Article speculating on possible outcomes in Occupy, current anti-austerity struggles, and radical involvement.
Here’s what I think may be going on in the present today. A lot more people are interested in fighting. The official powers that be are not disposed to negotiations and concessions. That is, we have a growing sense of injustice on one side and inflexibility on the other side, and in some cases a repressive response which feeds the sense of injustice that I think is an important part of our current moment.
People’s growing sense of injustice and of being wronged means that groups who are about economic inequality have more legitimacy now. There was just a long article on this at salon.com with regard to the labor movement. Within the growing group of people who proclaim that there are social injustices and that we should act against them, some people are getting more open to militant tactics. There's currently some debate in Occupy over respect for property and such, sometimes talked about unconstructively as a matter of pacifism or not. We'll see how far this goes but it could embolden organizations to exercise more militant tactics.
I think Occupy could embolden some groups to fight more effectively and it could make it so our social environment is more conducive to them winning. We may be entering a social climate where this kind of behavior is rewarded by people, and some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) may figure it out. That is: militancy might become more effective.
I can imagine radical friends of mine saying "right, yes, like we've all said all along! Militancy is more effective! Direct action gets the goods!" I'm skeptical about that - I don't think direct action is always the best way to get the goods. Sometimes direct action gets you fired, and working a second job gets you more goods. But even if it's true and a direct action approach is always the best way to win, it still might be that there's an important change that's happened or coming in the near future. That change might be that more people are willing to take direct action and that direct action is more likely to win gains. If more people are willing to take direct action, that's exciting for sure. But what does that mean?
What I'm trying to say here is that I think for a lot of us on the left we tend to think of ourselves as standing for things like militancy, and democracy. Those are the sorts of things we try to work for when we're participants in social struggles. We try to make them more militant and more democratic. I like militancy and democracy, but I think radicalism is more than advocating militancy and democratic process. To put it another way, at any given moment we face a set of problems and... well, there's two expressions that I like that say the same thing. "If you have a guillotine then every problem looks like a French aristocrat" and "If you have a hammer then every problem looks like a hippie." I think that people (and I definitely include myself in this) tend to react to a new problem using the tools and perspectives they developed from the last problems they dealt with. And there's a sort of problem of how to pose problems...
What I mean is that I think a lot of us, definitely myself included, have spent recent times focusing more on how to fight effectively, and we’re engaging with current events from that place: let’s make these fights as effective as we can. Let’s learn as much as we can. Let’s try to make things democratic. All of that is good. But…
We tend to move forward applying our current sets of practices and ideas. As my friend John O’Reilly has put it in conversations, many of us on the left struggle to solve the problems posed by the previous generation, even if they aren’t the problems that we’re currently encountering, and we use the resources we inherit from previous generations. After while we run into difficulties where our current practices and ideas are falling short, so we have to start asking what the problems are that we're coming up short on. I think a lot of us are likely to run into difficulties in terms of how we articulate and share our vision and values and analyses. I think we haven’t done that very effectively beyond an in-group level. And I don’t think we have a clear enough sense of how people got into that in-group or how we can recreate that process deliberately.
More concretely, I've been really struck by some of the material calling for a general strike on May 1st about how much of it is like "fight for fair wages" and so on. I would say the same thing of the IWW's involvement in Madison in 2011. I don't mean to insult anyone's hard work or be disrespectful (I helped write some of the material IWW members distributed in Madison, I include myself in these criticisms) but I feel like there are some important issues about how to spread radical ideas that some of us could stand to discuss further. Not that I have an answer, I just think it's a question worth addressing.
If I'm right and people are getting or going to get increasingly willing to take direct action, here's what I think may happen. In the present the capitalists and their governments aren't particularly interested in negotiating or in making reforms. This is partly because the current arrangement seems to be working okay for many of them to some extent - they continue to be getting richer. There are some voices among the capitalists and their politicians and planners who are saying that some reforms could be good for the economy over all and for capitalists in particular, but they're in the minority and most capitalists and politicians are doing well enough. They also have ideas and culture too, and currently anti-regulatory and pro-individual wealth ideas have more pull among those people. If I'm right about all this then what we may see is rigidness on the part of the official powers-that-be and more willingness to fight among people and organizations. We may see more crackdowns like have happened in Oakland. I think that’s the likely short term scenario.
I think this offers opportunities to forces on the left. If the capitalists and states weren't likely to negotiate this might make radicals be taken more seriously, for a few reasons. For one, lack of meaningful reform makes openly reformist voices less credible. For another, repression may radicalize more people further, or at least make them more willing to be militant. That is to say, we are probably entering a time or been for a while in a time when people more people are newly receptive to radical ideas. That the official powers that be aren't really interested in negotiating might intensify this dynamic. That radicals are often the voices of militancy may help as well.
The thing is, what are we a voice for other than militancy? And how good are we at being that voice? I think there could be a real turn, and it might work like this. First there will be faltering efforts by reformist groups to capitalize in the short term and win gains. This will work sometimes and fail other times. Occupy and electoralism will become an issue of serious conflict over the next year in the U.S. what with the presidential election and all. A lot of the rejection of elections will be along the lines of “they’re all bastards anyway, look what little we’ve gotten out of electoralism.” That perspective, however, is based on expectations of short term outcomes – what will best get the goods in the near future – not based on a larger analysis or values. If electoralism starts to become a way to get the goods sometimes, then this perspective will erode. Until electoralism starts to deliver short term payoffs, anti-elecoral radicals will continue to have real and increased opportunities to put out our views and be taken seriously. But what if there are changes at the electoral level?
One concrete example, within the rules of parliamentary procedure etc, the Democrats in Wisconsin during the protests there in Madison did about as "militant" (scare quotes intended) an act in the parliamentary world as you can do, by breaking quorum. They did so in part because the Tea Party Republicans have taken a “fuck you we don’t have to work with you” stance, which polarizes the political strata. To use Mao-oid language, the Tea Partyists created an antagonistic contradiction among their people, one that they didn’t have the strength to power through or crush. The Democrats typically rollover like crazy so that "spineless Democrat" is redundant but the Dems who broke quorum *didn’t* rollover for a minute. Governor Walker and co’s antagonistic stance helped the Dems grow a backbone and break quorum. That in turn helped the Dems regain some legitimacy: they stood up hard, briefly, which gave them greater support. It’s like when the cops came out against Walker too and were at least temporarily more popular in some quarters, including, shockingly, some people on the left. Taking a stance on values and fighting hard sometimes is a useful move for electoral politicians, whether they ultimately win or lose on the issue. (I should also add, I’m not sure how much impact the mobilizations in Madison had on the actions of those Wisconsin state senators. I think it’s likely that those 14 senators would have rolled over in typical Democrat fashion if it wasn’t for the large mobilizations. The outrage that so many people had with Walker and the Republicans probably made those Democrats bolder so that they took their actions of breaking quorum and leaving the state. That is, the militant movement may have encouraged the Democrats to act in the way that they did, and which gave those Democrats more credibility for a while with some people.)
That is to say, right now Occupy is a movement of people with some grievances, and it’s a movement of people who are addressing those grievance largely outside existing channels of grievance handling. (I’ve been trying to goad Scott Nappalos into writing on this, as I find it thought provoking whenever he talks about this.) The primary reason why Occupy is going outside those channels is because of a short term pragmatic calculation that official channels don’t work. And there are some forces within Occupy who have as one of their grievances the fact that official channels in the U.S. don’t work very well right now. That is, one of the perspectives in Occupy right now, I think, is that American institutions needs to be made more responsive. I think the example I gave above about Madison is one case where this happened, recently, at the electoral level.
Another example that’s not electoral in nature is the NLRB and the CIO in the US. The sit down strikes went way beyond the existing means of dispute resolution and they violated capitalist notions of property rights and control over workplaces. They were really militant. And that helped make the NLRB do its job. A lot of radicals at the time mistook the great militancy of those works as evidence that the CIO and the NLRB were radical. And as I said in another piece recently, part of why the National Labor Relations Act was passed in the first place was because of the strike wave of 1934. In one his speeches in favor of the NLRA, Senator Wagner said that what the NLRA really did was make existing U.S. institutions work better. The U.S. government already had mechanisms in place to manage employer-employee relations, they just weren’t working very well and weren’t used very effectively. In the terms I’ve been using here, Wagner suggested that what the NLRA really did was to unstick U.S. institutions that had become gummed up. And this happened in direct response to militant social movements.
One last example. I've been reading a biography about Robert F. Williams called Radio Free Dixie, I highly recommend it, and also Williams's short pamphlet Negroes With Guns. In the 1950s in North Carolina the local NAACP chapter took up arms after local courts became exhausted as a means of handling disputes - white rapists and murderers got off regularly when the victims were black. The stories of what happened in Monroe are inspiring and heartbreaking and I have the utmost respect for Williams and others involved in those struggle. But at the same time, this taking up of arms made the courts work better. There are other examples of this in the life and struggles of Williams and in the history of black freedom struggles in the U.S. (and probably around the world as well, but I know more about the U.S. example.)
All of which is to say, we may see Occupy grow and win some things but also run into its limits. (Or if not Occupy, then another not-too-distant future round of struggles.) Part of those limits will be defined by the disposition of the people in the state. That is: the people in state power will set the limit of how far Occupy can go *under capitalism* in the short term. As in, the people in state power will shape what is and is not a winnable demand for Occupy. The disposition of various capitalists will shape this too – how much their willing to put up with before conceding a demand, that’s not a fixed thing, it could change. The capitalists too could become more willing to negotiate.
Once Occupy runs up against the limits of winnable demands there will be a push to politicize Occupy in the sense of electoral politics -- electoralize it. If so, it will likely be a mix of vote out the more right wing politicians (recalls) and vote in some others who are Democrats. We may also see a viable third party candidate (viable in the sense of electable under capitalist democracy in the U.S.) I think that there's room for real reform under the system currently, but there may not be a need for that reform in the short term, and some politicians are ideologically committed to not having reforms happen. They could be voted out of office, though, so that if the current politicians don’t get more flexible, more reform-minded ones might get elected.
Throughout this time, people might continue to be or increasingly open to radical ideas and militant tactics. If there’s electoral successes, or if costs start to get really high (ie, struggles start to get really disruptive) for capitalists, then the initial conditions will change. Instead of capitalists and governments who aren't particularly interested in negotiating or in making reforms, we may see a new willingness to negotiate and to grant reforms. Direct action will get the goods more and more, and the official powers that be will be more and more willing to grant a bit more access to the goods, and there will be more and more people willing to take direct action. If that happens, the initial thing that gave radicals more of a boost for our ideas will start to erode. Right now most people don't believe in the efficacy of the state. "Reforms?" some people scoff, "impossible." And that's true under who is currently in power. That makes it easier for us to be taken serious when we say “abolish capitalism.” But we may come to a period where people will say “abolish capitalism? No, just bang on it a bunch and it will start to work better.” And there to pick up the slack there will be politicians and government agencies and service-providing NGOs and combative NGOs who specialize in banging on capitalism to make it work better…
Put abstractly, we may be seeing a tendency that will change to a different tendency. I suggested that we’re seeing increased clamor against injustice and increased openness to militancy on the part of movements and increased or continued inflexibility on the part of the official powers. That’s the current tendency. This could change, to a situation where there’s great institutional responsiveness. Sometimes going outside existing channels gives existing channels the wake up call they need to start working again. Then some people with grievances go back to official channels, if all they really wanted was resolution of their disputes. That's the type of question I was trying to get at earlier, that I think we could use more discussion on: how do we orient toward changing what people want? That is to say, I think we might enter a moment where revolutionaries and revolutionary ideas will have a greater opportunity to gain greater credibility, and there’s a good chance that we will leave that moment and be back to square one. A rising tide might lift our boats politically, then the outbound tide deposit them right back where we started.
And if radicals aren't trying to really win people to and deepen their commitment to radical ideas like universal justice, the unacceptability of all forms of oppression and exploitation, then when things change the reformists will become the realistic alternative to radicals. And we'll get outflanked. Of course I don’t have a crystal ball, I mean this above all to raise questions about how we advocate for our social visions - how much and how well are we currently doing so? We shouldn’t assume that the options in the short term are revolution or business as usual. Occupy might be a game-changer that helps capitalism play better. The rulers may become more open to reforms and reform may become more realistic – or there could be electoral shake-ups. If our arguments for our social vision are based too much on the current perspectives of the current crop of capitalists, rulers, and their assistants, we will have difficulties when the next crop arrives. If our hegemony is mostly just de facto based on the fact of the current rulers current disposition, then if the current rulers change, or if they change their minds, then we’ll be more likely to be outflanked.
None of this is to say co-optation has to happen. I just think that maybe some of us are relying too much on the fact that currently a lot of institutions in capitalist society are gummed up. Things that are meant to reduce social friction and increase loyalty and help people meet their needs (just enough people, meeting just enough needs, to help provide a bit of motor oil for the engine of the capitalist death machine), right now those institutions are working pretty badly. Currently those institutions are largely frozen in place and don't provide much for people. If things get heated enough those might melt a bit and start to work more, unless the other side just opts for straight up repression and sweeps us all off to jail. If things get really heated then some state politicians will start to talk about dramatically reforging those institutions. I don't think this says much about what radical politics will look like in our time but I do think that this is likely to be some of the stuff that goes on in the larger social environment that radicals have to operate in.
A comrade who read this draft for me, John O’Reilly, asked me what I think we should do differently in light of the above. I’m not sure what the practical consequences of all of this are. I’d like to talk more about that. Put abstractly, I think we need to have conversations with people about what they currently want and the values they currently hold, as part of fights for what people currently want and need. And within those fights and conversations we need to push things toward conversations about what I would call more universal values and deeper social transformations. I think that the ways we evaluate success in our activities will have to involve assessing how often we win our short-term fights and assessing our activities in terms of the values people currently hold and the things people currently want. But we also need to assess our activities in terms of how many people and how deeply people hold to more universal values and thoroughgoing critical analysis.
Slightly more concretely, within my own area of involvement, in the Industrial Workers of the World, I think we’ve done well at improving how effectively we organize and teaching people skills on organizing effectively. That’s had a relatively democratizing effect among organizers and has increased our efficacy. As part of all of that we’ve gotten better at helping people create relationships and frameworks for having conversations with co-workers about work experiences, conversations that help turn unpleasant work experiences into grievances for acting on. We’ve gotten better at doing all of that systematically, though there’s more we could be doing. I think we could stand to do more about having conversations about vision and values in a systematic way, and helping people create a common framework and vocabulary for posing and addressing political problems.
Beyond the IWW, in relation to social movements, I don’t know what it would look like exactly and in concrete detail but I think we might think about how well we’re orienting toward the intellectual and moral life of movements. This is already happening to some extent I think. This means trying to get clear about the range of ideas and values that circulate in movements and to figure out how to intervene to shape those. One piece of that is at the level of the content of writing and imagery and so forth, another part is in the format of types of conversations, one on one and collective. I think it would also be useful to identify historical examples of movements who did aspects of these things successfully, that is to say, looking at examples of past movements and how they collectively thought, discussed, debated, reflected, and emoted about their experiences and their world.
This post is part of a discussion about the possibility of actual reforms and about political reformism within movements. For more on this see Juan Conatz's "Is Reform Possible?" and Joseph Kay's "Climate Change and Capitalist Growth." I've laid out my ideas on this topic in a few posts, "Workers, the State, and Struggle," and "Reform Is Possible and Reformism Is Guaranteed." In another post, "Struggle Changes People," I presented some aspects of the types of transformations I think we should orient toward.