Battle for the Heart of the Occupy Movement

Center for a Stateless Society Media Coordinator Tom Knapp, summarizing his experience with the Occupy St. Louis movement, reported a movement “with an ideological center of gravity somewhere in the neighborhood of ‘mild reform Democrat.'”  Most of the people there, apparently, were basically Coffee Party people with better signs and slogans.

They’re probably not representative of the nationwide Occupy Together movement — the vibe coming from Occupy Wall Street, at least, is a lot more like Seattle. But there really is a contradiction in the movement between those who see it as part of a larger process of creating a new kind of society, and those who see it primarily as a source of pressure on the state to revive the New Deal or Social Democratic model.

Doug Henwood of the Left Business Observer recently described the agenda — “Jobs for All” — unanimously approved by the OWS Demands Working Group (LBO News, October 20). “The anarchists are not happy about this,” he writes, “and are trying to block its adoption by the General Assembly.”

Henwood makes no bones about his support for the agenda, encouraging readers who agree with him to make their support felt. As for those who don’t like it, “please reflect on the size of the potential constituency for this agenda compared with that for your own.”

Among the expedients for “creating jobs” is a massive project to “rebuild infrastructure” — an approach well-loved by the Michael Moore “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party, but fundamentally antagonistic to the portion of the movement with a more or less anarchistic vision of a post-corporate alternative economy.

The “Jobs for All” agenda is essentially a return to a greenwashed version of the centralized corporate-state Consensus Capitalism of the mid-20th century. That model relied on massive waste and capital investment boondoggles by the state to guarantee full utilization of capacity and full employment — the very pathologies of corporate capitalism that the folks at Monthly Review have been pointing to for years. Just leave the centralized, capital-intensive, bureaucratic structure of Galbraithian capitalism intact, and then let the state build a new (but greenwashed!) Interstate Highway System every ten years to keep it running at capacity.  Then everybody can work forty hours a week at a “job” doing things at least half of which are the moral equivalent of digging holes and filling them back in again, in an economy organized by Rube Goldberg. It’s the world depicted in the movie “Brazil.”

In other words, we’ve got a bunch of “Leftists” who are nostalgic for retro capitalism.

It was subsidized infrastructure, as much as anything — starting with the railroad land grants of the 19th century — that was responsible for the pathological model of 20th century corporate capitalism: A system based on overaccumulation, capital intensiveness and high overhead, with the imperative of using subsidized waste, planned obsolescence and mass consumption to fully utilize capacity and keep the wheels turning. The mass production model itself — a model enabled by an activist state in alliance with big business — was inseparable from all the dysfunctional aspects of postwar corporate capitalism.

Those “roads and bridges?” The Interstate — created under the supervision of that great “progressive” Charlie Wilson, who said what’s good for GM is good for America — gave us suburban sprawl and enabled Wal-Mart’s big box/warehouses on wheels model to destroy Main Street.

There’s simply no way, in an economy with efficiently organized production, to employ 150 million people for 40 hours a week. Far better would be to eliminate all the subsidized waste, relocalize manufacturing with lean supply and distribution chains, adopt less capital-intensive and more flexible manufacturing processes, and adopt product designs for modularity, durability and ease of repair. The next steps would be to:

1) Eliminate the artificial property rights that are sources of rents, and allow market competition to flush out the embedded rents in the prices of goods and services, so that all the cost savings are transferred to the consumer;

2) Eliminate barriers to the shift of production from wage labor to the informal/household sector and to self-employment, wherever possible (and technological change is making it more efficient in a radically expanding portion of total production); and

3) Allow whatever wage labor remains to be evenly distributed through a shorter work week and job-sharing.

There’s a fundamental divide between those who want the state to prop up Corporate America in the interest of creating “jobs,” and those who want to kill off the whole job culture, the economic model by which we meet our needs through working at jobs provided by giant, hierarchical institutions.

In my opinion there’s no contest between them. As they said in the French General Strike forty years ago: “Be realistic: Demand the impossible.”

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