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some thoughts on occupy wall street

September 30, 2011

On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to the idea of Occupy Wall Street and what people are trying to do. I see it as a grassroots push back against the people and institutions that not only helped cause the latest economic collapse, but collectively represents the very embodiment of the expropriator class that expropriates massive amounts of wealth from working-class people in the form of uncompensated labour.

Basically, the money that Wall Street is playing around with is all the money expropriated by capital from the working class in the form of surplus value (i.e., unpaid labour), which is the primary source of what we call profit in the capitalist system of production. The stock market essentially takes all this wealth and tries to increase it for its holders via gambling, investing and shuffling it around, while at the same time acting as a freeway for the distribution of capital between other capitalists throughout the system.

Many people seem to think that ‘markets,’ including the stock market, can do no wrong, even when the markets themselves are full of people and large financial institutions moving things around in an effort to profit off of the ups and downs, which, in turn, creates even more ups and downs. Unfortunately, when markets crash, as they inevitably do, it’s ultimately the working class who suffers the most — enduring everything from extended periods of high-unemployment to higher costs of living to depleted 401Ks and IRAs, etc. — while for Wall Street, it’s business as usual.

One of the lessons I’ve taken away from Occupy Wall Street, however, (and perfectly illustrated by this article) is that the left seriously needs to relearn how to organize, as well as how to get its message out more effectively since the media often seems to downplay (read, ‘completely ignore‘) these kinds of events (which, consequently, brings up the question of the place and use of digital/social media by activists and some of the problems they’re facing).

This isn’t a criticism of Occupy Wall Street as much as leftist activism in general, which, on the whole, seems to have become increasingly less focused and militant over the years. While left-wing social and political movements tend to have no problems springing up over various issues and events, they seem to dissipate almost as fast, particularly more radical movements, once initial momentum is lost. Movements can’t sustain themselves without long-term commitments on the part of activists; and the left needs to find more creative ways to spread its message, as well as to keep people actively engaged in struggles. Occupy Wall Street seems to be off to a good start, though.

And while I think that the recent influx of union support for Occupy Wall Street is definitely a good thing, what we really need are more radical unions (like the IWW, for example) that are willing to be instruments of revolutionary change rather than just mediators between capital and labour. Historically speaking, unions have tended to deradicalize working-class movements they’re a part of due to their dependence on, and basic deference towards, the employing-class and capital.

Moreover, as heartened as I am by this upsurge in left-wing/working-class activism, I’m still afraid that it’s a case of too little, too late. The right has been far more organized in recent decades; and the rise of right-wing lead, middle-class populism has little in the way of organized opposition besides a few scattered groups and a shrinking number of severely weakened unions. And if history is any indication, middle-class populism left unchecked can eventually morph into fascism.

Of course, I could be wrong about the potential direction that all of this populist anger might take in the future (assuming it doesn’t just fizzle out into political apathy); but I still feel strongly about the need for the left to get better organized, and that depends on working people getting more active whenever and wherever they can. In end, I completely agree with the article, “A spotlight on Wall Street greed,” that:

While Occupy Wall Street has shined a spotlight on the inequality in U.S. society and the power held by financial elites, a single action like this won’t be enough to win the reforms desired by participants if it fails to link up with other movements. Doing so will require struggles rooted in workplaces, communities and schools–which highlights the need for activists to begin organizing around issues that impact people’s daily lives in ways that involve people with families and jobs, who may not be able to participate in an action like Occupy Wall Street.

Update, October 2, 2011: I read two excellent analyses today addressing some of the predominately leftist criticisms of Occupy Wall Street (including my own), particularly the charge that the movement itself is unfocused and lacks any real direction: “The Nuts and Bolts of #OccupyWallStreet” and “First we take Manhattan.”

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