Occupy Wall Street and the cultural politics of the class struggle
You can learn a lot about a movement by listening to its opponents. Everywhere, evidence is accumulating that at the level of formal power relations, the targets of the Occupy Wall Street movement—banks, transnational corporations, and the politicians who serve them—are quaking in their boots at the sight of a mass, leaderless, flexible, inchoate, constantly morphing movement characterized by unprecedented solidarity across formerly separate and even antagonistic groups and by the use of direct, disruptive, and innovative tactics.
As the movement spreads like wildfire, so does elite fear—evidenced by concessions like Bank of America’s withdrawal of its monthly debit-card fee and the likely project-killing delay of the environmentally catastrophic but highly profitable Keystone XL pipeline project and especially by the near-hysterical levels of coordinated police repression being visited upon Occupy encampments and protests nationwide. Both concession and repression are testament to the way that formally, elite/mass power relations have been reshaped radically in just a few short months. Both signal raw movement power.
But at the level of substance, as well, the reaction from the other side speaks volumes. From very early on in the protests, familiar cries of “get a job!” abounded from the movement’s opposition. A telling example was Rudy Giuliani’s exhortation to the protesters: “How about you occupy a job? How about working? Working. Woohoo, working. I know that’s tough. Woodstock is more fun, right? Woodstock is a lot more fun than working eight hours a day.”1 Indeed it is. And although many of the protesters around the country respond to these criticisms with a hearty “Work? That’s all we want is the opportunity to work hard and to be fairly remunerated for it,” the characterization of the protests as going deeper than that, to a critique of the austerity of work itself, is not actually too far off the mark. The discourse of politicians on the right, like Newt Gingrich (protesters should “go get a job right after you take a bath”2) and Guiliani, equates the protesters with slackers, slackers with the counterculture, and the counterculture with “class warfare.”
In drawing these connections, the enemies of OWS may understand its historical and politico-cultural context better than do ostensible friends, like Democratic politicians. President Obama, recently mic-checked by students himself,3 has expressed sympathy with the protesters by saying, “We understand their struggles and we are on their side, and . . . we want to set up a system in which hard work, responsibility, doing what you’re supposed to do, is rewarded.”4 And although there’s certainly a segment of the movement that’s agitating for the kind of Keynesian policies that would relieve the widespread stress and scarcity under which so many Americans live today and allow for a relatively comfortable life of quiet desperation, the truth is, it’s more than hard work and fair pay that the Occupy movement may ultimately be demanding.
An Anti-Austerity Tradition
The OWS protests began with a critique of economic and political inequality (which has, nearly everyone now agrees, become ridiculous) and of the simple injustice (“banks got bailed out, we got sold out”) of the “99%” being made to bear the downside of the ever more highly leveraged risks taken by finance capital. But protest discourse very quickly saw the terms “unfairness” and “injustice” replaced with “austerity,” a change that explicitly links the movement with anti-austerity struggles around the world and throughout American history.
To understand the real significance of this anti-austerity uprising, we need to be clear what austerity is all about. At one level, austerity means low wages and a relatively low standard of living—as Obama has said, an abandonment of the “American Dream” of work and fairness, the “American Dream in reverse.”5 The referent of the American Dream is, of course, the brief period of post–World War II affluence in which US capital responded to the working-class uprisings of the Depression era with a new “welfare-warfare” strategy in which high wages for workers were traded for high productivity and profits for capital, not to mention social peace. The postwar decades saw relatively full employment, state expansion of higher education and of homeownership, high taxation and massive investment in the public sector—just the things that many progressives are seizing today’s moment of popular uprising to press for.
But the historical fact is that when American workers had gained all this, they roundly rejected it, beginning as early as the late 1940s with the “beat generation.” Broadly speaking, they have refused the notion that material affluence is an adequate payoff for submission to the highly regimented work discipline that capital demands in return. The American Dream is based on the myth of the happy worker—and Americans long ago smashed this fantasy to pieces.
During the rebellions of the 1960s, the American working class (black and white) broke the postwar wages-for-productivity deal, pushing up wages and transfer payments while simultaneously refusing work discipline on the assembly line, in the office, on campus, at the draft board, and in the women’s workplace of the home. En masse, Americans engaged in what Antonio Negri calls the refusal of work—the refusal of capital’s demand that all moments of life and pieces of the natural world be alienated and made productive rather than enjoyed in and for themselves. This demand is the essence of austerity—work more, have less. Be less. For Negri, refusing it is the essence of the working-class struggle under capitalism.6 Guiliani and Gingrich (not to mention Reagan and Nixon before them) would, no doubt, agree.
The OWS Vision
Perhaps this anti-austerity history helps to explain why the “jobs and fairness” line doesn’t inspire quite the way that the more revolutionary “another world is possible” strain of movement discourse does. Consider the Demands Working Group of OWS. In October, members put forth a demand for unprecedented public investment to create “Jobs for All.” Not so surprisingly, it never really went viral. The truth is that jobs don’t get people all that excited. (Just ask the unions how things have gone for them since they abandoned the popular demand for shorter work hours at the same pay in favor of the discourse of “jobs, jobs, jobs.”)
Compare this jobs demand to the vision statement coming out of a late November meeting of Michael Moore and more than forty OWS activists, whom Gramsci might call the “organic intellectuals” of the movement, a statement that has already gotten massive play inside and outside the Occupy movement:
We Envision:  a truly free, democratic, and just society;  where we, the people, come together and solve our problems by consensus;  where people are encouraged to take personal and collective responsibility and participate in decision making;  where we learn to live in harmony and embrace principles of toleration and respect for diversity and the differing views of others;  where we secure the civil and human rights of all from violation by tyrannical forces and unjust governments;  where political and economic institutions work to benefit all, not just the privileged few;  where we provide full and free education to everyone, not merely to get jobs but to grow and flourish as human beings;  where we value human needs over monetary gain, to ensure decent standards of living without which effective democracy is impossible;  where we work together to protect the global environment to ensure that future generations will have safe and clean air, water and food supplies, and will be able to enjoy the beauty and bounty of nature that past generations have enjoyed.7
Make no mistake: this is countercultural stuff. The discourse here is not so different from the sentiments expressed in the Port Huron Statement, by the Be-In speakers, and in Mario Savio’s critique of the productivist ethic on the steps of Berkeley’s Sproul Hall (an old favorite, which has gone newly viral). The only mention of jobs is a negative one that echoes Savio’s exhortation for education to return to the humanist tradition of developing the whole person rather than narrowing and specializing human energy into a form suitable to function as a cog in the machine.
And like its predecessors a generation ago, this OWS statement rejects the elite discourse of scarcity that says there just isn’t enough for people to enjoy their beaches without oil spills, their mountains without clear-cutting, and their time without the stress of an increasingly heavy daily grind. It’s a vision of human entitlement to a good life on earth rather than a vision of a fairly paid and thus happy worker. It’s a vision of real democracy, not just a better market. And it’s less a demand than a summary of the new world that’s been created in Zuccotti Park and encampments like it.
Here then, is what movement opponents call “class warfare”—the creation of a counterculturally oriented space and the utopian vision that it inspires. An Occupation is a place where people (uselessly and inefficiently) converse, enjoy one another’s company, make their voices heard, eat food, play and listen to music, connect, engage in the experimental practice of radical democracy, and generally contribute nothing whatsoever to the production of profit.
Mounting a lived critique of austerity—of capital’s relentless instrumentalization of time and space and of the myth of material scarcity that says it’s simply not realistic to expect from advanced industrial society the decent standard of living that it makes technologically possible with a minimum of toil—the protesters are indeed slackers. They are also class warriors, struggling against the capitalist imperative (which struck back, hard, beginning in the early 1970s) that everything and everyone be a tool for making profit and for the human one—for the freedom to constitute time on one’s own terms, for friendship and laughter and conviviality and “useless” thinking and pleasure.
In its critique of the austerity of work and the manufactured discourse of scarcity on which it rests, the Occupy movement looks an awful lot like a return to vigor of working-class struggle. But it’s not a rehashing; it’s a reconstitution on a higher level. Marx and Engels (who were the first to acknowledge that a critique of immiseration is inexorably bound up with a critique of alienation) said long ago that “this organization of the proletarians . . . is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves. But it ever rises up again, stronger, firmer, mightier.”8
During the 1960s uprisings, there were several key splits that, along with a robust response from the other side, proved devastating (but not before our relationship to the planet was reconceptualized, race and gender relations were transformed, and the idea that all Americans would work to advance military goals without question was overturned). Foremost among these was the separation between the old, economic left and the then-“new,” cultural left—a bifurcation that is simply not in effect in the Occupy movement. Hardhats and hipster techies and drum-circle dropouts chill side by side. Old left–style exhortations to “general strike!” are echoed by “Occupy the Hood” rappers and poets. The “Teamsters and Turtles” coalition that was such a big part of the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle is, it seems, back.
Perhaps most significant, the AFL-CIO and independent unions all around the country have come out in full-throated support of the movement and have allowed themselves to be inspired (and even led) by its energy. Rich Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, has vowed that the union will completely back the protests, and just last week, in a stunningly significant proclamation, the Maryland State and District of Columbia AFL-CIO approved a resolution “calling on its members to treat Occupy encampments in the District and Baltimore as they would a formal picket line.”9
In further radical conjoining, the old economic-lefty memes—general strike, revolution, solidarity, resistance—agitate side by side with signifiers of the very postmodern critique of representation embodied by Occupy, like the Guy Fawkes “V for Vendetta” masks, the seminal figure of Anonymous, the radical, nonhierarchical democracy of the people’s mic, the rejection of “rational,” “representative” organization, and the refusal to issue a list of demands, to present a unified “identity.” Former antagonists—the old left and the new left, hippies and hardhats, Marxism and postmodernism—are all happily occupying the same urban and discursive spaces. And everybody seems really, really stoked about it.
At root, it’s all always been the same struggle anyway. The refusal of work, of the incessant instrumentalization of time and space, is the essence of both counterculture and working-class struggle. In fact, unions and the labor movement have always been seen by the other side as consummate slackers. From early-twentieth-century jokes about the anarcho-syndicalist IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) really standing for “I Won’t Work,” to Wall Street Journal editorials in the fifties pillorying unions as the “salesmen of sloth,” to the contractually enforced but highly inefficient work-rules for production workers of the Reagan era, to today’s hysteria over teachers’ unions (how dare they have the summer off), unions have institutionalized the people’s demand not to be worked to death in the interest of corporate profit.
When the right attacks OWS as a bunch of countercultural slackers and as the vanguard of class warfare, they very presciently apprehend the significance of a moment in which the capitalist work ethic and the artificially perpetuated scarcity it’s predicated on are being roundly rejected. One in which the utopian demand for cultural freedom joins the labor movement’s push for a more robust share of the spoils of capitalism. One in which old lefties singing Woody Guthrie tunes join rappers decrying “the man” and burly union dudes standing up to profitable corporations demanding concessions from their workers join hippie drum-circle groovers insisting that “the beginning is near.” The history of the movement is being written before our eyes. So far, there is one thing that many among the Occupiers and their opponents seem to agree on—all signs point to Occupy unfolding as a continuation of the unfinished project of the slacker revolution of the 1960s.
- Ben Yakas, “Video: Rudy Giuliani Thinks Occupy Wall Street Is ‘Millstone’ Around Obama’s Neck,” Gothamist, November 5, 2011, http://gothamist.com/2011/11/05/video_giuliani_thinks_occupy_wall_s.php. ↩
- Grace Wyler, “Newt Gingrich Slams Occupy Wall Street: ‘Take A Bath’ And ‘Get A Job,’” Business Insider, November 21, 2011, http://articles.businessinsider.com/2011-11-21/politics/30424453_1_bath-newt-gingrich-moral-depravity#ixzz1fDCeOZoY. ↩
- Alex Seitz-Wald, “Obama Gets Mic Checked, Tells Protesters: ‘You’re The Reason I Ran For Office,’” ThinkProgress, November 22, 2011, http://thinkprogress.org/special/2011/11/22/374748/obama-gets-mic-checked-tells-protesters-youre-the-reason-i-ran-for-office/. ↩
- Devin Dwyer, “Obama: Occupy Wall Street ‘Not That Different’ From Tea Party Protests,” Political Punch, ABC News, October 18, 2011, http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2011/10/obama-occupy-wall-street-not-that-different-from-tea-party-protests/. ↩
- Huma Khan, “Obama: ‘It’s Like the American Dream in Reverse,’” Political Punch, ABC News, January 30, 2009, http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2009/01/obama-its-like/. ↩
- Antonio Negri, Books for Burning: Between Civil War and Democracy in 1970s Italy (New York: Verso, 2005). ↩
- Michael Moore, “Where Does Occupy Wall Street Go From Here?” Open Mike, MichaelMoore.com, November 22, 2011, http://www.michaelmoore.com/words/mike-friends-blog/where-does-occupy-wall-street-go-here (emphasis added). ↩
- Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (Chicago: Charles Kerr & Company, 1906), 27. ↩
- Tim Craig, “AFL-CIO Urges Unions to Treat Occupy DC as Picket Line,” Washington Post, November 21, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/dc-wire/post/afl-cio-urges-unions-to-treat-occupy-dc-as-picket-line/2011/11/21/gIQAxEeLjN_blog.html. ↩