Sunday, September 30, 2012

Signals

I wrote this poem a few months before Bush's re-election, I think. Strangely enough it still seems to be relevant now. It must be Timeless Art!

Signals

When we were waiting in the line
It passed hand to hand to hand
“Ten”, the note read
We looked at, up, eye to eye
And waited
For the branded bottles of water
Among the flies
The mold, the crooked sign
Unmoving

"It's time to go" he said at the bar
"Time to join up"
His recruiter would get a bonus
His face gleamed
Shiny
And the TV static
Formed a nine, circled,
Testing

He had a job
Coordination
The dismal flicker of eight
On the CRT
The flights sent to Uzbekistan
Dropping people one-way
Only digits came back
"Eight" he Emailed
Broadcast

"Seven" puffs the sky writing
Over the assembled cameras
The backdrop
The camouflaged ranks
The mike

They were well dressed
Celebration signs waved decorously
Conversationally
"We want the Rapture"
"666 is the second coming"
Crosses
And forward-looking smiles
And a wind-blown sign tumbling
With one more six

"Five" whispered the voice on the phone line
It was recorded
Aren't they all?
In a special file
Played over and over
Scanned for hidden messages
"Five" it said "five"
They let it alone
There was so much else

"Four" he laughed crazy
To the people at the nation's mall
"More years" he laughed
"You all want more"
And they nodded,
More

The radio said three angrily
In between the uncanny voices
The old-time talk
They had been talking from the beginning
About three-fifths,
Three fifths
And how that was always
Written, always should be

When all the LEDs
On all the alarm clocks
Blinked two endlessly
The people
Who were to have awoken that day
Looked, groggy,
Decided to get up, go on,
Wanting it over with
Wanting it the same

On the final day of that country
The voice said One, everyone heard it
"One" and they took out matches
"One" and burned the books that told them they were good
"One" and stumbled, footsore, into the wilderness

Friday, September 28, 2012

Occupy (V)

The post-encampment phase

This is the most difficult part of this series for me to write, because this phase was both the chronologically longest part of Occupy and, at least for me, pretty annoying. Encampments started mid-September 2011 and were essentially over by the end of December. If you arbitrarily choose the one year anniversary September 2012 demonstrations as the end of Occupy in its current form, then it's spent a good deal more of its existence without encampments than with them.

I'll use the Occupy group that I was involved with as an example once again, because I know more about it than any other. We did quite well for a small-town group. In our post-encampment phase we had weekly demonstrations in front of our local Bank of America branch in the town center. At the end of February, we had a visit by activists from OWS who did trainings, and we hired a movie theatre and showed short Occupy documentaries to 600 people, who then marched around the town to call attention to a number of places where big-money interests impinged on our communal life. In mid-March, we called a public meeting to discuss city finances with the mayor and town council which hundreds of non-Occupy people attended. We got local press for all of these activities and contributed to national press. Some of our more active people helped to oppose foreclosures at a nearby major city, and we opposed a proposed three-strikes law at the state level.

None of this made any discernible difference in actual political outcomes. Not that any experienced activist expects this kind of thing to make a difference in the short term. But that's who the majority of people were in Occupy at this point: experienced activists. And they'd done this kind of activism before Occupy and would individually continue doing it after Occupy, as part of existing groups that had lasted for much longer than it appeared that Occupy was going to. The major Occupy encampments served some hugely important functions besides those I've already mentioned: they provided the critical mass of people who made us into part of a global movement, and they supported the people who thought strategically about what was going on and could provide some sense of direction and response to events to the movement as a whole. Without them, it wasn't clear what we were gaining by doing this kind of thing as Occupy rather than as the kind of groups we'd had before.

And we were certainly losing something by being part of Occupy. I've been in a whole lot of movements, non-hierarchical co-ops, nonprofits etc., and when a Occupy General Assembly became dysfunctional, it became more dysfunctional than any other kind of arrangement I've seen. "Infighting" is a very common word that I've seen in any description of a late-stage Occupy GA. I'll write more about the organizational problems of this kind of structure in the next post.

Still, the Occupy General Assembly can inspire new people, even as the older ones leave. A sort of steady state might have been achieved. But here is where larger-scale considerations start to become important. How do middle-class protest movements end?

Occupy's debt to the Spanish Indignados and the Arab Spring protestors is well known. Perhaps less well known is that there have been middle class assembly movements in a wide range of industrialized countries. The Israeli #J14 protests, for instance. Or the Argentine Neighborhood Assembly Movement. Both of the articles that I've linked to are, I think, worth reading. I'll leave aside the question of ideology and the coexistence of moderate and radical politics for now, and sum up the two main long-term threats to these kinds of movements as co-optation and conciliation.

If repression fails, then existing power centers in a society naturally try to absorb the energy of the new one. In the Argentine case, their assemblies became sites of competition by various left-wing parties. America, of course, has no functioning left-wing parties, and the Democrats never made any serious effort to co-opt Occupiers into becoming electoral activists. The only organizations that made a serious effort to turn Occupy towards its purposes were the unions, who ran a sort of national campaign to have Occupy assist in union community outreach. We saw the effects of this in our small area -- our major protest somehow ended up stopping at areas that were of interest to unions but hadn't been of interest to anyone in our group before then, and well-prepared young people who were theoretically "Occupy" but who no one had ever seen at a GA showed up and helped to run a major event and spoke out on union issues. This was helpful, and since we had no real difference of opinion with the unions, people noticed it and then shrugged.

Conciliation was a much greater problem. "Conciliation" may be the wrong word, since very few people in power took deliberate action to conciliate Occupy -- repression had worked. Still, a basic characteristic of middle-class economic protest movements is that as the economy gets better, people go back to normal life, because normal life for them is after all pretty good. Duncan Black periodically posts what he calls the Scariest Chart Ever, a graphic which shows the percent job losses in post WW II recessions in the U.S. If you look at that chart, it is indeed scary in terms of the depth and length of the employment loss. It is less scary in that the employment has been steadily trending upwards for a long time now. If it took the depth of the recession to create Occupy, then that slowly trending upwards line meant that we weren't getting replacements for the people who left. The educated young people who'd been out of a job were getting jobs and leaving, and the experienced activists who were left weren't seeing a great benefit in doing what they did as Occupy.

That might have been what eventually did Occupy in even if the encampments had remained. That is the narrative that a lot of people both inside and outside of Occupy would prefer -- a sort of gradually-drifting-off end suitable for whatever interpretation the teller wants to hold. But it will forever remain a hypothetical, because by the time it arguably started to happen, Occupy's main strengths had already been taken away.

Occupy (IV)

Homelessness

Before I get to the post-encampment stage as such, a bit about homelessness and how it affected Occupy.

The first thing that happens when you put up free housing in a city center and provide free food is that homeless people settle there. The homeless people that I saw in Occupy were generally not disruptive, but with rare exceptions they were functionally apolitical. People who become homeless in the U.S. primarily because of poverty are engaged in a desperate scramble to negotiate what supportive resources for them exist and to find work. If there is temporary housing or shelter space available, they are in it, not out on the streets. The long-term homeless who sleep on the streets and for whom an Occupy camp is a step up are primarily homeless because they have serious mental health or substance abuse problems. They can barely get through society as it is, much less mobilize their energies effectively to make changes in it.

And Occupy, being a middle-class movement, dealt with homelessness pretty badly. Occupiers everywhere were proud that they didn't kick homeless people out. They could hardly do so in any case, given that all-inclusiveness was a major ideological component of Occupy. But the homeless weren't in general really full participants and everyone knew it, although there was something of a taboo against admitting it. I talked to a number of people who came back to the town that I lived in after Zuccotti Park was cleared, and a lot of them were more or less openly relieved that it was gone, because they were tired of keeping the camp going for people who had no real interest in Occupy's ideas. The right-wing media were always on the lookout for anything resembling an atrocity story coming out of an Occupy camp, so the non-homeless people there had to be unpaid security and social workers and shelter maintenance with no training or interest in doing what was essentially charitable rather than political work. One of the best weapons that the top 1% had was in making us take responsibility for the bottom 1% that they had abandoned.

The Occupation that I was involved in had a whole second attempt at an encampment. The liberal college town we were in, after saying we couldn't have tents at the public park, helped to broker an encampment on the grounds of a downtown church. Unlike what happened in New York, a local church let us set up on their grounds. But they had conditions, like "no active protesting or literature distribution" and "quiet at night" that made it a depository for tents, not really an active encampment as such. We were supposed to go back to the public park in the day for any political activities. The group agonized over whether to accept this through weeks of General Assemblies and finally did. But by then the group had grayed significantly, as the young people who'd been looking for jobs had found them and dropped out. Only a few people were left who actually could take sleeping in the tents in the winter, and after a couple of weeks the tents were only occupied by the homeless. And then there was a full outbreak of middle-class anxiety. Someone found needles in one of the tents, and there were rumors of people getting drunk and someone coming close to an overdose, and people suddenly had to confront the unremarkable fact that homeless people who have been kicked out of shelters are generally substance abusers. Rather than trying to get them treatment, people insisted that we were being irresponsible for setting up a place where they could do this unmonitored, so we closed the encampment and the homeless people presumably went back to the woods.

I don't think that dealing with homelessness was the critical problem for Occupy. The short-term problem was the police. But it certainly didn't help that a major component of people in Occupy thought that we should get rid of the encampments anyways, even before the police drove us out. The attitude after the evictions wasn't one of completely unrelieved outrage, for a lot of people it was "All right, it was time to do something else anyways. Let's go on to the next thing." People didn't have magical foresight, of course, and didn't know that there really was going to be no next thing. But it was certainly was a factor weakening the movement at a critical juncture.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Occupy (III)

The clash

Why can I confidently write that police repression was the main factor ending Occupy? Look at the chronology of events in the Occupy wiki page. On Sep 17 2011, the encampment at Zucotti Park starts. There's steady growth through the end of October, with global protests on Oct 15, thousands of Occupations by the end of October. October 25, Ogawa Park in Oakland is raided. Nov 2, protestors close down the Port of Oakland. November 14, Zucotti Park forcibly cleared, with other clearances following quickly. Through November and December almost all of the major occupations were ended by police action. That is not a narrative of decline. Between mid-September and mid-November there wasn't even time for decline. It's a growing movement that was ended. Occupy continued after the encampments were gone, but never again managed to do anything that gained major public attention.

The major spikes in media coverage coincided with acts of police violence, of course. Occupy might not have taken off as much as it did without the pictures of Anthony Bologna pepper-spraying protestors on Sep. 24. Then there was Scott Olsen on Oct. 25. On Nov. 18, John Pike pepper spraying students at UC Davis.

But these were cases in which police attacked identifiable individuals. What support for Occupy would have really meant would be public indignation at the police raids that closed the encampments. After all, the U.S. Constitution supposedly guarantees the right of people to gather in public and protest. I'm sure that any number of constitutional lawyers could tell you how this right is limited and does not cover cases in which people want to actually use it, but people who are not so well-trained still have a general idea that it exists. Occupy, outside of Oakland -- Oakland was a special case that I'm not going to be able to do justice to -- was quite careful to stay away from anything resembling violence. One might think that people would support the right to peacefully protest even if they didn't agree with Occupy. Ideally, the raids that closed the encampments might have been the acts of repression that pulled in public sympathy for the next stage of growth.

That didn't happen. I don't think that anyone really expected it to happen, although I'm sure that the people telling the police to move in were concerned about it or they would have sent them in sooner. In part, it's just how America is -- it's a country that, as Ta-Nehisi Coates describes, was built on internal oppression, and all of its vaunted freedoms have always been illusory for people who go against the elites. This has never been a country in which ideas like freedom to protest were really a concern of the people as a whole, or the political class as a whole, instead of being particularly left concerns. But in part, it didn't happen because "the 99%" really didn't support Occupy.

Who was an Occupier? The archetypal early occupier was a recently graduated college student without a job. It was pretty much impossible to stay involved in Occupy if you did have a 9-5 job; it took too much of a time commitment. This, again, was not a choice that Occupy organizers made -- Occupy appeared as the winner of a pseudo-evolutionary process, and if there were other initiatives that were suitable for people who had less time, they didn't take off. And the occupiers typically had resources of some kind to fall back on -- if you don't have a job and don't see any immediate prospect of one, it's a really risky move to decide that you're going to gamble your existence on the continuation of a protest camp that feeds and houses you. Most people in Occupy implicitly had somewhere else to go back to. (I'm going to consider the homeless part of Occupy later).

By the idiosyncratic American definition in which an educated but poor person is "middle class", Occupy was middle class. It was not, culturally, working class. In addition, it always was a left-of-center movement -- there were never significant numbers of disaffected centrists or conservatives that I saw. Therefore, it was immediately opposed by the 1/3 or so of the American public that is engaged by tribal rightwing politics and hates anything on the left. Those people always actively support what they see as hippie-bashing. And, again outside Oakland, I never saw significant nonunionized working class support for it. There were plenty of centrists and moderate leftists who just didn't get Occupy and who were relieved not to be embarrassed by it any more. In addition, Occupy was primarily white. So when the time came for a swell of public support, it wasn't there. The people who supported Occupy were already supporters of Occupy, and the political class won their bet that repression would be effective.

ETA: Duncan Black:

It should go without saying (but it doesn't) that hostility to nonviolent public protests is hostility to democracy, hostility to the nobler parts of our history, hostility to our constitution and the right of free association, and basic contempt for the idea that the proles should have any meaningful way to express their grievances.

But only people on the left believe this.

Not voting

In a break from all-Occupy posting, I thought I'd address a recent discussion about whether people on the left should or shouldn't vote for Obama as the lesser evil, which started with Conor Friedersdorf writing in The Atlantic here, and continued with Henry Farrell, Jim Henley, Scott Lemieux, a link back to Daniel Davies, etc etc. And for an extra-special bonus,the comment thread on one of those posts has Walt going off on the vapidity of Le Guin's Omelas story.

Many good points were made in the course of this discussion. Yes, Obama's record of killing people is horrible. Yes, it's easy to reject Obama if you're a conservative who doesn't value social insurance anyways. Yes, it's a form of privilege to be able to not care about how much differentially worse Romney would be for people of color. But Henry Farrell's first post footnotes that it's abstracting away whether a single vote makes a difference in any case, and that's where the whole thing goes wrong.

Voting, outside those few and limited geographic areas in which your vote may actually matter, is primarily social signaling. No one doubts that just sleeping through election day because you don't care is being apathetic. But the people who don't vote and say that they're not voting are signaling something else, that they believe that the system has failed.

People all over the area where I live are talking about politics right now. I always have to drop in something like "I'm an anarchist, and I'm not voting because I think that people shouldn't support the American state." This makes me a jerk, especially when I say it to my daughter's third grade teacher who is teaching civics. But although it has almost no effect at all, it still has more actual effect than my going quietly to the voting booth and pulling the lever for Obama would have. Of course, I do some forms of political activism other than just talking to people as well, although they really have little more effect than this kind of thing does.

People on the left who don't vote and who say so are doing something. They are telling other people on the left that the system isn't working well enough. Not just the system of the corporations and the buffoonishly Randian right-wingers, who serve as easy targets for left-wing mockery. But the Democratic Party in America and whatever other supposedly left-of-center organizations still exist. The threat of exit may cause the people who run those things to eventually take notice.

And the question of what would happen if people on the left generally did as I did is nonsensical. If half of America believed what I do, the state would not exist in its current form. If just Democratic Party activists believed as I did, a candidate would have been chosen in the primary -- I don't know who, it would have been someone who is presently invisible -- who would not be blazing new trails in legal assassination. People don't believe as I do, and people in general don't believe as any of the people in this discussion do. The number of people who actually care about Obama's war and civil rights record is a tiny minority.

So we might as well act as a tiny minority, and not have discussions as if we were of any direct importance within electoral politics. Honesty is freeing. If I thought that my vote would actually affect the outcome, I would have to dutifully pull the lever for Obama, because yes Romney would be worse. But no one is going to be hurt whether we vote or don't vote, so any of us might as well loudly decline to if that's what they think is best.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Occupy (II)

The encampments

Were the encampments necessary for Occupy to work? And what can or should Occupy do without them? As police forces in one city after another began to roll up the encampments, no question was more discussed within Occupy itself. The most common assertion (whether held seriously or only hopefully, I'm not sure) is that the encampments were a tactic, while Occupy is a movement, and that the movement could go on by changing tactics. I don't think that this is true.

First I'll go back to the beginning. Why did Occupy appear at all? A short answer might be "Because of the economic crisis and the resulting high unemployment" -- the Lesser Depression, or Greater Recession, or whatever you want to call it. All right. But why did it appear in that form? The first post I've written in this series tries to explain why the ordinary forms of politics didn't work. But what made Occupy appear as it did?

Political attempts of this type appear in very Darwinian-evolutionary fashion, complete with variation and selection. At the time when people were setting up the first Occupation, all sorts of other efforts were being tried. There were any number of one-day protests, which occurred and were promptly forgotten. There were nonprofits, other political parties, etc. There were even other encampments -- there were both short-term ones at the time and have been long-lasting protest encampments in D.C. since long before Occupy existed. Why did Occupy take off and those other efforts didn't?

In part it could be random, of course. Perhaps the graphic image of the ballerina on top of the Wall Street bull appealed to people, or the focus on Wall Street rather than a traditional political protest location was different enough to be interesting. It certainly wasn't planned -- the people who came up with the original idea for Occupy Wall Street had no idea what it would turn into (see, if you care, more description at the end of the post here). I'm inclined to think that there were two elements that made Occupy succeed (as much as it did) while other efforts disappeared without notice: the combination of encampments and General Assemblies. The first meant that Occupy was noticed, the second meant that it was an ideological threat.

First, encampments. A typical protest is a one-day wonder. People tend to measure the seriousness of a protest by how much people give up, or what risks they take, in order to achieve it. So of course people understand that the Egyptian protests whose protesters risked getting shot by the military were of the utmost importance. In contrast, showing up for a day and marching somewhere doesn't mean much. This is why the police in America typically don't shoot protestors any more -- not because they are benevolent, or because there will be legal consequences, but because this kind of repression boosts a movement. People who decide to live in a public square are making a much greater commitment than people who march for a day. They are symbolically giving up the very benefits of settled housing that the foreclosure crisis was taking away from people.

But merely living on the streets isn't enough. There are encampments of homeless people all over the U.S. -- some of them a good deal larger and more long-lasting than the Occupy ones. Homeless people aren't considered to be giving up anything that they could get; they simply can't obtain housing. Occupy encampments might have been seen this way if people believed that those in them really were on the streets because they had no other place to live -- but they didn't. (More about the middle-class profile of Occupy later). In any case, what really ensured that the Occupy encampment would be seen as political protest rather than desperation housing was the General Assembly.

The General Assembly is an outgrowth of anarchist ideas, though it carefully was not labelled "anarchist". In connection with an encampment, it is a direct challenge to the system, put in the most elemental terms that everyone understands. Most political organizations have hierarchical leadership, but there are any number of political groups where the membership meets and decides what to do next. Then those members go back to their private and work spheres after their meeting, and the important parts of their life happen. A General Assembly running an encampment has people, meeting directly in democratic consensus (putting off for the moment the inherent opposition between those two terms), deciding how they will live. To quote David Graeber, "You’re creating a vision of the sort of society you want to have in miniature." The General Assembly changed protestors into creators, providing the food, housing, jobs, and direct political participation that the larger society was denying to people. And unlike a commune, the General Assembly was doing this right in the middle of the public square where everyone could see it and join it.

When Occupy started, the left-of-center activists in the U.S. divided fairly quickly into people who were active in Occupy (or wished they could be) and people who just didn't get it. Those who didn't get it were generally those to the center, who were indebted to the system as it was, and those to the far left, whose interest was in demonstrating their superior analytical understanding and in co-optation. And those who were active in Occupy and those who wished they could be quickly divided from each other based on who had a 9-5 job -- but I'm getting ahead of myself. In any case, the right wing pretty universally got it.

All of a sudden, right wing rhetoric about Occupy went into full David Neiwert-documented-style eliminationist mode. Occupiers were commonly described as bearers of lice, tuberculosis, and crime, as a disease vector that had to be stamped out. Local governments everywhere decided that the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances, was one thing, but what about the grass? They were killing the grass! The political class of people who mattered had no trouble seeing Occupy for the challenge that it was. All of a sudden people on the right began to take an intense interest in public health regulations, grounds maintenance, and on the fair use of public space that none of them had been to in years.

And the full force of the police was called out in order to remove this menace to public order. Everyone reading this is probably familiar with the broad outlines of the police actions that took place. But it is worth re-emphasizing that the main encampments did not simply dwindle away or have people give up. Police destroyed them with mass evictions, hundreds of arrests, and pepper spray.

Everywhere, it turned out that public space -- or public / private space -- was not really public after all. The case of the small Occupy group that I was in might be a good example. We were in a public park that had been deeded to the town on the explicitly written condition that the town couldn't keep people from sleeping there overnight. But, the town decided, a tent was a structure, and a structure required a permit. And a permit couldn't be issued for that area, since it was a park. We could sleep there in a New England winter if we could sleep outside in a sleeping bag on a tarp. But if we kept our tents there, we were going to get arrested.

Why were the encampments so threatening? Let them sit there through the winter and slowly dwindle, some people publicly counseled. Some people in Occupy were quite surprised too. We could get this much notice simply by hanging out in a park? Good deal. I could come up with a number of reasons why they were. The threat to the public order of people publicly living unlike how our system says that they should. The idea that people might start to develop alternative power structures that owed nothing to the existing system. But mostly I think that the political history of the industrialized countries just sends up an emotional red flag whenever unemployed people start gathering in public complaining about having no jobs and not disappearing. The political class is highly motivated at a basic level to try to make that go away. If the intellectual ringhtwingers always think they're fighting the French Revolution, and the nuttier ones the Communist Party, America's more pragmatic political class is always looking out for people acting as they did in the Great Depression.

At any rate, what happened when the encampments were shut down? People in Occupy mostly said, all right, we'll find some other tactic. And they didn't. Without the encampments, what did people have? Protests, petitions, and electoral politics, just as before. And flash mobs. Flash mobs are even better than normal protests, I guess, because they are there in a flash and gone in a flash.

And people in Occupy had already started to discover something else about the General Assemblies. They were really pretty horrible for running anything except an encampment. An encampment has some very concrete jobs, done in some very concrete ways. Once they were gone, people were free to consider goals, projects, and process at length without having to worry about how the trash was going to be picked up. A General Assembly might still work pretty well if people go into with an already existing level of basic political agreement that the people in Occupy really didn't have. But as anarchist testbeds, seeing whether the people of America are ready to handle direct democratic consensus if they're thrown into it, the effects were pretty frequently tragicomic. And the 99% started to discover that they really weren't the 99%.

This is getting long as it is; more about the post-encampment phase in the next post.

Occupy (I)

I've been meaning to write about the Occupy movement in the U.S. for some time, and I've realized that there's too much that I'd like to write about to fit it all into one post. If I'm going to write about it, I'll have to do it a bit at a time, within a loose series divided into sections.

My experience of Occupy has been at a college town in New England, so it's been from the margins, not at one of the major urban centers where most of the action has been.

Summary

The Occupy movement in the U.S. was a short-term success in that it increased the media exposure and political salience of left economic issues generally. It did better than any other form of left activism around economics attempted at the time. The movement did not have long-term staying power, however. It was destroyed by police repression -- once the Occupy encampments were forcibly dispersed, the movement itself lost what it needed to exist. The encampments were necessary both because they gave Occupy its influence and because its form of organization contained tensions that made it unstable outside that environment. In a larger sense, Occupy was a middle-class movement, and middle-class economic protest movements are generally hard to sustain.

I expect to write a good deal explaining what I mean by that.

I. What did Occupy want?

I'll skip over the early history of Occupy, which I've written about on this blog as it happened and which should be generally familiar to anyone interested enough to read this. But there is still a general sense in which some people will say "I never understood what they wanted. Why didn't they issue a list of demands?" This is a form of misunderstanding that's common enough so that I think it's worth following an example through in order to try to clear it up.

In fact, some elements of Occupy did issue demands and write economic position papers, but overall, Occupy steadfastly resisted doing so. Let's imagine that Occupy had. In particular, let's imagine that when asked "what are your demands?" as everyone was doing at one point, people in Occupy had decided that a top demand was "Reinstate Glass-Steagall". That is not a radical demand by any means, given that Glass-Steagall was originally passed in 1933 and is a straightforward form of governmental regulation of an industry. The general idea has wide support among economic experts, as evidenced by even Sandy Weill, former CEO of Citigroup, calling for it in July 2012.

All right, so imaginary Occupy has issued this demand. What happens next? Nothing. It has to be remembered, above all, that Occupy happened during Obama's term, not Bush's. And Obama and the Democratic Party generally oppose reinstating Glass-Steagall because the financial industry has captured both of the parties in the U.S. two-party setup.

There are typical ways in which people work within the system towards a desired end. They were tried. The people who say things like "Well, Occupy could have got something done if they'd just buckled down and done X" apparently don't know that X was being attempted at the time. Lobbying? Sure, there were many left groups who were lobbying around this issue and still are, to no effect against the concentrated power of political bribery. Running primary challengers in order to drag the party to the left? The netroots have been trying that, and Obama has successfully cut off any space there. A third party? Pretty much mathematically impossible for one to have lasting effect given how U.S. elections are set up. People power, demonstrations in the streets? The media and response to media have evolved so that standard protests, petitions, and so on are meaningless and ignored. Protests against the Iraq War, for instance, were large and widespread, and did nothing.

People in Occupy were systemically cut off from the usual ways in which democratic opinion is supposed to affect power. If they'd demanded anything, nothing would have happened. Everyone knew this. That is why people opposed to Occupy were generally loudest in their demand for a list of demands -- there is nothing so dispiriting as a demand that is an immediate loss because there is no apparent way of even approaching getting it.

I'm tempted to say that what Occupy really wanted was that one of our two political parties would actually work towards left economic interests. If the Democrats had done that, there would have been no real reason for Occupy to exist at all. Certainly the Democrats would have lost sometimes, but the energy of people working towards those issues would have gone through the party, not outside it.

But this wasn't an explicit demand of Occupy, and from what I saw, there were always a large number of people in Occupy who didn't agree with it even implicitly. Instead, Occupy settled on an existential challenge. They would break out of normal life and settle in the public square until the system was forced to recognize them. This was rational, given the lack of alternatives, and it worked. At that point it was up to the system to decide what had to be done to appease the people who weren't following the script, and who weren't helpfully disappearing at the end of the day as normal protestors did. If the system had decided on appeasement, elements like the reinstatement of Glass-Steagall would have followed naturally. By "the system" here I'm not talking about the capitalist system or something as large and abstract as that; this was up to a relatively finite set of political decision makers.

This challenge was taken seriously, and got a serious response -- much more response than anything else the left in America tried at the time. In the end, political decision makers chose repression, not appeasement, and repression was successful because Occupy didn't have a broad enough base of political support. I'll write more about that later. But Occupy can not be understood without understanding the political choices available at the time, and "what it wanted" is quite explicable in terms of those constraints.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Majorities and the left

I thought about titling this "Non-electoral politics, USA, September 2012" just to match the one below, but it's not quite as symmetrical as that. I've also thought about writing a wrap-up of what I learned from the Occupy movement now that it's effectively dead, but I'm not quite ready to. This will be a little bit of both.

The 20th century left, broadly defined, has always had problems with democracy. If the left is supposed to speak for the majority of people, and the nation in which a particular left exists is more or less democratic, why can't they just win? The Marxist left devoted a whole lot of energy to this question -- theories about the interests of the proletariat being the only really important and historically necessary interests of society, theories about how the vanguard party spoke for the ignorant proletariat, and of course a wide range of theories about false consciousness. All of this can pretty easily be dismissed along with the rest of Marx-worship, now that it's over.

Then the left-liberals had their turn. "What's the Matter With Kansas" and all that. People are supposedly fooled by social issues into not understanding their real, economic interests as defined by people who know better -- this is leftist false consciousness writ small.

Occupy, as I've written before, commonly confused their slogan with their political reality. "We, are, the 99% -- and you are too!" makes a good chant. But of course it's politically false. 99% of the people at the bottom of the wealth distribution share the defined characteristic that they are the 99% of people at the bottom of the wealth distribution, but this does not make them vote the same way or believe the same things or have the same political interests. The Occupy people that I saw were in the main that part of the white left-leaning intelligentsia that did not currently have a 9-5 job.

Who is the conservative base in America? John Quiggin looked at that here. 49% of working-class white people vote GOP. And they make up about a quarter of the GOP base. The largest group in the GOP base is middle-to-high income white people without college degrees. The left in the U.S. is mostly non-white people and educated but not rich people. The left is not "the working class" and does not speak for the working class. Nor does the working class, as a reified entity, support the left.

The whole idea of democracy breaks down, or at least becomes highly hypocritical, if you don't think that people are the best judges of their own interests. I don't think that the left should come up with a new round of excuses for themselves and for that part of the working class that is "supposed" to vote left but doesn't. What are some of those interests?

A good number of the working-class people in America are racists, to take one common example. Racism is perfectly rational for some of those people, just as rational as support for oligarchy is for some rich people. They're never going to do well no matter who is in charge, and racism gives them the comfort of knowing that no matter how poor they are, they're white, and therefore according to their values always at least one step from the bottom. That is more important to them than any economic solidarity that the left would like to pretend exists. That is their overriding political interest: the defense of a value system that gives them a sense of intrinsic worth. They aren't being fooled by racism into letting elites manipulate them. It's a trade-off: they give the elites support for oligarchy, and the elites give them support for racism.

It's not all racism, of course. The match to Romney's moochers and looters speech is supposed to be Obama's clinging to guns and religion speech. People find self-worth in all kinds of things. I wouldn't say that what's politically important to them is fake and what's important to the left or to me is real. I would, of course, say that what they believe is destructive and wrong, and that I think they should be defeated. But there is no magical solidarity between us that occurs because we are all in the 99%.

I don't know what the answer to this is, in practice. But the left's categories and self-image seem to me to be all wrong, inherited from an era in which we lost, and in which the strongest parts of the left were authoritarian in any case. I've always understood the left to be about freedom: the negative freedoms of people not controlling your actions as long as you aren't hurting others, the positive ones about using socially created wealth to give everyone the resources that they need in order to act, the overall support for a functioning ecosystem that is required for people to do anything. Being on the left has nothing to do with who is or is not a worker, or who is or isn't wealthy. It has to do with what kind of society you want to live in. ...Read more

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Electoral politics, USA, September 2012

Certain commonplace ideas have been trotted out in every recent American Presidential election. The candidates, people are told, are moving to the center for the general election after tacking to the right or left during the primary. There is a nudge-and-wink, in-the-know quality to this. Everyone who follows politics is supposed to know that this move to the center is insincere, a cheap theatrical to fool the low-information rubes who make up the only undecided voters at this point.

People don't generally seem to have considered what it means that Obama is moving to the left for the general election. The Democratic convention was supposedly a festival of the assertive, confident liberalism that people have looked for in vain throughout Obama's actual term. I've seen plenty of well-known political bloggers argue that turnout may be more important than focussing all appeals on the small pool of undecided voters in states that matter, and with Obama's moves to "evolve" on gay marriage and to stop some deportations, I've guessed that he's decided that he needs someone to actually be enthusiastic about him. After all, you need people to get out the vote. But the corollary of the rhetorical moves to the left for the general election is that he has no intention of governing that way. Otherwise it wouldn't be a change that he's making now.

Meanwhile, what's happening with Romney? As I write this, a tape has recently surfaced of him telling donors that he's written off 47% of the country as moochers and looters who depend on handouts from the government and will never vote for him. Basically, all Republicans now talk as if they are cartoons drawn by hippies sometime in the 1970s. It used to be that only a few fringe leftists described America as an empire, until the neoconservatives took over and said that yes it was and we should be damned proud of it. People would have derided it as crazy if you said that the GOP political elite would generally turn out to be followers of Ayn Rand. And of course "everyone knew" that the contemporary GOP's core objection to a black President would not be as crudely racist as thinking that he couldn't run for election because he was literally un-American, literally an African.

The hippies, as usual in this decade, have been right. That really is who the GOP is. Under these circumstances, either Obama will win, or basically nothing he could do would make him win. I think that he'll most likely win. After which we'll be back to GOP policies in all but name, market-based do-nothing environmentalism, health care individual mandates, assassination and aggressive wars, a financial system run on the behalf of elites, basically everything that the part of the GOP that ever cared about policy would have liked, stripped of their desperate craziness and given a liberal-managerial sheen.

If the Democrats do win this election, it won't be a triumph of any kind of ideas over any other kind of ideas. On the contrary, as far as I can see the broad outlines of governance for the elite are going to be the same no matter who wins. This is mostly an election about demographics, and prefigures what I think will be the GOP's perpetual loss in national elections. There is no way that they can give up on racism: their funders don't actually care about it, but it's how they get enough votes. And there simply isn't a high enough percentage of white people in the population any more.

As a Republican strategist said, with rare apparent honesty, "'This is the last time anyone will try to do this' — 'this' being a near total reliance on white votes to win a presidential election." (Quoting Jonathan Chait quoting the strategist). But of course it's not the last election in which they will try. They will try in every election in which the GOP exists; they have nothing else. They are trapped into one loss after another, unable to keep themselves from demanding identity papers from the same Hispanics who were supposed to be their next socially conservative base of support. Their funding is now inextricably hooked to crazy billionaires who will insist on making their craziness public.

So the right will lose, but the left will not win. The lesser evil is clear to a bare majority, and a bare majority will dutifully vote Democratic. That is the best that can be expected from our system, and any actual political progress is going to happen elsewhere. ...Read more