Archive for Occupy

The Day After: Reflections, Concerns and Critique of the Boston Protest against White Supremacy

Posted in News, Politics, USA with tags , , , on August 20, 2017 by Z

Although I was left with an initially positive impression of yesterday’s march on the common and maintain that it was a positive event, a more sober reflection reveals some problems. We begin:

Fair Weather

This description applies to both the literal weather (sunny and mild, with pleasant breezes) and to the character of many of the protesters present. The image of Enlightened New England™ was definitely at work yesterday, and I would wager that a significant portion of the crowd was there because of it. What I mean, of course, is that the presence of many was the result of the overt character of the racism present in Charlottesville and not the result of the often invisible racism found in Boston. Clearly, Nazism is potentially far more harmful than the de facto segregation that characterizes Boston racism, a legacy of decades of racist practices in the real estate industry (some claim – not without reason – that these still occur to this day) and the peculiar way in which our public transit was constructed (it is noticeably more difficult to travel between black and white neighborhoods than it is to travel within them). Even so, Boston’s quieter race issues are still problems, problems I heard not a whisper about yesterday. Ask your average white Boston liberal about his or her black friends, and watch their jaw drop as they realize they don’t actually have any. Not discussing why this happens in a city with a history of anti-racist thought going all the way back to the revolution only guarantees that the problem will persist; we’ve gone from Crispus Attucks to Bostonians who don’t know Crispus Attucks Place is a street in their own city. The ugliest side of the busing controversy has vanished down the memory hole, and will likely come again if nothing is done.

Narrow Interests

This point concerns the lack of a broader perspective visible yesterday. This was evident in the number of anti-Trump (and only anti-Trump) participants. Trumpian cult of personality was out in force; the systemic issues that predate Trump and the disease of which Trump is a symptom (it’s not just racism, it’s not just sexism, and the primary force is likely not either) were not topics of conversation as far as I could see. Issues outside of the primary issue at hand (anti-fascism) got short shrift from the crowd at large. Speakers from the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Mass Action Against Police Brutality, Democratic Socialists of America, BLM, etc. made valiant efforts to reach a crowd that saw only one issue. Calls for anti-war actions, hands off Venezuela, hands off the DPRK, détente with Putin’s Russia, Medicare for all, labor organizing, climate change all appeared to reach only the core of the crowd, doubtless already members of the groups the speakers represented. Even in the context of the primary goal of anti-racism, I never once heard the word reparations. (The “sound system” used by the speakers alternated between a bass guitar amplifier with a microphone plugged into it and a megaphone, so it is possible I simply didn’t hear a message that was in fact present, but if so, that is an issue in itself). I also saw several t-shirts professing fealty to Obama and/or Clinton, which may have been mostly symbolic, but if not certainly suggest that larger lessons have not been learned about the system as a whole.

A side note related to the above issue: a common refrain offered by several people (some speakers, some signs) was the need to get racists and fascists fired from their jobs. Ted Rall has suggested that this is a fundamentally McCarthyist proposition, and Life After Hate (a recovery program run by an x-skinhead) reminds us that some of these people can be reached. At the very least, it raises a larger issue that was not discussed at all – should employers really have the power to fire workers based on off the clock activity or political views? Is this not a massive amount of power to leave in the hands of the already dominant class? Is gainful employment a human right, or is it not? These questions must be answered if we are to have a coherent and coherently defensible position on this issue. No one talked about it. (My own take: getting someone fired in a capitalist society with a dysfunctional safety net and no attempt at full employment is tantamount to a slow death sentence by starvation and exposure; if this is the goal, have the courage of your convictions and pull the trigger yourself. We need no cowards on the left. This slow starvation is what the right does to the poor, to minorities, to its political opponents. We are not them. Let them keep the cowards who leave the trigger to others or to the market.  Better yet, let’s not become McCarthyists or murderers, and let’s not mistake a series of individual solutions for a comprehensive social solution).

Lack of Discipline

I am not addressing lack of discipline among the larger crowd, as many had rarely attended protests before and were present simply to voice opposition to the fascist elements that were present at Charlottesville; of course they lacked discipline. I am here referring to the core of experienced activists and also to antifa. Concerning the organizers and rank and file in their organizations, both praise and criticism are due. There was a well-staffed food and water tent and an organized list of speakers. Donations were taken, and there was a general plan for the day. Good. Now the bad – it appeared as though no one had prepared much for exactly the situation that developed. No plan appeared to be in place for the failure of the other side to show up. Absent a credible opponent, what were all these people to do? There was little back and forth, as the “free speech” event basically fell apart and had few attendees to begin with. That left some 40,000 people in Boston Common with not much to do. Where were the organizers passing out literature? I left with two flyers, I should have been weighted down by pamphlets. Where were the discussion groups focusing on exactly the issues mentioned in this very post? Given the turnout, nothing was going to proceed smoothly, but it could have at least proceeded somewhere.

On antifa: mixed results. There was no one to clash with, so many antifa members functioned as ordinary protesters who happened to have masks on. I witnessed one antifa activist being interviewed by a reporter for some small newspaper; he gave intelligent, clear and well considered answers. Someone burned a Confederate flag; fair enough, although I don’t really see the point. We already know we don’t like the Confederacy. I’m not sure anything was added by this. Interestingly, the only clash with police that I personally witnessed was not led by antifa, but by unmasked anti-police brutality activists asking the Boston Police “Who do you serve?” The situation did not escalate beyond someone throwing a projectile I couldn’t identify that failed to reach the police anyway. I was not present at the larger clash where arrests were made, and so cannot comment on it. The point I’m making here is that there was an evident lack of focus among the more radical factions present. What goals had they set? Under what circumstances would they engage? I could see no pattern. In particular, one masked activist grabbed an American flag being held by an older woman and tried to take it; she held on to it and was pulled to the ground instead. Apparently she had attended the “free speech” rally. What was point of trying to take the flag? She wasn’t fighting with anyone, her “event” was over and there was nothing to be gained, politically or otherwise. I’m not against more militant protest actions, but surely there should be some kind of objective, a list of priorities, and a sense of when it is and is not beneficial, appropriate or necessary. Does no one have any plate discipline? A smart batter doesn’t swing at everything. Anarchist enthusiasm is nice, but rules of engagement, organization, discipline are needed. Antifa: taking a flag from an older woman for no clear benefit is the kind of thing Chris Hedges might cite as to why he isn’t a fan. If you’re going to escalate to more militant action, you need discipline, you need clear objectives. You need to admit that sometimes Lenin was right. Defending clergy from white power idiots in Charlottesville was an admirable and admirably appropriate use of force. Grabbing a flag in Boston from an elderly woman not engaged in any physical confrontation was totally unnecessary and, frankly, stupid. No one should bring a knife to a gunfight, but one also shouldn’t bring a knife when there’s no fight. Given what happened in Charlottesville, having antifa is better than having nothing, but better is possible.


On the whole, I still consider the protest a success, and I’m glad I participated, but the consequences of the breakdown of working class organizations in the US were on full display. I can’t help but wonder if deindustrialization itself isn’t at the root of this. Industrial labor conditions workers to be disciplined as they are exploited in a way they now aren’t by the new “gig economy.” Perhaps uniform conditions of labor gave us a discipline that variable ones don’t, a discipline that was once reflected in the character of our own organizations, but is now vanishing. The ability and willingness to take orders can have great benefits if we want it to. A disciplined protest can be very effective; there is a hard limit to the potential of the occupy formula, and we are in a situation where that limit must be broken if we are to have effective action. I’m not against more free form actions; as ol’ Slavoj might say, my god, it’s better than nothing (and so on and so on), but I think we can do better.

A (Shitty) Year in Review

Posted in Capitalism, Economy, Elections, Israel-Palestine, Media, News, Politics, USA with tags , , , , , , on January 10, 2013 by Z

Happy new year.  Let’s review.  We’ll start small:

Status quo in another revolving door election between party A and party a.  (No other result was possible, so we classify this as small).

Stepping up now:

We were treated to the holy wisdom of Richard Mourdock from the heart of Indiana as he revealed to us the Almighty’s position on rape.  (A note on the lighter side: Shouldn’t someone who might be nicknamed “Dick” generally avoid commenting on gender issues?).

Moving on from troglodytic verbal gaffes, we reach domestic surveillance:

It seems the Occupy movement was closely watched by the FBI and Homeland Security even before the start of public protests.  Apparently, the FBI’s Memphis Joint Terrorism Task Force actually described Occupy as “domestic terrorism.”  Apparently, the FBI communicated their findings to corporate America.  So, what we have here are government agencies (the FBI and Homeland Security) coordinating a national crackdown on a nonviolent protest movement according to the needs of the cash engorged corporate world.  This is nothing less than part 2 of the Palmer Raids.  Why mention this now?  Well, because this surveillance is still going on as Occupy plans for the coming spring.

And now manipulating public opinion:

CNN decided to go ahead and selectively gather data on drone casualties from obviously suspect sources in order to cheerlead for Obama-as-war-president.  Here’s an article from The Atlantic that covers the bases, but frankly isn’t critical enough.

On to the real big leagues – death and wrongful imprisonment:

Gaza is still blockaded.

The drone wars of Bush-Obama continue to kill civilians.

Bradley Manning is still not free.

Leonard Peltier is still not free.

Mumia Abu-Jamal is still not free.  (Three is good enough for now.  We only have so much space, after all).

We had a school shooting, following which a president whose personally authorized drone attacks have killed more children than died at Sandy Hook gave what I can only consider a deeply hypocritical speech.  We then had to be dragged through the requisite media find-some-music-or-movie-or-videogame-to-blame-this-on routine before arriving at gun control as an issue.  Once there, the limit of the national discourse seems to be an assault weapons ban not substantially different from the one we had not too long ago.  (Never mind, of course, that that ban only expired in 2004; those of my generation who were finishing up high school in 1999 ought to be acutely aware that this ban was in effect during the Columbine shooting, so hooray for useless legislation).  There’s a great post over at SMBIVA suggesting what should have been obvious from day one: there’s a common element to all school shootings that no one seems to want to talk about – schools.  Check it out.

Finally, stuff of global import:

2012 was the warmest year on record, with tons of extreme weather.  Climate change deniers would be well advised to wear sunscreen when they go outside to yell at the rest of us about how climate change is a hoax.  Unless, of course, sun burns and skin cancer are also hoaxes.

The 2012 Mayan apocalypse failed spectacularly.  Granted, it was based largely on a blatant misinterpretation of Mayan beliefs.  But hey, at least a horde of ignorant rubbernecking tourists did irreparable damage to a couple of archaeological wonders as part of their world’s end party.

You know, I’m getting some serious déjà vu here.  In ’99, we had a horrible school shooting, I finished an academic program, and a prediction of apocalypse (Y2K) didn’t deliver.  In 2012, we had another horrible school shooting, I finished another academic program (if we include high school, that makes four now and still no lucrative, fulfilling career.  Ever wish you could place a call back in time to your high school guidance counselors?), and another apocalypse fizzled.

We lost both Alexander Cockburn and Gore Vidal.  I can only see this as a severe blow to the left and to the United States in general.  We don’t have that many good people left, and these losses only hasten the end of the era of the public intellectual, already being replaced with talking heads and credentialed idiots.  With Howard Zinn already gone, things look pretty bleak to me.  If Noam Chomsky, Jeffrey St. Clair and Cindy Sheehan ever travel anywhere together, maybe we should insist they take separate flights.  The flame is low, and there’s a big wind coming.  The liberals capitulated big time (again) and think the Democrats have saved them from some thug named Cliff whose nickname appears to be “Fiscal.”  As usual, there will be no meaningful help from them.  This year, my eyes will once again be on Occupy.  Here’s hoping.


On the bright side, I did read a pretty damn funny satire recently.  I’ll probably add more on that soon.

Obromneycare, Dead Peasants and the Limits of Liberal Imagination

Posted in Capitalism, Economy, News, Politics, USA with tags , , on July 3, 2012 by Z


 The Supreme Court has reached a decision.  Obromneycare + individual mandate have emerged from their rather cushy gauntlet intact.  How?  The penalty for the uninsured has been classified as a tax.  (See Correntewire for an excellent summary of Roberts’ legal gymnastics).  Discussion of Obromneycare’s constitutionality or lack thereof has been covered quite well elsewhere, so I’m going to do something else.  First, a brief summary of my own experience with the individual mandate in Massachusetts, where we’ve been living with the Romneycare to which Obama has attached his “Ob”:

For a while, I was covered by a subsidized plan because neither of my jobs offered insurance and my annual income was just under the cutoff point (300% of the federal poverty level).  Then I finished graduate school and moved to full time at one job, gaining insurance through my employer.  The tanking economy took a toll on that employer, which led to a reduction in my hours – which caused me to lose full time status – which allowed human resources to decree that I was no longer entitled to full time benefits – which meant my insurance was no more.  Luckily, I was able to keep three of my original five days a week at that job, and still had weekends at my other job, giving me a patchwork full time schedule, but no benefits.  I couldn’t go back on the subsidized plan, because my income was now too high.  At the same time, the cheapest available private plan that satisfied Romneycare’s holy writ cost more than double what I’d paid for the subsidized plan, and nearly double what I’d paid through my employer.  Obviously, I couldn’t afford it, and even if I could, I’d never have been able to pay the outrageous deductible if I had needed any care.  I then found that the penalty (properly called a penalty and not a tax here in Massachusetts) was lower than the cost of the cheapest plan and thanked the stormin’ mormon that I would be allowed to not buy a terrible, useless and expensive product, but could simply pay an arbitrary fine for the privilege of living with no health insurance.  Thanks, Mitt!  When tax time rolled around, I dutifully filled out my state return, waiting anxiously to see the outcome of the still relatively new healthcare schedule that would determine the extent of my fine.  I was surprised.  A handy chart through which I was obliged to search until I found the entry under my zip code informed me of what the state deemed an affordable payment for health insurance for my income group in my area.  The schedule I was filling out then spilled the beans: because the cost of the cheapest available plan exceeded the state’s notion of an affordable payment in my zip code at my income, I was off the hook.  No penalty.  Of course, I was still without insurance.

What lessons can we extract from my experience?  First of all, Romneycare, touted as “universal” by both Romney (that is, past-Romney.  Present-Romney has sworn to slay the beast he now retroactively did not spawn.) and current Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick is anything but.  Large groups of people throughout the state are deemed unable to afford the most affordable plans produced by the vaunted private sector, but are not sufficiently impoverished to warrant the attention of the state.  My situation is not unusual.  Depending on the overtime, I’m quite firmly in the 32-35k range, and the mixing and matching of part time positions is not at all strange in this era of underemployment.  It’s worth pointing out that Commonwealth Care, the group of subsidized plans here in Massachusetts, is available to a larger income group than Medicaid will be nationally under the ACA, meaning that even more people nationally than in Massachusetts will slip through the middle and be uninsured despite the new law.  In short, there’s nothing ‘universal’ about any of this.  There’s really no need to discuss the difference between care and insurance, as anyone interested in this issue is already aware of the health insurance industry’s apparent business model (“Find a way not to pay”).  The horrific deductibles many of the Romneycare spawned plans feature make the plans themselves so insubstantial, they serve no recognizable purpose other than fulfilling the minimum requirements necessary to avoid the penalty.  When I had to look into these “plans” a few years back, I found that some of them didn’t even offer prescription drug coverage, though it looks like that, at least, has been (partially) corrected.  If you’d like to see for yourself, just head over to the MA HealthConnector and shop around.  Have fun.  In effect, what the Massachusetts reform has accomplished is to establish a requirement that enables health insurance providers to sell bad products to a captive market.  At the same time, it allows those (like me) with whom private business would rather not deal to go without.  Private insurers therefore have free reign to sell barely there insurance to whatever groups of consumers they feel comfortable selling to, and leave the rest of us out to dry.

By creating a captive market, the ACA (like Romneycare) will basically carve out a fiefdom for the health insurance industry.  Purchasing terrible coverage under threat of a penalty (or tax) with no coverage amounts to nothing more than a legal obligation to fork cash over to an unaccountable private entity.  It’s downright feudal.  Which brings us to…


Dead Peasants

 While working on my master’s degree in a field in which I would later fail to find work, I developed an interest in agrarian history, which led me to the work of historian Thomas Bisson.  One of Bisson’s lesser known works is a book called Tormented Voices: Power, Crisis and Humanity in Rural Catalonia, 1140-1200.  The book was inspired by and largely based on research from a collection of peasant complaints regarding uncustomary abuse, violence and seizure of property and possessions.  Bisson frames the complaints within a narrative of the attempted expansion of seigniorial authority by local lords.  Within many of the complaints themselves, one can see the origins of some modern practices, including what has been called “Dead peasant insurance,” a practice in which a company will take out an insurance policy on the life of an employee.  Bisson makes several references to a woman named Ermessen who complained that she and her husband were forced to pay their lord 5 sous because their son had died.  This has nothing to do with health insurance (it’s really more about life insurance), but it does get at the diseased frame of mind we’re dealing with.  “Dead Pesants” is also a great title.  Bisson’s lords and knights set about trying to impose new fees, fines, dues, etc. on their peasants and used violence and systematic humiliation to force compliance.  The peasants complained to the Count of Barcelona (and later, the King of Aragon) hoping something might be done about their local lords.  Eventually, the King did take action, though this action occurred in the context of an ongoing struggle between royal and local authority, so how much weight the peasant’s complaints had is uncertain.  In any case, there is a clear parallel between the neo-feudal concept of dead peasant insurance and the neo-feudal health insurance dues now owed to the likes of Lord Aetna and the Holy Order of the Blue Cross & Shield.  Unlike in 12th century Catalonia, however, the current seigniorial overreach of the health insurance industry is not being done behind the back of a royal authority that might one day oppose it.  It is instead the result of collusion with that authority.  The ACA represents official sanction for the private management (and profit) of (and from) a properly public function.  It is legitimized neo-feudal rentier capitalism.


The Limits of Liberal Imagination

 The ACA represents the present limits of both liberal political will and imagination.  I suspect that conceptual constipation and lack of historical memory play a role in this quagmire.  Why else would the allegedly liberal wing of the democratic capitalist enterprise, the would be heirs of 1789 or at least 1776, have no better ideas than pressing for dues and rents from debt incumbent serfs, the way their old foe the feudal nobility did?  The situation would be hilariously bizarre, if it weren’t so transparent and sad.

Delusional hysteria isn’t the exclusive property of the parties Republican and Tea.  There’s just as much making the rounds amongst the Dems.  If those shaking from terror and screaming “Socialism!” in the ACA’s general direction are deluded and dead wrong (and they are), then those cheering about how it’s a step toward single payer are just as ridiculous.  By funneling cash into the pockets of insurance providers while simultaneously making them an integral part of a formally legislated healthcare plan, Obama & friends have created a barrier to single payer.  Should we ever have such a plan here in the US, it will need to be forced on a more, not less powerful insurance lobby.  It will exist despite, not because of, the ACA.  That polls have consistently shown that a majority of Americans favor single payer really makes one wonder why the liberal imagination doesn’t seem to encompass this popular idea.  I once thought this could be explained via the usual logic regarding lobbyists and corporate money, but it’s more than that.  It’s a failure of imagination.  The ACA is the ultimate expression of a world view incapable of looking for solutions beyond the boundaries of the neoliberal consensus.  One might even argue that the individual mandate itself is an admission that American capitalism as it now exists has failed.  Private insurers have failed to achieve universal insurance in the “free” market.  The solution?  Don’t rethink markets – use the state to force people into them!  This represents an intellectual as well as a material failure, in that the initial, material failure (the existence of the uninsured, insured people denied claims) is compounded by a failure of imagination (“Private insurance didn’t work.  Try it again harder.”).  The ACA and in particular the individual mandate are at their core the self-cannibalization of American liberal capitalism.  The capitalist component is forced to eat a bit of liberty to sustain itself.  We’ve already seen this in other more obvious areas, such as the NDAA, the crackdown against the Occupy Movement, etc.  It is more and more apparent that liberals, shackled as they are to neoliberalism, will not be able to save liberty from capitalism.  Only the real left can do that.

A Quick Word on May Day

Posted in Media, News, Politics with tags , , on May 6, 2012 by Z

As usual whenever anyone protests anything pertaining to class in the US, the blinders were on throughout the country.  I’ve seen quite a variety in crowd size estimates for the various May Day marches all over the states last week, most of them suspiciously low if half of what I see outside of professional media outlets is true.  More irritating is the realization that had I not deliberately sought out May Day related news, I might never have known anything had happened at all.  Fortunately, history is harder to derail by manipulating public discourse while actual political action is ongoing.  Both frantic denunciations and faux-oblivious silence sound eerily like a superstitous man whistling past the graveyard when they’re coming out of American “news” professionals.  Coverage or no coverage, the May Day rallies around the US (not to mention the rest of the world, where they were even bigger) show that the Occupy movement is going strong, and can organize in pretty much any city it needs to.

Of all the things that might come out of this, I hope most of all that it will put the US on a path that will bring back May Day in a country that has all but forgotten it.  Forget Labor Day.  A day to celebrate labor and the power of workers should be international.