Anticapitalism and Occupation

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At a recent panel discussion hosted by the Platypus Society at Harvard University, the moderator asked the participants whether Occupy Boston and related Occupations were ‘anticapitalist.’



The panelists had all been participants in Occupy Boston before Mayor Menino ordered the clearing out of Dewey Square. This question initially sounded like the kind of question hopeful radicals always ask about some incipient form of social protest. The implicit question seemed to be something like ‘is it the revolution in waiting, or should we not bother?’ Each of the four panelists handled the question in their own way – it is “objectively anticapitalist, even if subjectively reformist,” “not yet,” “some are anticapitalist and some aren’t,” “Occupy isn’t one thing.”

Upon reflection, it seems like the questioner and the panelists may have missed the point. All of them seemed to share the view that anticapitalist is a placeholder concept for something else – socialist, communist, anarchist, democratic socialist, whatever. Each respondent struggled, then, to show how the socialist or anarchist aspect of the Occupation was something like its (hidden) essence, and how the more reform-minded elements were somehow more superficial or tangential appearances. Or, a bit more plausibly, they argued there had to be a struggle for the soul of the Occupation, between its anticapitalist (read: socialist/communist) and reformist tendencies. That struggle had to happen now that the clearing out of many Occupations has opened up a ‘phase 2’ of the movement.

The difficulty with this way through the discussion is that it skips over the ‘anticapitalism’ itself. Anticapitalism is not socialism, communism, anarchism, Marxism, or just a demand for fair trade and financial regulation. It is a historically specific phenomenon. It is the halfway house that has emerged over the past decades, perhaps most spectacularly in 1999 inSeattle, reflecting the state of suspended animation into which ‘the Left’ has passed since the end of the Cold War. To say it is a halfway house does not mean it is necessarily moving in one direction or another. Rather, anticapitalism is a halfway house in the way that it balances between the most piecemeal, single-issue reforms and utopian visions of radically different societies. The reforms are not clearly related to the over-arching background utopias, and there rarely seems to be much of an attempt to integrate the elements of reform into a totalizing vision or coherent ideology.

For instance, at the Harvard panel, two of the participants noticed that one frequently finds calls for a millionaire’s tax, better financial reform, and ‘End the Fed,’ which they dubbed the reformist tendency of Occupy. But it was also said that Occupy was somehow objectively more radical, more ‘anticapitalist’ than these modest proposals. And it is of course true that there is plenty of utopian aspiration, as well as structural critique, to be found. But an equally ‘objective’ feature of these Occupations, and of the wider anticapitalist trend, is the political unwillingness to go further. This political unwillingness is objective in the sense that it is widely enough shared to be a kind of condition of possibility for the existence of the Occupation in the first place. While one finds a uniting aspiration to be more than a series of piecemeal reforms, one regularly encounters strong resistance to seizing the state, or doing what it takes, to transform the economy – whether seizing means revolutionary acts or just party politics. To be sure these are generalities, and one finds many particular counterexamples. But there is nonetheless something that has held together anticapitalism in the past few decades, and it is the curious blend of radical gesture and piecemeal reform. The ‘anticapitalism’ is not just the radical gesture, the broad intimation of ‘alternatives’, but also comprises the rejection of past alternatives – which ends up producing a tendency to invest piecemeal reforms with decidedly more moral and political weight than they deserve.

The novelty of Occupy in relation to the past decades of anticapitalism has been to introduce one other way of thinking about alternatives – the camp itself as a kind of autonomous, self-sufficient community, with a new kind of political structure that, in (one) theory, prefigures a new society.* Of course, none of the camps are actually self-sufficient, and increasingly the General Assemblies have proved to be cumbersome political apparati, with many of the bureaucratic features that its advocates wish to reject (procedure is truly the name of the game). But more deeply, it has been a way of dealing with some of the problems of anticapitalism by turning inward – creating an alternative that does not require either mass political support, nor trying to exercise collective power to directly transform wider society, nevermind thinking about how one could possibly scale up that model to a national and international economy. As such, the small-scale autonomous collective strategy has stood in some tension with the claim to represent and act in concert with the 99%.

In that light, despite the repression, and in some cases illegality, that went into the clearing of many Occupations, it may not have been such a bad thing for the Occupation movement itself. It has forced the Occupation back into society, and thus forced it to find the radicalism there, among the majority, rather than just among the deracinated elements that can maintain a camp. If it does then it has a chance to be more than anticapitalist.

* The self-sufficient camp certainly has a number of recent, and long-standing, antecedents. We are told that similar anarchist inspired self-sufficient communities, run by a General Assembly decision-procedure, go back to Genoa/2001 and Seattle/1999. The difference is that those camps were as temporary as the IMF/WB/G8/WTO meetings they were set up to protest, and probably for that reason were not nearly as central as they are to the Occupation. Moreover, the creation of a permanent camp ‘occupying’ the enemy’s territory is familiar from activism of the 1970s and 1980s, such as the Greenham Common Peace Camp although these were not seen as ‘prefigurations.’ In the longer time horizon of modern political action, there is a robust tradition of occupying factories and land, a tradition the current Occupation sometimes overlooks – though there the difference is that the aim is to seize means of production from owners, not to secede from mainstream society by occupying public property.


This articles first published at The Current Moment.

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