Archive for October, 2011

#OWS, Meet Mondragon
October 31, 2011


Credit unions have been booming over the past few weeks, thanks in part, I believe, to the Occupy movement. Indeed, one of the more promising trends I’ve seen in Occupy teach-ins, discussions and literature is a focus on promoting alternatives to corporate consumption. To that end, I’d like to recommend that the occupiers and their allies all read up on the Mondragon Corporation, a sprawling association of worker co-ops in the Basque region of Spain. Through Mondragon, some 84,000 Basque workers democratically run their own factories, schools, grocery stores, credit unions, insurance companies, and then some. Via the New Left Project, here’s a 1980 documentary on the corporation’s history and the community it serves:

A co-op network this sprawling probably isn’t replicable in the United States any time in the near future. And our manufacturing base is so corroded that an American Mondragon would likely have to build its foundation on a separate industry. But Occupy is playing the long game, and it has no shortage of resourcefulness.

Besides, the Mondragon model appeals to some of the principles that seem to resonate most deeply with Occupiers: democracy as a way of life, economic justice, and a way of bringing these things into the real world that doesn’t involve slogging through traditional legislative channels. Clearly, Occupiers must deal with dominating state and corporate power head on, but they also have a real opportunity to introduce alternatives. The Mondragon model may not be the solution, but it’s something to learn from.

The experiment in promoting credit unions has thus far been a success, but it’s time to think bigger and more comprehensive. It doesn’t get much more comprehensive than an entire community run on economic democracy.

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The Immorality of Punishment
October 30, 2011

Man in an electric chair.

Image via Wikipedia

I’m unlikely to read it, but it’s still nice to see that someone’s written a rigorous work of analytic philosophy that challenges the whole moral basis for punishment. Most public debate over prison reform and the death penalty seems to take it for granted that our criminal justice system exists, at least in part, to do some metaphysical balancing of the scales between wrongdoers and the wronged. The only question becomes the appropriate amount of suffering we should allow the state to mete out.

I call bullshit. The idea that any institution of men can accurately quantify the exact amount of pain another living being “deserves,” and then deliver just that, is utter nonsense. Punishment as a deterrent is a more complicated question (and also a partly empirical one), but punishment as some sort of cosmic manifestation of justice is a barbaric superstition.

I can’t see any good reason why it has to be this way. Remember Norway?

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It’s About Control
October 29, 2011

ANNAPOLIS, MD - MARCH 14: School teacher Marcu...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

One of the great myths of public employee union busting is that budget shortfalls made it necessary. States need to eliminate collective bargaining, the story goes, because otherwise intransigent unions will hold their budgets hostage. If AFSCME, UFT and all the rest have the power to bargain on behalf of the state’s employees, they’ll block any attempt to make cuts in wages and benefits — and if that happens, then the state will instead be forced to lay people off.

If you want to know how that story plays out in the real world, take a look at Ohio. The Buckeye State recently gutted public employee collective bargaining, theoretically leaving the town of Lancaster with the means to preserve its’ firefighters jobs. Guess what? The town’s still shedding staff.

But what really deepens the absurdity here is that those same firefighters, back when they still had their collective bargaining rights, were eager to work with the state to resolve its budget issues:

“I don’t think Senate Bill 5 could have prevented this; these firefighters were going to be laid off,” Kraner said. “But it will effect our take-home pay, and basically not give us a voice in manning issues; it gives all the power to management. It would cause more lay-offs.”

Kraner said the law, if kept on the books, would be bad for “everybody in Ohio.” The law prohibits unions from bargaining for minimum staffing (PDF).

“And the last three years we went from a 22-man minimum to a 16-man minimum,” said Kraner. “That was part of the concessions our union made.”

Other concessions made in Lancaster include turning down pay raises they were contractually owed last year in an attempt to prevent layoffs. New firefighters in Lancaster make around $38,000 per year, and can earn up to the $70,000s as an officer.

You might remember hearing something similar in Wisconsin during their collective bargaining fight. Wisconsin public employees were willing to accept deep benefit cuts in order to preserve their rights, but Walker and Wisconsin Republicans rejected their concessions out of hand.

What this should tell you is that the assault on public employee collective bargaining is only incidentally about money. It’s really about control. The public sector of our economy is one of the last strongholds where America’s working class has any say at all in how its own labor is managed. To the Republican Party — and a significant chunk of the Democratic Partyany worker self-determination is unacceptable.

Ignore the cant about wages, benefits and budgets. The labor struggle today is about the same thing it’s always been about: freedom and control. Do you own any of your own labor? Or does it all belong to the 1%?

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#OWS and Organized Labor
October 28, 2011

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 18:  Members of the Occ...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

Having previously compared the New Left to Occupy Wall Street, Shawn Gude wonders aloud why the latter is so much more inclined to play nice with labor unions. His theory:

Constant rearguard attacks and mass deunionization have surely play a part. Labor is beleaguered—not an ossified, establishment force. And the cultural chasm between the labor rank-and-file and leftist seems to have shrunk; organized labor has moved to the left in recent decades, and the left has moved to the right (no more antiwar sentiments transmogrifying into anti-soldier enmity). I just can’t imagine anything comparable to the Hard Hat Riot happening now.

The first part of that sounds right, though I’m not so sure about the bolded portion. It may well be true that organized labor has liberalized significantly on social issues, but I don’t think they’ve done so out of proportion with trends in overall societal norms — and besides, it’s not like all the true leftists were ever entirely purged from the movement. As for “the left,” whether or not it moved right sort of depends on who you’re talking about. The Democratic Party has certainly undergone a sharp rightward tilt in many respects, but I don’t think Shawn was referring to them. If we’re instead talking about the anarchists and other hard leftists who were caucusing at OWS from the beginning, then I’d argue there’s been very little shift towards the center in those intellectual traditions. It’s not like anarchists have gotten significantly less anarchist of late. (And outside of those ideologically concentrated cells, the intellectual makeup of OWS is too diverse and fraught with internal dissent to even call it “the left” without qualification.)

But then, I know very little about the New Left. What I can talk about with slightly more authority is US labor history in the first half of the 20th Century. That was a period when organized labor was the left in America; maybe not necessarily all of the rank and file, but among staff and leadership the philosophical gamut ran from center-leftism to syndicalism, socialism, anarchism, and out-and-out Communism.

I won’t be able to do justice to the possible causes for the New Left’s formal split with organized labor, but I will note one key factor Shawn didn’t mention: overall economic climate. The 60s were a time of relative prosperity, at least for white America. Between the New Deal and the Great Society, ambitious social welfare proposals were now mainstream propositions.. These weren’t exactly the conditions for class struggle.

Contrast that with the current economic climate, which more closely resembles the conditions that led to peak labor activism in this country. The modern labor movement was born in the Gilded Age and sustained itself through a succession of financial crises which eventually culminated in the Great Depression. Today we face decades of stagnant wages, a crippling financial crisis, Gilded Age-level inequality, and what one might well call another depression. In times like these, one of the left’s primary concerns is class, and organized labor’s value becomes self-evident. The big question now is whether that’s enough.

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A Rather Urgent #OWS PSA
October 13, 2011

Close followers of Occupy Wall Street have undoubtedly heard the news already, but here it is for those who haven’t:

Occupy Wall Street is gaining momentum, with occupation actions now happening in cities across the world.

But last night Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD notified Occupy Wall Street participants about plans to “clean the park”—the site of the Wall Street protests—tomorrow starting at 7am. “Cleaning” was used as a pretext to shut down “Bloombergville” a few months back, and to shut down peaceful occupations elsewhere.

Bloomberg says that the park will be open for public usage following the cleaning, but with a notable caveat: Occupy Wall Street participants must follow the “rules”.

NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has said that they will move in to clear us and we will not be allowed to take sleeping bags, tarps, personal items or gear back into the park.

This is it — this is their attempt to shut down #OWS for good.

The whole velvet-gloved “cleaning” pretext is classic: ugly, dissent-quashing authoritarianism thinly disguised as benign paternalism. Which makes it a perfect metaphor for what the occupiers came together to resist in the first place.

Anyway, 6 AM is when everyone’s getting together at Freedom Plaza to turn down the city’s eviction notice. Dress nice, be polite to your friendly neighborhood officer. Maybe bring a camera. And if you can’t make it, consider calling 311 (for New Yorkers) or 212-639-9675 (for non-New Yorkers) and asking Bloomberg and Kelly to let the occupiers exercise their right to peaceably assemble.

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#OccupyWallStreet is Not a Protest, Cont.
October 3, 2011

In his interview with Ezra Klein, anthropologist and Occupy Wall Street co-organizer David Graeber said:

In a way, what we want is to create spaces where people can think about questions like that. In New York, according to law, any unpermitted assembly of more than 12 people is illegal in New York. Space itself is not an openly available resource. But the one resource that isn’t scarce is smart people with ideas. So we’re trying to reframe things away from the rhetoric of demands to a questions of visons and solutions. Now how that translates into actual social change is an interesting question. One way this has been done elsewhere is you have local initiatives that come out of the local assemblies. [Emphasis mine — NR]

He doesn’t elaborate much, but I think this gives support to my theory that Occupy Wall Street is less a traditional protest than a communal space and movement incubator.

Over at Forbes, Erik Kain has more:

Like Resnikoff, I think that even just organizing and maintaining these protests is worthy of praise. The manifestation of #OccupyWallStreet as more than just a hashtag is a real achievement. From incoherence comes relevancy, however messy or disorganized that process may be.

But I also think that in order for this communal space to become something more, to really achieve movement status, the activists will need to establish more than just a permanent outpost. Somehow these activists need to translate the protests and the communal spaces into actual institutions.

Furthermore, the real import of these protests is not the protests themselves but the deep need for solutions outside of the political duopoly and the realm of government. Unions used to be a real bastion of political activism. Now that unions are on the decline, there are few populist outlets remaining. For regular people to have a voice, they need strength in numbers.

The Tea Party understands this all too well. Until recently however, the left had forgotten the importance of solidarity.

Perhaps Wisconsin should be seen as a precursor to Occupy Wall Street, and perhaps Occupy Wall Street is only the beginning. Progressives need to keep looking to civil society to affect change. They need to rebuild the crumbled institutions of the left.

That last paragraph is key.

(By the way: If you haven’t encountered Graeber’s work before, I recommend his illuminating Naked Capitalism interview on the history of debt.)

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#OccupyWallStreet Is Not a Protest. It’s Something Better.
October 3, 2011

Day 8 Occupy Wall Street September 24 2011 Sha...

Image by david_shankbone via Flickr

(Despite this post’s intentionally provocative title, I’m not really 100% confident about any of this. But I figured it was worth raising the issue and seeing what other people think. Observations and criticism very welcome, especially from those who are actually involved in the occupation.)

I was originally an Occupy Wall Street skeptic, for the reason that most left-leaning skeptics usually give: without any coherent demands or strategy, I figured the “occupation” could only marginalize itself and misallocate activist energy that would be much better spent elsewhere. Progressive commentators such as Matthew Yglesias,Doug Henwood, Mike Konczal, and Lauren Ellis, among others, have voiced similar complaints, and let’s face it: they have a point. Successful protests typically have predetermined strategies and goals — Occupy Wall Street has neither. If we are to judge the occupation as a protest, we must judge it harshly.

But we should not take the “protest” frame for granted, as most of Occupy Wall Street’s left-leaning critics do. In fact, I submit that this occupation is something entirely different, and much more important: it is a public, counter-establishment communal space.


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