Scenes of Occupy May Day in Los Angeles [ht: tm]
A reader asked whether Amitai Etzioni might be right, in arguing that Occupy May Day fizzled. Here’s Etzioni:
Most assuredly, a general strike that fizzles will not serve the cause of reducing inequality, or even help Occupy Wall Street find its sea legs. Occupy Wall Street will have more opportunities to show that it did not flame out; however, it had better come up with a more cogent strategy, or it will soon be one more wasted force, one more protest movement that vented feelings but engendered precious little real social change.
And the reader:
He’s hard, but I tend to agree with some of his basic views (I, too, am worried about OWS calling for grandiose things like a “general strike” on May Day, and coming up waaaaaay short of this). But perhaps there are things being accomplished which he (and I) are not seeing, and which is about building a movement. But I must admit that I get very worried when OWS folks plan and call for actions that go far beyond what is presently “possible.” Or is this unfair?
My own view, for what it’s worth, is: I don’t think it’s unfair but it may not be all that needs to be said.
Last October, I addressed the issue of specific demands by quoting Saint Francis of Assisi: “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” One way of looking at yesterday’s activities across the country is, OWS violated St. Francis’s rule. It promised the impossible (a general strike) and therefore, in doing what was possible (getting a few thousand people into the streets in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and elsewhere), it didn’t do what was necessary (to build a movement that effectively challenges the causes and consequences of the Second Great Depression in the United States).
That’s the hard-headed critique. But it is also the case, from a more generous perspective, that the OWS movement did succeed in at least beginning to recognize the relevance of and allying itself with the history of the workers’ movement and the complex relationships among the travails of immigrant workers, the problem of student debt and unemployment, the role of financial institutions in creating the current mess, and the demand for economic justice.
Still, it’s not enough to announce those issues and expect that, spontaneously, large masses of people would come together and engage in a general strike. Not by a long shot. Not in the current conjuncture. And not without lots of difficult and patient organizing.
Etzioni is right to remind readers of the history of general strikes.
Historically, general strikes were considered a powerful tool, meant to demonstrate the power of the people (often organized labor), able at least to gum up the working of major segments of the economy. In France, general strikes were used to force the government to make significant concessions. For instance, the 2006 demonstrations over the controversial CPE (or contrat première embauche, first employment contract, which would have made it easier for employers to fire young workers) lasted two months before President Jacques Chirac scrapped the legislation.
What he didn’t explain is that, at least in the United States, general strikes have been successfully organized only after a period of sustained union activity, including local strikes. And that’s simply not the case right now, in terms of either union membership or work stoppages.*
It is not, of course, the fault of OWS that union activity is at such a nadir right now in the United States. And there’s nothing wrong with reviving the tradition of May Day protest events, since it does serve to connect OWS with both the history of U.S. workers and with workers today around the world. But calling for, much less promising, a general strike right now simply makes no sense and opens up the movement, and all that it has already achieved, to ridicule.
Yet, in contrast to the Etzionis of the world, I’m not ready to write off the movement, even when it exhibits growing pains (or the pains of changing strategy after being evicted from the occupied parks). The fact is, it has put important issues like inequality and Too Big to Fail banks on the country’s agenda and thus challenged the self-satisfied political appeals to middle-class security and well-healed job creators, and policy debates concerning regulatory uncertainty and nominal GDP targeting. It’s one of the few places in the country where people are coming together to learn about and debate the kinds of economic and political changes that need to be made so that there is a real future for the 99 percent.
Now is the time—the day after May Day 2012, and in the many days, weeks, and months ahead—to heed St. Francis’s call and build the movement that might, one day, call for and successfully stage a general strike.
* The BLS has data on work stoppages (involving 1000 or more workers) from 1947 to 2011. For purposes of comparison, in 1947, there were 270 work stoppages involving 1,629,000 workers; in 2011, only 113,000 workers participated in a mere 19 work stoppages.