Addressing the Divergence of Struggles

Last updated: 7/1/2020

Note: This essay is a work in progress.

Thesis: Communists have repeatedly either ignored or attempted to circumvent the issue of struggles of a non-exclusively proletarian nature. The question must extend beyond just class composition into one of the content of critique itself.


Following the decline of the USSR and the rise of the neoliberal “end of history”, the broader left began to find itself in an identity crisis of sorts. This is the type of crisis Derrida finds himself contending with when writing Specters of Marx:

Today, almost a century and a half later, there are many who, throughout the world, seem just as worried by the specter of communism, just as convinced that what one is dealing with there is only a specter without body, without present reality,without actuality or effectivity, but this time it is supposed to be a past specter. It was only a specter, an illusion, a phantasm, or a ghost: that is what one hears everywhere today. (Derrida 1984, 47-48)

As for what “defines the left”, I've written on that before; the focus of this piece is to provide a response to the questions raised by one of Marxism's alleged “gravediggers”, the New Left.

On the other hand, there has emerged a growing body of leftist intellectual work which is highly critical of Marxism and often explicitly anti-Marxist., Two characteristics of these new critiques of Marxism are particularly important.

First, they are critiques on the Left, not from the antisocialist Right. The criticisms are not from apostate Marxists who have become defenders of capitalism; they are from anti-capitalist intellectuals with commitments to progressive social change. In some cases, in fact, these theorists' vision of the alternative to capitalism is not radically different from the image of socialism and communism contained in Marxist theory; what is different is the view of the theory of society needed to help create such a society.

Second, the critiques are not simply critiques of the insufficiencies or gaps in Marxist theory; they are critiques of Marxism. In one way or another all of these theorists argue that Marxist theory is a hindrance, that its theoretical assumptions necessarily create blind spots, that its foundations are fundamentally flawed and thus it cannot be reconstructed — it must be abandoned. (Wright 1983, 452)

One of the major points of contention for these social movements was the question of whether Marxism fundamentally has a “tendency toward class or economic reductionism in Marxist typologies of historical forms of society” (Wright 1983).

Is a primarily material conception of society able to testify to the experiences and promise liberation for groups of a racial, sexual, or gender-based identity?

This essay will deal with evaluating common responses to this question, and providing an answer that does not jeopardize the content of a revolutionary critique.

Worker-ism versus Communism [section incomplete]

To a lot of the early socialists, the obvious answer seemed to be to focus on uniting proletarians across the world under a common class identity. This seemed like the simplest solution, after all two central concepts of Marxism were the uniquely revolutionary potential of the proletariat and the notion that productive relations governed the rest of society.

Those are all well and good from the outset, but we should be careful about how far and why we draw said conclusions. Often times, these conclusions are drawn out of political expedience at the cost of both our understanding of and the development of class-struggle itself.

The Formation of a Proletarian Identity

Marx's famous call was for workers around the world to unite. This task proved much more difficult than expected.

The Poverty of Populism

The global financial crisis that began in 2008 and the ongoing crisis of the euro are both products of the model of lightly regulated financial capitalism that emerged over the past three decades. Yet despite widespread anger at Wall Street bailouts, there has been no great upsurge of left-wing American populism in response. It is conceivable that the Occupy Wall Street movement will gain traction, but the most dynamic recent populist movement to date has been the right-wing Tea Party, whose main target is the regulatory state that seeks to protect ordinary people from financial speculators. Something similar is true in Europe as well, where the left is anemic and right-wing populist parties are on the move. (Fukuyama 2012)

This quote is part of a piece by Francis Fukuyama, in which he identifies that “in the aftermath of the [Great Recession]... populism has taken primarily a right-wing form, not a left-wing one”. He attempts to provide an explanation of why this is, but he (unsurprisingly) misses the mark in the process. The purpose of this section will be to provide an alternative answer to this problem, tying it back to our central theme of class-composition.

OWS and Populism

As the left rallied behind the call of “the personal is the political”, the question of class only became all more daunting. By the 2010s, one possible solution was starting to gain traction: if one class theory ends up excluding others, then why not make everybody the revolutionary class?

This theme was at the center of Occupy Wall Street, quite possibly the most prominent example of a left-wing movement in the 21st century. Signs, posters, chants, all repeating the same slogan: “we are the 99 percent”.

For the uninitiated, the term “99 percent” refers to a statistic of income inequality in the US (one percent of the country controls approximately two-fifths of the nation's wealth). From this one statistic springs out a rudimentary class-narrative littered throughout Occupy rhetoric:

The top 1 percent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live. Throughout history, this is something that the top 1 percent eventually do learn. Too late. (Stiglitz 2011)

If this passage screams “populism” to you, you're absolutely justified in your suspicions. Yes, there is an economic element to the whole dichotomy, but it still is predominantly populist. Of course, defining populism is tricky, but there are common patterns we can observe:

The people are defined in opposition to outsiders, who allegedly do not belong to the moral and hard-working true people. While many studies of populism define the essential social conflict as between the people and the elite, this report uses the more general term “outsiders”, because populists as often stoke divisions between marginalised communities as between marginalised communities and elite.

From there, populists attribute a singular common good to the people: a policy goal that cannot be debated based on evidence but that derives from the common sense of the people. This general will of the people, populists argue, is not represented by the cartel of self-serving establishment elites who guard status quo politics. (Kyle and Gultchin 2018, 12)

The very same report denotes a subtype of populism that should prove more relevant to early Occupy:

Socio-economic populism does not constitute a specific package of economic policies, but rather paints the central ‘us vs. them’ conflict as between economic classes. Among socio-economic populists, there is a reverence for the common worker. The pure people belong to a specific social class, which is not necessarily constrained by national borders. For example, socio-economic populists may see working classes in neighbouring countries as natural allies.

The corrupt elites can include big businesses, capital owners, state elites, and foreign forces and international institutions that prop up an international capitalist system. (Kyle and Gultchin 2018, 23-24)

For some, socio-economic populism may sound all well and good, since it still deals in vaguely economic terms. However, that alone is not enough; the foundations still remain far too equivocal to constitute a proper class theory.

Class-Narratives

In Marxism, classes are distinguished according to their specific role in the process of production:

(i) The class of big capitalists, who, in all civilized countries, are already in almost exclusive possession of all the means of subsistance and of the instruments (machines, factories) and materials necessary for the production of the means of subsistence. This is the bourgeois class, or the bourgeoisie.

(ii) The class of the wholly propertyless, who are obliged to sell their labor to the bourgeoisie in order to get, in exchange, the means of subsistence for their support. This is called the class of proletarians, or the proletariat. (Engels 1847)

This proves important for two reasons:

  1. There are clear lines being drawn; both the proletarian and the bourgeois can be objectively identified according to their productive relations. These aren't just adjectives, but actual historical categories.
  2. The proletariat is presented not just in its negative characteristics (its oppression), but as the producer of value. It is this positive characteristic that is able to give weight to Marx's claim that “the proletariat alone is [the] really revolutionary class”.

Contrast this with the class-narrative of socio-economic populism:

  1. The “people” and the “elite” are incredibly equivocal categories. We can attribute a character to these classes, but not any concrete characteristics. Even if we spoke of them in terms of say, income or wealth, that'd only serve to raise more questions. Where is the cutoff that decides if a person is elite or common? What really unites the 99 percent? Why do some of the so-called elite sympathize with Occupy?
  2. The categories serve a primarily moral function, decrying the actions of the “elite”. But it ultimately fails to go further than that. For people like Stiglitz saying that the one percent will learn their lesson once its too late; this may be a nice thought, but it's ultimately hollow. What would the 99 percent do once its “too late”? Are they willing? Are they capable?

What Marxist class theory takes into account which populists neglect is that the revolutionary subject must have both composition and content. As Dauvé puts it:

Until the two or three last decades of the twentieth century, most radical critique considered the working class as the social pivot and revolutionary lever (metaphors highly revealing of a mechanical age mindset). Nowadays, in contrast with the apparent simplicity of yesteryears, capitalism and contemporary struggles are said to be devoid of centrality. When most radicals speak of labour, they tend to overstretch the notion, with no significant difference between a housewife, a student and an assembly-line worker. The definition has moved from entirely positive to entirely negative: the prole is no longer the pan-creator of wealth, he or she is a less-person: jobless, landless, powerless, propertyless, moneyless, homeless, and undocumented. As result, what is meant by class is a boundless shapeless whole, disjointed not only from the work place (which would stick to the Marxian definition: proles are at work and/or jobless), but from the world of work altogether. (Dauvé 2015, 140)

A movement that fails to advance beyond protesting, that fails to take seriously the questions of what leverage is available, the fundamental interests of those in question, and its goals is doomed from the outset.

And that second part ties back into the earlier question of what really unites the 99 percent? And no, I don't mean a character sketch of the “common man”. What is a meaningful characteristic shared by the members of this group? Populism proved great for spreading awareness and promoting the slogans of the campaign: after all, the 99 percent appeals to everyone. But broad appeal comes at a cost: the content is diluted.

Democracy and Demands

And it's specifically for this reason that we saw Occupy devolve in the way it did. Once people were on board with the idea of fighting back against the one-percent, what was to happen next? What issues should be prioritized? What about conflicting interests among the 99 percent? Is it even possible to represent everyone? Sure, you can say it can be accomplished with consensus democracy, but how does consensus democracy reconcile these divergences better than our current system?

Talking in practical terms, we've seen experimentation with the speaking stack (a consensus-based approach to group discussion) to address concerns raised by minority groups, but even that has run into conflict:

Another check on structurelessness comes in the form of the “progressive stack,” in which the “stack-keeper,” who is in charge of taking questions and concerns from the audiences at general assemblies, is given the ability to privilege voices from “traditionally marginalized groups.”

...Innovations like progressive stack can at times act as a Band-Aid solution covering over pervasive power dynamics that are hard to pinpoint and resolve, she adds. Without serious and sustained work towards women’s equality within the movement, she says, “progressive stack is [just] a way for us to feel slightly better.” (Seltzer 2011)

Confronted with this crisis of identity, the movement which has nothing but an ideal of democracy to its name, does what all democratic movements eventually do: begin negotiations on a list of demands. Demands (and public policy by extent) are essential to democracy:

Democracy and public policy are intertwined because the organization of authority in a nation affects the design and implementation of government activity. Fundamental to democracy is the notion that citizens possess the ability and means to shape decisions made by public officials...

Democracy’s desirability derives from its institutional design which allows the majority of citizens to influence public policy in ways relevant to their interests and needs. (Krane and Marshall 2007)

It should be noted that the move to list demands was not met with unanimous approval; there was some controversy surrounding it, yet I bring it up because these demands still remain Occupy's legacy regardless.

“Everyone is entitled to make their own blog or website to post their opinions about how OWS should operate or what they think the OWS demands should be, this 99% group is no different,” Stepanian said in an email. “However, all of OWS’s official statements are agreed upon by way of consensus-based general assemblies. This matter was not submitted or agreed upon by the NYC general assembly, and therefore by-passed the process all OWS plans have been made through.”...

“Demands have come up before,” wrote Ryan Hoffman in another email to HuffPost. “They were shot down vociferously under the argument that demands are for terrorists and that is not who we are. From that debate however, another proposal was passed: that we table all talk of demands until future notice! Therefore, any talk about demands, posts of demands, etc. are null and void. We already tabled those discussions using consensus.” (Kingkade 2011)

This quote, in addition to introducing the “demand debate”, does give us insight into how Occupy deliberates and also why these demands ended up taking center-stage.

Though “On Conflict and Consensus” assured organizers that “Formal Consensus is not inherently time-consuming,” experience suggested otherwise. The process favored those with the most time, as meetings tended to drag out for hours; in theory, consensus might include everyone in all deliberations, but in practice, the process greatly favored those who could devote limitless time to the movement — and made full participation difficult for those with ordinary life commitments outside of their activism. Movement after movement found, moreover, that the process tended to give great attention and weight to the concerns of a few dissenters. In the purest form of consensus, a block by one or two individuals could bring the whole group to a screeching halt. (Kauffman 2015)

Since the GA proved itself incapable for the task, countless other groups stepped up to the plate and put forth their demands.

What's shared in common by all of these declarations (even the rather unreasonable Liberty Square Blueprint) is that they all take upon a distinctly reformist character. Despite the fanfare in its rhetoric and the wishes of the more anarchist members, there is nothing revolutionary about what Occupy left behind.

Occupy's Limited Legacy

With the hindsight of all these years behind us, it is rather easy to reflect upon Occupy's legacy. The general consensus seems to be that while the protests may have gone on to promote certain policy platforms, it's impact was far from revolutionary:

Occupy Wall Street takes some of the credit for introducing income inequality into the broader political discourse, for inspiring the fight for a $15 minimum wage and, most recently, for creating a receptive audience for the Democratic presidential campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“Everyone knows we were right,” said Caleb Maupin, who was working in the insurance industry when he first joined the movement five years ago. “We had a major campaign for president with Bernie Sanders. The campaign was like a giant Occupy Wall Street rally, talking about the 99 percent and the one percent because millions of people know we were right.” (Hajela and Balsamo 2016)

This was always a concern amongst the protestors (especially the anarchist ones), so it's fair to say that this result was far from unanticipated.

The protesters are just reminding those in power to look down. This is the easy part. The protesters should beware not only of enemies, but also of false friends who pretend to support them but are already working hard to dilute the protest. In the same way we get coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, ice-cream without fat, those in power will try to make the protests into a harmless moralistic gesture...

What one should resist at this stage is precisely such a quick translation of the energy of the protest into a set of concrete pragmatic demands. Yes, the protests did create a vacuum – a vacuum in the field of hegemonic ideology, and time is needed to fill this vacuum in a proper way, as it is a pregnant vacuum, an opening for the truly new. (Zizek 2011)

What Zizek, along with many other protestors neglected is the form this “dilution” takes:

However, it is one thing to make an observation, and another to transform said observations into useful information. So, returning to this question of why Occupy left behind what it did, let us reiterate our earlier findings.

Tying this together, we begin to get a picture of how class-content can determine the nature of a movement. Occupy's populist nature could only lead to a democratic focus which in turn could only be resolved by democratic means, i.e., reform. The question of class had not been solved, but instead, merely ignored:

This points more to a crisis within class relations than to a crisis of class relations—a crisis that might initiate the destruction of class structure. Present unrest acts as if it could absorb class without doing away with what maintains it: the capital-labour opposition. Togetherness is a necessary dimension of revolution, providing it breaks with class division, not when it fuses class groups into an aggregate mass. On Tahrir, Puerta del Sol, Taksim … the fact that those without any means of livelihood have to sell their labour power to those who organise work and profit from it, in simpler words the basic fact of exploitation, was interpreted in terms of poor v. rich, powerless v. powerful, bottom v. top. Therefore the solution could only be a fair resharing of wealth and power.

We are not suggesting everything will be fine the day the Cairote jobless refuse to demonstrate alongside doctors because proletarians don’t associate with middle class. The question is what they do and cannot do together. The shift from factory to street occupation, from private to public places, is immensely positive if occupiers transform what they take over: one has to get hold of something before transforming it. But takeover is not ipso facto changeover. The reclaiming of public space signifies a will to reappropriate our lives, an intuition that production and work should not be central in our lives: that could be a starting point for a critique of the economy and work, if production and work were confronted and not bypassed. Otherwise, just as the occupied factory occupies its occupiers and keeps them within the confines of labour issues, those who occupy the square immerse themselves in the occupation tasks. Solidarity is an indispensable dimension of revolutionary breakthrough, a part, not the whole, and when the part replaces the whole, community becomes an end in itself. A Madrid participant was saying in May 2012: “People are fighting to take decisions themselves.” What self is meant and, what’s more, which decisions? (Dauve 2015, 98)

Rebuttal to Fukuyama

Returning back to Fukuyama, let us see what he concluded regarding Occupy Wall Street:

In the United States, for example, although the Tea Party is anti-elitist in its rhetoric, its members vote for conservative politicians who serve the interests of precisely those financiers and corporate elites they claim to despise. There are many explanations for this phenomenon. They include a deeply embedded belief in equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome and the fact that cultural issues, such as abortion and gun rights, crosscut economic ones.

But the deeper reason a broad-based populist left has failed to materialize is an intellectual one. It has been several decades since anyone on the left has been able to articulate, first, a coherent analysis of what happens to the structure of advanced societies as they undergo economic change and, second, a realistic agenda that has any hope of protecting a middle-class society.

The main trends in left-wing thought in the last two generations have been, frankly, disastrous as either conceptual frameworks or tools for mobilization. Marxism died many years ago, and the few old believers still around are ready for nursing homes. The academic left replaced it with postmodernism, multiculturalism, feminism, critical theory, and a host of other fragmented intellectual trends that are more cultural than economic in focus. Postmodernism begins with a denial of the possibility of any master narrative of history or society, undercutting its own authority as a voice for the majority of citizens who feel betrayed by their elites. Multiculturalism validates the victimhood of virtually every out-group. It is impossible to generate a mass progressive movement on the basis of such a motley coalition: most of the working- and lower-middle-class citizens victimized by the system are culturally conservative and would be embarrassed to be seen in the presence of allies like this. (Fukuyama 2012)

Fukuyama is correct in two areas: there is an absence of a coherent conceptual framework and an increasing inability to link struggles/experiences. However, he quickly loses sight of the issue:

Occupy had a clear focus against the elites, there was undeniably an economic undertone to it (hence the focus on income and Wall-Street), and the “99 percent” included the middle class. The issue was that they hit a wall precisely because their populist approach had little to offer to those who they wished to mobilize. Taking more pages out of the Tea Party's playbook would only exacerbate the problem, not solve it.

Striking A Balance

The Role of Critical Theory

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