretical task worth taking up.
It’s also worth asking how radicals can and should relate to militant reformist groupings. There is probably no single answer, it will all depend on the situation people find themselves in. At the same time, it’s likely that often militant reformist groupings will rely on the good will and hard work of radicals for their existence. This should give us some pause. At the very least, we could probably benefit from a conversation about how to best participate within these kinds of formations. I have a hunch that many radicals impulses, like doing administrative and tactical work, as well as being relatively to loyal to local political consensus, will help radicals get played by reformists in strategic roles, such that radicals come away having accomplished less for their activity than they might have otherwise.
Then again… we should also talk frankly about the degree to which it is possible to engage in a practice different from that of militant reformism in the present. That is, is there a viable communist practice in the present and if so what does it look like? If there is not, and there may well not be, then communists should talk about what it would like for a communist practice that is not only ideologically different from reformism, and not only a matter of spreading ideas, but different in the short term at the level of how struggle is carried out. If this is not currently viable then how will we know when it become viable, and how would we begin formulating that practice? This may be understood in two ways, as exceptional or exemplary momentary events like riots and appropriations, and as links in a chain of struggle or snowflakes building for an avalanche. That is, communizing instances vs communist contributions to cycles of struggle that build in a communist direction. My impression from a very cursory glance is that the communization current within French marxism gets at elements of these points, but primarily in a philosophical sense. This too is an area for further collective inquiry. All of these matters involve questions and challenges in practice and in theory, and answers will only come over time through collective struggle.
4. Better Get A Better Village
Here’s a joke. An English tourist gets lost on a drive in Ireland and ends up in countryside. He finds a small village and stops at pub. He asks the bartender, “Can you tell me the best way to get to Dublin?” The bartender replies, “Well, if you want the best way to get to Dublin you need to start somewhere else, not in this village.”
I think it’s easy for radicals to sometimes fall into a “don’t start from this village if you want to get to the city” attitude. Or, as my friend Phinneas Gage has put it, often radical talk about ‘strategy’ implies fantasizing about having an army when one doesn’t exist. The reality is that we live in a time when the capitalists and their governments have been on the offensive for a long time and working class and radical forces have been in retreat, defeat, and disarray. So if we’re going to converge on some city, we need to first use a compass and map and figure out where we are – and we’re all in different places – then figure out how to get to the highway, then find a ride. And we may not necessarily want to converge on that city, or do the same things once we get there. All of that is an extended metaphor in over to say, again, that none of this is to write off Occupy Homes or other similar groups and movements. We have no option but to start in the villages where we happen to be. At the same time, we do need to figure out short term and long terms goals and tasks. As I said earlier, I think there’s a dynamic in the present here there’s likely to be a rising current of militant reformists. I’m still thinking this through. What it does not mean is “fuck these groups.” People who are able to participate should do so, but should also decide what they want they want to accomplish through that participation.
In another blog post I suggested that historically organizations of social struggle face pressures from the state and other social actors, and that these pressures are passed on to the members or constituents of the organization. Put simply: organizations get pressured externally and they in turn internally pressure their constituency. I argued that radicals should try to build institutions that have minimal power to pass external pressures on to their constituents. (A concrete but very abbreviated example of this is avoiding contracts in workplace organizing.) In some conversation after this post, I realized I had not really clarified my views toward organizations that do have the capacity to pressure their members in response to external pressures. I certainly do not prefer those kinds of organizations. At the same time, they simply do exist. I would prefer that all organizations seek to avoid the dynamics I mentioned, of passing external pressures on to constituents, but that’s not the world we live in. I do not think that radicals should always and only abstain from participating in those kinds of organization. I think people have to make decisions based on the factors on the ground where they live and work and are able to be involved.
I believe the same basic point for organizations whose political perspective I disagree with, including groups where the main perspective and practice is what I’ve called militant reformism. I would prefer that all organizations be explicitly radical and try to reject reformism, but that’s not the world as it currently exists. Radicals should not reject participation in militant reformist projects on principle, they should make their decisions based on more fine-grained considerations. Radicals might participate in militant reformist efforts simply because it’s good to be part of people improving their lives, or because it’s satisfying to be part of a collective effort and social struggle. Radicals might also participate for the experiences and education that participation brings.
My general orientation for several years has been a somewhat inward-looking one, in that I think the main projects for radicals is to organize and improve ourselves. That’s not to say we should be insular, far from it. I just think that we tend to be few and far between and that we have a lot to learn in practice and in theory. I think being active and ambitious is an important way to get organized and to improve ourselves, individually and collectively and in my view for the time being the main goal should be building a meaningful, powerful, capable left, rather than trying to shape macro-level events. This doesn’t have to be an either/or, though. In any case, I think we can think about what radicals learn and gain from movements, what radicals contribute to movements, and how movements can shape macro-level events and tendencies (that is, how movements can shape the balance of class forces and how that balance plays out). Each of these aspects – focusing on radicals’ development, focusing on movements’ development, and focusing on large-scale power relationships – are related but different and we can have different goals depending on our emphasis.
In terms of some of the things that radicals gain from being in movements, I’ve written before about elements of struggles and the things we learn from them because of the way that participating in the struggle challenges to us. These are vision, goals, strategy, tactics, and logistics. Vision is the ideology and theory of the organization and our ability to assess current reality. Goals are where we want to get to. Strategy is the plan to get there. Tactics are the individual components of the plan. Logistics are the implementation and competency in carrying out tactics. Struggles and sequences of struggles require some of each of these components and that’s why they pose challenges to our abilities in each of these components. People can come away from struggles with improved abilities in each of these areas, including a greater sense of the type of social change needed, in their willingness to participate in militant struggle, and in their greater sense of collective belonging – being part of a larger collectivity like the working class. Each of these areas and how it plays out in action will likely be a site of friction within Occupy Homes. I suspect that radicals’ involvement in Occupy Homes will not teach much in terms of goals or strategy, because those are likely largely determined by reformists, but the other areas offer potential lessons, as well as potential issues to push internally within Occupy Homes.
Radicals might also participate in the hope that their efforts will, in the long term, create greater legitimacy for radical ideas and building relationships: participation in mixed groupings as base-building. In my view, how far this goes depends greatly on three things.
1) How are political forces arranged in the chain of decision making? If radicals carry out the logistics or at most set the tactics while reformists set the goals and formulate the strategy then the reformists have a lot of control.
2) What kind of interaction do radicals have, and with who? If radicals’ participation involves a lot of contact with people who aren’t radicals in ways that allows for serious long-term relationship building and the opportunity to have frank political discussions then there are opportunities there. Often, though, radicals participate in ways that involve dealing mostly with other radicals they already know or who already share their views (emphasis on militancy and direct action probably increases these dynamics, as that kind of activity will be mostly limited to people who are already up for that action and it tends to require a fair amount of trust). And when they don’t deal just with radicals, they often deal primarily with an existing political layer or infrastructure such as NGO and union staff, who are either politically advanced with different politics or are tied in to the reformist structure of the militant reformist grouping.
3) What kind of flow of information/communication is there? If radicals do awesome activity that makes an important contribution to a movement but no one knows about then it doesn't legitimate radicals or radical ideas. Often movements don't have independent channels for information flow other than informal communication (gossip, basically), and how that informal communication works depends on who has relationships with who. If there are multiple constituencies involved in a struggle (like in Occupy Homes, where there are at least three constituencies that overlap but are somewhat distinct: staff, non-staff activists, and the home-owners), communication tends to be limited within one constituency or to travel through key individuals with relationships that span constituencies.
Often what ends up happening is less base-building than radicals being confined to a rent-a-mob of tactical specialists that gets played by more conservative political forces who use radicals tactically for their own ends. This kind of participation can still be rewarding and educational, even if it’s not base-building, my point is simply that claims about radical participation as base-building should be scrutinized a lot. (As I discussed here in relation to calls for a renewal of massive strikes as a way forward for the working class, these dynamics happened in the CIO in the 1930s. John L. Lewis described the participation of radicals in the CIO's organizing by asking succinctly: “Who gets the bird, the hunter or the dog?”
I would describe everything I’ve said so far in this section as being largely about radicals self-education or long term legitimacy. This also assumes that radicals participate in movements or groups basically as individuals or collections of individuals without much independent coordination. They may get into conflict with the center of gravity and the prevailing strategy of the group or movement, but largely as individuals. If radicals get more organized into independent groupings to move any of the above agenda, there will be greater tensions in the group or movement. The more that radicals become a viable force for moving an agenda in a group or movement, the more friction there will be with nonradicals in the group or movement. The degree to which radicals aren’t experiencing this kind of friction in a group or movement is probably the degree to which their participation is largely about self-education or base-building. Some of the time, opting for these activities really is the best choice in the short term in a group or movement.
Radicals might also participate with the aim of shaping movements. I still think that the most important emphases are building up the left and our sorts of groupings. I would say that we want radical mass organizations, which is to say, fighting organizations that put forward radical principles and engage people on them to politicize relatively less politicized people or further radicalize relatively less radical people. To borrow terms from some comrades n the Solidarity Federation, we want radical political-economic organizations, as opposed to organizations that just fight to get the goods and don’t do much politics or only do and encourage reformist politics. (On political-economic organizations, see this discussion paper by Joseph Kay. Part one. Part two.) Radicals that act together in a larger group or movement in such a way as to build a radical mass organization or political-economic organization will experience greater friction to the degree that they carry out these activities. Sometimes it will be best to back down in order to scale back the friction and avoid a rupture with others involved, but sometimes pushing things to a breaking point is the best step. Generally, we should not pick fights we can’t win or which we can only ‘win’ in the form of mutually-assured-destruction but we also should not avoid fights just because fighting often sucks interpersonally and emotionally.
In terms of radicals shaping movements and larger groups’ over all perspective and activity, in an earlier post I tried to sketch three ways that struggles can be transformative experiences. I suggested that experience participating in struggles can increase people’s comfort with militancy, it can expand people’s moral horizons toward an idea of justice that includes more people, and it can increase people’s sense of the how much social change we need in order to have a good society.
I think these are also different general directions that radicals could orient their activities in movements. To put it another way, these are different direction in which radicals might do politics within movements or organizations. Radicals might seek to expand who is included in the ‘we’ of a movement or group (I like to call it ‘expanding the group’s moral horizon’), they might seek to make the group have a better analysis of structural dynamics in society and the need to change society fundamentally, and they might increase the militancy of a struggle. We might see this as making old slogans into lived realities for people, which radicals then discuss explicitly – struggles can help people live and really feel the ideas that ‘direct actions gets the goods,’ that ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’, and that we must ‘abolish the wage system’ in order to establish a society based on the principle ‘to each according to need’. In my opinion, direct action is often heavily emphasized today (as is direct democracy, in line with the old slogan ‘we are all leaders’) while other aspects of acting within movements tend to get less attention. (There is at least one other way that radicals participate in movements, which is simply plugging in to do administrative tasks and basic necessary work to keep a movement going. I’m for doing this; I think it builds respect and people should pull their weight, but it’s worth asking what the goal is and if people are doing so because they’re good caring conscientious people, or if it’s part of a plan and some goals as radicals.) As I said above, to the degree that radical carry out these kinds of activities in a coordinated way, they will have greater friction.
So far I’ve sketched some thoughts on what radicals might learn from participating in movements and organizations, and ways that radicals might do politics within the space of existing movements and organizations. Radicals might also try to shape the direction of movements and organizations within the larger movement. It seems to me that what to do here breaks down in a few ways. The points I discussed above could be scaled upward. So, for instance, an organization or movement might be pushed to act in the world around it as a group that expands others’ militancy, makes others have a more radical analysis, and/or expands others’ moral horizons. Radicals might also push how a movement or group acts in relation to prevailing power relationships and the balance and use of class power in society. The dynamics I mentioned for radicals in groups and movements go for groups and movements in society as well: to the degree that groups and movements effectively begin to move a radical agenda of whatever type, they will experience friction with the rest of society. Some of the time it’s best to limit this friction in the interest of feasibility and strategy, but not always. An individual group that tries to practice a highly localized total break from capitalism will fail, but if no one ever practices such a break then humanity will fail. As I discussed in another post, negotiation is a social relationship. Fundamentally, no one will get beyond some form of negotiation with the powers that be until the working class in the millions or or perhaps the tens of millions is breaking out of the social relationship of negotiating over the terms of capitalism and instead practicing a real rupture with capitalism. For the time being, we are going to be dealing with better and worse forms of practicing and institutionalizing negotiation. This is worth keeping in mind in talking about ways that radicals might shape movements and groupings. With that in mind, I’ll get back to Occupy Homes.
How might Occupy Homes fit within larger power struggles within the US? There are two basic directions the struggle can move in – it can intensify or it can generalize, or some combination of the two. I think the short term scenario will be that Occupy Homes helps some people have better lives but even if it becomes a serious political force, the strategic importance of reformists will limit the degree to which Occupy Homes is a threat to capitalism. In the short term, Occupy Homes will probably be limited to small scale gains on a case-by-case basis. Then again, this may change. The banks may come under more intense scrutiny and heat and result in more widespread mortgage reform. This will improve a lot of people’s lives, and I am of course for people’s lives improving, but it’s not clear that a problem resolved under capitalism helps build for the end of capitalism. (I should also say, while I fantasized in a parenthetical remark earlier about how cool it’d be if an area declared a local moratorium on paying mortgages and rents and managed to enforce it, this too would be quite limited if the struggle did not spread. Unfortunately, there is a measure of truth to Lenin’s remark that politics begins when millions of people are in motion.) Again, none of this is to attack the efforts of the people working on Occupy Homes, rather I think it’s worth thinking through how these struggles may unfold and what they may result in – those results will in turn shape the players in and the terrain of future struggles.
In a more long-term and large-scale perspective, Occupy Homes may provide a base for reformists who are willing to work within existing institutions if those institutions are willing to give a little. Currently those institutions are largely not willing to give much, but this may change. Over all, put schematically, the dynamics of a political moment are composed of pressures from below and forces from above. Right now the forces from above are not particularly conciliatory and are mostly responding to social movements with repression. If this changes, it will be mistaken by some on the left as an opening in the direction of revolutionary transformation instead of a system-conserving willingness to bend. The militant reformist refrain ‘we need to get serious, we need to talk about what it would really take to win’ and to measure the important of direct action in the goods it has gained will make it likely that renewed systemic flexibility appears as an unadulterated victory for the working class, instead of as a new strategy deployed against the working class. If more reformist elements come to real power within official institutions then that could serve to defuse some degree of popular anger and begin to help resolve the current crisis. That is: militant reformism is trying to build reformism from below; right now it’s meeting with repression from above, but if begins to meet a corresponding reformism from above then things could change rapidly in ways that radicals may not be ready for.
5. Dispossession: Theoretical points and speculations
I think an important category for thinking about the present is dispossession. I take this term from David Harvey, who writes about what he calls “accumulation by dispossession.” The term refers to the taking of previously held goods, money, and rights: land seizures, the selling off of public resources, pension thefts, these are all types of accumulation by dispossession. Judtih Whitehead describes accumulation by dispossession as a process "which simultaneously concentrates property in a few hands while reducing the access of many to (…) means of livelihood." (Development and Dispossession in the Narmada Valley.) Dispossession increases people's need for money and often increases the consequences of not having money. Generally, dispossession has a few elements. It may force people to pay for things they previously didn't and it may make some other people very rich or much richer. It always rapidly downgrades people's standard of living; it violates people's standards of what they previously thought they could expect, including customary and legal rights; and it often makes. (One facet of dispossession is accumulation by encroachment, involving the taking of public lands. Marx called a related process by the name 'enclosure.' In the history of the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and probably other countries, this encroachment was carried out via settlers who helped take land from native peoples. Incidentally, Harvey and others’ analysis of dispossession has roots in Marx’s analysis of what he thinks was the beginning of capitalism, in the end of volume 1 of Capital. These chapters are, in my opinion, the best parts of v1 of Capital and the best place to begin reading the book – starting at chapter 26 then reading to the end, before reading the rest of the book.)
Finance has tended to play a key role in dispossession. Debt, fraud, transfer of pensions into financial assets which are then stripped, foreclosure of homes, bankruptcy to get out of financial obligations, all of these are facets of accumulation by dispossession. The state plays a key role in all of this as well. Government sets the terms for what is acceptable and unacceptable forms of dispossession, and government provides the force behind dispossession.
Dispossession is different from what many of us think of as the normal operation of the economy. As the economy rolls along, workers produce goods and services which belong to employers. Employers sell those goods and services. Employers sell these products for more than it cost to make them, which means that employees produce products that are worth more than what the employees were paid to make them. Employers keep that profit. This process is exploitation. Exploitation generally takes place or at least is understood as taking place within a relatively stable framework in terms of who owns what and what people expect. Exploitation feeds terrible poverty, sexual harassment, discrimination, and violence. Capitalists and various social institutions try to mask exploitation as fair and just.
The flip side of exploitation is dispossession. With dispossession the terms of exploitation and the terms of people's access to the things they want and need are changed suddenly and in large scale. Dispossession intensifies exploitation for those who are still employed because employers speed up work. Employers uses the growing argue numbers of more desperate jobless people to put pressure on their employees. Employers also try to exploit their employees further in order to try to keep up with the great profits gotten by the dispossessors. Dispossession also makes the consequences of joblessness worse for many people.
Dispossession has risen more and more as something attempted by global capitalists and governments. This puts pressures on other capitalists to keep up. The rounds of struggles against neoliberalism, such as the Zapatista uprising of 1994, the struggles against NAFTA in the 90s, and struggles against IMF and World Bank structural adjustment policies have all been struggles against accumulation by dispossession. We've seen these struggles more recently in the US as well, as in the protests in Madison, Wisconsin, and to some extent both Occupy Homes and Occupy Wall Street. Accumulation by dispossession tends to spark large-scale resistance not simply because of the economic stakes, but primarily because of the moral stakes. People see big threats to the futures that they thought that they and their kids would have. More than that, though, people see previous agreements and expectations violated: the other side breaks their deals and violates their own laws and policies, or intrudes on institutions and practices that they have no place intruding upon.
When they rose up, the Zapatistas declared "We are the product of 500 years of struggle." This hearkened back to Eureopean colonization, a massive project of dispossession which gave a boost to European counties and the capitalist economy, and which greeted terrible hardship and loss of life for native and working peoples around the world. This dispossession never ended, but it entered into a sort of dance with exploitation. The global economy - or, the approaches taken by global capitalists and elites - has proceeded in waves, with a rise of dominance of exploitation followed by a rise in dominance in dispossession. We're currently in a phase where dispossession is prevalent and likely for various reasons. This tends to involve finance as politically dominant and as relatively profitable compared to companies that make goods and services. While some people have been subjected to dispossession throughout the history of capitalism, when the dominant strategy shifts the intensity and/or who gets subjected to dispossession shifts. With a shift from an emphasis on dispossession and financial dominance to an emphasis on exploitation and the dominance of productive capital, there tends to be more room for reforms to improve the lives of some people. With the opposite shift, from a larger emphasis on dispossession and the dominance of finance, even more people's lives get dramatically downgraded suddenly.
The important core component of the idea of dispossession in connection to militant reform is that dispossession involves stripping away past rights and legal claims - like flooding out people's homes as part of dam building, pushing indigenous people out of forested areas for the sake of clearcutting, but also things like stealing pensions, eminent domain of people's homes for highway construction. Dispossession usually involves elements which are not narrowly economic, in the sense that it is not simply the result of an impersonal transaction. Dispossession is backed up by force, and it often involves the other side changing the rules - as in Wisconsin and other states where legislators decided to try to get out of paying the previous pensions they had agreed to pay. (Actually, to put it more accurately: state employees had paid into their pensions; the state governments tried to take these funds, via legislation. At the same time, there is always a rhetorical conflict over dispossession: the dispossessors try to paint their actions as impersonal, as business as usual, or as deserved because the dispossessed are lazy or spoiled or inferior. What the dispossessors don't want is for their actions to be seen as a decision and as something which enriches a few at the expense of many.)
I think the prominence of accumulation by dispossession poses questions, both theoretically and practically, for this view, and for those of us who tend to emphasize waged work and exploitation. My outlook is always a work in progress but for now my basic preferred political practice can be summarized as follows. Organize on the job to build cadre (or whatever term people prefer if they don’t like that term. I mean committed, class conscious, capable people. We might abbreviate it as CCCP, which is what I mean by cadre…) Cadre seek to intervene in large scale events within a realistic assessment of our limited capacity. In this we seek to lay the basis for future workplace organizing after the cycle cools off. It’s not clear to me how this relates to the trend toward dispossession. There are important connections between dispossession and labor but the ways we fight the two are different. I would like us to think through more of how different struggles relate (or don’t relate) around these different facets of capital accumulation. Specifically, I would like to think through how the types of organizing that some of us advocate (under terms like ‘direct unionism’ and ‘political-economic’ organization) relate or could relate to accumulation by dispossession. I think a further complication in this will be that dispossession struggles will likely have a strong pull toward a militant reformist perspective.
I think we can reasonably expect further attempts at downward restructuring of living standards. I think most of these attempts will be successful. I think we’ll see a continued shift to the right politically within electoral politics and will see the electoral political layers continue to be heavily divided and polarized for the short term. We will also see working class uprisings, sometimes defensive in nature, successful only when they gather around them a larger constituency to where the struggle expresses their grievances even if in an inarticulate manner like in Madison.
Some forms of dispossession are much more brutal than others, but part of what they have in common is that they're not normal market operations, they appear less as natural/automatic economic consequences (though there's a big push to cloak them as being like that). They involve decisions by actors who are somewhat identifiable, usually state actors, so it removes a bit of the "it's capitalism in general, it's everywhere" feeling. Another key component is that it tends to feel to people like there's been a broken deal. It's a rapid breaking of some group of people's old normality and replacing it with a new, worse normality. That kind of deal-breaking tends to piss people off and they take it personally more than stuff that can be like "it's no one's fault, it's just the economy." The last key component is that it happens to large groups of people all at once. The boom in evictions is clearly a form of dispossession, part of a larger and global wave of dispossession.
I think the big mobilizations in Madison, in Quebec, and the stuff around foreclosure are all connected in that they’re at least partially struggles against dispossession. I think these kinds of struggles are prone to militancy and are prone to defensiveness and a type of pro-system conservatism because they're based on around defending rights/legal claims/property claims that capitalists and their governments are trying to eliminate. The big push from the movement side in these dispossession struggles initially is to try to figure out how to maintain the old normal in the face of changing circumstances, how to accommodate the old expectations within the new arrangement. Of course these struggles, like all struggles, have the possibility to go beyond that dynamic, I just think there's a pressure there that presses movements toward these directions, what some of us have been talking about as militant reformism. That can be overcome, because the directions of movements are political and a result of internal struggle and ideology within a movement and the experiences of conflict with the opponent etc. Looking at what things make it more and less likely that struggles break out of a militant reformist framework is something I think worth thinking more about. I also want to reiterate that 'this has a militant reformist framework' is not an argument against participating. I think in objective terms it may be the case that no one is going to produce a real social rupture in the short-to-medium term (a real break from capitalism) unless it's of the Paris Commune temporary-and-drowned-in-blood variety, regardless of ideology. I'm not sure about that, though.
Over all, I think struggles that break out over dispossession issues are likely to have a largely defensive and nostalgic character. That is, there are big pressures to pull struggles toward anti-austerity etc, basically toward opposition to a new, bleaker version of capitalism rather than prior slightly less bleak versions of capitalism. (I think pretty much all the big upheavals in recent times have had this character, though I'm told that the Quebec student struggles get the closest to breaking out of this.) I think it's also worth pointing out that for a lot of people things have been really bleak for a long time, and there are big differences between parts of the class in terms of what the deal used to be and what new deal is likely to be: some people are getting restructured a lot more, because they have further to fall. They may be getting their livelihoods reduced a lot more than some worse off strata, and they still are likely to remain better off than a lot of people under them in the pecking order of the working class.
There's also going to be a call for lower strata to rally around upper ones - that's a lot of what Madison was, in my opinion, and to some extent that's going on in Quebec I'm told (there's been some critical pieces about racial disparities in access to higher education in Quebec and how to some extent the Quebec student struggle is a struggle of white francophones and has a complicated relationship to Canadians of color and first nations people). I think we're likely to see similar dynamics in other anti-dispossession struggles. None of which is to say we shouldn't care, just that emerging movements will face problems that will have to be worked out in real time and there will be some real limits on what can happen in the short term and some pressures for the struggle to go in less than preferable places.
Part of what's going on right now is a collapsing future for a lot of people. A lot of people will have worse lives than they would have had under prior versions of capitalism. One piece of that is restructuring the private-and-public institutions of social reproduction and the people who work in them. I think that we can only explain and understand this stuff if we take the ideology of capitalists and their politicians seriously - economic (economisistic!) explanations alone will be very insufficient. (What happened in Wisconsin is not reducible to economic pressures and economic interests, it's about the ideologies of different parts of the capitalist class and their politicians. I think the same is true of immigration issues and places like Arizona and Georgia, I've recently been arguing with someone from Advance the Struggle a bit about this on a piece on their web site about immigration reform.)
If I’m right that we’re seeing on the one hand a push toward dispossession and on the other the development of a strongly reformist militant movement from below (one which may well be genuinely militant and democratic, motivated by sincere commitment to values of justice and fairness, and which radicalize people) then the response from above will be varied and contradictory. Over all, I think there are three basic possibilities. The current disorder and disagreement among the electoral political layers may continue, with the right being more dominant but with swings back and forth. Authoritarian responses will vie with civil libertarian responses, and austerity will vie with redistribution of wealth. If authority and austerity win out, we will be in trouble in terms of safety and standard of living, but the movement will be more combative and there will be more radical sparks. If redistributive measures win out, this will align with the emerging social-democracy from below and will demobilize the movement, especially if combined with civil libertarian responses.
As usual I wrote this piece because I was trying to understand some things I’m unsure of (and I'm putting it now even though it feels unfinished and rough around the edges, because I've thought these thoughts as far as I can think them on my own without more conversation). I think several of the analytical points here could be sharpened and better substantiated (or challenged) conceptually and empirically – on militant reform as a category, and in detailed looks at militant reform efforts to the degree that they exist or are emerging, on dispossession to the degree that it’s happening, and on the connection between tendencies in the present regarding reform and dispossession. More pressing are practical questions of how to respond practically within or in response to militant reform groupings, attempts to dispossess working class people, and anti-dispossession struggles. Preferably, practical experimentation and writing and discussion about these dynamics could inform each other.
Finally, in case anyone’s interested, this piece grows in part out of a conversation about prospects for reform. That conversation is here and I’ve written a few other blog posts here at libcom about aspects of that. All of this is in part an attempt to think out the likely trajectories or the decisions and crossroads that may occur in the current crisis. I wrote a general reflection piece on some of this, engaging with Miami Autonomy and Solidarity’s “intermediate level” analysis, here.