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In the Wake of Occupy


In January 2012, Occupy Nashville forced a $20,000 mortgage principal reduction from JP Morgan Chase and saved the home of 78-year-old Helen Bailey, a former Civil Rights activist. From the outside, this modest but significant victory seemed natural, like a wave – the crisis of 2008 produced Occupy Wall Street, which spawned Occupy Nashville, which had the momentum to force a major bank to sacrifice a bit of profit to avoid further public shaming.

But from the inside, this victory was the result of something much more specific. After several months of networking and finger wiggling, a group of Occupy Nashville participants decided to pick a fight and win it. The ‘housing working group’ was the first to form around an issue, rather than tactics and logistics (e.g. the ‘direct action’ group). This enabled them to develop a strategy, sequence a set of tactics, and enact a viable plan that resulted in a tangible outcome.

Slavoj Žižek may have been a touch too gleeful when he warned Occupiers that ‘carnivals come cheap’ – but he made an important point. Both carnivals and strategic organizing projects come and go; but successful organizing leaves a residue, in the form of material gains for people struggling to survive. When he is not busy lobbing quasi-useful jabs at the Occupy movement, Žižek pushes the world to re-evaluate ‘the idea of communism’, attempting to liberate it from its historical association with Stalinism and the USSR. But there is a massive void between the idea of communism – which in and of itself is a kind of intellectual carnival – and the practice of strategic organizing. It is the goal of any serious left formation to fill this gap and link innovative radical analysis to strategic practice.

A quick scan of the United States reveals a goodly number of leftists who are engaged in strategically-driven projects: for poor and working class people, immigrants, people of color, women and a number of other subjugated groups. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has successfully pushed a dozen or so major corporations to join their Fair Food Program in as many years. Since the 1980s, UNITE HERE (then just ‘HERE’) has combined worker organizing, electoral politics and anti-corporate campaigning to win a number of large victories. In the last few years, the Dreamers have used a range of creative tactics to move the Obama administration on immigration policy, setting the stage for the possibility of significant reforms in his second term. There certainly is not enough scaled, strategic organizing, as any observer of the dwindling U.S. labor movement will tell you. But it does exist.

As important as these various organizing initiatives are however, they stop far short of constituting a full-blown left. Bill Fletcher Jr. and Carl Davidson write that there are two and a half lefts in the United States: the social movement left, described above; the ‘organized left’, in the form of small, mostly sectarian or regional anti-capitalist political organizations; and finally, the ‘lone rangers’ (see: this author), who have no political affiliation and minimal structural impact beyond perhaps writing, teaching, agitating or performing music. There is certainly nothing in the United States like the range and scale of political organization that has given rise to popular left front SYRIZA in the wake of Greece’s financial crisis. The U.S. is filled with leftists; what it lacks is a left with power.

However, this was not always the case. Even a cursory reading of U.S. history reveals the impact of organized communists, socialists, and occasionally anarchists on some of the most important movements of the 20th century. Labor strategy and organization in the 1930s was deeply influenced by the Communist Party (CP), and in cities like New York, communists had a positive impact well into the middle of the century. Indeed, before becoming a vibrant Civil Rights leader, Ella Baker spent time in the City and once said in an interview quoted by Charles Payne, “I don’t think we have any more effective demonstration of organizing people for whatever purpose [than the Communist Party].” The reactionary right often derided the Civil Rights movement as heavily communist, and they were not entirely incorrect; communist influence spread deep into the south, helping to move forward the nascent Civil Rights movement, as the experience of the young Ella Baker illustrates.

Perhaps one of the most important lessons from the history of the organized left in America come from 1930s’ New York, where left labor unions, the Communist Party and the American Labor Party (ALP) wielded incredible influence. The Communist-led Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) unions were far more likely than their American Federation of Labor (AFL) counterparts to strategize for the benefit of the working class as a whole, and their racial and gender politics were far more progressive. But the left built power in the city beyond just the workplace. Joshua Freeman writes that in 1945, the New York City Counsel boasted two open Communists and two ALPers, one of whom received more votes than any other candidate. The benefits of this practical radicalism were obvious: mid-century New York City claimed the most comprehensive rent control laws in the country, hundreds of thousands of units of public housing, and a dirt-cheap public transit system – all thanks in large part to the efforts of Communist-led and influenced organizations. Such history makes clear the correlation between strategic left-oriented organization and tangible outcomes for poor and working class people.

By some significant measures, the influence of the organized left in the early to mid 20th century was stronger in New York City than anywhere else. But New York was certainly not the only part of the country inhabited by the organized left. Martin Lipset and Gary Marks describe the zenith of Communist Party influence in U.S. politics from 1935-1939. During those years, the Party followed a ‘Popular Front’ strategy, engaging meaningfully with liberal organizations throughout the country. They successfully influenced elections in 35 of 48 states, and held significant control of the Democratic Party structure in four. Additionally, CP members organized a wide range of student, religious and farm groups. And perhaps most importantly, their leadership and militancy in many CIO unions, especially the United Auto Workers, was fundamental to the formation of the American middle class.

McCarthy era repression and left purges changed all of this, and the U.S. is still feeling the effects. In excruciating detail, Freeman documents the assault on Communists and other radicals. In addition to a long list of anti-labor revisions to the National Labor Relations Act, the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act forced anyone who stood before the National Labor Relations Board to take an anti-Communist oath. In union after union, anti-Communist fervor spread, and those of a conservative ilk replaced strong left leadership. At times the anti-Communist wave was inauspiciously mixed with anti-black and anti-Jewish racism to form a violent brew: a Paul Robeson concert in 1949 was attacked by anti-Communist racists who threw rocks, beat some attendees and even burned a cross – not in the deep south, but in the distinctly northern town of Peekskill, New York. By the mid-1950s, the Communist Party was relegated to the shadows, the ALP was long gone, and labor union leadership was measurably more conservative, setting the stage for labor’s demise.

Today a common narrative suggests that the dwindling U.S. labor movement and corresponding rise in inequality are tied directly to globalization and outsourcing, cemented by Reagan’s assault on organized labor. But it is no coincidence that labor’s decline followed a full frontal assault on communists and socialists of all stripes who held significant leadership positions in the movement. Given the dynamics of capitalism, globalization feels inevitable. But U.S. labor’s lackluster response to a rapidly changing economy is also the product of a leadership purged of any radical political orientation – which inevitably resulted in myopic, industrially specific responses to labor outsourcing.

In a material sense, the decline of labor is tied intimately to the decline of the left. If a new left is to emerge today, invigorating the labor movement and building power for a whole host of oppressed groups, it must combine the two and a half lefts elaborated by Fletcher and Davidson to build a strategic left practice. Throughout academia and in a handful of independent presses, there are ‘lone rangers’ creating radical consciousness, but with no corresponding strategic program. The social movement left is waging inspiring battles and winning many important victories against monolithic corporations and entrenched elected officials. But their efforts are regional, local or narrowly issue-based.

Sadly, not much needs to be said of Fletcher and Davidson’s so-called organized left. The U.S. boasts but a small handful of non-sectarian, mass-based political organizations: namely the Vermont Progressive Party and the Working Families Party, which operates in two of the five states that allow fusion voting. But while their electoral and legislative impact is compelling, both parties remain geographically constrained, and neither has used their engagement with the many organizations that constitute them to build a fully radical, powerful, tactically creative, mass-based movement.

But certainly the lessons, conditions and elements exist for such a comprehensive organization to emerge. The limits of sectarianism and the horrors of Stalinism are clear and suggest the need for an open-minded and non-authoritarian approach to left movement building. Meanwhile, the Civil Rights, Black Power, feminist, immigrant rights, gay rights and a host of other mid and late 20th century movements have made it clear that class need not be the fundamental identity of vibrant left organization. At the same time, the crisis of 2008 has accelerated an inequality that has been steadily rising since 1980 – and the economic hits are more extreme for black and brown Americans. Economic class is still a vital point of departure, even as new organizational formations become more conscious and strategically inclusive of an array of structural oppressions. And finally, the history of left organization in the 1930s and nascent political formations today, point toward the potential of a radical, mass-based political organization that is constituted by but independent of labor unions, community organizations, left academia and the many other entities that compose liberal civil society.

And indeed something like this began to emerge in the first month of Occupy Nashville: union local presidents and organizers, Civil Rights leaders past and present, immigrant rights organizers, student radicals, social workers, professors, progressive elected officials and many more were regularly at the encampment. The energy was palpable. Occupy capitalized on a collective anger and transformed it into a sense of possibility. In some limited situations, that possibility became actuality. The ‘housing working group’ that snatched Helen Bailey’s home from the hands of JP Morgan Chase is now the Nashville Housing Rights Campaign. They are currently taking on one of the city’s most egregious ‘slum’ landlords. An anarchist reading and action group formed through Occupy Nashville and continues to boast significant membership. Many smaller collaborative projects also emerged from the stir of the encampment.

But there is no doubt that Occupy Nashville was also a missed opportunity. Nearly every organization that would constitute a mass-based, strategically oriented left was present. But no one knew quite what to do. Rather than attempt to build the improbable by uniting the two and a half lefts, it was easier to jump into the immediately practical or retreat into the ideologically abstract. As the encampment faded, the two and a half lefts were not much closer to forming a mass-based movement than when the first tent was pitched.

Occupy has offered countless lessons through its many success and failures. But one lesson is particularly important for the future of the U.S. left: It is not enough to gather together, absent a plan. It is important. It is fun. In some significant ways, it is radical. But without a viable plan for poor and working class people of all colors, genders and sexual orientations to build power, the gathering will fade. And what it leaves behind, however important, will be rife with many of the same limitations that have faced the U.S. left for decades.

Occupy offered affirmative lessons as well: If strategic left entities are to form today, the city will be their birthing ground.  Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri suggest that the city is for leftists today what the factory was in the 19th and 20th centuries. Where past Marxist-influenced left efforts focused on organizing factory employees, new left projects must organize all of those vibrant but subjugated people who constitute the urban environment. Theoretical limitations notwithstanding, Hardt and Negri offer a tangible starting point for a new left, one that is corroborated by the experience of Occupy: the city.

From New York to Nashville, from Boston to Los Angeles, the city is vibrant and contradictory: diverse, creative and liberal, but dominated by wealth, developers and landlords. U.S. cities are governed by capital, but constituted by a vast array of labor unions, community organizations, tenant rights groups, feminist organizations, anti-racist formations and more.

There is power in the city. In 2005, the Transit Workers Union Local 100 crippled New York, shutting down the subway with an ‘illegal’ strike and winning their contract demands in short time. And just weeks ago, in 2013, the bus drivers in New York City struck for job security, slowing the economy as parents spent extra time getting their children to school. One can only imagine the results if such militant tactics were used as instruments of a strategically oriented, popular left, fighting for goals broader than individual contracts. It would quickly become clear just who actually creates and controls urban capital.

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When Occupy Nashville successfully tore property from the hands of JP Morgan Chase, one lesson was clear: there is wisdom in picking fights that are winnable. But another lesson was latent: there is also wisdom in re-positioning, such that new and larger battles can be fought successfully. The task of the two and a half U.S. lefts is to re-position themselves and the countless people and organizations that constitute them, to build real, tangible and long-lasting power for poor and working people of all colors, genders and sexual orientations.

The first step, as with all tangible left projects, involves organizing: Members of the social movement and lone ranger lefts pushing one another to form an organized left.

Sitting in the same room together and making a plan.

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