Their Crisis and Our Response*


Howard Zinn would have loved to see you all here today, and to have been part of this historical moment. He believed that we should each do the right thing regardless of whether or not it has a visible impact. When a positive impact materializes, it then comes as a pleasant surprise. But it wouldn’t happen without all the seemingly thankless work that came before.

What the Occupy movement recognizes is that the problems facing the 99% are systemic in nature. They won’t be cured by putting one or other of the two capitalist parties in office.

The systemic contradictions have been around for a long time, but the popular response in the US is unlike anything since the 1930s. And now, there is the added urgency posed by environmental breakdown, which requires us to question previously unchallenged assumptions about the desirability of growth.

The 1930s experience remains important to us, however, for what it shows both about what a government can do and about what it needed to do more of.

On the positive side, it proved that the government can directly create jobs that are at once socially useful and well paying. Such programs are not even being considered at present, when all the debate is about ways of subsidizing private capital to create jobs – an approach that costs more and does less good than public works programs.

On the negative side, the New Deal of the 1930s didn’t take social power away from private capital. It weakened capital slightly, but not enough to stop it from later returning with a vengeance, with the bipartisan dismantling of welfare protections and banking regulations.

The problem, then, is capitalism. The Occupy movement understands this in broad outline, but still has to meet practical challenges.

Critics of the Occupy movement talk a lot about wanting to hear immediate demands. The big demand, however, is a long-range one: to change the basic structure of society. This doesn’t preclude making immediate demands, but it sets the framework for defining them.

If the long-term goal is to take class-power away from the 1%, the medium-term task is to build a movement – and eventually a political organization – that is actually run by the majority. For this, we’ll need to go far beyond what was achieved in the 1930s.

How have we arrived at our present starting-point? What conditions do we face? What political resources can we build on?

First, there are the dramatic levels of unemployment and home-foreclosures that have surrounded all of us for more than three years, together with the unprecedented levels of economic inequality brought about by decades of union-busting, deregulation, globalization, privatization, and service-cutbacks. The fact that all this has occurred regardless of the party in power has strengthened awareness of the need for an independent popular alternative.

Second, especially since the collapse of first-epoch socialism (1989), there has been an increasingly unrestrained aggressiveness on the part of capital. This has been shown not only in the Bush doctrine (continued under Obama) affirming that the US can launch military actions wherever it chooses, but also on the domestic front. On top of the recent state-level attacks on public sector unions, there are also moves by many state governments to severely restrict the voting rights of poor people (via voter-ID rules, limited access to early voting, etc.), which could remove from the voting rolls up to 5 million of those who are most in need of progressive economic policies.

Third, the Democrats continue to collaborate in a conservative economic agenda by perpetually pointing to the ever-more outrageous proposals made by Republicans and claiming to be “not that bad.” This underlines the importance, for the Occupy movement, of not allowing the Democrats to co-opt the rising popular outrage. The point is not that we should never engage in electoral politics, but rather that our doing so should be conditional upon having candidates who are from our midst – not just politicians who say things that we like to hear.

Fourth, on the positive side, we now have a potent alternative media which was spurred especially by the 1999 demonstrations in Seattle against the World Trade Organization. It includes at present such sites/programs as Truthout, Common Dreams, Democracy Now, Free Speech Radio News, Making Contact, CounterPunch, Alternet, and WhoWhatWhy. We should use these venues, critique them when necessary, and help them expand their reach. The other great positive force in recent months has been the inspiring example of popular movements “from the Mideast to the Midwest.”

Finally, the crisis, unwittingly aided by right-wing anti-socialist rhetoric, has created a new openness to socialism as a systemic alternative. Its grounding in US history is marvelously presented in John Nichols’ 2011 book, The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition...Socialism. Howard Zinn would have admired this book. Its message is that socialism is ultimately inseparable from democracy. The exact forms it will take are for us collectively to work out. The Occupy movement is a powerful start.

*Based on the inaugural talk of the Howard Zinn Memorial lecture series at Occupy Boston.  Given at Dewey Square, Boston, October 13, 2011.