Revolution Underground? Critical Reflections on the Prospect of Renewing Occupation

Displaced by a nationally coordinated campaign of police evictions, occupiers for months now have been mulling over new ways to give our scattered movement some kind of home-base, to refocus our efforts, to re-activate those supporters who appear to have fallen away, and to recapture the public imagination – all while building upon the accumulated experience of the last nine months and more. Staking a claim to public space, many believe, could revitalize the movement, by helping us to regroup around common work, anchoring otherwise diffuse activists, organizations and working-groups, pulling against the fragmentation that so often plagues the single-issue Left, and providing a launching pad for projects of mutual aid aimed at serving the surrounding community.1 At the same time, appropriating such a space would signal a fresh challenge to the ruling establishment, hopefully rekindling the kind of public visibility – and the solidarity – that was so instrumental to the occupy movement’s electric breakthrough last Fall.

But as of yet – notwithstanding all sorts of worthy projects, from Occupy Student Debt, to Occupy Homes, as well as major demonstrations in Chicago (vs. NATO) and Manhattan (for May Day) – Occupy in 2012 has not seized upon any new major large-scale public action/space whose appropriation (liberation?) might materially reground and politically recharge the spirit of dissent, anti-privatization, de-commodification, and concentrated direct action that made Occupy such an exciting, and infectious outbreak of “the commons.” We have not, in short, found a way to put the Occupation back in the Occupy movement.2

Should we? And if so, how? What forms should the occupying take?

Of course, just because the Occupy movement has come to be identified by name with its primary tactical form is not in itself a very good reason to prioritize a return to physical occupation. Quite apart from the practice of actual occupation, there are good reasons for holding onto the Occupy moniker – beyond sheer name recognition – not least of which is that, as I have written elsewhere,3 “the very name of this upsurge suggests its infectious potentiality, its wide if not universal translatability. To speak of occupy is to conjure a challenge: How can we, how will we, take our world back?… The very name of the movement is a verb, an imperative.” Communist social theorist Jodi Dean sheds further light on the power of the “Occupy” frame, advocating for the provocative, seemingly paradoxical slogan, “Occupy Everything.” “The slogan seems at first absurd,” she writes, “we already occupy everything, so how can we occupy everything?”

What matters is the minimal difference, the shift in perspective the injunction to occupy effects. It’s a shift crucial to occupation as a political form that organizes the incompatibility between the people and capitalism. It enjoins us to occupy in a different mode, to assert our presence in and for itself, for the common, not for the few, the one percent. “Occupy Everything’s” shift in perspective highlights and amplifies the gap between what has been and what can be, between what “capitalist realism” told us was the only alternative and what the actuality of movement forced us to wake up to. The gap it names is the gap of communist desire, a collective desire for collectivity: we occupy everything because it is already ours in common.4

While Dean offers this statement in a descriptive mode, relating to what was actually occurring at OWS, her comments provide us with theoretical reference points that can help orient occupy strategy going forward. How can we stage the “incompatibility between the people and capitalism” in a way that will resonate widely? How can we enjoin people to occupy their own lives and institutions “in a different mode” helping them to see the potential power of their presence, while exposing the “gap” between what is and what could be, between what ‘capitalist realism’ tells us is necessary and what is actually possible? How can we help to open up space for communist desire, that collective desire for collectivity, to realize itself in a popularly rooted way? Radical activists, whether we identify as occupiers or not, would do well to carry such questions at the forefront of our minds.

But even accepting Jodi Dean’s communist framing, as well as her injunction to Occupy Everything5 – and I find both quite compelling – we are still left with the practical and concrete question of what exactly to occupy next? (And whether or not to physically occupy at all. And where and how to do so.)6

Critical Reflections on Occupation as a Tactical Form

Certainly, any proposal for physical re-occupation, at a minimum, should bear in mind the criticisms that have been leveled at the occupy form/tactic (sometimes referred to as “urban camping”), lest the movement mechanically reproduce past errors, or naively try to repeat successes whose moment has definitively passed. It should go without saying that all such proposals should also be attuned to shifting local social, economic, and political situations – for what may be appropriate to one set of conditions may not be appropriate to another.7

Nonetheless, among such criticisms of the occupation form ‘in general’ we can include the following list: that the inward focus on camp dynamics often prioritized and came at the expense of serious and sustained outreach to the broader 99%; that the occupation space became an end in itself in a way that tended to suppress or defer rather than amplify and deepen discussions about strategies needed for impacting and revolutionizing the broader society; that logistically maintaining the occupations themselves tended (at least after a certain point) to consume the talents, energies, and resources of core organizers to the detriment of these activists’ off-camp work; that the perpetual 24-7 occupation was subjectively unsustainable, that it ultimately burned people out; that the spaces themselves were relatively inaccessible in many cases, especially to oppressed and super-exploited communities: immigrants, the poor, Black and Latino populations (with resultant deformations for the emergent movement); that the establishment of the occupation in locations adjacent to either a financial center or (especially) a government building tended to project, and perhaps to reflect, a desire to appeal to the existing powers or to somehow shame them into improved behavior – rather than to delegitimize or to rally the forces that might overturn them altogether; that prioritization of the physical occupations (again, at least after a certain point) enabled the mainstream corporate media and the state alike to focus narrowly on the “lifestyle” of tent-living, or various “public health concerns,” rather than the broader political issues Occupy worked to raise; that the tactic of outdoor occupations was – at least in the northern states – time-bound, vulnerable to changing weather; that under conditions of permanent occupation the voices of those who were for one reason or another able to be permanently present at the camp site tended to gain disproportionate influence relative to those who could not be so often present – for instance, because they had educational, work, or familial responsibilities; conversely, that limitations of camp life often precluded on-site occupiers from participating fully in the lively and often crucial off-site and internet-based wings of the movement; that the stage-like quality of the spectacular space tended to encourage “carnivalesque” and “expressive” behavior at the expense of the “hard work” of strategy and implementation that constructing a new political power entails; that the immediate needs of camp maintenance and defense allowed or encouraged occupiers to endlessly defer the vital and necessary process of working through the political differences and latent antagonisms that persisted within their ranks, despite – and in part because of – protocols of General Assembly consensus that tended in practice to suppress collective and sustained political debate;8 that the occupation form has become exhausted in the eyes of the broader media and public, just as many occupiers were in fact physically exhausted by their weeks in the parks.

To this list, we might as well add a list of criticisms leveled at Occupy more generally, criticisms not limited to the tactical form of physical occupation, but still worth bearing in mind.9 Among these we could include the critique that the elaborate procedural dynamics and protocols of General Assemblies, notwithstanding their expressed concern with accessibility, openness, and inclusivity, tended to discourage or diminish the participation of people who felt such protocols to be unfamiliar or off-putting; that a three- to-five-hour nightly meeting cannot in fact be inclusive in a world where economic conditions put constraints on most people’s time; that a certain mechanical insistence on elaborate rituals and rhetoric of inclusivity actually ossified into a mode of exclusion, as well as a way of insulating committed occupiers from learning to speak the language of the rest of the 99%; that occupy movement became occupy inertia; that the occupy form itself became fetishized; that Occupy tended to underemphasize the importance of confronting racial and national oppression, even as the predominant mode of anti-racism and “anti-oppression” work that often prevailed within Occupy took the form of a problematic identity politics characterized by an inward focus on the occupier interaction and the renunciation of privilege, more so than a practical and strategic, outward-oriented targeting of white supremacist and imperialist institutions and state practices;10 that the language of the “99%” and the “1%” tended towards populism rather than revolutionary consciousness, and was easily co-optable; that the movement in many cases retreated into a national rather than an internationalist framework; that the movement failed to coalesce around a clear set of demands11…We could go on.

At the same time, we should consider the observed virtues of the occupy tactic, several of which I have already alluded to. Jodi Dean has argued that Occupy Wall Street “staged the incompatibility between capitalism and the people” and that it did so in a way that was “visual, material, and practical” (“Occupy as Political Form”). Visually – often through creative protest art and vivid, statistical info-graphics – Occupy forced a presence of people, concerns, facts, and issues that are usually excluded from official discourse. Materially, the occupations sought to interrupt and even to shut down the normal operations of an actual material capitalist power-center, Wall Street, using direct action. Practically, “the daily activities of occupiers strove to bring into being new practices of sociality, new ways of living together, ways no longer coordinated by the capital but by discussion, mutuality, and consensus.” It was because of this combination of aspects – visual, material, practical – that the occupations effectively helped to “accentuate class divisions” in US culture and discourse. In doing so, the Occupations established a “practical unity,” and a “common ground from which to join in struggle.” For a time, anyone engaged with politics in the US was faced with the question, “Are you for or against the occupation?”

To these positive impacts of the occupations on the broader culture and social imaginary, Dean adds a number of virtues pertaining to the form’s impact on the occupiers themselves, especially the way that the practice of continuous occupation had the potential to involve people completely, forging new relationships, and instilling discipline and commitment, in a way that could be transformative of entire personalities. At a more organizational level, she points out how “The continuity of occupation has been a potent remedy to the fragmentation, localism, and transitoriness of contemporary left politics,” and notes how the adaptability of occupation as a political form allowed the movement to travel far and wide, giving formal unity to a movement that remained largely decentralized, even diffuse, while providing new activists with a place to plug in and get connected.

I would add to this list, the way that the sustained gathering of people in a common place with a common mission (or at least a common enemy) worked to melt away the immobilizing ice of cynicism and isolation, helping individuals to recognize that they are not alone in their concerns, their social criticism, their desire to see real and radical change. Like the naïve child in the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” who points out the tyrant’s nakedness, Occupy didn’t so much teach those at camp something new about inequality, as it changed the nature of that knowledge. Those in the camps suddenly knew, not only that that others knew (how fundamentally corrupt the current system is, how badly radical change is required today, and so on…), but that others knew that we knew…and that they knew that we knew they knew. Such a human experience of mutual recognition helped to forge both a living ethical-political injunction and a fount of collective courage.12 The immediacy and the in-the-flesh quality of the occupations, we might say, was a sustaining supplement for an activist community that, like so much of contemporary US culture, increasingly encounters others primarily through a digital screen.

Personally many of my most cherished moments at Occupy Boston, at Dewey Square, involved nothing more and nothing less than sustained conversation, intense dialogue oriented towards understanding the world in order to change it, which is to say: towards praxis. The occupations, for many newly activated radicals, and newly radicalized activists, played midwife to the rebirth of politics as a site of genuine passion. This political passion helped to fuse new local peer networks of the radicalized and the activated across the country, creating social and intellectual bonds that have outlived the encampments. Moreover, this incitement to dialogue, debate, and inquiry was not only an on-site phenomenon; the passionate discussion spread rapidly across the society; millions had been starving for the chance to delve into the issues that Occupy raised. It seems quite clear that persistence and determination – plus the stubborn visibility of the physical campsites – were essential to this broader cultural opening.13

Surveying the site–towards the next occupation

Summing up the strengths and the limitations, the virtues and the vices, the lapses and the lessons of Occupy in the period of occupations, then, what would be the conditions under which a return to physical occupation would make sense from a strategic and tactical standpoint? What would be the characteristics we would look for in a new occupation site? And how might we orient towards that site in a way that maintains and builds upon the positive aspects of occupation, while minimizing or avoiding those potentially detrimental, alienating, or isolating features latent in (or even inherent to) this tactical form?

It seems to me that for starters, we would seek out sites where occupy activists could easily reach masses of people – including working-people – in a concentrated way, on a day-to-day basis. Places from which we could consistently reach the 99%, including those sectors of the 99% that have tended to be under-represented in our movement – immigrants, people of color, working people with families, for instance. What we want is a place that would bring us to them, rather than waiting for or expecting them to come to us. A place where occupiers could engage people more or less directly, bypassing existing structures of authority, but also without off-putting protocols and long-winded “process” getting in the way of conversation about issues that matter. We’d want to find an environment where the people are neither atomized and distracted, nor immediately subject to the threatening gaze of a boss, employer, or prison guard. A public place where people aren’t just buzzing by (as people so often are these days), rushing off to other things, and where people actually have some time – and perhaps the inclination – to talk, to us and to one another (however briefly) or even to read a leaflet or a newspaper. (Ideally it would be a place where masses of working-people are already accustomed to reading.) A place of “down-time” where we wouldn’t be rudely interrupting some other vital activity, where we might even be appreciated for bringing intellectual stimulation into an otherwise drab and vacant scene. A place where a creative intervention might help catalyze a broader cultural shift, where, as they say, “a single spark could start a prairie fire.” A place that is close to the nerve center of the society, where an occupation would be difficult to ignore, and where establishing a strong organized radical force could actually translate into real social power. If it were a type of place that could be found in many locations across the country, for instance in most major cities, that would be a bonus. Make it a place with plenty of big and visible space for chalking, for wheat-pasting, and for posters composed of the kind of striking and unforgettable protest art and infographics that helped people visualize the gap between the 99% and the 1% in the first Occupy phase. Make it a place that could host music and guerrilla theater. A place that provides opportunities to serve the people concretely, where the existing system is not addressing their needs, but where the 1% does not have such a tight grip on things as to prevent people from stepping up to serve one another. It would be great if it was a place that is already host to numerous small acts of rebellion and mutual aid, but where these acts are not yet fully conscious or politicized, a place where people have a lived sense of the potential for revolt, but lack the leadership and collective organization to expand upon glimpsed possibilities.

Dare we dream: It might be best if this new occu-base were not remotely tucked away in the Financial District (or up in the shadow of some Statehouse) but rather was broadly accessible across the city. A place that was close by, but that brings people together from different workplaces, neighborhoods, and cultures on a regular basis, day in and day out, morning, noon, and night. A place that brings together local and global concerns, immediate and structural issues, at once. Make it a place that is somewhat indifferent to social distinctions: where people exist as more or less equals, and could be united as such. A place that either features a sparse security presence, or at least where the people outnumber the cops by a hundred or a thousand to one, a place that offers convenient means of retreat in the event of police assault.

Ideally, it would be a place that occupiers could actually hold for a length of time, on our own terms, long enough and often enough to help the movement regain some footing, and its confidence. For, as important to Occupy’s initial flourishing as the public broadcast of police repression was – and it was14 –, there appears to be a limit to how much widespread public support, let alone additional activist enthusiasm, can be harnessed by repeating the spectacle of state repression against protesters. As I see it, part of what gave the occupations their utopian glimmer and their subjective charge – a charge that has yet to be stamped out entirely – was the way in which they enabled the belief among occupiers – and others – that such popularly seized public spaces could (in principle, if not yet always in practice) be held. That we need not live on the state’s terms, requesting its permission to speak, to breathe, to organize. That it was possible to establish a certain autonomy, or, if you will, distance from the state…and to survive, even to thrive while doing so, ordering our own affairs, making our own democratic and egalitarian decisions, even living without the need for money, putting human needs first within our occupied enclave. But to demonstrate that such things could be done, required a certain space and time.

Which is to say: in taking a new space, it would be better not to get our heads beaten in the first night, let alone before we get inside the door – dramatic as the YouTube videos might be. A guerrilla-style hit and run occupation on the move, a “flying occupation” in some ways akin to the “flash mobs,” aiming at temporary but substantial liberation of common space, seems here preferable to a full frontal assault à la the original OWS.

Finally: it would be particularly appropriate if the public place to be occupied were itself coming under attack by the austerity and privatization schemes devised by financial elites and corrupt bank-serving bureaucrats (as well as from new and aggressive forms of “Big Brother” state surveillance and workplace management). A place under siege by the 1%, but that is not yet firmly in their grasp. We could then construe ourselves as involved in defensive counter action to protect this public place and the people there, and could speak to those inhabiting the space from a standpoint of shared interests and concerns. This would add an edge of immediacy to our more abstract occupy message: that it is wrong to put the profits of a few ahead of the needs of all, and that the masses of people (“the 99%”) can and ought to stand together against all policies, individuals, and institutions that violate this core principle. (Let the cards fall where they may, even if this means the thorough revolutionizing of society.)

Are there such spaces? Spaces that meet the above criteria?

There are.

And one of them can be found at your local subway or bus station….

Imagine: T Station Liberation

Every day, hundreds of thousands of people in the Boston metropolitan area, where I reside, head off to work or to school or to vital appointments, and use the “T” – the bus, the subway, the commuter rail, or all three– to get there.

Pouring into poorly ventilated stations, packed at times like sardines into buses, waiting for long stretches on crowded platforms increasingly draped with corporate advertising, even the better-paid among us must have difficulty repressing the flickering, broiling rush-hour thought that in the eyes of our current social system, we are all little more than cattle – agglomerated, anonymous labor to be shuttled back and forth in freight-cars. As T-riders at rush-hour we experience ourselves as collective, and yet as alienated; interchangeable, we are treated not so differently from any other “resource” Big Business requires to keep the products and the profits flowing. Against the current of a neoliberal ideology that constantly informs us that we are just “private individuals” and that “there is no society,” riding public transportation confronts millions of us every day with the fact that we remain social beings, whether we recognize and accept that fact or not. We depend upon this public service, have our lives shaped by this common space.

The fares we pay (on top of our taxes) do not even guarantee us a seat. Yet, day-in, day-out hundreds of thousands of T riders put up with – are expected to put up with – this indignity, paying for the privilege to stand, to be crammed, to be packed and shipped, just to get to work or to school, and back. The “privilege” to labor under conditions designed to make the “1%” even richer. Even after a long and often grueling day, we are supposed to just stand there and take it.

But what if instead of just taking it, we took it over?

The subway stations, I mean. Bus stops, too. What if, in the best spirit of Occupy, we asserted ourselves in that shared space, a space which the 99% already, in fact, occupy and occupy daily? Riders and workers together, what if we stopped just going along, acting like cargo (or movers of cargo) on our morning commute, and turned that commute into a community? What if the “cattle” started talking to one another, swapping stories, and sharing contacts? What if we asserted ownership over that hour or two every day that we spend commuting? For to Occupy transportation would be as much about occupying time – a set time every day, even twice a day – as occupying space. A bit of simple math suggests the temporal and political possibilities; a typical 30- to 60-minute one-way commute translates to between five and ten hours for someone who commutes five days a week. This amounts to 250 to 500 hours a year, perhaps 10-30,000 hours in a lifetime. A typical bus or subway car holds anywhere from dozens to a hundred people at a time. A typical bus or subway station has thousands of people pass through in a single hour. What if we stopped pretending that the train station or the bus stop was some kind of “non-place,” merely an “in between,” and started actualizing its social possibilities, lifting our heads, looking around and recognizing our common lot as T-riders and as members of the 99%, who, together, have the power to keep this system running, or to stop it in its tracks? Just as crucially, what if T-riders made common cause with T-workers – with subway operators and bus drivers and other vital public employees – against the dominant ideology that works to pit these groups against one another (“consumer” vs. “producer”; “customer” vs. “employee”)? How many leaflets could we share, how many contacts could we make, how many conversations could we have, if every commuting activist took up the call to Occupy Mass Transportation?

Besides providing a compelling (accessible, collective) choice of space (and implying a commitment to occupying a regular space in time), to Occupy Mass Transportation is to engage a site that brings together concretely a number of issues already of interest to occupiers (and former occupiers): issues of socio-economic injustice, worker rights, unaccountable government bureaucracy, austerity and privatization of the public sphere, financial predation and debt-crisis, (in)equality of access, racial discrimination and segregation, as well as cultural issues concerning the increased atomization and privatized disavowal of social life under late capitalism. It is also to take up the defense of a space that is coming under increasing assault by various schemes of austerity and privatization, as well as surveillance and criminalization of the poor, the non-white, and the young.

Furthermore, to fight for the defense and expansion of mass transportation – and the concurrent reduction or elimination of private auto-dependence – is to stand up for public health, for the global as well as local environment, for greater energy efficiency and sustainability, for a reduction in the waste of human time, and for extending what is often called the “right to the city” for all. In this sense it unites the local and global, the economic and the ethical, concerns in a way that is rather exceptional. As is well documented, mass transit systems are far cleaner than car-dependent systems in terms of local air pollution produced – pollution that is causally linked to childhood asthma and other illnesses. They are also far more energy efficient. At present, even the generally outdated – and far from state of the art – mass transit systems in the United States are 57% more energy efficient per passenger than are car-driven systems, just in terms of fuel usage alone. Mass transit is also far less damaging to the global environment in terms of carbon emissions; converting all US urban zones to mass transit from auto-dependency could lead to a significant drop in the US contribution to global warming.

Yet such is the social irrationality of the current system that many, if not all, public transit systems in this country are now facing waves of service cutbacks and fare hikes. In a moment of escalating ecological crisis, when mass transit options and subsidies should be expanded dramatically so that they becomes a viable option for as many people as possible – the ruling order is cutting back on support for clean collective transport. That these cutbacks are being forced upon transit systems in large part to meet the demands of predatory financial institutions, who have many of these systems locked into deep and long-term debt-repayment agreements, further makes mass transit a way to concretely unite the 99% while targeting the “1%.” It also makes them a potentially useful training ground for the broader struggle against the financialization, austerity, and privatization that increasingly characterize the contemporary capitalist state.

However we look at it, in terms of the use-values and material outputs involved, mass transit is a far more efficient and effective way for people to move about than our present auto addicted system can ever hope to be – especially in urban areas. The advantages are not just found in the realm of fuel and pollution. They are also found in terms of its comparatively light consumption of urban space (far less space needs to be allotted to rail tracks and stations than to roads and parking lots for the same number of passengers) and of commuter time (in terms of hours spent in traffic congestion). Moreover, in defending and fighting to expand the quality of and access to public transit, we are challenging the dogma and dominance of “American car culture” opening up a front for exposing and challenging not just the obvious environmental damage being done by the latter, but the less quantifiable yet deeply harmful antisocial norms of individualism, isolation, and alienation that surround the American icon of the car.15

At the same time, fighting for free mass transit for all gives us a chance to tap into the culture of mobility that is part of what allowed car companies to so hook Americans’ psyches for so long. It allows us to stand as advocates of the human right to move about freely (without state harassment or economic gates blocking the way). As Boston-area activist and reporter Emily Hopkins has put it, the cuts and fare hikes that are being forced on public transportation systems, in Boston and elsewhere, amount to making access to the supposedly public places of the city a privilege, when it should be a right available to all. “By raising fares they are making these destinations exclusive to those people…who have the means to live near or get to these places, who are wealthy or healthy enough to find alternative transportation via car or bike. The MBTA [the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the state agency that oversees public transportation] and Beacon Hill have a responsibility to ensure that the citizens of Boston – all of the citizens – have access to their own city.”16 In this sense, Occupying Mass Transportation lends itself to raising fundamental occupier issues about how a system that makes access contingent on a person’s financial means remains fundamentally undemocratic. Public transportation is not just an “accessibility issue”; it is itself a symbol of social Access, or the lack thereof. It is no exaggeration to say that where there is no accessible and affordable public transportation, there cannot be even formal liberal equality – let alone substantial social equality. Less immediately, but no less crucially, the state’s underfunding of such a clear social need provides activists with an opportunity to expose the deeper social injustice and irrationality in how resources are allocated within American society. “They’ve got trillions for war, and billions for prisons, but they can’t find an extra $100 million for the T?”The Banks get bailed out…The T gets sold out!”

Occupying our local T Stations thus provides an excellent opportunity to engage masses of the 99%, day-in and day out, around the interconnectivity of key issues within the context of the current political and economic system, holistically challenging dominant tendencies towards fragmentation of the Left into single-issue campaigns. Moreover it gives us the chance to raise these issues in a space that offers people a glimpse of their own collective subjection, and potential numerical might. To encourage and empower people to identify and to take conscious action as T-riders and T-workers is to make the occupy slogan “We are the 99%” that much more concrete and real. “T riders are the 99%. T workers are the 99%.” To take seriously the site of mass transportation is thus to bring together a cutting edge social issue (or issue cluster) with an actually existing, if often unacknowledged, common space, whose power has long been untapped. It is also to take up the challenge of breaking down existing social divisions (“customer” vs. “employee”) and to transform both alienated poles of this inherited false opposition. To occupy mass transportation, then, is to establish the conditions for the emergence of a new and potentially radical political Subject, one that brings together and fuses sectors of society that are usually kept apart, or kept from acknowledging one another as sharing common interests, within the “normal” ruling order. T-riders and T-workers, united, could make a material contribution to grinding the reckless ruling order to a halt.

Austeri-T: The Case of Boston

Here in Boston, as of July 1, 2012, the cost of riding public transportation – what we call “the T” – has been raised dramatically. Despite months of public protest from riders – ranging from thousands of people attending and speaking out at public hearings, to marches, rallies, petition drives, and even a ten-day occupation of the Statehouse Steps17 – the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority went ahead and raised fares for all riders by 23%, while cutting a range of services, effectively making riders pay more for less, at a time of record ridership.

In so doing, the MBTA – aided and abetted by the Massachusetts State Legislature and Governor Deval Patrick – effectively balanced this year’s budget on the backs of T-riders, a group that in general tends to be lower income than the general population. And in this economy, where the cost of living keeps rising while wages stagnate, more and more people are T-bound; they cannot afford an automobile. Nor can they afford not to go to work, which in effect makes this fare hike a wage cut. From another vantage point, the fare hikes constitute a regressive, back-door tax. A modern-day “T”-tax on workers who need to get to work. A tax on students who need to get to school. A tax on seniors and the disabled who need to get to the doctor, or to run their daily errands. In a cruel irony, it amounts to a tax hike on the 99% at a moment when the tax burden of the 1% is at historic lows, and when corporate tax evasion appears to be reaching new and unprecedented heights. These fare hikes to transportation come at a time when, despite decades of rising worker productivity, real wages have stagnated for most workers, when structural unemployment remains high, and when wealth has so accrued at the top of the social pyramid that the capitalists who straddle it have difficulty finding places to invest it “productively” (even if their notion of “productive” is one utterly indifferent to serving social needs). There is of course a dialectical, causal relationship between the deprivation of the poor and working-class, and the luxuriant surpluses of the owners and the rich. The top 1% now owns approximately 40% of global wealth – more than the bottom 50% combined. Tens of millions of people across the US have a net worth of next to nothing, and many of these folks are bound to public transit.

Perhaps the ugliest aspect of the recent MBTA hikes is the way they have targeted some of our most vulnerable people: seniors, students and the disabled. The MBTA has raised the price of student and senior T passes by approximately 50%, while jacking up the costs of the RIDE’s door-to-door services for the disabled by a crippling 100%. Many in the disabled community have argued that these steep fare hikes on the RIDE effectively amount to a service cut: they make the RIDE so much more expensive that many disabled persons will have to stop using it altogether, meaning RIDE services will be drastically reduced. Meanwhile those who once used this service to get around and to stay socially active will miss doctor’s appointments, forgo grocery shopping and visits to family and friends; they’ll spend more time isolated, locked in their homes. A group known as Mass Senior Action, following the July 1st fare hike implementation, recently expressed their feelings about the fare hikes to the Massachusetts State Legislature: they marched into the statehouse courtyard with blood-spattered shirts and what appeared to by knives sticking out of their backs.

Some will tell us, it could have been worse; rather than a knife in the back, T-riders could have received an outright beheading. “Scenario 1” and “Scenario 2,” as they were called when first introduced by the MBTA back in January, 2012, were indeed significantly more draconian. To what extent the 23% hike and more localized cuts that were enacted on July 1st are to be understood as reflecting MBTA and Legislature concessions to popular outrage, and to what extent the third “lesser evil” plan was merely a calculated political maneuver on behalf of MBTA management is something we may never know for sure.

But the point remains: the fare hikes represent an attack on “the 99%” at a time when they are already being squeezed. It represents a theft of hundreds of dollars from the pockets of hundreds of thousands of workers who are struggling to make ends meet as it is. It’s a fresh wound that has, this hot summer here in Boston, simultaneously cut into the already hurting flesh of an army of T-riders.

Furthermore, the hikes are a symptom of a sick system – a system that not only requires that people sell their labor to an employer to live, but makes them pay for the privilege of delivering their necessary services – a system that asks T-riders to “tighten their belts” while continuing to deliver hundreds of millions of dollars in interest payments to capitalist T-bondholders, including tax-payer bailed out banks (JP Morgan-Chase, Banks of America, UBS, and Deutsche Bank), without making these already cash-sloshed firms take even the slightest haircut.

Whether one can personally afford the fare hike or not, examining the reasons behind the T’s “financial crisis” shines a light on the increasingly corporate-captured nature of what are often presumed to be “public sector” services today. While it may not be the most immediately visible or clear-cut example of class exploitation or corporate predation on the public scene, the T’s crisis and the politician-bureaucrat-capitalist campaign to resolve this crisis (for one year only – another deficit is projected for next year) across the backs of T-riders provides a tremendous popular learning opportunity. Not to mention, an opening for engaging fellow riders in a conversation about the need to build a powerful movement of the 99% to overthrow the rule of the 1%.

Though the basic issue remains the underfunding of mass transit generally, the current crisis facing the MBTA can be traced back directly to the year 2000, when the Massachusetts State Legislature, under then Governor Mitt Romney, signed into law what was known as “Forward Funding.” Technically known by the fitting title of “The Enabling Act,” Forward Funding substantially restructured the finances of the MBTA. Prior to 2000, the MBTA had been essentially funded out of the state’s budget. Forward Funding, however, capped State support for the MBTA at one-fifth of Massachusetts Sales Tax (then 5%). At the same time, the public agency was authorized to issue bonds, attracting private investor capital to pay for present and future expenditures. This heady “freedom” however was immediately weighed down by Forward Funding’s additional stipulation: that $3.3 billion of Massachusetts State debt associated with the colossal and infamously expensive corporate-contracted tunnel and highway project known as the “Big Dig” be transferred to the books of the MBTA. Thus was a public agency for mass transit, the MBTA, re-born, burdened with billions of dollars in debt that had been taken on to complete a highway project, a subsidy not for T-riders, nor for urban dwellers generally, but for suburban commuters to the city and for the business leaders desiring easy access to the airport and the waterfront (not to mention, a subsidy to the automotive and oil industries that profit off carbon-burning car travel).

Already overly optimistic projections for sales tax revenue growth were further dashed with the Financial Crisis and Great Recession of 2007-8. The interest rate swaps on which the MBTA relied to reduce its exposure to capital market volatility ended up compounding, rather than ameliorating the financial problems inherent in such debt-based financing in the first place. Predictably, the result of all of this has been the ballooning of the MBTA’s debt, which now stands at close to $9 billion, as well as the proportion of the MBTA’s annual operating expenses and total budget which are devoted to debt service alone. Currently, 23% of MBTA spending goes to service on the (Big Dig) debt, with more than half of this going to interest payments. The MBTA spends more on debt service than on any other category of expense.

The flip side of these spiraling financing costs, this mountain of debt spending, of course, is mounting interest rate profits being raked in by MBTA bondholders. While it is not known publicly exactly who owns how many of these bonds, it is clear that A) large financial institutions profited heavily from the transactions to sell these bonds off in the first place; and B) at least four large taxpayer-bailed-out banks – J.P. Morgan-Chase, Bank of America, UBS, and Deutsche Bank – each have been profiting mightily from the interest rate swaps they contracted with the MBTA. A significant portion of our public transportation crisis, then, stems from the profiteering of these predatory financial institutions, and vice versa.

Finally, these fare hikes – and the struggle over them – here in Boston, and elsewhere, are a harbinger of things to come. Even proponents of the MBTA hikes have characterized the hikes and cuts as a “band-aid” for a patient with a much deeper malady. An additional $150+ million deficit is already being projected for next year, as more of the MBTA’s debt payments to bondholders come due, meaning that next year – barring some major structural change at the State and/or Federal level – the MBTA will be coming back for still more service cuts, fare hikes, and, just as likely, reductions in worker benefits or layoffs next year. And likely the year after that, as well. It would behoove the Occupy movement to begin preparing now for this conjuncture.

April 4th – Glimpsing the Potential of Worker-Rider Radicalism

The radical potential of such grassroots organizing around the defense of public transportation could be glimpsed last April 4th, when hundreds of T-riders and T-workers turned out together in Boston to protest the passage of the MBTA’s austerity budget. As many as a hundred local union workers, members of the Transit Worker Union (TWU, the local branch of the international Amalgamated Transit Union ATU), joined hundreds of occupiers and other community members in what became a National Day of Action for Transportation, featuring parallel actions in Chicago, Oakland and elsewhere. This April 4th rally was the culmination of a month-long Boston-area campaign rooted in the slogans: “No Cuts, No Hikes, No Layoffs!” and “We Need Affordable and Accessible Public Transportation for all of the 99%!”18

Critically, the focus leading up to April 4th was not only on the interests of T riders but also on T workers. This facilitated outreach and coalition building with established labor unions, as well as a deeper politicization of the struggle generally. Such a broad framing allowed the Occupy movement to combat the scapegoating of “spoiled public sector” workers, which has become so commonplace in mainstream political discourse, and to win worker trust by doing so. Such alliance-building and solidarity remains essential, looking forward, insofar as “divide and rule” rhetoric pitting riders against drivers, workers against youth, etc. remains a keystone of ruling-class strategy.

Particularly exciting about April 4th was not only the protest participation of transit workers. What was equally promising was that many of these workers, and even the ATU international leadership, were open to a radical framing of the transportation struggle, as not simply a (necessary and justified) struggle for adequate pay, benefits, and job security, but as a matter of human rights to public transportation, and also as a matter of radically misplaced governmental and social priorities: that is, as a matter of the military budget sucking funds from needed social programs. The April 4th Call to Action, which Occupy Boston issued, and which was promptly picked up and endorsed and echoes by Transit workers and then by leadership in the ATU (see Appendix I), cast the Transportation crisis as a symptom of a deeper malady infecting our society.

Occupy MBTA seized on the MBTA’s selection of April 4th as their day to enact a plan of cuts and hikes, invoking the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. who gave one of the most memorable and radical speeches of his career on that date. Known as “A Time to Break Silence” or “Beyond Vietnam,” King’s speech is memorable for its radical edge. As he then put it, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Through the MLK anniversary, occupiers sought to link the demand for greater public transportation funding to King’s 1967 statements linking the deprivation of social needs at home to the wasteful and destructive spending on imperialist wars and militarism abroad. The ATU picked up this critical language in their public statements. Moreover, in the spirit of King, they framed Transportation as an extension of the struggle for civil rights. For, as several participants put it, it’s one thing to win the legal right to sit on the bus. It’s another thing to have a bus system where everyone can actually get a seat, and where fare hikes don’t bar access to what should be available to all.

April 4, 2012 thus showed that it was possible to deepen and transform the struggle against transportation cuts into basis for a community-labor, rider-worker alliance, one that asserts basic human rights, while building consciousness and organization that targets the 1% at home and opposes US militarism and imperialism abroad, in a way that connects with the enduring legacy of the Civil Rights movement. There remains much work to be done. And Mass Transit is a promising place to do it.

APPENDIX I: Amalgamated Transit Union press-release endorsing April 4th actions

Acknowledging their mutual concern about the crisis in mass transit, the General Executive Board of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) has endorsed the National Day of Action for Public Transportation called by Occupy Boston to take place April 4, in cities all over America.

“Public transportation is a human right and critical to our nation’s economic recovery,” said ATU International President Larry Hanley. “We need to be clear that the mass transit crisis was caused in no small part by the diversion of billions of tax dollars to war and the corporations that benefit from war. And this has led to service cuts, transit worker layoffs, and higher passenger fares which are really just another kind of tax, levied on those who can least afford it.

“The ATU pledges our support for the Occupy National Day of Action for Public Transportation and our members will be involved in events and actions in Boston and across the country,” Hanley continued. “It’s the bankers and brokers – the 1% – who control the money for public transportation. It was their greed and corruption that brought our nation’s economy to its knees and destroyed America’s middle class. It’s time for our nation to invest in mass transit and improve the lives of the 99%, not pad the pockets of the 1%.”

Commenting on Occupy Boston’s plans, Hanley noted, “It is so appropriate that the National Day of Action for Public Transportation take place on the anniversaries of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s April 4, 1967 speech, ‘Beyond Vietnam: Breaking the Silence,’ because this crisis is about the toll and resources these wars have taken on working people and their families.”

The ATU has long believed that mass transit is an essential part of forging a sustainable future for our nation and that privatization of public transportation only leads to diminished service.

“Occupy understands that the transit system that took a century to build is threatened by the 1% who want all of the financial benefits, but none of the financial responsibilities of a civilized society,” Hanley continued. “It’s time for the 99% to demand that all Americans pay their fare share so that the U.S. can maintain the mobility which has been one of the hallmarks of its remarkable success, and changes must be made so that everyone has an equal opportunity to take part in that success.”

(www.atu.org/media/releases/transit-union-endorses-occupys-national-day-of-action-for-public-transportation)

 APPENDIX II: “Riding the Rails”: A sample subway car speech

Good afternoon, my fellow T-riders, if I may have your attention for 2 minutes. I know many of you have had a long day at work, so I promise to keep it short.

I’m working with the Boston Fare Strike Coalition. That’s Boston Fare Strike Coalition. We’re a group of T-riders who have come together to defend and extend our public transportation system, against the politicians and the bankers that are out to wreck it. We hope you will join with us.

I’m sure that most of you already know that the MBTA and the Mass State Legislature recently raised the price of riding the T in our city. They jacked up our fares by 23%, while cutting services. Making us all pay more for less.

In addition, they raised fares on students and seniors by around 50%, and on the disabled by over 100%, balancing the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable members of our community. Throwing our brothers and sisters under the bus.

This fare hike amounts to making us pay an additional TAX just to get to work. A TAX to get to school. A TAX to get to the doctors or to get groceries. It’s a TAX on T riders, on poor and working people, at the same time the rich are making record profits and dodging taxes like never before. It’s a wage CUT when wages are already too low as it is.

We at Boston Fare Strike say that this is wrong. And we won’t go along with it. They Say “Fare Hike”…We say “Fare Strike!”

[Note to activists: If you want to, or if you don’t have enough time to go on, you can wrap it up at this point. Or you can go in into the more educational and political piece below.]

The Big Lie here is that there “isn’t any money” so these cuts are “necessary.” Don’t believe those lies. These cuts aren’t necessary. There’s plenty of money. It’s just in the hands of a few. The richest 1% of the population owns more wealth than the bottom 50% in our society. But they are telling us that we need to “suck it up” and pay more, while they run off with trillions. It’s time we got the money from the people that GOT the money, the people that TOOK the money.

There’s plenty of wealth in this world to make necessary things like Transportation free for all. And it’s time we took it back. The US government spends trillions on war every year, trillions on bank bailouts, billions on prisons… But when something that the people actually NEED is in budget crisis, then they act like “there’s no money.” “The Banks Get Bailed Out, but the T Gets Sold Out.”

We at Boston Fare Strike say, “If the Banks Get a Free Ride…Why Can’t We?” We are calling for people to participate in a voluntary campaign of FARE REFUSAL. Come together with your friends, co-workers, and fellow riders and refuse to pay your fare. You shouldn’t have to pay more just to get to work or to school. Together we can send a message to the MBTA, the banks, and the politicians, and to our fellow riders that we won’t be treated like cattle anymore. That we won’t go along with an abusive plan that raises fares on the poor while continuing to pay interest profits to the rich. At Boston Fare Strike, we say, “It’s right to refuse to be abused. It’s right to refuse a fare that isn’t fair.”

The bankers and the politicians are already planning more service cuts and fare hikes for next year. They think we are just going to take it. But we don’t have to take it. We can refuse to pay. Together we have power. We can stop them. Let’s come together and take the power back.

Notes

1. I would want to underline at the outset the difference between the proposal to regroup and refocus Occupy by retaking a common space from myriad proposals and criticisms being directed against Occupy (often from liberal quarters) whose aim is to push the movement to settle on a set of clear, uniform (and easily co-optable) “demands.”

2. There have been, of course, a number of campaigns that have used the temporary occupation of a space as a tactic in a defensive struggle to stave off, for instance, eviction or home foreclosure. These campaigns should be studied and supported. But they seem to me, at least at this point, to lack the initiative as well as the critical mass that came with the outright seizure of territory which set off and sustained Occupy’s initial phase. That said, as this article is being written, spokes-council meetings are underway in several cities with the goal of holding major protest actions and perhaps even an outright occupation of Wall Street on the first anniversary of OWS’s launch, September 17 (known in the movement as “S17”).

3. See the Occupy reflections of my editor’s introduction to “Culture and Crisis” a special issue of Cultural Logic: an electronic journal of Marxist theory and practice. Available at www.clogic.eserver.org as well as (in print) from Works and Days:
www.worksanddays.net.

4. Jodi Dean, “Occupy as a Political Form,” a keynote speech at the Transmediale conference in Berlin, Germany. Posted April 12, 2012 at:
http://occupyeverything.org/2012/occupation-as-political-form/
See also Dean’s forthcoming book The Communist Horizon (London: Verso, 2012).

5. It’s worth noting that a similar “Occupy Everything” spirit appears to be animating the Everything for Everyone (E4E) political and cultural festival, being organized in Seattle for August 2012 (just as this article is being prepared), by revolutionary and communist-minded occupiers, in particular those with the Red Spark collective, a communist group affiliated with the Kasama Project (see www.kasamaproject.org). Writings of the Red Spark collective are available at www.redsprk.org . The web-page for the E4E conference can be found at www.everythingforeveryone.org.

6. I would refer readers to Jodi Dean’s blog and in particular to her August 15, 2012 entry “Paul Ryan has a twelve year plan to destroy the government. Where’s Ours?” http://jdeanicite.typepad.com/i_cite/2012/08/paul-ryan-has-a-20-year-plan-to-destroy-the-government-wheres-ours.html This short entry offers a valuable framework for a commons-based long-term political strategy.

7. I should thus mention here that, while I expect that some of the theoretical, strategic, and tactical ideas developed below may have resonance elsewhere, they have been developed very much in relation to the local situation here in Boston, Massachusetts, which has its own set of distinct historical, political, and social particularities.

8. This point has been developed well by Dean in her essay (co-written with Jason Jones), “Occupy Wall Street and the Politics of Representation.” It should be emphasized that Dean’s criticisms are put forth from a standpoint of enthusiastic support for the way the occupations “staged the incompatibility between capitalism and the people,” reasserting the radical antagonism running through contemporary society, in a publicly visible way that could not be ignored. I should also raise here a profound possibility, one that has been voiced by my friend Fanshen Wong: namely that Occupy’s “weakness” – its lack of a serious process for articulating, demarcating, and working through political divisions – while significant, and ultimately limiting, was also, in fact, constitutive of Occupy’s power. Fanshen has argued that Occupy’s appearance as a mass movement or Event was predicated on this very “weakness,” the open and public co-existence and even cooperation of ultimately incompatible political views. He suggests that Occupy could not have in fact flowered as it did if, for instance, certain cadre of old-school socialists had succeeded at the outset in getting the movement to hammer out unified demands. The dialectical flip side of Fanshen’s insight is that Occupy could not in fact overcome this weakness without abolishing its own basis, indeed, abolishing – or perhaps sublating – itself. Meaning: the movement must now assume a new and altogether different form. Such a necessary shedding of the mantle of “Occupy” has been announced by writers associated with the Oakland Commune in their compelling paper, “Occupy Oakland is Dead: Long Live the Oakland Commune!” (May 16, 2012),
http://www.bayofrage.com/featured-articles/occupy-oakland-is-dead/.

9. I confine listed criticisms here to the practices and habitus/patterns of Occupy, not including those criticisms which focus primarily on the social basis or demographic composition of Occupy. Such observations about who was and who was not participating actively in Occupy have their place, and are important if we are to keep our bearings in relation to the social totality. That said, while the practices and protocols of a social movement such as Occupy are something that can be transformed in a rapid fashion through acts of communication and acts of will, assuming the involvement of capable and conscious leadership, it is not immediately within the power of a social movement sequence such as Occupy to transform the social basis of which it is composed. This is not to deny that the transformation and broadening of that social basis – in particular to include more proletarianized forces – should be made a medium to long-term goal, and should be borne in mind as future actions and campaigns are selected and developed.

10. For an expression of the most compelling and critical thinking on this question within the Occupy movement, see the position paper of the Escalating Identity collective, “Who Is Oakland: Anti-Oppression Activism, the Politics of Safety, and State Co-optation” (April 30, 2012), http://escalatingidentity.wordpress.com/2012/04/30/who-is-oakland-anti-oppression-politics-decolonization-and-the-state

11. On the question of Occupy and demands, see Jay Jubilee and Doug Enaa Greene, “Beyond Demands,” The Boston Occupier, April, 19, 2012.
www.possible-futures.org/2012/01/03/a-movement-without-demands Also see Jodi Dean and Marco Desiriis, “A Movement without Demands?” in Possible Futures, A Project of the Social Science Research Council, January, 3, 2012.
www.possible-futures.org/2012/01/03/a-movement-without-demands. For my own take on the revolutionary promise of the “99% vs. 1%” framing of the movement, see my essay “Culture and Crisis” (note 3).

12. Post-eviction, I have tried to articulate something like an occupy ethic, in “What Occupy Demands…of Each of Us.” Available at Counterpunch,
www.counterpunch.org/2012/06/22/what-the-occupy-movement-demands-of-each-of-us June 22, 2012.

13. I am tempted to trace out the correspondences here between my own experiences and observations of Occupy and the theoretical and formal terms put forth by Alain Badiou in his new book, The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings (London: Verso, 2012). Particularly relevant here would be Badiou’s contention that what he calls “historical riots” (by which he means spontaneous uprisings that manage to take on a sustainable, potentially creative – not merely destructive – and thereby proto-political character) are characterized by an intensification (of subjective passion and commitment), localization (wherein a particular physical site emerges as a symbol of the universal issues at stake), and a contraction (in which a particular group of people come – for a time – to stand in for the People in general, as what he refers to as a “mass minority.” Although Badiou’s focus is primarily on the risings of the “Arab Spring” (with a comment here and there regarding developments in Europe such as the Spanish Indignados), there is obvious resonance with Occupy as well.

14. Some of the key moments of high profile state violence included: the pepper spraying of young female protestors in New York, the mass arrest of occupiers while marching across the Brooklyn bridge, the near death of an Iraq veteran in Oakland, after being shot in the face by a “less than lethal” police weapon, the mass pepper spraying of peaceful demonstrators at UC Davis, outright street battles between police and Occupy Oakland.

15. At a subjective level, at least at the level of potentiality, but also at the level of most folks’ immediate experience, there is a marked, even a radical difference between the experience of riding the T to work and the experience of driving oneself there, particularly through the crowded highways into and out of Boston. (I know that I feel it personally, and often intensely.) On the train, we experience fellow commuters as similar to us in facing a common obstacle – at least so long as there are adequate seats available. In car traffic however we experience our fellow commuters as the barrier to our individual, personal objective. They are “in our way.” We see here two radically different ways of experience oneself in relationship to “the people.”

16. “Free Radical: Taken for a Ride,” by Emily Hopkins. Published in Digg: Boston. July, 12, 2012. http://digboston.com/think/2012/07/free-radical-taken-for-a-ride/. One could add to this compelling statement the observation that all residents, including non-citizens, should share in this right to the city.

17. This occupation, launched on August 4, 2012 by an affinity group within Occupy Boston, was dubbed “Camp Charlie,” a reference to the famous protagonist in the 1940s protest song, later popularized by the Kingston Trio as “Charlie on the MTA.” Ironically, when the State remodeled the MBTA system’s finances and appearances in 2000, it made Charlie a central icon, putting a smiling Charlie on T-posters and even dubbing commuters’ T-passes “Charlie Cards.” Charlie, readers will recall, enters the subway and “never returns” because he cannot afford the fare increase (which at that time took the form of a transfer fee). He “rides forever ‘neath the streets of Boston,” because he doesn’t have the money to get home. Peter Dreier and Peter Vrabel offer a fascinating recuperation of the radical roots of “Charlie on the MTA” in their Dissent article, “Banned in Red Scare Boston: The Forgotten Story of Charlie and the MTA” (Spring, 2008),
http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=1167

18. One can follow the public history leading up to April 4th, and beyond, by reading through the links and press releases at www.occupymbta.org. For more recent developments, see www.bostonfarestrike.wordpress.com

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