Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 8, 2020

Assessing David Graeber’s legacy

Filed under: anarchism,Kurd,Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 4:07 pm

David Graeber, 1961-2020

I was as shocked by David Graeber’s death as everybody else. As was the case with Michael Brooks, this was a case of dying much too young. Both men were beloved by their respective constituencies. Brooks, a Sandernista, was mourned most deeply by his colleagues in and around Jacobin Magazine after he died of a blood clot at the age of 36 on July 20th. Like Brooks, Graeber also died unexpectedly from a blood-related illness—internal bleeding from an unspecified cause. An autopsy will likely provide the exact nature of his untimely death.

Graeber, who was 59 when he died, was far better known than Brooks as obituaries in the leading newspapers would indicate. He was primarily known as an anarchist bien pensant but also as an author of best-selling books such as “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” that like Thomas Piketty’s “Capital” broke through to a larger audience. In addition, Graeber was considered an innovative thinker by his peers in the academy even though (or, maybe, because) his articles were far removed from the minutiae typical of JSTOR articles.

After seeing numerous tributes to him on Facebook, I thought twice about writing anything critical since it might be regarded as a gratuitous Marxist attack on a revered figure. I suppose I was waiting for someone to write such an article but could only find the same kind of tribute in Marxist magazines that he received from his anarchist and academic comrades and colleagues. For example, Left Voice—a rock-ribbed Trotskyist journal—spoke of him as “more than just a visionary academic.” Perhaps the author’s past encounters (or lack of encounters) helped shaped her article: “When I was a student at the London School of Economics, I tried to get into his public lectures and was unsuccessful. The lines stretched across courtyards and snaked through lobbies as students lined up far in advance to see him in action.”

Seeing nobody else willing to write a balance sheet on his career as an activist, I guess I’ll have to fill the bill until someone more qualified comes along. Maybe with my bad reputation in certain places on the left, I have nothing to lose. Those who hate me for criticizing Graeber will have to stand on line behind the people who hate me for a thousand other offenses. (Not having read his best-sellers, I will of course have nothing to to say about them.)

I hadn’t paid much attention to David Graeber after his well-known political firing from Yale University in 2007. But it was difficult not to miss his meteoric rise as the chief ideologist of Occupy Wall Street in 2011. At the time, I was very impressed with the role of anarchists in the struggle as was my friend Pham Binh, who had a Marxist background like me but could understand anarchism’s importance in this struggle. In a guest post on my blog, he wrote, “Occupy Wall Street (OWS) mobilized more workers and oppressed people in four weeks than the entire socialist left combined has in four decades. We would benefit by coming to grips with how and why other forces (namely anarchists) accomplished this historic feat.”

Graeber’s role was not to help organize the occupation, which admittedly eschewed any kind of organization except providing mutual aid, but to both theorize and popularize it. As for popularization, his description of Occupy as fighting for “the ninety-nine percent” was brilliant and helped shape the thinking of the Sanders campaign that battled conversely against the one-percent.

Unfortunately, Graeber’s narrowly constrained anarchist concepts helped to derail the movement in the long run. To start with, Graeber was opposed to the movement adopting demands. When he learned that there were plans to march on Wall Street with predetermined demands, Graeber and his small group created their own general assembly, which eventually developed into the New York General Assembly. This was a pyrrhic victory since the General Assembly forestalled the possibility of a mass movement fighting for structural changes that could have truly benefited the 99 percent, such as nationalizing the banks.

He was also wrong to fetishize the physical occupation of public spaces such as Zuccotti Park in New York, which were supposed to “prefigure” the future anarchist world. By not being more flexible, the movement could not project a future plan of action after the cops systematically removed activists everywhere from parks, plazas, etc. This is not to speak of the exclusion of people from the ostensible heart of the movement because jobs, family responsibilities, age and infirmity made sleeping out in the cold in a sleeping bag impossible. As is so often the case with anarchist activism, the masses are supposed to function as if observers at a sporting event, cheering on the participants.

I haven’t paid much attention to the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle, but this strikes me as the latest example of the “prefigurative” dead-end. The NY Times reported on the experience of coffee shop owner Faizel Khan:

Young white men wielding guns would harangue customers as well as Mr. Khan, a gay man of Middle Eastern descent who moved here from Texas so he could more comfortably be out. To get into his coffee shop, he sometimes had to seek the permission of self-appointed armed guards to cross a border they had erected.

“They barricaded us all in here,” Mr. Khan said. “And they were sitting in lawn chairs with guns.”

Finally, Graeber defended the idea of consensus rather than taking a vote. This might have been the worst idea of all since it paralyzed the movement. In an interview with Platypus, Graeber tried to defend the practice:

…you’ll only get broad and tepid solutions if you bring everything to the General Assembly. That’s why we have working groups, empower them to perform actions, and encourage them to form spontaneously. This is another of the key principles in dealing with consensus and decentralization. In an ideal world, the very unwieldiness of finding consensus in a large group should convince people not to bring decisions before this large group unless they absolutely have to. That’s actually the way it’s supposed to work out.

This strikes me as muddle-headed nonsense.

I’ve often considered the possibility that anarchism is as dogmatic in its own ways as “Leninism”. Even though it does not operate under democratic centralism, you get a cult-like devotion to some of its core ideas, especially the “propaganda of the deed” that included bombings in Czarist Russia and, more recently, the black bloc.

On February 6, 2012, Chris Hedges wrote an article for Truthdig titled “The Cancer in Occupy” that began:

The Black Bloc anarchists, who have been active on the streets in Oakland and other cities, are the cancer of the Occupy movement. The presence of Black Bloc anarchists — so named because they dress in black, obscure their faces, move as a unified mass, seek physical confrontations with police and destroy property — is a gift from heaven to the security and surveillance state.

Hedge’s article pissed Graeber off enough to make him write a reply titled “Concerning the Violent Peace-Police: An Open Letter to Chris Hedges” in New Inquiry. Graeber’s defense was one I heard a thousand times. The Black Bloc was not a group but a tactic, as if the people carrying it out weren’t part of the same affinity group.

For Graeber, the black bloc is a form of horizontalist direct democracy that is based on consensus rather than majority vote. Yeah, who needs a cumbersome and verticalist procedure such as voting that would only get in the way of a determined horizontalist bunch of people wearing bandannas over their faces intent on raising Cain.

Essentially, the black bloc is as elitist and verticalist in its own way as the self-declared vanguard groups of the Leninist left that aspire to control mass organizations. Groups like the American SWP that I belonged to for 11 years used to caucus before a meeting to make sure that the membership followed a predetermined line before a critical vote even if in the course of discussion they decided that the SWP was wrong. Meanwhile, the black bloc does not bother with votes at all. This is a Hobson’s Choice, if there ever was one.

Finally, there was Graeber’s efforts to persuade the left that Rojova was the ultimate “prefigurative” experiment. He never bothered to write about the relations between the PYD and the Syrian rebels who in their own way created “prefigurative” liberated territories all across the country until aerial bombardment, chemical warfare and starvation sieges preempted the possibility of them becoming as ideal as Rojova. Trying to apply Murray Bookchin’s theories to a place like Homs was dead on arrival.

For Graeber, Rojova’s reliance on co-ops made it superior to Marxist-style central planning. You can find an interview with Graeber on Co-Operative Economy, a website that describes itself as follows:

The co-operative movement in North Syria, known colloquially as Rojava (meaning “West” in Kurdish) is thriving.

In Rojava, a revolution is taking place, based on the political model of Democratic Confederalism, and within this system, co-operatives play an integral part in reshaping the economy. People here are taking collective control of their lives and workplaces.

In Bakur, (the predominantly Kurdish region which lies within Turkey’s border) co-operatives have been set up within a similar model of democratic autonomy, despite the ongoing military repression by the state of Turkey.

Anticipating his 2018 best-seller, Graeber said, “And in fact, my father was in Barcelona when it was run by an anarchist principle. They just got rid of white collar workers, and sure enough they discovered these were basically bullshit jobs, that they didn’t make any difference if they weren’t there.”

Well, I was in Nicaragua in the late 80s—a country trying to implement socialist policies under very difficult conditions—and can assure you that engineers, programmers, economists and other white-collar professionals were desperately needed. If they were doing “bullshit jobs”, that was not what we heard from Daniel Ortega. One supposes that Nicaragua would have been better off it had tried to implement Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism rather than state ownership and planning but then again Somoza would have thrown the practitioners out of helicopters before they got very far.

Graeber has a rather quaint way of expressing the difference between Marxism and anarchism. People like Somoza or Assad don’t mind if Marxists say things like “I hate you, I want to overthrow you” nearly as much as what the anarchists say: “You guys are ridiculous and unnecessary.” Gosh, where did I go wrong? Instead of joining the SWP in the (vain) hope of making a revolution in the USA, I should have gone up to Vermont and started a maple syrup co-operative. That would have saved me the trouble of reading all that stuff about revolutionary struggles in Cuba or Vietnam and eventually figuring out that the SWP was right in its ultimate goal but totally fucked-up in the way it went about it.

Showing that he has read his Bakunin, Graeber puts it this way: “When those Marxists come, the police will still be there. There are probably going to be more of them, right? Anarchists come, the whole structure will be changed. People will be told that it’s completely unnecessary.” Oh, I see. With Rojava chugging along, the police will disappear. What a relief to everybody except the families of the 13,000 men who were secretly hanged in Syrian prisons without even a trial.

Here’s Graeber summing up the Rojava experiment:

They run the cities. It’s a country of a real economy; it’s a poor one and they’re under embargo. But there are people driving cars, there is traffic rules, there’s workshops and factories producing things, there’s farms. It does all the things you have in a normal society. Roads have to be maintained.

But essentially, what they have done is created … it’s very interesting. I’ve said, I’ve described it as a dual power situation, but this is the first time in human history, I think, where you have a dual power situation where the same guy set up both sides. So they have a thing that looks like a government; it’s got a parliament, it’s got ministers. They pass legislation.

For me, “dual power” refers to what takes place under revolutionary conditions. For example, in the country Graeber’s father fought in, there really was a dual-power situation. Vast portions of the country were producing food and manufactured goods on farms and factories after ousting the bosses. Were those bosses the white-collar people Graeber was referring to? A computer programmer working for Michael Bloomberg is not a member of the same class as his boss. Been there, done that.

In order to regain control of the country, Franco used his air force and powerful military to destroy the militias and regular troops who defended worker and farmer owned and controlled property. Any resemblance between what took place in Spain and now in Rojava is purely coincidental.

July 19, 2016

Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, workers and communists

Filed under: Black Lives Matter,Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 6:53 pm

Today I got a FB message from an American living in Italy who has been asked to give a short speech “to one of the many Italian communist parties at the end of the month in Naples concerning class consciousness in current movements in the US, particularly Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, among others.” He asked what I and another North Star editor might have responded to the questions below. As is customary, I will answer them publicly since others might have the same types of questions.

1) what the make-up of these movements is, if they’re vastly working class and poor or if there is a substantial component of middle or even upper class support etc.

Occupy Wall Street was predominantly made up of students and young working people who were willing to camp out in Zuccotti Park in the financial district even if it meant losing their job. Since many young people are part of the “precariat”, it is altogether possible that sacrificing a job as a barista or a bike messenger was acceptable given the importance of the struggle. I have much less contact with Black Lives Matter but feel confident in saying that many of the activists are a mixture of working class African-Americans and students. In fact, I doubt that there is much difference in social terms between the two movements and the Vietnam antiwar movement and Black liberation movement of the 1960s such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that was led by college students primarily. What you will not see to any great extent is representation from the major unions of the AFL-CIO even though they have praised the movements and provided speakers at rallies. The explanation for this is that bus drivers, UPS deliverymen and women, postal workers, etc. tend to be preoccupied with managing their family affairs and unwilling to take the chance of being arrested or fired. This has been true of leftist movements since WWII for the most part.

2) what the role of the working class is, especially among the young, in these movements..and what their contribution has been to these movements towards the development of mass organization

Answered above.

3) if communists, those identifying as such, or communist parties in the US are participating in these movements

Once again I have had more direct contact with the Occupy movement than BLM. Although I am sure that “the communists” themselves would disagree with me but I would say that the anarchists had a much more organic connection to the Occupy movement than the organized left that saw it as an opportunity to pick up members. This is not to say that they weren’t hard workers and did not believe deeply in the goals of the movement. It is just that they have been trained for generations to see the mass movement as a sphere to operate it rather than an end in itself. They are hamstrung by conceptions of “democratic centralism” that entail caucusing beforehand and bloc voting to support the party line. If the party line and the mass movement’s goals coincide, that works out but when they clash, there can be hell to pay. I say that as a veteran of the Vietnam antiwar movement.

4) and what links, if any, there has been to anti war movements in recent years to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan etc.

There has been almost no connection. The anti-war movements tend to be made up of older veterans of earlier struggles such as Vietnam and Central America who belong to “communist” parties that were not particularly suited to the “horizontalism” of Occupy or BLM. I posted an article written by a co-thinker about the “culture clash” between the Leninist parties and the new movements back in December 2011. It is a very astute commentary on the failure of the communists to develop organic ties to Occupy and by implication applies to BLM as well.

Guest post by Pham Binh

Occupy and the Tasks of Socialists

By Pham Binh

December 14, 2011

Occupy is a once in a lifetime opportunity to re-merge the socialist and working class movements and create a viable broad-based party of radicals, two prospects that have not been on the cards in the United States since the late 1960s and early 1970s. The socialist left has not begun to think through these “big picture” implications of Occupy, nor has it fully adjusted to the new tasks that Occupy’s outbreak has created for socialists. In practice, the socialist left follows Occupy’s lead rather than Occupy follow the socialist left’s lead. As a result, we struggle to keep pace with Occupy’s rapid evolution.

Occupy Wall Street (OWS) mobilized more workers and oppressed people in four weeks than the entire socialist left combined has in four decades. We would benefit by coming to grips with how and why other forces (namely anarchists) accomplished this historic feat.

The following is an attempt to understand Occupy, review the socialist response, and draw some practical conclusions aimed at helping the socialist left become central rather than remain marginal to Occupy’s overall direction.

Occupy’s Class Character and Leadership

Occupy is more than a movement and less than a revolution. It is an uprising, an elemental and unpredictable outpouring of both rage and hope from the depths of the 99%.

Occupy is radically different from the mass movements that rocked American politics in the last decade or so: the immigrants’ rights movement that culminated on May 1, 2006 in the first national political strike since 1886, the Iraq anti-war movement of 2002-2003, and the global justice movement that began with the Battle of Seattle in 1999 and ended on 9/11. All three were led by liberal non-governmental organizations (NGOs). They sponsored the marches, obtained the permits, and selected who could and could not speak from the front of the rallies. Militant, illegal direction action tended to be the purview of adventurist Black Bloc elements or handfuls of very committed activists.

Compared to these three movements, the following differences stand out: Occupy is broader in terms of active participants and public support and, most importantly, is far more militant and defiant. Tens of thousands of people are willing to brave arrest and police brutality. The uprising was deliberately designed by its anarchist initiators to be an open-ended and all-inclusive process, thereby avoiding the pitfalls of the failed conventional single-issue protest model. The “people’s mic,” invented to circumvent the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) ban on amplified sound, means that anyone can be heard by large numbers of people at any time.

One of the most important elements that makes Occupy an uprising and not merely a mass movement is its alleged leaderlessness. Of course as Marxists we know that every struggle requires leadership in some form, and Occupy is no exception. The leaders of Occupy are those who put their bodies on the line at the encampments and get deeply involved in the complex, Byzantine decision-making process Occupy uses known as “modified consensus.” Occupy’s leaders are those who make the proposals at planning meetings, working groups, and General Assemblies (GAs) that attract enough support to determine the uprising’s course of action.

The people leading the uprising are those who are willing to make the biggest sacrifices for it.

Since Occupy is self-organizing and self-led by its most dedicated participants, attempts to make its decision-making process more accessible to those who are not willing or able to dedicate themselves to Occupy 24 hours a day, seven days a week will fall flat. “All day, all week, occupy Wall Street!” is not just a chant, it is a way of life for Occupy’s de facto leadership.

This reality has affected the class character of encampment participants, who tend to be either what Karl Marx called lumpenproletariat (long-term homeless, hustlers, drug addicts, and others who have fallen through the cracks of the capitalist edifice) or highly educated (white) students, ex-students, and graduate students. The former joined the encampments not just to eat and sleep in a relatively safe place but also because they hope the uprising will win real, meaningful change. The latter tend to dominate Occupy’s convoluted decision-making process and what motivates them is identical to what motivates the lumpenproletarian elements: hope that Occupy will win real, meaningful change. Many of these people are saddled with tremendous amounts of personal debt, have worked two or three part-time jobs simultaneously, or were unable to find work in their field despite their expensive, extensive educations. They were destined to be secure petty bourgeois or well-paid white-collar workers before the ongoing fallout from the 2008 crisis claimed their futures and put their backs against the wall. This is the material reality underpinning the determination of Occupy participants to keep coming back despite repeated arrests, beatings, and setbacks. Their determination is the stuff revolutions are made of.

The advantage of Occupy’s structure and form is that the Democratic Party, liberal NGOs, and union leaders have been unable to co-opt the uprising before it exploded into over 1,000 American towns and cities and targeted President Obama. The disadvantage is that it limits Occupy geographically to places where authorities will tolerate encampments and sociologically to the least and most privileged sections of the population, to those who have no where else to go besides the encampments and to those who can afford to camp out for weeks at a time.

The undocumented immigrant who works 60 hours a week and the wage slave who works 40 hours a week will find it very difficult to shape Occupy’s decision-making process. Attempts to scrap Occupy’s existing structures and forms to make them more accessible to those other than full-time occupiers carry two inherent risks: 1) opening it up to forces that would love nothing more than to turn the uprising’s fighters into foot soldiers for Obama’s 2012 campaign and 2) diminishing the power wielded by Occupy’s most dedicated participants. In places where Occupy does not take the form of a permanent encampment its decision-making process can be even more diffuse and difficult to participate in.

Full: https://louisproyect.org/2011/12/15/occupy-and-the-tasks-of-socialists/


March 11, 2015

Truth through a Lens

Filed under: Film,Occupy Wall Street,police brutality — louisproyect @ 2:30 pm


This is a timely addendum to the Race and Police series of articles that concluded on February 26th. Yesterday I saw a documentary titled “Truth Through a Lens” as part of my coverage for the upcoming Socially Relevant Film Festival in New York (http://www.ratedsrfilms.org/) that runs from March 16 to 22. As an accredited member of the press, I was able to preview both narrative and documentary films. “Truth Through a Lens” will allow you to get some insights into how a community activist named Dennis Flores managed to lead the largely Latino Sunset Park community in Brooklyn in both the types of protests we have seen in the aftermath of Ferguson as well as those associated with Occupy, and in one instance an action that effectively combined both.

The film was directed by Justin Thomas, a young African-American documentary filmmaker who seen in the closing minutes of the film being arrested by Sunset Park cops for the “crime” of filming in front of the station house. Thomas is a remarkable director who is doing through film what so many of his peers are doing through their activism: confronting injustice. In 2011, he served as executive producer for a short narrative film titled “The Grey Movie” about three young antiwar activists organizing against the invasion of Iraq for which Albert Maysles served as advisers. Mayseles died a week ago at the age of 88 after a long career making documentaries that often took up the cause of the underdog.

Dennis Flores is a long-time community organizer in Sunset Park who ran with a “tagging” gang in his teens. For young men, writing graffiti on the sides of subway cars gave them a thrill even if it could land them in jail. After many run-ins with the cops that reeked of the arbitrary behavior of the Ferguson cops, Flores ended up in Rikers Island where he met older and politicized Puerto Rican prisoners who urged him to become an activist.

His own victimization by the cops inspired him to begin bring a video camera to protests in Sunset Park, a Latino version of Ferguson, Missouri. Justin Thomas’s film shows repeated violations of elementary constitutional rights just like the kind that can be seen in protests against cop killings across America today.

The climax of the film shows Dennis Flores joined by community activists in an Occupy type protest in front of an apartment building that has fallen victim to landlord neglect. They do a “mike check” in front of the building calling attention to the abuses. Later that day the cops arrest him for doing nothing more than leading a film crew into the basement in order to prove that the landlord has filled it with garbage and thus created a hotbed for vermin and insects.

This is a film that as many activists as possible should see. It not only demonstrates the power of a community to resist around a charismatic leader but to show the potential for a movement that unites people of all races around a clear class line. It is an inspiring and well-crafted film that pays tribute to the gifts of a young filmmaker and the community activist who served as its inspiration.

October 12, 2013

Bill de Blasio and William Mulrow

Filed under: New York,Occupy Wall Street,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 2:00 pm


Mr. de Blasio is not a complete stranger to the financial world. His wife, Chirlane McCray, briefly worked under Mr. Schlein at Citigroup, and after the financial crisis Mr. de Blasio opposed limits on bank bonuses.

He seeks counsel from Orin S. Kramer, a hedge fund manager and a top donor to President Obama, who introduced him at the Viacom lunch. Another ally is William Mulrow, who is a senior managing director at Blackstone and a former candidate for state comptroller (and who once donned dingy clothes to impersonate an Occupy Wall Street protester at a private bankers’ dinner).

* * * *

NY Times January 20, 2012, 9:52 pm

A Raucous Hazing at a Wall St. Fraternity


The chandelier-filled ballroom was teeming with 200 men in tuxedos — and a smattering of women — whose daily decisions can collectively make or break the global financial markets. Most were picking over a lavish dinner that included rack of lamb and crème brûlée. Others were preparing to sing bawdy show tunes.

Kappa Beta Phi, an exclusive Wall Street fraternity whose members include big-name bankers, hedge fund billionaires and private equity titans, met at the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan on Thursday night for its 80th annual black-tie dinner and induction ceremony.

As always, the event was held in strict secrecy, with members being told that “what happens at the St. Regis stays at the St. Regis.”

A reporter, however, was able to walk in unquestioned and observe the proceedings.

Neither a rough year in the financial markets nor the animus of the Occupy Wall Street movement was enough to dampen spirits at this year’s dinner, which was attended by members like Alan C. Greenberg, known as Ace, the former chairman of Bear Stearns; Robert H. Benmosche, the chairman of the American International Group; Meredith Whitney of the Whitney Advisory Group; and Martin Lipton, founding partner of the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz.

The Occupy movement was fodder for several after-dinner skits. In one, a documentary filmed during the protests, James Lebenthal, a bond specialist, joked with a protester whose face was appeared to be tattooed.

“Go home, wash that off your face, and get back to work,” Mr. Lebenthal told the protester.

Reached through his daughter on Friday, Mr. Lebenthal declined to comment.

In another skit, William Mulrow , a senior managing director at the Blackstone Group, put on raggedy clothes to play the part of an Occupy protester. Emil W. Henry Jr., a managing partner at Tiger Infrastructure Partners and a fellow new Kappa, joined him dressed as a wealthy baron.

“Bill, look at you! You’re pathetic, you liberal! You need a bath!” Mr. Henry said, voice full of mock indignation.

“You callow, insensitive Republican!” Mr. Mulrow said. “Don’t you know we need to create jobs?”

A Blackstone spokesman declined to comment on Mr. Mulrow’s behalf. Mr. Henry was not immediately available for comment.

December 19, 2012

A Pigeon Fable for Christmas: did the 99% idea come from Pigeon Paley?

Filed under: economics,Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 3:42 pm

By Calum Turner

I recently came across an American book from 1853 and was surprised to read a passage that resonated with today. ‘Theory of Politics’ is by Richard Hildreth, and has the inviting sub-title, ‘An Inquiry into the Foundations of Governments and the Causes and Progress of Political Revolutions’. Under the heading ‘Wealth as an Element of Power. Moneyed Form of Social Slavery’, Hildreth addressed what he called “the existing social state of Europe” by quoting William Paley’s fable:

“If you should see a flock of pigeons in a field of corn: and if (instead of each picking where and what it liked, taking just as much as it wanted, and no more) you should see ninety-nine of them gathering all they got into a heap; reserving nothing for themselves but the chaff and the refuse; keeping this heap for one, and that the weakest, perhaps worst, pigeon of the flock; sitting round, and looking on, all the winter, whilst this one was devouring, throwing about, and wasting it; and if a pigeon more hardy and hungry than the rest, touched a grain of the hoard, all the others instantly flying upon it, and tearing it to pieces; – if you should see this, you would see nothing more than what is every day practised and established among men. Among men, you see the ninety-and-nine toiling and scraping together a heap of superfluities for one (and this one too, oftentimes the feeblest and worst of the whole set – a child, a woman, a madman, or a fool;) getting nothing for themselves all the while, but a little of the coarsest of the provision, which their own industry produces; looking quietly on, while they see the fruits of all their labour spent or spoiled: and if one of the number take or touch a particle of the hoard, the others joining against him, and hanging him for the theft.”

(Taken from the 1824 New York edition, with the punctuation of the time, ‘The Principles of Political and Moral Philosophy’ [1785]; it’s at www.books.google.com/books?id=MRMRAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=paley+political+moral+philosophy&hl=de, being Book III, Part I, the whole of Chapter I, Of Property, pages 78-9.)

Paley’s friend, John Law, tried in vain to get him to excise this from the draft, fearing it would harm Paley’s chance of becoming a bishop. It got him the moniker Pigeon Paley, and the monarch, George III (yes, he of the Alan Bennett play and film), is reputed to have said, “Pigeon Paley? Not sound, not sound”. And no, he never became a bishop. (Info from wiki.)

Richard Hildreth (1807-65) was a lawyer, then joint founder and editor of the Boston Atlas, and author of the 6-volume ‘The History of the United States of America’, the anti-slavery novel ‘Archy Moore’ (later expanded as ‘The White Slave’), plus studies of slavery, Japan, and ethics. He also wrote for the New York Tribune 1857-60, sharing its pages for a while with Marx and Engels (contributors 1852-61).


November 2, 2012

#Occupy for President: #2012 and Beyond

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 5:55 pm

#Occupy for President: #2012 and Beyond

by Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp on November 2, 2012

in analysis

The 2012 presidential race bears no trace of Occupy or the militancy it spawned among Chicago teachers and Wal Mart workers. This is no accident — the U.S. political system is a machine, and this machine smothers militancy. The ugly inner workings of the Democratic part of that machine were briefly exposed when a televised floor vote was held at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) to add God and Jerusalem as apartheid Israel’s capital to the party platform at the behest of President Obama. What followed was a charade, the kind of party-line “democracy” practiced at Communist Party congresses in China, North Korea, and the U.S.S.R.:

One DNC delegate stormed out and joined Occupy. Nothing teaches that the Democratic Party does not belong to Democrats better than painful, bitter experiences like this.

full: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=2320

September 24, 2012

It takes a professor to get the Occupy Movement really, really wrong

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 9:03 pm

As befits a movement that challenged both the “one percent” and conventional leftist understandings of how things get done, it is understandable why the Occupy movement has launched a cottage industry of commentary, much of it written by academics devoted to exploring its alleged shortcomings. One supposes that any movement that fails to achieve a substantial breakthrough in these most difficult times will be susceptible to second-guessing, including the recent strike of Chicago schoolteachers. On the occasion of the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, the commentariat might be expected to have more to say than usual. Please permit me a few words of commentary on the commentary.

While it was originally written in January for an online journal called “Possible Futures” (a project of the Social Science Research Council), its inclusion on the Kasama Project on September 21 surely must have been intended to stimulate discussion among activists involved with the Occupy movement on its anniversary. The Kasama Project, to its credit, has been a solid supporter of the movement and thankfully above the sniping seen elsewhere.

The ubiquitous Jodi Dean, who can be described as a disciple of Slavoj Zizek, and Marco Deseriis, a postdoctoral fellow at the New School, are the authors and state their intentions rather forcefully:

In this essay, we claim that far from being a strength, the lack of demands reflects the weak ideological core of the movement. We also claim that demands should not be approached tactically but strategically, that is, they should be grounded in a long-term view of the political goals of the movement, a view that is currently lacking. Accordingly, in the second part of this text, we argue that this strategic view should be grounded in a politics of the commons.

Before making their case for raising demands, the authors describe three different justifications for not raising them:

ANTI-REPRESENTATIONAL: Supposedly some “anarchists and libertarians” fought against raising a demand for something like a Tobin Tax since that would increase “the size of the government and the scope of its intervention.” Unfortunately, there is no citation for this so it is a little bit hard to know exactly what they advocated. Speaking for myself (and who else matters?), I am for drastically increasing the size of government to the point of returning to the status quo ante of the USSR circa 1925, but find myself sympathizing with my anarchist and libertarian brethren and sistren (if in fact they did make this point) about the Tobin Tax, even if from a completely different angle. The Tobin Tax is the pet hobbyhorse of liberal think tanks and hardly the sort of thing that a radical movement should get involved with.

AUTONOMIST: Dean and Deseriis write: “The autonomist approach, then, emphasizes the creation of autonomous structures and new political organizations and practices. From this perspective, the problem with demands is not only that they provide life support to a dying system, but that they direct vital energies away from building new forms of collectivity ourselves.” Once again, without a citation it is a bit difficult to weigh the autonomist objection even though admittedly I would be usually willing to think the worst of them.

NON-COOPTATION: Once again, we are forced to rely on the authors’ characterization rather than a citation but be that as it may, it does sound rather familiar:

Will the demand for a national jobs plan mean that the movement has been co-opted by the unions? Will a push for a constitutional amendment to eliminate corporate personhood fold the movement into the Democratic Party? And isn’t the support of partisan organizations such as MoveOn a symptom that this co-optation is already under way?

Now I can’t think of anybody who better symbolizes the dangers of cooptation than Van Jones, but in an interview with Keith Olbermann last November, he hardly sounded like someone stressing the need for demands:

I—I think that one of the things that people were saying early on, you know, “Occupy—they don’t have any demands, what are they doing?” Well first of all, it was important that they—it’s not for lack of demands that the progressives haven’t made any headway. We’ve got more demands than we know what to do with. Nobody cared. They were able to get people to care, and to make the problem big enough that people have to look for solutions.

More to the point, Dean and Deseriis failed to engage with the key point made by Occupy supporters around the question of demands, namely that they were implicit throughout. When you protest against the “one percent”, it was not hard to figure out that the thrust was against unemployment, home foreclosure, corporate control of the two-party system, wars abroad both overt and covert, racism, and all the rest. All you had to do was look at the hand-painted signs to get an idea of what the movement was for.

But more to the point, it would be a fundamental mistake to expect a semi-spontaneous movement without elected officers devoted mostly to changing the discourse in the U.S. about who benefits from corporate domination to switch gears and begin operating as traditional movements that did pose demands. In my view, the best of all possibilities would have been a very broad demand for something like “Peace, jobs and freedom” that would have not gotten sidetracked in the fashion described by the authors. That such a demand did not get raised is almost incidental. Everybody understood what the movement sought, a reversal of the current course of American politics. If some demonstrated out of socialist convictions, or others out of anarchist or liberal convictions, that was not a problem. The best thing about Occupy was its ability to get peoples’ asses off their couches and into the streets.

The second half of Dean and Deseriis’s article deals with issues related to problems related to “the commons”, a term with much currency in autonomist literature, especially the journal Commoner, edited by Massimo De Angelis. It is really a bit beyond the scope of this article to deal with the authors’ attempt to explain the movement’s failure to define its relationship to the commons, but do have something to say about this:

Weary of the historical failure of actually existing socialism—and lacking large-scale models of alternative development—most Occupiers seem to content themselves with a neo-Keynesian politics that begins and often ends with demands for fiscal reform and government investment in strategic sectors such as infrastructure, green technologies, education, and health care.

Now I could be wrong, but the last thing that would seem to describe the people who slept in the bitter cold at Zuccotti Park or other public spaces around the country was weariness over “the historical failure of actually existing socialism” or being contented with a “neo-Keynesian politics that begins and often ends with demands for fiscal reform and government investment in strategic sectors”. In fact, this would instead be a rather succinct and on-target description of the Crooked Timber blog, about which the less said the better.

The late and great poet Robinson Jeffers best known poem “Shine, Perishing Republic” contains these memorable lines:

While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire,

And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens,

I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots to make earth.

This pretty much summarizes the intellectual outlook of Morris Berman, a 68-year-old professor who contributes occasionally to Counterpunch. The Waning of the Modern Ages, the title of his latest article there, speaks for his affinity with Jeffers.

As was the case for Dean and Deseriis, but to a much larger degree, the Occupy movement serves as a kind of inkblot upon which Berman can project his fantasies. Most of Berman’s article is a salute to Naomi Klein’s article “Capitalism and the Climate” that appeared last November in the Nation Magazine and that defends a “zero growth” perspective in sync with Berman’s own belief that capitalism is doomed. As he puts it:

In a word, its number is up, and it is our fortune or misfortune, as I said before, to be living during a time of very large, and very difficult, transition. An old way of life dies, a new one eventually comes into being. Of this, the poet Mark Strand remarks: “No need to rush; the end of the world is only the end of the world as you know it.” For some odd reason, I find that thought rather comforting.

Obviously, Berman could have quoted Robinson Jeffers to equal effect.

Part of America being doomed can be explained by its refusal to listen to those with a different message than unimpeded industrial and technological growth based on private property. These are the sorts of prophets that we should have been listening to:

This alternative tradition can be traced from John Smith in 1616 to Jimmy Carter in 1979, and included folks such as Emerson, Thoreau, Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs, Vance Packard, and John Kenneth Galbraith, among many others.

I don’t want to be one to quibble but the inclusion of Jimmy Carter here would suggest that Morris Berman does not really have a handle on American politics. The conservative establishment pilloried Carter for advocating “limits” but the last thing the left should be engaged in is defending his record on such matters. In 1979 Carter made a speech that might have confused Dr. Berman:

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

Trust me. The “piling up material goods” business was not intended for the investment bankers, corporate lawyers, real estate magnates, and entertainment industry movers and shakers who fund the Democratic Party. It was for the benefit of the factory workers who were losing their jobs by the millions during a process encouraged by Carter that some called “globalization” but can be more accurately described as monopoly capitalism. In Bill Clinton’s memoir “My Life”, he described the help that former president Carter provided: “After Al Gore plainly bested Ross Perot in a heavily watched TV debate in NAFTA, it passed the House, 234-200. Three days later the Senate followed suit, 61-38. Al and I had called or seen two hundred members of Congress, and the cabinet had made nine hundred calls. President Carter also helped, calling members of Congress all day long for a week.

Morris Berman does not appear to be all that bothered by the prospects of declining economic fortunes for the masses. Mostly the “99 percent” receive the verbal lash from him. He quotes John Steinbeck about how the poor regard themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” and later cites a Pew Charitable Trust poll that “revealed that most Americans have no problem at all with the existence of a small wealthy class; they just want to be able to join it.” Sounds to me that Berman’s view of the working class is based on the TV show from the 1970s “All in the Family” and the movie “Joe” that starred Peter Boyle as a hippy-hating factory worker.

But worst of all is Berman’s take on the Occupy movement, something advanced despite his admission that he “personally never visited Zuccotti Park.” Well, why let reality get in the way of this?

[B]ut most of what I saw on the Web, including very favorable reportage of the Occupy movement, seemed to suggest that the goal was a more equitable American Dream, not the abolition of the American Dream, as I indicated above. In other words, the basic demand was that the pie be cut up more fairly. I never had the impression that the protesters were saying that the pie, in toto, was rotten…

I was never very optimistic about the movement; at least, not as it existed in the United States. As many sociologists have pointed out, America has no real socialist tradition, and it is no surprise that the serious maldistribution of wealth that exists in the U.S. is no issue whatsoever in the forthcoming presidential election.  In fact, a recent poll by the Pew Charitable Trust revealed that most Americans have no problem at all with the existence of a small wealthy class; they just want to be able to join it—which takes us back to the quote from John Steinbeck. My own prediction, several months ago, was that OWS would turn into a kind of permanent teach-in, where the disaffected could go to learn about a “new civilizational paradigm,” if that would indeed be taught.

I know that Berman has not taken the trouble to visit Zuccotti Park, but the idea that the activists would bother with constructing a “permanent teach-in” where you can learn about a “new civilizational paradigm” sounds fairly ridiculous even though Berman’s own calling—as epitomized by his Counterpunch piece—boils down to such a business, even if it includes Jimmy Carter as an outside consultant.

In fact, the impact of the Occupy movement, as well as the Wisconsin protests that it dovetailed with, can be seen at work in the Chicago teacher’s strike. If you go to the Chicago Teacher’s Union official blog, you can find a reference to some training sponsored by the union:

October 8th –Non-violent Direct Action Training:

Saturday, October 8th 10a-6p @ Teamster City 300 S Ashland Ave (lunch and dinner provided) Non-violent Direct Action/Peace Keeper Training for Take Back Chicago Week of Action led by Lisa Fithian

If you go to Lisa Fithian’s website, you will learn about her qualifications to lead such training:

In 2011 Lisa worked with numerous allied organizations organizing “On May 12″ a week of escalating daily action culminating on May 12 with a 20,000 people in 9 un- permitted marches that converged to Teach Wall Street a lesson.  This mobilization helped energize a community based movement under the New Bottom Line to launch a fall campaign of actions on banks in 8 cities. This work both energized and benefited from the Occupy Movement that launched on September 17th and has lead to important collaborations.

Lisa also offered trainings to the and participated in the  2nd International Freedom Flotilla to break the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza on the US Boat to Gaza, the Audacity of Hope; the March to Blair Mountain, Midwest Rising, United We Dream Network, Chicago SOUL- Southsiders Organizing for Unity and Liberation and was arrested at the White House along with 1200 others to protest the Tar Sands pipeline.

When the labor movement recruits someone like Lisa, you know that we are in a new period. When I was a teacher for a brief period in 1968, Albert Shanker, who would have preferred to drive a stake through Lisa’s heart rather than to hire her to train teachers in nonviolent mass action led the local.

Finally, it is not worth fixating on what Occupy was doing in 2011. History moves on inexorably and the best of its activists appears to be riding on its back, firmly seated in the saddle. Read this to find out how it is faring today. It is fact, not fantasy.

September 15, 2012

The North Star: Progress Report and Fund Appeal

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 4:30 pm

Please go to http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=2412 to help out. I am totally in support of this project and urge others to join in.

From “About North Star”

The North Star’s name is a conscious reference to the The North Star network set up by Peter Camejo in the 1980s after he left the U.S. Socialist Workers Party (it is also the name of his wonderful autobiography). At the time, Camejo concluded that the future of radical politics in this country lay not with the plethora of three-letter left groups but elsewhere; Occupy has born this out in way he could not have imagined, creating an entire infrastructure of ongoing protest and resistance almost overnight independently of the existing left.

Occupy succeeded because it was and is uncompromisingly inclusive. In a very different context, the radical left coalition in Greece (SYRIZA) has succeeded for much the same reason, and in Britain, there is the Anti Capitalist Initiative, a left unity project which is off to a promising start.

What the American anti-capitalist, anti-austerity left needs more than anything else to win victories is unity, and that unity cannot occur without rigorous and honest debate, which is just the first step in a long, protracted process of recreating a radical left in this county with meaningful political.

Facilitating this will be The North Star’s new focus.

August 20, 2012

Brother Can You Spare a Dollar?

Filed under: Film,financial crisis,Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 4:16 pm

“Brother Can You Spare a Dollar?” opened two nights ago at the Quad Cinema in NYC and can best be described as a close relative of Michael Moore’s “Capitalism, a Love Story”. As was the case with Moore’s documentary, the dominant message is that the government should address the Great Recession of today just as it did during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Moore’s film ended on the rather foolish note that Obama would become the FDR of today, while director Thom Hoffman ends “Brother Can You Spare a Dollar?” with a nod toward the Occupy Movement. That’s progress on the political front to say the least.

Although I can recommend the film, there are some caveats. To begin with, it is politically unsophisticated. Except for Columbia University’s Alan Brinkley, an excellent FDR scholar who has examined the New Deal critically, Hoffman’s interviewees are exclusively ordinary people who either lived through the depression as very young people or who are confronting the current crisis as Occupy activists or as vulnerable college graduates entering a brutal job market. One group is identified as “professional women” from Long Island who will remind you of the cast of a Bravo cable TV reality show.

Ultimately its provenance is what makes the film interesting, at least to me (who else matters?). Without pretending that he is some kind of expert on economics or political science, director Thom Hoffman, who narrates the film and appears on-screen frequently, comes across as a next-door neighbor in Long Island, where most of the documentary was shot. While his focus was on his interviewees and their stories about trying to survive in Hard Times, my interest was primarily sustained by the phenomenon of what appeared to be an average middle-class American committing a sizable amount of time and money to examining capitalist crisis.

Thom Hoffman’s close associate Ray Adell was one of the people interviewed in the film who lived through the depression, as well as its associate producer. He has been involved in radio and film production for over 50 years, including a radio program called “About Long Island” developed for Northrup/Grumman, a major manufacturer of military aircraft. Another credit was making instructional films for the U.S. Navy, produced by Sperry Gyroscope. All this is unlikely preparation for a documentary on the evils of a system based on private property. Since Thom Hoffman was Production Manager for Ray Adell, you have to assume that he was working on the same kinds of projects. Their willingness today to critically examine the system that has left millions without jobs and without homes is something to behold even if they stop short of coming to the kinds of radical conclusions of my readers.

Now that I am retired I have more time to meet with people during the week. A couple of weeks ago I had lunch with a young man studying economics from a Marxist perspective and willing to put up with the ardors of graduate school and landing a position in a field notoriously hostile to radicals.

We chatted a bit about his parents who live and work in New York. He described his mother’s conversion to Judaism decades ago as a reaction to racist violence in Louisiana, her native state. While I am not quite sure what her exact motivations were, she was at least someone struggling to live a moral life in an immoral society in a way that she saw fit.

While adhering to liberal beliefs her entire adult life, she took an abrupt shift to the left in 2008 when the financial system collapsed. Just as Thom Hoffman decided to make a film about the crisis, she decided to look for a political alternative to the two-party system that was responsible for so much suffering. Ultimately she joined the Green Party in New York but drifted away because it seemed ineffective and because one meeting appeared dominated by Trotskyist windbags as her son put it.

I considered writing a longish post on this but have decided for the time being to only make a brief observation as follows:

There are literally millions of people like Thom Hoffman and my friend’s mother out there who are desperately looking for a political vehicle. And most certainly the Occupy Movement inspired them, including the young aspiring economist who did statistical studies on foreclosures for Occupy Wall Street.

I have no idea what happened to the Occupy Movement but want to offer a proposal for what could have sustained it, even if it amounts to nothing more than an intellectual exercise. After the cops had evicted the last activist from the last occupied public space, it would have been a perfect time to convene a national conference somewhere in the Midwest that featured plenary sessions with some of the best-known figures on the left from Ralph Nader to Chris Hedges, from Barbara Ehrenreich to Boots Riley. Some of the money that had found its way into the movement’s coffers should have paid for ads in the N.Y. Times, the Nation Magazine and Rolling Stone. The conference should have had workshops on foreclosures, debt, unemployment, etc.

The main goal of the conference would have been to form a party calling itself the Occupy Party that ran a candidate in the 2012 election—Boots Riley would have been perfect. Activists would have worked to get ballot status in all fifty states. Money raised at the conference in a closing plenary session would have funded a national office that could have maintained a database of members and kept them informed of what the movement was doing nationally through both electronic and print communications. Membership would cost $20 annually and be free for the unemployed and the poor.

Given the tremendous support that the Occupy movement received from the American people and given its willingness to confront the one percent whichever party it was identified with, this would have been the next logical step for the American left presenting in an embryonic form what the Syriza Party in Greece represents.

For most people outside of the ideologically committed Marxist or anarchist, politics means electoral politics. The key to an organization like Syriza, or for that matter Eugene V. Debs’s Socialist Party, is its ability to fight on Election Day as well as every other day of the year. Just look at the relationship between the Christian right or the Tea Party and the Republicans to see how the class enemy does it. In contrast to the Republicans, the Democrats are much more committed to strangling any grass roots movement supposedly on its side.

I am not close enough to the Occupy Movement to figure out whether this was feasible or not. I have my doubts that it was since it there was an unfortunate fetish over public spaces, even though a good part of the movement has now begun to organize around foreclosures, an issue that will remain outstanding given the White House’s treachery:

After inheriting the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, President Obama poured vast amounts of money into efforts to stabilize the financial system, rescue the auto industry and revive the economy.

But he tried to finesse the cleanup of the housing crash, rejecting unpopular proposals for a broad bailout of homeowners facing foreclosure in favor of a limited aid program — and a bet that a recovering economy would take care of the rest.

During his first two years in office, Mr. Obama and his advisers repeatedly affirmed this carefully calibrated strategy, leaving unspent hundreds of billions of dollars that Congress had allocated to buy mortgage loans, even as millions of people lost their homes and the economic recovery stalled somewhere between crisis and prosperity.

The nation’s painfully slow pace of growth is now the primary threat to Mr. Obama’s bid for a second term, and some economists and political allies say the cautious response to the housing crisis was the administration’s most significant mistake. The bailouts of banks and automakers are now widely regarded as crucial steps in arresting the recession, while the depressed housing market remains a millstone.

Read full NY Times article

July 10, 2012

Cops target Red Spark collective and Occupy Seattle Activists.

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street,repression — louisproyect @ 5:29 pm

Cops target Red Spark collective and Occupy Seattle Activists.

Read more about this at the link below.

Spread the word!


Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.