Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Park Is Prologue

Chris Maisano

When I interviewed Frances Fox Piven on the Occupy Wall Street protests recently, she offered a piece of wisdom born of decades of exemplary commitment to popular struggles:
“It’s also true that when I say I think we may be on the cusp, at the beginning of a another period of social protest and [Occupy Wall Street] is the sign, I don’t think that social protest works as a little explosion and gets bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. It doesn’t happen that way. It’s much more interrupted, dispersed, there are periods of discouragement – 1959-1960 the civil rights movement people thought it was over, after 1962 in Albany, Georgia – this movement is going to be like that too.”
As mayors and police forces move in an apparently coordinated fashion against Occupy encampments in cities around the country, we would do well to keep Piven’s sage advice in the back of our minds. It would be easy to interpret the wave of evictions as a defeat, as cause for depression, demoralization, and demobilization. But such a pessimistic assessment couldn’t be more misguided.
The Zuccotti Park encampment in lower Manhattan and its offshoots around the country were enormously successful. They served their purpose, and it’s time to move on to the next phase of the struggle. In a certain sense eviction from the park may be a good thing, particularly if it forces the movement to continue and expand its community outreach efforts; take up specific demands and deepen its involvement in local struggles (particularly around foreclosures/evictions); and establish new occupations in institutional settings like college campuses or – dare we hope? – workplaces.
While the 1% and its political allies may take heart in the wave of evictions, the genie is out of the bottle and it won’t be jammed back in. The processes that began in and around the encampments will not come to a halt, especially when we consider the fact that most of the important organizing is now done by working groups operating primarily outside those specific physical spaces. If unions and community groups continue to offer activists spaces and staging areas to use over the winter, then we will almost certainly see a resurgence of the movement in the spring, when states and cities around the country will propose another round of massive cuts to education, health care, and other critical public services that will put masses of people into motion. The occupation and defense of public spaces will be complemented by the occupation and defense of public services – schools, libraries, firehouses, community centers – a turn which could have the added benefit of broadening the social composition of the movement and giving it deeper roots in local communities.
The movement remains uneven and disparate in its political orientation, with much variation within and between each place where Occupy has taken root. Polling data in my hometown of New York City shows that a small group of radical, anti-capitalist activists operates within a much larger ideological spectrum dominated by moderates and liberals. A certain populist and pseudo-radical orientation, exemplified by efforts to “move your money” from large banks to credit unions and the call to end corporate personhood, is prevalent. But even though a majority of protesters are liberals, Democrats even, most of them are deeply disillusioned by the Obama administration’s utter failure to adequately confront the economic crisis. This is good; we can work with this. The role of democratic socialists is not to advance the “correct line” and demand obedience to it. Our job is to draw out the anticapitalist tendencies and potentialities within the movement, and on the basis of common struggle and an effective campaign of mass political education, help those liberals and Democrats come to the understanding that the reforms they seek will never be attained in the absence of a mass movement that contests the rule of capital and, in the long run, seeks its abolition.
“Occupy” does not signify a specific encampment or even a specific tactic to be used in the course of mass struggle. Here, we should take inspiration and guidance from the writings of Rosa Luxemburg, who analyzed the nature of popular movements in The Mass Strike, her classic (and highly relevant) essay on the lessons of the first Russian revolution of 1905. “It is absurd to think of the mass strike as one act, one isolated action,” she writes. “The mass strike is rather the indication, the rallying idea, of a whole period of the class struggle lasting for years, perhaps for decades.”
Change the phrase “mass strike” to “occupation,” and it becomes difficult to determine whether these words were written in 1906 or 2011. The interlocking political, economic, and social dynamics that summoned the occupations into existence and fuel the movement’s grievances will not, and cannot, be solved within the parameters of the present state of affairs. The cause of the 99% is the rallying point for a generation, a movement worthy of our commitment, our struggle, and even our joy.
Our problems aren’t going away any time soon. Neither are we. v
Chris Maisano is the Managing Editor of Democratic Left and chair of the New

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