Occupy and Socialism: Interview with Pham Binh (Part I)
When the Occupy movement first surfaced in 2011, the socialist left seemed to be split on how to respond to it: what were socialist activists to make of this phenomena that seemed so familiar to veterans of the Global Justice movement but also new and different as well?
Pressing the issue, independent socialist Pham Binh emerged suddenly as a figure challenging the socialist left to jump in to Occupy. Binh's provocative analysis has been the subject of much debate (and some flame), bringing together activist pragmatism with a somewhat unorthodox read of socialist theory and history.
Below we present an email interview with Binh in two parts, asking him to explain his thoughts on Occupy and the socialist left. We hope this will be a first of a number of "conversations on the left" for the Solidarity webzine. The links in the body of the article are provided by the interviewee. -AS
In 2011 your articles about Occupy, socialism and building an American left started to circulate, first on the Australian online magazine Links and quickly finding its way to US and Canadian websites and publications. Tell us a little about yourself: how did you get started writing about left politics in this way?
"Occupy and the Tasks of Socialists” was born of my frustration with the socialist left's reaction to Occupy's explosion nationally and globally.
I did not sleep in Zuccotti Park but I spent 1-2 hours there every weekday from September 17 to November 15. What I saw with my own eyes clashed sharply with the consensus that emerged on the socialist left regarding Occupy Wall Street's (OWS) alleged shortcomings: no demands, “pro-cop” stance, prefigurationism, autonomy, horizontalism, leaderlessness, and anarchism more generally. The socialist left found Occupy guilty of not measuring up to an abstract and arbitrary ideal height or width and completely missing its third dimension – depth – as well as the totality of the Occupy process, its motion, its complexity, and the tensions within it that drove it forward and gave it such tremendous vitality and color.
Occupy was inspired and inspiring while the socialist left's discussion of it was the just opposite.
I was taken aback by the absence of socialist organizations from the Zuccotti Park occupation. They initially saw the encampment as a hopelessly utopian experiment driven by “foolish” yearnings to “be the change you want to see,” a “silly diversion” from “mass action” by workers and oppressed people; that is, until the encampment became a springboard for the action of the masses. Then the socialist left became the encampment tactic's belated champions, although they never attempted to play a significant role in the Zuccotti Park occupation itself, choosing instead to send handfuls of people into fewer than 5 working groups out of a total of 50 or more.
I figured that socialist organizations, their publications and intellectuals, would begin discussing the historic opportunities and challenges Occupy put before us all once it took off nationally. When this did not happen by mid-November, I took it upon myself to get that ball rolling and submitted Tasks to the journal Links. Since then, there has been little in-depth or rigorous materialist analysis of Occupy's political character, origins, and organizational forms and no substantive and specific discussion of what the socialist left as a whole should do about it, so I failed in my aim. This failure reinforced my conviction that our movement, the socialist movement, has to confront and overcome its own problems if we want to play a role in overcoming Occupy's problems.
You’ve written a number of essays for and about the Occupy movement since it sprung to life last September. Where did Occupy come from and why do you think that it is important?
Occupy came from the accumulated political experience of the activist cadre formed through the battles of and after Seattle, the defeat of the 2002-2003 anti-war movement, the nightmarish Bush years, the 2006 undocumented worker upsurge, the forgotten 2008 anti-bailout protests, the Obama betrayals, the 2011 defeats in Wisconsin and Bloombergville and victories in Tunisia and Egypt. Generally, this layer of people range from 25 to 35 years of age and as a result of their experience they came to the following conclusion: protest does not work; we have to occupy.
The immediate predecessor of OWS was Bloombergville, an attempt to create modern-day Hoovervilles in reaction to Mayor Bloomberg’s draconian budget cuts. It was a dry run for OWS; there was a people’s library, a kitchen, all the elements that later appeared in Zuccotti Park. What they did not have was public support. People in the city were not seething at the mayor. That changed radically once the same tactics were directed at Wall Street.
I think Occupy is important because it heralds the rebirth of American radicalism. Not since the 1960s have so many taken action against the state and capital. The Occupy generation will be the key factor in radical politics in this decade. The American socialist left's future (if it has one) is tied to the activist cadre that Occupy is shaping.
Talk a little about how the movement has progressed. It seemed like things shifted quickly from Occupy Wall Street as the focus in New York City to the port actions on the West Coast, namely in California’s Bay Area and in Washington State around Seattle and Longview. In your opinion, what does all this mean?
As more than a movement and less than a revolution, Occupy’s flashpoints shifted rapidly. Every occupation was local and the shifts reflected Occupy's convergence with local populations which proved volatile due to their long-standing grievances with the Oakland Police Department's brutality and grain behemoth EGT's determination to break the ILWU at its Longview, WA port. Occupy's decentralized, horizontal nature meant that these local conflicts occurred in an asynchronous way, so first one locality and then another became the central battle when viewed from a national perspective. Students of the 1918-1919 revolution in Germany might recognize a familiar pattern in that. The flashpoint shift from New York City to the West Coast was due to the Oakland Police Department’s repression nearly killed Iraq veteran Scott Olsen on October 25, an act that Occupy Oakland replied to by calling a general strike on November 2. They dared to go where Wisconsin would not.
In general, the radical and sometimes adventurist (usually mislabeled by the socialist left as “ultra left” and “substitutionist”) trends are much stronger out on the West Coast than on the East Coast. This contributed overall to more confrontational actions and militancy by Occupy on the West Coast; on the East Coast, problems involving the Black Bloc have been almost non-existent. The ongoing strength and militancy of the West Coast’s longshoremen, janitors, nurses, students (specifically California), and probably underpins this discrepancy between the coasts in how forcefully Occupy manifested itself.
Where is the Occupy movement going now, especially with general elections on the horizon? David Graeber, the anarchist anthropologist, has shrugged off concerns that the movement is toast now that the camps are gone saying instead, “Occupy is shedding its liberal accretions and rapidly turning into something with much deeper roots.” Thoughts?
People have been concerned that Occupy was toast before it even went into the toaster because of alleged difficulties such as the lack of demands, ideology, or agreed-upon political strategy; then Occupy was too middle class, white, straight, and male to gain traction with workers, women, LGBTs; and now it’s the evictions. Occupy is anything but a one-trick pony, unlike the summit-centric global justice movement of 1999-2001 that many socialists have one-sidedly compared Occupy to.
In terms of where Occupy is going, the difficulty lies in thinking of it as a definite thing with a definite direction. It's everywhere and nowhere all at once. Occupiers now work closely with previously existing campaigns and organizations in addition to launching their own. There are new activist initiatives in neighborhoods and workplaces that do not call themselves Occupy, are not formally linked to it, but are nonetheless inspired by it and would not exist without Occupy's example. These are some of the “deeper roots” comrade Graeber is talking about and he's right.
The evictions forcibly decentralized Occupy and, to a certain extent, separated the component parts of the encampments. No more one-stop shopping. Direct action, traditional protest marches, discussion circles, study groups, activist training, the people's library, mutual aid, literature and newspaper creation, organic gardening, General Assemblies, and spiritual activities take place mostly separately from one another.
In terms of the 2012 elections, generation Occupy (or the Occupy milieu) does not really give a damn about them the way they did in 2004 and 2008, hence the emphasis on direct as opposed to representative democracy. Obama and his fundraisers have been targets of Occupy's joyous brand of fury from its inception because of his tight relationship with Wall Street, his unremitting attacks on civil liberties, and because Occupy's revolutionary-utopian impulse is much stronger than its liberal-reformist impulse as Graeber correctly pointed out. The most popular chants at NYC's historic May 1 rally in Union Square were “a, anti, anticapitalista!” and “wake up America, we need a revolution!” People don't have a Marxist strategy or vision for that, but that revolutionary sentiment is strong and will not bend or break under the weight of the Romnephobia that the Obama campaign will rely on to blackmail voters into turning out on election day.
The only way to really block Occupy from being co-opted or dissipating as the 1960s movement did in the 1970s is to link it with the existing electoral initiatives that are independent of Democratic Party control, meaning linking Occupy with the Green Party, the Justice Party, the Peace and Freedom Party, and the handful of socialists groups that have ballot access, and even the Working Families Party which occasionally runs independent candidates. These elements have the potential to cohere into an American version of SYRIZA, a coalition rooted in existing struggles and initiatives that will of course be ideologically heterogeneous, but it’s up to us socialists to take the initiative, bind those elements together, and try move with them towards engineering a break with the Democratic Party because it will not happen automatically nor because we “win the argument” about the Democratic Party.