Credit, Wages and Occupy: What System Are We Fighting?
From Recomposition - by John O’Reilly
“Those who make revolution halfway only dig their own graves”
– Jacobin leader in the French Revolution, eventually put to death by Robespierre
After the political darkness of the Bush years and the unmet promises of the first Obama administration, Occupy Wall Street and its local spinoffs felt, for those of us who were a part of it, like a breath of fresh air. Here were people, everywhere, talking about a better world beyond Hope and Change rhetoric, beyond bumper sticker platitudes. And beyond talking, they acted! Marches around the business districts of all major U.S. cities, fights over access to public space, intense discussions over democracy, practice, politics, and vision. The cobwebs were dusted out and a thousand flowers did indeed bloom. Hardened, experienced activists and organizers found themselves facing an army of fresh idealistic faces, intent on remaking the country and the world and fundamentally shaking up the political Left in most places where Occupy took root. It was, in short, a beautiful and powerful moment.
What Comes Next?
One year after Occupy Wall Street emerged, we see countless pronunciations of both its death and its continuing grip on life. Occupy changed the game, Occupy made mistakes, Occupy was never a thing, Occupy is the beginning of the next thing, Occupy was too much of a thing, Occupy was the model for the future. Regardless of which of these many formulations of analysis one subscribes to, there are many more perspectives out there about what happens next. As the plaza occupations cooled down around the country, as the state found useful ways to inoculate itself against the specific tactic of occupying a public park or central square, two main lines emerged on how to move forward from within Occupy. Both lines found allies within those who had shown up and battled it out through the fall and winter of 2011 as well as within established Left forces who initially viewed Occupy with some skepticism. The first line coalesced around the idea of taking the tactic of occupying things and made it a strategy, best expressed in the refrain “Occupy everything.” The second line oriented away from the tactic of occupying things and towards establishing a clear economic target within the nebulous category of “the 1%” to pursue. Neither line represents a neat ideology, with broad crossover in each category from liberals to anarchists to socialists in many different organizational formations. Each is by nature an abstraction but their resonance does continue within the “post-Occupy” moment we are entering.
While the Occupy Everything line continues to hold both concern and promise for revolutionaries, it is unlikely to become a major force. Any time organizers take a tactic and turn it into a commitment, they cut themselves off from flexibility and enter a world where every problem can only be solved with the same tools. If you have only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. For the radical ecology movement and the direct action wing of the anti-war movement in the latter half of the 00’s this turned any situation into the question “what can we lock down to?” While this line is still around, already we are seeing the limitations to its resurgence in the wake of Occupy in places where this line has more sway.
The second line has more far-reaching consequences for the Left and must be properly understood. The populist rage that fueled Occupy was often critiqued for its lack of a focus. Who and what specifically within the metaphor of the 1% was to be the target of our opposition? A wide range of factors helped determine Occupy’s answer to this question. Popular themes within Occupy’s early explosion included anger at financial institutions like the Federal Reserve and banks. As revolutionaries were relegated to technical work like feeding people or fighting cops, social democratic forces with more experience organizing were able to seize political control in many Occupy groups, successfully gambling that most radicals would rather wear an outsider status with pride than fight for the direction of a movement. Finally, as many have suggested, the primary, though by no means only, demographic forces involved gave a nudge towards issues that disproportionately effect downwardly mobile “middle class” youth. These factors and probably many more resulted in the second line’s clarification of its targets.
After several months of scrambling, this second line found, or was told, what its target was to be: debt and institutions that hold it over working people. This can be seen in a wide variety of political positioning within the post-Occupy milieu and the broader Left. The move to fighting home foreclosures in the form of various Occupy Homes groups, the movements to engage with personal debt through its collective buying and forgiveness, and the emerging national organizing around a student debt action or strike are the clearest examples of this decision. The target is banking institutions, not in the quixotic libertarianism of the anti-Federal Reservists, but in a broad, social democratic campaign for more regulation of banking and against the bailouts that they have been unwilling to allow to trickle down to working people. This position states that the banks are responsible for the 2008 crisis and that they must pay their fair share for the damage that they have done to the economy and specifically to working people who have been harmed by their behavior. We could call this emerging second line’s perspective the Strategic Anti-Debt line.
There is real power in the demands and the organizing that has emerged here from this milieu. Homeowners who were on the precipice of eviction have had their mortgages renegotiated so that they can keep their homes and families together. Young people are imagining a world where a college education does not translate to a lifetime of paying it off in an economy with no real jobs. There is powerful moral language about the need for financial institutions to provide for the common good instead of their shareholders’ bottom line. Real, clear good has happened for working people who have been the beneficiaries of this organizing effort.
Yet this post-Occupy milieu, vibrant with energy and action and increasingly taking up a large space of the practice of the Left, has found itself tied to a vision of the economy that is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what system-altering struggle is and where it comes from. To look more clearly at why this is, we must pause briefly and consider how we have come to the present moment. While we should not expect that everyone on the Left should be an economist, we need to attempt to understand how the system works in order to understand what should be the primary target of our organizing work. To look at this further, let us examine the ways in which working people have historically fought for better lives in order to shed light onto our movement’s possibilities.
Credit and Wages
The working class is in fixed state of struggle against the capitalist class. We only exist as a class because of our relationship to the capitalist class and it is this relationship which is marked by struggle. At the simplest level, we produce everything in the economy and they take the product of our work because they own the means of production upon which the work was done. We then are given back some piece of the products we created in the form of wages and the rest the capitalist class keeps. They sell the products for a higher amount then they spent to buy the materials and our work time for them and make a profit, which they reinvest in more production. This is the most basic form of capitalism and still reflects more or less accurately the way that most of the economy functions.
With the reconstruction after World War II, a new ingredient would be introduced on a wide-scale that would fundamentally change the relationship between the working and employing classes, especially among parts of the working class with more social privilege. A series of important changes in the political and economy conditions took place that made for an outside to the immediate relationship between the worker and their boss. The development of powerful new labor-saving technologies, the development of the welfare system, the flourishing of new markets backed by a powerful U.S. imperial military; these and many other factors allowed for the first time in U.S. history the flourishing of easy to obtain, reliable credit. Through using on credit and other financial mechanisms like stock investments and using its own money as credit to other workers and capitalists, like through savings interest, the working class saw for the first time a way outside of the wage relationship.
By using credit, the field had opened up to a whole range of opportunities for a better life beyond struggling with the boss over what portion of one’s labor should be returned in the form of wages. For elements of the working class in developed countries, it was a time like no other. Owning things like homes and automobiles, or paying for things like education, became widely available over the course of the second half of the century. Compared to working longer hours or fighting for higher pay, obtaining credit and over time paying it back was an obvious better choice for many workers. The ability of parts of the working class to entire into a relationship with the capitalist class and with other workers beyond the traditional relationship of struggle over the wage produced a powerful incentive to participate in new ways, but also strengthened traditional divides within the working class.
Access to credit was and is unevenly divided throughout the class. Over time reformers and forward-thinking capitalists have made it a priority to find ways to improve access to credit for marginal parts of the working class, but the implementation of these schemes have alternated between better conditions for marginalized workers and the continuation and solidification of white supremacy and patriarchy through policy. On one hand, struggles to end red-lining and similar segregation policies allowed racial minorities and women access to credit and the ability to be home-owners for the first time. This represented a real change for these parts of the class and the ability to participate along with whites and men in the game of credit. On the other hand, marginalized parts of the class were and are given access to inferior types of credit products and services, and mostly not until the 1970s, significantly after privileged elements of the class had begun using access to credit to bring up standards of living.
Access to credit did not end struggle over wages, though by opening up an attractive alternative to it, it divided the working class’s attention into both spheres. As internal ineptitude and conservative leadership and structure evolved within the labor movement and labor law found increasingly repressive ways to stifle workers’ actions, unions became less effective. While only representative of different parts of the class at different times, unions represent the main measurable way to observe the working class’s success in the struggle over the wage. As unions atrophied, credit became for many people a far more viable way to improve their lives. Union density collapsed over the course of the last century in the U.S., dropping from about 35% in the mid-1950s in to less than 12% in 2011. As our collective instrument to negotiate over wages has declined, it should not surprise that our wages as a whole have not increased. Indeed, adjusting for inflation and other factors, real wages in the U.S. have declined since 1974. Over the long term, the struggle over the wage has attracted less and less of the working class’s attention, especially for the portions with the access to the most effective financial mechanisms for improving their material condition.
None of the foregoing is to cast blame or accuse working people of doing anything wrong. Working people in the developed world have actually better lives than we did in any period since the emergence of capitalism as an economic model. We live longer, are more educated, more literate, can see things that our ancestors could never have even imagined, and can cross continents with relative ease and luxury. And it is no person’s fault that we have moved away from collective confrontation with the capitalist class to individualized negotiation over credit and its use. History is a complicated thing, with twists and turns, and the history of the Left in the U.S. since about the same time finance arose as a possible alternative to the wage is a history of its progressive isolation from the organized elements of the working class. That story is too long to be told here, but suffice for our purposes to remember that for anyone born since the early 1970s, the political Left has never been a major player in working class politics in our lives. Without clear voices coming from within the class and showing leadership in the struggle against the wage system, it is hardly for us to blame working people for making a choice away from class struggle.
We also must be careful to guard against economism in this analysis. The Left did not die off as a viable force because of the financialization of capital and none of this was inevitable. Various social forces made choices throughout this period that responded to their political as well as economic realities. For example the May 1st, 2006 immigrants’ strike was not a natural response from a group of workers that overwhelmingly lacks access to the same kind of financial tools as documented workers, but was the result of organizing on the ground by motivated people attempting to better the situation of their section of the class. Like all history, it was determined by the social and economic forces involved, but not only by them. Credit and the credit system similarly did not necessitate the die-off of the Left as a major force in American life, but we can see how it played its part along with many other forces, internal and external.
At the end of the day though, the extension of credit only worked for a period of time. The American Dream started to crack at the foundations. While economists can debate about what exactly caused the crisis of 2008 to hit, what’s clear is that it signaled the beginning of the end of financialization as a way out of class struggle. The mortgage crisis hit hard, especially in communities already more economically marginal and oppressed within the class. The racially and sexually stratified access to credit has emerged as a fundamental feature of the foreclosure crisis, with women and people of color facing much higher rates of foreclosure than the rest of the class, exposing the ways in which credit has temporarily raised parts of the class up while simultaneously keeping others contained. Evictions and vacant properties are a fixture in working class communities, as homelessness continues to tear families apart and the capitalist political parties tear away the limited social welfare system. Workers who invested heavily in the stock market found their money gambled away without a care for their well-being. Credit card debt, often crushing, has become a fundamental feature of most working peoples’ lives. Today we are just beginning to see the start of the student debt crisis which will probably take years for its dynamics to fully play out but will surely drown a generation of students in decades of loan repayment, often with no way out. It is as though we bought a chair, fancy-looking but shoddily constructed, and are now shocked that such a thing has broken beneath us. What began as the fulfillment of the American Dream has turned into a trap that we are only now seeing spring back upon us. How we can escape remains an open question.
Against the System
We stand at a moment of a realignment of the economy. The accompanying possibility is a realignment of politics. As the possibilities for working people to escape the grasp of exploitation and poverty grow narrower with the progressive complications emerging from the financial system, we need to find a way to push the struggle forward. The 2012 national elections have left us with a landscape that is basically unchanged, despite many millions of dollars spent by both sides. Expecting a dramatic shift from the Obama administration in its last four years is clearly an error, as his first term showed us that he is a fundamental piece in the capitalists’ game, one who momentarily emerges to perform populist rhetoric between long periods of practicing openly reactionary politics. Obviously revolutionaries know by know that the theater of ruling class politics is both a distraction from and a twisted mirror held up to the real issues of the working class and so we must seek the real alternatives to the bourgeois order in our own organizing and in the communities around us.
Here we must return to our discussion raised earlier about the directions forward for the milieu which has found itself formed around the Occupy movement. Without a doubt, Occupy’s emergence and eclipse represented a real change in the ability of the Left to articulate a vision. What it lacked was a program. As Occupy as a formal movement has fallen away, the urge to provide political coherency and strategic goal-setting has, as most would agree, been an important part of the next step for those who were active within it. We sit prepared for the next wave of struggle, and are attempting to provide some political framing for its hopeful rise.
But the crusade against the banks that the Strategic Anti-Debt grouping of Occupiers has created threatens to become a rearguard action for capitalism. We should not fight to save a broken piece of capitalism from itself. By that we mean that by casting the banks as the primary opponent against whom the social movements align themselves, we risk attempting to prop up an ailing element of 20th century capitalism by forcing the state and capital to reintegrate the working class into the scheme of finance that we are being evicted from. Renegotiated mortgages save homes, and that’s real. But renegotiating mortgages also represents a fight to keep the working class invested in the capitalist system. We created all the wealth that the boss class used to set up its banks which loan us money. By fighting to stay involved in the financial system, we are fighting not our exploitation but to be able to borrow the products of our exploitation from our exploiters. We seek to prolong the working class’s ability to play ball in a fantasy economy instead of engaging with the real economy that our grandparents battled in the streets of Toledo, San Francisco and Minneapolis.
Here we should address the concerns of ultraleftism. No one would argue that the results of the financial meltdown are being felt most harshly by those most marginal in the working class and everyone should believe that we need to do something to fight for what we have gained through the financial system. The capitalist system is realigning itself and crushing the gains that we have made through financialization, but revolutionaries cannot simply through their hands up in despair. There is no need to abandon the struggle to work with those parts of the class being most affected by the financial collapse just because we abandon the attempt to save that part of the economy. But as we work in campaigns around debt, we need to clarify what we, as revolutionaries, are doing the work for. We are not against the banks, we are against the capitalist system. Winning the battle of ideas is an important part of the revolutionary movement, and when we engage in defensive work to save what things we have, we should use the opportunity to argue for a vision that is clear, compelling and calls for a better world.
Class Against Class
Some will contend that in the current moment, there is no real difference between wages and credit because we are so far removed from where we need to be to produce a moment of rupture in capitalist relations. “Perhaps when the radical forces are greater,” one could say, “it will be more important to focus on work around the wage. Right now, such work will only get mired in the reformism that is the byproduct of a weak movement.” Such a critique is compelling, especially in the light of the transformation of the labor movement in the United States to what is essentially the handmaiden of capitalist production, ensuring that workers’ militancy is stifled wherever it emerges. But while we need to be honest that the level of struggle is still very low compared to a genuinely revolutionary situation, we do need to think through what kinds of processes could lead us most effectively to that situation. Surely a radical approach to the wage question needs to be more than the worn-out method of capturing formal business union leadership, a method that has produced little to nothing in the last century. Occupy arguably changed what struggle meant on the political level, why shouldn’t Occupiers and those inspired by them take the same tactical and strategy innovation to the shop floor? The labor movement desperately needs the kind of energy that Occupy created, not simply activists cynically channeled by union bureaucrats as a rent-a-mob, but as workers, acting for their class and against the exploiters and their enablers. By working to be in the labor movement, radicals can set the stage now for more explosive conflict later, by invigorating the wage struggle in a way that pushes radical ideas to the forefront and builds the movement. Radicals are uniquely able to both build the labor movement outwards, something the business unions have mostly abandoned, and deepen its politics by highlighting the role that the wage plays within the broader struggle between classes.
Revolutionaries need to be clear about where the potential for real change emerges from and debt cannot, by its nature, produce that rupture. Rupture, meaning the abolition of the capitalist system of production and distribution and its replacement with a system based on human needs, must be prepared and organized towards. Even if campaigns against debt radicalize and politicize workers, they are not fundamentally campaigns against capitalism, because capitalism, despite its use of credit, is not a system fundamentally based on credit, but a system based on the exploitation of a vast working class in order to make profits for the owning class. The best construction workers in the world cannot build a house if the tools they are given are hoes, rakes and shovels, instead of hammers, nails and wood. They could learn to plant flowers, but if what is needed is a house, they will prove unable to do so. Likewise despite all the politicization that can emerge from defensive actions against the problems of debt, radical workers organizing campaigns against a byproduct of capitalism instead of its basis will not fundamentally change things.
As any movement or milieu changes, some contradictions within it become clear while others become hidden. Reformists and radicals compete for leadership on one hand, yet work side-by-side on struggles that ultimately strengthen the capitalist state on the other. It should give radicals pause that the leading elements of the would-be left-wing of U.S. capitalism are those who call most loudly for a fight over credit. This should come as no real surprise, because without capitalism, there is no place for union bureaucrats and the nonprofit-industrial complex. Nonetheless, as the shake-out from Occupy continues and as forces continue to align and realign, we must distinguish who are our allies and who would use our energy for their own gain and for the system’s ultimate maintenance.
Just because a system has been historically used as a way of dividing the working class against itself does not mean that fighting for its renewal will implicitly become a revolutionary project. The credit system and the wage system have both been used to marginalize parts of the working class through discrimination and oppression. Real short-term benefits will come from attacking the discriminatory parts of both systems. But where debt struggles may challenge unfair lending patterns, they cannot attack the capitalist system which forces us to borrow what we are unable to buy with our wages. Wage struggle, whether it be against discrimination in the workplace or for general improvements, directly attacks capitalism’s scheme of producing profit from our labor and the accompanying dictatorship of work that the capitalist class wields. Reformism and reaction are always possible no matter which kind of struggle we engage in. But the conditions for it to be superseded only exist where our scissors can cut the tie that lies at the heart of the whole economy, the wage system. Without a united working class, without prioritizing struggles of marginalized workers, we will be unable to flip the social relations that are embodied in the wage system.
Beyond simply committing to the foolish task of trying to save a part of capitalism from itself, if we commit to pursuing the financial system as our opponent, we walk away from that historic mission of the working class: to abolish the wage system itself. It is this struggle over exploitation in which we find the ingredients to end the capitalist system and usher in a new epoch for the world and its inhabitants. The possibilities for rupture are uniquely set out in struggle over the wage and its attendant humiliations at work because it is through our working and the boss’s robbery that the capitalist system finds itself being reproduced. Our class, the working class, needs to abolish class by abolishing the system, not find a way to pretend that our class is not the exploited class by borrowing money back from our oppressors. It is towards work in this struggle, and providing ideas and our skills towards other workers, that revolutionaries should orient ourselves to.
Revolutionaries must take up the cry of class struggle if we truly believe that we can win and abolish the wage system once and for all. While undoubtedly in the short term it will feel like the excitement and media attention created by media-savvy debt struggles is a more seductive path than the slow, time-intensive work of organizing our coworkers, we need to be intentional about initiating political work that has the potential to fundamentally change the capitalist system itself. It is the struggle of a class against a class that underlies our whole economy and if we fail to put our work towards aiding our class against its opponent then we will be forced to sit by as history takes us down its winding path without our ability to act decisively upon it.
 The phrase ‘American Dream’ was first popularized by James Truslow Adams in 1931, which he defined as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement… It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” It is telling that he references both “motor cars,” which stand in for credit access as well as wages in this formulation of an ideal capitalism.