Occupations point the way for mass labor fightback

Socialist Action welcomes the Occupy movement as a hopeful sign that the working-class fightback against the economic crisis, which is decades overdue, may finally be taking off. We salute the bravery and persistence of the Occupations in the face of police repression, media lies, and politician slanders and attempts at cooptation.

As with similar mass encampments in the Arab world and in Europe, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) began with unemployed or super-exploited young workers, and quickly forged ties with virtually the entire labor movement. Formal endorsement has come from almost every major union—even those who are at this very moment giving up concessions to their employers, some grudgingly, some eagerly because of their mistaken belief in the need for “partnership” and “shared sacrifice” in this crisis.
It is just those notions that OWS is blowing apart, and as a result OWS is setting an example for militant workers looking to fight their own battles and to link up with others. As a corollary of its rejection of “shared sacrifice,” OWS insists on its political independence of the Democratic and Republican parties—both of which are imposing drastic cutbacks and giving away trillions to the banks.
The Occupy movement has focused on the banks, on finance capital, partly because the economic crisis appeared to stem from bankers’ theft, corruption, largesse from politicians, and overlending via mortgages to prop up their profits. Most participants are not as yet familiar with the Marxist economic analysis, which Socialist Action newspaper has outlined in past issues, tracing these financial trends back to the longer-term crisis of capital, a crisis of profitability rooted in production of surplus value in manufacturing and service industries.
It is this profitability crisis, an inability to make profits through the core industries of an advanced capitalist economy on a global scale, that created trillions of dollars that could not be invested elsewhere and so was channeled either into financial speculation, or into propping up consumer debt to artificially stimulate the economy.
This distinction is crucial for several reasons. One, to explain why OWS does not share common goals with the right-wing populists, who like past fascist movements use demagogic anti-bank rhetoric while denouncing unions and supporting the profit system. Two, because understanding the links between finance and other forms of capital makes clear that it is the economic system which is our enemy, not corrupt individual financiers or even entire banks (much less the Federal Reserve, a favorite hobby-horse of the right wing).
This understanding of the system and its ruling class as a whole is crucial for making alliances with all their victims, from the homeowner threatened with foreclosure to the autoworker toiling away for lower wages in a shop, to the farmworker risking her life every day in tomato fields.
The pro-labor, anti-capitalist consciousness of the overwhelming majority of OWS participants is shown in the applause (and hand “twinkles”) given to every announcement of labor support, and by the huge cheers for Egyptian revolutionary Mohammed Ezzeldin when he denounced capitalism and its markets, and got an especially big cheer for his call for revolution. It is also seen in the numerous points in the New York City General Assembly “Declaration” relating to labor’s needs and to examples of anti-labor policies that the GA denounced.
OWS and other Occupy sites have reacted in general in a positive way to demands of people of color for more inclusion and outreach to their communities and issues. This must be strengthened. The Occupy movement has also forged ties with other movements—antiwar, immigrant rights, antiracism, etc.— welcoming them to hold workshops on site, to raise their special concerns, mobilizing for their activities, and showing solidarity in the face of repression by cops and surveillance by the FBI.
OWS has been criticized from the start for an alleged lack of demands. Some of this criticism comes from those who wish it ill. But some of it comes from genuine concern for the movement. Historically, movements have grown when they place demands on the powers that be that will mobilize large masses, masses who see in the winning of those demands the potential for gains, and see in the defeat of those demands tragic setbacks, all of which inspires them to do all they can for the movement’s success. By the same token, ruling-class resistance to such demands inspires workers to understand the need for getting rid of the system entirely.
OWS, by insisting on an open process, is creating a unique space for discussion of demands and program. Other Occupy sites formulated demands at the start. OWS is also making an important contribution to stimulating a critical discussion in the broad labor movement. This can serve to once again raise the question of which class shall rule society. The popular OWS-initiated statement, “We are the 99%,” raises this question. When the 99%, beginning with a revitalized, democratic and fighting labor movement, takes to the streets to exercise its power, the hopes and aspirations of the OWS movement will have an ally and champion that can shake the world.
To adapt a phrase from the May-June 1968 movement in France, we believe workers will settle for nothing less than the impossible—i.e. what is impossible under this system. They will not rest until there are jobs for all; health care, child care, education for all; renunciation of all consumer, housing, and student loan debt; an end to all wars by the U.S. and its client regimes.
OWS activists, and workers throughout the world, know that the banks have the money we need to achieve all of this. Reformist solutions such as resurrecting Glass-Steagall (i.e., separating commercial from investment banking) will not solve the problem. Nor will tighter regulation of the banks (which Obama has no interest in, in any case). The only solution is a literal occupation of Wall Street—taking over the banks, nationalizing them, and opening their books to public inspection and on that basis to control by councils of working people.
Getting to that stage, however, requires a qualitative growth both in breadth and militancy of the workers’ movement. At the moment workers do not appear ready to adopt occupation of their workplaces as a common tactic. In Madison this year we saw the occupation by public sector workers of their state capitol. There were hopes that this would be extended to state capitols throughout the country. But hopes were dashed by pro-Democratic Party union officials who ended the occupation and derailed it into a pointless recall campaign against Republican state legislators.
We can be sure that the Democratic Party and its friends among union officials will try the same against OWS. The latter for now is so strong that officials are forced to say over and over, “we are not trying to coopt you, we are here to support you.” But as the 2012 elections draw nearer, these same officials will move into action to coopt and if need be derail the Occupy movement—not to mention to stifle rank-and-file efforts to employ union power to challenge the bosses. Only an empowered membership can stop these officials from betrayal. And that is why ties forged while supporting existing union struggles (in New York, for instance, for Teamsters at Sotheby’s, laid-off AFSCME school aides, etc.) are so crucial.
A phrase commonly heard at OWS General Assemblies is “Occupy Everything!” It stems from the understanding that the movement can only succeed if it is extended not only to centrally located encampments in other cities, but to hundreds of workplaces and neighborhoods in each city. This ambitious strategic conception comes from a widely shared, if abstract, sense that a new form of society needs to be forged and that mass action of the working class itself is critical to this objective.
It is too early to say how far the occupations will spread and how concrete their program will become before the inevitable attempt by the rulers to use police repression to end it. But in Europe and the Arab world we have seen successive waves of mass occupations and general strikes, so the ending of one wave does not mean the end of the movement.
However, workers and youth in each country, and globally, need to assimilate collectively the lessons of these successive waves: What sparks them, why they last (or don’t), what demands will help revive, expand and unify them, and what it would take to turn a movement into a revolution.
To assess all the concerns raised above—i.e., the strategic and tactical considerations weighing on the spread of the movement and its potential program—a revolutionary party is essential. Not, as some who are leery of parties mistakenly think, to dictate to the movement. Quite the contrary. A revolutionary party worthy of the name is the repository of the memory, and current experience, of movements past and present; a collection of its most militant and selfless fighters, a distillation of its people and ideas, which grows precisely by deepening its many ties to an expanding movement, and on that basis proposing alternatives for the movement’s direction at each turn.
Socialist Action aims to build just such a party—and we see participation of our members in the Occupy movement as an essential task of party building. Only a party rooted in genuinely mass movements and in the working-class-based organizations at their heart can become the kind of party capable of leading the masses to power. Build the Occupation movement! Take the movement into every workplace and neighborhood! 
> The article above is an editorial from the November 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.