Occupy's 89%? Where anarchism shuns unionists, it allies with the ultra-right


EUGENE, Ore. -- Recently anarchist collectives in the Occupy movement in Oakland  and the Pacific Northwest have put forward a new slogan, "We are the 89%."

This is a subtle way of divorcing organized labor from the popular movement, since it is based on an explicit claim that the struggles of organized labor are not merely no longer central, but that the interests of organized labor should no longer be a focus of activist support.

In Oregon, I have personally seen use of this slogan to divide people in Occupy Portland and Occupy Eugene. I have read detailed accounts of similar divisions in Occupy Oakland and Occupy Seattle.

And I am convinced that we must challenge both the theory and practice from which this arises as vigorously as possible.

One of the most striking explanations of the theory which underlies this anarchist attack on organized labor can be seen in a blog posted by the Oakland Commune. Other elaborations of this basic idea have appeared elsewhere, but it is significant that the Oakland Commune has been prominent in promoting and rationalizing Black Bloc direct action tactics which have alienated organized labor and working people in general.

It is a sign of the intellectual bankruptcy of the Oakland Commune, which sees the failure of organized labor to immediately form up behind the Black Bloc as an indication that organized labor should be demonized and dismissed in favor of a mix of the unemployed, the underemployed, lumpenproletarians, and the homeless who form the new revolutionary hope.

The Oakland Commune dresses this reactionary assessment of organized labor in a supposedly new discovery about the nature of capital production and circulation.

Globalization has exported many production jobs from the American core to the Third World periphery as part of the export of capital, which Lenin predicted in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.

However, the Oakland Commune seizes on this characteristic of imperialism to claim that in America the working class has been supplanted by a new "proletarian class" - the unemployed, the underemployed, petty bourgeois students, lumpenproletarians, and the homeless. Let us examine their arguments:

  • "This is why the general strike on Nov. 2 appeared as it did, not as the voluntary withdrawal of labor from large factories and the like (where so few of us work), but rather as masses of people who work in unorganized workplaces, who are unemployed or underemployed or precarious in one way or another, converging on the chokepoints of capital flow."
  • "Where workers in large workplaces - the ports, for instance - did withdraw their labor, this occurred after the fact of an intervention by an extrinsic proletariat."
  • "We find it helpful here to distinguish between the working class and the proletariat."
  • "Worker's struggles these days tend to have few objects besides the preservation of jobs or the preservation of union contracts. "
  • "The power of the Occupy movement so far - despite the weakness of its discourse - is that it points in the direction of a proletarian [as opposed to working-class] struggle in which, instead of vainly petitioning the assorted rulers of the world, people begin to directly take the things they need to survive. "
  • "Rather than an attempt to readjust the balance between the 99% and the 1%, such a struggle might be about people directly providing for themselves at a time when capital and the state can no longer provide for them."

What the Oakland Commune has done is taken the way cyclical crises in capitalism have been exacerbated by the shift from manufacturing to service sector jobs, occasioned by globalization, and used it to turn the concept of class on its head.

The unemployed and underemployed are not separate from the working class - they constitute what Marx termed "the reserve army of labor." They are and they remain intimately a part of the working class, regardless of the anarchist fantasies of the Oakland Commune.

Neither are the homeless a new class - their class origins and identifications depend on their relationship to the means of production: the current crisis of capitalism has made many working-class people homeless. It does not change their class affiliation.

Marx did identify the lumpenproletariat as an element which was incapable of class consciousness, primarily professional criminals who prey on the working class and those elements of the working class who have completely become mercenaries for the ruling class, i.e., working-class Germans who joined the SA, the Nazi storm troopers, in the 1920s. The Oakland Commune thinks that criminals who prey on the working class and class traitors are a revolutionary vanguard. History has proven them wrong.

Rather than face up to that responsibility to build genuine class consciousness, the Oakland Commune rolls out anarchist platitudes:

  • "...initiative here has come from people who work in non-unionized workplaces, or (for good reason) hate their unions, or work part-time or have no jobs at all."
  • "The coming intensification of struggles both inside and outside the workplace will find no success in attempting to revitalize the moribund unions. Workers will need to participate in the same kinds of direct actions - occupations, blockades, sabotage - that have proven the highlights of the Occupy movement in the Bay Area."

These attitudes threaten to destroy any possibility of alliance between the Occupy movement and organized labor.

Photo: People's World 


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  • This is one of the most poorly researched and badly argued articles I have read in years. Leninist's are just jealous that anarchists are more effective and more popular.

    Posted by John Jacobsen, 01/07/2013 2:59pm (3 years ago)

  • While I don't think that attacking the unions is productive, I myself have seen the glaring self interest in union support of recent demonstrations. While the people bunkered down to stand off with the state or attempted to take ANY direct actions planned or otherwise the union supporters packed up their signs and went back to their busses! They show up to a few events or marches here or there and then they expect the full support of a movement that COULD have done much much more if the unions actually put their whole ass into the struggle instead of simply showing up when it's convenient. We've seen that the direct actions recently HAVE led to the Obama administration caving into demands, including the DREAMers in Chicago who illegally occupied a campaign office and forced Obama to address their grievance. If the unions want real support they need to stop turning to the democrats and turn it to the people and the movement. No, I don't agree with condemning them, but I also don't agree with supporting any union but the IWW who have marched with us, sang with us, been arrested and beaten with us from the beginning and doesn't turn tail when things get sticky or when the struggle isn't directly effecting their paychecks.

    Posted by Anon, 01/05/2013 9:55am (3 years ago)

  • It will come as a helluva surprise to those of us in the Occupy Oakland /Labor Soldarity Comm. that OO (Occupy Oakland ) has rejected alliances and working with Organzied labor .
    In our short approx. 3 month existance we first in the form of the West Coast Port Shutdown comm. moblized approx. 5, 000 to form mass community pickets at the Port of Oakland to shut it down in Soldarity with the grossly exploited Port truckers and the besieged ILWU #21 in Longview Wa. This line was honored By not only ILWU #10 (as is their tradition ) but by all of the Teamsters #70 workers working at the Port . And Teamsters #70 , both officials and rank and file, assisted our effort every step of the way .
    Based on this a group of American Licorice strikers approached us and asked for our Soldarity vis a vis their strike in Union City .
    We delivered . We organized and brought appox. 100 pickets to the Union city picket lines at 5 AM despite the considerable distance from Oakland .
    The workers of that Bakery Workers local warmly welcomed our support .
    As did the fired immigrant workers of Pacific steel in Berkeley and Castlewood Country Club in Pleasanton .
    There is also the great tribute that SEIU #1021 (East Bay ) gave us when they invited two of our OO comm. to speak at a organzing dinner (A Postal workers Local President and even actually one of those dread Anarchists, a young woman activists in her 20's , who BTW , the 200 or so workers present received with loud genuine applaudes )
    The President of the East Bay chapter of 1021 concluded that they (1021 ) wanted to ''marry '' OO !
    I would also like to add that we have many activists in OO who are also Union members ranging from teamsters and the ILWU to the Oakland Teachers OEA .
    I could be wrong but i suspect at least part of the motivation for this strong attack is the fact that the Occupy movement , though far from being ''anti-union '' , has given Labor officialdom a much needed kick in the ass ! We have a lot of differences within Occupy Oakland but i think almost all of us agree that the Labor Movement shouldn't be spending tens of millions of hard earned member dues in electing Politicians that , however sane they may appear compared to Medieval reactioanries like Santorium , are when push comes to shove as committed to serving and protecting the "'1 %'' as their GOP counterparts .
    Stan OO Labor Soldarity Comm.

    Posted by Stan W., 03/14/2012 5:12pm (4 years ago)

  • "People begin to take directly the things they need to survive" is a concrete manifestation of the anarchist's rejection of the role of politics ("Absurd negation of politics in bourgeois society." in the link posted to comments here for: Lenin Dec. 31, 1901). Instead of taking what people need, people could begin taking state power in "little ways" ... we see garbage cans full of trash on the streets, failure of the State and it's off-shoots to move the trash to the dump, and resulting pollution of the Pacific Ocean here in So California (example of a contradiction that cannot be solved under existing political relationships). "Occupy Trash Cans" taking over where the capitalist State has failed would be a small but direct challenge to those in power, which is what Occupy says is a goal. "Taking" what people need will allow the State to crack down even more (ad on the sign of a trash truck: "Scavenging is Illegal" and photo of someone head-first in a state-issued trash can ... ).

    Posted by Robert Cymbala, 03/12/2012 6:04pm (4 years ago)

  • I came to the same conclusion after the second attempt to call a general strike. Trying to push the most progressive union in the US into a futile position that would have made absolutely no sense or would have had only negative consequences on other worker, to try to control the WCLSWU and then when they rightly called the notion out of hand, began to show who they are actually working for.

    Posted by Gabe Falsetta, 03/10/2012 11:49pm (4 years ago)

  • This article, of course, raises serious issues that trade unionists and labor activists, especially those of us who have tried to engage the Occupty movement, have had to confront and deal with over the last few months. This has been a struggle, but also a learning experience. We have to keep it up.
    BTW, I believe the accompanying photo was taken in Philly (by yours truly) back in October, where efforts were and are being made to work with and influence Occupy where we can. And I know Philly is not the only place where this has been the case.
    It would be good if the article included examples of places where successful efforts have been made. Putting that photo next to the article with no comment or explanation is a little confusing.

    Posted by Ben Sears, 03/10/2012 8:09am (4 years ago)

  • Crib-sheet...basic questions arising out of many quarters of Occupy

    1. There's been much heated discussion in the Occupy movement, largely in response to the obvious, nationally coordinated [probably by Homeland Security] police evictions. Much of this discussion has been focused upon the role, merits, and other aspects of nonviolence as worldview and as tactic. This discussion has been largely fueled by the presence of anarchists who are all over the political map....and small but viral bands of nihilists, e.g. the Black Bloc, Class Warfare, well meaning but dead wrong...probably led by the police of all levels. A couple of articles below to focus on pacifism and its role and place in the crisis of bourgeois ideology [Caudwell], on the nature of anarchism. and the Marxist approach to this political force [Lenin]. Finally, a decent presentation on how these problems operate on the ground in a real, life-and-death situation {Mao].

    Christopher Caudwell: Pacifism and Violence [1935]

    Lenin: Marxism and Anarchism [1901]

    Mao Zedong: On Correcting Mistaken Ideas in the Party

    2. Lenin wrote in many places that the above- mentioned anarchism and nihilism, as well as ultraleft and terrorist thought and action...were largely payback for the rightward drift of our movement, especially within its working class leadership. Lenin and other comrades called it Revisionism, and below is one of Lenin's articles that describes this problem well.

    Lenin: Marxism and Revisionism [1908]

    3. Revisionism and the struggle against it can only take place in a specific context: the struggle, on the ground, to ascertain at every turn the relationship between reform and the struggle for revolution...a process, not an either/or relation...more at both, and then some.
    It helps immensely to understand the role of the state...a topic that Lenin assures us is a hard act to follow, as...below... he tries to give us some guidelines, for constant reference rather than as a settled question.

    Lenin: The State [1919]

    I entitled this reading-for-discussion guide a crib-sheet. But in reality, it's not for a test to come. It's for one already underway, on the streets across the world.

    Posted by gary hicks, 03/06/2012 3:12am (3 days ago)

    Posted by gary hicks, 03/09/2012 2:23am (4 years ago)

  • Amen!

    Posted by Rev. Paul White, 03/08/2012 1:21pm (4 years ago)

  • None of these anti-working class ideas are new, they've been around and reemerged at times of spontaneous upsurges for decades. They mirror middle class radical concepts from the 60's and have commonality to anarchist, anti-worker ideas going back much further. In Ohio, as elsewhere, this is a very mixed bag of a movement, but has had a cancer of Ron Paul supporters attach themselves to the group. In Columbus, elements of the Occupy movement attacked Mary Jo Kilroy, a progressive, labor-backed candidate, helping a more conservative person win the primary. Other negative influences have been the Greens & certain ultra-left elements.

    However, within the group are also very positive, pro-labor, solid progressive young people, many of whom came out to help the solidarity campaign with the locked out steelworkers at Findley, Ohio & the those from Chrystal Sugar in the Dakotas. Org'd labor is attempting to work with the best elements, as we move into a year of greatly increased, much sharpened class conflict. The future of this mostly spontaneous, multi-class movement will be determined by just this very relationship.

    If labor can establish a strong, mutually beneficial relationship with Occupy, it can become a strong & helpful part of the people's movement. However, as is the case in a number of areas, if ultra-left and anarchist elements, ever right-wing forces, come to the fore, it can become an extremely harmful and divisive force, actually aiding the very corporate forces they can into being to fight against.

    In these tough times, for those of us that find time, it is actual worthwhile to read Proudhon and see what that political trend in based on. Proudhon talks of needing to build a movement of "revolutionary businessmen" to combat the growing force of org'd labor and the working class political parties. To this day, anarchist elements are, in fact, true to that right-wing, pro-corporate, direction.

    Posted by brucebostick@att.net, 03/08/2012 10:44am (4 years ago)

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