Taking Advantage of Divisions in the 1%, and Getting Serious
October 15 has made history, although what sort of history it has made only time will tell. The global anger expressed in unison around much of the Western world and especially in the US and Canada, as well as the magnificent marches on and presence in Times Square in New York have officially pushed the Occupy Movement into a whole new category.
As I marched from Liberty Plaza to Times Square with 20,000+ of my closest friends yesterday, it was hard not to be exhilarated and hopeful, even for a career grumpy skeptic. I saw the full diversity of New York walking together: high school students and grandmothers, construction workers and symphony musicians. It was the sort of diversity we have always dreamed could animate our movements. This is not to excuse or elide the big problems that circulate around power, privilege, access and difference that do haunt the Occupy movements, only to say that I was moved at this march. More than this, it was thrilling to see confused Manhattan spectators realize what the march was about and actually join in. And it was glorious to stand together in Times Square, the holiest temple of crass American consumer culture, and to feel, for a moment, that something was possible, that (if you'll excuse me a moment) the power of solidarity could shine brighter than the massive, frenetic advertising screens that gazed down at us (BTW, #Anonymous – is there any way you could hack those next time?).
Add to this the tremendous efforts of Occupations around the world and especially through North America who maintained or established their encampments yesterday. This is truly the most inspiring aspect of October 15!
Now will be an important moment for the Occupy movements to make key decisions about what will come next. These will be divisive, largely because many want the demands and tactics of the movements to remain nebulous and yet-to-be-defined as a strategy in and of itself. Others will likely propose various “minimum programs” that can be agreed upon by a wide cross section of participants. Others still will insist on a more complete, comprehensive and radical agenda. This is a decisive time for the Left to put forward ideas in generous, humble and respectful ways.
WHAT WOULD THE DEVIL DO?
But what will the 1% do? After Bloomberg's failure to capitalize on the media mockery of OWS as “dirty hippies” there are a few options open. Likely, the powers-that-be will continue to try and mock and discredit the movements, perhaps by employing provocateurs. Similarly, they may try and create or orchestrate violent confrontations in order to justify police crackdowns. It is possible that the 1% will simply try and ride this out, hoping that the movements lose momentum as the colder weather sets in and as other stories come to dominate the media circuit and the political imagination.
Unfortunately, the 1% isn't quite that rational. It would be easier if, as our enthusiastic comrades believe, there were insidious conspiracies that ran the show. Unfortunately, the real conspiracies are not hidden, and it's important to look at some facts about capitalism as we try and determine how it will respond to this growing threat. Let’s remember a few facts:
1. The 1% is the ruling class. They own or control the bulk of society's wealth not merely in terms of money (which is a tricky thing) but in terms of control over our shared social productive infrastructure: banks, factories, utilities, the media, etc. It is not happenstance that they comprise the “1%” - they are a class because they have distinct but shifting membership and have a shared set of interests that they work together to promote.
2. That said, the ruling class is not all cut of one fabric.
First, they are, by their very capitalist nature, competitive to a fault. True, the CEOs of the major banks do talk to one another regularly and share a common agenda, but they also wouldn't hesitate to sell each other down the river. While they are all concerned about the impacts that populist rage could have on government regulation, they are equally interested in how they can corner the market and come out ahead of each other.
Second, different sorts of capitalists have different sorts of interests. The financial capitalists, for instance, want different things than the industrial capitalists (although increasingly the financial capitalists hold power over everyone else). For instance, intelligent bankers and financial capitalists might actually want the government to regulate consumer debt levels to mitigate the risk of “toxicity” entering the financial markets, as it did during the sub-prime loan crisis. But any slowdown in American's ability to borrow would be murder on the commercial and manufacturing sectors and their capitalists who (ironically, because they are beholden to the financial markets) need to increase their profits year over year through ever-growing demand.
All this is to say, a key contradiction in capitalism is that the ruling class must cooperate as a class in order to maintain their power, but also compete with one another because they are capitalists and the system runs through competition. Successful movements in the past have leveraged this contradiction.
3. The political elites don't automatically do what the capitalists tell them to do. Obama, for instance, has some wiggle-room here. There's a lot that's been written on this, so I won't belabour the point, except to say that these people are very smart, but tend to do stupid things. There is a very good chance that the eventual policy that does emerge from the Obama administration will be the wrong thing for the 1% in the long run, especially as that policy churns its way through the Republican opposition, who can't even control their crazies long enough to think about the good of the system they ostensibly want to keep propping up. For example, it is entirely likely that the Obama administration may use the Occupy movements to justify some relatively surprising, common sense changes, including some sort of derivatives tax/disincentive and or a stricter model of financial reporting. They may even muster the courage to raise taxes on the 1% and their friends. I doubt it will materialize. But in any case, as I'll point out bellow, this is no time for half-measures. These regulations may appear to be “best” for capital, even though they are not directly and immediately in (financial) capital's interests, but they won't address the fundamental underlying problems. More on this in a moment.
4. The final point is that, contrary to our friendly neighbourhood conspiracy theorists, no one is at the wheel. We are all in the belly of a slave ship with no captain, just a lot of capitalist and elite oarsmen (they are, indeed, almost all men). Some are more muscly than others, and they sort of manage to keep the ship afloat most of the time. But they are without real leadership or navigation. They believe all will be well if they just keep rowing, and spend a lot of time arguing with one another.
What does all this mean? Well, probably that we should take over the boat. But more seriously, it means that we are presently amidst a moment of massive discord among capitalists. Almost all of them know that the financial and broader global economic systems need a totaloverhaul, but there are too many fiercely held opinions about what to do for them to reach consensus. Not only are all the different capitalists competing to outmaneuver each other, most of the large nations are trying to play this crisis to their advantage too, notably the United States, China, and Europe (which is riven with its own fierce acrimony).
Ironically, it's not the 99% of us in Liberty Plaza and the other squares around the world who have no common agenda – it's the 1%!
But here is where it gets serious. As I mentioned above, now is not the time for half measures. The global economic system will not be saved by tepid compromises. It needs a complete overhaul. If the 1% fails to get their act together and behave like the ruling class they are, the “solutions” that will emerge will almost inevitably fail. The crisis will deepen into a global depression. Historically, when the ruling class has failed to come to an agreement in the face of a crisis, they opt for Fascism with a despotic leader coming to the fore and running the ruling class (and all of society) with an iron fist. We should not be surprised if, within a year, major right-wing pundits start floating the idea that real “leadership” and “unity” are the only ways to save society from itself.
So if the ruling class, the 1%, and their political cronies really can't solve this crisis, who will?
We Occupiers are not ready. We are enthusiastic and angry, but not prepared to take power, or destory power. So far the Occupy movements have been able to retain and grow their unity and plurality because they have been operating within a “politics of demand”: we demand the government do something about the power of the 1%. We demand the 1% relinquish their control. But what if the 1% and the governments are not capable of acceding to our demands? What if we need to redesign and rebuild our economies and societies ourselves?
It has been relatively easy for us to build a movement based on refusing to offer a clear agenda. It will be harder to transform it into a movement capable of rebuilding our world without the help of the 1% and the governments it has bought. I think we still operate under the comforting assumption that, for all our anger and indignation, for all our insistence that we are the revolution and that we are building the future now, “someone else” will ultimately solve the problem - that if we create enough noise, the experts will get the message and we can all go home.
The reality is a lot more terrifying. We have a few scant months to build real, capable counter-power. We are making history, but history is moving fast and furious.