Since the Occupy Wall Street movement began, a debate has been circling around the edges concerning the movement’s relation to the Democratic party, the threat of cooptation by the liberal establishment and how to approach the issue of demands more generally. On one side, you have the radical and militant left (generally associated with anarchism, socialism, communism or some variant) pushing for more direct action, a break with the establishment political parties and a radical transformation of the social order. On the other side are a significant element of occupiers that still identify and are willing to work with the Democratic party and its associated electoral organs that hold out empty promises of reform. Many more fall in between these positions.
One would think these two positions are mutually exclusive and permissive of sharp divisions within the movement. To be sure, such divisions exist and the gulf between the radical left and establishment liberalism remains wide. However, while I certainly fall within the former camp, I am nonetheless surprised when my own comrades take positions that are both equally reformist and outright puzzling. The inspiration for this post was an article written by David Laibman on the URPE blog titled “Concerning the Occupy Movement and “Insidious Threats”. It was so disturbing to me that I felt compelled to write a response.
In a nutshell, the article is an attempt to dissuade occupiers and supporters of the “fear of cooptation” by the Democrats as unjustified on several points. For one, he argues that “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.” Supposedly, by being coopted and betrayed by the Democrats, protestors will then realize that no one can save us and we must instead rely on our own devices. But, he says, cooptation itself is a distant possibility since “[t]he energy of OWS … 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.”
Now, there are many very important assumptions being made here. Before we unpack them, let’s back up a moment and consider how the movement began. OWS did not start merely as a reaction to Republican economic austerity, bank bailouts and general neglect of the working class and youth. It was, in fact, a Democratic president and congress that not only approved of these policies but continued and deepened them. A two-party consensus was reached in which no American citizen was given a voice. The abysmal failure of President Obama and his Wall-Street representatives in the Democratic Party to meet any promises of reform did nothing but push an already angry population further to the left. This situation could only persist for so long until a decidedly non-establishment movement arose as both a pressure release valve and means to formulating alternative political structures.
Consider then, Laibman’s claim that really, cooptation wouldn’t be so bad because if we get betrayed occupiers will just become more independent and seemingly realize the error of their ways. First of all, the assumption is made that most protestors are not already prepared to think and act independently of the Democrats. This is, on the face of it, absurd. No occupation would have occurred had the occupiers themselves not wanted to send a clear message to the Democrats that they are carving out their own turf in political space beyond the establishment’s reach. We should remember that it was an Anarchist named David Graeber that first floated the idea of an occupation, and I don’t recall anyone asking for Obama’s permission before they put up a tent. So why, then, does OWS need to go through the distracting, costly and destructive process of cooptation for people to realize that the Democrats are not our allies? Are the last 4 years of economic and social deterioration not enough proof? Did the silence of the Democratic apparatus during Wisconsin’s assault on organized labor (arguably the spark that started the occupation movement in America) not already send a clear message that the Dems have no concern for labor rights and activism? Yet if there are still some True Believer holdouts within the occupy movement, is it not the duty of the radical left to show them the laundry list of Democratic lies and distortions? The very last thing OWS should do is place political agency – once again – within the Party of Wall Street and wait idly for MoveOn.org and MSNBC to stroll through, make empty gestures, distract the movement, betray it and maybe, maybe radicalize a few people in the process. Radicalization should no longer be seen only as a thing that comes from without. As leftists, we must reclaim that responsibility and not leave it to mere chance and vague allusions to accelerationism- especially when the movement’s survival is at stake.
But, Laibman goes further. Aside from all this hand-waving away of the consequences of cooptation (it is actually a good thing, you see), he argues that really cooptation isn’t a big threat. Why? Because “[t]he energy of OWS … 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.” Okay, take a deep breath. First, what does it mean that “the energy of OWS is not a fixed quantity?” Are people suddenly robots that have an unlimited amount of time to spend on political activism and don’t have jobs, families and social lives? If anything has been proven since the 1960′s (which the author, ironically, claims to be a descendent of) it is that political apathy rules. And those young people that concern themselves with politics are socialized into the two-party system while old radicals become coopted. In fact, if I had to venture a guess, I’d say the author falls within that latter camp, despite being a member of the “Union for Radical Political Economics”. Cooptation and normalization of bourgeois political values is the modus operandi of the ruling class. To say that cooptation is not a threat because occupiers are, by implication, somehow able to garner infinite energy from somewhere is absurd on its face.
What is this “somewhere” that Laibman thinks the occupiers are getting their energy? It is the economic crisis itself. Laibman argues that no amount of reforms will fix the causes of the capitalist crisis and, to a certain extent, I am in agreement. However, Laibman makes the stunning theoretical leap in assuming that this means OWS has a limitless source of political energy to draw from. First, there is no guarantee that this crisis is the death knell of capitalism and that a recovery is impossible. Certainly, the 2008 recession was the worst since the Great Depression – but remember how that turned out. It is very possible that this crisis will be resolved with a new wave of capital devaluation and destruction, guided by austerity, sovereign defaults (and other manufactured crises), and/or outright war. Second, even if present economic conditions persist or worsen, there is no reason to assume that the occupation will gain strength or simply fade into the historical background as countless left movements in America have done in the past. The fact that many, many other recessions in the US did nothing to spark political and social upheaval should be a testament to the lack of political will and organizational strength in this country. And let us never forget the very real possibility of a neo-fascism stepping into the arena. This is a very real possibility if we lower our shields and wish away the threat of cooptation. Considering all of this, why wouldn’t the Democrats launch a massive campaign to fully absorb the movement should a new Obama-lite emerge in the future? It worked in 2008. Our task is to ensure that mistake is not repeated.
Finally, Laibman seems utterly confused on his position towards reform. On the one hand, he argues that reforms have no possibility to solve the crisis of capitalism, and this is what will constantly renew the energies of the movement. On the other hand, he believes we should be open to demands for reforms because this is what the working class wants: “small victories”. Well, which is it? Are we going to lie through our teeth to our working class supporters saying that we want reforms and believe they will work – when really we know they won’t- for the sake of building a base? Or, should we, as leftists, acknowledge the reforms that are possible and will help people, critique those that are impossible within the framework of capital or serve false interests, all while maintaining that the ultimate answer is a radical reorganization of society? I would answer with the latter, although Laibman’s position is ambiguous if not contradictory. He seems to think that the Democrats intend to advocate reforms that serve working class interests and not, as it were, distract them from a revolutionary program. I would call this naivete at best and a poisonous distortion at worst.
Ultimately, as I hope I have made clear, I believe our task as the counterpoint to establishment liberalism in the occupy movement is to stress the dangers of cooptation by the Democrats and advance a program of viable reforms that benefit the working class while sticking to a revolutionary path. I’m sorry to inform Laibman that political time and energy is scarce. Anything that gets in our way should be discarded, especially outside organizations that have a proven track record of failure (and many well-meaning leftist parties fit this bill) and especially those parties that are now entirely owned by capitalist class interests, ie. the Democratic Party.
Also see this post concerning organizational form and resistance to cooptation.