Communique on the recent #occupations

A communique outlining a number of issues with Occupy Baltimore and the wider movement, including a resistance to address race and gender, as well as the avoidance of anti-capitalism in favor of dominant liberal reformism.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on October 24, 2011

This occupation is inevitable, and yet we need to make it. There is no way for capital to continue its reign – this is clear. And yet, capital will not behead itself: we know that we need to struggle in some way if we are to overcome it. This statement is not a rejection of the occupation – as if it could be avoided, as if the present conditions were not so grave, as if we haven’t all had enough. But there are things that need to be said. We submit this critique in the deepest solidarity with those people of color, women, queer, and trans* folx that have endured this occupation while labouring on making it more livable from the inside.

Before anything else, we must frame this movement within a prior occupation, that of white settlers on Nanticoke and Susquehannock land. The genocide, expulsion, and dispossession of native peoples is foundational to the ascent of the US as a center of global capital; we cannot reclaim this country, only acknowledge it as a unit of capitalist destruction.

“We are the 99%”

If we want to use this figure to underscore how far polarized the rich and the poor are today, fine. But those of us that don’t homogenize so easily get suspicious when we hear calls for unity. What other percentages hide behind the nearly-whole 99%? What about the 16% of Blacks that are “officially” unemployed, double the number of whites? The 1 out of 8 Black men in their twenties that on any given day will be in prison or jail? The quarter of women that will get sexually assaulted in their lifetime? The dozens of queer, trans*, intersex, and gender-variant folks that are murdered each year, 70% of whom are people of color? Is a woman of color’s experience of the crisis interchangeable with that of the white man whose wage is twice hers? Are we all Troy Davis? As austerity grinds down on us, who among us will go to prison? Who will be relegated to informal, precarious labor? Whose benefits will be cut, whose food stamps canceled or insufficient? Who will be evicted? Who will be unable to get health care, to get hormones or an abortion?

Don’t get us wrong. We’re not asking for better wages or a lower interest rate. We’re not even asking for the full abolition of capital – there’s no one to ask. For now, we are simply critiquing this occupation for assuming we are there, while we have so far been left out. Because we know that whatever is next will be something we make, not something we ask for. Even if we don’t feel safe there, even if what little analysis and structure that has emerged thus far makes clear we are not a part of this movement, we radical feminist, anti-racist revolutionaries are going to keep bringing our bodies and ideologies to the occupation, for the same reason that women of color support and attend Slutwalk despite critiquing its white-centered politics: because we see potential for building resistance in our communities and affecting material change. But for this potential to be realized, we have to work together in solidarity with the understanding that unity must be constructed with an analysis of difference, not just plastered blindly over inequalities. Consider this text a chip at the plaster.

Anti-finance or anti-capital?

Nothing is more clear in the American debt-scape than racial character of everyday finance – but it is sexed, too. And not only because women, like people of color, were disproportionately solicited for subprime mortgages (across all income levels). There is no better indicator that women and people of color cannot be assimilated to the faceless borrowers of the 99% than the strategic location of payday loan offices, tax-preparation outlets, and banks that specialize in subprime mortgages. A map of foreclosures, of adjustable-rate mortgages, a topography of interest rates: all these overlap neatly on the demographics of racialized and feminized poverty. It’s not a coincidence: today, race and gender are not grounds to deny credit, but indexes of risk. And as long as risk can be commodified, as long as volatility can be hedged against and profited from, our color and gender will be blamed for the inevitable collapse. This is the absurdity of everyday finance. We are the risk? We are the predators? Finance’s favorite game must be the schoolyard refrain: “I know you are but what am I?”

We know that economic crises mean more domestic labor, and more domestic labor means more work for women. Dreams of a “mancession” fade quickly when one realizes male-dominated sectors are simply the first to feel a crisis – and the first to receive bailout funds. The politics of crisis adds to the insult of scapegoating the injury of unemployment and unwaged overwork. And the nightmare of fertility politics, the ugly justification of welfare and social security “reforms.” “Saving America’s families,” the culture war rhetoric that clings to heteronormativity, to patriarchy, in the face of economic meltdown. Crisis translates politically to putting women in their place, while demanding queers and trans people pass or else. And the worse this crisis gets, the more the crisis is excused by a fiction of scarcity, the more the family will be used to promote white supremacy by assaulting women’s autonomy under the guise of population control. The old Malthusian line: it’s not a crisis, there’s just not enough – for them.

Let us be clear: finance is not the problem. Finance is a precondition and a symptom, a necessary and contradictory part of capital. Deregulation, globalization, deindustrialization: none of these words can provide a substantial explanation for the present context. Each is only a surface phenomena of capital’s tendency to make its own systemic reproduction increasingly difficult for itself. Crisis and the reconcentration of wealth among capitalists is not only regular but necessary; the tendency to financialization has many historical precedents. Genoa in the 1557-62 looks like the Dutch Republic in 1780-83; Britain in 1919-21 looks like the US today. But even if financial booms and busts are as old as mercantilism, there is a qualitative change to the nature of these crises over the course of the eighteenth century, when capitalist production is imposed on the British countryside. Capitalist production creates an unparalleled need for credit, an unprecedented need to consolidate and centralize capital, a grotesque scale of fungible assets that strives to make everything solid melt into the sophistry of mathematics. Asset-backed securities and credit default swaps didn’t make this crisis, they only allowed it to heat up and billow out of control.

For those that recall the warm and golden age of American industrialism with dewy-eyed nostalgia: this crisis began with the failure of US industry in the late sixties. Real wages have been stagnant since then. The oil crisis of 1973 was the hinge; we are living in the declension of US global power. There’s no going back, no exchanging unproductive finance for good old-fashioned productive exploitation. Or is there? Today, American industry is indeed firing up again, as capital that had long flown from its shores returns to find wages lower than the so-called third world. “Reshoring”: a name for the farce that follows the tragedy of the post-war boom.

History insists on the eradication of capital as the only possibility of preventing crisis. Finance reform and “sanctions” are not enough: we will never see “the military industrial complex dismantled, the police disempowered, and the public sector fulfilling its obligations to the people” by redistributing wealth. Corrupt politicians and greedy financiers are only a superfluous, insulting layer on the thing that is truly condemned: capital, which in our time is inescapable. With this realization, we don’t need to occupy Wall street, or any bank. Why was Tahrir square chosen? Was it even chosen at all? We could occupy any corner, any room, any building, and it would carry the social significance of what needs to be either appropriated or destroyed. The better question to pose when deciding what to occupy, is what do we want to inhabit? (On this point, it is worth mentioning that the tactic to occupy has evolved since its recent revival in the 2008 occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago. What struck students in New York, California, Puerto Rico, London, Athens, etc. about this tactic was that its strategy to re-appropriate equipment, space, and organization could take place without recognition from the authorities. Demands were auxiliary to the best part: the immediate process of retaking control over the means of production.)

Whatever this occupation is, it is not a camping trip from capital – we are still in the patriarchy, still in a white supremacy, still in a transphobic and disability-loathing society. In these places, assuming we are unified will only obscure the divisions produced by capital, divisions that need to be confronted before anything else.

On the politics of the occupation: liberalism, policing, and the uses and abuses of equality

The “99%” rolls their eyes at anyone that takes offense to signs referring to the current economic climate as “Slavery 2.0,” or asserting that “The free hand of the market touched me in a bad place.” Comparing (white) student debt to hundreds of years of violence and forced subjugation, entrenched as a system of enduring systematic racism; mocking sexual assault for effect – these statements send a clear message to those of us subjected to such oppressive acts. By trivializing our experiences, these signs simultaneously control and silence how we talk about our marginalized statuses and traumas. To those of us who hoped for Occupy Baltimore’s status as a safe, anti-oppressive space, we read these signs as “BEWARE.”

While some are already bristling at the “identity politics” of those that are offended by racist, misogynistic, survivor-hating signage, the placards that have been denounced the most loudly are those that attack capitalism. Concerns about “public opinion” being able to identify and sympathize with our collective messages abound. These so-called debates actively skew the agenda towards the watered down, apolitical, and (com)modified. GAs play out as if we (the comprehensive “99%”) all endorse these views, but communist, anarchist, and anti-capitalist perspectives are in fact excluded before they are given a chance to be voiced. Meanwhile more privileged niche groups like (hella pro-capitalist) small business owners remain front and center. We who are “taking things too far” get left behind by the “99%”.

As a result of this policing, liberal populism has dominated the occupation’s process, statements, and proto-demands. Or better, populism tinged with a healthy dose of hippie new-age individualism (a vaguely counter-cultural disposition suits contentless politics perfectly). Liberalism uses platitudes of “unity” and “equality” not to insist that we should act in order to be unified and equal, but to say that we already are – and as such, should “put aside our differences.” Liberalism refuses to see racism, sexism, and class inequalities as material and systemic, reducing these to the level of individual attitudes of perpetrators and victims; liberalism only registers and disciplines individual oppressors, never structures. In the process, the systemic character of individuals’ oppressive actions is obscured, while the demands made by the oppressed for changes in their actual material conditions are ignored, or worse – appropriated, co-opted. (Take, for example, so-called “reverse racism”: the idiotic triumph of the liberal individual over history.)

The police are not “just workers” and they are not our friends

More than anything, the 99% will be divided by our relationship to the cops. They say: in the interests of “radical inclusivity” that we should avoid anti-police messaging; the police, after all, are part of the 99% that have seen wages, benefits and pensions cut along with the rest of the public sector. They say: we must remember that the police are people too, and not exclude them from our movement before they’ve had a chance to express solidarity with us. We say: just wait. These arguments assume that an individual can be separated from their institutional/social roles, that a police officer can be engaged with in a purely personal sphere, completely distinct from their occupation as an arm of state repression. A classic liberal tactic to humanize the oppressor, and thus to derail a structural analysis of oppressive systems, and invalidate the anger of those experiencing institutional violence. Advocating a cooperative, amiable relationship with the police brushes aside the violence of widespread racial profiling, sexual assault with impunity, the murder of innocents, and the war on drugs by universalizing a white, middle-class position that believes the police really serve and protect.

And it’s not only about police brutality. How can there be non-violence when there are still police? We need to know that as soon as we present a threat to any element of capital – before this point, even – we will be violently repressed. A peaceful, lawful protest by no means guarantees immunity against arrest and brutality: we only have to look at the women who were penned and maced at #Occupy Wall St. to know that. But unless this knowledge is at the forefront of our minds, the first to be arrested will be those that are most vulnerable to police brutality and to breaches of security. (A journalist in the room is a tip-off to immigration officials, not “good press”.) We must make our movement a safe space for the undocumented, for the homeless, those with criminal records, and for anyone else for whom contact with the police never takes place on friendly terms. However “nice” a police officer may be to you (FYI: police are often very “nice” to those from the right class and race) does not change the fact that the police are a powerful instrument of violent repression, deployed by a capitalist state to enforce its interests: namely, white supremacy, male domination, ruling class power, and the limitless pursuit of profit.

Why say “99%” when you mean “me”?

The reason #Occupy Baltimore has not yet been anti-capitalist is because, for all its rhetoric of “unity” and “inclusivity”, it is really a movement organized by and for the white middle class. There is a reason why the people most afflicted by capitalism are not coming down to the McKeldin Square. When the organizers act like racism is a “second-tier” issue (for instance, by saying “We don't have time for that - We need to bring this back to the real issue: finance reform.” As if reinstating Glass Steagall will do a fucking thing!) it becomes clear whose movement this is. Let’s drop the false rhetoric: what’s wrong with the system is not that it isn’t fair to the 99%, but because it isn’t fair to them. The disappearing middle class reappears in the concrete environs of the business sector – to better envision the jobs and upward mobility they desperately want. Don’t get us wrong – there can be a lot of good in indignation, discontent, disillusionment. But we need to exorcise the living ghost of the middle class: the spirit of not giving a fuck who you fuck over. Why say “99%” when you really mean “me”?

And you know how it goes: the neutral “me” is the white dude with all the time in the world (we have to say it: the ideal occupier). Whiteness and maleness have been duly reinforced as the not-so-secret standard at this occupation, in many ways. One example: an announcement made by a young white man at a GA that “everyone is accountable when they speak to media, because they represent the occupation as a whole” (FYI: there is no literature, no point person, no infrastructure to guide new members; only judgment). The countless snaps and twinkles in support of such a statement demonstrated clear consensus. Those twinkles expressed a range of assumptions that people who are largely comfortable in their own skin tend to make: being present in a space makes you in charge of its representation; most everyone agrees with you (and should). Those of us that have daily to prepare ourselves for an immanent bash; immanent fight with hostile, privilege-denying strangers; an immanent insult (intended or not), we take issue with this coercion into representation. We don’t ask you to represent us (please god no); don’t fucking assimilate us to your views, and then make us responsible for them. We won’t even mention how much and how loud white dudes have been speaking.

Rather than policing the radical voices taking anti-capitalist, revolutionary, and anti-police positions, we should give these voices space to be heard, and listened to seriously. The anarchist in-joke “Make Total Destroy” has a grain of truth: that the real political agenda consists in destroying state power, capitalism, and all its forms of coercive social control. Why was this phrase deliberately excluded from the agenda cards read out during a GA, while such platitudes as “We are All One” and “Peace on Earth and Good Will to All,” were deemed worthy to be shared? The liberal-or-else reformism of Occupy Baltimore is perfectly encapsulated by the imposition of goals of peace and love. Fuck peace: we need to formulate a coherent political analysis and a revolutionary agenda to destroy capitalism and dismantle state power. Rejecting outright the eventual need for an armed uprising reflects an unwillingness to pursue the logic of our own (proto-)demands to their full extent.

Don’t tell us to be “pragmatic,” to focus on piecemeal reforms and wait for our day in the revolt. Actually, reformism is idealistic: reformism believes in democracy under capital, in the possibility of redistributing wealth that is systematically dispossessed from its producers. Our revolutionary desire to destroy capital is not idealistic, abstract, or merely theoretical; nor is it inactive: this aim is embodied in a multitude of actions towards different immediate and faraway ends. To us, this means the revolutionary aim is not purely negative, not only about destruction: we work to confront racism, sexism, and class war in our community as an immediate goal, without losing sight that we ultimately cannot live like this anymore. For Occupy Baltimore, this means the 99% must relinquish its presumed equality and acknowledge division if it is to grasp the real conditions of society, and what must actually be done.

“The 1% are winning every time we fight amongst ourselves.”

When the excluded call out a movement, we are often told to put aside our differences: it’s only common sense that to accomplish anything, we need unity. But the only unity we have, the only equality we share, is the thinnest commonality – the democracy of consumers. Already, in conversations with supposed comrades, our critiques have been met with concern that the “mainstream” won’t get it, that the precious, delicate momentum will be stopped. Interventions to a white-washed and patriarchal agenda (which is any agenda that denies the differential impact of capital on people of colour and women) are always received as interruptions. At best, they are conceded to with invitations, with “outreach”, and with promises to be more inclusive. We say: inclusivity without an adequate analysis is just unstated exclusivity. This is not identity politics: this is the anti-identity politics. For it is capitalism that pushes us to rank facets of our identities; to select one group as the vanguard and press marginalized identities to choose which aspect of their oppression to make a priority. We refuse this choice: we know that our difference is produced and reproduced by capital and therefore cannot be erased within it, that these differences are real (the most real) and thus should drive our analyses and our actions, and that no unity can be claimed until every social relationship is no longer defined by capital, but by us.

Originally posted: October 2011 at bmoretrans