The significance of the Occupy Wall Street movement

A movement inspired by the Arab spring

The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement started on 17 September, when thousands of mostly young people moved into Zuccotti Park on Wall Street, New York, to protest against the deteriorating conditions of existence that are being forced on the masses of American people as a result of the world economic crisis. Subsequently they have been joined by working class people from all walks of life – retirees, immigrants, the unemployed and workers of all ages and colours.  Modelling themselves on the protests of the Arab spring, a great many of the demonstrators are intending to remain camped out on the street until their demands are met.

The protesters are admirably organised for the purpose of providing themselves with food and shelter, and one of the greatest strengths of the occupation is that it is a forum for the dissemination of valuable information as to the cause of the crisis and as to the way forward, and to heated debate that focuses people’s minds on political and economic theory, enabling them to raise considerably their political consciousness.  Michael Moore, the maker of excellent anti-capitalist films, visits frequently, exposing the iniquities of the capitalist system.  In supporting the “Struggle of the popular 99% against the elite 1%,” Michael Moore says that data in Forbes and PolitiFact show that the 400 richest Americans have more money than the poorest 150 million other US citizens put together. 15% of the population are poor, 9% are unemployed and 50 million have no medical insurance. Yet from tax raised from US tax payers $700 billion has gone to rescuing the banks, while the poor are rendered poorer still.

A struggle against capitalism?

In common with the Arab Spring protesters, however, there was and is no clear consensus as to what demands must be met before the protest is lifted.  In Egypt and Tunisia it became a question of the removal of the corrupt and fascistic presidents, puppets of imperialism, who were perceived as being responsible for the hardships that the people were suffering as a result of the mounting prices of food and the alarming levels of unemployment, especially among the young. With the removal in due course of these presidents, Egypt and Tunisia became somewhat more democratic and are looking forward to freer elections than in the past, but the problems of hunger and unemployment which were the real motive cause of the uprisings remain unresolved.  The uprisings removed the monkeys from office but the organ grinder – international imperialism – escaped largely unscathed – for the time being.  Indeed, it used the distraction provided by the general confusion to take steps towards the physical occupation of Africa with its war to overthrow the Libyan regime so that, besides engorging itself on Libyan oil, it could create for itself a base from which it can move in on both Egypt and Tunisia as the masses seek to take their revolution further.

But now at last the masses in the imperialist countries themselves, weighed down not only by the crisis itself but also by the cost of the wars imperialism has been waging to maintain its right to plunder the world, are beginning to feel the need to fight back. The uprisings in Tottenham and other parts of London and England in August were a first spark – brutally extinguished through the imposition of heavy prison sentences on any participants who were caught, followed up by evictions of their families from public housing.  But the anger of the masses cannot be contained, and the occupations which began in Wall Street rapidly spread to over 1,000 other cities in the US and to some 80 other countries.

What is particularly impressive about these protests is that they are clearly aware that the problem is capitalism. They are in fact anti-capitalist protests.  Slogans include

“A democratic country, not a corporate kingdom”, “Wall Street is our street” ,“Power to the people, not to the banks”.  Haitian expats crossed the Brooklyn bridge calling “occupy Wall Street, not Haiti”, blaming finance capital for Haiti’s decades of destitution and misery, as well as the hardships now being imposed on the people of the US.  “Make Wall Street Pay For the Crisis, NOT Working People! STOP THE CUTS AND CONCESSIONS, NOW!”, “Nationalize the Banks!” or “Repossess the $2.2 Trillion in the Wall Street Coffers to Fund a Public Works Program to Put 27 Million People Back to Work!”

By and large, the capitalist system has been correctly identified as the enemy.  The protesters also associate capitalism and war, and are calling for an end to the various military adventures of US imperialism – in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.  As the Korean Central News Association (KCNA) put it on 17 October: “The Occupy Wall St movement was an eruption of the exploited classes’ pent-up wrath at the exploiters. It was also an expression of the will to remove the stronghold of capitalism as a whole which brings only exploitation, oppression, unemployment and poverty to the popular masses.”  And quite correctly, KCNA offered the advice that “The Western countries can never get rid of the vicious cycle of crisis with any means as long as the capitalist market economy is left intact.”

What is to replace capitalism?

Here KCNA touched on the fundamental weakness of the OWS movement.  Yes, it is excellent that it is anti-capitalist.  However, it has as yet no clear vision of what the alternative to capitalism is, much less what needs to be done in practice to put that alternative in place.  The ONLY viable alternative to capitalism is socialism – in the sense that this is understood by communists – which is generally called communism by ordinary people.   Yet in the US, the hatred and fear of communism that has been spread among even the oppressed masses by the propaganda machine of the exploiters against whom the people are demonstrating is so great that there is huge reluctance, even among communists(!), to mention the ‘c’ word – communism – the spectre haunting nowadays not only Europe, but also America, to say nothing of the rest of the world.

The protesters can only succeed in their aim of securing for the masses of the people the right to work, the right to a decent standard of living, as well as to healthcare and education – which should be the birthright of every person – if they acquire the understanding that to achieve this aim the proletariat needs to seize from the imperialists and lesser capitalists all the means of production in order to deploy them, under the direction of a planning commission, to producing directly to meet the needs of the masses – material, intellectual and spiritual.  On top of that they need to understand that they will be entirely unable to do this without arousing the frenzied fury of the rich and powerful who will deploy every means at their considerable disposal to prevent them achieving this goal, and to snatch it away if they do achieve it. They only have to see the fate that has befallen Gaddafi and the entire Libyan people for trying to stand up to imperialism – without even wanting to overthrow capitalism – to understand what a vicious, powerful and dangerous enemy they face.  And that understanding must also lead them to the knowledge that the proletariat can only succeed in its aims with the highest level of organisation and a leadership of seasoned and experienced cadres to act as the general staff of the proletarian masses in their historic mission of overthrowing and eliminating the bourgeoisie and the capitalist system of production.  That general staff can only be provided by a genuine communist party, and the masses will have to face the task of distinguishing the genuine article from the abundance of fakes that are on offer.

Consciousness raising

One thing that is extremely important is that genuine communists should be clearly seen to be offering their guidance, as communists, to the movement, for if communists in the hope of being more acceptable to prejudiced minds fail to make clear what they stand for, then the masses will be given no opportunity at all to learn what they need to know in order to be able effectively to defend their interests.  As Marx famously said, “The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism of the weapon, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses.” (‘A contribution to the critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right, 1844).  For the verbal criticisms of capitalism made by the protesters to be replaced by the force needed to overthrow capitalism (“the criticism of the weapon”), it is essential that theory, i.e., understanding, be “gripped by the masses” – which it turn requires that theory to be put before them by communists.  The prejudices fostered by the all-pervasive culture of the oppressors will not easily be overcome.  It can be expected that the masses will resist being gripped by an ideology which is unfamiliar to them and therefore seems alien.  But gradually, as they become used to communist ideas, the masses will be won over as experience teaches them that what seemed so outlandish when they first heard of it in fact represents the only possible way forward.

Communists also have a great deal of work to do in countering the million and one ways in which the bourgeoisie tries to divert the movement.

Blind alleys on offer

Finian Cunningham of Global Research, who certainly endorses the view that “It is the entire system of finance capitalism that needs to be challenged” (although we would prefer to say “overthrown”) has quite rightly said that the movement “runs the risk of running out of the admirable popular momentum that it has thus far generated…[creating a vacuum which] allows others who do not share the ultimate concerns of the grassroots to define the direction of the movement – a direction that most likely will lead to a safe, blind alley” (‘Occupy Wall Street: Populist Financiers Supporting Protesters Is Part of the Problem, Not the Solution’, 17 October 2011).

Michel Chossudovsky, also of Global Research, has written of the vast experience of the CIA, and other US agencies devoted to promoting the interests of imperialism, have in creating and fostering ‘safe’ opponents of the system – mainly in foreign countries, but the principles are no doubt just as applicable to dissent in the belly of the beast:

Historically, progressive social movements have been infiltrated, their leaders co-opted and manipulated, through the corporate funding of non-governmental organizations, trade unions and political parties. The ultimate purpose of ‘funding dissent’ is to prevent the protest movement from challenging  the legitimacy of the economic elites

“…The elites will promote a ‘ritual of dissent’ with a high media profile, with the support of network TV, the corporate news as well as the internet. …

In Egypt’s ‘Arab Spring’ the main civil society organizations including  Kifaya (Enough) and The April 6 Youth Movement were not only supported by US based foundations, they also had the endorsement of the US State Department. …

In a bitter irony, Washington supported the Mubarak dictatorship, including its atrocities, while also backing and financing its detractors,… Under the auspices of Freedom House, Egyptian dissidents and opponents of Hosni Mubarak … were received in May 2008 by Condoleezza Rice … and White House National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.” (‘Occupy Wall Street and “The American Autumn”: Is It a “Colored Revolution”?’ Part I, 13 October 2011).

In these circumstances, it is not as surprising as would otherwise appear that the Wall Street protesters are receiving the support of many of the so-called great and good. These include:

Al Gore, former Vice President of the United States, quoted as saying: “…[O]ur leaders have pursued solutions that are not solving our problems, instead they propose policies that accomplish little … With democracy in crisis a true grassroots movement pointing out the flaws in our system is the first step in the right direction. Count me among those supporting and cheering on the Occupy Wall Street movement”;

Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, quoted as saying: “They [the Occupy Wall Street Movement] blame, with some justification, the problems in the financial sector for getting us into this mess, and they’re dissatisfied with the policy response here in Washington. And at some level, I can’t blame them” .

Warren Buffett, the third richest man in the world, quoted as saying: “There has been class warfare going on,… It’s just that my class is winning. And my class isn’t just winning, I mean we’re killing them”.

The biggest donor to OWS, according to the Telegraph of 19 October, is Robert Halper, a former oil futures trader who used to earn some $15 million a year, who has donated $20,000 – while at the same time contributing $2,500 to Mitt Romney’s campaign to be the Republican candidate in the next US presidential election (see ‘Occupy Wall Street financial backer also supports Mitt Romney’).

While it is not impossible for the rich to sympathise with the plight of the poor, and the intelligent ones among them may even take the view that in order to maintain the status quo it would be as well to make at least some concessions even if it means having to forego a yacht or two, this kind of sympathy does not extend to those who seek to dispossess them and, for the sake of humanity and for the sake of an end to poverty, war and global degradation, reduce them to the ranks of the proletariat.

Even president Obama has expressed sympathy with the protesters, as his Democratic Party looks for ways for him to secure re-election in the face of plummeting public support, saying that he thinks “people are frustrated, and the protesters are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works”.  The Democratic Party, however, does face considerable difficulty ingratiating itself with the protesters insofar as it is the party in government; it is the party implementing the cuts and waging the wars, bailing out the bankers while social security, Medicaid and Medicare budgets are slashed.  Attempts by the party in government to hijack the movement would seem unlikely, therefore, to succeed.

However, as in the UK, various union bureaucrats are also wheeled out to try to help the bourgeoisie control the movement.  Treacherous union leaders are a much greater danger because of their ability to claim that they represent hundreds of thousands of working-class people, and it is forgotten that in actual fact they mostly misrepresent them.

Michel Chossudovsky (op.cit.) draws particular attention to the close links between the union bureaucratic  leaderships and the Democratic Party.  The latter, as everybody knows, would be unable, even if it wanted to, to depart from a policy of serving the interests of the big bourgeoisie since it is entirely dependent on the super-rich for all the party funding that enables it to run in elections at all.  And through the Democratic Party in the US, the leaders of the AFL-CIO (the US equivalent of the TUC) are co-opted to promote bourgeois interests in the working-class movement.  These leaders have made no attempt to prevent the impending assault on social security, Medicare and Medicaid on which America’s poor are increasingly dependent.  And what conclusions can be drawn from the fact that these union worthies are invited to attend the annual meetings of the Davos World Economic Forum and routinely collaborate with the Business Roundtable?

Of course, it is important for the protest movement that it should be strongly backed by the masses of working people, and, to that extent, expressions of support from even the worst elements of the union leadership could possibly be helpful if they encourage ordinary union members to support the protest.  But when the Greek enemy offers presents, this is a time to beware!  Under no circumstances must these elements be allowed to hijack the movement to prepare it for being fobbed off with concessions so minor as to be laughable.  It is probably the case that regardless of what the union leaders say, ordinary union members sympathise with the stand taken by the protesters and would organise to show their support anyway.  The OWS is seeing strong support from airline pilots (currently in dispute with their employers as to wages and conditions in the situation where the two major US airlines, Continental and United, are negotiating a merger), from transport workers, teachers, health workers, porters, security guards and maintenance workers.

As to the bona fides of the Democratic Party and the trade union bureaucrats it controls, Professor Ismael Hossein-zadeh of Global Research characterised the situation very well when he wrote: “On the face of it there is nothing wrong with the Democratic Party officials or union leaders expressing support for the protesters. In light of their actual economic policies, however, that support can be characterized only as hypocritical. The Democrats are as much responsible for the economic problems that have triggered the protests as their Republican counterparts. The Obama administration has played an especially destructive role in pursuing a devastating neoliberal austerity agenda in terms of bailing out the Wall Street gamblers, extending the Bush tax breaks for the wealthy, expanding the US wars of choice—and then cutting vital social spending to pay for the financial resources thus usurped.

“Equally blameworthy are union bureaucrats who have enabled the White House and the Congress in the implementation of such brutal austerity programs. Hollow posturing aside, the AFL-CIO has opposed neither the neoliberal austerity policies at home nor the imperialist wars of aggression abroad. Well-paid union officials have not even seriously challenged factory closures; nor have they earnestly resisted brutal cuts in workers’ wages and benefits.

“In projecting sympathy for the Occupy Movement, the Democrats are essentially trying to have their cake and eat it too!” (Ismael Hossein-zadeh, ‘The Democratic Party: An Insidious Threat to the Occupy Wall Street Movement’, Global Research 14 October 2011)

One protester excellently summarised the position of the official parties in the US, Republican as well as Democrat: “There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party, and it has two right wings, Republicans and Democrats.” (Quoted by Michael Greenberg in the New York Review of Books, ‘Four weeks on Wall Street’, 11 October 2011)

It is not, however, only obviously social-democratic elements who are seeking to derail the movement.  There are a plethora of bourgeois peddlers of illusions fighting for their line.  These include:

[1]Those who think that by “taking the money out of politics”, breaking the system under which political parties are dependent on handouts from the rich in order to be able to participate effectively in elections, will solve the problem – and there are elements in Global Research who tend in that direction.  For instance, “The big question is how true and deep reforms in our political and economic system needed to fight economic inequality and injustice harming most Americans will be achieved.  In this regard, one of my hopes is that the Occupy movement in the US will get behind the effort by Dylan Ratigan at to get a constitutional amendment that would get money out of politicsThis is the only way to directly fight the corruption of government by rich and powerful interests.” (Joel S Hirschhorn, ‘Occupy Wall Street: How will true reforms to fight social injustice be achieved?’, Global research, 19 October 2011 – our emphasis). 

Without a doubt “taking the money out of politics” would have the effect of making bourgeois elections more democratic, and this is a demand that should be supported. It is not, however,  a demand that if it were fulfilled would prevent the economic crisis which in the end will always destroy millions of lives regardless of which party was in government.  Moreover, if the ruling class is unable through elections to secure governments which do its bidding, history proves that it will resort to civil war and fascism to impose its wishes.  The idea that elected governments control the machinery of state, the army and police, etc., is simply an illusion.  They control them only so long as they serve the ruling class.

[2] Those who oppose ALL political influence, including of course that of communists, on the grounds that no political party could conceivably represent the interests of the masses.  Their evidence is that the bourgeois parties don’t – but their aim is to disarm the masses organisationally and ideologically so that they remain malleable at the whim of the bourgeoisie.  The film maker Michael Moore falls into this category, with his slogan “Do not let the politician co-opt you”, which does not distinguish between bourgeois and proletarian politicians.

[3] There are of course also those who insist that it is not capitalism that is the problem but the way it has been distorted in its proper workings by greedy “banksters”.  Such people include the Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, a former director of the World Bank, who in supporting the protests says that the problem is caused by the present “system in which we socialise losses and privatise profits … That is not capitalism; that is not a market economy, it is a distorted economy, and if we allow it to continue to grow we won’t be creating a fairer society.” He said that continuing to lend to people who could not repay was a fraud that should have been put a stop to in 2004, but nobody took any notice of those who were drawing attention to what was going on.  Such bourgeois economists refuse to accept that the crisis is a crisis of overproduction caused by the fact that the impoverished masses cannot afford to purchase the mass of commodities produced by capitalist producers, thus threatening the latter with bankruptcy.  The “irresponsible” loans were merely a means of propping up capitalism by enabling the poor to carry on spending .  The crisis erupted in all its tempestuous severity when the lending had to stop.  But this did not mean that the lending caused the crisis.  On the contrary, it postponed it for many years, but was quite unable to postpone it indefinitely.

Actually, the arguments of Joseph Stiglitz were answered quite well by Eric Walberg, a progressive Canadian who writes for journals such as Global Research and Counterpunch. He writes: “The textbook for today is an angry, polemical one that must pay tribute to Marx’s Kapital, which insisted ‘dogmatically’ that all along capitalism was fated to continue its march towards greater and greater crises, grasping at war and state terror as the best way to destroy excess production and keep the wage-slaves in line” and “we can dust off Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalist and read there that international banks naturally become a supranational force under imperialism, and strive to control all politics”, noting that, following a trend pointed out by Lenin,  “the banks in the US moved from 2.4% of GNP in 1950 to 8.5% today”


Undoubtedly the protests will prove to be exceptionally educational for the proletariat of the various countries in which they are taking place.  Participants will witness the brutality of the police sent to try to disperse them and learn at first hand the nature of the bourgeois state and the class interests that it serves.  Although for the moment the major New York protest has suffered relatively little state violence, as the authorities seek to control the movement more by deception than by force, the same is not true of smaller and more vulnerable protests in other US cities, where protesters have been forcibly dispersed.  In Rome there was heavy resort to water cannon and tear gas.  They will also learn how the bourgeois media will unashamedly distort the truth in order to undermine the progressive movement.  It is the duty of communists to endeavour to ensure that this education advances to the greatest possible extent, and that they are there to explain the impossibility of reforming capitalism, the importance of its replacement by socialism, along with the hard realities of the class struggle.