Posts by robertaugman

Reply to Richard Wolff on Class Struggle from Above and Below

In the Guardian, Richard Wolff argues that the U.S. Right has adopted an explicit class war rhetoric for advancing its political objectives. In “Class war redux: how the American right embraced Marxist struggle”, he writes:

Conservatives and Republicans are classifying the population into two key subgroups. Gone are images of the US as one big happy middle class. Instead, one class [...] comprises self-reliant, hardworking taxpayers: true social givers. The other class comprises [...] takers who give little as long as dependence saps their creativity, responsibility, etc.

Romney’s campaign showed that conservatives and Republicans increasingly use this class analysis to understand society and construct their political programs. Romney’s campaign also proved the increasing determination of conservatives and Republicans to pursue class war explicitly in these terms.

True! But this was already clear a few years ago (as I wrote here) before the presidential race of 2012.

Wolff is right to observe that “the political terrain has shifted” so that class conflict has become more openly expressed, particularly from above. Yet following the emergence of the Occupy movement, public opinion polls showed that the perception of class conflict amongst the broad public has drastically grown over the last few years, and its “intensity” more deeply felt.

A new Pew Research Center survey [...] finds that about two-thirds of the public (66%) believes there are “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between the rich and the poor—an increase of 19 percentage points since 2009.

Not only have perceptions of class conflict grown more prevalent; so, too, has the belief that these disputes are intense. [T]hree-in-ten Americans (30%) say there are “very strong conflicts” between poor people and rich people. That is double the proportion that offered a similar view in July 2009 and the largest share expressing this opinion since the question was first asked in 1987.

Compared to other societal conflicts, the study shows, class conflict now tops the polls, and is the most significant conflict in U.S. society, above those centering around “race”, nationality, and age.

In response to the class war from above, Wolff argues, is a class war from below, ie. the Occupy movement and similar movements abroad, as was anticipated here.

But I take issue with Wolff’s interpretation of these new movements, or of precisely how they “borrow [and] depart from earlier socialist traditions.” Certainly, he is right to observe that the movements today do not explicitly frame the problem in terms of market vs. economic planning — (though I do think you can to a degree find that implicit in the movement). What I find less convincing about Wolff’s portrayal is his claim that the new (class struggle) movements are focused on building worker cooperatives. He writes:

Champions of the exploited class aim to change the system by ending the division between worker and capitalist inside the enterprises.

If he is referring to Argentina or Spain (where he cites the Mondragon Cooperative), he is on solid ground, but these forms of organisation and articulation are marginal in the current U.S. social movements. I think he is mixing up a normative position with an empirical observation. (Wolff is a strong advocate of workplace democracy.)

If you look at the new class struggles over the past few years in the U.S. — be it, the Wisconsin uprising, the Occupy movement, the Chicago teacher’s strike, Walmart strike, fast food strikes, etc. — the fundamental issues do not resolve around workplace democracy. They are expressed in class terms about wealth disparity, democratic participation and social protection. The Occupy movement in many ways, goes a lot further, posing much deeper questions about cultural and societal transformation.

Yet, hardly any workplace occupations have taken place in the last years. In fact, only one, rather high-profile one, comes to mind. This is the Chicago Republic Windows and Doors Factory, originally occupied by employees against wage and benefit theft, and later turned into a worker cooperative. While this may have inspired some people to think about workplace cooperatives elsewhere, this has not been a significant development in the movements.

Instead, the Chicago factory occupation has had other implications for the new movements. Occurring in 2008, it was the first oppositional action taken against the economic crisis. It was a high-profile case, with supportive statements coming from Obama, against the layoffs and rising unemployment. But the employees’ use of a corporate campaign targeting Bank of America for refusing to extend loans to the bankrupt and corrupt company — funds which BOA had received from the federal bailout — made this conflict into a much broader one, at least on the symbolic level.

There was widespread identification with the workers’ struggle because it was seen as a reflection of broader dynamics and tensions in society following the crisis. It was in the heat of the Chicago factory struggle that the slogan “The banks got bailed out, we got sold out!” emerged.   

That is, the factory occupation did not inspire a movement for workplace democracy. The argument could be made that the movements, in an amorphous way, desire economic democracy, but this has not been developed in the direction of workplace democracy, which is only one specific articulation of it. Instead of worker coops, the Chicago factory occupation aroused a broader democratic movement, expressing disaffection with the state bailout of the financial sector at the expense of the broader population, the lack of social protections, drastic wealth disparity in the face of widespread material deprivation, and the state’s failure to ameliorate this situation. This is the content of the new class movements against the crisis (in a general sense), even if in many ways, the Occupy movement in particular, goes far beyond this.

On the Syriza case: Political organisation in transition

Reblogged from Outra Política:

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Hilary Wainwright, Europe Solidarie Sans Frontiere, June 2012

In a context of uncertainty and flux, it helps to start from the specific. My starting point is the rise of Syriza, the radical left coalition rooted in the movements resisting austerity that has become the main opposition party in the Greek parliament. Syriza’s ability to give a focused political voice to the anger and despair of millions has made a breakthrough from which we can learn.

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Occupy, Debt, Finance, and Class Struggle

This is the text of a talk I gave in October 2012, “Occupy, Debt, Finance, and Class Struggle”. I was asked to talk about Occupy, the crisis and class struggle. I work on the topic of the Occupy movement as a form of social contestation within the context of the neoliberal crisis. In this talk [...]

Continue reading at Occupy the Crisis …

What does School Privatization Have to Do With the Crisis?

Following the Chicago teacher strike over the Democratic Party’s push to privatizae public schools, with the “Race to the Top” initiative, I was reminded of a couple texts about the relationship between the current crisis and the thrust towards the privatization of the public sector, with the latter becoming an increasingly important site for the profitable investment of over-accumulated capital.

Reclamations, a journal that emerged out of the California student demonstrations of 2009, has been producing very interesting material relating the crisis to the university. They argue that by the late 1990s, “the leading edge of restructuring [centered around "privatization, neoliberalization, financialization and commercialization"] shifted from the university’s rationalization to its integration as a site of accumulation and investment in the circulatory system of capital.” (emphasis added) (Whitener/Nemser, ;”Circulation and the New University”, 06.08.12)

According to them, “the univesrity is no longer primarily a site of production (of a national labor force or national culture) as it was in the 1970s and 90s, but has become primarily a site of capital investment and accumulation.” For them, a central mechanism behind this is “the post-crisis context of capital over-accumulation” in which there exists a “surplus of capital with no profitable investment outlet”, whereby the university becomes “a key site for capital accumulation and the investment of over-accumulated capital.” (emphasis added).

To read the details of their argument, check out the very good article linked to above. Here I cite it in thinking about the recent clash in Chicago over “school reform”, between Democratic mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Teachers Union, over the privatization of public schools through the establishment of charter schools, under the name “Race to the Top.”

Last year, John Bellamy Foster wrote in Monthly Review a similar vain about the privatization of public schools as sites for capital investment. He wrote:

“A consequence of the slow growth endemic to the developed economies is that the giant corporations that dominate today’s economic world are compelled to search for new markets for investment, outside their traditional fields of operation, leading to the takeover and privatization of key elements of the state economy. The political counterpart of monopoly-finance capital is therefore neoliberal restructuring, in which the state is increasingly cannibalized by private interests.” (Foster, “Education and the Structural Crisis of Capitalism: The U.S. Case“).

And for a longer historical view, he writes:

“the conditions leading to the neoliberal assault on the schools can be attributed to the current historical period of economic stagnation, financialization, and economic restructuring, characteristic of the age of monopoly-finance capital. The slowdown in economic growth, beginning in the 1970s, weakened the capacity of labor to struggle by purely economic means, while also weakening workers’ political clout, as conservative, corporate forces strengthened their hegemony over the society. The relative growth of financial and information capital, spurred by the stagnation of production, created a new impetus for digital-based Taylorism and tight financial management in the schools. At the same time, inequality, poverty, and unemployment soared, as capital shifted the economic losses to the working class and the poor. When the new burdens resulting from slow growth, increasing inequality, and rising child poverty were coupled with tightened restraints on state spending, the schools went into a rapid downward spiral. Public schools, as the ultimate social safety net for most children and communities, were forced to step in to make up for the collapsing social and economic fabric.”

This might be an interesting line of inquiry for coming conflicts over school privatization, pushed by both Democrats and Republicans, as a crisis management strategy to open up sites for the profitable investment of over-accumulated capital.

Obama’s Privatization Course Ensures Further Conflicts with Labor and the Left

In the opening 5 minutes of the first presidential debate Obama was praising his education reform, “Race to the Top”, the school privatization project that drove 29,000 Chicago teachers into the streets two weeks ago for a historic, broad-based, and successful strike. If Obama continues along that trajectory, his second term will likely see even more conflict with labor and left social movements than did his first.

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Gramsci: Crisis, Conjuncture, Opposition

A crisis occurs, sometimes lasting for decades. This exceptional duration means that incurable structural contradictions have revealed themselves (reached maturity), and that, despite this, the political forces which are struggling to conserve and defend the existing structure itself are making every effort to cure them, within certain limits, and to overcome them. These incessant and persistent efforts (since no social formation will ever admit that it has been superceded) form the terrain of the ‘conjunctural’, and it is upon this terrain that the forces of opposition organise. These forces seek to demonstrate that the necessary and sufficient conditions already exist to make possible, and hence imperative, the accomplishment of certain historical tasks (imperative, because any falling short before an historical duty increases the necessary disorder, and prepares more serious catastrophes). (Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, International Publishers, New York, 1992: 178)

Occupy Theory releases “Tidal” #3: Occupy Year Two.

Tidal 3: Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy: Year II.

Table of Contents:

Communiqué #3


The Revolution Will Not Have a Bottom Line. SUZAHN EBRAHIMIAN


Stop and Frisk and Other Racist Capitalist Bullshit. JOSÉ MARTÍN

The Power of the Powerless. JEREMY BRECHER

S17: Occupy Wall Street Anniversary


The War on Dissent, the War on Communities. JEN WALLER AND TOM HINTZE

On Political Repression, Jail Support, and Radical Care. MUTANT LEGAL WORKING GROUP

On the Transformative Potential of Race and Difference in Post-Left Movements. PAMELA BRIDGEWATER

On Transparency, Leadership, and Participation

Where Are We? Who Are We? Occupy, Space, and Community. NINA NEHTA

Letter to the Well-Meaning 1%. THE 99%

Mutual Aid in the Face of the Storm. CHRISTOPHER KEY

Beyond Climate, Beyond Capitalism. VANYA S, TALIB AGAPE FUEGOVERDE, V. C. VITALE

After the Jubilee. DAVID GRAEBER

On Debt and Privilege. WINTER


First Communiqué: Invisible Army

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Jodi Dean on OWS, Debt, and Collective Responses to the Crisis

As debt emerges as the central issue for Occupy in the coming year, Jodi Dean argues that the issue locks the movement into an individualist framework, beneficial to the pro-austerity Right, rather than positing a social orientation geared towards the commons. See: Is debt the connective thread for OWS?

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Occupy NYC Plans First Anniversary

Occupy Wall Street invites you, the 99%, down to the Financial District for three days of education, celebration and resistance.
The 1% is controlling our fates; we are drowning in loans, student debt, fraudulent mortgages. You are not a loan. Democracy is sold to the highest bidder, destroying our political process, our communities and our environment. Join a mass mobilization of the 99%. Stand and be counted. Let’s occupy our future, together.

They can steal your job, your home, your freedom, your vote.
They can’t steal our ability to dream together.
Nothing is impossible once you refuse to live in fear.

Info here: S17

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Bob Jessop: Why has the Left failed during the Crisis?

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