A response to Jacobin magazine's discussion on the #Occupy movement, by a student who experienced the 2009-2010 University of California protests and occupations. The author relates the movements back to the 'communisation' tendency within recent events in France.
This piece responds to a couple Jacobin-related things pretty directly, so let’s put them out there straight away:
First, Malcolm Harris’ observation in “Baby, We’re All Anarchists Now” that “the left has finally broken into the national consciousness by adopting the tactics, strategy, and slogans of a group of left-communist insurrectionaries at the Universities of California.”
Second, the Jacobin-sponsored debate at Bluestockings—which I’ll let readers watch for themselves: http://jacobinmag.com/blog/?p=1937
And then a caveat: I should probably find it shameful to admit that I’m writing this from afar—from France, to be exact, where the wave of global occupations hasn’t yet broken. So granted: these views don’t come from within the Occupy movement, or even from an Occupied city, though I wish they did. But since it’s become so difficult to claim any geographic distance from the occupations, I hope my separateness will be useful somehow. Distance can distort, but it can also clarify.
I first heard the slogan “Occupy Everything” in 2009 during the anti-privatization protests—so yes, to a certain extent the University of California, where I’ve been a grad student since 2007, was instrumental in generating the tactics and rhetoric currently in use at Zuccotti and elsewhere. During the first weeks of that fall semester, that slogan gradually came to mean something specific, something razor-sharp, in a way that, as Harris rightly notes, has been diluted at OWS. Back then, to occupy meant to forcibly lock down buildings with bike locks and barricades without any provision of demands or benchmarks for de-escalation. It was, you can guess, a contentious tactic both inside and outside the organizing coalition, especially since the point wasn’t to force a negotiation with the administration, but only to block business as usual—and also, ideally, to wrench a parcel of space and time free from the capitalist order. This last point proved to be an Achilles heel for the UC occupations, since the occupiers became mired in the structures and temporalities of student protest. What they wanted was a commune—to communize, more specifically—but this proved late in coming.
As I’m sure Harris knows, this “first wave” of occupations didn’t begin at the UC as reported, nor even at the New School, another site of protest marked by takeovers and barricades. As far as I’m aware—please correct me if I’m wrong—the occupations started in France during the 2006 anti-CPE protests, when a contingent of students occupied the Sorbonne without demands in defiance of the university’s orders. (The administration preemptively blocked access to the campus in order to prevent it from being occupied, as it had been in May 1968—a decision that, ironically, prompted the students to occupy). The French roots of the occupation movement go deeper still, and they’re worth dredging up, especially in light of the dispute that emerged at Bluestockings the other night. In fact, there’s about a decade’s worth of para-academic French Marxism woven into the tactics and ideas of the first-wave occupiers—not only the widely-read The Coming Insurrection, but also writings by the less well-known (and equally shadowy) collective Théorie Communiste, who’ve been arguing against the familiar forms of leftist agitation—trade unionism above all—as possible fixes for the present crisis. One could name other progenitors as well; the list is long and internecine, but I only want to emphasize that the original occupations—certainly those at the UC schools—were undergirded at least in part by a specifically Marxist set of ideas about capitalism and class struggle, and of deeply pessimistic bent (I would hesitate to call it ultra-left or Left Communist). These ideas seem to have vanished from the present dispute over demands, hierarchy, and horizontalism—to our loss, I’d argue.
Back in 2009, the tactic of refusing demands had nothing to do with democratic process or knee-jerk horizontalism, and everything to do with the present stakes of class struggle. Rejecting demands marked, or was meant to betoken, a refusal to collaborate any more with the capitalism order, including the labor movement; it registered a vote of no-confidence in the wage system, because there are no jobs anyway—we’re grad students, remember—and those jobs that do exist really and truly suck. Above all, the tactic was understood to signal, for some instinctually, for others intellectually, that the present-day horizons of struggle were emphatically not those of ancestral socialism. There was no longer any possibility of going back to the arcadia of the workers’ state; now it was a matter of piecing together the apparatus of redistribution on the outside, in the cold of the commons, without wages or benefits. If the refusal of labor was once the endpoint of autonomist struggle, today the stakes have been reversed: the rebels are not the workers but the jobless, those who’ve been refused employment both inside and outside the capitalist heartland. The Arab Spring had everything to do with this logic, and only the fatally tone-deaf would mistake OWS as a workingman’s movement—quite the opposite. From this point-of-view, the argument that’s been playing out in and around Jacobin—about structures of organizing and, implicitly or otherwise, vanguardism—fails to hit economic bedrock. The argument we ought to be having concerns the future of capitalism: where it’s been, where it’s headed, and with what consequences in the present tense. I assume that someone out there in the Occupied world has been talking about those things, but it doesn’t seem to have trickled upstream.
At the Bluestockings discussion, the traditional-Left side of the table endorsed the idea that OWS ought eventually to endorse a list of demands. Soon thereafter, the Demands Working Group released their proposal for “a massive public works and public service program with direct government employment at prevailing (union) wages, paid for by taxing the rich and corporations, by immediately ending all of America’s wars, and by ending all aid to authoritarian regimes to create 25 million new jobs.” While these are all fine things, they have as their premise the wrong assumption that some version of the welfare state represents a Platonic form of the political good. But the welfare state was only ever invented to serve a partisan set of interests—those of capitalists—and could not have been built save during a bygone moment of capitalism’s global development, when the costs of welfare and high employment were capable of being offset by the profitability of modernizing production. Yes, the labor movement did force capitalists to internalize many of the costs of workers’ social reproduction, but it did this in an era of spectacular growth—nothing could be further from the present-day scenario. Bear in mind that the greatest expansion of the welfare state took place during capitalism’s golden age in the 1950s-60s. The point of it was never to build a good, equal, or just society; the point was to draw workers further into the system of production, extending that system to encompass nearly every aspect of lived experience. Remember too that the success of the welfare state was dogged by the counter-cultural rejection of its meaninglessness, and also its exclusivity. If the 20th century was the proletariat’s utopia, it was also its hell.
No amount of wishful thinking will bring back the days of heaven and hell, though. Now there is only hell, bleak and disastrous, but no longer quite so meaningless or exclusive. Capitalism has been failing since the late 1960s, when its previous temporary fix—the rapid modernization of production in advanced economies, coupled with reasonably generous social welfare—stopped doing the trick. If the welfare state beckons on the horizons of Zuccotti Park, it can only be a mirage, a trick of the light playing on the shields of the riot police. I’m not arguing that the occupiers pack up and go home, though—far from it. For if anything about OWS is encouraging, it’s that in the first days of the present wave of occupations, veritable communes were set up in literally dozens of American cities, distributing food, shelter, and first aid freely and to all comers. Whatever else the second-wave occupiers believe about their movement, they’ve already begun to do what we at the UC couldn’t quite pull off, at least not until now—creating living breathing communism in some of the least communal places imaginable. A movement that began as a political response to economic injustice has become an economic response to capitalism. To the extent that OWS has a future qua class struggle, it will be as communes or as nothing. Forget your demands, in other words—welcome to the autumn of the communes.
Critics will say that while these small acts of communism are well and good, they will never be able to provide for the millions who depend on capitalism for daily bread (Doug Henwood said something to that effect on last week’s Behind the News). Two months ago, though, these same critics would have said that organizing even a single commune was an impossibility, that communes inherently fracture and fail, and would in any event be too geographically isolated to matter. Clearly the mayors and police departments of the occupied cities see things differently. In any event, the communes exist and can’t be wished away. They’ve already begun to attract the jobless and homeless and underemployed and will continue to do so for as long as the occupations keep going. And this, after all, is the economic function of communes relative to capitalism: not to liberate people in the abstract, but to lay the groundwork for a retreat from the wage system. It has always been a desideratum of capitalism that such refuges should be destroyed, whether to flush people into the labor market (primitive accumulation) or to prevent alternatives to the wage system from materializing. It should come as no surprise that the first groups to join the occupations have been those who are at present excluded from the system—the homeless, the wageless, the debt-stricken and the underemployed—and that the police force called on to oppress them are well-paid suburbanites. As the movement of the communes pushes forward, these divisions, between the waged and wageless, the self-policing professionals and the communards, will only widen. This split must not be construed as external or opposed to the movement; it is the movement’s clearest form of expression.
As for the practical tasks of the communes, I defer to Théorie Communiste’s account of what’s to be done and how: Communization is, to begin with, “the destruction of exchange: this means the workers attacking the banks which hold their accounts and those of other workers, thus making it necessary to manage without; this means the workers communicating their ‘products’ to themselves and the community directly and without market; this means the homeless occupying homes, thus ‘obliging’ construction workers to produce freely, the construction workers taking from the shops at liberty, obliging the whole class to organise to seek food in the sectors to be collectivized, etc. Let’s be clear about this. There is no measure which, in itself, taken separately, is ‘communism.’ To distribute goods, to directly circulate means of production and raw materials, to use violence against the existing state: fractions of capital can achieve some of these things in certain circumstances. That which is communist is not ‘violence’ in itself, nor ‘distribution’ of the shit that we inherit from class society, nor ‘collectivization’ of surplus-value sucking machines: it is the nature of the movement which connects these actions and underlies them, renders them the moments of a process which can only communize even further, or be crushed.” I would only add that the point of communization is not simply to destory capitalism, but also to reappropriate—directly and immediately—the means of social reproduction. One need have no particular scruples about how this should be done; for example, it’s immaterial whether one pays for, steals, or buys on credit what’s needed to keep the commune going, so long as one enables the group to live without wages—and not only to live, but to grow, to spread, to incorporate more capital, like phagocytes in the economic bloodstream. Nor does it matter whether or not the commune has these means from the get-go; the point is to acquire them, after all, and that takes time. While it’s certainly important what spatial form the communes take, perhaps the centralized model of OWS will give way to more dispersed territorial arrangements. Time will tell. Make no mistake, though: these experiments have begun, and they will spread; they make sense, and much more sense than the usual business of demanding, politicking, and wound-licking. The era of the Party is over; long live the communes.
Originally posted: October 27, 2011 at Prima Porta