Protest in the Age of Crises C.P. Chandrasekhar

A display of anger at the unjust American economic system, which began in mid-September in Zuccotti Park, in New York, has turned into an international protest movement. The protest has named itself “Occupy Wall Street”, which speaks of what it plans to do and not what it represents. Though termed a movement by many, the protest is amorphous in nature, with no well-defined objections, no formal membership, and no leadership. In sum, it is a spontaneous display of anger for diverse economic reasons reflected in its slogans—“banker” fraud that blights economies, immoral bailouts that restore Wall Street to profit but show no concern for Main Street, foreclosures that render many homeless, persisting unemployment and gross inequality, to name a few.

Beneath these slogans lies the implicit rejection of a system and a development trajectory that are proving to be the means for a massive state-sponsored redistribution of income and wealth in the favour of the few that represent the Capital of capitalism today. But the protest as yet offers no clear-cut programme of what needs to be done or where we need to go. That and its unorganised nature is its weakness. But its strength lies in the fact that it has moved far beyond Wall Street and the US, increasingly taking the shape of a movement.

The protest was possibly triggered by an online call posted by the anti-consumerist group Adbusters. When It began, the “Occupy Wall Street” movement was seen as the activity of a small minority of the “disgruntled”, inspired, perhaps, by the “Arab spring”, that would soon dissipate and disappear. The media largely chose to ignore it. It was noticed, if at all, for its nuisance value. But over time the movement not only gathered substantial support in its initial location, but has spread to a number of other cities in the US and abroad—Toronto, Frankfurt, Rome, Hong Kong, Sydney, Tokyo and elsewhere. Moreover, while attracting initially sections like the unemployed burdened with educational loans, the protest is now finding support among the middle class, the workers’ unions and intellectuals. This spread and the movement’s persistence, despite its spontaneity, is its strength. Not surprisingly then, the world has been forced to sit up and take notice, including corporate capital and the media it controls, sections of which are subjecting the protestors to the worst forms of verbal aggression and abuse. But even when it is forced to take note, the media chooses to focus on the stray violent incidents in what has been a more-than-a-month long, widespread and largely peaceful protest. As has been noted by many sympathetic analysts, the corporate media’s focus on violence is an attempt to discredit the movement, which seems to be garnering far more support than expected.

What is disconcerting to the ruling elite is the movement’s slogans: they question the legitimacy of finance capital and the unjustifiably huge compensation its functionaries command for activities that fatten the rich and impoverish the rest; they recognise and condemn the gross inequality that has to come to characterise capitalism, with increases in social income being diverted to the top one per cent with much accruing to the top 0.1 per cent; they rail against the huge post-crisis bail outs that have been offered to financial firms and “the bankers” while those trapped in mortgage defaults and rendered unemployed have received no support; they declare unacceptable the bizarre policy of granting huge tax concessions to the financial oligarchs, the rentiers and corporate capital even when public health interventions and pensions are curtailed, subsidies are withdrawn and basic social services are privatized on the grounds of budgetary constraints; and they question the acceptance of unemployment on the grounds that it is the unavoidable plight of an “inadequate few”.

There are a number of positive features of these slogans that need noting. They express deep resentment over the “outcomes” of the capitalist dynamic, unwilling to accept these as being the inevitable consequence of the functioning of the only available economic and social order for modern day societies. They dismiss the legitimisation of inequality and the “winner-takes-all” syndrome characteristic of current day capitalism with the argument that in an “efficient” economic order the successful acquisition of wealth justifies itself, independent of how that wealth is acquired. And they object not to the presence and activity of the state (as the Tea Party movement does) but to its capture by the corporations and the “super-rich”, that transformed the welfare state that characterised the “Golden Age” of post-Second World War capitalism into a “corporate welfare state” as Nobel prize winner Joseph Stiglitz has described it.

These features notwithstanding, there are some who have expressed disappointment over what are seen as the limitations of an “uprising” rather than a movement. These limitations are many. To start with, the anger and opposition of this rebellion is not against capitalism as a system, characterised by anarchy and crises, but against its outcomes that in a situation of a prolonged crisis has come to be felt by the populace in a way that has not happened in a long time. That anger, as of now, reflects despair more than hope.

Note that the movement arose not when or just after the crisis occurred. There was enough evidence then, often supported with fact and opinion from the establishment, that the system was rotten to the core. Yet, the protest occurred close to four years after the crises, by which time those who were being railed against and were being threatened with action by the state for their acts of commission and omission had captured the official apparatus. Using the argument that if they were not saved the system would disintegrate, they have managed to benefit from an unprecedented bail-out of the culpable few at the expense of the still-distressed majority. It was when the full import of this gigantic confidence trick was recognised that the “Occupy” movement began.

A second cause for disappointment among some and satisfaction among many is that there is no theoretical questioning of capitalism as a system based on private property. The attack on property is physical, sporadic and symbolic. Any notion that the “anarchy” that characterises capitalism, leading to periodic crises and persisting unemployment, arises because it is a system based on private property and driven by atomistic decision making is missing. As critical analysts of a socialist persuasion have noted, it is because individual capitalists take investment decisions with no knowledge of the unfolding future and only vague guesses of the decisions that would be taken by other capitalists, that crises of the kind that capitalism experienced recently and in the 1930s occur. Recognising this would require transcending capitalism in some form in order to resolve the problems that afflict it.

This leads to a deeper inadequacy that afflicts not just this movement but a range of protests, including those subsumed under the broad label of the “Arab Spring”. With no express desire to transcend the system, there is no attempt by their constituents to define the contours of the alternative society that would be needed to overcome both the crisis-ridden nature and the outcomes characteristic of capitalism. If this does not change, the ongoing mobilisation may temporarily delegitimise finance and ensure a modicum of justice in the way the state intervenes in society, but it would not ensure the return to an era when capitalism itself was under challenge.

These grounds for scepticism from a radical perspective notwithstanding, the political advance implicit in the Occupy Wall Street movement and its offshoots needs recognition. Note that these movements, even if inspired by the Arab Spring, occur not in the less developed or the underdeveloped countries of the world but in the developed. And within the developed, even if the first signs of the rebellion were seen in countries like Spain, what is remarkable is that in this phase the protest is centred more on the advanced metropolitan centres of capitalism particularly the centres of global finance, New York and London.

Advanced capitalism has seen a substantial weakening of mass protest, partly because the workers’ unions that launched or strengthened such protests have been substantially weakened. The productive sector that assembled a collective of workers has shrunk and insecure employment and substantial unemployment has reduced the proportion of organised and unionised workers in the labour force. While this was occurring as a result of the internal restructuring of capitalism, there were two important developments that contributed to the erosion of the base for protest.

The first was the launch, in response to the crisis of the 1960s, of a conscious project to consolidate capitalist control, represented by the Reagan-Thatcher onslaught on the working class. The defeat of the coalminers striking against closures and job losses in England under Margaret Thatcher epitomised this new phase of class consolidation. This “political” tendency was facilitated by the ideological shift to neoliberalism that allowed the economic borders of less developed countries with substantial surplus labour, such as China and India, to be opened up. The resulting access that imperialist capital had to the world’s combined and cheap, reserve army of labour to an extent “sealed the fate” of the working class in the developed countries. With capital choosing to relocate production of goods and even services to these less developed locations, the near full employment that gave developed country workers their strength was substantially undermined.

A second ideological blow was struck with the collapse of actually existing socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and the transition to a “socialist market economy” in China, with features typical of the more “anarchic” capitalist societies. With the actually existing versions of economies attempting a transition to a more egalitarian and humane alternative to capitalism having disappeared or lost their legitimacy, the argument that there was no alternative gained ground. Apologists even declared the “end of history”.

This, after the interlude of protest in the mid- to late-1960s, led some analysts to believe that the focus of anti-capitalist protest had shifted decisively to the “Third World”. Given that background, any sign of a return to mass protest in developed capitalist societies is indeed a whiff of socialist air. What is particularly encouraging in the Occupy Wall Street version is the fact that the movement’s protest is directed at Capital in general and Finance Capital in particular. This compares with a substantial section of “civil society” protest, which is directed at the state and not at capital. The state too is being questioned now, but more because of the support it lends capital, rather than for just being there, as is true of the right-wing Tea Party movement.

This “anti-capitalist” flavour arises because of the circumstances that have given rise to this movement. Capitalism is indeed facing one of its worst crises over the last century, barring of course the Great Depression. But as noted these protests did not arise when the crisis broke. Rather they come four years after the onset of the recent crisis, when the optimism that the state’s massive bail-out and stimulus effort would stall and reverse the economic decline is disappearing. Rather the expectation is that the crisis is likely to intensify. Thus, the protest has occurred when it appears that capitalism is losing its ability to restructure and reconstitute itself. It is the resulting loss of economic legitimacy that gives the protest an anti-capitalist character.

Needless to say, this alone is not enough. If this occurrence and spread of a primarily anti-capitalist protest is to acquire strength to confront the might of finance capital and the state it controls, if it is actually to undermine the power of the Wall Street-Treasury nexus it must find greater cohesion, with an organisational structure and a programme that goes beyond anger against the unjust system that prevails and the condition to which it has reduced the majority. Or it must galvanise sections within the prevailing left-of-centre formations, strengthening their hands and serving as a check against the return to a degenerate form of social democracy. If that does not happen, the movement may dissipate and even be exploited by those whose interests lie elsewhere. The developments in Egypt where fundamentalism and a sinister section of the military are attempting to pick up where the uprising left off is an indicator of the dangers ahead. But just as the Occupy Wall Street protest has surprised the world by its growing size and spread, it may also spring a surprise by evolving in directions that mount a challenge to the system.

(This article was originally published in the Frontline, Volume 28, Issue 23, November 5-18, 2011.)