OWS and the Class/Race Dynamic

Richard A.

The wintering over of the Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS) portends an American Spring like what has come to be called the Arab Spring. An enlarged and ennobled struggle between pernicious elements of vulture, predatory, and global capitalism and solidarities of workers, the victimized, and poor people is now such a realizable possibility that the US government is forced to scramble to restore the illusion of a sustainable economy before the weather warms and people’s hopes for equity return them to the streets. For, as Stéphane Hessel writes in Time for Outrage, “The widening gap between the very poor and very rich is made all the more insulting by the access the poor now have to the internet and other forms of mass communications that highlight these inequalities.”1

The social significance of the OWS movement is that for the first time in two generations, populist unification through shared goals of freedom and human dignity has again been thought to be possible. Shared global media and the Internet, to use Anthony Appiah’s memorable phrase, produce “collective shaming,” where the conduct of those who are greedy for wealth or power cannot be hidden from the constant gaze of “Anonymous.” OWS is exemplified by an “Invisible Committee” that is preparing for what it calls The Coming Insurrection. The Invisible Committee writes:

Revolutionary movements do not spread by contamination but by resonance. Something that is constituted here resonates with the shock wave emitted by something constituted over there. A body that resonates does so according to its own mode. An insurrection is not like a plague or forest fire – a linear process that spreads from place to place after an initial spark. It rather takes the shape of a music, whose focal points, though dispersed in time and space, succeed in imposing the rhythm of their own vibrations, always taking on more density. To the point that any return to normal is no longer desirable or even imaginable.2

OWS subsumes socialist, anarchist, environmental, civil rights, and radical political ends. This is testimony to its broad social base. The politics of the OWS movement is also an advance in racial dialectics. When Martin Luther King, Jr. realized that free-market capitalism was the structural underpinning not only for racism, but also for war and poverty, he overcame his false consciousness about the “dream.” He had awakened to the reality of the structural causes of colonialism, expropriation, and denigrated human capital. Since the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, Black people in America have been seduced into believing in American exceptionalism and that reparative equity could be attained. Yet two generations later, the wealth-gap between Black and white has remained or continues to increase. Even the election of Barack Obama has not solved – nor can it – the equity problems between the races.

So, the coalescing of the 99% around issues that stress class over race becomes the sentinel moment that helps us get to the bottom of a long-standing controversy that Marxists have had to address: is race the result of class, or class the result of race? For perhaps “race” is determined by class standing: the richer one is, the whiter one is – which is to say that “race” is (in Althusser’s terminology) more an interpellated social reality of oppressive economic ideology than a natural phenomenon. Poor Blacks and newly disenfranchised whites pushed from the middle class by corporate greed have become more willing to agree that the similarities of their struggles transcend their racial differences. The mode of production creates the social divisions (including racial ones) so that multicultural societies can be more easily exploited. To the extent that people recognize this and see beyond such artificially imposed “differences,” they can be empowered by the thought that “there might be another way.” The 99% are Black, white, Hispanic, old and young, college graduates and street people. Philosophically, OWS is a struggle for the transvaluation of economic values. Like Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, OWS is a revolutionary quest to transvalue and transform extremes of wealth and poverty.

When Jean-Paul Sartre first visited New York City in the 1950s, he is reputed to have said something like, “Any society that countenances millionaires, while other people starve in the streets, condones murder.” With twenty percent of the US population living in poverty, where billionaires and their corporate citizenry refuse to share the responsibilities of the racism, war, and poverty they’ve created locally and globally, they condone murder. In one of his last public speeches, Kwame Ture said, “We will win because we are right.” What Ture intended was that socialism will win – the 99% will win – because we are right.

The capacity of an increasing number of people to identify (via Guy Fawkes) with their anonymity – in hacking into the empire, in creating visible presence, in saying No to quietism – is a healthy sign for human nature. For the first time in generations, we can suspect that our anonymous neighbors might be much like we are, struggling to maintain the illusion that all is well, while knowing that our governments continue to fail us. OWS is an important movement because it regenerates hope that change is possible. Much like the coming of spring, it offers the hope of renewal – hope for the coming insurrection. Notes 1. New York: Twelve, 2011, 12. 2. Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection, Cambridge: MIT Press – semiotext(e), 2009, 12-13.