Some of you may have seen that little pink flyer titled “Why anti-capitalist?” floating around the Occupy Denver protest on October 29th. I was happy to receive one of these because I was there to learn, share in ideas, and support a worthy, ever-growing, and multi-faceted movement. As I read it however, I was discouraged and disheartened by its message and I hope nobody takes it to be a
message of good and effective activism, but out of concern that people do get reeled in by its message, I thought I’d write a little critique.
There are three main points with which I found concern: 1) The author of this flyer makes no distinction between types of capitalism, 2) They make the claim that because banks and Wall Street are symptoms of a larger problem, that OWS is somehow off track by focusing on them, and 3) the language of this flyer incites hate and demonization, rather than unification in the face of problems
which dearly need unity to overcome.
Firstly, it’s easy enough to understand its basic message, “Capitalism is the crisis,” not Wall Street and banks, these are just symptoms. I think most at the march would agree that capitalism is, at least, worth critiquing very heavily. However, this little flyer made no real thoughtful critique of capitalism. Whether this was because there was not enough room on that little piece of paper, or because the author actually does confuse various forms of capitalism is not clear. Due to it’s lack of clarity, it unfortunately throws the baby out with the bathwater. If someone wants to look just below the surface, they might begin to wonder about the various forms of and enterprises within capitalism that actually work without exploitation. For instance, what about penny capitalism and cooperatives? At the top of the flyer it says, as if offering a definition, “Capitalism: You wash the dishes, the one’s who own them profit. Anti-capitalism: We all share in the dishwashing.” Actually, this second phrase that is supposed to represent “anti-capitalism” is nice. It actually starts to describe worker-cooperatives where the workers not only reap the profits of the business to which all of them belong, but the workers are also the collective owners.
Now, let’s talk about corporate capitalism. Though sometimes vague, it gets closer to the mark. Corporate capitalism, generally defined and understood, is a term used to describe a capitalist marketplace dominated by hierarchical, heavily bureaucratic, large corporations, that have profit seeking as there number one goal and often (if not always) do damage to the environment, to cultures, and to society at large, in their pursuit of profit. Also, they nearly always do so with impunity and even while being praised. This is obviously a HUGE problem. Let’s compare this now with penny capitalism which is when a small-scale producer, most often a farmer, sells her or his surplus produce to a
neighbor, to a friend, or a community member (sort of sounds like a farmers’ market). Surely this flyer isn’t suggesting that this farmer is the problem, nor is it suggesting that a cooperatively run childcare service or cooperatively run internet-hosting business, which are necessarily decentralized and locally owned and run, are the problem.
Obviously, I’m not getting into the nitty-gritty of these and other alternative forms of economic structures, but I think I scratch the surface and get my point across. When I read that little pink flyer I was disheartened by what seemed to be an oversimplification, but I was also excited to add a bit to an essential conversation. I hope the conversation about alternative economics continues and gets more rich and sophisticated among the movement. It’s certainly a conversation that predates OWS, and is certainly a conversation that needs to continually be strongly, deliberately, and intelligently interjected
into OWS or any other struggle for economic, social, and environmental justice by any other name.
Secondly, this flyer suggests that OWS is off the mark by focusing so much on banks and Wall Street. Well, let’s see, since they are just symptoms of a larger problem we shouldn’t really be focusing on them, right? Wrong. This time it’s the authors logic that I question. Of course we need to look deeply at root causes and effect change at that level. But, to infer that a focus on banks and Wall Street is not efficacious because they are mere symptoms is simply not accurate. Remember back to the African American freedom struggle? Let’s think for a second, what was the struggle all about anyways? Lunch?
No, and yes. Busses? No, and yes. Classrooms? No, and yes. Segregation? Yes. But still that’s not the root cause. What is then? Hatred, ignorance, and greed in the form of racism. Okay then, so according to that insidious little flyer, the African American struggle did it wrong. They shouldn’t have paid so much attention to symptoms like desegregating the lunch counters, or the busses, or the classrooms, because after all those places weren’t the root cause. Now, of course, I’m being a bit facetious. One of the many lessons we can learn from past struggles is the importance of focusing on concrete problems
to effect major, root issues. Sure, the African American freedom struggle was about overcoming hatred and racism, but the way they worked for change was through a deliberate and concerted confrontation of racism as it manifested in concrete forms, there at the lunch counter, on the busses, and in the
I think it’s safe to say that this movement is about a lot of things, big investment banks, the conflation of commercial banking and investment banking, corporate capitalism in general, and these are only a few concrete issues we could focus on to transform root issues like economic inequity and
greed. Thirdly, the language of this flyer while flashy and energetic, unfortunately was also subtly hateful and demonizing. Name calling, for instance, calling the police “the army of the rich” is really not helpful. Corporate greed and police brutality, are problems which dearly needs unity to be overcome, not further division. Violent language provokes further violence by segregating us from one another. That is not to say we shouldn’t call a spade a spade. Police brutality is inexcusable, heinous, and criminal. But, provoking violence either through speech or actions is not helpful. Take for instance what happened on October 29th in Denver when a man tipped over a police motor cycle while the police officer was still on it. This is not the kind of action that exposes police brutality for what it is, but rather
vindicates police force in the public eye. There is a real difference between planned and deliberate actions the aim of which is to expose police brutality and this kind of impulsive, reactionary violence that discredits the movement. In this same vain, let’s stop demonizing police officers by calling them the army of the rich. It’s not accurate. It’s a huge sweeping stereotype. Those police officers are people, who, though perhaps not friends, may eventually be converted to a more critical stance on the issues of state and corporate capitalism. Even if they aren’t, other citizens, seeing their brutality, will be moved to support and work with the protestors, but only if the
police are not met with violent retaliation or provocation. If they are met with violence, their violence looks justified in the public eye and the protestors are frowned upon. This is a terrible bind to work through, but unfortunately is a real one. Deliberately refraining from retaliating against police brutality
is not about remaining pure by not stooping to violence, but rather is of strategic importance in garnering more public support for a diverse array of issues, not least of which is police brutality in the face of protestors exercising their first amendment right. Who knows, perhaps some of these police officers already feel that corporate capitalism and the corporatocracy are real problems, but just need some pressure to be more critical of the state and of their actions. Public outcry at police brutality may be just such pressure. One day, when they are laid-off, or cannot sleep at night because of the brutality
doled out by them or their compatriots, they will wake up, take off their uniforms and ask to be accepted. Hopefully we will be smart enough, humble enough, and open-hearted enough to forgive and to take them in as friends in a struggle, the wrong side of which, they had been on for far too long.
Weather you are looking at corporate capitalism, greed in general or police brutality, let’s be more deliberate and intelligent in how we confront these issues. We need to stick together and garner mainstream support through appealing to the public’s common sense of decency and by focusing our
energy on clear concrete goals.