Occupy for Reform and Profit

It has now been over a year since I was convicted for my unlawful conduct on the lawn of the state capitol building in Denver. That means (I’m pretty sure) that I’ve fulfilled the terms of my probation and am free to return to a life of crime without getting in, like, super-duper double trouble. (I’m not entirely sure how probation works.)

I have been thinking about the initial analysis I wrote of the Occupy Wall Street movement after my arrest (which can be read at the above link). At the time I was primarily interested in using Occupy as a platform to resist the criminalization of homelessness and introduce the ideas of libertarian socialism, but I think a more explicit rejection of the reformist agendas of many participants (and non-participating supporters) of the Occupy camps was in order.

Over two years before Occupy Wall Street began, Brenner et al. wrote this prescient description of the reformist attitude (this passage first appeared in book form the day I was arrested):[1]

A liberal-progressive or reformist response […​] would focus on individual and ‘excessive’ greed, whether of bankers or financiers or politicians, as the villains that have produced the current crisis. Such a response would, accordingly, focus on regulating the activities of such power-brokers more thoroughly than existing regulations permit. It would direct outrage not at the system as a whole, but at the bonuses which executives get from it, the Ponzi schemes which some have perpetrated or the abuses of political power that have likewise been implicated in the current crisis. To the extent that this response thematizes nationalization at all, it sees this as a step towards restoring the banks to ‘health’, that is, renewed profitability, and then returning them to their private, corporate owners, perhaps now sheltered from excessive ‘risk’ through ‘better’ regulation. Thus the outrage is eviscerated, and the right to the city shrivels to a right to unemployment benefits and public investment in urban infrastructure (needed anyway to keep businesses ‘competitive’), with massive bailouts for banks being offset by some minimal protections for small and middle-class borrowers of ‘viable’ mortgages.

That’s what I’m talking about. The liberal-progressives clamor for the restoration of a healthy capitalism so they might claim their rightful rung on the ladder of exploitation. As long as they are able to take more from those below them than they must give to those above them, they judge the system to be working.

Occupy did not entirely succumb to the reformist impulse, of course. Fresh attempts to organize debt strikes, foreclosure resistance, squats to reclaim abandoned buildings for the community, and challenges to the criminalization of homelessness have all emerged from the tent cities of 2011.

It is depressing to think, however, that even if many debts are abolished and higher wages are won for American workers, some of the incidence is going to fall not on the credit and capital oligopolists but on the manufacturing and other workers of the world living in conditions which already approach those of chattel slavery.

The whole liberal project is aimed at distributing privilege, but not so much as to slip into the poverty of actual equality. While American small-business owners, students, and workers insist on keeping capitalism properly maintained — including a republic representative of their interests, a banking system free from corruption, jobs to match their training, and wages to meet their needs — they are merely squabbling with the obscenely rich over the spoils of global surplus.

1. Brenner, Neil, Marcuse, Peter and Mayer, Margit (2009) ‘Cities for people, not for profit’, City, 13:2, 176 — 184, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13604810903020548


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