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Return of the Repressed

Banner hanging near 14th and Broadway in front of Oscar Grant Plaza across from Oakland's City Hall.

We’re living in the midst of a fantastically exciting historic moment. I don’t know about you, but I have spent years thinking about these kinds of social ruptures, wishing for that sudden lurch in history when things change so fast. I spoke about this at the conclusion of many of the Nowtopia talks I gave around the world during the past 3 years, the palpable frustration that many attendees had with the snail’s pace of history. I reminded that history can suddenly accelerate, make a dramatic lurch… forward? Sideways? Backwards? You never know ahead of time, and you can’t predict what will catalyze it (for sure, the planned actions of a vanguardist minority cannot will it into being). Right now, clearly, we’re surging into exciting directions.

Like a sudden rain covering a desert landscape with incredible wildflowers after years of drought, the Occupy Wall Street movement has connected us across the world, but just as importantly has connected folks in the U.S. to our own histories from past decades. The triumphalist domination of the ultra-right in U.S. media and politics has done its utmost to deny, ridicule, and obscure the vital social movements and histories that entered the historic narrative loudly in the 1960s and 1970s, and never went away. Of course, the parties and organizations of the New Left and its aftermath crumbled, and most trade unions in the U.S have gone through massive shrinkage while accepting a junior role at the heel of the Democratic Party. But the social revolution that helped subvert the military and end the Vietnam War, that demanded equal rights for women, that advanced ethnic studies and racial diversity, that put pleasure and cooperation ahead of sacrifice and competition, and that began the reconfiguration of our material lives under the guiding sensibility of ecological sanity, deeply changed U.S. life. The Culture War still being fought so viciously by Faux News and its acolytes speaks to the ongoing power of these social transformations.

But many of us have lacked a political voice for more than a generation. We are not represented in our “representative democracy,” and many of us have long stopped expecting to be. There are very few politicians who speak for the values that we are already living by. Even if a “progressive” voice gets into office, they are drowned by the monied interests that surround them in a corrupted political system. In the larger scheme of things, these past decades have also seen the seizure of economic and political power by an increasingly brazen class of white-collar criminals who have done their best to subvert the rule of law, and will engage in any kind of fraud, even mass murder, to keep their power and this system intact. Obama has proven to be a very helpful servant to this gang, what with his refusal to prosecute the countless crimes of his predecessors, not to mention the impunity that financial criminals have enjoyed.

The system itself is broken, and that’s what the Occupy movement speaks to, loudly and clearly. The emergence of General Assemblies as the embodiment of a true direct democracy has been breathtaking, especially in its wide adoption across the middle of the country where we’ve all come to expect only reactionary conservatism. But these ideas haven’t fallen in from the sky, or emerged from a vacuum. They are the product of nearly a half century of organizing, of transforming how we live on a personal basis day to day, in addition to creating a panoply of new projects and cultural efforts. Formal political organizations withered away, perhaps deservedly, and it is only in the Occupy Movement that we are finding a collective political voice for the millions who have been left out, economically, culturally, and politically. More »

“Jobs” Don’t Work!

This is a shortened version of an article I wrote in the wake of the 2003 Mayoral campaign in San Francisco, and published in The Political Edge. With all the excitement and promise of the occupation movements around the world, I still find myself balking at the slogans and framing, whether the “corporate greed” idea I critiqued in the previous entry, or the incessant clamor for “jobs”… if you want to pursue a radical reformist strategy in the here and now, i.e. in capitalism, please, AT LEAST demand a basic minimum income for all (say $1,500/mo for all residents of the planet) rather than asking to be put to work on agendas over which we have no control… anyway, here’s the piece, with an old graphic Jim Swanson drew in the early 1990s (can that really be 20 years ago?) when we were blasting demands for “jobs” at Processed World.

“Jobs” Don’t Work!

?With mind-numbing regularity, we are expected to trudge to the polls and cast votes for politicians who promise to pursue policies that will “fix the economy” and “create jobs.” Predictably, nothing much changes. Why do we expect politicians and their policies to affect “the Economy,” when the rest of the time we treat it more like the weather, something that gets “better” or “worse” according to events beyond anyone’s control? The label “economy” is used to cloud in abstraction specific choices made by specific people that shape the rest of our lives for better or more usually, for worse. By framing our own daily lives of work within the abstract framework of “the Economy” we disconnect ourselves from a deciding, subjective role in determining our own activity and instead leave ourselves as unaware and relatively helpless pawns of forces beyond our knowledge or control. “The Economy” becomes a mystifying category, full of nonsensical and inexplicable categories that only experts can decipher; it is our era’s religion, an explanatory framework that offers fictional and strangely “natural” explanations for what are simple (albeit confusing), observable relations between human beings. Politicians and economists who claim they will fix “the Economy” are playing the role of contemporary priests in the Church—they and they alone are competent to communicate with the higher power that ultimately controls our lives.

This underlies the emptiness of our democracy. Clearly there is little democracy in our lives when it comes to “the Economy.” Our much-vaunted “freedom of choice” supposedly allows us to “choose” any jobs we want. By this “free choice” we exercise our tiny influence over the giant “invisible hand” of the market. But as we all know, most of us are only “free” to take one shitty job or another (or several!). In taking a job, no one asks for our ideas about what kind of work the enterprise should do, how the company impacts the environment locally and beyond, or what quality standards our work should meet. We have no say over who works there or how hiring is decided. In fact, on the job we lose most of the basic rights we take for granted as citizens in a democracy, including freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom from search and seizure, freedom from random drug testing, right to due process, trial by peers, and so forth. On the job we are wage-slaves—if we depend on our wage, our condition can easily be construed as a version of slavery “with a human face.”

Curious, then, that people across the political spectrum, especially “progressives,” are so ready to demand “jobs” without a murmur of qualification or criticism (at best, the demand is qualified as being for “good jobs”). Most jobs today are a waste of time at best, if they aren’t actually pernicious. As a social mechanism for allocating tasks that keep us all alive, “the Economy” and its foundation on “jobs” could hardly be less efficient, less fair, or a bigger waste of time and resources. One of the most glaring failures of the so-called free market is the well-paid elevation of patently useless and/or dangerous activities and the unpaid denigration of vital human tasks. Juxtapose bankers and weapons designers to child care workers and nursing home employees, for example. Even within ostensibly useful human work, for example, doctors and nurses, at least half of their work time is spent fulfilling the parasitic, useless demands of insurers and the bureaucracies of business, instead of providing the medical care that so many can no longer afford.

Graphic by JR Swanson, c. 1991, for the Committee for Full Enjoyment.

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“Corporate Greed” is Not the Problem!

Photo taken in New York by Evan O'Brien

Corporations ARE the problem as the common institutional form of late capitalism, the social system that is the real root of poverty and inequality. Corporations are (temporarily) immortal, often unaccountable to national laws, brazenly criminal, murderous, and have only one purpose: to accumulate capital. They are not, and cannot be, moral actors in society. Even if the most pious, ascetic monks were put in charge of large corporations, the fiduciary responsibility of corporate leaders is to ensure the growth of profits and wealth for the stockholders or private owners. Corporations are not formed to do anything useful or beneficial to humans (except as an accidental byproduct), nor other species, nor the planet as a whole, unless (and only if) the activity produces profits. Corporate leaders can be personally very greedy or completely indifferent to personal wealth. It does not matter. If they don’t show steadily increasing “growth” (accumulating capital) they will be replaced by the next interchangeable “captain of industry.”

Occupy Wall Street and related demonstrations around the country are a welcome breath of fresh contestation. The space opened up in the occupations is prefigurative of new ways of doing politics, and has an incalculable value in radically reconfiguring popular imagination. We should all be grateful to the hardy souls who embarked on this quixotic effort, and do what we can to support them.

Demonstrating in downtown San Francisco, September 29, 2011.

Of course there is an gaping ethics deficit in our culture. But this open-ended, exciting political moment will slip away quickly if we frame it in terms of populist moralism. This is not about good and evil. To blame executives or the Frankenstein monster we call corporations for their supposed “greed” is to reduce a systemic critique into easy political demands that confirm the basic rules of the game. Clamoring for corporations to pay a “fair share” concedes far too much from the beginning. Why should corporations and their owners be allowed to control such an overwhelming share of the wealth we’ve all produced together over generations? Their very existence is the problem. And let’s not forget that their power at home and across the planet is enforced at gunpoint whenever “necessary.” Protests focused on banks and bankers overlook the vast wealth spent on the U.S. military empire. Our new movement should keep its sights on ending the wars, withdrawing U.S. troops from the 120-odd countries where they are garrisoned, and dramatically reducing the military and secret police budgets to 10% or less of their current levels, too.

If the Occupy Wall Street movements embody something more than the most tepid liberal demands for mean people to be nice, and untrammeled power to “play fair,” we’ll have to keep our focus on the deeper logic we’re up against. We 99% could get up tomorrow and decide to make a very different daily life than the impoverished mess we’re living now. In fact, OUR cooperation is the key to THEIR power. We work and shop in this society, the basic activities by which we reproduce THIS daily life together. Instead of democratically shaping our shared lives, deciding together how best to produce and make available a good life for EVERYONE, we are like old-fashioned cart-pulling horses, lashed by the 1% to pull who knows what, to who knows where, and who knows why? Clamoring for “jobs” leaves us weakly agreeing in advance to do what the 1% (those with capital) tell us to do.

Make Banks Pay demo, San Francisco, Sept. 29, 2011.

Lots of original art appears in these marches.

Why shouldn’t the 99% democratically decide what work we do and how we do it? Let’s evaluate publicly and transparently how our work affects planetary ecology. And finally, let’s abolish the system that concentrates wealth in the hands of a few at the expense of everyone else. How shall we share the fruits of all our work? The most hopeful outcome of the prefigurative democracy finding its voice in the occupations is a revolutionary transformation of how we make life together everyday. Why accept anything less?

This sign was originally made in the 1980s... still useful after all these years!

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