Occupy America

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By Cinzia Arruzza, February 2012

Move­ments al­ways ar­rive un­ex­pec­tedly. And those who have worked hard­est in pre­vi­ous years and months to push to­wards an es­cal­a­tion of struggles and mo­bil­iz­a­tions are usu­ally the most sur­prised by a move­ment’s ar­rival. In spite of the many sur­prises — Who would have ima­gined that the oc­cu­pa­tion of Tahrir Square was pos­sible? Who would have ima­gined the Span­ish acam­pa­das? — Left­ist act­iv­ists tend to in­sist in think­ing that move­ments and the spe­cif­ic forms the move­ments take can be pre­dicted. The real­ity is that one can pre­dict that there will be a struggle, for class con­flict is in­scribed in the cap­it­al­ist re­la­tions of pro­duc­tion. But when, where, and which form this struggle will take is im­possible to pre­dict. The im­possib­il­ity of pre­dict­ing the spe­cif­ic con­stel­la­tion in which those who are be­low de­cide that the situ­ation is simply not ac­cept­able any longer does not mean that move­ments ex­plode like light­en­ing in the sky.

Where­as a move­ment can­not be pre­dicted, it can be pre­pared.

Where­as a move­ment can­not be pre­dicted, it can be pre­pared. The pa­tient daily work of or­gan­iz­ing, the isol­ated struggles, the failed at­tempts at ac­tion and mo­bil­iz­a­tion, and their memory: all this is part of the pre­par­a­tion of a move­ment. This pre­par­a­tion, however, does not func­tion as a lin­ear quant­it­at­ive growth which at a cer­tain point will lead to the un­avoid­able birth of a move­ment, in the way wa­ter boils when its tem­per­at­ure reaches 212 de­grees Fahren­heit. For a move­ment ex­plodes when a cer­tain num­ber of highly con­tin­gent cir­cum­stances co­in­cide to cre­ate the very spe­cif­ic situ­ation in which fight­ing be­comes a cred­ible op­tion. And the move­ment grows when the forms of mo­bil­iz­a­tion are ad­equate to the spe­cif­ic so­cial com­pos­i­tion of those who are protest­ing.

Some his­tory

Oc­cupy Wall Street began, un­ex­pec­tedly, on Septem­ber 17 with the oc­cu­pa­tion of Zuc­cotti Park, a private park owned by the com­mer­cial real es­tate com­pany Brook­field Prop­er­ties, in the Fin­an­cial Dis­trict, a few blocks away from Wall Street. In fact, this was not the first oc­cu­pa­tion of the year. In the spring, thou­sands of cit­izens and uni­on mem­bers oc­cu­pied the state cap­it­ol build­ing in Madis­on, Wis­con­sin for two weeks in or­der to protest against the aus­ter­ity pro­gram of the loc­al gov­ernor, Scott Walk­er. Many hoped that this ex­per­i­ence, which com­bined a so­cial struggle against neo­lib­er­al policies with the prac­tice of rad­ic­al demo­cracy, could ex­pand to oth­er cit­ies across the United States. In spite of the sym­path­ies that the oc­cu­pa­tion in Madis­on at­trac­ted from all over the coun­try, however, this struggle did not start a move­ment. A few months later, a net­work of uni­ons, polit­ic­al or­gan­iz­a­tions and loc­al com­munity or­gan­iz­a­tions, New York Against Budget Cuts, launched an­oth­er cam­paign against aus­ter­ity policies and the crisis, start­ing an oc­cu­pa­tion near the City Hall, called “Bloomber­gville”.1 While Bloomber­gville at­trac­ted sev­er­al hun­dred par­ti­cipants and be­came a fo­cal point for city­wide op­pos­i­tion to cuts in edu­ca­tion, health, and oth­er so­cial ser­vices, it too did not man­age to start a lar­ger move­ment. Des­pite this, both the oc­cu­pa­tion in Madis­on and Bloomber­gville helped pre­pare the ground for OWS, by show­ing that protest­ing against the crisis was not only ne­ces­sary, but pos­sible, and by im­port­ing the prac­tice of the oc­cu­pa­tion of pub­lic spaces from Tahrir Square in­to the United States.

OWS was launched out of a call by the magazine Ad­busters, a “glob­al net­work of jam­mers and cre­at­ives”2, for hun­dreds of act­iv­ists to des­cend on Wall Street on Septem­ber 17. After the call, pub­lished in a poster in the 97th is­sue of Ad­busters magazine, a gen­er­al as­sembly of 150 people, act­iv­ists of so­cial net­works and people not af­fil­i­ated to any polit­ic­al or­gan­iz­a­tion, was held in New York. The act­iv­ists of the gen­er­al as­sembly then held a series of meet­ings dur­ing the sum­mer to pre­pare the demon­stra­tion of Septem­ber 17.

On Septem­ber 17, a few thou­sand people marched down to the Fin­an­cial Dis­trict: after the po­lice bar­ri­caded Wall Street, the march dir­ec­ted it­self to Liberty Street, where it held an as­sembly and star­ted a semi-per­man­ent en­camp­ment. Around 100-200 people stayed the first night. Dur­ing the first week of oc­cu­pa­tion few on the left paid much at­ten­tion to these pro­test­ers with no clear de­mands and polit­ic­al iden­tity (ex­cept a vague ref­er­ence to Tahrir Square and the Span­ish acam­pa­das), with no clear pro­ject in mind, al­most all white, young and middle class. The form of the move­ment ini­tially left many quite cold and sus­pi­cious: this was not what one would have ex­pec­ted and pre­dicted. But something star­ted chan­ging already the next Sat­urday, when the po­lice beat pro­test­ers who were march­ing up­town in a non au­thor­ized demon­stra­tion, used pep­per spray against some young fe­male demon­strat­ors and ar­res­ted around 80 people. The com­pletely un­jus­ti­fied vi­ol­ence em­ployed by the NYPD fi­nally star­ted draw­ing the gen­er­al at­ten­tion to this tiny oc­cu­pa­tion near Wall Street. Oth­er oc­cu­pa­tions were launched around the coun­try, spread­ing like mush­rooms in cit­ies coast-to-coast, from Bo­ston to Los Angeles, from Aus­tin to Chica­go. Hun­dreds of people went down to see what was hap­pen­ing in Zuc­cotti Park and to take part in the gen­er­al as­sem­blies and work­ing groups. The fol­low­ing Sat­urday, on Oc­to­ber 1st, an­oth­er march, on the Brook­lyn Bridge, was or­gan­ized in or­der to protest against po­lice re­pres­sion: this time more than 5000 people took part in the demon­stra­tion. This day the NYPD made a fatal mis­take: 700 people, who were march­ing on the road­way of the Brook­lyn Bridge block­ing the traffic, were ar­res­ted and car­ried off the bridge on ten buses. The at­ti­tude of the NYPD in both cases and throughout the fol­low­ing weeks re­flec­ted a break with the tac­tics em­ployed by the Amer­ic­an po­lice to­wards so­cial move­ments un­til the Seattle anti-WTO demon­stra­tions of 1999. Since Seattle, po­lice ef­forts to frus­trate act­iv­ists are usu­ally char­ac­ter­ized by at­tempts to isol­ate move­ments and struggles, and to pre­vent them from spread­ing: the panoply of po­lice tac­tics con­sists of for­cing people to demon­strate only on the side­walks, put­ting bar­ri­cades between one sec­tor of the demon­stra­tion and an­oth­er in or­der to block any com­mu­nic­a­tion and mo­bil­ity between the dif­fer­ent sec­tors, isol­at­ing the demon­stra­tion from the rest of the city, and quickly ar­rest­ing demon­strat­ors — of­ten force­fully or vi­ol­ently — who are per­ceived to be in the slight­est vi­ol­a­tion of the rules. The enorm­ous pop­u­lar dis­gust evoked by the NYPD’s mass ar­rest on the Bridge pushed the uni­ons to take po­s­i­tion in sup­port of the move­ment. Three days later, on Oc­to­ber 5, a massive march was or­gan­ized in sup­port of OWS by a net­work of uni­ons, among them SEIU 1199 (health­care), AFL-CIO, CWA 1109 (tele­com­mu­nic­a­tion), RWDSU (trade), Trans­port Work­ers Uni­ons (which or­gan­izes the work­ers of the NYC sub­way), and a range of com­munity or­gan­iz­a­tions, in­clud­ing the Al­li­ance for Qual­ity Edu­ca­tion, New York Com­munit­ies for Change, Co­ali­tion for the Home­less, and the NYC Co­ali­tion for Edu­ca­tion­al Justice. Stu­dents from some of the biggest cam­puses of New York also sup­por­ted the march, or­gan­iz­ing a walk out of 2000 stu­dents and then pro­ceed­ing down­town to join the uni­ons.

By Oc­to­ber 15, the date of the in­ter­na­tion­al day of ac­tion of the “in­dig­na­dos” and of the an­ti­war days of protest in the States, protests had spread in more than 200 cit­ies across the coun­try. Po­lice re­pres­sion spread at the same pace. In Times Square, where thou­sands of people gathered for hours, po­lice at­tacked the pro­test­ers with horses and ar­res­ted 40 people in the square, ar­rest­ing 70 in total dur­ing the day. 175 people were ar­res­ted in Chica­go and 100 in Ari­zona. But it is Oc­cupy Oak­land which suffered the most bru­tal re­pres­sion by the po­lice, ten days later. In the early morn­ing of Oc­to­ber 25, the Demo­crat­ic may­or of the city, “wor­ried” for the safety of the cit­izenry, ordered the Oak­land po­lice to evict the oc­cu­pa­tion, which had star­ted on Oc­to­ber 10 in front of the City Hall. The oc­cu­pi­ers re­spon­ded to the evic­tion by or­gan­iz­ing a mass rally in the even­ing in or­der to oc­cupy the space again: they were at­tacked and dis­persed with tear gas by po­lice of­ficers in ri­ot gears, 120 ar­rests fol­lowed. In the midst of that at­tack, Scott Olsen, an Ir­aq War vet­er­an and mem­ber of Vet­er­ans for Peace, had his skull frac­tured by a tear gas pro­jectile. The par­tic­u­lar vi­ol­ence of the evic­tion was pro­por­tion­al to the pe­cu­li­ar polit­ic­al and so­cial rad­ic­al­ism of Oc­cupy Oak­land. Oak­land, a city of the San Fran­cisco Bay Area, near the cam­pus of Berke­ley, has a long his­tory of struggle. This is the city in which a gen­er­al strike para­lyzed pro­duc­tion for 54 con­sec­ut­ive hours in 1946; where the move­ment of the Black Pan­thers was born; where in 2003 the dock work­ers shut down the port in or­der to block the ships which were sail­ing to Ir­aq. On Oc­to­ber 19 the gen­er­al as­sembly of Oc­cupy Oak­land passed a res­ol­u­tion in which it de­clared that it would act­ively sup­port all strikes, both those or­gan­ized by uni­ons and wild­cat strikes, of work­ers and stu­dents in the San Fran­cisco Bay Area. That this de­clar­a­tion was not just a mat­ter of words be­came clear on Novem­ber 2nd, when Oc­cupy Oak­land called for a gen­er­al strike in re­sponse to po­lice re­pres­sion. Gen­er­al strikes in the United States have been banned since 1947 by terms of the Taft-Hartley bill: work­ers who break this law can be pun­ished with im­me­di­ate fir­ing or ar­rest. This is why Oc­cupy Oak­land sug­ges­ted on its web­site sev­er­al ways of tak­ing part in the gen­er­al strike:

We are ask­ing that all work­ers go on strike, call in sick, take a va­ca­tion day or simply walk off the job with their co-work­ers. We are also ask­ing that all stu­dents walk out of school and join work­ers and com­munity mem­bers in down­town Oak­land. All banks and large cor­por­a­tions must close down for the day or demon­strat­ors will march on them […] Oc­cupy Oak­land re­cog­nizes that not all work­ers, stu­dents and com­munity mem­bers will feel able to strike all day long on Novem­ber 2, and we wel­come any form of par­ti­cip­a­tion which they feel is ap­pro­pri­ate. We urge them to join us be­fore or after work or dur­ing their lunch hours.”3

Gen­er­al strikes in the United States have been banned since 1947 by terms of the Taft-Hartley bill: work­ers who break this law can be pun­ished with im­me­di­ate fir­ing or ar­rest.

The res­ults of the Novem­ber 2nd gen­er­al strike were as­ton­ish­ing: not only the banks down­town and the schools were shut down, but the march of 20,000 people man­aged to shut down the port for a couple of hours, with the sup­port of the rank and file work­ers of ILWU, who or­gan­ized wild cat strikes in dif­fer­ent sec­tors of the port through the en­tire day. An­oth­er port block­ade, this time en­dorsed by sev­er­al Oc­cupy on the West Coast, was launched by Oc­cupy Oak­land a month later, on Decem­ber 12th. The gen­er­al strike of Novem­ber 2nd, or­gan­ized with­in only six days by Oc­cupy Oak­land, and its se­quel with the port block­ade of Decem­ber 12th garnered sup­port from the oc­cu­pa­tions in oth­er cit­ies across the coun­try, which also launched marches and ac­tions in solid­ar­ity with Oak­land. But be­sides the solid­ar­ity among the oc­cu­pa­tions, the gen­er­al strike in Oak­land and the port block­ade in the West Coast not only mark the most con­crete rad­ic­al ac­tion un­der­taken by the move­ment, they also open the pos­sib­il­ity of an in­tens­i­fic­a­tion of the stra­tegic dir­ec­tion of the move­ment. What Oc­cupy Oak­land man­aged to do, in­deed, goes bey­ond the simple in­ter­ac­tion between the move­ment and uni­ons, which also char­ac­ter­izes oth­er ex­per­i­ences in oth­er cit­ies. By call­ing for a gen­er­al strike, Oc­cupy Oak­land man­aged to be­come something more than a cous­in to the struggles or­gan­ized by some­body else, and po­si­tioned it­self to be­come a touch­stone for on­go­ing struggles in many cit­ies. It be­came the very propuls­ive cen­ter of the struggle, and forced the ma­jor uni­ons to sup­port the strike, at least in words, if not in facts. In this sense the gen­er­al strike of Novem­ber 2nd and the port block­ade set a pos­sible mod­el to be ex­por­ted in the oth­er cit­ies: a mod­el that pushes the oc­cupy move­ment to pass to a fur­ther stage, to be­come the propuls­ive start­ing point for a new sea­son of so­cial struggles.

Demo­cracy or con­sensus?

With slight dif­fer­ences the move­ment has ad­op­ted sim­il­ar or­gan­iz­a­tion­al forms every­where. These forms can be sum­mar­ized in the fol­low­ing way: de­cision­al cent­ral­ity of the gen­er­al as­sembly, open to every­body and run by fa­cil­it­at­ors through the meth­od of con­sensus or large ma­jor­ity; pro­lif­er­a­tion of work­ing groups whose de­cisions are re­por­ted and dis­cussed in the gen­er­al as­sembly; re­fus­al — im­pli­cit or ex­pli­cit — of any kind of rep­res­ent­at­ive demo­cracy; ad­op­tion in some cases of spokes coun­cils, com­posed by spokes­per­sons for every work­ing group, who ro­tate at every meet­ing and do not have any de­cision­al man­date. This or­gan­iz­a­tion­al form has been ad­op­ted in par­tic­u­lar by the OWS move­ment in NYC, where with­in a month ap­prox­im­ately 75 dif­fer­ent work­ing groups have been cre­ated — from Buddhist med­it­a­tion to the drum­mers, from labor to edu­ca­tion, out­reach and me­dia. To un­der­stand the cent­ral­ity of the is­sue of demo­cracy with­in the move­ment it is not suf­fi­cient to look at its so­cial com­pos­i­tion or at the strength of the an­arch­ist tra­di­tion in the United States. In fact, if at the be­gin­ning the so­cial com­pos­i­tion of the oc­cu­pa­tion in Zuc­cotti Park was mainly middle class, it star­ted chan­ging quite soon and should in any case be un­der­stood in light of the role played by or­gan­ized labor at least start­ing from Oc­to­ber 5th. Moreover, the ini­tial oc­cu­pi­ers and the group of fa­cil­it­at­ors who were de facto run­ning the oc­cu­pa­tion were not all an­arch­ists, but came from a di­versity of polit­ic­al tra­di­tions. This is not to say that these ele­ments played no role, but to say rather that their pres­ence is not suf­fi­cient to ex­plain why demo­cracy is so cent­ral. An­oth­er ele­ment to take in­to con­sid­er­a­tion is that the cent­ral­ity of the is­sue of demo­cracy is not a char­ac­ter­ist­ic of the Amer­ic­an move­ment alone, but has strongly char­ac­ter­ized at least also the Span­ish acam­pa­das as well, and is a gen­er­al fea­ture of so­cial move­ments in re­cent years. This most likely rep­res­ents, at least par­tially, a re­ac­tion to the pro­gress­ive shift of de­cision­al power to­wards ex­ec­ut­ive in­sti­tu­tion­al bod­ies or ex­tra-polit­ic­al or­gan­isms. If this pro­cess has already char­ac­ter­ized the European in­sti­tu­tion­al and polit­ic­al dy­nam­ic for the last twenty years — it suf­fices to men­tion the pro­ced­ure ad­op­ted dur­ing the European Con­sti­tu­tion — it is also im­port­ant to note that the United States, the myth­o­lo­gic­al land of demo­cracy and free­dom, in fact has one of the least demo­crat­ic rep­res­ent­at­ive sys­tems found in West­ern coun­tries (not to speak of its rap­idly grow­ing eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity). The very act of the OWS move­ment’s self-defin­i­tion as a lead­er­less move­ment, which was prom­in­ently as­ser­ted from the be­gin­ning on the OWS web­site and by the oc­cu­pi­ers them­selves, car­ries with it a de­cis­ive cri­ti­cism of the sub­stan­tial lack of demo­cracy in the United States, where even the elec­tion of uni­on of­fi­cials is based on per­son­al lead­er­ship.

While this new at­ten­tion to ho­ri­zont­al demo­cracy could have ex­tremely pos­it­ive ef­fects on the re­con­struc­tion of so­cial move­ments in the United States, the fet­ish­ism of demo­crat­ic, con­sen­su­al pro­ced­ures could also have a para­lyz­ing ef­fect. In­deed, in New York, after al­most two months of oc­cu­pa­tion, dis­cus­sion of de­cision-mak­ing pro­cesses has in­creas­ingly re­placed polit­ic­al dis­cus­sion both in the gen­er­al as­sem­blies and in the newly-formed spokes coun­cil. In the spas­mod­ic search for the al­chem­ic com­bin­a­tion between the most pos­sible demo­crat­ic or­gan­iz­a­tion and the ef­fi­ciency ne­ces­sary to cata­lyze the move­ment, polit­ics has been lost in trans­la­tion, fall­ing in­to a self-ref­er­en­tial spir­al. While this fo­cus on dir­ect demo­cracy can be ex­plained also by the at­tempt to main­tain the polit­ic­al autonomy of the move­ment against every at­tempt at ex­tern­al co­opta­tion, the res­ult has been the al­most para­noid fo­cus on pro­ced­ur­al de­tail and or­gan­iz­a­tion­al minu­ti­ae. This at­ti­tude, be­ing fun­da­ment­ally time-con­sum­ing, ul­ti­mately be­comes more ex­clus­ive than in­clus­ive. It auto­mat­ic­ally ex­cludes all those who do not have the time to take part in in­ter­min­able dis­cus­sions which sur­round, in the end, minor con­crete im­plic­a­tions for they need to re­pro­duce their life. Moreover, the dif­fi­culty of reach­ing wider polit­ic­al de­cisions and of elab­or­at­ing a polit­ic­al strategy through this meth­od, gives the op­por­tun­ity to tra­di­tion­al polit­ic­al and labor or­gan­iz­a­tions to strategize and take the ini­ti­at­ive. The prac­tice of con­sensus tends to cul­tiv­ate the il­lu­sion of an im­possible ho­mo­gen­eity, which would be coun­ter­pro­duct­ive even if it were real­ized, for it would lim­it the di­versity of the ways in which class, race and gender in­terests can be rep­res­en­ted in a polit­ic­al po­s­i­tion or de­cision. If, as Daniel Bensaïd poin­ted out, polit­ics is more sim­il­ar to al­gebra than arith­met­ics8, this is be­cause it is based on a con­stant dis­equi­lib­ri­um, in which neg­at­ive num­bers must also be in­cluded in one’s cal­cu­la­tions. Ma­jor­ity vote, un­like con­sensus, takes in­to ac­count this dis­equi­lib­ri­um. In­stead of try­ing to re­duce de­cisions to an im­possible syn­thes­is, leaves open the pos­sib­il­ity of a per­sist­ent, and even or­gan­ized, dis­sent, without for this reas­on para­lyz­ing the de­cision mak­ing.

In these cases Demo­cracy has been con­fused with con­sensus, which it­self has been con­fused with pro­ced­ure. In the end the con­sensus pro­ced­ure has been di­vorced from its con­tent or rather it has be­come its own con­tent. The point, however, would be to treat demo­cracy not as an ab­stract or­gan­iz­a­tion­al form, but rather as a pro­cess of em­power­ment of spe­cif­ic so­cial act­ors, who find their own way to or­gan­ize them­selves and let their voices be heard, in the middle of the struggle and through the struggle. The ques­tion then be­comes polit­ic­al once again: Demo­cracy for whom, to ar­rive where, and to ob­tain what?

Uni­ons and OWS

The fu­ture dy­nam­ic of the move­ment largely de­pends on its ca­pa­city to spread out­side the oc­cu­pied square and to pro­pel so­cial struggles in schools, work­ing places and neigh­bor­hoods. Con­trary to what happened to the Seattle move­ment, most uni­ons de­cided to sup­port the OWS move­ment very quickly. Their de­cision to em­brace the oc­cu­pa­tion re­flec­ted the real­iz­a­tion by uni­on lead­ers in New York and around the coun­try that the move­ment was hav­ing a sig­ni­fic­ant im­pact on the na­tion­al polit­ic­al de­bate by co­ales­cing pop­u­lar an­ger around is­sues of class in­equal­ity, budget cuts, and mass un­em­ploy­ment. It has also shif­ted main­stream polit­ic­al dis­cus­sions, in­tensi­fy­ing op­pos­i­tion against at­tacks on labor. The sup­port Uni­ons have offered to the move­ment has not been merely form­al: sev­er­al power­ful uni­ons have offered the use of spaces, money, food and sup­plies, and health care. The col­lab­or­a­tion between uni­ons and OWS led first to the demon­stra­tion of Oc­to­ber 5th and then to the na­tion­al day of ac­tion on Novem­ber 17th. Moreover, AFL-CIO act­ively mo­bil­ized its mem­bers in or­der to pro­tect the oc­cu­pa­tion from the first at­tempt at evic­tion ordered by may­or Bloomberg. Among the work­ing groups in Zuc­cotti Park a labor work­ing group was also or­gan­ized: this work­ing group, in which many uni­on mem­bers took part, sup­por­ted the cam­paign of So­theby’s work­ers against So­theby’s at­tempt to elim­in­ate uni­on rights. All these ele­ments are cer­tainly pos­it­ive and have opened the pos­sib­il­ity for a new em­power­ment of work­ers all over the coun­try. However, se­cur­ing uni­on sup­port for the move­ment does not guar­an­tee a change of uni­ons’ tac­tics mov­ing in the dir­ec­tion of in­tern­al demo­cracy, and the es­cal­a­tion of con­crete labor struggles. Par­tic­u­larly in New York, the move­ment has en­countered some dif­fi­culty in act­ively or­gan­iz­ing ini­ti­at­ives in sup­port of work­ers’ struggles, bey­ond a form­al en­dorse­ment.

Fi­nally, a more gen­er­al prob­lem con­cerns the ca­pa­city of the move­ment to take the ini­ti­at­ive and some­how de­term­ine the polit­ic­al and so­cial agenda. The Oak­land ex­per­i­ence showed the pos­sib­il­ity of push­ing the uni­ons to rad­ic­al­ize their po­s­i­tions and to sup­port, at least form­ally, the gen­er­al strike. OWS in New York, however, did not show the same ca­pa­city of polit­ic­al ini­ti­at­ive. Also the re­sponse giv­en to the evic­tion from Zuc­cotti Park ordered by Bloomberg on Novem­ber 15th was not as ef­fect­ive, nor as rad­ic­al as the re­sponse in Oak­land. Evicted from the park, be­ing pro­hib­ited to use tents or to sleep in the park after 11pm, the oc­cu­pa­tion seemed to have lost mo­mentum and did not man­age to es­cal­ate the struggle or to spread oc­cu­pa­tions. The demon­stra­tion of Novem­ber 17th, mostly pro­moted by the uni­ons, saw a massive par­ti­cip­a­tion of thou­sands of people. However, en­tirely con­trolled by uni­on lead­ers, it re­pro­duced the most con­ven­tion­al forms of protest. Shortly be­fore the demon­stra­tion, the pres­id­ent of SEIU, Mary Key Henry, pub­licly an­nounced her en­dorse­ment for Obama in the next pres­id­en­tial elec­tions: “We need a lead­er will­ing to fight for the needs of the 99 per­cent… Our eco­nomy and demo­cracy have been taken over by the wealth­i­est one per­cent”. As poin­ted out by Glenn Gre­en­wald[4], Henry’s en­dorse­ment of Obama is an at­tempt to pre­tend that the protest is groun­ded on the be­lief that the Re­pub­lic­ans are the party of the wealthy, where­as the Demo­crats stand for the work­ing class. The con­sequence of this pub­lic en­dorse­ment be­came vis­ible already on Novem­ber 17th. SEIU 1199 clearly tried to con­trol the mes­saging of the protest, for ex­ample by bring­ing a huge Jum­botron and blar­ing sound sys­tem, which re­place the people’s mic, and even more sig­ni­fic­antly, by act­ively pre­vent­ing a real oc­cu­pa­tion of the Brook­lyn Bridge by ac­tu­ally block­ing the traffic. What happened on Novem­ber 17th sig­ni­fies that the move­ment is now at a cru­cial turn­ing point. The prac­tice of con­sensus alone is not a suf­fi­cient an­ti­dote to ward off co-op­tion by the Demo­crat­ic Party: the only an­ti­dote would be the ca­pa­city of the move­ment to elab­or­ate an autonom­ous polit­ic­al strategy and to es­cal­ate and spread the struggles.

The stu­dents and OWS

At the end of Novem­ber 17th it was still not clear what dy­nam­ic the move­ment would or should take. Something, however, happened just one hour be­fore the uni­ons’ march: a sec­tor of the stu­dents’ demon­stra­tion, which was head­ing to Uni­on Square, oc­cu­pied one of the build­ings of a pro­gress­ive but ex­pens­ive private uni­versity, The New School. This was the first oc­cu­pa­tion of a uni­versity build­ing with­in the OWS move­ment. The Amer­ic­an sys­tem of edu­ca­tion is known world­wide for its deep in­equity. In the last thirty years the dom­in­ance of private edu­ca­tion over pub­lic uni­versit­ies has drastic­ally in­creased. Between 2001 and 2006 tu­ition has in­creased 56%, each Amer­ic­an stu­dent has an av­er­age of $24,000 debt with the total amount of the stu­dent debt hit­ting $805 bil­lion: this is an amount com­par­able to that which led to the subprime crisis. The rate of in­solv­ency is now around 10%, and it is clear that it will only con­tin­ue to in­crease, as a res­ult of the in­creas­ing rate of un­em­ploy­ment and un­der­em­ploy­ment. The enorm­ous cuts to pub­lic edu­ca­tion and in­crease in tu­ition both in private and in pub­lic edu­ca­tion are lead­ing to an in­creas­ingly sys­tem­at­ic ex­clu­sion of work­ing class chil­dren and people of col­or from high­er edu­ca­tion. Stu­dents had already star­ted or­gan­iz­ing them­selves by the be­gin­ning of Oc­to­ber. In NYC they cre­ated an All Stu­dent City As­sembly in which stu­dents from NYU, Columbia, New School, Cooper Uni­on, Ju­l­liard, Pratt, and CUNY took part. CUNY is NYC’s pub­lic uni­versity, a truly gi­ant in­sti­tu­tion with nearly half a mil­lion stu­dents and dozens of col­leges planted throughout the city. Dur­ing the month of Oc­to­ber the All Stu­dent As­sembly or­gan­ized dozen of events, in­clud­ing a People’s Uni­versity and a week of stu­dent ac­tion from Novem­ber 14th to Novem­ber 21st. The main tar­gets of the week of ac­tion were the tu­ition hike at CUNY and gen­er­al stu­dent debt, with the launch of a cam­paign based on four prin­ciples: 1) Stu­dent loans should be in­terest-free; 2) Pub­lic col­leges and uni­versit­ies should be fed­er­ally-fun­ded and tu­ition-free; 3) Private and for-profit col­leges and uni­versit­ies, which are largely fin­anced through stu­dent debt, should open their books; 4) The cur­rent stu­dent debt load should be writ­ten off. The an­swer by the po­lice in NYC as in the rest of the coun­try has been char­ac­ter­ized, once again, by an ex­cess of bru­tal­ity. While on Novem­ber 21st po­lice at­tacked the stu­dents peace­fully demon­strat­ing at Baruch Col­lege, CUNY, and ar­res­ted 25 stu­dents, some days earli­er po­lice bru­tal­ized stu­dents and fac­ulty at Berke­ley; shortly after, shock­ing im­ages of the re­pres­sion against the stu­dents of UC Dav­is, near Sac­ra­mento, Cali­for­nia, cir­cu­lated rap­idly on web­sites, news­pa­pers, and mail­ing lists throughout the whole world. Called for by the Chan­cel­lor Linda P.B. Katehi, the po­lice at­tacked the stu­dents peace­fully protest­ing on cam­pus in or­der to evict the oc­cu­pa­tion and pep­per-sprayed the stu­dents who sat on the floor and re­fused to leave. As Nath­an Brown, an As­sist­ant Pro­fess­or at UC Dav­is, re­coun­ted in an open let­ter in which he de­man­ded the resig­na­tion of the Chan­cel­lor: “Po­lice used bat­ons to try to push the stu­dents apart. Those they could sep­ar­ate, they ar­res­ted, kneel­ing on their bod­ies and push­ing their heads in­to the ground. Those they could not sep­ar­ate, they pep­per-sprayed dir­ectly in the face, hold­ing these stu­dents as they did so. When stu­dents covered their eyes with their cloth­ing, po­lice forced open their mouths and pep­per-sprayed down their throats. Sev­er­al of these stu­dents were hos­pit­al­ized. Oth­ers are ser­i­ously in­jured. One of them, forty-five minutes after be­ing pep­per-sprayed down his throat, was still cough­ing up blood”.5

The re­pres­sion suffered by Cali­for­ni­an stu­dents led only to an ex­pan­sion and es­cal­a­tion of the move­ment. A GA of 5000 stu­dents in Decem­ber passed a res­ol­u­tion in fa­vor of a na­tion­al day of stu­dent ac­tion, on March 1st: the call for the day of ac­tion was then mod­i­fied and en­dorsed by the NYC Stu­dent As­sembly and star­ted cir­cu­lat­ing among cam­puses and gath­er­ing en­dorse­ment and sup­port around the coun­try.

Co­ordin­at­ing and uni­fy­ing the stu­dent move­ment, however, is no simple task. The di­vi­sion between private and pub­lic uni­versit­ies is also a di­vi­sion between middle class, pre­dom­in­antly white stu­dents and stu­dents com­ing from work­ing class fam­il­ies, with a high­er rate of people of col­or. In or­der to push in dir­ec­tion of a na­tion­wide stu­dent move­ment it would be ne­ces­sary to bring for­ward a uni­fy­ing plat­form groun­ded on the over­arch­ing idea of free edu­ca­tion for every­body and on the cri­tique of the cur­rent Amer­ic­an sys­tem of edu­ca­tion in­clud­ing its re­pro­duc­tion of di­vided class re­la­tions and race and gender in­equal­it­ies; to build the solid­ar­ity of the stu­dents of private uni­versit­ies to­wards those of pub­lic uni­versit­ies; and to cre­ate ef­fect­ive forms of co­ordin­a­tion among the dif­fer­ent struggles and oc­cu­pa­tions.

Con­clu­sion

After two cen­tur­ies of so­cial struggles we should have learned that there is no spring await­ing the move­ment, for the only spring is the move­ment it­self.

The OWS move­ment took place after years of ab­sence of co­hes­ive na­tion­wide move­ments and amidst an ex­treme frag­ment­a­tion of struggles. The eco­nom­ic crisis and the evid­ent in­equity of the aus­ter­ity policies im­ple­men­ted by the gov­ern­ment cre­ated the con­di­tions for a new so­cial ex­plo­sion. The first great mer­it of the OWS move­ment is that it provided an an­swer to the danger of the rise of a ra­cist and liber­tari­an right, which is al­ways a pos­sible out­come of any eco­nom­ic crisis. It also al­lowed a re­con­nec­tion between these frag­men­ted struggles to emerge again and give vis­ib­il­ity to a plur­al­ity of ex­per­i­ences of res­ist­ance and protest which, in their isol­a­tion dur­ing the last dec­ade, re­mained muted by the noise of main­stream polit­ics. The winter has ar­rived, and the pres­id­en­tial elec­tions are now ap­proach­ing. This is the mo­ment in which the move­ment needs to re­think it­self. Re­think­ing it­self does not mean with­draw­ing from the squares and tak­ing a break un­til the spring, as the magazine Ad­busters seemed to sug­gest on Novem­ber 14th: “Then we clean up, scale back and most of us go in­doors while the die-hards hold the camps. We use the winter to brain­storm, net­work, build mo­mentum so that we may emerge re­ju­ven­ated with fresh tac­tics, philo­sophies, and a myri­ad pro­jects ready to rumble next spring”[6] After two cen­tur­ies of so­cial struggles we should have learned that there is no spring await­ing the move­ment, for the only spring is the move­ment it­self. It is not for­tu­it­ous that in Janu­ary, the most in­ter­est­ing and in­nov­at­ive polit­ic­al state­ment — this time in sup­port of a gen­er­al strike for May 1st — came from Oc­cupy Oak­land, which pre­cisely did not take a break, but on the con­trary res­isted every at­tempt at re­pres­sion and isol­a­tion of the move­ment, con­stantly try­ing to es­cal­ate the struggle. Be­sides the dis­cus­sion on the ques­tion of the ex­ist­ence of the con­crete con­di­tions to call for a gen­er­al strike or not on a na­tion­al level, the polit­ic­al reas­on­ing ar­tic­u­lated in this state­ment grasps a cru­cial point: the re­la­tion between struc­tur­al changes in the class com­pos­i­tion of the last dec­ades and the forms of the struggle. As the state­ment reads:

In 2011, the num­ber of uni­on­ized work­ers in the US stood at 11.8%, or ap­prox­im­ately 14.8 mil­lion people. What these fig­ures leave out are the grow­ing mil­lions of people in this coun­try who are un­em­ployed and un­der­em­ployed. The num­bers leave out the un­doc­u­mented, and do­mest­ic and manu­al work­ers drawn largely from im­mig­rant com­munit­ies. The num­bers leave out work­ers whose work­place is the home and a whole in­vis­ible eco­nomy of un­waged re­pro­duct­ive labor. The num­bers leave out stu­dents who have taken on nearly $1 tril­lion dol­lars in debt, and typ­ic­ally work mul­tiple jobs, in or­der to af­ford skyrock­et­ing col­lege tu­ition. The num­bers leave out the huge per­cent­age of black Amer­ic­ans that are locked up in pris­ons or locked out of stable or se­cure em­ploy­ment be­cause of our ra­cist so­ci­ety.7

The ques­tion is not to op­pose uni­on­ized work­ers to non-uni­on­ized work­ers and un­em­ployed people, but rather to re­think what a strike means in a situ­ation in which the class com­pos­i­tion and the con­crete or­gan­iz­a­tion of labor has rad­ic­ally changed, in which un­em­ployed and un­der­em­ployed people, wo­men and people of col­or rep­res­ent an in­creas­ing large part of the work­ing class, and in which the pro­cesses of sub­jec­ti­fic­a­tion of the work­ing class are not the same we have known in the past. This im­plies re­ima­gin­ing dif­fer­ent ways in which pro­duc­tion and cir­cu­la­tion of com­mod­it­ies can be blocked, in­clud­ing the pos­sib­il­ity of vari­able forms of par­ti­cip­a­tion to the strike, and re­think­ing the sites of demo­crat­ic em­power­ment of the work­ing class.

The Oak­land ex­ample shows in prac­tice that the ques­tion of com­bin­ing the event of the so­cial re­bel­lion and the la­bor­i­ous work of or­gan­iz­ing, co­ordin­at­ing, keep­ing a memory alive, and trans­mit­ting ex­per­i­ence when the move­ment re­cedes is a mat­ter of com­bin­ing to­geth­er two dif­fer­ent, dis­cord­ant tem­por­al­it­ies: the ur­gent time of the move­ment and the slower time of con­tinu­ity. Such work is not an easy task, al­though it is a ne­ces­sary task. But com­bin­ing these two tem­por­al­it­ies does not mean freez­ing the time of the move­ment, with the as­sump­tion that it will be pos­sible to simply re­start it again at a later time. In or­der to re­think it­self this move­ment needs to spread, to go out­side of the squares, to in­vade all as­pects of the re­pro­duc­tion of cap­it­al­ist re­la­tions. In a word: to es­cal­ate.

Foot­notes


  1. From the name of NYC may­or, Mi­chael Bloomberg, who has gov­erned the City since 2001. Dur­ing the last ten years, Bloomberg, who is the 12th richest man of the United States, switched from the Demo­crat­ic Party to the Re­pub­lic­an Party, to be­come later an in­de­pend­ent. 

  2. ht­tp://www.ad­busters.org/magazine 

  3. ht­tp://www.oc­cupyoak­land.org/strike/ 

  4. ht­tp://www.salon.com/writer/glen­n_­gre­en­wald/ 

  5. ht­tp://allcitystu­dentoc­cu­pa­tion.com/ 

  6. ht­tp://www.ad­busters.org/blogs/ad­busters-blog/ad­busters-tac­tic­al-brief­ing-18.html 

  7. ht­tp://oc­cupyoak­land.org/2012/01/oc­cupy-oak­land-de­cides-to-par­ti­cip­ate-in-the-glob­al-gen­er­al-strike-on-may-day/ 

  8. ht­tp://www.marx­ists.org/archive/ben­said/2002/07/leaps.htm 


Cinzia Arruzza is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research. She received her Ph.D. in Rome from the University of Rome “Tor Vergata” and subsequently studied at the universities of Fribourg (Switzerland) and Bonn (Germany).

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