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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Occupy in the Rearview Mirror

Ten years ago, September 17, 2011, protesters settled in Zuccotti Park in the New York City financial district, a privately held park owned by Brookfield Office Properties and named after its former chairman. This action acquired the simple, straightforward, but somewhat misleading moniker, “Occupy Wall Street.”

While the specific motivations of the congregation are debated, there is a general agreement that the 2007-2009 economic crisis, and especially the failure to punish its perpetrators, was an instigation. Occupy became a phenomenon, even a brand in the era of memes, social media, and ultra-consumerism. Occupy-like copycats sprang up around the country and in different forms of activism. 

In its initial form, Occupy was an open invitation to gather in a public or semi-public space and hold it. The participants resisted a program, organizational structure, or leadership. Like previous efforts at anarchist levelling-- so-called “radical” or “participatory democracy” -- everyone was nominally of equal voice and stature. And like its anti-structure antecedents in the New Left, the Zapatistas, the anti-Globalization movement, the Indignados, etc., one can only wonder how its spokespeople, organizers, “facilitators,” or anti-leaders, are democratically selected in the absence of some structure. 

The common thread that runs through all of the celebrated anti-hierarchical organizations is a semi-religious confidence in spontaneity. All worship at the altar of this elusive idea, despite the fact that there is no successful historical precedent to support faith in its success. 

Though the Occupy movement succumbed after two months to a brutal assault by the coercive forces of the US ruling class, it left a popular slogan that continues to be embraced by a large sector of the US left: “We are the 99 percent!”

The Ten-Year Retrospective

Not surprisingly, various estimations of the value of Occupy are springing up on the 10th anniversary of the initial occupation. They range from the romantically naive, crediting Occupy with spurring every struggle since 2011, including the minimum wage fight and the teacher strike wave of 2018, to the coldly skeptical viewing of Occupy as an opportunity lost to “performative acts” or merely an historical “blip.” 

Michael Levitin, writing in The Atlantic contends that Occupy “made protesting cool again… it brought the action back into activism…” In fact, protesting has never been “cool;” it requires a sacrifice on the part of participants. More importantly, it should conjure a commitment beyond an event, a performance, a statement. Protesting requires the uncool tedium of building a movement that can grow sufficiently to tackle the unequal power of the rulers, a goal difficult to achieve without leadership, organization, and structure. The “1%” is more than the economically privileged; the “1%” has also accumulated massive power largely immune to the incantations of a general assembly. 

Micah L Sifrey, writing in The New Republic, references a somewhat chastened Occupy Wall Street organizer, Jonathan Smucker from his book:

Occupy wasn’t just a success in putting class back on the American agenda.

It was also “a high-momentum mess that ultimately proved incapable of mobilizing beyond a low plateau of usual suspects.” As he wrote in his book Hegemony How-To, “We were not merely lacking in our ability to lead the promising social justice alignment that our audacious occupation kicked off; many of the loudest voices were openly hostile toward the very existence of leadership, along with organization, resources, engagement with the mainstream media, forging broad alliances, and many other necessary operations that reek of the scent of political power.” Because Occupy’s general assemblies were so time-consuming and so easily hijacked, much of the real work and decision-making went elsewhere, “into underground centers of informal power,” he writes. 

It’s possible to look at Occupy as an experiment for its time-- 2011 was the year of the rise of Spain’s anti-austerity movement, the Indignados. Occupy came shortly after the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution which sparked the Arab Spring. All shared the elements of non-violence (by protesters), spontaneous or near-spontaneous risings, absence of a clear program, an allergy to hierarchies, and cross-class engagement. None were led by traditional leftist parties or ideologies (apart from a nebulous connection with anarchism). And-- a conclusion that none of the commentators want to accede-- all faded away, leaving the balance of power essentially unchanged.

Occupy did demonstrate the power of social media and internet communication. Old-timers were in awe at the ease and speed that people could be rallied around actions and events. Time proved that the new technologies came with a downside: action came almost too easily and with minimal commitment or understanding. Activism often sprang from the same emotional immediacy as going to a concert or movie. One commentator called Occupy “exhilarating” -- a kind of political Woodstock?

Arun Gupta, writing in In These Times, casually notes: “Every movement reaches the end of the road, and a decade later Occupy-style protest has smacked into a dead end.” 

Yes, Occupy-style protest is exhausted today, but Gupta’s dismissing that demise with a shrug reflects a measure of political immaturity. Any movement bent upon challenging inequality, injustice, capital, or, most importantly, capitalism, cannot accept a dead end as an inevitability. Quite the opposite, any movement promising success must stay the course if it holds out any hope of winning against an unprecedented accumulation of power in so few hands and a long history of falling short. Occupy lacked that vision.

Gupta writes of the “authenticity” of Occupy and the satisfaction drawn by its participants. Insofar as it served as a “pre-school” for a generation of young people deeply scarred by student loans, poor job prospects or unemployment, and deeply disappointed with the political establishment, Occupy was a worthy introduction. Insofar as political elders, movement veterans, and theorists accept Occupy as the road forward and offer no alternate routes, they bear much of the responsibility for the collapse of the movement.

The Lessons

Clearly, many feel strongly that the legacy of Occupy is worth fighting over. Witness the statement by the Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council, claiming Occupy as its own. Or the debate in The Nation: Was Occupy Wall Street More Anarchist or Socialist? 

Undoubtedly, Occupy served to introduce thousands of young people to collective action, to resistance to the rich and powerful. With “the 99 percent” slogan, many saw social life in the US through a rudimentary lens of class division for the first time, a reality denied us by our education system, our media, and our leaders.

But “the ninety-nine percent versus the one percent” construction was far too simplistic and far too crude to capture the differences or reflect the structure of twenty-first century capitalism. It failed to explain the divisions that kept the ninety-nine percent or its various strata and classes from uniting against the one percent. It failed to fit this simplification into the dynamics of the two-party system-- a system of control fundamentally owned by the one-percent and its allied strata-- while denying effective power to everyone else. It failed to offer a road map either inside or outside of that decadent structure. 

In short, “the ninety-nine percent” was analytically far too blunt of an instrument to advance Occupy beyond well-intended street theater. 

What was needed was a deeper class analysis that more accurately distinguished between the exploited and the exploiters. If they would have bothered to look, Occupiers might have found that more profound analysis in Marxism-Leninism.

Occupy follows a long trajectory of “new” radicalism in the US shaped by subtle, but long-festering anti-Communism. Since the purging of Communists and their allies from US social and political life in the post-war era, every version of revitalized resistance pays subtle, but uncompromising homage to the religion of anti-Communism-- a silent loyalty oath. From the student-based New Left to Occupy, it was understood that the limits of tolerance ended at the door to authentic Marxism-Leninism.

Instead, every emerging movement ostentatiously showcased its commitment to “democracy” in stark contrast to the caricature of Communism and its alleged soulless hostility to the individual. The cult of the individual and a utopian “participatory” democracy is meant to demonstrate a breed of radicalism distinctly different from the Cold War image of Communism. Thus was born a kind of individualistic, petty-bourgeois anarchism characteristic of US activists from early SDS to Chomsky and to Occupy.

Where anathema to the lessons of over a hundred and fifty years of Communist and socialist (and anarchist, as well) practice were not purposely obscured, different outcomes ensued. The Chilean student movement, though concurrent with the Occupy phenomenon, is a case in point. Though virtually ignored by the media and the US left, Chilean high school and university students demonstrated from 2011 until 2013 for educational reform. 

Unlike Occupy, the protests were highly organized, welcomed democratically chosen leadership, and constructed a coherent set of demands. In addition, the students engaged and were joined by the Chilean labor movement. The left political parties collaborated and enjoyed growth from their engagement, particularly the Chilean Communist Party. The successful socialist candidate for president in 2013, Michelle Bachelet placed educational reform at the top of her agenda.

Students again sparked the August 2019 protests that continued through the next two years, with over a million Chileans in the streets on October 25, 2019 in Santiago alone.

Unlike Occupy, the Chilean student protests of 2011 led directly to the empowerment of the left, electoral gains, and a referendum opening the way to a new constitution.

The political maturity of the Chilean movement and its successes serve as a stark counterpoint to the shortcomings of the Occupy model of resistance.

To its credit, Occupy broke the pattern of movement quiescence during a Democratic Party administration. For decades, anti-war and reformist protests only took on a mass character when the Republicans were in power. The anti-war demonstrations of the Bush administration were never duplicated, not even when Obama engineered the troop surge in Afghanistan. The dominant liberal and social democratic wings of the left fear antagonizing the Democratic Party torchbearers, unleashing street heat only when Republicans are in power. Allergic to electoral politics, the anarchists at the core of Occupy fearlessly and determinedly pressed forward during the Obama years.

Nonetheless, after two months of intense media attention, exhilarating public theater, and sincerely felt protest, the Occupy movement was swept away by military-like operations of the police. With no deep moorings, no road map, and no lieutenants or captains, the movement was shattered into many pieces. Some, in frustration, sought to change the Democratic Party; some sold their souls to the social-change-industry of NGOs, foundation grants, and non-profit social engineering; some returned to academia; and some, out of cynicism, simply dropped away.

An unlikely chronicler, loyal Democrat Robert Reich, noted perceptively that a contemporary right-wing populist movement, the Tea Party, expressing outrage against the powers-that-be from a different perspective, found much more success in shaping the political terrain. With its focus on performance over program, form over content, spontaneity over organization, Reich could understandably not see any hope that Occupy would change the course of history.

Well before Reich’s skepticism, V.I. Lenin railed against spontaneity in his classic polemic against the enemies of organized leadership, in What Is to Be Done? Lenin mocked actions that came to be called “participatory democracy” as examples of “toy” or “primitive” democracy. While they appear to be ultra-democratic, they actually inhibit serving the cause of the people with their endless obsession over procedure. 

Occupy ran aground on the shoals of procedural sectarianism, organizational chaos, and the lack of a programmatic compass. Will the lessons be heeded or will the US left continue to flirt with “toy” democracy over substance, cultural expression over political engagement?

Greg Godels

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

The Return of Anti-Monopoly?

Economic monopolies-- enterprises or groups of enterprises that overwhelmingly reign over a specific economic sector-- have been the target of reformers and revolutionaries since their widespread notice in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. 

Many keen observers in the most advanced capitalist countries of the late 1800s perceived the development of a tier of capitalist firms in various industries that rose to dominate those industries. Through rapid expansion, ruthless competition, absorption, and consolidation, a few capitalists or corporations acquired a majority share of markets and the lion’s share of profits. 

A classic US example of the process of monopolization was the creation of the Rockefeller oil monopoly, Standard Oil. Like an uncontrollable wildfire, Standard Oil devoured competitors, both horizontally-- in oil extraction-- and vertically-- in the shipping, refining, and selling of the final product. Eventually, Standard Oil was on the verge of completely controlling the petroleum industry in the US.

In Marxist circles, the trend toward concentration in various industries-- monopolization, cartelization, the formation of trusts-- came under serious study in the early twentieth century. Hilferding and, more popularly, Lenin, saw the intensification of capital, the accumulation of capital in fewer hands, as a new phase or stage in the development of capitalism. 

Lenin had the theoretical insight to link concentration of capital to a host of other features of twentieth-century capitalism: the crucial role and powerful influence of finance capital, the export of capital, the division of the world by enterprises and powers, and the ensuing ruthless competition. The term “imperialism” became shorthand for these processes. Imperialism explains why the twentieth century was a century of intense rivalries for markets, influence, domination, and resulting wars on an unimaginable scale.

The era of the growth of monopolies gave birth to two forms of resistance: a popular resistance to the concentration of power and wealth in fewer and fewer hands and an elite resistance to the competitive advantage of monopolies in the battle for market access, pricing, resource acquisition, and the setting of the rules of the business game.

The two forms of resistance have different social bases and seek different goals, though throughout the history of anti-monopoly struggle, there have been efforts to link the goals and there have been attempts to unite the bases. The linkage of the two forms has been a challenging and, often, ill-fated project. It remains an awkward project.

An early example of a popular anti-monopoly struggle occurred with the US People’s Party in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. From political origins in agrarian populism, the People’s Party attacked the monopolistic policies of the big banks and the railroads. The Party raised a host of reforms designed to regulate or rein in the power of the monopolies to the benefit of those in the Midwest and South dependent upon the then vitally important agricultural economy.

The new party enjoyed significant early success, garnering 8.5% of the presidential popular vote in 1892 and carrying 5 states. But divisions based on class and race and the allure of fusion with a major party demoralized and splintered the People’s Party. Its leaders were unable to construct a deep appeal to the urban working class or devise a program targeting the real sources of wealth and power, leaving itself susceptible to the demagoguery and shallow solutions of a mesmerizing rhetorician like William Jennings Bryan.  

Anti-monopoly sentiment continually finds a home with populist movements of left and right. The fact that it so easily expresses itself as antagonism toward groups perceived as privileged by status, wealth, power, or ethnicity, accounts for its political flexibility. At the same time, because it is susceptible to demagoguery, it can provide an unstable base for a movement for social change. Too often monopoly power is answered with shallow analysis (“it's the banks!”, “it’s the 1 percent!”), hasty generalization (“it’s high tech”), or even ethnic prejudice (“it's the Jews”). Too often unsustainable, cross-class alliances are carelessly projected as a foe of monopoly without a solid basis for unity. Too often monopoly is viewed as a tumor growing on capitalism that needs to be excised for the capitalist system to resume a healthy course.

Lenin never made these mistakes. 

For Lenin, the anti-monopoly strategy was anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism. In other words, attacking monopoly could not be separated from those elements that fuse together in a particular stage of capitalism-- the stage of imperialism.

And because it was a necessary stage of capitalist development, it could not be surgically removed to restore capitalism to an earlier era of “innocence.” With the development of Lenin’s thinking on state-monopoly capitalism-- the fusing of the state with monopoly capitalism-- the idea of such a surgery became even more far-fetched. 

Nonetheless, in the post-World War II era, the idea of an anti-monopoly front or alliance attracted some support from Western Communist Parties. Communist theoreticians argued that small business people, farmers, and workers could be united around a program that targeted monopoly capitalism as a common enemy. In the most advanced capitalist countries, small businesses were driven into bankruptcy or absorbed by giant firms that commanded the heights of the economy. The power of monopoly left their smaller competitors disadvantaged in access to capital, labor, and resources.

Of course, small and middling farmers faced the same disadvantages against mega-farmers like Archer Daniels Midland. Though much smaller in number, farmers today face some of the same exploitative conditions with banks and logistics as did their nineteenth-century forbearers.

Monopoly capital is especially devastating for the working class. With the mobility of capital to the lowest wage regions, with the power of defeating or co-opting unions, with the ability to organize and set consumer prices while employing labor-saving technologies, monopolies exploit workers as employees and consumers.

Left-wing interest in monopoly capitalism likely reached its zenith in the 1960s, especially with the publication of Paul Sweezy and Paul Baran’s Monopoly Capital (1966), an important book that continues to influence the left to this day.

Monopoly Capital came as a summary of the immediate post-war period of strong economic growth, the dominance of US monopoly capital worldwide, and the rapid concentration of economic activity in the hands of a few US capitalist enterprises. The “big three” in auto production, AT&T in communications, USS, ALCOA, Anaconda, General Electric, IBM, and a host of other industry leaders capturing huge portions of global production seemed to foretell a hierarchy of capitalism characterized by monopoly dominance and the decline of competition.

But matters changed in the decade to come. Corporate competition from Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Germany, and other countries intensified, challenging leaders in the older industries and spawning new emerging industries. Competition brought challenges to the complacency accompanying monopoly dominance. New products, new product categories, new production methods, and new technologies competed ruthlessly for customer loyalty. 

As I argued in an article in Communist Review (winter 2016/2017), many of us followed Sweezy and Baran in associating the process of concentration with a decline in competition. We too readily accepted the simplistic mainstream economics textbook account that portrayed monopoly as the state-of-affairs resulting from a one-directional process leading to a few mega-enterprises and tepid or non-existent competition or even large-scale monopoly collusion (it bears similarities to Kautsky’s discredited theory of super-imperialism). We, along with Sweezy and Baran, mistook a continuously unfolding tendency for an enduring final state-of-affairs, underestimating capitalism’s dynamism.

While this might have constituted a snapshot of the US economy in the mid-1960s, it was far off the mark with the decades to come. Capitalism proved far more resilient. New enterprises, new industries, new commodities emerged to challenge this simplistic picture, while concentration-- the bankruptcy and absorption of the lesser players-- continued unabated. Concentration and competition are not mutually exclusive.

Marx and Engels understood this well.

Writing in their earliest pamphlet on political economy, Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy, a work much admired by Karl Marx, Frederick Engel’s wrote:

Competition is based on self-interest, and self-interest in turn breeds monopoly. In short, competition passes over into monopoly. On the other hand, monopoly cannot stem the tide of competition-- indeed, it itself breeds competition.

Thus, is the dialectics of competition-monopoly.

Marx affirms this dialectic in the Poverty of Philosophy:


In practical life we find not only competition, monopoly and the antagonism between them, but also the synthesis of the two, which is not a formula, but a movement. Monopoly produces competition, competition produces monopoly. Monopolists are made from competition; competitors become monopolists.

Anti-Monopoly Today

Interest in curbing monopoly is having a rebirth today. The rise of a new set of huge enterprises dominating their industries and amassing unprecedented mountains of capital has generated a strong reaction. The notion that key financial institutions needed government bailout, that they were “too big to fail,  ” produced an angry reaction from people crushed in the 2007-2009 crash and disgusted smaller businesses left to face collapse without any help. The outrage against banks and other financial institutions persists to this day.

The concentration of corporate power through mergers and acquisitions is expressed through increasing pressure on the state to tilt the playing field in favor of capital and the wealthy (in 1984, mergers and acquisitions totaled $125 billion; in the first 8 months of 2021, they totaled $1.8 trillion in the US, $3.6 trillion worldwide).

Similarly, popular sentiment against the greed and arrogance of the technology giants-- Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook-- is boundless today, leading to several antitrust investigations and proposed regulatory legislation. Their size and importance in the global economy point to both the dangers from the rise of monopolies and the dramatic shift in the towering heights of capitalism from the time of the Sweezy and Baran classic.

The Biden administration’s appointment of two antitrust activists to head the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department’s antitrust arm is an important reflection of the growing interest in anti-monopoly action.

Dubbed “neo-Brandeisians,” after the former Supreme Court Justice who led the antitrust battles of the early twentieth century, prominent lawyers and politicians are taking aim at the big tech companies. As the two-year study by the US House’s Judiciary Committee concluded, “...there is a clear and compelling need for Congress and the antitrust enforcement agencies to take action that restores competition, improves innovation, and safeguards our democracy.”

Tellingly, the six house bills directed against monopolies say little-to-nothing about the harm that wealth and corporate concentration have on working people. Instead, they charge monopolies with disrupting the smooth functioning of capitalism and with encumbering the competition with The People's Republic of China and other global competitors. In other words, this center-left initiative is meant to strengthen capitalism by regulating concentration; it is shorn of almost any but the most indirect benefit to working people.

The center-left, Democratic Party-centered anti-monopoly strategy contains no assistance in organizing workers, in ensuring better working conditions, or in increasing wages and benefits within the most concentrated industries. It fails to speak to the high prices and shoddy quality that monopolies offer the consumer. Nor does it address the erosion of democracy fostered by the inordinate influence of giant monopolies on the political process. That influence is only amplified by monopoly ownership of the media, misdirecting the public away from the real issues and viable solutions. 

Arrayed against the capitalism-serving program of the center-left are the apologists for mega-business, who argue that the industrial giants-- through the intense price competition that weeds out the smaller players-- are giving consumers better prices, more efficient services, economies of scale. During the so-called “neo-liberal” period, this hands-off position toward big business-- trusts, cartels, monopolies-- gained the allegiance of both major parties. It is only in recent years that some Democrats have contended that monopolies are a hindrance to capitalist growth, competition, and innovation.

But notice that this debate over monopoly is contained and reduced to which strategy better promotes capitalism: enhanced competition versus consumer advantages (see this The Wall Street Journal op-ed). Where is the damage inflicted on the working class by monopolies? Who will address the monopoly super-exploitation of workers like those at the Amazon work centers? What checks are there on monopoly power’s influence on elections? On the media? On pharmaceutical prices? On utilities? Where are the protections of wages and jobs in the era of transnational monopolies and the easy mobility of capital to low-wage areas?

If confined to the two major political parties, these issues will not be advanced. However, they are the concerns of workers and belong on the agenda of organized labor. A vigorous popular campaign against monopoly, if adopted, would energize a labor movement in retreat and unconditionally wedded to the program of the Democratic Party. An anti-monopoly program, though worker-centered, would find allies in other sectors of the economy preyed upon by monopoly capitalism.  

The late Communist political economist, Victor Perlo summed up labor’s interests in joining with others in curbing the monopolies in his 1988 book, Super Profits and Crises: Modern US Capitalism:

Monopolies have--

●the strength to curb workers’ actions, strikes.

●the ability to raise prices to compensate for wage and benefit gains

●capital sufficient to employ labor saving technology and reduce employment and wages

●the power to relocate work to the lowest-paying regions or countries

●the political weight (state monopoly capitalism) to influence government, to extract concessions, to reduce taxes, to extort government funding and government support against the interests of labor.

These issues would well serve a labor movement bereft of ideas and mired in the muck of class collaboration.

Similarly, a people’s anti-monopoly agenda would focus the work of third parties like the Green Party or the People’s Party, while attracting a broad sector of people affected by the cruel lash of monopoly capital.

But let this be a cautionary tale for Communists and socialists who must avoid the trap of equating anti-monopoly struggle with anti-capitalism. Through the dialectic of competition and monopoly, capitalism persists. Smaller, non-monopoly capitals would ravage working people as brutally as does monopoly capitalism. While monopoly capitalism, with its historically evolved features, is the capitalism of our era, the goal post is the ending of capitalism and the construction of socialism. 

Greg Godels