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The Occupy Movement: A Marxist Uprising?


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‘With the collapse of Communism, Marx’s contribution to the analysis of culture lost its contemporary significance.’ Discuss.' An analysis of the global Occupy protests in 2011/12 in light of Marxist philosophy.

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The Occupy Movement: A Marxist Uprising?

  1. 1. MARCH 2012 ‘With the collapse of Communism, Marx’s contribution to the analysis of culture lost its contemporary significance.’ Discuss. ART, CULTURE & SOCIETY 4,294 words Student: 1160350
  2. 2. Introduction When Eric Hobsbaum (2011) wrote that, ‘There are not many thinkers whose name alone suggests major transformations of the human intellectual universe,’ he was referring to the deep and far- reaching philosophical impact made by the writings of Karl Marx. Propounded against the background of the great Western European socioeconomic upheaval known as the Industrial Revolution, Marx’s controversial cultural analysis was a driver of political change across the world. It inspired workers’ movements in the West, and the establishment of Communist states in Russia, China, South East Asia and Latin America (Simon 1986). For much of the 20th century, the world was ideologically divided between the Western capitalist democracies and the Communist states. But with the fall of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites, practical attempts to apply Marxism were widely judged to have failed. Marx’s theories of socialism seemed to lose their significance, both for politicians and intellectuals. (Hobsbawm 2011) When the heavily symbolic Berlin Wall fell in 1989, a new economic era had already begun, marked by the deregulation of markets and the growth of a global, neoliberal capitalism that promised prosperity and plenty in the place of socialism’s restriction and repression. (Petras 2003) In the light of capitalist successes and with no alternative system now apparent, it was easy for the world to dismiss Marx’s doctrines as obsolete relics of a murky industrial age. And yet in the past three or four years, academic literature), popular media and public discourse all indicate a resurgence of interest in what the long-neglected German philosopher had to say. (Panitch 2009, Lewis 2012) The return of Marx? The event that has reignited the debate is, of course, the global economic crisis (GEC). Owing to overgenerous lending practices and overenthusiastic market speculation, key financial institutions found themselves out of depth, and share values began to plummet in 2007/2008. The rapid and devastating knock-on effect for businesses and state economies around the world led to a deep
  3. 3. economic recession that has seen employment rates and living standards decimated across Europe and America (FT 2012), the heartland of free market capitalism. Civil unrest and public protest, born out of dissatisfaction with the economic situation, has spilled repeatedly onto the streets of cities like Athens, Rome, New York, London, Washington DC and Los Angeles. (Mason 2012) In this context, the question of Marx’s contemporary significance becomes very relevant. The flaws of the capitalist system are once again being held up to intense scrutiny, and many are turning to Karl Marx, arguably capitalism’s most famous critic, for answers. (Anievas 2010) Marx’s philosophy can be divided into two aspects, the first an analysis of capitalist culture, and the second a revolutionary political vision. This essay will consider the relevance of the former in the light of today’s globalised economy, and that of the latter with reference to the recent spate of protest, specifically the anti-capitalist Occupy Movement. Through this, conclusions will be drawn about whether, and to what extent, Marx’s philosophy can claim contemporary significance. Marx’s economic and cultural analysis Although Marx wrote a wide range of essays and texts, it will be useful here to break down his analysis of capitalist culture and its effects into three essential parts: the base and superstructure model, the alienating nature of capitalist production, and the social inequality it breeds. Economic base and cultural superstructure It was Marx’s belief that the system of economic relations adhered to form a basis on which the legal, political and social structures of society are formed. He pointed to the prevalence of patriarchal values and communitarian attitudes during the pre-capitalist feudal systems, contrasting these with the values of ‘bourgeois economics’ which he blamed for replacing charitable social relations and human worth with a culture of ‘callous cash value...egotistical calculation.’ (Marx 1848,p82)
  4. 4. While the language of these assertions may be somewhat hyperbolic, it should be noted that the quotations are drawn from The Communist Manifesto which, as a work of political rhetoric, is given to strong and passionate language throughout. Marx likely overstates the ‘idyllic relations’ (ibid) of pre-capitalism, while probably exaggerating the stark nature of social relations under capitalism. However, his core assertion is that, ‘With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed.’(Baxandall 1974) If we examine the economic shift beginning the late 1970s, and its effects on societies, this statement may begin to ring true in contemporary ears. Economic deregulation and financial boom came about mainly through the actions of Western leaders in the late 1970s and 1980s. The United States and United Kingdom, led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, are considered to have led this shift. (Colvin 2009) A long tradition of state- regulated capitalism was abandoned for what has been termed ‘market fundamentalism,’ a neoliberal system under which businesses are more or less free to operate according to market forces. The immediate economic effects were a boom in globalisation, and a rise in international currency trading; people could now speak of a truly global economy. (Bennett 2001) And Marx may well have attributed the subsequent political, legal and social transformations, to these changes in economic structure. Political and legal effects Several commentators have noted that over the decades following this, state policies and laws have altered substantially, promoting the autonomy of the global economic system. Growing commitment to the supremacy of free trade has elicited claims that state governments become subservient to market forces. Deregulating laws were passed in the US, UK, Canada, Australia and the European Union, with the intent of facilitating business operations. (Bratton 1997) To take one British example, the power of trade unions, for decades influential political proponents of the
  5. 5. working class, was systematically dismantled by a series of Conservative laws, aimed at reducing the impact of industrial action and employee pressure on the workings of business. (Towers 1989) Furthermore, it is argued that these cultural changes affected the entire political spectrum. The Left as a political force has been dwindling since the turn to neoliberalism. Even traditionally leftist parties, such as Britain’s Labour Party under Tony Blair and France’s Socialists under Lionel Jospin, pursued privatisation, reductions in state welfare and deregulation of business.(Hamilton 2008) Petras and Veltmeyer (2003) claim that, ‘All of the European regimes have adopted the military neoliberal agenda promoted by their banks and multinationals.’ (p111-113) Certainly what appears to be the case is that the initial shift away from welfare and state control towards corporate-friendly deregulation has created a political atmosphere in which governments increasingly support big business. The power of the labour and financial markets to shift around the world exerts unprecedented pressure on governments to make economic conditions favourable by slashing corporation tax and reducing wage restrictions. This comes at the expense of workers, who in these times of economic hardship find the burden shifted towards them via public service cuts, welfare reductions and mass redundancies. (Kiado 2010) This effective coupling of state policy to economic forces strongly calls to mind Marx’s claim that, ‘The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.’ (Marx,p82) It poetically describes the current situation, in which the economic elite are often the greatest, or even the only, beneficiaries of government policies. Social effects There is evidence that the values fostered by the free market have filtered into human society and had an effect on personal and social relations as well as political ones. The cliché associated in popular imagination with the 1980s boom, ‘Greed is Good,’ provides a valuable, if trite, insight into the shift. Commentators like Owen Jones (2011) and George Soros (1998) are convinced that the
  6. 6. neoliberal economic agenda helped to create a society in which material wealth is held in ultimate esteem, and the poor are no longer pitied or respected, but disdained and blamed for their failure. Major indicators of this attitude come from the popular media in deregulated countries like the UK. Here, a culture of vilification of perceived ‘benefit scroungers’ and ‘spongers’ has built up, fuelled by gleeful headlines like ‘Benefits cheat told to sell home after being caught on waterslide,’ (Sun 2012) and moralistic programmes like The Jeremy Kyle Show, which ‘undermine support for government anti-poverty programmes by presenting the less well-off as "undeserving" objects of derision.’(Sparrow 2008). Such motivations lead to a cultural bias towards favouring the well-off. If we recall Marx’s assertion that ‘the ruling ideas are forever those of the ruling classes,’ (Marx,p102) it should come as no surprise that despite the high unemployment and falling incomes in today’s Britain, cuts to welfare including child benefits and disability living allowance are on the government agenda, along with moves to reduce the tax rate for the highest earners. (BBC 2012) ‘The capitalist system is alienating and corrupts human dignity’ Karl Marx was deeply critical of the effect that he perceived capitalist production to have on the human experience. For him, labour was a natural and enjoyable part of human life, but he regarded capitalism as devaluing people and their work: All means for the development of production transform themselves into means of domination over, and exploitation of, the producers; they mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil. (Mclellan 1975, p54) This reminds us that Marx was writing at the time of the great European sweatshops, when ever- more mechanised factory production processes were indeed fragmenting work, dividing labour into ever simpler tasks, and drawing on a large, replaceable workforce that was unskilled and poorly
  7. 7. paid.(Hopkins 1982) What relevance can these claims have in today’s largely service-based economy, where laws and regulations have thankfully intervened over the past century and a half, to improve working conditions and pay levels? The answer is twofold. First of all, it is true that the Western economies to varying degrees have shifted away from manufacturing and towards the service industries. This means that if we are not to discount Marx’s ideas on the basis of mere semantics, we must take a less literal approach to his terms ‘production’ and ‘labourer.’ Despite European Union regulations aimed at reducing working times, (2003) it actually appears that the average working time is increasing, with research in the UK and US especially pointing to increased levels of stress, and reduced leisure and family time across the board. (Gillan 2005) Over the past decade, the number of British workers working in excess of the European legal limit of 48 hours a week has more than doubled to over 25%. What’s more, over half of employees avoid making full use of holidays and break-times provided, citing ‘a heavy workload or fear of upsetting the boss.’(Bunting 2004) It seems that there is still a case for arguing that the system transforms ‘lifetime into working time.’ (Mclellan,p54) Secondly, the literal conditions of exploitative factory work to which Marx refers are not in fact extinct. They are still with us in the developing and emergent economies of the world, which might be said to be currently experiencing their own industrial revolutions. In China, India and Brazil, we see rapid booms in construction and manufacturing, (MAPI 2011) driven to a large extent by cheap labour operating in poorly regulated working environments. One survey of China’s factories found that over 80% flout minimum wage laws, and 30% employ children under working age. (CLW 2010) Once again the drive for accumulation and productivity is set above human welfare: Marx’s old observation that man as the aim of production has given way to production as the aim of man. (Baxandall,p63-4) ‘Capitalism promotes social inequality’
  8. 8. A major part of Marx’s discourse deals with class. The Communist Manifesto famously opens with a bold claim that ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.’ (1848) This meshes with his theory that society is built on an economic base; his idea is that relations to production have determined historical movements, and that these class-related movements have been largely antagonistic. Although he does not give specific examples, these are readily supplied by the imagination: Medieval revolts, European wars, New World conquest and colonialism all pitted the economically advantaged against the disadvantaged, and were largely driven by desire for material gain. Although these fall short of proving that all history can be attributed to class struggle, they provide prominent examples of events that fit the pattern. The terms ‘proletariat’ and ‘bourgeoisie’ (or capitalists) are used by Marx to denote those providing labour for production, and those controlling the means of production. He believed that the separation of these two functions, which is a key feature of the capitalist system, was the root of inequality and class-based oppression. Do the proletariat and the bourgeoisie still exist? Even those most staunchly in favour of capitalism make no secret of the fact that it creates disparity. For Anthony Seldon, ‘Inequality is a necessary result of allowing people to advance as individuals in the market.’(2007,p10) A less complimentary opinion of today’s global capitalism is that it ‘generates excessive social inequalities, non-functioning markets and political instability.’(Petras,p225) The fact is that the gap between the wealthy and the poor has been expanding over recent decades and continues to do so, and a major reason for this deepening divide is the opening up of international labour markets. (Bennett 2001) The globalised nature of the modern economic system makes it easier for cheap labour to be accessed and exploited; driving down production costs and raising profits. The corporate term ‘outsourcing’ refers euphemistically to the now commonplace search for less financially taxing pools of labour worldwide. (Dixon 2008) Thus the old divisions of proletariat and bourgeoisie take on a new, international dimension, with wage-labourers in both developed and developing countries dependent for livelihood on those controlling the means of production, the ‘transnational capitalist class.’ (d225)
  9. 9. Ethan Kapstein (1996) argues that the deep North-South socioeconomic divide is creating a social discontent that is inherently destabilising and untenable, tending towards uprising and unrest. He refers to the orthodox terminology by which the world is divided roughly into the economically advanced North and the less developed South. As we have seen in recent years, of course, these divisions are shifting and breaking down as emerging markets enjoy rapid growth, and the established economies of Europe and America struggle under debt, inflation and financial insecurity. But more significant than the geographical parameters are the socioeconomic implications to which Kapstein refers. His suggestion that the poor and exploited classes can be expected to react against their lot under global capitalism, is a modern day echo of the second, more controversial part of Marxist philosophy. Having considered the continuing relevance of Marx’s analysis of capitalism and its effects, we can now move to consider whether his predictions of a proletarian uprising have any contemporary significance. Marx’s call to action Partly in prophecy and partly in exhortation, Marx foretold that the inequality of the capitalist economy would lead inevitably to popular uprising, resulting in the end of the system: With this [the rise of capitalism] too grows the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanism of capitalist production itself...Centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument...The knell of capitalist private property sounds. (Mclellan,p56) So for Marx, capitalism holds the seeds of its own destruction; the mechanisms of bringing together labour forces and concentrating people under harsh conditions was bound to engender rebellion and the establishment of a fairer system: communism, in which ‘all the springs of co-operative
  10. 10. wealth flow more abundantly.’ (ibid) In order for this to be achieved, however, Marx specifies that: ‘Man must recognise his own forces as social forces, organise them and thus no longer separate social forces from himself in the form of political forces.’ (ibid,p30) More plainly, this is an appeal to the workers to seize control of their own destiny, instead of feeling powerless before production, or market, forces. Can all this be taken seriously nowadays? We have already seen how the 20th century witnessed the imperfections, abuses and eventual failures of regimes built on this quasi-utopian aspiration. Stalin’s Soviet Union was harsh and repressive, as was Mao’s China. Their contemporary counterparts under Presidents Vladimir Putin and Hu Jin-Tao might be said to combine the worst features of capitalism and communism: large scale economic exploitation, and undemocratic leadership. There is a wide consensus that Marx was overenthusiastic and simplistic in this part of his theory. Even Hobsbawm, one of the most prominent British Marxists, has written, ‘As for the presumption that by historical necessity the proletariat was or would be a ‘truly revolutionary class,’ it is now evident that this was baseless.’ (Hobsbaum,p404-5) However, the failure of the proletariat to rise and overthrow the entire capitalist system is insufficient reason to lightly cast aside the second part of Marx’s theory. While history has not yet (and may never) vindicate his universal predictions, worker’s movements across the globe continue to be inspired and influenced by the concepts and forces Marx describes. Although it claims many supporters, capitalism is by no means without its enemies. The near-demise of Communist regimes in the East and the withering of the traditional left wing politics in the West have been accompanied by a rise in what has been termed the ‘extra-parliamentary Left.’ (Petras,p117) Since the rise of neoliberal capitalism, there have been waves of increasingly assertive demonstrations from organisations and movements seeking to undermine the workings of globalised capitalism and to highlight its injustices. (Mason 2012) The G8 summit of leading economic nations, for example, was furiously protested in Italy 2001 and Canada 2002, and continues to elicit angry anti-capitalist demonstrations every year. (Petras,p228-9) More recently,
  11. 11. the austerity measures imposed on Greece in 2011 as a condition of its EU bailout caused repeated, violent uprisings as the populace reacted against the human cost, in jobs and livelihoods, of keeping the international markets appeased. (Telegraph 2012) Such conflicts everywhere pit workers, opportunity-starved young people and the financially disenfranchised against the corporations and political elite, in a very Marxist class struggle. Moreover, these uprisings are born directly out of the economic circumstances created by capitalist production, and so fulfil the warnings of Marx, Kapstein (1996) and other commentators that the workings of the system are intrinsically disposed to cause unrest and grassroots rebellion. Bringing us up to the immediate past, the Global Economic Crisis (2008–) gave rise in 2011 to a new anti-capitalist movement demanding fundamental change. With its massive international dimensions, and its unprecedented scale of influence, the Occupy Movement bears examining in the light of Marx’s revolutionary theory. Occupy Together: Does this global anti-capitalist movement have Marxist significance? Occupy Together describes itself as a ‘people-powered direct action movement,’ (OWS 2011) and bears resemblance to other recent uprisings including the Arab Spring and the Spanish Indignants. Starting with the Occupy Wall Street initiative in September 2011, the movement has mobilised over 1.4 million people in 82 countries (Scarr 2011) to protest against the economic injustices of modern capitalism, manifested by the unequal distribution of negative economic consequences stemming from the GEC. Grown and sustained by the technological interconnectivity of the world, the international cohesion and solidarity owes much to the Internet and social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook. (Waldram 2011) Although the movement does not openly define itself as Marxist or socialist, perhaps due to the negative connotations such terms have in the popular imagination in capitalist countries like the US, (Newport 2010) the symbolism and language certainly seem to be aimed at dressing the movement in Marxist or socialist clothing. The use of red as an official colour, and the rhetoric – ‘We stand
  12. 12. together,’ ‘Workers’ solidarity,’ and ‘We are the 99%’ – is all consciously redolent of collectivist, grassroots action against the elite, which the movement defines as the richest 1% of society. (OWS 2011) But as Hobsbawm points out, not all movements that appear to be Marxist-inspired truly fit the bill. (2011,p360) A closer look at the key features of the Occupy Movement is necessary before judging its Marxist credentials. Anti-capitalist ideology The most obvious similarity to Marx is the movement’s antagonism towards the capitalist system. The homepage of the Occupy Wall Street website sets out the following by way of a manifesto: OWS is part of a growing international movement fighting against neoliberal economic practices, the crimes of Wall Street, government controlled by monied interests, and the resulting income inequality, unemployment, environmental destruction, and oppression of people at the front lines of the economic crisis. (OWS website, 2011) There is a clear belief expressed here not only that the economic system is corrupt and unjust, but also that it has given rise to an unfair political culture and an oppressive society. This chimes both with Marx’s negative view of capitalism, and with his base and superstructure theory. There is also a clear current of class antagonism further on: ‘These men and women [the protestors] represent the 99% with the goal of ending the greed and corruption of the wealthiest 1%,’ marking the struggle as a reaction by the underprivileged against the perceived unworthy elite. The international dimension Occupy is a truly global movement, The online Occupy directory lists 1,288 different ‘chapters’ of the Occupy Movement in 950 cities between September 2011 and the present time. (2012) In each place, protests took on local interests and grievances; the withdrawing of the government fuel subsidy in Nigeria, the prevalence of homelessness in Hawaii. Despite this, each set of actors identified themselves with a unified international movement. Transnational cohesion in uprising is
  13. 13. one of the major points of Marx’s revolutionary vision. (1848) Furthermore, the role of Internet and social media in facilitating Occupy’s globality is also important. The global communications network used is of course a product and consequence of the globalised economy; Marx’s proposition that capitalism creates its own problems takes on a new significance. Modus operandi Operating extra-politically is another feature of Marxist-inspired revolution, explained by the distrust in political institutions. Petras and Veltmeyer echo this, stating that socialist reforms can only come about in the combination of ‘political independence, the build-up of social power from below and a vocation for state power.’ (2003,p130) The Occupy Movement lives up to this by taking collective action in contravention of society’s regulations, where possible targeting what could be termed temples of capitalism like the London Stock Exchange and Wall Street, and clashing with state police authority on several occasions (Guardian 2011).The governance of the movement tries to implement a socialistic model by ‘giving everyone a voice’ with a system of collective consultation and decision making that it terms ‘General Assembly.’ (2011) While time has shown that even this latest wave of uprisings is unlikely to swell into a universal overthrowing of the capitalist apparatus, it can be seen that the revolutionary principles and mechanisms that Marx espoused, as well as his cultural insights into the economic system, have had a significant part to play in the most large scale anti-capitalist movement of recent years. Conclusion The question of whether Marx’s theories lost their contemporary significance in the wake of the fall of state communism has been explored by examining the current economic situation of the world. Marx’s economic and cultural analysis has been shown to still carry weight in the context of modern day global capitalism. His assertion that economic base determines cultural superstructure is supported by the political and legal adjustments undergone by societies in the wake of market
  14. 14. deregulation: a marked and general shift to the Right in terms of economic policy and evidence that legislation is increasingly disposed to promote the interests of big business. I have also argued that the neoliberal shift has had social ramifications in the form of an attitudinal shift towards glorifying material acquisition and a fall in sympathy with the underprivileged. Marx’s accusation that capitalism is degrading to human dignity and promotes social inequality unfortunately also still rings true, particularly with reference to the global exploitation of cheap wage-labour, the rise in working time and the poor conditions suffered by employees in the developing economies, all against a background of increasing wealth at the upper end of international society. Marx’s calls for uprising have clearly not been realised as dramatically or as universally as he proposed, but they should not be entirely thrown out. In the wake of the latest capitalist crisis of 2008 – , a new wave of anti-capitalist protest has emerged, born out of the rising dissatisfaction of the unemployed, financially disenfranchised and ‘austeritised,’ all of whom might be regarded as a new proletariat. The Marxist significance of these protests lies not only in their nature as class-based struggle against the privileged economic elite, but also in their increasingly united international dimensions. The Occupy Movement, its ideology, international dimension, extra-political action and socialistic governance is an attempt at revolutionising the system that has strong Marxist influences, even if Marxism is not openly invoked. Despite the fall of the flawed Communist states, Marxist ideas on economic culture and revolutionary reform retain their importance. The times in which we live continue to present striking vindications of the former, which is fuelling moves for the latter, increasingly international and large- scale due to both the depths of the crisis and the advancement of communications. Marx’s philosophy has been interpreted different ways at different times. (Hobsbaum 2011,p377) We must admit that his utopian goal may never be realised, while acknowledging the many truths contained in his work. In the words of Hobsbawm, ‘Once again the time has come to take Marx seriously.’
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