Taking Stock of 2012
2012 was the year that the class-oriented political rhetoric introduced by Occupy Wall Street (OWS) percolated throughout American society, affecting both the election and social struggles. This was so even as Occupy itself was in a downward spiral for much of the year.
Although the Occupy encampments had mostly been repressed by the beginning of December 2011, hopes for the movement remained high into the new year. In March, at the Left Forum in New York City, Michael Moore laid out an ambitious vision of Occupy expanding to every neighborhood in the United States. It seemed reasonable enough. But a hint of the real limits of the movement came later that night. After his speech, Moore led Left Forum participants on a march to Zucotti Park, home of OWS, just a couple blocks away. It was the six month anniversary of the movement. The mood was festive and relaxed. Some people hung around past the midnight, the official closing time of the park. Immediately the cops swarmed in, aggressively attacking demonstrators, as they had repeatedly in the past at any sign that the encampment might restart. And as had been the case in the past, notwithstanding the considerable good will harbored towards the movement by many in NYC, no organized force such as the unions or nonprofits mobilized to directly challenge the repression. The sole exception, as far as I know, was the Maoist political group, the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). The RCP, however, is incapable of mobilizing people beyond its small membership.
The remnants of OWS increasingly seemed to take a confrontational approach towards the police that further isolated them from the broad penumbra of support that had earlier helped catapult OWS to global fame. May Day protests in some places, including NYC, brought back memories of the glory days, but the momentum was not sustained. The same can be said about the protests against NATO in Chicago. Hard to believe, in retrospect, that some observers were fearful of a replay of 1968 in Chicago, when antagonism between protesters and cops overshadowed the Democratic convention. The NATO protests, while not unimpressive, hardly registered in the American public debate.
Instead new struggles came to define 2012, all profoundly marked by the spirit of rebellion so apparent during the heyday of Occupy. Some people predicted that more traditional social justice organizations would pick up the ball that OWS was fumbling. A coalition of such groups, “the 99% spring,” including many important unions and non-profits, was soon rolled out, with plans to train thousands in nonviolent direct action tactics. A vigorous debate ensued about whether this constituted co-optation of OWS or the taking of the movement to a higher level. This debate quickly subsided when the wan impact of the 99% spring became clear. A few protests were held at board meetings of major corporations and such. Little happened beyond that. The 99% spring renamed itself “99% power.” At this writing, the 99% power website does not appear to have been updated since May 31, suggesting that the concept has been quietly abandoned.
About the same time, the presidential election began to move to the fore in earnest, sucking a certain amount of energy away from the streets. Whereas in 2008 Barack Obama had tapped into deep wellsprings of hope and anger, in 2012 the mood on the left was glum. The Republican primary season offered a march of idiots, before Mitt Romney was able to overwhelm the field with money. Obama himself was something of a no-show for his reelection campaign. His most memorable moment was the first debate, when his bored and disconnected manner offered an opening for Romney. It was instead Bill Clinton, at the convention, and Joe Biden, during the vice presidential debate, who offered rousing defenses of centrist communitarianism that energized the liberal base. Much of the left, fed up with four years of drone strikes, negotiated cave-ins, deterioriation of civil liberties, and other disappointments too numerous to mention, heaped venom on the whole spectacle. Those of us who suggested voting for Obama as the lesser of two evils found ourselves on the defensive as appeals to vote third party or skip voting altogether seemed more popular, particularly among younger people on the left.
And yet, the election did not feel entirely meaningless after all. One important hint was Mitt Romney’s notorious 47% speech, where he framed the electoral contest as one between the wealthier half of the country, which pays federal income tax, and the bottom half, which mostly does not, and, in his view, is excessively dependent on government programs, notwithstanding that any serious accounting of government spending finds the top 53% receive more concrete benefits than the bottom half. A similar hint was offered in a column by Roger Cohen of the New York Times, who encountered a “startling vehemence” in opposition to Obama among businessmen of Cleveland and Chicago. Exit polls indicated that the election did in fact have a strong class basis. Obama won a large majority of those voters in households making $50,000 or less, and lost all other economic brackets, although the Democrats are also popular with people with advanced degrees, an important affluent sector. Racial minorities, Blacks and Latinos but also Asians, who historically have a much weaker connection to the Democratic Party, voted for Obama in large numbers. Notwithstanding its racist overtones, Bill O’Reilly captured something of the implications of the election results in his notorious statement: “It’s a changing country, the demographics are changing. It’s not a traditional America anymore. And there are 50 percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama. He knows it. And he ran on it.” Where O’Reilly is wrong is in his belief that Obama is going to deliver many of the “things” these voters want, such as jobs or affordable health care. Obama instead almost immediately began devising cuts to social security as part of the fiscal cliff negotiations. Nevertheless, the right probably should view the emergent class-based, minority-friendly electoral majority with alarm. Never in recent history have appeals based on racial scaremongering and social issues seemed so impotent. Already, the electoral debacle has thrown Republican obstructionism on immigration reform into question.
Meanwhile, the various calls to vote third party or boycott the vote made little obvious impact. Jill Stein of the Green Party, the most prominent left third party candidate, barely surpassed a tenth of Ralph Nader’s vote share from 2000, straggling in with .3%. Voter turnout was low, but this appeared to have more to do with disillusionment with the elections during a stagnant economy than any calls for a boycott. Furthermore, large numbers of Blacks and Latinos, who, one hopes, the left would like to see in its coalitions, made the effort to vote in defiance of voter suppression tactics promoted by Republicans at the state level. The most notable electoral strategy of the left outside of the Democratic Party was not at the national level but in a Seattle District for a Washington State Senate seat. There, economics professor Kshama Sawant, running as a socialist, lost with an impressive 27% of the vote. Third party advocates may want to consider zeroing in on vulnerable local races as places to begin to build power and insert alternate discourses into American life.
Although, as indicated above, the presidential election drew some of the mental energy of the left and its sympathizers, and Occupy mostly was in decline, new fronts of struggle opened up. Perhaps the most important of these developments was the upsurge in strike activity, somewhat anticipated by us last year. Most notable of these was the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) strike in September, and the strikes of Walmart workers, both in stores and on the supply chain, mostly during the fall. Both of these have immense implications, far beyond the number of workers involved, which, in the case of Walmart, was fairly modest. Schools have been the central terrain of attacks on the public sphere, and the last thirty years, if not longer, have been characterized by efforts to set racial minorities against teachers’ unions. Yet the CTU, under the new leadership of Karen Lewis (itself the product of an activist reform caucus), was able to rally a large majority of Black and Latino families to its cause. It will take many more strikes and related activities to reverse the ugly trajectory of charter schools, standardized testing mania, and the degradation of the teaching profession, but this was an important start. Inspired by the CTU, reform caucuses in teachers’ unions throughout the country are stepping up their activity.
Over the long term, the Walmart strikes may be even more significant. Walmart is pretty much the largest employer in the U.S., and it has effectively immunized itself against previous union campaigns. But the new wave of strike activity has thrown it on the defensive. Strikes at warehouses and ports demonstrated the vulnerabilities that “just-in-time” production creates. A national day of action on Black Friday saw widespread participation by Occupy groups and other community supporters. Not long after, hundreds of fast food workers in New York City struck, opening another front in a sector that was seemingly off limits to unions as of last year. These campaigns were organized by unions, by community groups with close ties to unions, and by workers acting spontaneously. But the context for the growing audacity was the Occupy earthquake last year. More than at any time in decades, strike activity is involving workers not formally members of unions. This burst of energy was not confined to the CTU or Walmart and other retail workers. There was also the Hot and Crusty struggle, the Palermo’s Pizza boycott, strikes at ports, and more.
At the same time, the unions have not crafted an effective strategy against the Republican drive to push through right-to-work and anti-collective bargaining legislation at the state level. At the beginning of the year, a rousing effort by unions in Indiana to “Occupy the Superbowl” was scaled back as the leadership got cold feet. In the summer, the failure of the recall vote of Scott Walker marked an ignominious turn in the Wisconsin struggle. At the end of the year, Michigan demonstrated that the unions and their allies have still not crafted an effective response to “surprise” attacks by Republican legislators. An increasingly stark choice is taking shape–either unions will have to develop some more effective strategy to challenge these attacks, or workers will struggle under a context in which U.S. labor law has been further defanged. It is hard to see how such a strategy can be crafted without getting at least a little space from their supposed allies in the Democratic Party, even as the logic of the Republicans’ attacks is pushing the unions even further into the hands of the Democrats.
Class-based struggles of the thirties were accompanied by a revival in struggles against racism, eventually leading to the modern civil rights movement. Similarly, today we are seeing a renewal of these struggles, now often targeting issues of criminal justice and referencing the concept of “the New Jim Crow.” This years’ protests around the murder of Trayvon Martin marked an escalation from last years’ around the unjust execution of Troy Davis. In the summer, civil rights groups with the support of some unions held a “silent march” (apparently an effort to marginalize the unruly Occupy element) against the stop-and-frisk tactics of the New York Police. Numerous events were held around the country in which the families of the victims of police violence spoke up. In the poorest neighborhoods, something more radical is afoot. Those most victimized by such policies as stop-and-frisk and mass incarceration are also a large portion of fast food workers, suggesting the sorts of alliances that might open up as these struggles intensify.
Challenging housing evictions was on the agenda of OWS pretty much from the start. But this year, the struggle became more concrete. Struggles like that around the Cruz family in Minneapolis and the Hernandez family in Los Angeles inspired activists nationwide. An Occupy Our Homes day of action in December took things to a higher level, but not quite to a level where the media or politicians paid much attention. Expect these struggles to continue to grow over the next year or two.
Finally, a little after the one year anniversary of Occupy, OWS showed new signs of life, in two forms–the Rolling Jubilee #Strikedebt movement, and Occupy Sandy. The Rolling Jubilee, which purchases personal debt in secondary markets and retires it, has been subject to withering critique in some quarters of the left. One of the major criticisms, that it involves so little money that its effects are largely symbolic, strikes me as misguided. The two greatest direct action campaigns in the history of the U.S.–defiance of the fugitive slave act by abolitionists, and draft resistance during the sixties–were also largely symbolic. For the most part, the fugitive slave act was still enforced, and the military never lost the capacity to restock the forces in Vietnam. Nevertheless, both of these movements greatly intensified debate and sharpened positions. Resistance to debt at a symbolic level, rather than people actually defaulting en masse, is what is likely to shift the debate at this point. A bigger question is whether Rolling Jubilee will be that mechanism. Much of the debt being purchased, at prices set by the banks, is fraudulent. Is it just legitimizing this fraud-ridden secondary market? Furthermore, it is not clear what the next step proposed by the Strike Debt group is, apart from vague calls to continue to resist debt. Still, if this activity does gain some ballast, it will not be the first time in recent memory in the U.S. that an action tarred by the far left as insufficiently radical actually made an impact. Similar critiques were popular as Occupy Wall Street was beginning.
The other initiative that thrust Occupy back into the spotlight was Occupy Sandy, the response to the “Frankenstorm” that hit New Jersey and New York hard. Racing into the breach formed by a failed state response to a “natural” disaster has a long and honorable pedigree among movements, as those familiar with the history of Mexico and Nicaragua know. The immense volunteer efforts associated with Occupy Sandy were simultaneously a depoliticized campaign which built good will for the movement and highlighted the ineffectiveness of the government response and positioning for the more explicitly political struggles ahead regarding rebuilding and construction of needed infrastructure.
This year saw mounting struggles in workplaces, in neighborhoods, against “the New Jim Crow,” around storm relief. An electoral contest between two neoliberals nevertheless produced a result with obvious class overtones. We have not even given due consideration to the reemergence of protests around reproductive rights, at this point mostly focused on the venality and stupidity of various Republican legislative acts at the state level. In fact, the prominence of women in most of the major labor struggles of 2012, as well as the eviction movement, Occupy Sandy, and the post-Newtown revival of calls for gun control, is worth reflecting on. By contrast, in its heyday, Occupy struck many observers as male-dominated. Over the next few years, these struggles are likely to ascend to more intense levels. The question of how to pull them together into a coherent political project will require serious thinking and work.
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