Everybody Talks About the Weather

By Asad Haider and Salar Mohan­desi

“Every­body talks about the weather. We don’t.” This 1968 poster was a response by the Ger­man Social­ist Stu­dent Union to an ad cam­paign for weath­er­proof trains. The stu­dents were sug­gest­ing that like the fig­ures pic­tured above, they had more impor­tant con­cerns than every­day things like the weather. The next year, jour­nal­ist and future Red Army Fac­tion ter­ror­ist Ulrike Mein­hof would use the slo­gan to argue that rad­i­cals should talk about every­day life, since “the per­sonal is polit­i­cal.”

For us, it just means that we should talk about the weather. It’s going to start snow­ing on the occu­pa­tions, and the author­i­ties want to use the weather as a weapon. They’re hop­ing that win­ter will kill the move­ment off, and it’s hard to deny that camp­ing out in the mid­dle of Jan­u­ary would be a poor tac­tic.

But the weather rep­re­sents a much big­ger ques­tion: what will it take to make this move­ment last? There is great poten­tial in what has been achieved, but there are also sig­nif­i­cant obsta­cles, which present them­selves both inside and out­side the move­ment. With an eye towards advanc­ing this strug­gle, let’s start by try­ing to under­stand what’s hap­pen­ing: who is protest­ing, and what does it mean?

In a reflec­tion on the riots in Lon­don this past sum­mer, “The Prince and the Pau­per,” we argued that the com­po­si­tion of the riot­ers reflected the blurred bound­aries between a pre­car­i­ous and hyper­ex­ploited “lumpen­pro­le­tariat” and the main­stream work­ing class. What was impor­tant above all was that the spon­ta­neous vio­lence of the riots took place at the same time as a strike by Ver­i­zon work­ers across the pond, within the very indus­try that pro­vided the riot­ers with means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. And though strug­gles were com­mu­ni­cat­ing with each other across the world, these two polit­i­cal com­po­si­tions – one reflect­ing a dis­or­ga­nized pop­u­la­tion usu­ally sub­jected to the worst state repres­sion, the other reflect­ing the clas­si­cal mode of trade-union pol­i­tics – did not encoun­ter one another.

The Occupy Wall Street crowd seems to be an in-between ele­ment, both tech­ni­cally and polit­i­cally. Much of the energy behind it comes from the activist milieu that char­ac­ter­ized the Seat­tle “anti-glob­al­iza­tion” protests, but it also clearly draws from a wide base of work­ing peo­ple who are now see­ing the dis­in­te­gra­tion of clas­si­cal forms of work alongside the social fab­ric that once sup­ported them. So the Occupy move­ment is simul­ta­ne­ously the space where encoun­ters can take place, as well as a form of strug­gle with the implicit objec­tive of cre­at­ing con­di­tions in which these encoun­ters can take hold. But who exactly is in this space?

The best infor­ma­tion we have now is about Occupy Wall Street; though other occu­pa­tions may have unique ele­ments, this serves as a use­ful start­ing point. The com­po­si­tion of Occupy Wall Street is unsur­pris­ingly het­ero­ge­neous. Age, wealth, and expe­ri­ence vary widely; some par­tic­i­pants are vet­er­ans from for­mer strug­gles, oth­ers are join­ing in for the first time; there’s a large con­cen­tra­tion of youth, but more than 28% are over 40. You’ll find the home­less, doc­toral stu­dents, and pro­fes­sion­als of var­i­ous stripes all camp­ing out together. Despite these sharp dif­fer­ences, how­ever, some com­mon char­ac­ter­is­tics stand out. First, the vast major­ity is highly edu­cated: a study by CUNY soci­ol­o­gist Hec­tor R. Cordéro-Guzmán observed that over 90% reported “some col­lege, a col­lege degree, or a grad­u­ate degree.” Sec­ond, the great major­ity does not sup­port either of the polit­i­cal par­ties. Third, and per­haps most impor­tant, the move­ment as a whole is over­whelm­ingly com­posed of the unem­ployed, under­em­ployed, or pre­car­i­ously employed.

In many impor­tant ways, it’s no coin­ci­dence that this par­tic­u­lar tech­ni­cal com­po­si­tion would choose the Occupy move­ment as its form of strug­gle. By fir­ing work­ers, putting them on fur­lough, demand­ing that they work part-time, or sim­ply forc­ing them to accept an early retire­ment, the cap­i­tal­ists gave them all free time. Instead of sit­ting at home, these work­ers are using this imposed free time against those cap­i­tal­ists who forced it upon them in the first place. The Occupy move­ment demon­strates how work­ers can cre­atively turn their sit­u­a­tion against their bosses, how they can trans­form an imposed form of pro­duc­tion into a weapon. It’s not so much a kind of pro­longed march as it is a trans­formed strike, work stop­page, or col­lec­tive slow­down. It’s a form of strug­gle that has emerged directly from the par­tic­u­lar eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion that cap­i­tal has led us into. But not only is it a form of strug­gle, it’s a bridge between a mul­ti­plic­ity of forms, where already exist­ing move­ments can cross-pol­li­nate and new ones can be tested for the first time.

This bridg­ing is inter­na­tional in char­ac­ter. Inspired by the Arab Spring, the strug­gles in Greece, and the Span­ish indig­na­dos, Occupy Wall Street first emerged as yet another moment in this broader cycle of strug­gle. It’s sig­nif­i­cant, how­ever, that after becom­ing a real move­ment by spread­ing itself across Amer­ica, this form of strug­gle then found its way back into the hands of those who had inspired it in the first place. There is no greater illus­tra­tion of the cir­cu­la­tion of strug­gles today: from Puerta del Sol square in May, to the occu­pa­tion of Zuc­cotti Park, and back to Madrid in Octo­ber. But it’s not as though the same coin has passed through thou­sands of new hands just to return to its owner unchanged. The cir­cu­la­tion of this strug­gle has added some­thing; it returns with more expe­ri­ences, a sharper per­spec­tive, a more rad­i­cal edge.

But we’re not deal­ing with the same strug­gle. There’s a plu­ral­ity of almost bewil­der­ingly diverse forms of con­tes­ta­tion. Before Occupy Wall Street, there were lit­er­ally thou­sands of dis­tinct strug­gles from Greece to the Mid­dle East to China. What the Occupy move­ment has done is strate­gi­cally sub­sume many of these pre­ex­ist­ing strug­gles into a shared dis­cur­sive space – pro­vid­ing them with a com­mon lan­guage. In China, demon­stra­tors have held up ban­ners read­ing: “Res­olutely sup­port the Amer­i­can people’s mighty Wall Street Rev­o­lu­tion!”

On Octo­ber 15, protests erupted in 900 cities across the globe. Though many had already wit­nessed their fair share of dis­tur­bances over the past few years, it was the bold syn­chronic­ity of it all that was so unprece­dented. This could have only been accom­plished through a recod­ing of each par­tic­u­lar strug­gle into a more gen­eral ver­nac­u­lar. Of course, all of these strug­gles were already implic­itly – and in some cases explic­itly – in touch with one another. But now, they speak the same lan­guage. Slo­gans reap­pear, sym­bols are shared, and prac­tices are recy­cled on dif­fer­ent con­ti­nents.  Strug­gles all over the world are begin­ning to recode them­selves in this idiom.

The dilemma is that while unions have expressed their sup­port, orga­ni­za­tions like Occupy the Hood are attempt­ing to pri­or­i­tize the sec­tors of the work­ing class that are racially mar­gin­al­ized, and inter­na­tional strug­gles are tak­ing up occu­pa­tions as their ban­ners, no con­crete and insti­tu­tional con­nec­tion has been made. It could very well be that the dura­bil­ity and rad­i­cal­iza­tion of this move­ment will rely on its poten­tial as a medi­at­ing ele­ment between the the var­i­ous seg­ments of the class, their par­tic­u­lar inter­ests, and their tra­di­tional forms of strug­gle. Achiev­ing this means going beyond a spon­ta­neous reflec­tion of changes in our work­ing lives. It has to start by under­stand­ing the sys­tem under­ly­ing them.

We Are the Wage Rela­tion

We all know how the protest rep­re­sents itself. “We are the 99%,” said Occupy Wall Street, and this sin­gle slo­gan has spread like a prairie fire.

Only a philistine would dis­miss the move­ment based on objec­tions to this slo­gan. A quick glance at the now-famous web­site wearethe99percent.tumblr.com shows what it has achieved. In a soci­ety that is sup­posed to be hope­lessly atom­ized, made up of alien­ated zom­bies star­ing at indi­vid­ual TV screens, ordi­nary peo­ple are show­ing sol­i­dar­ity with each other. The prob­lems peo­ple describe on this web­site might once have been thought of as per­sonal issues, of no con­cern to any­one but your spouse and your land­lord. Occupy Wall Street has given us the lan­guage to under­stand our per­sonal prob­lems as a col­lec­tive polit­i­cal strug­gle against the 1% who got rich from our mis­for­tune.

At the same time, the slo­gan advances no analy­sis about how things got this way. Social inequal­ity is shame­ful, to be sure, and it’s been grow­ing steadily. But does this hap­pen because there are bad eggs at the top? Because the good guys in gov­ern­ment aren’t strong enough? Or is it because there’s an under­ly­ing rela­tion­ship in our soci­ety that pro­duces this inequal­ity and ensures that it con­stantly increases?

It would be no improve­ment to quib­ble about per­cent­ages. (“We are the 87.3%! Down with the 5.2% and their 7.5% run­ning dogs!”) The fig­ures which actu­ally demon­strate the fun­da­men­tal changes in our econ­omy lead­ing to today’s dis­con­tent­ment are shown in the fol­low­ing graph, cov­er­ing the period from 1947 to 2010, from the Bureau of Labor Sta­tis­tics:

The top line rep­re­sents worker pro­duc­tiv­ity, mea­sured by out­put per hour. The line lag­ging behind is their hourly com­pen­sa­tion, which means wages plus ben­e­fits, adjusted for infla­tion. The grow­ing “wage gap” between the two lines essen­tially mea­sures the change in the rate of exploita­tion, and it shows that exploita­tion has been steadily increas­ing. This doesn’t mean there wasn’t exploita­tion before the 1970s, it just means that social inequal­ity wasn’t grow­ing; now big­ger and big­ger por­tions of wealth are being trans­ferred from labor to cap­i­tal.

In 1865, Karl Marx engaged in a debate in the First Inter­na­tional Work­ing Men’s Asso­ci­a­tion against a utopian social­ist named John Weston. Weston argued that the wave of strikes across Europe demand­ing higher wages was dan­ger­ous, since if wages were increased, cap­i­tal­ists would sim­ply raise com­mod­ity prices to com­pen­sate and make life more expen­sive for work­ers. Marx argued in his speeches, later pub­lished as Value, Price and Profit, that this posi­tion was based on a totally incor­rect under­stand­ing of the wage. Cap­i­tal­ists pay a wage that ensures the worker will show up to work the next day, equiv­a­lent to the socially aver­age col­lec­tion of neces­si­ties (food, hous­ing, enter­tain­ment) required to repro­duce labor-power, or the abil­ity to work. They don’t pay for each indi­vid­ual com­mod­ity the worker pro­duces, because the cen­tral fact of cap­i­tal­ism is that work­ers pro­duce more than the value of their daily neces­si­ties. The dif­fer­ence between their wages and the value of the com­modi­ties they pro­duce is the “sur­plus value” that belongs to the cap­i­tal­ist. No other input of the pro­duc­tion process gen­er­ates more value than it costs; the exploita­tion of labor is the source of profit.

What Marx pointed out is that if there is an increase in the pro­duc­tiv­ity of labor, but wages stay the same, strug­gles for higher wages have to be under­stood as “reac­tions of labour against the pre­vi­ous action of cap­i­tal.” If cap­i­tal can’t pay work­ers less, or work them longer hours, it has to increase the pro­duc­tiv­ity of labor by dis­ci­plin­ing work­ers and intro­duc­ing tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tions. This has two dra­matic effects. First of all, it reduces the demand for labor, which means unem­ploy­ment. Sec­ond, it means cap­i­tal­ists are invest­ing more in expen­sive machin­ery than in their source of profit.

If pro­duc­tiv­ity has dra­mat­i­cally increased, and indus­tries across the board pro­duce many more com­modi­ties, they need peo­ple to buy them – but that’s dif­fi­cult to pull off when wages have been so low for so long. The result of ris­ing social inequal­ity is that cap­i­tal­ists are sit­ting on vast amounts of money, or chan­nel­ing it into a lux­ury econ­omy, and banks are run­ning out of prof­itable invest­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties. Work­ers, on the other hand, need money just to live. The solu­tion to these prob­lems is well known. The wide­spread reliance on con­sumer credit – a risky invest­ment for the banks and poten­tially life­long debt for the con­sumer – increases pur­chas­ing power beyond the wage.

Alongside the use of home equity loans and credit cards to shore up con­sump­tion is the mas­sive stu­dent loan indus­try, which lends future work­ers the resources to develop their pro­duc­tive pow­ers. In the­ory, these debts would be paid off by future income, assum­ing some kind of immi­nent recov­ery. The prob­lem is that peo­ple grad­u­at­ing with enor­mous and unrea­son­able loans are not get­ting jobs, and as we’ve already noted, cap­i­tal­ism is tend­ing towards unem­ploy­ment. With the clas­si­cal sys­tem of exploita­tion by the wage under­min­ing itself, cap­i­tal is forced to find ways to use debts to extract wealth. Ever paid an over­draft fee?

There’s also a dra­matic polit­i­cal effect of debt: it pre­vents peo­ple from desert­ing the sink­ing ship of the wage sys­tem. In spite of the fact that nobody expects a job to become a life­long career any­more, which used to be work’s way of jus­ti­fy­ing itself, they’re still forced to accept pre­car­i­ous work – rush­ing between mul­ti­ple part-time jobs unre­lated to their edu­ca­tion, if they have jobs at all, and cut­ting every pos­si­ble expense to pay off their loans.

This is just an exten­sion of the bru­tal strat­egy of expro­pri­a­tion already imposed on the poorest sec­tors of the work­ing class, the preda­tory lend­ing that specif­i­cally tar­geted black and Latino women. Just as stu­dent debt estab­lished a sup­ple­men­tary form of exploita­tion, by com­pelling peo­ple to pay for the rest of their lives to acquire a com­pe­tence they may be unable to cash in on the job, sub­prime mort­gages prac­ticed exploita­tion at the site of repro­duc­tion. Low-income work­ers who needed an address, a place to main­tain their abil­i­ties to work and to insti­tu­tion­al­ize their social exis­tence, found them­selves strug­gling to pay an unman­age­able debt until the bank sim­ply took the house back to sell it again, pock­et­ing the already-extracted pay­ments.

It should be clear that these very vis­i­ble actions by finance can’t be reduced to the greed of indi­vid­ual crim­i­nals. They are the vio­lent and reck­less attempts by cap­i­tal­ists to defend and rad­i­cal­ize the exploita­tion that took place in the wage sys­tem, in spite of the grow­ing con­tra­dic­tions of that sys­tem. So we have to decou­ple our rhetoric from notions of cor­po­rate power and law­less bankers. It’s a rela­tion­ship we’re fight­ing, not a bunch of guys in expen­sive suits.

What the 99% slo­gan moves us towards is a con­cept of class. It’s the lad­der that we’re using to climb up to a class analy­sis. But to really develop that analy­sis, we’ll have to leave the lad­der behind. “We are the wage rela­tion” is not a very good slo­gan. It’s a shift in per­spec­tive that indi­cates the need for new slo­gans.

The 99% is a coali­tion built upon many dif­fer­ent ten­den­cies, inter­ests, and projects. While it helps us unify our sep­a­rate strug­gles, dis­cover the social in the per­sonal, and forge our dif­fer­ent demands into a com­mon dis­course, it ulti­mately con­ceals more than it reveals. The dan­ger is most appar­ent when we con­sider that some of the ten­den­cies within the Occupy Move­ment hope to use the momen­tum of the strug­gle to enter into a prof­itable alliance with finance. The “pro­fes­sional-man­age­rial sec­tor,” or what has been com­monly though erro­neously labeled “the mid­dle class,” is cer­tainly part of this 99%. But it’s a pecu­liar part of this per­cent­age: although it is exploited by cap­i­tal like every­one else, it nev­er­the­less occa­sion­ally prof­its from its own exploita­tion. As that layer which embod­ies the inter­ests of both labor and cap­i­tal, the “mid­dle class” stands as a vari­able and poten­tially dan­ger­ous ele­ment within the move­ment as a whole.

The “mid­dle class” is, in its own way, tor­mented by wage labor – we think of what Ric­cardo Bellofiore and Mas­si­m­il­iano Tomba describe as “the lack of social life, the end­less cig­a­rettes, the psy­chic dis­tur­bances and the hem­or­rhoids of our ultra-mod­ern knowl­edge work­ers.” But this layer also has a ten­dency to look for a way out – not by abol­ish­ing exploita­tion in gen­eral, but by tak­ing a cut of the exploita­tion of lower-income work­ers. The pro­fes­sional-man­age­rial lib­er­als want to make finance work for them; their gam­ble is to co-opt the more exploited sec­tors of the pro­le­tariat, to claim to speak for the whole work­ing class, to use reform as a means of sta­bi­liz­ing the wage rela­tion rather than putting it into ques­tion.

In many ways, it’s an old strat­egy that goes at least as far back as the French Rev­o­lu­tion. The Third Estate united its het­ero­ge­neous com­po­nents by recon­sti­tut­ing itself as the nation. Every­one else – the upper clergy and the nobil­ity – was regarded as a mere par­a­site idly leech­ing off the labors of the over­whelm­ing major­ity. The dom­i­nant fig­ures of the Third Estate – the busi­ness­men, lawyers, and aspir­ing politi­cians – at first hoped to use the strength of the move­ment to advance their own dis­tinct inter­ests rather than those of the masses. Even some aris­to­crats threw in their lot with the masses in the hopes that they too could domes­ti­cate it. This was all in 1789.

But now we’re in the twenty-first cen­tury – we don’t need another French Rev­o­lu­tion. So we have to ques­tion the strange resur­gence of the lan­guage of par­a­sitism. It’s a con­ve­nient way to reduce the objec­tives of the move­ment to noth­ing other than cast­ing off the par­a­sites in order to pre­serve the body. And the rhetoric of the 99% helps dis­sem­ble the very real con­tra­dic­tions slowly tear­ing apart that pur­port­edly coher­ent body. The dan­ger is all the more sev­ere when we remem­ber that this body is not so much Amer­i­can as it is inter­na­tional.

Beyond the divi­sions within the Amer­i­can “99%” there are global divi­sions. Inequal­ity of wealth extends to the inequal­ity between nations and sug­gests that the sit­u­a­tion of the work­ing class varies with national bound­aries. In many nations work­ers are caught between the increas­ing impov­er­ish­ment of agri­cul­ture and an unsta­ble slum life struc­tured around con­tin­gent or infor­mal work. Farmer sui­cides in India are echoed by iPhone fac­tory worker sui­cides in China.

The Amer­i­can inflec­tion of the slo­gans now cir­cu­lat­ing glob­ally is sig­nif­i­cant. It sig­nals the deci­sive reen­try of the United States into this inter­na­tional cycle of strug­gle; the dom­i­nant pole of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion can no longer dis­tance itself from the strug­gles rend­ing the rest of the world. But there is a dan­ger that the grow­ing sig­nif­i­cance of the Amer­i­can strug­gle will begin to blind us to the dis­tinct char­ac­ter of other strug­gles and the speci­fic his­tor­i­cal form of the wage rela­tion in which they have found them­selves. The Israelis began with a hous­ing cri­sis, the Chileans attacked edu­ca­tion, the Greeks aimed at aus­ter­ity, and the Fil­ipinos united against Amer­i­can impe­ri­al­ism. Move­ments in the coun­tries of the “Third World” will have to take on a dis­tinct set of inter­ests and strate­gies pre­cisely because their com­po­si­tion is already so dif­fer­ent. So while the Occupy move­ment has allowed these dialects to trans­late, it will have to avoid the risk of oblit­er­at­ing its par­tic­u­lar­i­ties. The con­tra­dic­tion is not between a homo­ge­neous inter­na­tional major­ity against an equally homo­ge­neous inter­na­tional minor­ity, but between the dif­fer­ent poles of a global wage rela­tion that nec­es­sar­ily assumes dif­fer­ent forms in dif­fer­ent places.

Enemy of the State?

The media like to sug­gest that the Occupy move­ment is the Tea Party of the left. And maybe there are some sim­i­lar­i­ties: both are socially het­ere­oge­nous, both have brought together indi­vid­u­als from across the coun­try, and both have sev­eral decen­tral­ized griev­ances, some of which may even be the same. Where they dif­fer most strongly, how­ever, is their rela­tion­ship to the state. While the Tea Party has strate­gi­cally insin­u­ated itself with the Repub­li­can Party in the hopes of reori­ent­ing the state itself, the Occupy move­ment has con­sis­tently refused to do the same with the Demo­c­ra­tic Party. The Democ­rats are too polit­i­cally impo­tent to effec­tively co-opt the move­ment, and even the unof­fi­cial demands of the occu­pa­tion are well beyond any­thing the Democ­rats will ever be will­ing to get behind. Most sig­nif­i­cantly, the move­ment rejects the entire party sys­tem. The Cordéro-Guzmán sur­vey dis­cov­ered that the vast major­ity of those involved in Occupy Wall Street – some 70% of the respon­dents – iden­tify as polit­i­cally inde­pen­dent.

This sig­nals a major shift in the polit­i­cal cul­ture. While just a few years ago the Democ­rats were able to rebrand them­selves as a party of oppo­si­tion, change, and new hopes, they’re now widely regarded as oppor­tunists with noth­ing to offer. This legit­i­ma­tion cri­sis forced open a wide vac­uum on the left of the polit­i­cal spec­trum that has been filled by the Occupy move­ment. But while the move­ment has clearly aban­doned the Demo­c­ra­tic Party, it has not yet defin­i­tively aban­doned the state.

There are two ten­den­cies that fetishize the state. The first is the typ­i­cal lib­eral call for finan­cial reg­u­la­tion – if it was the unreg­u­lated avarice of the cor­po­ra­tions that got us into this mess, then we can resolve it by pres­sur­ing the state into reg­u­lat­ing them more tightly. The sec­ond, para­dox­i­cally, is the oppo­site end of the spec­trum, the “End the Fed” Ron Paul fanat­ics who believe that fiat cur­rency is the root of all evil. The shared ide­o­log­i­cal assump­tion of both these ten­den­cies is that the state and the mar­ket are some­how totally dis­tinct actors with con­trary inter­ests.

So the com­par­ison with the Tea Party should lead us to an unex­pect­edly impor­tant ques­tion: why is the only anti-gov­ern­ment rhetoric to be found on the right? The para­noid notion that “big gov­ern­ment” seeks to take away the pri­vate prop­erty of indi­vid­u­als is a mys­ti­fied under­stand­ing of the real­ity that wealth really has been trans­ferred away from mid­dle-income Amer­i­cans, and it accu­rately intu­its that this process has been over­seen by the state. We don’t have to spend a lot of time empha­siz­ing the fact that the state not only rep­re­sents the inter­ests of the wealthy, it’s actu­ally com­posed of them. Every­body knows this.

Add to this that all these processes of finan­cial­iza­tion have been admin­is­trated by the state. The bail-out was no aber­ra­tion; it just con­firmed who the state is here to sup­port. Con­sider the telling exam­ple of stu­dent loans. Since 1965 the gov­ern­ment has under­writ­ten pri­vate lenders who facil­i­tate an increas­ingly expen­sive col­lege edu­ca­tion, as part of the Fed­eral Fam­ily Edu­ca­tion Loan Pro­gram. What this means is that the abil­ity of uni­ver­si­ties, includ­ing for-profit col­leges, to rad­i­cally increase tuition, and of pri­vate lenders to prey on more stu­dents, has been enabled by the gov­ern­ment. The pol­icy was ended in 2010, but not before mak­ing it absolutely clear in 2005 that the gov­ern­ment was not inter­ested in extend­ing any sup­port to the bor­row­ers: stu­dent loans have become nondis­charge­able, leav­ing a gen­er­a­tion of unem­ployed grad­u­ates with­out the option of declar­ing bank­ruptcy. The only win­ners are the finan­cial cor­po­ra­tions, which have been pack­ag­ing stu­dent loans into lucra­tive finan­cial prod­ucts called stu­dent loan asset-backed secu­ri­ties. Even the most recent mea­sures announced by the White House only make it eas­ier for peo­ple to get into debt; they do noth­ing to coun­ter­act the 8.3% increase in tuition at pub­lic col­leges.

In spite of the government’s vis­i­ble defense of the cap­i­tal­ist class, the ten­dency on the left is to imag­ine that we can some­how just nego­ti­ate with the state. It’s not the first time this has been attempted. A mil­i­tant labor move­ment con­fronted cap­i­tal on the shop-floor dur­ing the 1920s and 1930s. Cap­i­tal and the state were forced to find a way to sub­sume and con­trol this threat; that strat­egy was called the New Deal. Under the pres­sure of World War II, the Com­mu­nist Party entered into an alliance with the Democ­rats and threw in its lot with the New Deal, sup­press­ing rank-and-file activ­ity in the name of the “no-strike pledge.” The sit­u­a­tion estab­lished had seri­ous con­se­quences after the war. The labor bureau­cracy set the stage for its com­ing decline; they strength­ened cap­i­tal and paved the way not only for the Smith and Taft-Hart­ley Acts, the legal foun­da­tions for the purg­ing of com­mu­nists from the unions, but also for the dev­as­tat­ing sep­a­ra­tion of the work­ing class from the labor move­ment.

Rec­og­niz­ing that the state is an adver­sary, how­ever, doesn’t mean moral­is­ti­cally ignor­ing it. It won’t wither away if we just refuse to engage with it out of prin­ci­ple. The lesson from our labor his­tory is not only that alliance with polit­i­cal par­ties is treach­er­ous, but also that mean­ing­ful reforms were won by the labor move­ment as a result of mil­i­tant and antag­o­nis­tic strate­gies, extend­ing from the 1919 Seat­tle gen­eral strike to the 1934 San Fran­cisco gen­eral strike. It would be the worst sec­tar­i­an­ism to reject reforms; they alle­vi­ate suf­fer­ing and advance the posi­tion of the work­ing class. But the ques­tion is whether mean­ing­ful reforms can be achieved within the polit­i­cal lim­its of cap­i­tal­ism. If the polit­i­cal appa­ra­tus is con­trolled by the cap­i­tal­ist class, this means that those lim­its are not exter­nal lim­its that can be over­come by a stronger pro­gram. Instead, they are inter­nal to the strat­egy of reform. The only way to force the cap­i­tal­ist class to con­cede reforms is to con­front it with an antag­o­nis­tic agent, a uni­fied work­ing class. Let’s not delude our­selves into think­ing we can con­vince them with our bet­ter ideas.

Today the imme­di­ate tac­ti­cal ques­tions of the move­ment also pose the ques­tion of the state. In a telling inter­na­tional exchange between the var­i­ous occu­pa­tions across the world, a New Yorker ques­tioned occu­piers in Frank­furt about their deci­sion to request a per­mit from the police. Not­ing that Lib­erty Plaza was occu­pied with­out a per­mit, she asked why the Ger­mans had asked for one, won­der­ing if such col­lab­o­ra­tion with class ene­mies could have been the result of a “cul­tural dif­fer­ence.” But why not be flex­i­ble, on the look­out for open­ings that can be strate­gi­cally exploited? Some com­pro­mises may advance the class posi­tion, allow­ing a move­ment to con­front the state on a dif­fer­ent plane. If the state is will­ing to give us a per­mit, let them make that deci­sion and live to regret it.

The ques­tion of police per­mits touches more gen­er­ally on the police force itself. Are they, as some pro­test­ers have chanted, part of the 99%? From the start there has been a clear ten­sion with the police. They have made arrests, have begun infil­trat­ing the var­i­ous occu­pa­tions, and will cer­tainly be called in, as they have been in Berlin and Oak­land, to vio­lently crush the move­ment.

But the chal­lenge of the police is that they gen­uinely are work­ers, and their work is to repress pro­le­tar­ian antag­o­nism. This para­dox is not to be taken lightly. Nei­ther blindly defend­ing them as fel­low work­ers nor blindly attack­ing them as hated pigs will help us now. Any fail­ure to under­stand their speci­fic func­tion is either a reformist dan­ger or an adven­tur­ist error.

The real prob­lem was posed in 1968 by Pier Paolo Pasolini, after the Bat­tle of Valle Giu­lia, in which police and stu­dent rad­i­cals clashed vio­lently. Pasolini, the com­mu­nist film­maker, would later write a poem declar­ing sol­i­dar­ity with the police:

At Valle Giu­lia, yes­ter­day, there was a frag­ment
of class strug­gle: you, my friends, (although
in the right) were the rich,
and the police­men (although in the wrong)
were the poor…

The impor­tant point in Pasolini’s poem is not his roman­ti­ciza­tion of the police’s pur­ported pro­le­tar­ian iden­tity, but instead the ques­tion of the com­po­si­tion of the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies. The prob­lem this poses is that the repres­sive state appa­ra­tus has greater con­tact with many more lay­ers of the pro­le­tariat than the polit­i­cal move­ment. In many spec­tac­u­lar street con­fronta­tions the police have seemed to be the only rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the “tra­di­tional” work­ing class, includ­ing peo­ple of color, allow­ing the reac­tionary media to rep­re­sent the pro­test­ers as enti­tled col­lege stu­dents. And there can be no doubt that the police force recruits from the under­class; it offers one of the last careers avail­able. Though in the abstract it is pos­si­ble to bring the police over to our side – the pro­test­ers in Wis­con­sin suc­cess­fully won the sup­port of the police – this strat­egy can’t be assumed as some kind of utopian reflex. The Oak­land Police Depart­ment gave us a cru­cial reminder of the insta­bil­ity of Pasolini’s per­spec­tive, when the vicious and obscene vio­lence used for years against the black com­mu­nity was brought down upon Occupy Oak­land. The real goal of the move­ment should be to move past the fetishiza­tion of the police, and to forge deeper con­nec­tions with excluded seg­ments of the pro­le­tariat, sur­round­ing the police with their neigh­bors alongside col­lege stu­dents.

What­ever the com­po­si­tion of the police, they remain an index of the state’s expe­ri­ence of protest. Remem­ber the wise words of William S. Bur­roughs: “a func­tion­ing police state needs no police.” The Wall Street occu­pa­tion was taken far more seri­ously when the pep­per spray came out; even more when 700 were arrested on the Brook­lyn Bridge. The acts of vio­lence per­pe­trated by police have served as indi­ca­tion that the protest is a threat to the state’s func­tion­ing. Deter­min­ing the next steps will require care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion, and lead­er­ship by peo­ple of color, who have the most expe­ri­ence deal­ing with police vio­lence.

The Roof is on Fire

Some squea­mish left-lib­er­als com­plain that the Occupy move­ment lacks orga­ni­za­tion. This is obvi­ously ridicu­lous. How can the sim­ple occu­pa­tion of a park spon­ta­neously ignite sim­i­lar occu­pa­tions in well over 50 Amer­i­can cities, incite a global protest in nearly 900 cities across the globe, and suc­cess­fully link together a series of het­ero­ge­neous strug­gles with­out any form of orga­ni­za­tion? The Occupy move­ment is per­haps one of the most orga­nized move­ments in his­tory.

An accom­pa­ny­ing com­plaint is that the occu­pa­tions have not put forth demands. But it’s not at all clear that demands are a suf­fi­cient con­di­tion for social trans­for­ma­tion. To a cer­tain extent, as we wrote about the Lon­don riots, the refusal to make demands is a protest against the idea that the exist­ing order could make our lives bet­ter, a refusal to speak in capital’s lan­guage. At the same time, the absence of “offi­cial,” insti­tu­tional demands coex­ists with an incred­i­ble mul­ti­plic­ity of demands made by indi­vid­ual pro­test­ers, as the list of griev­ances in the first offi­cial state­ment indi­cates.

The impor­tant ques­tion is whether this orga­ni­za­tion is durable, and whether the movement’s demands put the social struc­ture into ques­tion. No spon­ta­neous col­lec­tiv­ity could come together with­out at least an abstract set of com­mon demands, and it would be unable repro­duce itself with­out some kind of orga­ni­za­tional form. But can these forms rad­i­cal­ize the demands so that they are ori­ented towards the trans­for­ma­tion of the social real­ity out­side of them?

The mean­ing and polit­i­cal effect of demands will depend ulti­mately on the orga­ni­za­tional struc­ture that makes them. It’s pos­si­ble, for exam­ple, that even a highly desir­able demand, like free health­care, could be posed by a fac­tion of the pro­tes­tors who will make it pos­si­ble to dis­solve the move­ment into the Demo­c­ra­tic Party. But this dynamic could just as eas­ily work in the other direc­tion. Take, for exam­ple, this poster pro­duced by the Ital­ian rev­o­lu­tion­ary group Potere Operaio (Work­ers’ Power).

The text reads, “Reforms don’t pro­tect wages from ris­ing prices, from the rob­bery of deduc­tions. Com­rades, let’s take the offen­sive for our objec­tives. Trans­porta­tion, rent, school, meals – free. No taxes.” The police fig­ure wields the scale like a baton, show­ing how the deduc­tions out­weigh the wage. The base of the fig­ure is labelled: “par­ties – bosses – unions.”

The analy­sis offered by these demands is clear. Like debt today, the prices of daily neces­si­ties is a deduc­tion from the wage, a wage which already rep­re­sents exploita­tion. But the Amer­i­can reader will find two things very strange about this poster. The first is the idea of com­mu­nist par­ties and bosses in alliance with unions; while Italy in the 1960s and 1970s had large and pow­er­ful bureau­cratic unions and a reformist com­mu­nist party, we have no influ­en­tial left par­ties and our unions have barely any social power. Where it says “par­ties – bosses – unions,” we should write “lib­er­als.”

The other puz­zle is the final demand: “no taxes.” Isn’t this the core plat­form of the right, of free-mar­ket extrem­ists? It is, of course, but this demand is a plat­form of the right because it is embed­ded in class, in the orga­nized struc­ture of the rul­ing class. No taxes for whom? The cap­i­tal­ist class tries to escape from taxes, to con­tinue to redis­trib­ute wealth towards the top, and to give the state an excuse to dis­man­tle the social gains made by labor. But if the cap­i­tal­ist class was sub­jected to a tax that even began to approach the per­cent­age it expro­pri­ates from work­ers, this would ren­der taxes on work­ers obso­lete.

Since the tax is expe­ri­enced by work­ers as yet another deduc­tion from the wage, while the pub­lic pro­grams that ben­e­fit them are on the chop­ping block, it seems unnec­es­sary to allow the right to monop­o­lize the attack on taxes. If an anti-tax plat­form is put for­ward by work­ers as a class, it rep­re­sents a pro­gram of elim­i­nat­ing one deduc­tion from the wage while charg­ing cap­i­tal­ists for the main­te­nance of the state. The demand to tax the rich is, of course, accepted by many left-lib­er­als. While it’s def­i­nitely a good idea to charge the cap­i­tal­ists, tax­ing the rich as the max­i­mum pro­gram sets us up for social devel­op­ment by the state. The occu­pa­tion move­ment gives us the poten­tial to inde­pen­dently develop the class.

Other demands may be more appro­pri­ate for our sit­u­a­tion. But they will have to be put for­ward by an orga­ni­za­tional struc­ture that rep­re­sents a uni­tary class power. And the con­struc­tion of such a form of orga­ni­za­tion will have to emerge from strate­gies of action that pro­duce class sol­i­dar­ity.

A con­crete exam­ple of this kind of strat­egy took place in La Puente, Cal­i­for­nia. Rose Gudiel, who was about to be evicted from her fore­closed home, dis­cussed her sit­u­a­tion at Occupy LA. Her seem­ingly per­sonal story turned out to be a social one; oth­ers there had suf­fered a sim­i­lar fate. Many of the occu­piers fol­lowed her back to her home in sup­port. A few days later over two hun­dred joined her as she protested in front of the man­sion of OneWest’s CEO; the next day they staged a sit-in at the Pasadena branch of Fan­nie Mae. Faced with such wide­spread oppo­si­tion the bank gave in and decided to mod­ify her loan.

This was a strat­egy, how­ever spon­ta­neous, that united par­tic­i­pants in the move­ment who were hit by fore­clo­sures. It pro­vided a con­cep­tual lan­guage in which indi­vid­u­als began to rec­og­nize that their own prob­lems are closely related to other seem­ingly dis­tinct prob­lems. Not every­one who sup­ported Gudiel was fac­ing evic­tion; they joined her in part because they rec­og­nized that their own dif­fi­cul­ties – unem­ploy­ment, debt, ris­ing cost of liv­ing – were con­nected to hers. The woman who loses her home is not so dif­fer­ent from the neigh­bor that lost his job.  The power of this strat­egy emerged from a unique kind of sol­i­dar­ity. For the banks to fight Guidel, they had to fight the whole move­ment.

A fore­closed home is an inter­est­ing site for an occu­pa­tion. Among the many dif­fer­ences between a house and Zuc­cotti Park is the fact that a house has a roof. And this brings us back to the weather. Everybody’s talk­ing about it; every­body knows that win­ter will force the move­ment to rethink its tac­tics. This is the pol­i­tics of weather: it’s not some neu­tral phe­nom­e­non, but a weapon like any other. We will have to use it to our advan­tage before cap­i­tal enlists it to crush our move­ment.

This won’t be the first time weather has fig­ured promi­nently in a strug­gle. A reform ban­quet was sched­uled by the mod­er­ate oppo­si­tion to take place in Paris on Feb­ru­ary 22, 1848. Fear­ing an esca­la­tion of the already exist­ing con­flict, hop­ing to break the sol­i­dar­ity of the oppo­si­tion, and know­ing full well that the dis­trict where the meet­ing was to be held was a real hotbed of rev­o­lu­tion­ary activ­ity, the forces of order can­celled the ban­quet the night before, undoubt­edly hop­ing that the week’s hor­ri­ble weather would work to keep the demon­stra­tors away.

But despite the heavy clouds, cold wind, and bit­ing rain, the pro­test­ers took to the streets any­way, enraged by this provo­ca­tion, and quickly set about build­ing bar­ri­cades, loot­ing gun shops, and throw­ing stones at the National Guard. While order was restored in some of the more pub­lic places, the demon­stra­tors strate­gi­cally regrouped in their labyrinthine neigh­bor­hoods. Already a chal­lenge for the army, the wind­ing streets, tor­tu­ous alley­ways, and bewil­der­ing ter­rain became even more dan­ger­ous to out­siders now that it was pour­ing rain. So the forces of order hoped to use the weather to dis­suade pro­test­ers from com­ing out; the pro­test­ers ended up strate­gi­cally using the weather to bol­ster their pri­mary points of resis­tance and esca­late the strug­gle. So began the rev­o­lu­tion of 1848 in France.

We can also use the weather to our advan­tage. The forces of order are hop­ing that win­ter will kill off the move­ment by forc­ing us to retreat back to our homes. We should do just that. We should strate­gi­cally regroup by reoc­cu­py­ing fore­closed homes, squat­ting aban­doned apart­ments, occu­py­ing var­i­ous other build­ings, trans­form­ing each and every one of these into the cells of an esca­lat­ing move­ment. From the occu­pa­tion of a pub­lic park we can shift towards reoc­cu­py­ing those spaces from which we have been forcibly ejected by mount­ing debt, unem­ploy­ment, aus­ter­ity mea­sures, and cuts to social ser­vices. We can take back the pub­lic libraries, schools, lost homes, com­mu­nity cen­ters, and more. The point is to con­stantly think of cre­ative ways to use the weapons of our ene­mies against them. Let’s start with the barom­e­ters.

Authors of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint, a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz, and an activist in UAW 2865.

is an editor of Viewpoint and a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania.