One strain of argument in the great debate about the future of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) Movement is one that I will call the “Beware of Insidious Threats” position (hereafter: BIT). This view is neatly expressed in a recent essay by Ismael Hossein-zadeh (“An Insidious Threat to the Occupy Movement”), which appeared in various places online, and in the URPE Newsletter (Vol. 43, No., 1, Fall, 2011).
Hossein-zadeh writes of the “threat of preemption, or cooptation, posed by the Democratic Party and union officials.” He is wary of all approaches from liberals and labor that propose alliances with the occupiers: “. . . the Democrats are trying to utilize the Occupy movement the way the Republicans do the Tea Party.” Liberals are “trying to build bridges between the Democratic Party and the Occupy movement in an effort to channel the protesters’ energy to the party’s electoral machine.” Citing the Democratic Party’s “record of cooptation and betrayal,” he urges OWS to “chart a political movement of the working people and other grass-roots independent of both parties of big business.”
This is an old argument. It was around (even dominant) in New Left circles in the 1960s. Of course, just because an argument is old doesn’t mean it’s false; my counterargument was also around back then.
In the BIT scenario, the “energy” of the protest movement is a fixed quantity, which can be captured by some force outside the movement by means of trickery and sly manipulation of ideas and feelings. But this separates OWS’ energy from the actual crisis and its impact. If the crisis is profound, and if it points toward radical social transformation for its resolution, it will reach ever-new layers of the working population and draw new energy from deepening responses to it.
That is a lot for Democrats (and “union officials”) to “coopt”; they will be able to use their deadly wiles to harness that energy only if their view of the crisis, and the society that spawned it, is valid. That view is the reformist one: the crisis is an aberration of the financial system and can be overcome by wise policy, entirely within the existing structure of power and privilege ‒‒ in other words, without confronting, let alone replacing, capitalist social relations.
To the extent large numbers of working people share this reformist view ‒‒ or at least do not (yet?) have the foundation to oppose it consistently ‒‒ they are indeed susceptible to cooptation. Now suppose the coopted Occupiers help Obama win a second term in November, and the Dems get secure control of both houses of Congress. If, and only if, the reformist view is indeed correct, government will then pass new financial regulations, progressive taxes, full-employment legislation, comprehensive health care, fully funded education, housing guarantees, etc. The crisis will be over. The era of shared capitalist prosperity will begin. The Occupiers will go home, vacate Zuccotti Park and all other occupied locations, because their goals will have been met. Capitalism will have solved its crises within itself, and socialism will be left out in the cold.
In the BIT view, therefore, socialism only has a chance if we somehow prevent capitalism from reforming itself. The chain of reasoning is inescapable: capitalism can solve its problems. The BIT position thus coincides, fatefully, with the official (liberal) Democratic Party view of the world. The Dems try to fix capitalism; our job is to oppose these fixes, even if this means that we place ourselves in opposition to struggles and demands for things that the 99% really need. Socialism is then an Idea, one that can only come from outside of the massive reality of life within capitalist society.
Of course, if the OWS Movement were to help Obama & Co., and get coopted in the process, it could also be betrayed. The Dems could say: “Hey, our fingers were crossed!” No progressive legislation, no financial regulation, no end to the crisis. Then the BITers will say: “See, we told you so. They can’t be trusted.” Who, then, can the Occupy Movement trust? Why us, of course! It is like a Biblical commitment of faith: place your trust in true prophets (the prophets of socialism), not false ones. Of course, when facing two opposing claims to true prophesy, one is well advised to heed the old Biblical advice: “By their deeds ye shall know them.” And, let’s face it, if the BITers have their way, our deeds will not come off so well. Working people are suffering, and we say: “Don’t listen to those who claim to be able to fix things. Wait. The Idea of socialism will eventually triumph.” You can hear the likely response to this: “The Idea of socialism and $2.20 will get me into the subway. Ideas don’t pay the rent.” It is hardly surprising that many working people listen to the left and to the political mainstream, and say “A plague on both your houses.”
The BITers are worried about illusions concerning the Democratic Party. Hossein-zadeh: “The Democrats are as much responsible for the economic problems that have triggered the protests as their Republican counterparts.” This formulation speaks volumes. Neither Democrats nor Republicans “are responsible for” the crisis. Capitalism is. Again, we see the deeply rooted assumption: if only morally and intellectually worthy political forces were at work, there would have been no “problems.” The crisis could be solved within capitalism, if only the will were there.
But what if the assumption shared by both the Dems and (implicitly) the BITers ‒‒ that stable and final solutions can be found within capitalism ‒‒ is false? This is where political economy must play a role in the OWS Movement, going forward. What if, as someone once said, the contradictions are immanent, inherent, irreconcilable? What if shifts in the balance of power between the 1% and the 99% (in favor of the latter) generate new pressures and tensions, creating the need for more advanced demands and proposals, ones that encroach further upon the prerogatives of wealth and privilege? What if the massive effort to organize to win new people-supporting and -empowering institutions ‒‒ think of the New Deal ‒‒ and to staff those institutions, once created, and implement their purposes, generates more of both the experience underlying a stable shift of consciousness toward socialist values, and the capacity to actually carry out the transfer of power to the 99%? Then, over time, socialism becomes not just an Idea, but the result of living history. The revolutionary will that we seek develops within the existing society. This is, at bottom, just another way of saying that capitalism is inherently and structurally flawed, and that its core nature is the best source of the agency for its eventual transformation. One wonders how many people on the left who give advice to OWS believe that.
The energy of OWS, then, is not a fixed quantity. It can’t, ultimately, be coopted, for the simple reason that the crisis that created it, and continually re-creates it, will remain unsolved. This is so even if partial victories are won, and steps in the direction of a humane society achieved. Socialists should embrace all of those legislative victories mentioned above, which the BITers fear, not because they will result in a glorious and permanent new stage of soulful capitalism, but because they will not do that; because they will place new, more comprehensive, restraints against capitalist prerogatives on the political agenda.
All of this clearly depends on our view of capitalist society, and that is why critical political economy ‒‒ which has been, and remains, essentially Marxist, even while it draws on many other sources ‒‒ is essential. If capitalism is basically sound, requiring only some reformist tinkering, then nothing we do will stop OWS from eventually climbing into bed with the Democrats. If capitalism is a monolithic system in which subaltern social forces are entirely powerless, change can come only from outside, that is to say, from an Idea. In that case, by all means warn the occupiers of the danger of cooptation; urge them to be wary of getting involved with movements and programs that do not fly exclusively anti-capitalist banners. If, by contrast to both of these accounts, capitalism is a system in which ruling and subordinate social classes are locked in an ever-present conflictual embrace; and if capitalism necessarily and always creates the tensions that are the source of its transformation from within, then build the widest possible alliances of people who are mobilized against its abuses, because this mobilization itself is the ultimate source of the consciousness of the capitalist social system as such, and of the agency to transcend that system, which we seek.
Now of course the Dems will try to coopt and channel OWS. That is their role, and it is to be expected. It is based on their belief that stable and final solutions within the system are possible. We, on the other hand, can enthusiastically both cooperate with reformist political forces and independently build OWS (and a revitalized trade union movement, and much else), always fortifying the mass activism, grass-roots mobilization and open-ended militancy that must be the signature of a genuine movement from below. Our arguments for radical imagination and for eventual revolutionary transcendence, however, will not be decisive, no matter how clever we are. What will finally convince our base, and the millions of working people who must join that base, is their own experience in the struggle to win small victories in the battle for a dignified life, and to contain the predations of capitalist power in the present. And this experience accumulates over long stretches of time during which the concepts “capitalism” and “socialism” will not yet be available to many of them, and in places, such as the base organizations (not the leaderships) of the two major parties, where progressive activists will almost certainly be found. (Yes, I am thinking that we can even go after parts of the Republican base, especially the Tea Party.) It is the actual confrontation itself, the practical engagement with capitalist society on every terrain, that matters most for transformation of understanding.
So if this is on target, we need not fear cooptation, and betrayal. If we are betrayed (and we will be, from time to time), that will help lay foundations for greater political independence. If we are coopted (and certain individuals and organizations that are part of our coalition will undoubtedly fall into reformist and naively electoral traps), the crisis and the need to mobilize against it will not go away as a result. Much then depends on how we pursue the multi-front struggles for reforms, which are at bottom nothing other than small shifts in the balance of social power, in the right direction. These can divert the energy of OWS, leading to discouragement, cynicism, fragmentation, etc. and postponing socialism. But, with imaginative and militant leadership, they can also create new energy and possibilities, especially since ‒‒ as we know ‒‒ capitalism cannot deliver complete and stable solutions to its “problems,” which are in fact central to its functioning. Ultimately, it is the nature of the society that we must take charge of and transform that will determine our growth path. And eventually we will be the ones doing the coopting.
David Laibman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Emeritus Professor of Economics at the City University of New York (Graduate Center and Brooklyn College), editor of Science & Society, and a world-renown guitarist.