Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Most Annoying Legacy of Occupy Wall Street

One of the greatest successes of the “Occupy” movement was its refusal to outline a specific platform and to thereby unite a broad coalition of groups based on a single, shared socioeconomic concern: inequality. I have on numerous occasions expressed my frustration with the divisions engendered by the non-profitization of the progressive movement and the concomitant reformist strategy. People focus on specific issues that they attempt to grapple with via policy changes and other mundane maneuvers. I have maintained, in contrast, that the only way to effect real social change is to create a united front based on a common critique of the global capitalist system. In support of this position, I described the way in which other issues (regarding race, gender, sexuality, etc.) stem from this fundamental social problem.

So, good for “Occupy” for trying to build a movement around basic socioeconomic concerns. My main problem with “Occupy” relates to some of the rhetoric used by the movement (which I already critiqued somewhat in this blog). However, it seems like the most lasting bit of discourse preserved from “Occupy” is the 99%/1% model that they used to characterize socioeconomic relations. At first it just seemed refreshing that anyone could even acknowledge that inequality really exists in the United States. Ultimately, however, the concept has serious weaknesses and the continued use of this terminology is getting a little irritating.

The main flaw of the 99%/1% rhetoric is that it tacitly presumes income distribution to be the most important feature of socioeconomic conditions. From a Marxist perspective, income distribution is a secondary – or even tertiary – concern. Of top significance is the way in which society – including economic activity – is organized. In other words, one must look at the relations of production, not income distribution, if one wishes to get to the root of the problem. All of this amounts to the fact (which I have already noted) that “Occupy” is not a comprehensive, systemic critique of capitalism, but merely a frustration with one of the more troubling manifestations of capitalism. The fact that “Occupy” would eventually have to contend with is that it is not possible to change the income distribution within the confines of capitalism.

This is more than just a theoretical error. It is a strategic blunder. Income distribution is a quantitative and not a qualitative phenomenon. Or, to put it another way, the criticism is based only on the feeling that the current income distribution is too skewed. But then the question becomes: what is an acceptable level of inequality? Where do we draw the line? No one (not even me!) is prepared to argue that income distribution should be completely even, so protesters have put themselves in a position where they are ultimately just haggling over numbers. This awkward position opens them to either the false criticism that they do support complete homogeneity, or the ideological criticism that they are jealous or unappreciative of the contributions of the creative people who rise to the top. The concept of “fairness” is nebulous and no one is going to agree about it what it means in practice.

If “Occupy” had initiated a discussion about the way in which capitalism organizes production and other social relations, and how that results in extreme income inequality, among many other things, it is true that they may have been just as easily dismissed by those people who are too devoted to neoliberal ideology to seriously think about any of their own assumptions. Yet, at least they would be opening to discussion certain considerations that have always remained outside of public discourse – and maybe, by bringing those arguments to light, many people who do not have such blind loyalty to neoliberal ideology may start to question the whole thing: the system and its ideological justification. That would be the start of a real conversation.

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