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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Marx on Occupy Wall Street

My essay advocating that the Occupy Wall Street protests focus on the large corporation itself (i.e., that the large corporate form be expunged from modern society) rather than on a myriad of redistribution agendas is along the lines of Marx’s theory of revolution wherein the proletariat finally throw off the chains and subdue the hitherto hegemonic capitalists. The redistributive push falls short because even increased redistribution would be within the political-economic system that the corporations essentially run (i.e., including Congress). If the protesters are serious about confronting corporate capitalism, their movement should be radical rather than reformist because reforms are within the system that works for and by corporations. A radical agenda makes the existence of the modern corporation itself the issue. Absent taking that entity out of the equation (i.e., system), corporations will be able to relegate any proposal geared to “reforming” the system. At the time of this writing, this was already happening. Indeed, the movement itself was enabling this by allowing the protesters’ general message to pivot from "corporate capitalism" to "crony capitalism." This subtle shift was in the corporations' interest, for it meant that they themselves were no longer the target (i.e., only the "bad" ones).

Even the radical alternative, wherein the very existence of the huge concentrations of private capital are the target, may be doomed to relegation, if not utter failure, if corporations have so much power that they can turn a radical impulse in to a reformist whimper. Making large corporations illegal from within the system may be like expecting water to go up-stream. Perhaps society can be rid of the large corporation only from a source extrinsic to the system within that form has emerged and become hegemonic. I suspect that a lot of pressure would need to build up for an external “shock” to overcome that system, given the tendency of corporate capitalism to mitigate the power of radical agendas by labeling them as "extreme." I think Marx believed that at some point the pressure from the proletariat would reach the threshold at which the lava of discontent can break out of the strictures of the system undergirding the huge private concentrations of capital. I tend to agree, though I think a lot of pressure would need to build up for the energy to be sufficient to overcome the momentum of the system’s status quo. The process of pressure-building is perhaps much longer than the protesters suspect because they discount the corporations' wherewithal to effectively use the media and political elite to preserve the system by relegating threats.

It may be that we need to view the pressure-building process from a longer-term perspective. Rather than getting caught up on the sensationalistic “play by play” stories on the protests in various cities around the world, we could view the movement itself as a wave on a rising tide that might not reach shore as a tsunami until well after we are dead and gone. The tide itself, even if not the tsunami, is perhaps inexorable if the system is indeed heavily biased in favor of the "haves" at the expense of the "have-nots." In other words, in the self-perpetuating political economy, the holding companies will only get stronger; individual companies may downsize, but that is oriented to making them stronger. Even so, the efficiency in economy of scale suggests that as long as the current system continues to exist, the large corporation will endure as a basic form in corporate capitalism.

The Occupy Wall Street movement can be interpreted as saying that the injustice latent in the large corporation itself outweighs its greater efficiency. That injustice transcends that of economic inequality to touch on the injustice of a republic-turned-plutocracy. Even the protesters recognize that a clear break from the present system would be necessary to thwart the trend away toward increasing economic inequality and decreasing representative democracy, I suspect that even those folks sense that far more energy than was present in their own wave would be necessary. In other words, reform is not sufficient, while the puissance needed for the radical alternative requires more pressure to build.

This is not to say that a totalitarian state is inevitable “on the other side.” Marx's theory of revolution need not include Lenin's statism. Even though a strong state may be better able to stave off the encroachments of capital (which seeks, perhaps even inherently, to render obstacles impuissant), the cost in foregone liberty would be too great. The present plutocracy can be replaced by representative democracy even though the latter has the drawback of being bound to eventually morph into corporate rule. In other words, even the eternal recurrence of the cycle that begins with democracy and ends in plutocracy is preferable to a strong state capable of putting capital in its place yet incapable of respecting popular sovereignty.

The political-economic cycle is perhaps like that of Chinese dynasties. At some point, a given dynasty (such as the Ming) inevitably “turned south,” only to be eventually replaced by a new one (the Qing). Confucius, for example, lived when the Chou dynasty was in decline. Could he have known how close that dynasty was to succumbing to the next one? Similarly, do we know precisely when the volcano of popular discontent will erupt and level the large bewindowed towers extant on Wall Street at the time of this writing? Given the amount of vested power invested in the status quo during the downside run of the cycle, I suspect the Occupy Wall Street movement is further from the end than the protesters think.