By Ajamu Nangwaya
People protest during the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ rally in New York, 17 September, 2011. Photograph: Steven Greaves/Demotix/Corbis
What is it about the term ‘capitalism’ that inspires many of us to not call its name in vain and in the public square? Why is it that many of us will openly and forcefully critique ‘classism’ but enthusiastically shy away from condemning capitalism in the same way? After all, we do publicly name and slam racism, homophobia or heterosexism, ageism, patriarchy or sexism and ableism. How effective will we be in organising and rallying the oppressed against economic exploitation without naming the system that is brutalising the majority?
It is rather telling that Occupy Wall Street’s (OWS) first public document studiously refrained from explicitly naming the system that is the source of economic exploitation and domination:
‘As we gather together in solidarity to express a feeling of mass injustice, we must not lose sight of what brought us together. We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies.’
Some of the oppressive facts of the economic system outlined in Occupy Wall Street’s Declaration of the Occupation of New York City can be reformed, in the eyes of many people, without destroying capitalism. Therefore, most participants and supporters of the Occupy Movement did not see their embrace of its ‘We are the 99%’ slogan as an indictment of capitalism:
‘…the results of our 453 interviews at seven Occupy locations indicate that OWS movement demands are not mutually incompatible with capitalism. Moreover, for the most part, the OWS movement is neither calling for abolishing capitalism, nor is it demanding a massive overhaul of capitalism as an economic system — less than 5% of all the respondents we interviewed in the seven Occupy locations made any reference to ending, abolishing or getting rid of capitalism. Instead, the key demands we kept hearing in this regard are: elimination of corporate personhood; the need for campaign finance reform and getting money out of politics.’
There were other voices early on in the movement who realized that many supporters of this protest movement had no grievance with capitalism, but were upset with ‘corporate greed’ or the excesses of the ‘corporate forces.’ Ha-Joon Chang, an open supporter of capitalism had this to say about the London occupiers, ‘It is routinely described as anti-capitalist, but this label is highly misleading. As I found out when I gave a lecture at its Tent City University last weekend, many of its participants are not against capitalism. They just want it better regulated so that it benefits the greatest possible majority.’ William Bowles noted Occupy Wall Street’s focus on ‘capitalist criminals rather than criminal capitalism’ as well as the general avoidance of mentioning ‘socialism’ ‘except from the tiny Left contribution itself.’
The tenuous claim or perception of the Occupy Movement being ideologically committed to placing capitalism in the dustbin of history was promoted by many media outlets. On the international front, the Occupy Movement was also seen as an entity with a strong anti-capitalist outlook. It is quite instructive that a movement whose spokespersons did not indict capitalism as the perpetrator or ‘person of interest’ in the economic suffering of the working-class was still seen as an anti-capitalist phenomenon. This state of affairs speaks to the ‘ideological deficiency’ or lack of understanding of the nature of capitalism that exist in society.
Based on the manner in which some political progressives frame their critique of capitalism, one could reasonably form the opinion that there are benign or redeeming forms of capitalism. Let’s make this clear, all forms of capitalism are unacceptable and revolting to justice, solidarity and equity.
There are moments when critics denounce ‘unfettered capitalism,’ ‘corporate capitalism,’ ‘crony capitalism,’ ‘finance or financial capitalism’ or ‘unregulated capitalism’ as the source of the current economic and social exploitation experienced by the masses or societies across the globe.
These erstwhile critics of capitalism are implicitly or unwittingly suggesting that capitalism is not the main problem. As such, the actual message being communicated to the people is that the derivative forms of this dog-eat-dog economic system are the real issues of concern to the people’s well-being.
Sam Gindin, former researcher director of the Canadian Auto Workers (now Unifor after a merger with the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada) and current adjunct professor, recently called attention to the above problem in his review of Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate:
‘Klein deserves enormous credit for putting capitalism in the dock. Yet she leaves too much wiggle room for capitalism to escape a definitive condemnation. There is already great confusion and division among social activists over what “anti-capitalism” means. For many if not most, it is not the capitalist system that is at issue but particular sub-categories of villains: big business, banks, foreign companies, multinationals.’
‘Klein is contradictory on this score. She seems clear enough in the analysis that pervades the book that it is capitalism, yet she repeatedly qualifies this position by decrying “the kind of capitalism we now have,” “neoliberal” capitalism, “deregulated” capitalism, “unfettered” capitalism, “predatory” capitalism, “extractive” capitalism, and so on. These adjectives undermine the powerful logic of Klein’s more convincing arguments elsewhere that the issue isn’t creating a better capitalism but confronting capitalism as a social system.’
Many individuals and organizations have taken the above pragmatic approach to critiquing capitalism, because we do not want to come across, in the eyes of the people and the ruling elite, as too radical, irresponsible or ‘ideological’. In the case of the Occupy Movement, the use of its widely popular slogan ‘We are the 99%’ pandered to the ruling-class’s ideological bill of goods that Europe and North America are predominantly middle-class regions with the working-class being a minority. The 99 per cent category feeds into the narrative of a largely middle-class population being confronted with greedy bosses and politicians who have deviated from the social and economic practices that defined the golden age (1945-1974) of the capitalist social welfare state.
With the capitalist ruling-class reduced to a mere 1 per cent of society and isolated as the spectre haunting the rest of us, the working-class and liberal petty bourgeoisie were not forced to confront and interrogate their own ideological support for capitalism. The ruling-class has imposed its economic and political ideologies onto the consciousness of the oppressed as natural, self-evident ways of seeing reality.
It is for the above reason 86 per cent of Americans could support the Occupy Movement’s position that lobbyists and the economic elite have too much influence in Washington, while 71 per cent of the people wanted the prosecution of business officials who caused the Great Recession, and 68 per cent of them desired the rich to pay more taxes without being opposed to capitalism.
The Occupy Movement unwittingly advocated class collaboration by including members of the ruling-class within its 99 per cent category. In 2012, it was reported that the 1 per cent pulled in a yearly average income of $717,000 while those outside of that income bracket generated $51,000. President Barack Obama is a member of the ruling-class but the combined 2012 income of he and Michelle Obama totaled $608,611. The employment income levels of the American Supreme Court justices, the Vice-President and members of Congress are below $300,000. Are we to believe that Obama, the Supreme Court judges and most of the politicians in Congress are members of the 99 per cent?
If we use net worth to determine inclusion within the 1 per cent, many members of capitalist ruling groups would find themselves within the 99 per cent. The 2010 average net worth of the 1 per cent stood at $16.4 million, while the median net worth of the members of the House of Representatives and the Senate came in at $1,008,767 in 2012. The Obamas’ net worth was estimated at $1.8 – $6.8 million in 2012. Some members of Congress are clearly within the top 1 per cent of wealthy Americans.
It is only an uncritical grasp of political economy or an underdeveloped class analysis that would put Barack Obama, the Supreme Court justices, all members of Congress and even many chief executive officers within the ranks of Fanon’s ‘wretched of the earth’. How is it possible for the political and economic foxes of American capitalism (ruling-class elements) to be placed in the same henhouse as the chickens (the 99%)? We do not need to wonder about the identity of the group that is going to end up as breakfast, lunch or dinner in such a Kumbaya-like scenario!
Many progressive individuals and organizations seek acceptance as credible voices or representatives of the people in their attempt to get a seat at the negotiation table of the oppressors. There are political actors who are infatuated with the common sense adage ‘You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.’ Therefore, they will not publicly name and confront capitalism as a system of class exploitation and economic oppression in the global North. It is foolhardy of individuals and organizations that want social change to crave the blessings of the forces of oppression by throwing ideological softballs at capitalism and other systems of domination.
The above path will only lead to collaboration, betrayal and the undermining of movements for social emancipation. It is fundamentally necessary to speak truth to power and the powerless, because it is needed in our organising, mobilising and educational work to end capitalist exploitation. Further, the agents of revolutionary transformation ought to play the long game, and not ponder to opportunism and pragmatic politics.
In many, if not most, social movement organisations, there is a tendency to give insufficient attention to the systematic ideological development of their members. In order to get around the low level of class analysis or understanding of capitalism, it is necessary to organise study groups to correct this area of ideological deficiency. Furthermore, the public education work that is carried out with and among socially dominated groups ought to develop creative ways to foster class consciousness, class solidarity and a sound understanding of capitalism.
The forces for social change ought to approach the process of revolutionary engagement with the oppressed with disciplined patience, robust ideological clarity and an infatuation with truth-telling. They must be clear in their understanding and articulation of the basic fact that capitalism is the problem as expressed below by the Black Left Unity Network (notwithstanding the reference to the 1%):
‘The Black left is fighting on all fronts against all forms of oppression. A central point of unity is that all of our struggles can advance only to the extent that we mount a full assault on the capitalist system. Capitalism is the basis for the 1% control of this society and the source of our misery.’
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