Long Live the New American Revolution
Occupy Wall Street rapidly spread well beyond the financial district of Manhattan, where marchers set up camp in Zuccotti Park on Sept. 17, and by Oct. 1 had homegrown branches in Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, Portland (Maine), Portland (Oregon), Seattle and Washington, D.C. An AP report on the expansion of these protests noted that Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York is “a billionaire who made his fortune as a corporate executive,” and then quoted Bloomberg (interviewed on a radio program) chiding the demonstrators for targeting Wall Street:
“The protesters are protesting against people who make $40- or $50,000 a year and are struggling to make ends meet. That’s the bottom line. Those are the people who work on Wall Street or in the finance sector.”
No, that’s not the bottom line, financially, politically or morally. Intellectually, Bloomberg was not even dishonest; he merely opened his mouth and added spin to the hurricane of chickenshit bearing down on millions of people from the towers of finance and from the marble halls of Congress, that mausoleum of democracy haunted by corporate lobbyists. If we take our protest to Congress, the pols tell us to take our complaints back home to city halls. If we take our complaints to city halls, the pols tell us to take our complaints back to Congress. Now some of the Wall Street insiders also tell us our real gripe is with the politicians and not with the financiers. But that’s all a political game of three-card monte, a hypnotizing chain of distractions while the marked cards play us for rubes. The trickster goes on picking our pockets on bad gambles only so long as we don’t kick over the table and take our money back.
They barely begin to understand that we are denying the consent of the governed to the present political class, and that millions of people already recognize that corporate CEOs are the unelected government. In the corporate media, many reporters and financial wizards complain that the protests are too diffuse and have no clear message. In other words, politicians are demanding that we form a delegation with a magic number of proposals. All problems solved! The proposals would die in a dozen congressional committees after our very own lobbyists had been wined and dined.
I am a democratic socialist and a member of the Green and Socialist parties, and I joined the Occupy Los Angeles march on Oct. 1 that began in Pershing Square and ended with an encampment at City Hall. I believe my participation in a populist rebel movement against financial corruption and the corporate state does not disqualify me in the least from taking a critical view of that same movement. My political creed has changed over the years, and when I am mistaken in matters of fact I invite public correction. But from the time I was an anarchist in my teens to my present espousal of democratic socialism, certain basic convictions have been confirmed, not only by bitter personal experience in some lousy jobs, apartments and health clinics, but also by the more impersonal conversation every writer conducts with other readers and writers.
The refusal to use the personal pronoun can be an inverted form of vanity in political writers, and that kind of official journalism advertises false modesty while encouraging actual careerism. I, on the contrary, insist on saying “I” when this is what I mean; and likewise on saying “we” when the plural has some real social weight and historical meaning. I believe readers should know where I stand and what kind of comrades I choose. “We, the people” does not mean a personal voice must be strangled in order to claim a fair hearing in public.
The ways in which Fox News spins real news of popular rebellion against Wall Street is simply not my subject here. No, I choose instead to disclaim all bogus “objectivity,” if this means taking the magisterial position of Zeus on Mount Olympus, or indeed if this means taking the various managerial positions that constitute the spectrum of opinion on the op-ed pages of The New York Times.
If a gun was put to my head, and if my political horizon had to be narrowed to the pages of The New York Times, then I would surely choose the views of the economist Paul Krugman over the views of mystifying bloviators such as David Brooks and Thomas Friedman. Because Krugman at least never tires of arguing for a kind of left Keynesian program, insisting that President Obama must find the courage to become a Franklin Roosevelt for the 21st century, and that this country needs an up-to-date New Deal.
And yet Krugman will remain a prophet crying in the wilderness, admired by “progressives” who will vote by rote for Obama in 2012, but otherwise ignored in practical public policy by Obama and his inner circle of Wall Street economic advisers. At this very late date, Obama has ventured to outline a “roads, tunnels and bridges” kind of public works program, whose dividends would be jobs and more wages circulating within a presumably “free market.”
Why should we believe this program would be carried through with fighting spirit, since all such spirit seems to have been spent in the brutally slow disengagement of human limbs and lives from the meat grinder of several imperial wars? When Rachel Maddow asked Tulane professor and author Melissa Harris-Perry whether Democratic politicians had anything to fear from the Democratic base, Harris-Perry smiled and said, “No.” She went on to explain by quoting words dear to Hillary Clinton: “You campaign in poetry but you govern in prose.” An excellent formula for lying with every breath, and then staging the music, candles and fine wine for the next seduction scene.
The public creed of “progressives” in this country is often admirable point by point, and yet the dots never connect to make a convincing big picture. Worse yet, lines drawn in the sand of grand public speeches wash away under the lunar waxing and waning of “centrism,” and under the next high tide of opportunism after any big election. In 2010, Obama gave a high-minded speech telling us he had to steer the ship of state without veering too far off course: “My job,” he assured us, “is to make sure that we have a north star out there.” That may be poetry but it is not yet a political program. This captain continues to chart a course dictated by unelected corporate rulers. And all the while millions of drowning people overwhelm the lifeboats, while the Titanic parties of capitalism slowly sink in a vast cold night of starry ideals and the next looming icebergs.
After all, Krugman is quite right in most of his immediate economic proposals, but he must confess to himself at 3 in the morning that the leading Democrats don’t give a damn. This is what makes Krugman the economist as bemused on the field of party politics as Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Every sentence Krugman writes is perfectly clear and perfectly irrelevant. The far right accuses Obama of “socialism,” whereas the economic policies Krugman advises really might become a transitional program toward social democracy if only Obama dared to be a social democrat. We have no evidence, however, that Obama’s convictions are social democratic in the daily common sense form that millions of voters and citizens understand in Canada, Venezuela, South Africa, Sweden, Spain and in Germany. For that much social democracy really does exist on this earth.
Against the myth of socialism in this country, honest socialists should come out fighting for social democracy. Krugman’s program is a beginning and we would welcome his advice. Politically, however, the only response to class struggle from above is class struggle from below. In the day-to-day class struggle, Krugman is hardly a useful political guide at all. That is why these words, seen so often on pickets and handmade posters in recent days, are the real deal for any New Deal: “They only call it class war when we fight back.”
Now there is a north star for class consciousness and independent politics! Not in voting by rote for “the lesser of two evils,” which is the “pragmatic” advice that has worked so well for professional politicians ever since World War II—and that has worked against workers, democracy and socialism in the United States. Every big election now becomes a narrowing downward spiral toward the political abyss, toward corporate rule using ever more refined methods of crowd control, while placing the most brutal police above the law.
Is there no difference at all between the Democratic and Republican parties? Yes, certainly, but the question is also deliberately and instrumentally stupid. For example, the most grotesque legal forms of discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people have become matters of concern for leading Democrats, precisely because they could no longer lie shamelessly to our faces and then count on our votes yet one more time. True, that is not nothing. But why have gay people suddenly become the positive proof of generous good will among leading Democrats, when many “progressives” have argued for years that gay lives and rights are simply a “wedge issue,” a “litmus test” for fanatics but not for practical politicians, and even a lamentably narcissistic form of “identity politics”?
What a difference the next election makes. Suddenly all such arguments are forgotten or dropped into the footnotes. In elections where a margin of a thousand or even a hundred votes makes all the difference in our anti-democratic system, certainly politicians have found it opportune to acknowledge the basic human rights of gay people. But anyone who paid attention to the actual White House maneuvers around the Defense of Marriage Act and “don’t ask, don’t tell” knows that the usual Clintonian triangulations remain standard operating procedure under Obama. His timing, his high-minded rhetoric, his instrumental regard for our votes and insulting disregard for our lives, his “Christian” confession to the public that he believes “God’s in the mix” when one man and one woman are joined in marriage—all of this counts for nothing among the kind of “progressives” eager to believe that the devil made him do it. The devil simply means the fire-breathing dragon of the Republican Party, and much the same excuses were used to defend every tack and twist of Clinton during his years in the White House.
For myself, I take every opportunity to tell every vote-by-rote “progressive” Democrat exactly what they do not want to hear: I owe nothing to the Democratic Party. If we are speaking, however, of individual members of that party, then of course I recall many cases in which common humanity triumphed over “pragmatism” and the barbarous ideology of the “free market.” This is precisely the cellular level of the body politic, and here there is always hope for change. Here the person still counts, and not only the vote. But the background radiation of the corporate state is always with us. We, the people, would therefore do well to abandon all hope in the professional hucksters of “hope and change,” such as the current president and his crew.
Every real gain gay people made cost some of the most bitter hours and days of our lives, especially during the deadliest years of the AIDS epidemic in this country. This bitterness is far more tonic and trustworthy to me than all the honeyed revisionist history of the gay movement now being typed (I will not say written) by Democratic Party hacks of all sexual persuasions. The truth just tastes better than lies, especially partisan campaigns of organized lying. Scott McLarty of the Green Party recently wrote an article on fake bipartisan “pragmatism,” and on the need for radical electoral reform and independent politics. I recommend that article, “After the Wall Street Protests,” published recently in Firedoglake. McLarty describes the convergence in crucial public policies between the corporate parties:
“On nearly every big issue from the wars to Wall Street’s looting of the economy to offshore drilling and oil pipelines, President Obama has shown a smooth continuity from the Bush-Cheney administration. When he clashed with Republicans in the health care reform debate, the argument was really over which side could best accommodate for-profit insurance companies and other special interests, with Democrats offering mandates that require everyone to purchase private coverage, an idea they pilfered from Republican Congressmembers who introduced it in the 1990s.”
Such evidence counts for nothing among many older “progressives.” Or more precisely, for the majority of Democrats over the age of 40 who voted for Obama before and who will vote for him again. As has become familiar in every big election for the past 40 years and more, such “progressives” always forecast the apocalypse if voters don’t fall into military formation behind the Democratic Party. Yet they all fell into line with unswerving final loyalty, though with plenty of gripes and indigestion along the way, and we still inhabit a political landscape that has grown more apocalyptic in regular electoral cycles.
This is not democracy, nor “strategic voting,” nor “pragmatism.” Nothing of the kind. This is the familiar drill for political sleepwalkers. They may have a waking nightmare as they vote by rote, but otherwise they are under the deepest partisan spell. The long habit of diminishing hopes has accustomed them to this political climate, and every practical impulse of rebellion has been paralyzed. These “progressives” are like frogs that get boiled alive one degree at a time, and croak in chorus that they are really just enjoying a nice warm bath. No one seriously argues that mere youth makes a political rebel, much less a class-conscious socialist. Yet young people are perennially the very people who most often break partisan ranks in times of open political crisis. Here again we now have real hope of change. Naturally, there is no reason to discount any older folk who are still socialists after all these years, if only they make their votes count against war and capitalism.
Make every vote count? Mine counts against anti-gay bigotry, of course, but also against war, empire and the corporate state. The right to swear allegiance to militarism in our very own military uniforms, and the right to swear an undying oath to monogamy in marriage — well, I have no simple view of such rights. Such rights and such public vows are only democratic to the degree they remain civil libertarian. They amount to declarations of faith, since those public swearing-in ceremonies require much denial of daily contrary evidence; but plenty of people do not belong either to the militarist or to the monogamist faith.
When California briefly legalized same-sex marriage, my dearest friend and lover became my legal spouse; and I gladly became his as well. We had our reasons for that choice. And we have our reasons for stating openly that marriage in a truly secular democracy should become a strictly civil contract. In a social democracy, solidarity with single people or indeed with communal households is reasonable and defensible. A civil contract of marriage therefore does not raise the partners to a higher legal or material status. Marriage in a social democracy must be a matter of contract and a matter of fact. Nothing less, nothing more. Whether a married couple also chooses a religious ceremony is entirely within the realm of personal faith. Nothing more, nothing less. As for love and romance, the more distance the state keeps from such a personal realm the better.
As reported in The New York Times on Oct. 6:
“On the [Occupy Wall Street] group’s website, they describe themselves as a ‘leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that we are the 99 percent that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1 percent.’ ”
The corporate news media began paying attention when 70 protesters were arrested in New York on Sept. 24, but still failed to give this decentralized populist movement any serious coverage until 700 protesters were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge on Oct. 1. The following day, the New York Police Department was sued by the city’s bus drivers union for commandeering buses to transport arrested protesters.
Is the Occupy Wall Street movement a left-wing version of the tea party movement? Certainly that analogy was assumed by any number of commentators (including Keith Olbermann) when they noted that any tempest in a tea cup on the right was instantly given full coverage well beyond Fox News, but that the real rising tide of popular rebellion against corrupt institutions of high finance was judged to be newsworthy only once this tide became a storm.
To his credit, Olbermann interviewed Will Bunch, author of “The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama,” on Sept. 21 about the failure of the corporate media to report the big events unfolding in the urban canyons below their corporate headquarters. And Bunch noted that The Guardian (in Britain) had described the foot soldiers of this young movement as being overrepresented by disgruntled students, namely, “the overeducated and underemployed.”
I believe that description was generally fair in the first few days of the street protests. But by early October that generalization was proving generally false. Already the more progressive labor unions and local branches are stepping up to their responsibilities, and their banners and members have changed the political tenor of the movement. Here we already have the emerging foundation of a class-conscious alliance of students, workers, the unemployed, the underemployed, those juggling part-time jobs and still failing to pay monthly bills, and even sectors of the proletarianized lower middle classes.
Anyone with a strong sectarian bent can argue that this movement was genetically flawed at birth by the evident gaps in class consciousness among the earliest members who turned out in the streets. But that argument would be partial and narrow-minded. If I may use that loaded word from the Marxist lexicon, such an argument would be truly undialectical. The more interesting argument concerns all the contradictory ideas and social forces that have been drawn so rapidly into a movement evolving from one day to the next. This is a strong sign of social life beyond managerial control from above.
This movement began among sectors of students enraged by the destruction of their middle-class dreams, among tech-savvy hipsters and among cosmopolitan bohemians. Also among affinity groups of social anarchists on the left and of libertarian capitalists on the right, who share little in common except a strong aversion to the corporate state. But that was enough common ground for action, even if no one was swearing a loyalty oath to a common ideology.
Everyone acknowledges that a Canadian group, Adbusters Media Foundation (best known for its advertisement-free magazine Adbusters), provided the first rivulet of inspiration that became a mighty Mississippi of social discontent. According to a report in The Vancouver Courier on Sept. 27:
“ ‘We basically floated the idea in mid July into our [email list] and it was spontaneously taken up by all the people of the world,’ said Adbusters senior editor Micah White on Monday, the 10th day of the protest. ‘It just kind of snowballed from there.’ ”
True, this Occupy Wall Street movement did not spring up in the earliest days from the organizations of the working classes, the very people often betrayed by the more bureaucratic labor unions and by reflexive loyalty to the Democratic Party. These facts can be noted objectively without being cobbled together into a distorting myth of origins. In a social movement that changes form and substance from city to city over the course of 24 hours, we really learn less from the worthy socialist scriptures than from our own “seven days of creation.” Our first task is to pay attention to reality.
Organizational origins can be traced in just the manner I have suggested. Yet that too is a partial view of reality. For it would be false to say that this movement against unelected corporate government and charity for the rich drew no inspiration from working-class struggles, both within and beyond our borders. Our social memory must extend at least several months earlier in this very year, and our political horizon must extend to every country where people cease to give consent to their governments. The earlier eruption of protest in Wisconsin against that state’s union-busting legislators had already altered our sense of political possibility. Certainly the mass labor strikes and public protests in Europe against austerity programs (imposed even by some ruling parties of the “left”) set high examples of civic courage. And as protesters occupied streets and public places all across the country, many explicitly said that the Arab Spring had given them practical lessons for an American Autumn.
One of the big stories ignored by the corporate media during the upheavals in the regimes of North Africa and the Mideast was the renewed courage of the working classes of those countries. Indeed, I am not aware of any major media report on the recent emergence of a secular and socialist political party in Egypt. Yet that news is not hard to find once we simply go over, under and around the channels of corporate news and tune in to the real major media of our time: namely, our own communities of political resistance and the multiplying news channels online. I am not a technological utopian, and I’m well aware that all we make public online is also a new field of surveillance for the state. But while this window of information remains open, we must continue breathing. Amid all the trite talking heads who assume the gospel of “democratic capitalism” must be delivered by American missionaries to those benighted souls across the seas, we may still find oxygen and real information. As reported by Ekram Ibrahim in Ahram Online on Sept. 28:
“On Wednesday, members of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party marched in joy through Tahrir Square, playing the oriental ‘Hasabla’ music in celebration of collecting the minimum 5,000 notarized memberships needed to apply for official status. The Popular Alliance has now become the first leftist party to reach the mark since the January 25 Revolution.”
Ibrahim reported that the Democratic Workers Party, the Communist Party and the Socialist Party were also seeking to register for electoral status under the law. Yes, and now let’s linger on a simple telling fact that rings out like a liberty bell from beyond our borders. Just consider “the minimum 5,000 notarized memberships” needed to conform to Egyptian law. That number is far more democratic than the high hurdles and flaming hoops truly independent parties and candidates must jump over and leap through in most of the states in the United States of America.
Indeed, in the state of Pennsylvania, the Democratic Party operates like an outright political mafia, using the “independent judiciary” as brass knuckles against candidates who dare to challenge the bipartisan lockdown of big elections. Not content with hammering Ralph Nader and Green Party Senate candidate Carl Romanelli with court fines calculated to shut out insurgent citizens from public life, one of those Pennsylvania judges also fined one of the lawyers on their legal team. That is truly an unprecedented attack not only upon fair elections, but also upon the very rule of law. “Progressives” are eager in every big election to “make every vote count” for their chosen party. In the Democratic Party, however, the apparatchiks have not yet learned that real democracy means we, the people, have the right to vote as we damn well please, even when they have rigged “the two-party system” to discount our votes.
Yet there were “progressives” who simply regarded this political thuggery as team sports, played on a field where the corporate parties own the judges, make all the rules and move the goal posts whenever the wrong team valiantly racks up an insane number of signatures on ballot petitions. If a judge finds any ZIP code in bad handwriting or even a few “Mickey Mouse” signatures, that counts as grand fraud and subversion of democracy; while the whole system of corporate dictatorship is simply law, order and business as usual. Such impartial judges and professional politicians are in no position to preach the gospel of democracy, neither in the big cities of Pennsylvania nor in the provinces of Afghanistan. On the contrary, we will learn better morals and better politics from the revolutionaries of Africa and the Mideast who have now placed social democracy on the public agenda of their countries.
From the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street movement, a few Leninist groups jumped into the action seeking to place their banner, program and public speakers at the head of the parade or at the top of the grandest flight of marble steps. The deep conviction of such groups is that 1917 is the key to all subsequent history, if only we read the classic texts and events correctly. Thus the Trotskyist, Maoist and frankly Stalinist groups and parties have waxed and waned for nearly a century.
The achievements and sacrifices of honest communists should not be ignored, especially at critical junctures of industrial class warfare, in times of imperial wars beyond our borders, and certainly in many anti-racist struggles. But Leninism, in theory and practice, has not kept up with actually existing democracy. The critique of congressional cretinism is even correct in many particulars, and yet the sectarian left is trapped in historical shadowboxing as soon as we consider the living forms of democracy that have already sprung up outside and even against the big corporate parties of this country.
In Los Angeles on Oct. 1, the good will and idealism of a white and (I would guess) well-educated organizer was evident when she told people that the action was not designed to “indict anyone today, but instead to open a conversation.” But a conversation requires partners willing to speak and listen in good faith; and the fact remains that many Wall Street financiers and congressional politicians should get fair trials and some should go to jail. Whereas the younger and predominantly white protesters adopted the habit of repeating phrases of the main speaker in chorus as “the people’s microphone,” the sectarian left came prepared with a sound system and a determination to mount the steps of public buildings at the beginning and end of the march. The disciplined members of the ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) Coalition and of the Party for Socialism and Liberation (an offshoot of Workers World Party) hammer out the party line to all those willing (and unwilling) to listen. At times, they are the only groups mobilizing protest when “progressives” and the wider democratic left have not made the effort. When a social movement advances by its own lights and will, of course any Leninist party strives to move to the head of the march.
Anarchism, in both the more explicit forms and in the more diffuse circles of influence, is a vastly underestimated political movement; for well over a century this has been an unpredictable electric current among many of the young. In the countries of Latin Europe and for a time in Argentina, anarchist labor unions have been a significant political presence. During the Spanish Civil War, anarchist militias not only took part in the fight against fascism but even earned the sober admiration of George Orwell, who was by no means a political romantic.
The Black Bloc (a term often used to describe a diffuse group of young anarchists, sometimes masked by bandannas) has taken some adventurist actions and drawn all the familiar criticism from police, liberals, pacifists and the Leninist left. Anarchists rarely march in orderly partisan ranks, and they constitute a political ecosphere as diverse in its own way as the Amazon jungle or the healthier coral reefs. For the fact remains that many of them detest violence but are willing to fight for the one life they have on earth. Anyone who tries to understand the liveliest forms of youthful rebellion without understanding the magnetic draw of the anarchist ideal will simply fail to give a good account of an evolving movement.
Do democratic socialists demand the revolution yesterday, today or tomorrow, any more than we demand that the protesters now in the streets should adopt a class-conscious worldview the first time they are pepper-sprayed or jailed? No, because socialists do not steer our course based only on hopes of change, or on the north star of our own ideals. In a country where both corporate parties have done so much practical work smashing labor unions and shipping good jobs offshore, socialists can only advise both fighting spirit and stark realism.
The corporate state undermines both democracy and the republic; and the professional politicians who have made Congress the front office of the ruling class must learn to earn an honest living. If we regard the basic forms of social democracy in health care, housing and education as “revolutionary,” then long live the American Revolution.