Street protests and class power - Devrim Valerian

Street protests and class power - Devrim Valerian

Reflections on current events in Turkey, Egypt, and Brazil and the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

The ongoing events that set fire to Turkey from the end of May, the mass demonstrations in Brazil during the Confederations Cup, and the current events in Egypt with Tahrir Square once again full of demonstrators calling for the overthrown of the President, show very clearly that we still live in a world dominated by the events that were unleashed by a young man burning himself to death in Tunisia on 17th December 2010, which have become widely known as the 'Arab Spring'.

At the end of May, demonstrations against the development of a shopping centre and the demolition of a park in the centre of Istanbul exploded into a movement which brought millions of people into the streets in 79 of Turkey's 81 provinces. Then, while the world's eyes were turned towards the football tournament in Brazil demonstrations against public transport fare rises in São Paulo quickly spread across the country capturing the front pages and pushing the football to the sidelines. In Egypt demonstrations successfully demanding the removal of President Mohammed Morsi occurred across the country apparently bring even larger numbers of people into the streets than those of two years ago. In addition, though less well reported in the media, Indonesia has been rocked by demonstrations against a 44% increase in petrol prices.

Obviously this is a movement, if indeed it can be called a 'movement' that has gone far beyond any specifically Arab roots, and has also, at least on a superficial level, gone beyond protests against 'dictators' and for 'democracy' if only in that the countries currently affected are all democracies. What then, overriding all of the local detail, can be said to characterise these movements.

Demographics of Demonstrations

The most striking thing about this movement is how it is primarily of young people. The anarchist media may show pictures of a grandmother firing a catapult at the police in Taksim but such exceptions are merely proof of the rule. Of course, it is no surprise that young people make up the shock troops of any social struggle. What is more interesting is that these struggles are taking place in countries with an overwhelmingly young demographic. In Turkey, for example, 43.3% of the population are 24 or under. The comparative figures for Egypt, Brazil, and Indonesia are 40.7%, 41.5%, and 44.1% respectively. When you compare these figures with the statistics for countries in the 'West', the difference is very stark. The same figures for Germany, the UK, the US, and Japan are 24.1%, 30.3%, 33.8%, and 23.3%.

The countries where these events are taking place not only experience the global trends that are effecting young people across the whole world but also these trends are amplified by the much larger proportion of young people within the population. The expansion of university education is a worldwide phenomenon. In Turkey for example the number of university graduates has increased by 5% every year since 1995. As in Western countries there are an increasing number of graduates coming out of university and finding that compared to their parents generation their qualifications have much less chance of leading them into a job. This of course has been made even worse by the effects of the latest outbreak of the international economic crisis since 2008. According to the left-wing trade union DİSK unemployment is running at 17%. Obviously this affects not just university students, but also all young people who are caught up in the same dynamic of studying, exams, and cramming schools. It is the overwhelming mass of young people caught up in an education system which fails to fulfil any of its promises in terms of being able to offer people a future 'other than low paid and precarious jobs that is the social dynamic which is powering these sort of movements'.

Class Composition

The fact that the protesters are on the whole young is, though, hardly surprising. What is more important is to understand the class nature of these movements. Various different analysis have outlined how they see these movements according to their own ideological slant. This has ranged in Turkey from Erdoğan's supporters who would typify the movement as one of elites protesting against a government democratically elected by the country's poor, to the Turkish left, for some of whom, this is a completely proletarian movement. What is undoubtedly true is that many of the people who make up these sorts of movements come from the working class. That is unsurprising though. The majority of urban dwellers in these countries are working class, and no effective political movement, be it communist, fascist, religious, or nationalist, can exist if it doesn't get support from the working class. Certainly the composition of the pro-government rallies organised by Tayyip Erdoğan's AKP has also been working class, indeed one could even make an argument that they were even more so.

The question that needs to be asked before even trying to determine the class nature of these movements is what determines the class nature of a movement in general. The sociological composition of a movement alone is not enough to judge its nature. Workers can be mobilised behind completely reactionary movements, nor are the methods of the working class sufficient to make a judgement, as is shown by the Powell strikes in the UK in the 60s and the Ulster Workers' Council in 1974. Equally important are the aims, demands, and direction of a movement. In making this sort of judgement on a movement all of these factors need to be taken into consideration.

When looking at these considerations then how can we evaluate these movements. Certainly a certain section of the working class is predominant in them. As previously stated though, this is to be expected in any movement. The methods used, massive demonstrations, assemblies, and even some strikes are consistent with the methods of the working class. There is, though, a striking lack of activity in the workplace, which is a crucial part of any working class movement. Even in Turkey where there seems to have been the highest number of strikes, involving around half a million workers, the majority of unionised workers were not involved in strikes. As for the demands and aims of the movements, they have been a mixed bag. Certainly there have been demands relating to working class living standards such as those against public transport fare increases in Brazil, and opposition to state repression of demonstrators, but equally so there have been non-class demands such as those from the demonstrators in Egypt who were calling on the army to intervene and make a coup. If the Turkish army hadn't suffered a historic defeat over the last decade at the hands of the AKP government, it wouldn't have been a surprise to have heard some sections of the demonstrators raising similar demands there.

When trying to draw up a balance sheet of these movements, with their lack of activity at the point of production, mixed demands, and composition not made upon a class basis, but more on a demographic basis of the young, it is clear that they are cross-class movements. More to the point though, they are real mass movements, not small cross-class campaigns. Within these movements there are workers fighting for their own class demands. This was very evident in Egypt in 2011, when it was almost as if the strike wave in the factories was taking advantage of the 'Tahrir Square movement' to press its own interests. Equally so within these movements there are also workers on demonstrations backing all sorts of bourgeois demands.

It is important to understand what this means though. Just because a movement is a cross-class movement it doesn't mean that communist organisations should dismiss it and stand back highhandedly refusing to have anything to do with it. Of course communist organisations have a duty to be involved in these sort of movements, always working to encourage class autonomy and independence. Conversely, it is also important not to get carried away seeing some sort of pure proletarian movement, or pulled behind various bourgeois factions. These two things are closely interlinked as if you can't recognise and understand what sort of movement it is, and what tendencies are operating within it, it is possible to end up putting forth all sorts of nonsense.

'Occupy' and Assemblies

One thing that is quite clear is that while the movements of this summer are in continuity with the 'Arab Spring', and the 'Green movement' in Iran, the 'Occupy' movement has very little in common with these events, and was at most a very pale reflection of the events of the 'Arab Spring'. The most obvious level that this can be seen on is that while these movements are shaking societies, bringing in all sectors of the population, rocking governments (and in cases causing them to be toppled), and are genuinely massive movements, the Occupy movement essentially never went beyond a movement of activists. That it received the amount of media attention that it did, both in the mainstream and left press, is as much to do with it taking place in America, which is both the focus of the world's media, and a country where the working class is very weak, and where the level of struggle is extremely low. The US is obviously an important country, and communists can't ignore it. Nevertheless, understanding is, as ever, important. The amount of coverage given to these events by an American dominated world media, and the excitement felt by the American left after years of struggles being scarce are not sufficient data to judge the size of this movement. Of course 'Occupy' and even more so the events in Wisconsin are important, but their importance lies in the fact that they show the potential start of a resurgence in America, however small at the moment, and not in the events themselves.

One of the features of the 'Occupy' movement that has been trumpeted by many on the left has been its use of assemblies to 'run' the movement. These types of assemblies have also been seen in various countries in the 'Arab Spring', and in Turkey, and Brazil today. Many on the left seem to be eulogising these movements as if they are some sort of proto-Soviets. They are not.

The most important difference between these assemblies, and mass meetings held by workers is, who they represent. The mass meeting in a workplace clearly represents the people who work there. These assemblies aren't based upon workplaces. More often than not, although there have been some of them in working class neighbourhoods, they represent nobody but the demonstrators themselves, rather than being a class body, they are bodies of activists. How the demonstrators are represented varies from 'Taksim Solidarity', which is a top down amalgamation of mainstream and left political parties with NGOs and left trade unions to the worst of 'Occupy' which was a couple of dozen hippies in a circle discussing the report of the 'spiritual commission'. Of course, this doesn't mean that communists shouldn't try to present their arguments in these situations. It doesn't mean that they are the organisational form of the coming revolution either.

From Demonstration to Strikes

Nowhere has the nature of these assemblies been clearer than in their attempts to call strikes. An attempt during the 'Occupy' movement to call a general strike in Oakland, California failed to bring out masses of workers, and even in places where it had support amongst workers (port of Oakland, and teachers) only resulted in people taking a holiday, a personal day, or phoning in sick. What is clear from this is that committees of activists can't call the working class out on strike at will. Only workers themselves can do this, and while many of the activists in these sort of movements are workers, they tend to work, as many young people do today, in small workplaces, often in precarious jobs. However, the driving force behind large scale strike movements is not these sort of workplaces. It is in the large work places where movements of workers have the greatest influence.

To speak in very general terms, the demonstrators are not the same part of the working class as the part that is necessary to make a successful mass strike. In contrast to thirty plus years ago when these sort of young people would have gone into large workplaces either in factories, or the state sector, today there are less of those jobs, young people are much more likely to be university-educated, and when they graduate are less likely to go into those jobs anyway. Indeed even where these jobs still exist many of them are 'downsizing' and not recruiting new workers. In the TEKEL (a state monopoly) struggle in Turkey over the winter of 2009-10, young workers were noticeable by their absence, which was explained by the fact that no new workers had been recruited in the last 12 years. Statistics concerning the demonstrations in Brazil have suggested that nearly three quarters of the demonstrators are university-educated. This in a country where only 19% of the population have set foot in a university classroom, and even though college attendance rates amongst young people have almost doubled over recent years, this three quarters is well above the level in the general population let alone the working class. There is clearly a gap. The question is how to bridge it.

There have, of course, been moments where this gap has been bridged. To go back to the 'Green movement' in Iran there was a point when workers at Khodro, Iran's largest factory, came out in solidarity with demonstrators suffering from state repression. During the 'Arab Spring' there were workers' strikes particularly in Tunisia, and Egypt. In Turkey the left unions called for 'general strikes', and around half a million workers took part in them. In Brazil at the moment the main union confederations are talking about holding a day of 'protests, strikes, and marches' on the 11th July.

In Turkey, which has previously seen one-day 'general strikes' organised by the left unions, there seems to be a growing recognition that these strikes are neither widespread enough in terms of the amount of workers participating, nor long enough in terms of their limited duration to effectively challenge the state. A similar situation has been seen in Greece during the union organised one day strikes against the implementation of austerity programmes.

While the question of how to move beyond these strikes remains, the question of how to even call a one day strike is something that challenges the demonstrators. In all of these movements there have been calls for general strikes made over social media. Like in Oakland these have been largely unsuccessful. That is not to say that there is nothing at all positive here. It shows at least that there is a recognition that strikes are needed to push this sort of movement forward. In Brazil a Facebook call out for a general strike got more than half a million supporters, which shows that there is a level of support for strikes. However, there are problems with this approach in evidence from the fact that it has failed to be successful. Firstly, the demographic gap is something that is reflected in the usage of computers. Older workers are less likely to use computers than younger university-educated ones, and even where they do use computers they are less likely to use social media sites. Calls for a general strike on Facebook and Twitter are not even connecting to many of the people that they need to be aimed at.

This is not to disparage the use of the Internet. It is today an important means of communication. The Turkish state certainly thinks that it is a dangerous one, given the amount of people that have been raided, and arrested for tweeting. They certainly realise its potential, and don't look condescendingly at 'keyboard revolutionaries' as some on the left do. They lock them up. It nevertheless remains that while these media can bring people out onto the street for demonstrations it is far less effective at calling people out on strike. As well as the fact that these media don't connect to many of the people that they need to, the fact is that it is easier to turn up to a demonstration than to go on strike at work.

The first reason for this is that going to a demonstration is a decision that can be made individually. Of course there have been cases of people attending these protests collectively from their workplaces, schools or universities, it is not the majority experience. People can and do decide to go to them on their own. You can't decide to go on strike on your own, and it takes a lot more to decide to lose money and risk your job than it foes to turn up at a demonstration, which brings us the central question, the lack of experience, confidence, and consciousness within the workplace.

While there has been a resurgence in workplaces struggle on an international scale over the past decade or so, it is nevertheless a very small one. The fact that the last decade hasn't been as terrible as the 1990s were reflects more on how bad that decade was rather than how good the past one has been. Workplace struggles today are not at the level that they were in the eighties, let alone the seventies. The continuity with that period has gone. Workers with the experience of those struggles are already drawing their pensions, or at best approaching retirement. The experience has been lost, and newer workers are finding that they have to relearn things for themselves. In workplaces where they once held regular mass meetings to discuss things, these traditions have been lost and workers find themselves waiting for the unions to do something.

Future Expectations

It seems very clear that these sort of movements can be expected to continue to break out. The state has no solutions to offer. The removal of President Morsi in Egypt will not change the economic reality confronting any new government. The problems that are the underlining cause behind these movements can't be swept away. More specifically world capitalism does not have well paid secure jobs to give to the young people that it is churning out of its universities, and other educational establishments. Even though these movements may continue to explode, there is no way for them to move forward without activity in the workplace. Without that power, street movements will tend to burn themselves out, or even worse get transformed into conflicts turning workers against workers such as in Syria. The possibility of similar developments in Egypt, following the clashes caused by the military coup, are worrying to say the least.

Workers, while being involved in these movements as individuals, have nowhere been able to stamp their authority upon them as workers. With the development of class struggle there is the possibility that they might be able to assert themselves in future outbreaks. Also possible, especially in the Middle East, is the possibility that working class people will be dragged into killing each other on behalf of different ideologies, such as sectarianism, religion, and nationalism. If the road on Egypt leads to civil war it would be a disaster not just for workers in Egypt, but across the entire region. The self-activity of the working class is the first step in determining which road will be taken. This self-activity has not only to find adequate organisational forms for mass participation but also give rise to a political instrument which gives voice to the need not just to change the government but the entire economic and political system which spawned it. Ultimately the idea that capitalism can be made fairer has to give way to the idea that it has to be superseded.

D.Valerian 6/7/2013
Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Posted By

Jul 31 2013 11:53


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Jul 31 2013 17:11

Fantastic article! Did you write this devrim? It's brought up lots of thoughts and questions I've been having recently..

Jul 31 2013 17:14

Yes, the CWO asked me if I would write something for their magazine, so I did. I am glad you liked it.


Jul 31 2013 18:46

I agree. Great article, thanks!

There's lots to discuss but about the generational divide. This is problematic because in a twisted way the people now in their mid forties to mid sixties are "privileged" with proper jobs. They are not facing the same problems as the younger generations.

Even if there were better lines of communications, experienced organisers etc. they might not be that willing to strike? I know nothing about whether this applies to Turkey, Brasil etc. but in both Sweden and UK my feeling is that this is the case?

Another issue is the question whether these jobs will ever be replaced when the older generation retires. I was working in a paper mill in the mid nineties and the younger people 17-30 such as myself had been working hollidays, sickdays etc for years! Always hoping for the time when the great generational shift would happen mathematics said it was imminent. Fucked up thing is that it still hasn't happened!

Aug 1 2013 09:23
Cooked wrote:
There's lots to discuss but about the generational divide. This is problematic because in a twisted way the people now in their mid forties to mid sixties are "privileged" with proper jobs. They are not facing the same problems as the younger generations.

I can see this. I personal do pretty precarious work, and I wouldn't like to be in the position of young people today.

Cooked wrote:
Even if there were better lines of communications, experienced organisers etc. they might not be that willing to strike?

I do think that these are things that can be done on a voluntaristic basis. It is about the lack of experience within the class. It doesn't mean that we can work hard and produce better communications and organisers. Rather as the class develops its experience it will itself produced betterlines of communications and more experienced organisers.

Cooked wrote:
I know nothing about whether this applies to Turkey, Brasil etc.

In Turkey there is a core of up to half a million workers (at the very most) who will support these sort of struggles, or solidarity strikes if supported by their unions.

Cooked wrote:
but in both Sweden and UK my feeling is that this is the case?

I don't know. One thing that was noticeable in the UK during the Poll Tax period is that there were very few workplaces that came out on strike in support of the movement, which was a clear class movement. Of course you could say that the working class then had just taken a complete kicking through the second half of the 80s, but also the break with past experience wasn't so large at this point.

Cooked wrote:
Always hoping for the time when the great generational shift would happen mathematics said it was imminent. Fucked up thing is that it still hasn't happened!

I don't really understand this bit, sorry.


Aug 1 2013 15:55

Terrific article Devrim.

Quick question - Where did you source the stats for the country age demographics?

By coincidence, I was looking through Eurostat (2009) while reading. It has the % of under 24s in the UK as 12.5% of the total population, much lower than what you've indicated here (30.3%).

page 21 of

Guess it strengthens your argument?

Aug 1 2013 16:09
Devrim wrote:
Cooked wrote:

Always hoping for the time when the great generational shift would happen mathematics said it was imminent. Fucked up thing is that it still hasn't happened!

I don't really understand this bit, sorry.


Only a very small number of jobs have become available over the years despite quite a few people retiring. They are running the mill at a fraction of the staff. This admittedly pissing of the older workers so perhaps there are lines in.

Aug 1 2013 16:43
Londubh wrote:
Terrific article Devrim.

Quick question - Where did you source the stats for the country age demographics?

By coincidence, I was looking through Eurostat (2009) while reading. It has the % of under 24s in the UK as 12.5% of the total population, much lower than what you've indicated here (30.3%).

page 21 of

Guess it strengthens your argument?

That Eurostat report is looking at the 15-29 age group. So the ~12.5% figure for UK is for 15-24 range. Under 15s excluded.

Aug 1 2013 16:59
Londubh wrote:
Terrific article Devrim.

Thank you

Londubh wrote:
Quick question - Where did you source the stats for the country age demographics?

By coincidence, I was looking through Eurostat (2009) while reading. It has the % of under 24s in the UK as 12.5% of the total population, much lower than what you've indicated here (30.3%).

page 21 of

Guess it strengthens your argument?

It has been pointed out already. I took it from CIA world fact book:

CIA wrote:
Age structure:

0-14 years: 17.3% (male 5,625,040/female 5,346,815)
15-24 years: 12.8% (male 4,158,813/female 3,986,831)
25-54 years: 41.1% (male 13,250,434/female 12,807,328)
55-64 years: 11.5% (male 3,589,345/female 3,680,392)
65 years and over: 17.3% (male 4,877,079/female 6,073,497) (2013 est.)

You have just looked at 15-24 without adding in the younger kids.


Aug 3 2013 08:00

Excellent article, Devrim. I wonder, though, the extent to which the spatial reorganization of capital hasn't (with the exception of the public sector) almost done away with the large workplaces of which you speak in the oldest capitalist countries with the oldest labor movements. All of your examples except the Occupy movement are taking place in nations where large workplaces still exist, and I'm sure it may seem like exaggeration, but at times it appears that capital doesn't actually accumulate in most of the "core" countries, but rather that many of these crisis-ridden, fictitious capital-based, national economies may have such a low rate of profitability that they are unlikely to see another large workforce again. It seems that already skeletal staffing in the largest workplaces in these countries can only shrink in the foreseeable future, and this begs the question of how strong the working class in any but the most heavily invested-in 'up and coming' and most profitable nations can really be in the workplace. In a country like Brazil or Turkey (and forgive me if I'm wrong on this) it seems that a significant power base could be built in the workplace, but in some of the more tertiary national economies with tiny workplaces, the odds against building that kind of solidarity may be greater than they've ever been before in the history of capitalism (after all, if capital is making a relatively meager profit on the few people it does employ in a high-wage, small workplace country like the US or UK, how many victories can any movement for class power attain before taking on capitalism as a whole?)

I'm not sure if I'm making myself clear, but it's a real problem I see that I really don't see how a kind of class power can be built in national economies that are moving away from the mass worker style of surplus value extraction.

Aug 3 2013 18:57

To add words, if not to clarify: it seems that investing capital in wage laborers in the leading / oldest imperialist countries in which manufacturing and large workplaces are disappearing ("core"/"metropole" might not work well to describe the specific places I mean) is less popular (presumably because it's less profitable) than investing in government bonds, or betting on corn prices to rise. To me this situation seems to already imply that workers' power on the job needs to be built regionally, against municipal governments and regional firms which may have enough money to move their workplaces. When the workplaces move, the enemy becomes global capital. Already in manufacturing zones around automobile production in the US, workers are told of plant closings before even beginning to fight, let alone winning anything from which to attract other workers to a successful, replicable set of tactics and base to build power from. Small firms with limited funds can and do grant concessions which can inspire workers to struggle in these countries, but I wonder if power at work might not need to be built via power in the street (and consequently be somewhat more difficult to maintain) in countries with fewer and fewer large, profitable workplaces.

Aug 5 2013 06:28

Devrim, you make many salient points. I think the most important is that this worldwide phenomenon is made up almost entirely of youth. Yet this plays out much differently in various parts of the world where we've seen these escalations (thanks to mikail for the term) in response to crisis-imposed austerity.

I think posts from Nate's "recent cycles of conflict" thread made some thoughtful attempts to show linkages between all of these waves. I think further research is necessary to more clearly articulate the discontinuities too. I think Devrim's article points to useful questions in that direction.

I also thought this post was helpful in seeing some of those links:

mikail firtinaci wrote:
Perhaps escalation or rise might be a better term then cycle. Because the struggle seem to be coming in steps; only that in each beat it is deeper, involving more people and becoming more threatening. So;

Late 1990s - anti summit gatherings
2002 and 2003 - anti war protests all over the world
2005 and 2006 - anti-CPE movement in France, a few minor but publicly inflaming strikes in Turkey, Egypt, Oaxaca, NY transit... Deepening tensions in East Asia.
2008-2009 - Revolts in certain countries due to the rising cost of food items. TEKEL strike in Turkey.
2011-2012 - Revolts in the Middle East toppling dictatorships. Street Demos in Russia. Italy, Greece, Spain, France, England ... Occupy in the US.
2013 - Revolts in Turkey, Brazil, Egypt, Bulgaria, Indonesia.

I think the leap of the revolts to "developing countries" like Turkey, Bulgaria, Brazil etc, is significant since there is at least a democratic facade or illusion and an economic stability that makes these regimes seem "stronger." Of course there were riots in Greece or France earlier but I believe the Turkish and Brazil riots were probably massive compared to those. So is this escalation going to persist? It seems so. Because regimes everywhere are falling apart gradually and slowly but surely and ceaselessly.

While the anti-war protests attracted millions worldwide, I have never heard of any of them doing much more than protesting (the only exception I'm familiar with is this: "200 dock workers in Nagasaki, Japan refused to load military supplies onto naval vessels headed to assist the U.S.-led war [against Afghanistan in 2002], disrupting the entire Japanese state’s contribution to the war effort"). Since they never took on a class dynamic, they never went beyond activistism.

The contrast between the U.S. and France might be a good place to start to show the contrast between two of the most advanced industrial countries -- especially important as the U.S. remains the world's largest economy -- and compare the recent uprisings in both. It's also important to point out that, measured by GDP, the U.S. economy is double the size of the second largest, China (the EU combined would be slightly larger than the U.S.). This is to acknowledge that the Pacific Rim circuit of capital accumulation has overshadowed trans-Atlantic trade as the center of gravity of world capital has shifted eastward (also important is the fact that the Eurasian landmass has 3/4 of the world's population and creates 2/3 of world GDP). Beverly Silver's -- now-dated -- Forces of Labor does an excellent job of identifying these patterns of shifts in centers of production. And update would, as soyonstout points out, show how global commodity chains rely on planet-wide networks of subcontracting and this decentralized and small-scale production has resulted in what Brian Ashton calls "factories without walls."

France seems the polar-opposite of the U.S., yet in the immigrant banlieue unemployment averages over 25%. In Clichy-sous-Bois it was over 50% for people under 25 when pigs killed two youth in 2005 and set off riots across France. No sooner had the riots began to cool than millions of youth took to the street en masse in France through that winter and into 2006 to -- successfully -- protest the CPE laws. Clearly young people in France were willing to fight against casualization of their future jobs.

Contrast this with the U.S. where the major explosion of 2006 was from immigrant proletarians, many of whom brought their militancy from their places of origin in Latin America. It's no coincidence that congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, who proposed a draconian anti-immigrant law (HR 4437) in 2005, represents Milwaukee, Wisconsin's wealthiest district and is a close ally of Scott Walker, the governor responsible for gutting public sector working conditions in Wisconsin. The anti-Sensenbrenner Huelga General on May Day 2006 was a mass one-day strike that involved 5-8 million workers in over 1,500 cities across the U.S. -- the biggest single-day work stoppage in U.S. history. The strike succeeded in its aim of forcing congress to back down on the law. It's clear that even before the collapse of Bear Stearn hedge funds in June 2007, and the more rapid meltdown with Lehman Brothers in 2008, the capital class was already preparing for the bursting of the (housing-driven) bubble and had begun their attacks on working class living conditions -- in this case the Latina/o proletariat who work the bulk of low-paid service sector and bottom-tier manufacturing jobs.

It is in this context that I'll state why I think the Occupy Movement was a crucial development in the U.S. [these are excerpts the late Will Barnes and myself exchanged with some comrades in France]

    1. It was the first generalized post-2008-meltdown expression of working class anger over the depth of the crisis in the United States
    2. Even as unprogrammatic, without demands and without leaders, it demonstrated that no existing organizations with their programs -- those of the left, of the right (in the United States, at this conjuncture such a consideration is important) and, above all, the established political parties of capital -- can satisfy the needs, the aspirations and the yearnings that this movement at its birth embodied
    3. It ripped aside all the obfuscations, occlusions and mystifications that deny, hide and downplay the depth of crisis and that are endlessly and ceaselessly paraded in all spectacular media venues here in the U.S.

Some further elaboration of these:

    Point #1

    The term “crisis “ is being used in a loose sense to refer to whole course of developments in world capitalism that date back to late 2007 but first came to a head in the collapse of Lehman’s in September 2008:

    The developments began with the shut down of sites of production all over the world, interruptions in trade, and the precipitous decline in the volume of that trade globally (September 2008 - February 2009). The development further included bailouts transferring the debt of large financial institutions onto states’ (“public sector”) balance sheets; “stimulus packages” emanating from states large and small around the world; temporary “economic ‘recovery’”; stalling “recovery”; the enormous growth of “sovereign debt” and its intractability as a problem for the bourgeoisie; massive assaults on workers under the rubric of austerity; and at this moment, with these assaults ongoing, the failure of all these capitalist responses and the impending return to open crisis.

    In the very conventional sense of political economy and bourgeois thought, we might call this a depression. In our loose usage, it is a crisis of capital (and of the proletariat within capitalism) that is global in extent, that has not to this moment fully synchronized the various parts of the world system, and that cannot be resolved without a stupendous deflation of existing values. That can only be achieved through renewed imperialist world war. And, in our view, it is not at all clear that, with the ongoing crisis in nature of which we are part (climate change, mass species extinction, despoliation of nature), such an outcome would create the conditions for a renewal of accumulation, and of capitalism as a system of social relations.

    Here in the United States this crisis is framed in historical time by the Republic Windows strike (December 2008) and the statewide Wisconsin public workers (especially teachers) wildcat (February-March 2011). Since spring 2010 working class responses here have been growing, most of which were actions too “small” to recount. (The events in the U.S. West Coast port of Longview, Washington and wildcat one-day strikes at five other Pacific Northwest ports, though in our view significant for different reasons, are only indirectly related to the crisis of capital.)
    But the Occupy Movement to this moment is different: It is not based on strikes against employers, or workplace organization or workplace opposition (say, for example, against union structure). It is not based on work at all. The reason is as obvious as it is simple: Until very recently most participants, and in particular the core participants, were overwhelmingly casualized or unemployed. It is national in scope, so it is generalized as we said. It involved 750 towns and cities and 70 major metropolitan centers that had “Occupy” actions.) Spontaneous in the Leninist sense (i.e., not organized by a revolutionary political party so-called), this movement, while obviously distinct from, is a historical analogue to the movement of the unemployed in the 1930s [Unemployed Councils and Unemployed Leagues, founded in 1930 by radicals, Wobblies, CPers and SPers, effectively fought for "relief"; these organizations, following the strike wave in 1934 -- especially citywide and industry-wide general strikes -- faded with New Deal reforms by 1935]. The difference is not in the lack of articulate demands or the achieved “level of consciousness” that it, in contrast, lacks, but in presence among some of the participants (visible in their signs) of a tacit vision which goes beyond capitalism.

    Point #2
    The lack of a program, of leaders and articulate demands is a strength of the movement and not a weakness. If at its origins it had clear demands they would all be aimed at changes and adjustments in the existing political system, they would have been demands entirely within capitalism. The absence of a programmatic orientation made the Occupy Movement more difficult to co-opt, to recuperate, both spectacularly and by existing organizations of the left and the right.

    In its decline, the left organizations, the labor unions and the liberal wing of the Democratic party of capital “added their voices” to the movement, infusing it with their numbers and their clear demands. Their aims, though, were quite distinct from those who initiated the movement: These new forces seek to bring pressure to bear on the national Executive, Barack Obama, to prevent him from treating any further with his Republican party counterparts. But since the emergence of the “third party system in the United States” (circa 1932), this is always the road Democratic Presidents go down whether confronted with a crisis (by crisis we are referring here to a political impasse within the state, massive, unsustainable debt): They join hands with the members of the other political party of capital and carry out the task -- always involving working class repression or preparing the legal conditions for heightened worker exploitation or both -- that other party of capital cannot openly carry out.

    But the “occupiers” were not swamped by this new presence, they were not co-opted. Perhaps, this is because the effort to canalize “inchoate” demands at the same time gave them too narrow an expression; perhaps because many members of the core groups have yearnings -- tacit, inarticulate, precognitive -- for a life beyond capitalism; or, maybe it just an uneasy feeling or visceral recognition that the “demand” for work and a living wage, for an exit from huge debt, for a future not endlessly burdened by the personal struggle to “make a living” can no longer be met within capitalism (look at the website, to see this sentiment in its earliest posts).

    At any rate, the infusion of labor union and Democratic party personnel have “diversified" what might have at some point have been written off as a movement that was too “white” and “Anglo.”

    Point #3
    This requires a more detailed explanation.

    We deploy the term “spectacle” in Debord’s sense. In fact, for us La société du spectacle is a seminal text. In France for some time Debord has been so thoroughly recuperated that very few genuine revolutionaries today make reference to him or work with the categories of his analysis.

    This is one of the crucial areas where we have to recognize and understand certain differences between the U.S. and France.

    In France, there is more or less a coherent working class, there are working class political parties and you have traditions of militancy and a historical memory of those traditions. In fact, there are revolutionary traditions. None of this exists in the United States [class war bloodletting and the 300,000 strikes in the U.S. during industrialization is a lost history]. The vast, overwhelming majority of workers in the U.S. think of themselves as “middle class” (a designation determined crudely by income and levels of consumption). Workers, labor bureaucrats, populist politicians, even union newspapers, one and all refer to ”middle class” wage-earners!

    The capitalists, especially small owners, are the “producers,” workers, well, workers collect a paycheck, which we really don’t deserve.

    The state is a benevolent institution (you elect the personnel who occupy its offices) operating on your behalf. The cops protect you and until recently far too many working people genuinely believed this shit.

    Nearly everything in the United States is upside down. Here, we truly live in die verkehrte Welt der Kapital.

    There’s a bad but obvious example of the 2004 national electoral circus, the ”debate” over imperialist occupation in Iraq between the two official presidential candidates (reduced to a “debate” over their respective Vietnam era war records). In bourgeois terms, John Kerry was a legitimate war ”hero,” but George Bush was a “chicken hawk,” i.e., he politically supported imperialist genocide but, lacking the courage of his convictions, was too craven to fight instead hiding out in the air national guard. But Bush, a “courageous wartime president,” won the argument against Kerry, a cowardly defeatist. Their positions on Iraq were indistinguishable. Upside down.

    We could cite endless examples drawn from daily life concerning its essentially inverted character, but it must be understood that to those revolutionaries who are not oriented to the capture of state power and unleashing productive forces from their capitalist chains, this inverted character is so intuitively obvious that it is beyond dispute. Now at the heart of this inversion is the image of reality that supplants the real. Simply put, it is ubiquitous. One cannot listen to a radio, watch a television, see a film, get on the Internet, read a newspaper or magazine, walk down the street, walk into a school, a municipal building, a library, a gas station, cannot walk into a privately owned residential complex, office building or worksite, etc., without being overwhelmed with images, much of its ”advertising.” This is not propaganda, it is overpoweringly immediacy incarnating suppressed desire and longings (that are suppressed in the name of social harmony, family, work, the nation) all with the aim of realizing the exchange value of commodities, prosaically, with the goal of selling goods.

    It must be seen that (unlike France) in the United States, there is no intellectual tradition of social criticism, the culture of intellectuals has been pragmatic, utilitarian and technical for at least the last one-hundred and sixty years. So Debord’s concept of the spectacle was first, and to date, one of the few critical and revolutionary concepts that illuminated and brought theoretical clarity to the experience of this fabric of daily life. In the United States, while you are free to make money (in whatever devious and illicit manner you wish), social life has been regimented for so long that it would be impossible for such a concept to become fashionable, the rage of faux intellectual cretins. (And, in regard to intellectuals so-called, there has been only one social group in U.S. history with explicit cognitive interests that went beyond reformist, always pragmatically utilitarian practice, with liberatory motivation and conscious understanding of the necessity of a revolutionary transformation. These were the only genuinely organic intellectuals the working class in the United States has ever thrown up, and they were the Wobblies.)

    What was important for the Occupy Movement in this respect, it was not recuperated by the state propaganda machine (though, the national Executive himself tried hard to enlist it as a backer for his “jobs program”) or by the media spectacular adjuncts to that machine. This is in part because working class individuals who were most committed to the “occupations” existed completely under the radar of the denizens of the media spectacle – capital’s minions, personae found in and among marketing departments, promoters, pollsters, agents, publicists, script writers, public announcers, news anchors and television personalities. These groups didn't have a clue as to what was happening on the ground wherever the crisis had its most serious impact.

    But not only were “occupations” impervious to being co-opted (at least during their initial phase), it was a practical demonstration that there is no “recovery,” that the options of the two parties of capital for either a shake-out based on austerity and large cuts in public sector expenditures, or a Keynesian spending binge, do not incarnate an alternative and would do little or nothing for the mass of “occupiers.” And their presence (that of the “occupiers”) also took all the winds from the sails of the Tea Party, the representative of small business ideological purity, which during the first signs of crisis were presented in the media spectacle as the only “alternative” to conventional capitalist politics.

    So in this sense, we hold that the Occupy Movement demystified a great deal of the bourgeois certainties that have been so pervasively operative in daily life.

    We recognize that the Occupy Movement was transitory, and that it died while still resisting recapture by capital’s spectacle. But we think its significance lays in its generalized character, in the increasing working class recognition that there is no way out of the crisis on capital’s terms, and, importantly, in a tacit awareness inside this movement that the situations for proletarians, especially well educated ones, here is not qualitatively different from that of workers who have been expelled from production anywhere else in the world.

Lots of this analysis was biased in Occupy Oakland having been framed more in class terms than any other Occupy in the U.S. In 2012 it gave rise to solidarity actions with the mostly Latino workers at the Pacific Steel foundry in Berkeley (the largest steel mill west of the Mississippi) facing deportation by immigration cops -- in retaliation for wildcat actions during their strike in March, 2011. Occupy also lent its solidarity -- that nearly tipped the balance -- to a strike of Latina/o workers at the American Licorice candy factory in Union City, an industrial suburb of Oakland. Its influence on the events in Longview was negligible, but the connections made during Occupy will most likely be a ready-made solidarity network when management launches its attack on West Coast longshore workers with the expiration of their contract next year. Regardless, it left an exciting legacy that will -- hopefully -- steer future outbreaks in a demandless, leaderless and not-easily-recuperable anti-capitalist direction.

Aug 3 2013 21:48

Great article, Devrim!

Having been involved in the DC scene, the description of Occupy is basically true to my experience. Occupy was probably the biggest class-themed (albeit in a very vague and poorly articulated way) "movement" to appear in the US in decades, certainly at the very least since 2001. There were other interesting elements. There were a number of Leninist sects (the PSL and the ISO are two I remember) that made appearances here and there at Occupy DC, but they were totally marginal. Their absence made for a more educational environment, I think: having only recently become interested in more radical politics, I definitely benefited from not hearing reactionary views cloaked in radical language. "Anarchist" seemed to me to the most common political identification I heard, though it was very much of the black-blocking, punkish variety.

As incredibly boring as the general assemblies always seemed to me, the ultimate result in DC was that the GAs just became somewhat irrelevant. Point A-to-Point B marches continued to happen on a near-daily basis (and sometimes more than once in one day) but didn't always have formal GA sanction (god forbid).

Pacifism was annoying trendy, and much worse were the peace police--or "marshals," as they were called. Perhaps traumatized by the childhood drama of losing their gold sheriff badge, these people took it upon themselves to do the work of cops with even greater enthusiasm than the boys in blue themselves. My interaction with them was limited to being pushed back to the acceptable part of the street to walk on and I think one got on my case for yelling something profane. In this regard, as ridiculous as I thought the existence of these marshals was, I was much better off than those at other encampments. At Occupy Chicago, some peace police handed over the names of "violent anarchists" to the real cops, and there were similar incidents elsewhere.

This really was massive compared to what was going on before it, though, and Occupy X spread throughout the US astoundingly fast. In the context of the American working class, particularly its younger and more precariously or soon to be precariously employed (by which I mostly mean students; I go to a fairly prestigious and wealthy university, but virtually everyone I know will still be dependent on engaging in wage-labor when they graduate or already is), I do think this represents a notable upsurge in class consciousness and combativeness. As minor and perhaps backwards as it was compared to the other events mentioned, it's surely a promising sign of things to come,

Aug 13 2013 16:22

Devrim, thanks for this article, I enjoyed reading it. This is really well put and important:
“going to a demonstration is a decision that can be made individually. Of course there have been cases of people attending these protests collectively from their workplaces, schools or universities, it is not the majority experience. People can and do decide to go to them on their own. You can't decide to go on strike on your own, and it takes a lot more to decide to lose money and risk your job than it foes to turn up at a demonstration, which brings us the central question, the lack of experience, confidence, and consciousness within the workplace.”
In the events in Madison a while back, there was a tendency for people at demonstrations to gather in small groups of people they already knew. More importantly people didn’t mingle very much beyond the groups they came with and stood around with. That fits with what you’re saying - even if people came with small groups of friends or co-workers, there wasn’t the kind of collective decision-making you mentioned that’s required in going on strike.
On the generational divide, it’s interesting that this is an international trend. The events in Madison were largely about older workers with more secure jobs being attacked. (They weren’t the only people under attack, the struggle was narrowed to their interests.) Younger and more precarious workers still came out in large numbers, which was hope-inspiring thing to see.

“events in Wisconsin (...) however small”
I agree that the Wisconsin events were both important and limited. About their size though, I’m not sure the issue was size exactly. They were small in the sense of very localized - they didn’t really spread beyond Wisconsin. But the events in Wisconsin were huge. The larger demonstrations had about 100,000 people at them, in a city of about 200,000. And that’s just the numbers of people who were there at those high points. There was a constant flow for people to and from Madison. We don’t know the total numbers of people who were involved at any given point but it’s plausible that it was easily 500,000 or a million people (given that there were large numbers of people out for weeks and people coming and going the whole time), when Wisconsin’s population is about five million. There were also actions in other cities around the state, though Madison was by far the main place.
So I don’t think size was the main limit. A bigger limit was localization - the fact that it was a Wisconsin struggle, not a struggle that crossed state borders. (There were also huge limits in the contents of the demands and the actions, of course, and. That’s another set of issues I’m not going to get into just now.) The localization and the other limits were all bound up with what the struggle was about: narrowly, attacks on Wisconsin public sector workers, and more broadly Wisconsin state austerity measures. The structure of the government in the U.S. with the division of state and federal and some labor and social reproduction functions resting with the state governments helps encourage this fragmentation.
One further thought I had about the Wisconsin events is that they were work and worker oriented kind of events of a kind that have been generally rare in the United States. They were ideologically limited with their public sector union focus but they did put issues of work and class into discussion more than I remember happening at that scale any other time since I’ve been politically active, and there was at least some deliberation publicly about striking and particularly about general strikes as a potential action. (So there was at least a conversation about moving past street protests.) In a sense most of Occupy wasn’t as much of a step forward, as it largely raised issues of income and life outside of work to the exclusion of work, and other than Oakland there was very little talk of strikes or other workplace actions.

One question for you:
I think I agree when you say “the Occupy movement essentially never went beyond a movement of activists” but I want to understand your point. Could you say more about the distinction you’re making? Is the distinction here ‘Occupy was an activist movement, not a working class movement?’ or ‘Occupy was an activist movement, not a mass movement?’ or both? Or something else? I guess I’m asking, is ‘movement of activists’ a matter of who was involved, the demands made, the activity, something else?
I ask because early on when Occupy started, I know a lot of people who said “this just an activist thing, it’s the usual suspects of the activist left” but as it turned out lots of new people got involved in Occupy. I think I want to say it was a lot of new people becoming activists for the first time, but I want to think more about that.

Peter Little
Aug 14 2013 02:06

I appreciate the questions you raise-and think some of your tentative conclusions are instructive.

Your assessment of Occupy misses an important aspect of the experience of Occupy on the West Coast-Portland, Seattle, and Oakland Occupy's became much more than camps of activists-and the multiple incursions we made into the Ports(under the auspices of a strike) did actually place the question of workers as workers-notably Longshore workers in front of the Northwest Occupy movement in a manner which reflects some of the directions and possibilities I see your piece indicating:

(I wrote something for counterpunch on this in December of 2012)

"What did we Learn from Longview and West Coast Port Shutdowns?

The Occupy-led West Coast Port Shutdown of Dec 12, 2011, marked an important shift in Occupy’s trajectory. Inspired by Occupy Oakland’s General Strike/Shut Down The Port on November 2, 2011, it demonstrated how a movement in the streets can be transformed in encounters with the daily struggles of working class life. In doing so, it posed radical new possibilities – ones further clarified when Longview, WA Local 21 of the ILWU called on Occupy to prepare to assist them in shutting down the EGT grain terminal when a threatened scab ship arrived to be loaded in January, 2012.

Some in the union, the media, state and city officials and even “Left” parties and intellectuals told us at the time that it wasn’t valid for us to be marching on the ports because we weren’t the “real workers” or because the union had opposed it. Yet our presence in the ports transformed not only our sense of power and possibility, but the sense of what was possible for the workers there. It is still transforming it, as shown in the one-day SEIU strike a week ago which shut down the Port of Oakland (when ILWU workers honored the picket line staffed by SEIU and Occupy folks) and forced the Port Commission and the City of Oakland to negotiate after months of stalling.

Between Oakland, Portland, and Seattle, cold mornings outside the hiring hall day after day were central in the building of the West Coast Port Shutdown. Because of its actvities in the Ports, its claims to solidarity with ILWU Local 21 in Longview, and the actual leadership of a minority within the ILWU rank and file, Occupy eventually found itself face to face with the workers of Local 21 themselves.

Even prior to Longview, Occupy’s actions in the ports opened spaces for shifts and new possibilities for the workers themselves.

As the day’s West Coast Port Shutdown events ended in Portland and at the prodding of rank and file Longshore, Occupy marched to a steel factory near the ports, run with ILWU labor, but not targetted in the initial shutdown as it was not a Port facility. Occupy’s arrival at the gates provoked a 3 hour shutdown in direct communication with ILWU rank and file inside the plant over questions of union representation within the plant. This strike was defused after 3 hours when an ILWU bargaining agent came to the remaining Occupy forces and to the workers and negotiated a return to work.

In Longview, the majority of the people staffing the picket lines outside of the shut down Port facilities were Longview Longshore and their families.

An unevenness existed in how Longshore workers themselves related to the struggle-but its clear that Occupy and the rank and file of Longview’s longer trajectory of action radically transformed the sense of possibility and the willingness to act and move within the entirety of the ILWU-that the movement at the gates of the factory transformed the possibilties within the factory in a way in which the inherent limits of the trade union could not.

Before Occupy, we watched the Longview struggle emerge in August -and we were told from Longshore contacts,”we don’t want or need the help of outsiders,” much of this based on a fear of troubles brought on by outsiders.

By the end of the Longview struggle as we sat in secret meetings with workers in Longview, we asked Local 21 members what would happen when the scab ship arrived and thousands of Occupiers stormed in to stop the ship-how would they lead? They answered,”we don’t know, but don’t worry. Just know that we’ll be at the front going through those gates and through that fence. Maybe we’ll just occupy EGT.”

Had our actions during the Port Shutdown not been led by Longshore workers, had we not prioritized developing relationships with Longshore prior to and during the action, and had we not also maintained a fierce independence of the union, this would not have been on the table. What we say and do matters-and what we say do in relation to institutions like trade unions matters immensely-both for our relationship to rank and file within these trade unions, but also for those left outside the trade union structure. The question-and the metric with which we approach this struggle-should be: what can our participation in this struggle bring that shifts the sense of broader possibility-and the possibility of a broader commitment to the broader working class as a whole? This is in juxtaposition to struggles which define their ends in narrow, sectoral goals-goals which often serve to delineate, reinforce, or further entrench privileges which stand as obstacles to true unity among working class people.

As Occupy’s orientation has shifted toward the working class, many people have spoken of the need to educate workers. By workers we mean housewives, the unemployed, students, and yes, Longshore workers too. We mean all of those who must live by selling their labor and their lives in the market-or who must rely on others to do so-all those with no capital-no property, no employees, to produce wealth for them. Not only those who labor to produce in factories and Ports, but also those who reproduce the worker-those who labor, unwaged, in the home to make the worker’s life and existence possible and bearable.

Putting aside the implied arrogance in such an approach, a strategy based in ‘education’ or ‘consciousness raising’ misses what possibilities are already present, if only fleetingly, in working class life. The daily lives of working class people are full of sufficient, and often brutal, examples to inform them as to the effects of austerity, the bankruptcy or value of unions, or of the need to confront coal as a false messiah in the salvation of the US economy. The question is: where in their daily experience do they have a sense of their potential power in confronting these horrors?

Aug 15 2013 00:43

First, it's necessary to dispel some myths about Occupy, Longview and the December 12, 2011 "West Coast Port Shutdown."

To do this, it's important to put West Coast ports in perspective. Overwhelmingly, the most crucial chokepoint is the combined Los Angeles-Long Beach Port complex (they exist side-by-side in San Pedro Harbor).

• 43% of intermodal cargo containers entering the U.S. pass through L.A./Long Beach

Here are some stats for the annual value of cargo (imports & exports) by port:

    • L.A./Long Beach=$320,100,000,000
    • Oakland=$39,000,000,000
    • Portland=$190,000,000
    • Seattle=$43,000,000,000

So L.A./Long Beach moves 4X as much as the other 3 combined. Actually shutting down West Coast ports would necessitate shutting down L.A./Long Beach.

On December 12, 2011, the day billed as the "West Coast Port Shutdown," that didn't happen. The closest it got were some "traffic disruptions" at the SSA gate at Pier J at the Port of Long Beach. This didn't affect the movement of goods into and out of either port at all.

Oakland was different. Starting in the predawn hours, a couple thousand protestors blocked the TraPac and Hanjin Terminals, where there was a single ship at each. A "health & safety" arbitrator ruled that the longshore shift didn't have to work those ships, sending them home with pay. Yet beyond the fences -- and through some secondary gates -- other workers moved containers around and into and out of the terminals and it was business as usual. Port management claims otherwise, but the port was "closed" for the swing and graveyard shifts, sending longshore -- and other -- workers home without pay. In the a.m. hours, this caused tension as some longshore workers, unsuccessfully, tried to force their way past Occupy activists to get to work. In the sense that very few ILWU Local 10 members participated in either the planning (I attended several of the meetings and saw only 2 active longshore workers; there were several retirees from Local 10 though) or the actions on the morning of December 12th, this was a flaw and meant that future port actions might pit port workers against activists.

From reports I read (correct me if I'm wrong) Occupy activists shut Terminals 5, 6 at the Port of Portland and another for the evening shift (grain terminal 4, I believe), preventing any work at those 3 terminals.

As for Seattle, as was reported on libcom, a major entrance to the Port of Seattle was shut down for most of the day, preventing longshore workers from accessing the terminals. I believe some longshore workers refused to be dispatched to another terminal for the evening shift (again, correct me if I'm wrong). It's unclear if other terminals were being worked.

Yet there are 29 container ports on the West Coast (including Vancouver, BC in Canada). Logistics planners can divert ships to other ports if there are problems, but that probably wasn't necessary as all the ports affected by Occupy actions were working as usual by the next day, December 13th.

The Wall Street Journal reported that it costs $30,000 for every day a ship is delayed in port. But with ports like L.A./Long Beach moving $1,030,000,000 worth of goods per day (on average), the cost of the Occupy-caused delays were negligible.

Contrast this with real highpoints of class struggle at these same ports. In 1934, every port on the West Coast was shut down as longshore workers walked out on May 9. Sailors joined them a several days later. When Teamsters refused to move "hot cargo" off the docks, the West Coast ports were paralyzed. 83 days later, the bosses sent the police using military tactics to break the strike by force, killing 2 workers in San Francisco. Anger at that, and the calling in of the National Guard, launched a 4-day General Strike that brought all commerce to a complete freeze in both San Francisco and Oakland. The gains from that struggle, along with 1,399 strikes -- legal and illegal -- over the next 14 years, brought the ILWU virtual closed shop conditions where they were truly the "lords of the docks" (perhaps even exceeding the conditions of IWW on the docks of Philly from 1913 to 1922).

That run lasted 27 years, until the Mechanization and Modernization Agreement allowed the introduction of the intermodal cargo container -- the introduction of which reduced the longshoring workforce, over time and worldwide, by a factor of 90%. But the death of closed shop conditions was the second M&M contract in 1966 where Article 9.43 was slipped in, permitting "steady men" to bypass the hiring hall and work directly for management as "permanent regular employees." It was 9.43 that caused an angry rebellion against Bridges and the other piecards running ILWU, resulting in the 134-day coastwide strike in 1971-1972 (the longest longshore strike in U.S. history).

So all the myth-making about the ILWU being the "most militant" union in the U.S. is simply bullshit. They were the most militant union during their wave of militancy, which was 1934-1948. Like any AFL-CIO union, they endorsed Obama and give lots of dues-paying members' money to the Democrats -- and other rackets of the election industry -- every voting season. But since their heyday, they've done some righteous actions in solidarity with other political struggles, usually invoking "work-stop" meetings allowed in their contract, but they haven't had an official coastwide strike since 1972. They rest heavily on their laurels, but often show glimpses of that earlier militancy -- like the 1-day wildcat strikes at the ports of Anarcortes, Everett, Portland, Seattle and Tacoma on September 8, 2011 -- in solidarity with the Longview workers who sabotaged the EGT grain terminal.

Now to Longview. It was a bitter defeat, regardless of what Occupy threatened to do. The most egregious concessions were:

    • ILWU Local 40 shipping clerks had all their positions eliminated

    • management, at its discretion, can reject any worker dispatched from the ILWU hiring hall; reminiscent of Article 9.43, management can make any worker a "permanent regular employee" outside the hiring hall

    • Article VIII (section 8.01c) makes anyone working at EGT basically an "at-will" employee who can be fired for any reason

    • allows working at long as 13-hour shifts (previous limit was 10 hours)

    • surrenders the right to stop work for health and safety concerns -- workers must continue working and file a formal grievance

    • ILWU workers will no longer be in the control room at the highly-automated EGT terminal, which will be operated by management -- giving them complete control over the work process

    • the union must order worker to cross Occupy-style "community pickets"; if this is violated 3 times, the contract is void

As Asian countries become more affluent, they eat less rice and more bread, cereal grains and meat. Countries like Japan and Korea are about 70% mountainous, without the arable land to grow grain and raise livestock for meat. China has 20% of the world's population, but only 7% of the arable land. So those Asian countries -- and several others -- have to rely on imports of grains for their changing diets, as well as grains to serve as feed for their burgeoning meat-raising industries. After the massive spikes in world grain markets (like in 2008 when hard red spring wheat -- the high protein kind used in bread -- at the Minneapolis Grain Exchange went from $3 to $25 a bushel in a speculative bubble), Asian grain traders don't want to get left subject to such wild fluctuations. So they're building just-in-time grain supply chains, from places like the wheat fields of Montana, to the end consumers in China, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, etc.

Japan-based Marubeni, the 2nd largest grain importer of grain from the U.S. to China, has already built 8 new high-speed "shuttle" grain loaders in rural Montana. Mitsui, also of Japan, has built 3 new shuttle loaders. Of the 22 current new shuttle loaders in Montana, 14 are operated by Asian multinational grain traders.

But there is still one major blockage to their just-in-time system, and that is the work rules and high salaries of longshore workers at the Columbia River and Pacific Northwest grain handling ports. So, on February 27, 2013 Mitsui locked out ILWU Local 4 from their United Grain terminal in Vancouver, Washington when they refused to accept the same conditions as EGT workers in Longview. Then on May 4, 2013, Marubeni locked out ILWU Local 8 workers at its Columbia Grain terminal in Portland, Oregon for the same reason -- and because, without a contract, they want to impose the Longview EGT conditions.

So with the contract for the 29 West Coast container ports expiring in 2014, the Pacific Maritime Association is going to demand the same concessions that the Northwest Grain Handlers Association achieved at Longview -- and are pushing for at the grain terminals currently locked out in Portland and Vancouver. Without any real strike experience, my fear is that they'll be crushed, wiping out the gains that go back to the 1934 General Strike. I was once in ILWU Local 6 (the warehousing division) in Oakland, so I don't want to see my former sisters and brothers get crushed, but that seems where things are headed.

One inspiring exception was the 8-day strike by 70 marine clerks from ILWU Local 63 who walked off their jobs at the APM Terminal at Pier 400 at the Port of Los Angeles on November 27, 2012 in a contract dispute – the main issue being outsourcing of their jobs with technology [it's not if this job classification will be eliminated, but when; RFID tags will replace their work and most modernized ports have already eliminated this job category]. They set up picket lines at 10 of the 14 terminals at the Los Angeles/Long Beach port complex , shutting it down 70% with the solidarity of longshore workers refusing to cross the lines. After 8 days, the strike ended with management conceding that none of the 600 clerk jobs would be outsourced and Local 63 continued working under the expired contract. The union feared that Obama's federal mediators would soon arrive, so they made a hasty deal. Also, as Los Angeles militants have pointed out they struck after the Christmas rush, when the port is least busy, failing to flex their muscle and challenge management when the port is busiest and at its most vulnerable.

Longshore workers are some of the highest paid industrial workers in the U.S., which is in stark contrast to the mostly immigrant troqueros (short-haul port truckers) who work side-by-side with them. The trucking industry was deregulated in 1980, resulting in a wealth transfer of around $3 billion from truckers to trucking brokers. General strikes and near general strikes occurred on West Coast ports in the 19th and early 20th century because of the class unity at the ports, when all waterfront workers -- longshore, teamsters, sailors and others in maritime -- fought side-by-side. Sadly, that no longer exists today and most troqueros earn barely above minimum wage, despite arduously long hours. Watch Allan Sekula and Noël Burch's The Forgotten Space for the scene where the activist does the math and shows that many troqueros work well beneath the minimum wage.

There is hope. The troqueros have one of the most impressive track records of wildcat strikes of any sector in the U.S. Here's what they have done at the L.A./Long Beach port complex alone:

    • 1988 2 1/2 week strike
    • 1991 strike
    • 1993 11-day strike
    • 1996 strike
    • 2004 strike
    • 2005 strike
    • 2006 May Day Huelga General complete shutdown of L.A./Long Beach; 2006 was the historical peak for port traffic on the West Coast and it took months to clear the logistical backlog from just a 1-day work stoppage
    • 2012 agitation at Toll Group

If the longshore workers can take inspiration from the non-union truckers they work alongside everyday on the docks, they might start striking again -- and winning. Before declaring how great Occupy's port actions were, perhaps a look at the legacy of the troqueros' will teach the lesson that nothing gets accomplished at the ports -- or any workplace -- without working class agency and class solidarity spreading to all sectors. Those sectors include the whole commodity chain, from the factory workers and logistics/transportation workers in China to the agricultural workers and railroad workers in the wheat fields of Montana.

Aug 14 2013 06:26
Nate wrote:
In the events in Madison a while back, there was a tendency for people at demonstrations to gather in small groups of people they already knew. More importantly people didn’t mingle very much beyond the groups they came with and stood around with. That fits with what you’re saying - even if people came with small groups of friends or co-workers, there wasn’t the kind of collective decision-making you mentioned that’s required in going on strike.

This may have been true in later phases, but at the beginning there was a rolling wave of strikes (teacher sick-outs and student walk-outs) that closed down 38% of the schools (by population) in the entire state of Wisconsin, beginning February 16 and going through Friday, February 18, 2011. A massive upsurge, numbering at least 100,000 as pointed out by Nate, was centered in Madison and it accompanied the strikes ending on Monday February 21.

Caiman del Barrio
Aug 14 2013 08:59

Hello everyone, these are all very interesting points & I'm always gripped by any of Hieronymous' analyses of thigns in the US, but i can't help but be struck by Devrim's - IMO largely accurate - assessment in the OP of how largely nominal events in the US tend to overshadow far more momentous movements in other countries. The OP deliberately underplayed (or, rather, accurately placed) the importance of US Occupy etc compared to Turkey, Brazil, etc.

Perhaps the US mini-discussion could move elsewhere. wink

fingers malone
Aug 14 2013 09:46

I'm actually really interested in the discussion about the port, and Madison, but I do also kind of agree with Caiman here, in that I think it would be good to have more information and discussion about class struggle in non- English speaking countries (and, actually, in India, which is a pretty English speaking country.) Specifically about Occupy, in Spain the 15M movement did really manage to connect with direct action by non-activist working class people to fight for better conditions in their lives. This was much more around housing and not really much in the workplace. This movement doesn't really get the attention it deserves.

I'd like people to keep talking about the US as the discussion is good, but could people also bring in other countries?

fingers malone
Aug 14 2013 10:10

Ok some points.

I think a fundamental difference with Spanish 15M is that it connected with a base of struggles which already existed, and tapped into a popular acceptance of direct action as a way to resolve your problems. Like for example the Corralas came into existence partly because there were already many examples of working class people squatting for housing need, such as the squatting grannies of San Bernardo. Eviction and homelessness is increasing all over, so the need for housing exists, but in Seville the background made occupying an empty block a much easier decision for people to take. We had six corralas in the city at one point, housing hundreds of families.

What do people think? Does anyone else have examples where Occupy in their city built on a base of existing struggles, and did it work out well?

Aug 14 2013 16:32

I'd be cool with the analysis on U.S. stuff being split off. I almost didn;t post on that stuff because I didn't want to derail, but I also think that Devrim's doing two ore three related things - he's analyzing movements in Turkey and elsewhere and briefly comparing them with the U.S. and elsewhere. In the process he makes points that aren't specific to Turkey etc, the analysis has legs and can be applied to other places. I do agree that more on Turkey etc is good and it'd be a shame for the U.S. stuff to overshadow/crowd that out. So maybe split the thread?

Chilli Sauce
Aug 15 2013 06:58

So I've finally just gotten around to reading this and I like it, it's good. Couple of things from me:

As in Western countries there are an increasing number of graduates coming out of university and finding that compared to their parents generation their qualifications have much less chance of leading them into a job.

On the above, some posters have recently pointed out that for a revolutionary movement to develop, a large part if it will be because people see capitalism failing on it's own terms. Do folks think that the global trend of the failure of higher education to secure better jobs (one of the long-time promises and, arguably, relief valves of capitalism) could be moving the class in that direction?

What I did want to ask is what defines a large workplace? I mean, I get that, certainly in the US, the massive auto factories are a thing of the past. But large workplaces, say 1000+ still exist. Malls can be massive and despite the fact that there are many different employers within them, it's still a single workplace. The same for some call centers, sometimes they can take up entire buildings and easily employ over a thousand people.

And, in the UK, despite it's fragmentation the NHS is still a massive employer. Hospitals still have huge workforces, for example. The social dynamics of these workforces in no doubt differ from the towns and communities build around single factories or industries, but I'm wondering if more than just large workplaces is needed to describe why these movement haven't taken hold in the workplace.

Re: Assemblies.

I've always framed my criticisms of assemblies in that if often seems they're held as 'assemblies for assembly's sake' with the form overtaking the content. As long as a decision is made democratically or through consensus, it's celebrated as a victory in itself. Whether it achieves anything and whether it actually builds the power to win concrete, material demands often seems secondary. But perhaps, as you point out, this could be a logical outcome of assemblies of activists - without an organised base in communities/workplaces, it's pretty unlikely any decision will be able to build that power anyway.

In any case, what's your assessment of the assemblies happening in Turkey at the moment? Despite being in Turkey, I barely speak any of the language and haven't actually made any real effort to attend one.

Aug 29 2013 07:05

Another factor in these escalations, perhaps even the initial spark, were the food riots that were breaking out all over the world with rising prices that began in 2004 and have continued through today -- with riots starting in Burundi in 2005. The following data is from the New England Complex Systems Institute.

This is from the Food & Agriculture Organization (of the UN) Food Price Index from January 2004 to May 2011. The red vertical lines show the dates of the bread riots that occurred as part of the unrest in North Africa and the Middle East. The death tolls are in parenthesis. The inset shows the FAO Food Price Index from 1990 to 2011.

There were over 60 major riots in at least 30 counties. In at least 10 of those there were multiple deaths. Based on current food prices, this trend will continue.

Aug 30 2013 09:52

re graphs - Food price index vs Oil price, 1990 - Apr 2011

from here (tho imo commentary there not much cop)

The timings of the spikes are interesting though, being tied not so much to periods of rapid growth or rising market expectations, but rather in the successive phases of the sub-prime panic and the eurozone "grexit" panic. Possibly lending some credence to the allegation by some development ngos and analysts, that the introduction of food index ETFs (by G-SAX and others) transformed the dynamics of global food price into a speculative proxy for oil, itself (temporarlily) a hedge against the fear of losses in US & EU financials and equities. Whatever.

edit: a more interesting read on the same topic than the above link Food Prices Mirror Oil Prices: The Crude Oil - FAO Food Price Index Price Correlation

Aug 30 2013 17:30

Good data ocelot.

A logistics/market risk consultant named David Korowicz wrote an interesting analysis called "TRADE-OFF Financial System Supply-Chain Cross-Contagion: a study in global systemic collapse."

He talks about the correlation between oil and petrochemical-dependent agriculture and speculative bubbles. He has a chart, much like yours above, where the FAO Food Price index almost exactly follows the Brent Crude index. He also claims that Quantitative Easing (QE) fueled the food bubble. Here's an excerpt (pp. 49-59):

Korowicz wrote:
Food is the most inelastic part of consumption. Like oil, rising prices drive out other consumption, which can lead to job losses, unemployment, and defaults. The most developed countries spend about 10% of their disposable income on food, however in many parts of the world it is over 50%.

At this point it is illustrative to look at how the interactions between the financial, oil and food economies can have major unexpected repercussions. When major stresses are transmitted along complex and increasingly vulnerable inter-dependencies, there is a greater risk of system wide contagion and instability.

While food prices remained high, they received a further stimulus and increased volatility via massive quantitative easing in the US. The two rounds of QE were to support battered financial institutions. This injection helped drive a global commodity bubble, affecting an already stressed global food market. Pressure was displaced from the US onto the plates of citizens in the Middle-East and North Africa.

And I agree with the analysis that sees how the introduction/deregulation of food and petroleum forwards, futures and derivatives was a game-changer. When the Goldman Sachs Commodity Index was introduced in 1991 -- offering investment shares in 18 products, including cattle, coffee, cocoa, corn, hogs & wheat -- it allowed the speculative flows we've been seeing recently. Frederick Kaufman's "The Food Bubble: How Wall Street Starved Millions and Got Away With It" explain this well.

Sep 7 2013 15:54

In Turkey, which has previously seen one-day 'general strikes' organised by the left unions, there seems to be a growing recognition that these strikes are neither widespread enough in terms of the amount of workers participating, nor long enough in terms of their limited duration to effectively challenge the state. A similar situation has been seen in Greece during the union organised one day strikes against the implementation of austerity programmes.

The only possibility for a social revolution in the modern world, in developed countries, lies in the demolition of trade unions, and then replacing them with councils formed during the struggle. The destruction of trade unions by a directed social explosion from within is the key to the development of the workers' revolutionary movement. As long as the unions control the workers, nothing can be done.

the need to rise against trade unions

Sep 8 2013 18:19

Greate text, Devrim!

Dec 23 2013 02:24

Great article!
Just one thing though. The Facebook call for a general strike in Brazil is not as promising as it seems. It was started by right wing elements and spread in a right wing context as anti-government/workers party protest. I don't think it had anything to do with the working class or a real support for strikes in general.