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Discussion: Left critiques of Occupy Wall Street -- How did I get here? By know-it-all subtraction?

Occupy Wall Street. Photo from Solidarity.

This article first appeared at the Kasama Project website under the title, "Occupy critiques: How did I get here? By know-it-all subtraction?". It is a response to sections of the US left on the Occupy Wall Street movement that has sprung up across the United States, and is inspiring similar initiatives in other parts of the world. It is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with Mike Ely's permission in the interests of discussion. Comments are welcome.

[For more on Occupy Wall Street, click HERE.]

* * *

By Mike Ely

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house,
with a beautiful
And you may ask yourself,
Well…How did I get here?!

Talking Heads

>> Warning: This is a rant out of love. <<

October 4, 2011 -- There is a method swirling around: Where people look at this new moment, this new development … and they scan it like a static structure, and they compare it to their own previous beliefs and practices. Eureka! I know what’s wrong! Suddenly they express alarm, or dismay, or deep worry, that things are not being done right, by the rules (which have accumulated in the old leftist closet for decades).

By a simple process of subtraction, they come up with a subset of “what is missing” from this new movement. And they quickly assign themselves to be the critics or patronising instructors of “what is missing.”

In short: it has been a very short leap (in conservative leftist thinking) from “This movement is bullshit and will go nowhere” to “This movement is ok, but I know what it needs.” In fact, you knew it all along, right?

I see that in the encampment of Occupy Chicago, i read it in a dozen discussion.  And you see it too.

How should we appreciate and approach novelty?

First of all: things are not what they seem. You have to examine something in its dynamic motion … not by linear subtraction.

Second, things are not repeats of the past. Things may look similar to something you saw or experienced, but a decade later (or five minutes later) it may not have the same meaning. And so your previous summations, verdicts and correctives may be utterly out of space and time.

Third, there is a need for a bit of humility — and an easing of that “know it all” assumption (that we are conscious, they are objective, we know, they need to listen, and so on.) Let’s face it, most leftist groups over decades have not done that well — isn’t it a bit naive to think that the solution is to foist your special preconceptions on the next mass movement?

Isn’t some dynamic study, appreciation, learning and even transformation required?

This movement (any movement) has weaknesses — and may have fatal flaws. We need to help identify and transform those things. SKS posed (in an interesting and well-researched discussion) the fact that if you don’t have leaders and structures, then the “white shirts” of the oppressor are quite willing to be your leaders … and you will have trouble developing direction.

All true. But then, if we identify a problem (say we spotted from a million miles away) how do we address it? What is the process (unity-struggle-transformation) look like in the real world?

The old eyes of even young activists — a matter of bad training

One of the problems with fixed conceptions is that people tend to see the new through the eyes of the old.

But even things that seem similar to what a previous generation experienced (the ever-heavy shadow of the 1960s), it may not ACTUALLY have that meaning in a new time.

Understanding requires fresh, flexible and ongoing investigation and summation. Real work. And dogmatism is lazy. In addition,  frankly, it requires a kind of scientific humility that the previous left rarely considered (theoretically, ideologically or practically).

A NEW situation isn’t just a replay of old situations. Life is not on recycle and rinse. You can’t just show up and run old tapes — even if you have been trained on old tapes. It takes a process of communist work to even understand the dynamics and lay of the land.

We (here on Kasama) have talked for a long time about expecting ruptures, about understanding how to prepare ourselves to be flexible in the event, how to look for “our Mississippi”, how to expect fracture lines to produce eruptions and stir people (as opposed to thinking that social movements are mainly generated by the grind of “slow patient work” by activists).

All of this is now in play.

And it is a good time to revisit the corrective that: the people (in their large numbers and movement) are the real heroes, while we ourselves are often childish and ignorant. Without this understanding, it is impossible to acquire even the most rudimentary knowledge.

These words (part of our communist legacy) are not a prescription for tailing or romanticising or accepting serious flaws in the real.

These words (and this approach) are a precondition for actually learning — just as learning is a precondition for actually influencing and leading. Better to be students (of reality and others) first — especially in a novel situation — than “swing into action” with knee-jerk and exhausted assumptions.

I saw one comment (a sincere, interesting and thought-provoking comment!) on Kasama about how the occupations need the theory of “transitional demands” — the one Trotsky stressed in the mid 1930s. It is 70 or 80 years later … how has it been working for you? Is that really a starting point/brainstorm today?

OMG, this violates our rules!

A dear friend of mine wrote (musing on Facebook) an honest question:

“Can you recall another movement in the past that was essentially demand-less like this one? That’s not a diss either, I just find the whole thing fascinating.”

Fair question. And I apologise here, publicly, for the harshness of my reply at the time.

But let’s ask:
What does it mean that this gets posed? (And not just once, or by one person!)

It kinda had me blinking and sputtering.

  • I saw a hundred rebellions in the US without demands. The LA rebellion … what was its demand?
  • The peasant uprising in Hunan 1927?
  • May 1968 Paris?
  • The May 14th Movement in China?
  • What was the demand of the underground railroad before the Civil War?
  • What demand did John Brown make? (In Kansas I think it was “Uh, die muthafucker.”)
  • What was the demand of the Sanctuary Movement during the El Salvador war?
  • What was the demand of the resistance to the Nazis in France, or Italy, or occupied Soviet Union?

We will need demands at key times (and need slogans at others) ... I’m not against this movement having demands. But still ... what is the content of the approach taken by many?

Lots of moments HAVE and NEED demands (“Stop the war” or “Free Mumia” etc.) Sometimes we are demanding concessions and retreats by the ruling class (“Free all political prisoners!”). And we are not wanting to make unwinnable demands(!) in such cases, but we intend to win them! (And sometimes do win them.)

But what does it say that often some of our active folks can only conceive of our movements in relation to demands on the ruling class (which is a posture that ultimately assumes their power and even on some level concedes some legitimacy). Mesmerised by the permanence of power, much?

It is worth thinking about why THE PIG MEDIA keeps demanding demands — what are they wanting (or, ironically, demanding!)? What will they do with all of this if they get specific demands? How are they influencing thinking by constantly complaining about the lack of demands? (I saw a report on the PBS News Hour that said they expected demands soon from Occupy — including higher taxes — Talk about trying to force us onto THEIR terrain!)

This emerging movement avoided some tidy list of demands — and has channeled a deeper mood of discontent that has not yet found itself a program. Is that wrong? Perhaps we could learn something here that the routinised and creaking left has forgotten.

I think this movement needs a set of critical voices (internally) — and it obviously has them. And I think we need to forge an attractive pole that speaks to (and helps creatively articulate for) the most radical anti-system currents within the movement, and (within that and alongside that) we need our own communist voice (shocking, open, searing, far sighted).

The need to ORIENT ourselves

So I am (again) not arguing for tailing and romanticising.

But I do think (with all respect and love) the “criticisms” of most of the left are uninformed and conservative. And subtractive in a know-it-all way. And further, that there is a naive sense that “we” somehow “know” what is needed. Without work? Without real investigation? Without being in the tissue of this generation and its active debates?

Let’s give ourselves a reality check (and I include myself): Why is the novel treated as “strange” by so many leftists? What is the mindset?

People are really almost surprised that new things emerge ... when that is what we should be poised to expect and learn from. People seem unable to “swing into action” to orient ourselves in a new situation.

That is what we need to do: orient ourselves, through investigation and study and practice — in order to apply a mass line, and actually contribute. In the absense of such work and orientation, we will speak without helping. We will lecture without knowing (while, of course, thinking we know what they need).

Let me give a self-critical example:

The moment I had the OWS broadsheet in my hands, I read the Declaration of Occupation — a list of grievances. And I (scanning it as a fixed thing) quickly noticed what was on their list and what (in the laundry list of my mind) was missing. (“Nothing on immigrants, check. Nothing much on war and empire, check.”) So, BANG, insta-criticism! What more do we need to know? There are GAPS(!) in their texts (produced under difficult conditions by friggin' consensus rules!). And “we” know what needs to fill them.

What is wrong with that method? What would it lead to?

I am not saying that an tinge of US nationalism is not something to note. I’m obviously not saying that questions of war and empire are not important. I’m not saying that excluding the undocumented from this movement would not be a problem. I’m not saying we don’t have a role in moving things on such matters.

But I am raising what is our method, and how does our role emerge, and how do we imagine participating in the maturing and deepening of a process. (And of course within a day or so, the Occupy Boston had published something discussing immigrants … and so the discussion rolls.)

Really people should be a bit more humble, open minded, dialectical, patient, generous and aware of the novelty of things. Not give up critical faculties and tail this … but geez. It is one long crab fest by the veterans of the left’s previous epic fail. Mao mocks those who think they can “pull on a sprout to make it grow”. Yes it has weaknesses, yes it needs to mature and transform, yes we know somethings that can contribute. But what is our method?

I want to call out in passing two things I have heard:

One is the idea of taking over organisationally. Someone (not from Kasama) discussed getting key people into key positions, etc. It is important to pay attention to who controls key positions in an organised movement … sure. But as a method we need to lead by line (by having an articulate and open political pole) and not mainly by organisational methods.

The other is being “the best fighter in the day to day” — the assumption that we arrive and become the best footsoldier of whatever is — with the assumption that the respect gained by dilligence will translate (someday) into political influence. This method does not work.

I want to propose two things are taken to heart: One is the mass line (which we have discussed on Kasama here and here. The other is the concept of “leading through line.”

And I will leave it there.

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