By David Laibman
SCIENCE & SOCIETY 76
The Occupy Wall Street movement that began last fall at Zuccotti Park in New York City, and then spread across the country, has rekindled, with some urgency, the debate about left strategy, and about the direction the movement should take.
By the time this text appears in print, the discussion will have become fused with the political debate that always surfaces in the United States in a Presidential election year.
Let’s start with two affirmations: first, everyone who lives in the shadow of today’s world capitalist crisis has a right to give “advice” to Occupy. In my own conversations with activists (mainly in New York), I have found very little of the old “hey, we are the movement” attitude: everyone understands now that people with varying experiences and different degrees and styles of participation have a right to speak in the “general assemblies” of our time; that youth is not a guarantee of creativity and freshness of vision, any more than age is a guarantee of wisdom and experience. Second, yes, many of the things we will be saying, and hearing, have been said and heard before. That, too, is good, not bad. If some of us are reminded of debates on the left in earlier times — the 1960s, say, or even the 1930s — that does not mean that we are necessarily spinning (or reinventing) our wheels.
With this in tow, I want to consider the range of positions that are circulating within today’s activist movement. Without attempting anything like a systematic survey, I want to suggest that there are essentially three positions in play — three models of the society that oppresses us, and against which we are organizing. I will call this society “capitalist,” recognizing that that term means different things to different people, and that one of the three models (described below) may not even use it. Each of the models, in turn, has its own unique brand of proposals concerning how the movement should proceed: the relation between electoral and extra-electoral forms of struggle, for instance, or between long-range and short-range goals. Each of the models, of course, has numerous variations within it. Listening to the discussions, the first impression received is one of immense and random variety. The most common view, I believe, uses a two-model approach to organizing the cloud of ideas: these are the first two, of the three enumerated just below. My contribution is to add a third model to the toolbox. It should go without saying that more than one of these models can coexist within a single consciousness.
The three models may be labeled 1) Reformist; 2) External/Revolutionary; 3) Internal/Revolutionary.
The Reformist model sees contemporary capitalist society as having gone off the rails in crucial respects. Its description of the crisis, and the forces leading up to it, relies on metaphors and concepts such as “feeding frenzy,” “excessive polarization,” “loss of equilibrium between public and private,” and so on. We need impassioned and energetic forces, such as Occupy, to drive a new political momentum for balance, for reining in excesses, eliminating harmful externalities, generating the “shared prosperity” that is the “foundation for political democracy.” The movement should focus on reforms: fair taxation, government (public) responsibility for job creation in the last instance, full funding for health care, education, child and elder care, ecological sustainability. Issues concerning systems — of property, wealth, power — take back seat to the task of achieving measurable goals. The practical consequences of this model are fairly straightforward: pursue specific reforms, in concert with established forces (trade unions, reform movements, community organizations, the activist base of the Democratic Party).
The second model, External/Revolutionary, today constitutes the main alternative to the Reformist position within the left debate. In this view, capitalism is a complete and self-contained system of domination, which reduces subaltern classes and groups — the 99% — to a state of complete powerlessness and exteriority. The system is “theirs,” not “ours.” It is imposed on us, and we are outside in relation to it.
For a crude analogy, imagine chickens inside a coop (this is the single-syllable word for an animal enclosure; not “co-op”), controlled by farmers for their own benefit. The only course of action for the chickens is to destroy the coop (and the farmers therefore), and to go elsewhere; to live in the wild. There is no way the coop system can be “reformed.” It works perfectly well on its own terms, and if the farmers could be persuaded to give the chickens more grain, they would still have enough left for themselves, including the chickens they kill and eat, for the system to be viable. Asking for more grain for the chickens, therefore, only has the effect of pacifying them, weakening their resolve to destroy the coop altogether.
Some implications follow immediately. Long-range goals (elimination of the coop) are separated from and counterposed to short-range ones (more grain for the chickens). The long-range vision is also separated from development within the existing system: life in the wild, “beyond the coop,” is an unknown quantity, unrelated to the existing (“coop-italist”?)social reality.
This is clearly related to the passivity of the chickens within the coop; there is truly nothing there that develops, or can be developed. (I think you see where this is going.)
The third model, Internal/Revolutionary, is the one that is, I believe, least understood, and it is the one that comes from the Marxist political economy tradition. In it, the system is not imposed on the subaltern class from outside (like a coop imposed on chickens). Rather, the system is constituted by the conflictual–symbiotic relation between exploited and exploiting classes; this system is a system of production, and as such is not independent of the whole complex of knowledge and practices surrounding production (the forces of production, or humanity’s “metabolism” with the natural world). (Here, as we can see, the coop metaphor begins to break down; chickens are not productive, they are produced.) The system, moreover, is capitalist in a more precise sense: it is not just any system of exploitation, or surplus extraction, but rather the highest link in the chain of such systems, which came into existence (not teleologically, but entirely as a result of human actions over a long period) when earlier and simpler links had become progressively inoperable. This system’s coopitalist “farmers,” therefore, face a crucial dilemma, one that may even be described as a core contradiction: they need to empower their “chickens” for purposes of high-productivity production, but they also need to disempower them in order to keep them under control. The disempowerment dimension relies on the fact that the farmer–chicken relation is valorized: it takes the form of market relations that mystify the underlying reality, making it seem eternal, inevitable, natural. This means, also, that the farmers have to sell grain to their chickens, when their own chicken-disempowering behavior makes that increasingly problematic. There is much more, of course, and it will clearly “burst asunder” the integument of the coop analogy.
Now the key feature of the system, thus understood, is that it is inherently incomplete. The classical text for this is Capital, I, chapters 6 and 7.
Labor power is, always and necessarily, a special commodity, never subject to full valorization like other commodities. Its value is always the outcome of the balance of class forces (“balance” here in the sense of “relationship” or “correlation,” with no implication of “equilibrium” or any sort of inherent equality or consistency). For present purposes, this means that reforms — all of the proposals emanating from the Reformists as enumerated above, plus undoubtedly many more — are not only “good things” from the standpoint of the 99%; they represent changes in the balance of forces. They are empowering. Empowerment of the exploited is inherently problematic: capitalism must vigorously oppose it, even when it is entirely warranted in terms of general productive development or some superior social–philosophical ethic.
From the standpoint of the Internal/Revolutionary model, therefore, reforms have two features that the Reformist model does not perceive. First, they are inherently unstable. To switch to yet another animalistic metaphor, reforming capitalism is like taming a wild mountain cat. With enormous popular pressure, militant mobilization and deeply democratic organization, we can impose reforms, knowing that the system must, in its very nature, fight against them, the way the wild cat resists being restrained. The system’s drive to release its inner nature then provides the basis in experience for the popular movement to raise the bar: more thoroughgoing measures, including Keynes’ “more or less comprehensive socialization of investment” and other forms of encroachment on private capitalist prerogatives, become politically viable — still within the framework of capitalism, which increasingly looks like a highly trussed-up wildcat. The cat (one more metaphor clearly bites the dust here) will undoubtedly, at some point, force a decisive confrontation in the political arena, using all military, cultural and ideological powers available to it; this is, therefore, a revolutionary perspective on reforms.
The second aspect of reforms (not available to reformist thinking) is, to reiterate, their necessarily and inherently empowering quality. When working people get jobs, education, reliable access to health care, secure retirement, and in general a standard of living consistent with a principled relationship to work (i.e., one coupled with rational understanding of both forces and relations of production), they are strengthened, socially. These are building blocks being put into place, for the decisive moment at which the working class achieves the actual capacity to replace the ruling and social–upper classes, and take on the management and direction of production and the rest of social organization for itself. Reforms, and the struggle to achieve and defend them, are the workshop creating the objective basis for socialist revolution, fully understood: not the moment of transfer of political power, not even the crucial dismantling of capitalist class apparatuses (as decisive as these moments are), but the actual assumption of power by the associated workers. One gets a sense of just how massive an undertaking this is, and how little its precise forms can be predicted or planned.
I won’t try to outline the nature of proposals forthcoming from the Internal/Revolutionary model; I think the point has been made. (Also, I promise: no more animal metaphors!)
Let me close with the obvious: there is a possibility of a grand alliance between the Reformist and the Internal/ Revolutionary views.
This coalition has the potential to capture the breadth of vision, and political muscle, inherent in the Occupy movement. By contrast, the External/Revolutionary model leads to a blind alley: it is an isolating and utopian stance that would divide working people, and ultimately demoralize us. Its vision of the future is vague and underdeveloped, and vulnerable to “pragmatic” criticism; its opposition to struggling to meet real needs of working people in the present, owing to fears of “co-optation” and “betrayal,” threatens to disqualify its adherents from genuine claims to leadership. Of course, there is always the possibility of co-optation and betrayal on the part of reformist politicians in leadership positions. The revolutionary implications of current struggles never emerge automatically, and much depends on how the Internal/Revolutionary forces frame their participation in the alliance. The matter was well put by an old mentor of this writer, the radical editor and activist Will Weinstone: life is, to be sure, a school for socialism, but there’s no such thing as a school without teachers. Now, within the grand alliance, the Reformists will think that Internal/ Revolutionists are ideologically blinkered dreamers, with their talk about capitalism, socialism, the system, revolution; but their energy, devoted in all demonstrated sincerity to the common battles for reforms, will be appreciated.
The Internal/Revolutionists, to the contrary, will smile at the naivete of the Reformists, for whom reforms are their own end entirely, and who think that capitalism (or whatever they choose to call it) can be “humanized.” Can it be humanized? How far can the stick bend without breaking? Our watchword, for the future, should be: let’s find out.