12 February 2012

Imagining an American spring and a movement to topple 1% rule

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. —Gross inequality in income, wealth and power in the United States is the defining issue of our time—a period in which the American empire is fast declining and the domestic economy is moving into uncharted, troubling waters. Whether these enormous inequities can be addressed without chaos may be determined by the strength of popular resistance, most notably the Occupy movement, over the next few months.

There are indications in the social and traditional news media of a resurgence in grassroots opposition in the spring, certainly by May Day. And because the outrage is so widely held, the forces of reaction, the combines of capital and their political and media front men, will be prepared. 

Meanwhile, within the Occupy movement, which has framed the conflict as one in which the 99% vs. the 1%, there are divisions surfacing over ideology, strategy and tactics. Chris Hedges, who has been a prophetic voice of non-violent resistance long before Occupy Wall Street last September, recently offered a surprisingly shrill denunciation of black bloc anarchists, who he called “the cancer” of the movement. The black bloc’s willingness to engage in militant and sometimes violent direct action jeopardizes the Occupy movement’s legitimacy in the eyes of the larger public and invites violent state repression, according to Hedges. He also characterized the anarchists as elitists unwilling to work cooperatively with other elements within the movement. 

Hedges’ accusations drew an almost immediate rebuttal from David Graeber, who has emerged as one of the movement’s leading anarchist theoreticians. Graeber claimed that Hedges wildly misunderstands anarchism, has mischaracterized their efforts, and employs the “language of violence” in his denunciations. “This is precisely the sort of language and argument that, historically, has been invoked by those encouraging one group of people to physically attack, ethnically cleanse, or exterminate another—in fact, the sort of language and argument that is almost never invoked in any other circumstance,” wrote Graber. “To see this kind of language employed by someone who claims to be speaking in the name of non-violence is genuinely extraordinary.” 

“My first impression was that Hedges is sensing the death of Occupy, and is looking for a scapegoat,” wrote Michael McGehee on his blog. He thinks Hedges has failed the address the “elephant in the room,” which has been the Occupy movement’s inability to create the “structures” that can sustain the long struggles, the vision, as well as the activist communities over time. The Occupy movement has wisely refrained from policy proclamations that can be easily appropriated and watered down by reformists, but as McGehee argues new structures of cooperation must be built in our neighborhoods and workplaces and the existing models of cooperative enterprise like food coops, other retail purchasing cooperatives, credit unions, and worker-owned  business need to be dramatically expanded.  Without those structures, the movement will be even more susceptible to its greatest threat: the liberal reformists who are determined to suck the revolutionary lifeblood from the movement and channel it into package of cosmetic policy initiatives at the service of an Obama presidential re-election campaign.

“I think these movements really terrify the power elite and, in particular, the Democrats. One could argue that the greatest enemy of the Occupy movement is Barack Obama,” said Hedges in an interview published two days after his “cancer” essay.

In the short term, the success of the Occupy movement may be largely determined by how it chooses to engage the established order. It is strategic suicide to engage the 1% on the terrains in which they have an overwhelming advantage, any field of competition easily dominated by money or violence. Corporate and financial interests seeking a wholly subservient state will always exponentially outspend the working classes, broadly defined as the 99%, in the mass media battles for hearts and minds in federal electoral campaigns.

The scales are even more lopsided if the terrain is one of violence. State security forces are armed to the teeth, loaded with sophisticated surveillance technology, and many of their handlers are salivating at the prospect of violent encounters with the movement.  If anyone believes the state will show restraint in any serious challenge to its authority, I suggest they review U.S. labor history, which was as brutally suppressed as any labor movement in the western world, or the Civil Rights movement in which many of the guardians of law and order used truncheons and unleashed attack dogs on women and children, while turning a blind eye on vigilantes who tortured and murdered activists.

This is a struggle that can be won as long as the movement of the 99% accepts that broad-based support is fickle, should never be assumed, and must be continually earned and organized. Lasting structural change can only be built from the bottom up, a proposition overwhelming demonstrated by Obama’s victory in 2008 and his administration’s subsequent failures, by creating new structural alternatives to replace the corrupt ones we will help to topple, and by strategically engaging the 1% on battlegrounds in which we can employ our superior imagination and cunning. 

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:18 PM

    I think the crux of Hedges argument is this: Occupy is far more likely to build a mass movement if all demonstrators are committed to act so that whenever an Occupy site or event becomes a space where mothers and fathers with strollers do not feel safe it is SOLELY due to the actions of police, and not of protestors. Obviously, the Black Bloc participants believe differently. They believe that adding destruction of property as a legitimate action at an Occupy site or event is going to help build a mass movement. Maybe, but its predictable outcome is police violence which a) is likely to make parents with strollers fear for their children's safety, and b) will be justified to the public at large as a law-enforcement action against vandalism and property crime.
    I propose that some members of the public will likely focus on the question, "do I support police action to protect private property?" and, if so, might well conclude "I must not support the aims of the OWS movement."
    I believe it is far more productive for members of the public to be asking "do I support police violence against people whose only crime is to refuse to be dispersed when asked to do so?" The follow-up question: "what is it this movement stands for and do I support its aims too?" could well be a fruitful inquiry.
    I wish Graeber had addressed the utility of the Black Bloc tactics in Oakland and explained how they were helpful in building a mass movement. I wish he had explained why it is unimportant for demonstrators to commit to actions that aim to maintain a safe space for parents with strollers.
    I appreciate that Black Bloc protestors are identifying themselves by their attire. Why don't they also deliberately separate themselves from those who determine that property destruction is an unproductive tactic (maybe moving 5 or blocks away before damaging property), so that Black Blocs can build a cadre supportive of their tactics while those advocating peaceable assembly will be able to recruit others who find that approach more strategic.