(and Far-Too-Infrequently Asked Questions)
About the Occupy Movement and MHI’s Relationship to It
On Zuccotti Park, Reclaiming Space, and Withdrawing from the System
1. Why do you say that the occupation of Zuccotti Park was unsuccessful?
The functioning of Wall Street was not disrupted. Occupy Wall Street never occupied Wall Street. Zuccotti Park was occupied––but only with Bloomberg’s consent, and it was cleared out the moment he withdrew that consent. And the occupation didn’t achieve what those who proposed it wanted: in the end, no autonomous space was reclaimed, so the effort to remake society by multiplying and weaving together autonomous spaces is back to Square One. Even worse, precious little progress was made during the occupation in articulating and working out what the movement is for, or how to solve the serious social and economic problems we now confront.
2. Are you saying that symbolic forms of resistance are ineffective in the long term?
No. We think that symbolic forms of resistance can be effective in some cases, as part of a more total process of resistance and efforts to transform society. According to David Graeber, the Zuccotti Park occupation was not a symbolic act of resistance, but an effort to “get as many people as possible to camp in some public place and start rebuilding society as we’d like to see it.” We take him at his word. Our critique of the Zuccotti Park occupation therefore does not treat it as a symbolic act of resistance, or as a prefiguration of the kinds of human relationships that will be possible in a different society, but as a failed effort to start rebuilding society within the existing society.
3. What are the drawbacks of emphasizing space, the pure-democratic form, outreach, and action?
We don’t think that a new society can be created within the existing one by multiplying and weaving together autonomous spaces. Capitalism is too “totalizing” a system to allow genuine alternatives to it (as distinct from alternatives that are disguised forms of capitalism) to peacefully coexist within it or to compete with it successfully. The creation of a new society requires much more than democratic decision-making. If the economic laws of capitalism remain in control of our lives, we can decide to eliminate unemployment, produce for need instead of for profit, and so on, but we won’t be able to successfully implement what we decide. So the pure-democratic form, as well as outreach and action, are means to achieve certain goals. But we need more than means; we need a clear understanding of the goals and what exactly must be changed in order to achieve them.
4. Why do you think personal experience of new social relations isn’t an adequate basis for a movement?
We don’t think that the main social and economic problems we face can be overcome in a lasting way within capitalism. We’ll need to establish a free communal society that’s not governed by the economic laws that govern capitalism. For instance, to succeed with capitalism, producers are forced to maximize production and minimize costs, and this is the main cause of inequality, poverty, unemployment, alienated labor, etc. Efforts to create new social relationships without challenging this dynamic––either by ignoring it or doing things differently in the “cracks” of the system––can only go so far.
5. You criticize the fact that much of the Left fails to make the struggle for a new society integral to the day-to-day struggles it is involved in. Aren’t we overcoming the separation between our ultimate goals and our immediate activity by acting as if we were already free?
No, we delude ourselves if we think that we can live as if we were free without actually being free. Freedom is not a state of mind; it is the condition in which people are not forced to work and live in a way that exploits humans and destroys nature. Right now, and as long as the capitalist system exists, we all have to live within it. Capitalist relations affect and dominate every aspect of life.
6. Why can’t we just opt out of the capitalist system and find some other way to survive?
The world-wide system of “value production” can’t be changed by opting out of it. A few people can dumpster-dive for food instead of working. But we can’t all do so; if no one worked, where would tomorrow’s leftovers come from? Nor can we escape the system. For example, if you individually hand-make shoes or form a cooperative, you still have to buy the materials and sell the shoes in an international market. Buyers want the shoes as cheaply as possible. How can you compete successfully against companies that produce similar shoes using exploited labor without driving down the cost of your shoes by exploiting yourself? The system must be uprooted and replaced with a wholly different way of working, not just distributing. And we need a system in which it’s possible to produce for human needs, not for the sake of expanding abstract wealth (“profit”).
7. What do you mean by value production and capitalist exploitation?
Value is abstract wealth. Value production occurs when the purpose of production isn’t just to produce concrete things, goods and services, but to produce wealth in the abstract. The driving force of capitalism is the maximum expansion of abstract wealth (i.e., maximum accumulation of capital). This is achieved by forcing people to work for a living and extracting the maximum possible labor from workers while paying them the minimum possible. That’s exploitation; and because the goal is to expand abstract wealth without limit, it’s capitalist exploitation.
It’s true that some people get rich off the backs of others as a result, but that’s not what drives the system; capitalist companies are forced to operate in this way in order to be competitive. So a focus on greedy capitalists loses sight of the underlying problem, the drive to expand abstract wealth without limit. We have to overcome this drive––and the economic laws that force capitalists to operate in this way––in order to have a society in which we produce directly to satisfy human needs.
On Theory, Philosophy, and their Relationship to Movements
8. Why do you think that a movement needs a theoretical basis or perspective?
We need theory to understand that the economic laws that govern capitalism are the main barrier, and to understand how they dominate everything, even things that they might seem not to dominate. We need theory to work out exactly what must be changed in order to overcome these laws. This isn’t obvious; things can seem to be alternatives that actually aren’t, or that wouldn’t work, etc. Working all this out is the only way we can be confident that a viable emancipatory alternative to capitalism is possible. And confidence that it’s really possible is crucial––without it, most people won’t be willing to put their lives on the line. So if we want a movement that’s big and broad enough to fundamentally change society, we need the theory and philosophy that can give us this confidence.
9. Wouldn’t having a particular theoretical basis/perspective limit the potential movement by alienating people who have different opinions?
All movements involve individuals who bring to them different ideas of what is happening and what to do about it. If different theories and perspectives are brought into contact, in open and fair debate, differences can be clarified and theoretical questions can be resolved. But if the different theories and perspectives just lie side-by-side, without being brought into contact, clarification and theoretical development are impeded. A movement that has a coherent and worked-out explanation of what has gone wrong, and what can be done about it, might attract many more people than a movement that obtains a premature and superficial “unity” by means of vague formulations that lack substance and explanatory power.
10. Why do you say we need to understand how capitalism works; isn’t it sufficient to educate people on all the evil it does and tell them those evils are related and “we need to get rid of the whole system”?
“Educating people” about the effects of capitalism does not show how the effects are related–why should they take our word for it? Nor does it give a whiff of how to get rid of the system because it doesn’t identify the causes. If we don’t know the causes, we don’t know how to get rid of the effects. Understanding how capitalism functions is the beginning point for (1) understanding why everyone can’t just drop out of it, and (2) figuring out what must be uprooted in order to create a different system of production and life.
11. How can we get people to understand how capitalism functions?
This can’t be done simply. It requires things like the formation of study groups and discussions with people such as MHI who are serious about working out theoretical questions in conjunction with workers, youth, women, African-Americans and others who want to change the system. It requires organizations that treat theory as a vital part of change, and that regard discussion and study of Marx’s work as a top priority, not just a sideline activity.
12. Assuming that, at this point in U.S. history, a social movement will not immediately emerge with a fully developed critique of capital and plan for revolution, what are the sorts of theoretical ideas/discussions that are necessary now and what might emerge with time?
We don’t think that social movements should have to shoulder all of the responsibility for working out the theoretical problems of the revolutionary process, or that they can shoulder all of the responsibility. A lot of sustained attention and hard labor is needed to really work these problems out. So, in addition to mass movements, we need people (working people, intellectuals, and others) and organizations like MHI, whose contribution to the revolutionary process consists largely of sustained theoretical work. They need to share ideas and knowledge with the larger movements and learn from them. This theoretical activity is needed now and is taking place now, so there aren’t really any “stages” in the process. MHI’s goal is for mass movements that strive for freedom to lay hold of Marx’s philosophy of revolution and recreate society on its basis, but we can’t predict when or whether that will happen.
We think it’s crucial to:
- Discuss and explore the causes of our social problems. If we don’t know the causes, we can’t solve them. And it’s important to distinguish between causes and effects. For instance, we think that the power of corporations and income inequality are effects of the capitalist system, not root causes of our problems. Obviously, many people do not yet share this view, so a full and free discussion of causes and effects is needed.
- Identify what exactly must be changed, and all of what must be changed, in order to actually transcend capitalism. We can’t just decide what we would like the new society to look like, implement our decisions, and assume that things will work out as we expect. Actions have unintended consequences. To avoid making decisions that will have disastrous consequences, a lot of hard theoretical labor is needed.
There are many other theoretical problems that demand attention as well, of course.
13. What is unique about the philosophy of Marxist-Humanism? How does it differ from all of the philosophies espoused by other Marxists and anarchists?
The most important difference is that Marxist-Humanism rejects both the notion that working people are “backward” and therefore need to be led by a vanguard, and the notion that society can be revolutionized solely by means of spontaneous activity from below. The creation of a new society requires not only the destruction of the old one but the creation of totally new social relations. We won’t automatically become free by getting the “rich parasites,” the state, etc., off our backs. We need to overcome the economic laws of capitalism and run economic and social life according to wholly different principles. Spontaneous activity by itself will not work out what these principles are or how they can be implemented. The success of the creative aspect of the revolutionary process requires sustained focus on these issues, ongoing philosophical and theoretical development, ongoing dialogue involving working people, intellectuals, and others, and organizations like MHI that are committed to making sure that these issues do get worked out––not by ourselves alone, by any means.
Another unique aspect of Marxist-Humanism is that it holds that Marx had a unique, humanist philosophy, centered on the development of human capacities as an end-in-itself, rather than as a mere means to achieve external goals, such as the expansion of production. Our organization judges everything in light of this vision of humanity’s possible future. It is the foundation of our own efforts to help work out new principles for social and economic life, as well as the foundation of our day-to-day political activity and commentary. We are trying to help forge a new unity of philosophy and organization, in which mass movements striving for freedom lay hold of Marx’s philosophy of revolution and recreate society on its basis.
On Strategy and Slogans
14. Wouldn’t making demands limit the politics of OWS? Can we make demands without selling out to reformist politics?
Revolutionary socialists have always struggled for reforms, as part of the revolutionary struggle. Demands are always demands for reforms, but they’re not always instances of reformist politics. They are reformist only if they are demands to improve the functioning or fairness of the present system. For example, if workers demand higher wages on the grounds that this will make their lives better, that’s not reformist. But if they demand higher wages on the grounds that this will make capitalism fairer, or if living-wage campaigns demand higher wages on the grounds that this will solve a supposed underconsumption problem and thereby “make the private-enterprise economy work better” (as Paul Marlor Sweezy advocated), then the demand for higher wages is reformist.
In any case, we doubt that the debate in OWS over demands was about reform vs. revolution. It was most likely a tactical move to lump together reformists and revolutionaries who wanted OWS to demand reforms on non-reformist grounds. The likely purpose of this was to make the strategy of rebuilding society on our own, here and now, seem to be revolutionary, and indeed the only truly revolutionary strategy.
15. Why do you criticize OWS’s framing of the problem as “the 99%” versus “the 1%”?
This attempt to appeal to as broad a mass of people as possible is actually nationalistic, and therefore exclusionary. In terms of wealth, one out of every twelve members of “the 99%” in the U.S. is part of “the 1%” on the global level. And people in this country with incomes at the poverty line are in the top 14% of the global income distribution! Even worse, framing things in terms of “the 99%” versus “the 1%” seems to suggest that redistribution of wealth and income would solve our major social and economic problems. It wouldn’t. If we completely eliminated inequality––redistributed income evenly throughout the world––we’d all be living on less than 1/4 of the current U.S. standard of living. Is that the future we’re fighting for?
It is also misleading, at best, to think of capitalism as a system that operates so as to benefit the rich. If that were so, there wouldn’t have been a financial crisis or Great Recession, which they didn’t want or benefit from. Between 2007 and 2009, the income of the top 1% fell by 34%, while everyone else’s income fell by only 4%. The drop in income suffered by the top 1% accounts for more than 70% of the total drop in income between 2007 and 2009.  In any case, inequality is only a surface manifestation of a deeper problem that can’t be eliminated without eliminating capitalism: people spend their whole lives doing unfulfilling and often dangerous work, and do what their bosses tell them to do, only because they’d starve otherwise. If the threat of starvation went away, the system would grind to a halt.
.On Organizational Structures and Forms
16. What is wrong with a structure consisting solely of General Assemblies (in which everyone is present and votes) and Working Groups (which people join voluntarily and which have some independent decision-making power)?
These structures by themselves do not guarantee democracy. Direct participation of everyone can result in unfairness. Those who don’t have the time and flexibility to continually participate in long meetings tend to be shut out of decision-making. When a working group gets to make decisions for others, people who aren’t members the working group, that’s obviously not democratic. Its decisions might differ from those that the group as a whole would make. Such a structure can easily become less democratic than one in which elected representatives make decisions. We don’t say that general assemblies and working groups lead inevitably to undemocratic ends, just that the simplest structure is not necessarily the most democratic.
17. Doesn’t any additional structure necessarily entail hierarchy (which is by definition undemocratic)?
Not necessarily. Whether it results in hierarchy or not depends largely on the organization’s philosophy and its commitment to making the actual operation of the organization reflect the philosophy. Many reform and revolutionary movements have faced these questions in the past. Some of them were non-hierarchical and democratic even though they had representative democracy instead of direct democracy, and had additional organizational structure.
18. How were they able to still be non-hierarchical and democratic?
In general, they established safeguards such as democratically elected representatives who could be recalled at any time, frequent elections of position-holders, steering committees whose members rotate, the membership’s ability to vote to overturn position-holders’ decisions at any time, special provisions for rights of minorities, etc.
19. But isn’t it easier to guard against hierarchy if you only have facilitators, but no position-holders?
Only if the “facilitators” are actually nothing more than facilitators; that is, only if the job of facilitator doesn’t become a position in which you can exercise power over others. It is possible to say that you have no leaders or position-holders when you do have them de facto. For example, you could have “facilitators” who are not members of a working group but who nevertheless monitor it, intervene in its discussions, report on its activities and discussions to a small group that hasn’t been elected as the leadership, and try to ensure that this small group’s hidden agenda is carried out by the working group. This is a lot less democratic than openly electing position-holders to exercise limited authority, subject to safeguards.
20. What is the relationship between the form of organization now and the future organization of society?
There may or may not be a relationship. What is appropriate for a small group in one specific place may not be appropriate for all of society throughout the world. So there are limits to what can be learned from experience.
More importantly, we think that “form” of organization is not the crucial element that determines the character of a society. Democratic decision-making processes cannot ensure that all people are actually in control of their lives. For that to be the case, everyone in the world needs to possess means of livelihood in a non-capitalist system of production, and there needs to be full equality regardless of sex, race, nationality, etc. So attempts to create a new society by establishing new forms of organization, or by practicing loving relationships, bountiful artistic expression, and such, are far from sufficient.
 The first statistic is based on data in “The World Distribution of Household Wealth,” James B. Davies, Susanna Sandström, Anthony Shorrocks, and Edward N. Wolff, UNU-WIDER Discussion Paper No. 2008/03, February 2008. The second is reported in Courtney Blair, “Compared to the Rest of the World Americans Are All the 1%,” www.policymic.com/articles/2636/compared-to-the-rest-of-the-world-americans-are-all-the-1 .
 In 2010, GDP per capita at purchasing power parity in the world as a whole was less than 24% of the U.S. figure. Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators, data.worldbank.org/data-catalog/world-development-indicators .
 Source: Internal Revenue Service, Statistics of Income, Individual Income Tax Rates and Tax Shares, Table 5, http://www.irs.gov/taxstats/indtaxstats/article/0,,id=96679,00.html. These are the most recent data available.