People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 45

November 06, 2011

The “OWS” Movement and Its Significance


Prabhat Patnaik


THE “Occupy Wall Street” movement may be small, but it has the support apparently of two-thirds of the entire American population, according to opinion polls; and the international response it has generated is impressive too. About 100 cities in the US itself and numerous others in the rest of the world currently have their own versions of the “Occupy-Wall-Street” movement. Its capacity to inspire therefore extends to far larger numbers than those gathered at the Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan. But its significance lies not merely in the number of persons who support it or even the range of backgrounds from which they come; it differs from other recent “peoples’ movements” in at least three distinct ways, and, because of this difference, marks the beginning of a whole new historical phase of resistance.


The first difference relates to the fact that its challenge is to the system as a whole. For many years now, people’s protest and resistance movements, by and large, have been concerned with particular issues, or have been directed against particular projects, or have been in opposition to particular policies. In our country for instance we have had agitations against SEZs, or against the POSCO plant, or against nuclear power plants, or for forest rights, or for defending the interests of the tribal people, or against specific instances of land acquisition for this or that project. These are not to be pooh-poohed, but they do not pose a challenge to the system as a whole. Capitalism can live with such movements, conceding something here, negotiating some settlement there, risking a prolonged face-off somewhere else. Capitalism does not of course welcome such movements; they do constitute a challenge of sorts for it but a challenge that does not threaten its very existence.


Indeed, the fact that in the current epoch we only have a series of micro-level challenges that do not morph into any serious macro-level offensive against the system, has led many to believe that the era of macro-level challenges is over, or as modish expression would have it, “grand narratives” are altogether passé. While the bulk of the last century was obsessed with “grand narratives”, of capitalism, socialism, dictatorship of the proletariat, and de-colonisation, we are now supposed to have entered the “post-modern” era devoid of suchgrand narratives”. This basically means that the current period is supposed to have been characterised by an acceptance of the final triumph of capitalism, with popular struggles confined at best to making it function better in one’s locality, or making it function in a more humane manner vis-a-vis abjectly poor and “excluded communities”, and so on.


The “Occupy Wall Street” movement by contrast is not concerned with any such specific demands; indeed, to the chagrin of the pundits, it does not even have an agenda of any description. It is simply, conceptually, a rejection of the system as a whole. This rejection is not based on any intricate theoretical arguments; it is simply visceral. And the rejection extends even to the manner in which the “occupiers” conduct their daily affairs: the internal organisation of the “occupiers’ universe” represents an attempt at a “cooperative community” that is opposed to all the rules of the game of the capitalist order. The point is not necessarily to glorify this attempt, but to underscore the fact that the attempt itself constitutes a conceptual rejection of the capitalist society, and in that sense a return of the “grand narrative”.


The “occupiers” have brought back on the agenda the question of the continued acceptance of the capitalist system as a whole. They are not fighting for this or that demand within the system; they are on the contrary rejecting the system in its entirety. And such a conceptual rejection is a necessary starting point for any system-transcending resistance, including the struggle for socialism.


The fact that the movement of the “occupiers” is not inspired by socialism or Marxism is of little moment: if the strength of Marxism lies in its being true, then this movement, if it is to adhere to its agenda of conceptual rejection of capitalism, will necessarily have to come to terms with Marxism, to imbibe its insights, and to transform itself accordingly. To say this is not to claim that the entire “Occupy Wall Street” movement, as it currently exists, will transform itself in this manner; it is only to suggest that this movement marks the beginning of a new historical epoch when, the initial step of a conceptual rejection of capitalism having been taken, resistance to the system will keep getting built up, through stages, to more and more mature, refined and effective forms of revolutionary consciousness and action for transcending the system.




The “Occupy Wall Street” movement marks in this sense the beginning of a new historical epoch that puts behind us the era of bourgeois celebrations over the so-called “end of history”. The material basis for the end of such celebrations, to be sure, lay in the global capitalist crisis that was unleashed in 2008. But the conscious transcendence at a global level of the so-called “end of history” idea begins with the “Occupy Wall Street” movement.  


The second distinct feature of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement is that it has gone beyond mere “morality” to the question of “property”. The very fact that it is “Wall Street” that is being occupied signifies an attack on finance capital; and while it is true that an attack on finance capital is not synonymous with an attack on capitalist property as such, the fact that contemporary finance capital represents the highest form of the development of capitalism, implies that it amounts to an attack on contemporary capitalism, and, hence, for all practical purposes, on capitalism as such. In other words, since a historical regression to a pre-finance capitalism is impractical, an attack on finance capital is ipso facto an attack on capitalism as such. The counter-offensive that contemporary capitalism will unleash against such resistance will necessarily make any compromise by way of a reactionary return to a pristine pre-finance capitalism, which after all is what has given rise to finance capitalism, an impossibility. In short, immanent in the attack on finance capital is the promise of a new order beyond capitalist property.


The fact that the “Occupy Wall Street” movement has gone beyond “morality” does not mean that it is not informed and inspired by a sense of morality. It is, and very strongly so. If there are echoes of any past voices in this movement then those voices belong to Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. But while neither King nor Gandhi had brought the question of capitalist property on the agenda, this movement, while invoking their legacy, has done precisely that.


The point about going beyond “morality” to “property” is best illustrated by the anti-corruption movement in our own country. This movement, since it sees “corruption” as much in the 2G Spectrum scam as in a clerk in a government office demanding a Rs 50 bribe to move a file, is concerned exclusively with “morality” and not with “property”. To say this is not to suggest that a concern with “morality” is wrong, or that the demand for a bribe of Rs 50 to move a file should be condoned (that would be counter-posing one “morality” with another, or simply having a different “morality” from that of the anti-corruption movement); it is to say that the demand for the Rs 50 bribe is the indirect outcome of the same property relations that visibly underlie the 2G scam, that the need is to go beyond the flat surface of “morality” to the underlying structures of property. Put differently, if society was so organised that everybody enjoyed a minimum standard of living then the incentive for demanding the Rs 50 bribe would be much less, just as, since such a society cannot be based on capitalist property (which is an analytical proposition), there would be no 2G scam either. Going beyond “morality” to “property” in other words is not an invitation to be “immoral”; it is an invitation to be analytical, to be scientific. And what is striking about the “Occupy Wall Street” movement is that, though morally motivated, it is concerned with “property”.




It is a moot point of course why the most striking movement in contemporary India that is not concerned with specific demands remains at the level of “morality”, without, in the least bit, straying into the question of “property”, while in the US a morally-motivated movement, invoking very similar inspirations (eg Mahatma Gandhi), goes straight into the question of “property”. The answer must lie in the different economic fortunes of the two countries, at least as far as the middle class is concerned. In the US, where the distinction drawn is between 1 per cent and 99 per cent, the overwhelming mass of the population, including the middle class, has suffered from the crisis, while in India a fairly significant segment of the population, which includes a chunk of the middle class, has done well economically in the recent period and is not too keen on opposing as yet, the “property” as distinct from the “morality” of the 1 per cent.


The third distinct feature of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement is that it has gone beyond an attack on the State to an attack on finance capital, and hence, by implication, on capitalist property. Marx had visualised anti-capitalist consciousness coming first to the workers (through trade union action for instance), and had been concerned with how this anti-capitalist consciousness can get extended to a correct understanding of the nature of the capitalist State. (In The Poverty of Philosophy he outlines the process of how the workers, through their experience, begin to understand that behind the capitalist class stands the capitalist State). It has been a hall mark of contemporary capitalism that opposition to the State has preceded any opposition to finance capital, let alone to capitalism; and in many cases the latter opposition has been even conspicuous by its absence. The Arab uprising for instance, which constitutes another source of inspiration for the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, was directed largely against the States that ruled, and not so much against the capital that stood behind these States, which was one reason why imperialism found it easier to infiltrate these popular uprisings. The “Occupy” movement by contrast has targeted finance capital directly, having penetrated the veil behind which the US State (and States elsewhere) and finance capital are in close collusion. This is a remarkable achievement, made possible again by the fact that the infamous “bail-out packages” for Wall Street investment banks, which went substantially into the pockets of a handful of financiers and which were paid for out of tax-payers’ money, constituted an object lesson for all.


The “Occupy Wall Street” movement lacks an agenda, does not constitute as yet a challenge that the system can be frightened of, has no clear strategy or tactics, and can be dismissed as being “naïve”. Nonetheless it is the first indication that a new revolutionary wave is arising against the rule of capital, that, instead of being at the “end of history”, we are at the beginning of a new history.