'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Occupy and Inviolability of Private Property 

A couple of months ago, I discussed one of the most difficult challenges facing Occupy, the willingness of middle class progressives to rationalize the abuses of the police because they place a greater priority upon the preservation of social order by law enforcement. Such progressives want to square the political circle by seeking a transformation of American society without conflict. They are most perfectly represented by Chris Hedges, a man who seems to find the verbal abuse of the police at protests more disturbing than police assaults and finds himself incapable of deciding whether protesters should throw tear gas canisters back at the cops who fired them.

But what is it that these progressives believe requires the protection of the police, even at the cost of the violent suppression of Occupy protesters? Upon reflection, the answer is obvious: private property and the hierarchical social relations inscribed by it. Of course, Occupy participants are not all anarchists or communists, far from it, but they have adopted direct action tactics that have frightened progressives with the ghost of expropriation. Initially, occupiers set up encampments in public spaces as a means of highlighting enormous income inequality and corruption. They sought to prefigure an alternative, much more egalitarian, social order that stood in marked contrast to the existing one. If we were living back in the 1960s or 1970s, the government would have responded with a program of increased public assistance, a program that would have drained away support for Occupy by providing housing, jobs, student aid and medical care, but that would have threatened to reverse the neoliberal process of the marketization of all aspects of our lives, and, hence, was never seriously considered.

Instead, with the federal government guiding them behind the scenes, cities, starting with Oakland in October of last year, cleared out the encampments with force. There was an initial broad based criticism of these police attacks, but, as it became apparent that Occupy had evolved into a loose coalition of anti-authoritarians, people of color, the homeless and other marginalized people, such criticism dissipated. Meanwhile, particularly on the West Coast, occupiers organized more confrontational actions in response, such as the November 2nd general strike in Oakland, the December 12th port shutdown, the January 20th Occupy Wall Street West protests and the attempted seizure of the Kaiser Auditorium on January 28th. The failure of Occupy to extract any meaningful political response to the distress of millions of impoverished Americans and the interrelated corruption of the financial and political systems was pushing its participants towards more and more radical approaches. Within occupations, this resulted in increasingly acrimonious personal conflicts, as most publicly displayed in Oakland, while the progressives that should have been allies became hostile.

One might call this the operational explanation for the evolution of Occupy. Such an explanation elides, however, a more engaged one for why this evolution occurred, and necessitates an investigation as to the perspectives about private property held by those within Occupy and those outside of it. Within Occupy, the creation and manipulation of scarcity, particularly in relation to the lack of housing and social services, is associated with the conscious decision to allow properties to remain vacant instead of using them to address human needs. Such a stance is not, paradoxically, necessarily in opposition to capitalism, as mercantilists like John Locke justified the seizure of the lands of indigenous peoples for the reason that it had not been efficiently utilized. Governments in South America still possess the authority to seize vacant land and facilities upon the payment of compensation on the basis of that such lack of use constitutes waste, as the Chavez government has done on occasion in Venezuela. Of course, there is a distinction to be made between seizures to generate economic activity and seizures to address social needs, but the essential point is that even previous capitalist and pre-capitalist, mercantile societies did not consider private property to be so sacrosanct. In today's postmodern world, however, the dead weight of empty residential and commercial buildings serves the essential purpose of preemptively suppressing any resistance by intensifying poverty, while retaining the illusory promise of future, lucrative development opportunities directed towards the upper middle class. So, those involved in Occupy find themselves pulled by gravity into a confrontation with the legitimacy of private property itself.

Conversely, middle class progressives perceive the situation very differently. Beyond being a measure of their personal economic well-being, private property makes them feel more secure because it, by its very nature, excludes. Hence, they respond with dismay if the construction of a low income housing project is proposed near where they live. For them, Occupy threatens to level social differences to an exponentially greater degree bordering on nihilism. Participants within Occupy may be focusing upon empty lots and empty buildings, sometimes in the possession of churches and universities, as with the 888 Turk Street takeover and the UC farm plot in the Albany, but the progressive middle class perceives the peril. It is not just that they frequently identify with the institutions involved and their administrative practices, such as the University of California in the case of the seizure of the farm plot, but that they understand that, if not stopped, the trickle could become a flood that approaches the steps of their homes. Incapable of forcing the government and transnational financial insitutions to adopt Keynesian social welfare measures that would alleviate the distress experienced by those associated with Occupy, they find themselves caught between hammer and anvil, between a rapacious neoliberal regime that puts their livelihoods, and those of their children, at risk, and an increasingly radicalized, anti-authoritarian social movement that threatens to dismantle what limited defenses against such impoverishment that remain.

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