Last weekend I went down to New York. I had planned to participate in taking Duarte Square. The action ended before we arrived. I did get to attend an interesting conference put together by n+1. There were panels on finance, direct action, foreclosures, and debt. Panelists included Doug Henwood and David Graeber. I would estimate that a couple of hundred people were there (but I am not so great at estimating).
McKenzie Wark was sitting in front of me in the audience. He said two things that have stuck with me.
The first: you can tell the US is a third world country because the activist groups are basically NGOs.
The second: the issues of the movement are easy--jobs, austerity, debt, and a broken political system.
The rest of this post connects loosely to these two ideas. The first one is depressing not just because it brings home the condition of the country (New York City is more unequal than Brazil). It's depressing because the NGO activist model, for all its local achievements, has not stopped the ravaging of the so-called Third World or so-called global South. It's a political model that cooperates with capitalism. Organizations are issue-focused and donor-driven. They rely on experts and specialists.
Geert Lovink, Jon Anderson and I (in the introduction to our edited collection. Reformatting Politics) call this a "post-democratic governmentality." We say "post-democratic" because NGOs are not representative; they might try to help or serve, but they don't represent constituencies in the sense of being elected or chosen by them. Ultimately, they aren't responsible to them but rather to themselves, their boards, their donors.
To be clear, I don't mean "post-democratic" as a critical term; it's descriptive. It designates a kind of political action that arises when democracy has either broken down or has not emerged. It can also exist alongside democratic practices and institutions as a post-democratic element (in the same way that feudal elements also persist).
My worry for the occupy movement is that this post-democratic governmentality will trump/displace the more radical and collectivist parts of the movement. I am worried about this because of the high quality of the contributions to the panels at the n+1 conference. Panelists were focused, smart, knowledgeable--and dedicated to the issues they discussed. They were specialists with specialized expertise. Some of them might have just recently become specialists. They might have started to learn about particular matters of concern because the movement radicalized them. Yet it seemed to me as the discussion went on that the special issues and topics had a singular momentum, not a conjoined or collective one. People wanted others to join them in their special issue or part of the movement (student debt, housing), but they were not actively linking the parts. Of course, this is part of the autonomist ideology that has been so influential: everyone should just independently pursue what they want, using the occupy political brand.
Is it surprising that attendance at the GAs has declined, that the GAs are less and less crucial (Oakland activist and musician Boots Riley has a post on FB discussing a similar issue in Oakland)? They are time-consuming and exhausting. And they also break with our regular habits of being, forcing people to act and engage differently. What makes them great, makes them difficult and vulnerable to both exhaustion and to yielding to political forms that already fit the system--NGOs and issue groups.
The second point: there are collective issues here and they are what hold the movement together. The issues are fairness and responsiveness. Our economy is unfair and our political system is not responding to this unfairness. Everything in the movement has to be focused here. Jobs and debt.
The challenge for the new year, it seems to me, is growth. People. We need more people. I'm not saying a majority of the country; we need more people in order to do more actions, bigger actions, more dramatic actions. We need more people in order to wage a general strike, to occupy the Capit0l, to shut down financial markets. We need more people in order to push the broken system over the brink.
And how do we do this? Services and direct outreach. These are time-consuming and difficult. They quickly become localized and personalized, de-radicalized, re-inserted in regular frames. Yet the more services (stopping foreclosures and evictions, say, activities the current scope of which appeared dramatically in the events of December 6) can be used to bring people into a larger movement, the stronger the movement as a national and global force will be.
December 22, 2011
Mr. Jeff M. Fettig
2000 N. M-63
Benton Harbor, MI 49022-2692
Dear Mr. Fettig,
I purchased a Whirlpool dishwasher from Discount Appliance in Geneva, New York on July 15, 2010. It was installed in August, and it functioned well for about a year. In late November, 2011, the dishwasher ceased to function. I made a service call on November 29, 2011 to Discount Appliance. I learned that the dishwasher required a new “touch panel.” A new touch panel costs $164.80. Including labor, this is a repair that would cost about $262.03, according to the estimate I received. For this sum of money, it might make more sense to buy another dishwasher, but who can afford to purchase a new dishwasher every year? And more importantly, one should not have to purchase a new dishwasher ever year.
My warrantee expired after a year, unfortunately, and the dishwasher failed shortly thereafter. Needless to say, this did not leave me with a very good impression regarding the reliability of Whirlpool products, particularly your dishwashers. Discount Appliance told me that in the old days, they could call Whirlpool and this kind of thing could be taken care of. Customers could count on their appliances, and those who make them and sell them would stand behind them. They told me that presently, Whirlpool would not accept their phone call on behalf of their customers, so customers must call Whirlpool directly themselves. They urged me to call your customer support line.
Therefore, I called your customer support line. The response I got was that Whirlpool would not stand behind the substantive reliability of their products—the person on the other end of the line informed me that once the year has lapsed, Whirlpool would not take responsibility for having manufactured a faulty appliance. The person on the other end did try to sell me an extended warrantee, but why would I want to give more money to a company and purchase a second thing from it when that company has failed to demonstrate reliability on the first thing I purchased from them and has refused to take responsibility for this failure?
What would make me happy? If you could send a touch panel free of charge to Discount Appliance, 509 Exchange St., Geneva, NY 14456. My model is DU1055XTVQO. My serial number is FY3357685. The part number is 3385735. Although I still will have been inconvenienced, lost the time I have had to spend with Discount Appliance, your customer support line, and writing this letter, and I would have to pay for the cost of labor, at least I would have a sense that Whirlpool is making a good faith effort to manufacture reliable products. Then, I might consider buying Whirlpool again in the future. The price for the part quoted to me was $164.80. That seems like it might be a good long-term investment to make on your part, especially since I have friends, colleagues, and hundreds of students. What do you think?
Paul A. Passavant
n the era of the explosive development of American capitalism, which began in the aftermath of the Civil War, the great fortunes accumulated by the “robber barons” were associated with a massive growth in the industrial and social infrastructure of the United States. Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan and others were rapacious and ruthless; but they could at least claim that there was some progressive social purpose connected to their pursuit of private wealth.
That age is long past. The wealth of today’s super-rich is bound up with the destruction, not the development, of the productive forces. The riches of these few depend on the impoverishment of hundreds of millions. In fact, the Financial Times reported last week that “the share of US national income that goes to workers as wages rather than to investors as profits and interest” has fallen to its lowest level since the end of World War II. The precipitous fall of the workers’ share of the national income below the post-war average translates into an annual collective wage loss in 2011 of $740 billion—approximately $5,000 per worker. That staggering amount has been funneled into the salaries and investment accounts of the super-rich.
Despite this fact, the indignant rich argue that it would make no economic sense to disturb their wealth. But every day, in the United States and throughout the world, the media they own and the politicians they bribe demand and implement cuts in wages and the slashing of budgets that fund essential social services.
The economic and social crisis in the United States and throughout the world cannot be addressed by reforms, such as a change in tax rates, which seek within the framework of capitalism a less irrational distribution of the national income. However justified such a measure would be, if only as an initial step toward more fundamental change, the lords of Wall Street and the corporate conglomerates will not accept any reform that threatens their domination of economic life and pursuit of limitless personal riches. Like all ruling classes whose interests are antagonistic to the needs of society as a whole, they will defend what they perceive to be their interests without restraint and without mercy. This is the social instinct that underlies the lowering of workers’ living standards, the systematic erosion of democratic rights, and the ever-more reckless resort to war as a means of securing the ruling elite’s global economic interests.
In the course of the past year, ever-growing numbers of youth and older workers have begun to realize that there is a burning need for a profound change in society. The popularity of the call for social equality testifies to the basically socialistic impulse that motivates the growing social movement. Of course, this impulse has not yet assumed the form of a conscious movement for socialism. But as the scale and scope of the social movement expands, the impulse will become a program of action: for the nationalization of the banks and major corporations, the expropriation of economically irrational and socially-destructive personal fortunes, the establishment of workers’ power, the ending of capitalism and the creation of a global socialist society.
The super-rich complain that they are confronted with class war? They haven’t seen anything yet.
Story summary: Kodak didn't tend its "industrial commons," the local concentration of expertise in making the things that go into a camera.
You make your money by selling cameras. And you now needed to make components. You needed to make lenses; you needed to make shutters -- all kinds of things that the skills for which no longer existed in Rochester.
This is what we have done in our country, too. We have been dismantling our "industrial commons." By sending manufacturing out of the country we have been taking apart the supply chains and abandoning the expertise and skills and culture that go with it.
Last year former Intel CEO Andy Grove sounded a warning about this problem. In How to Make an American Job Before It's Too Late. Grove wrote that we are not just losing jobs to China, we are losing the "chain of experience" that enables new companies and industries to form and to create new jobs and argues for a national economic strategy to preserve our manufacturing and technology base. He lays out a plan: "rebuild our industrial commons,"
The first task is to rebuild our industrial commons. We should develop a system of financial incentives: Levy an extra tax on the product of offshored labor. (If the result is a trade war, treat it like other wars—fight to win.) Keep that money separate. Deposit it in the coffers of what we might call the Scaling Bank of the U.S. and make these sums available to companies that will scale their American operations. Such a system would be a daily reminder that while pursuing our company goals, all of us in business have a responsibility to maintain the industrial base on which we depend and the society whose adaptability—and stability—we may have taken for granted.
We Gave It Away
Many American manufacturers made a deal with China to lower their manufacturing costs. Here is how it worked: Americans (used to) have a say in how this country was run, and said they want good wages, benefits, job safety, clean air, etc. These are the fruits of democracy, but to some they are an impediment to quick profits. So executives at the big multinational companies wanted a way around the borders of democracy and its demands, and pushed for "trade" deals that would let them move manufacturing to places where people had no say, in order to force American unions to make concessions. They got their deals and packed up our factories, moved them to places like China and then brought the manufactured goods back here to sell.
We lost 50,000 factories to China just in the 'W' Bush years, and our trade deficit soared, and now we as a country are paying the price. Making (and growing) things is how a country earns its living. It is how we bring in the income with which to buy things others make and grow. Leo Gerard of the United Steelworkers said it clearly,
"You don’t create real wealth by flipping coupons or hamburgers, you create it by taking real things and turning them into things of value. And those things of value are turned into other things of value and all of a sudden you have a wind turbine with thousands of parts made here. You can’t have a clean economy without good jobs and can’t have good jobs without a clean economy."
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is trying to require big corporations to put up a poster informing their employees of their rights under the law. The big corporate, anti-union organizations are fighting this as hard as they can. They are suing in court to block the rule, while Republicans in the House and Senate are using every trick in the book to stop the NLRB requirement, right down to holding Congressional investigations of the agency, and threatening to defund it, and to shut it down by crippling its Board.
What The Poster Says
Here are the things that the Republicans and the big corporations that fund them are fighting to keep working people from knowing:
Under the law you have the right to:
- Organize a union to negotiate with your employer concerning your wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.
- Form, join or assist a union.
- Bargain collectively through representatives of employees’ own choosing for a contract with your employer setting your wages, benefits, hours, and other working conditions.
- Discuss your wages and benefits and other terms and conditions of employment or union organizing with your co-workers or a union.
- Take action with one or more co-workers to improve your working conditions by, among other means, raising work-related complaints directly with your employer or with a government agency, and seeking help from a union.
- Strike and picket, depending on the purpose or means of the strike or the picketing.
- Choose not to do any of these activities, including joining or remaining a member of a union.
Under the law it is illegal for your employer to:
- Prohibit you from talking about or soliciting for a union during non-work time, such as before or after work or during break times; or from distributing union literature during non-work time, in non-work areas, such as parking lots or break rooms.
- Question you about your union support or activities in a manner that discourages you from engaging in that activity.
- Fire, demote, or transfer you, or reduce your hours or change your shift, or otherwise take adverse action against you, or threaten to take any of these actions, because you join or support a union, or because you engage in concerted activity for mutual aid and protection, or because you choose not to engage in any such activity.
- Threaten to close your workplace if workers choose a union to represent them.
- Promise or grant promotions, pay raises, or other benefits to discourage or encourage union support.
- Prohibit you from wearing union hats, buttons, t-shirts, and pins in the workplace except under special circumstances.
- Spy on or videotape peaceful union activities and gatherings or pretend to do so.
Under the law, it is illegal for a union or for the union that represents you in bargaining with your employer to:
- Threaten or coerce you in order to gain your support for the union.
- Refuse to process a grievance because you have criticized union officials or because you are not a member of the union.
- Use or maintain discriminatory standards or procedures in making job referrals from a hiring hall.
- Cause or attempt to cause an employer to discriminate against you because of your union-related activity.
- Take adverse action against you because you have not joined or do not support the union.
Jamie Dimon, the highest-paid chief executive officer among the heads of the six biggest U.S. banks, turned a question at an investors’ conference in New York this month into an occasion to defend wealth.
“Acting like everyone who’s been successful is bad and because you’re rich you’re bad, I don’t understand it,” the JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) CEO told an audience member who asked about hostility toward bankers. “Sometimes there’s a bad apple, yet we denigrate the whole.”
Dimon, 55, whose 2010 compensation was $23 million, joined billionaires including hedge-fund manager John Paulson and Home Depot Inc. (HD) co-founder Bernard Marcus in using speeches, open letters and television appearances to defend themselves and the richest 1 percent of the population targeted by Occupy Wall Street demonstrators.
If successful businesspeople don’t go public to share their stories and talk about their troubles, “they deserve what they’re going to get,” said Marcus, 82, a founding member of Job Creators Alliance, a Dallas-based nonprofit that develops talking points and op-ed pieces aimed at “shaping the national agenda,” according to the group’s website. He said he isn’t worried that speaking out might make him a target of protesters.
“Who gives a crap about some imbecile?” Marcus said. “Are you kidding me?”
At its core, anarchism isn’t simply a negative political philosophy, or an excuse for window-breaking, as most people tend to assume it is. Even while calling for an end to the rule of coercive states backed by military bases, prison industries and subjugation, anarchists and other autonomists try to build a culture in which people can take care of themselves and each other through healthy, sustainable communities. Many are resolutely nonviolent. Drawing on modes of organizing as radical as they are ancient, they insist on using forms of participatory direct democracy that naturally resist corruption by money, status and privilege. Everyone’s basic needs should take precedence over anyone’s greed.
Through the Occupy movement, these assemblies have helped open tremendous space in American political discourse. They’ve started new conversations about what people really want for their communities, conversations that amazingly still haven’t been hijacked, as they might otherwise might be, by charismatic celebrities or special interests. But these assemblies also pose a problem.
The Occupiers know that more traditional political organizations—such as labor unions, political parties and advocacy groups—are critical to making their message heard. With the "Re-Occupy" action on December 17, they called upon Trinity Wall Street, an Episcopal church, to grant the movement an outdoor public space. As the movement enters the winter and so-called "Phase II," outside organizations seem to be ever more crucial. But unions, parties and churches aren’t the coziest of bedfellows for open assemblies. Precisely what enables these organizations to mobilize masses of people and resources is the fact that they are hierarchical. Moreover, they are financed by, and dirty their hands with, electoral politics—all things a horizontal assembly aims to avoid.
But traditional organizations that have found new momentum in the Occupy movement don’t need to sit around and wait for the assemblies to come up with demands or certain types of actions. They can act “autonomously” as the anarchists would say, doing what they do best with the good of the whole movement in mind: pressuring lawmakers, mobilizing their memberships and pushing for change in the short term while the getting is good. They can build coalitions on common ground with the Tea Party. The occupier assemblies won’t do these things for them, and it would be a mistake to wish they would.
The radicals who lent this movement so much of its character have offered American political life a gift, should we choose to accept it. They’ve reminded us that we don’t have to rely on Republicans or Democrats, or Clintons, Bushes or Sarah Palin, to do our politics for us. With the assemblies, they’ve bestowed a refreshing form of grassroots organizing that, if it lasts, might help keep the rest of the system a bit more honest. There will, however, be tensions.
“Any organization is welcome to support us,” says the Statement of Autonomy passed by the Occupy Wall Street General Assembly on November 1, “with the knowledge that doing so will mean questioning your own institutional frameworks of work and hierarchy and integrating our principles into your modes of action.”