Beyond the Ballot Box

Tim Barker

  • Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt by Sarah Jaffe
    Nation, 352 pp, £20.00, August 2016, ISBN 978 1 56858 536 9

Commenting on Occupy Wall Street in late 2011, Barney Frank, then a Democratic congressman for Massachusetts, voiced a common complaint: ‘I don’t understand why people think that simply being in a physical place does much.’ Nearly five years later, it isn’t easy to decide whether Frank was right. Part of the puzzle is that the Occupy movement had a strange double character, both tactic (something to be done) and discourse (something to talk about). The tactic involved illegal occupation of public space and abstention from electoral politics. ‘Occupy’ was a verb, and occupiers defied the restrictive policing that normally kept city centre areas clean for white-collar workers and tourists. Inside the space, people made decisions on a directly democratic basis, gathering in general assemblies where consensus was supposed to substitute for majority rule, and demands to existing authorities were explicitly forsworn. The occupiers confronted other people, on their small patch of land, without the mediations of market and parliament.

But the movement was also based on a set of grievances and slogans: collusion between finance and the state (‘Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!’), staggering income and wealth inequality (‘We are the 99 per cent’), a representative democracy that scarcely deserved the name (‘Get money out of politics’). Not only did these not depend on the tactic of occupation, but they often seemed aimed at engaging with and improving the existing system. There were frequent discussions of Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court case removing limits on corporate campaign donations, and of Glass-Steagall, the Depression-era banking regulation whose repeal in 1999 is sometimes blamed for the 2008 crisis. If the poisoned fruit had been eaten so recently, maybe there was no need to start from scratch.

The tactic of occupation has left little trace. After protesters set up camp in Zuccotti Park in New York’s financial district on 17 September 2011, there were further occupations in hundreds of other cities and towns. Always dependent on official forbearance, the encampments were evicted in a string of police raids between 25 October (Oakland) and 15 November (Manhattan). Even before the cops came, these societies in miniature had run up against internal limits, including the difficulty of accommodating a growing number of homeless residents. The attempt at direct democracy gave way to bitter arguments: some complained that a de facto leadership had emerged, while others argued for the necessity of delegating power. After the crackdown, many hoped the movement would live on in new forms of direct action, including Occupy Sandy – to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy – and the Occupy Homes movement to stop foreclosures and move homeless families into empty houses. But these proved short-lived, leaving the discourse of inequality, rather than the tactic of occupation, as the most visible legacy.

This influence is almost always referred to as ‘changing the conversation’, a locution suggesting a conception of politics as a cocktail party. But it is true that after Occupy, US politicians spoke somewhat less cautiously about the wealthy. Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign targeted Mitt Romney’s background in private equity, while Bill de Blasio came from behind to become the first Democratic mayor of New York in two decades running against the legacy of the three-term mayor, the billionaire Michael Bloomberg. Thomas Piketty’s unexpected blockbuster made talk of class conflict safe for polite company, while trend pieces heralded ‘the new socialist wunderkinds of America’ gathered around magazines like the New Inquiry (several of its editors were arrested during the protests) and Jacobin (whose breakthrough moment, according to the New York Times, was sponsoring a well-attended public debate about Occupy’s tactics).

The greatest achievement of the post-Occupy conversation may be the unexpected success of Bernie Sanders. Running in a Democratic primary ran counter to the basic ideas of OWS, and at first Sanders wasn’t identified with the movement. By all accounts, he expected to run a protest campaign, a shoestring operation that would enable him to publicise a social democratic alternative to Clintonism during the televised debates. The extent of the support he drew – large enough that it could plausibly be called a movement – took him by surprise.

Despite Sanders’s distance from mass movements – at the beginning of the campaign especially, he seemed uncomfortable discussing Black Lives Matter, the most important protest movement to coalesce after the collapse of Occupy – he was an appropriate inheritor of their energy. He ran as a Democrat, but only after telling his staffers ‘over and over’ that he didn’t want to give up his long-held independence. The Democratic Party establishment did its part by responding to his primary challenge with unprecedented blanket hostility and naked favouritism towards his opponent. He thus gained the visibility of running as a Democrat without its ever ceasing to be clear that he and the party were strongly opposed to each other. As a veteran of earlier mass movements, who worked his way to the Senate after a decade in local government, he offered a living embodiment of the hope that the move from protest to politics could be made without a total loss of élan. And his issues were the issues of Occupy – none of them new ideas, but newly exciting when you realised that at some point they had turned into ideas shared by millions of people.

Sanders’s trademark call for a ‘political revolution’ at first seemed like a pleonasm – what other kind was there? But it had a specific meaning, and may mark a limitation. Sanders’s vision centred on changing electoral politics: campaign finance reform, changes in the nomination process, mobilising the countless non-voters, in part by making election day a federal holiday. This is a natural focus for a politician running in a presidential election. But at its extreme, it can become myopic, as was clear when a vocal segment of Sanders supporters, faced with impending defeat, became obsessed with the perceived inequities of the primary process itself: closed primaries, the partiality of the Democratic National Committee, unelected superdelegates. There was plenty of untoward behaviour, to be sure, but it wasn’t the stolen election that some have alleged. To focus on party structures allows supporters to blame elite malfeasance, instead of squarely facing defeat. The Sanders campaign succeeded in publicising the issues raised by Occupy, and manifesting the constituency for them, but it had no way of remaking the Democratic Party from within. The next step probably lies, as Occupy did, outside conventional electoral politics.

Sarah Jaffe’s Necessary Trouble provides the fullest account yet of the social movements that are attempting to transform American politics. ‘We needed something beyond the ballot box,’ she remembers thinking in 2008, but ‘it wasn’t clear what that something would be.’ Jaffe graduated from journalism school during the recession and has spent the years since reporting on the various answers that Americans have come up with. Occupy plays an important role in her story: it was the turning point after ‘a lot of protests since the 2008 crisis’, none of which ‘had seemed to achieve much’. But the book has a much wider scope, allowing her to avoid the day-by-day chronicles in other recent books on Occupy, such as Nathan Schneider’s Thank You Anarchy and Michael Gould-Wartofsky’s The Occupiers. Instead she traces the connections linking disruptive movements against inequalities of all kinds: protests against state-level austerity budgets; new fronts in the labour movement (low-paid workers in retail and fast food as well as public employees); insurgent electoral campaigns for socialist politicians; organising around housing and education debt; and the mosaic of organisations known as Black Lives Matter. Jaffe finds that these movements share certain characteristics with Occupy and with one another, though not in a straightforwardly derivative sense. There are direct continuities in the movement of organisers from one cause to another: a union organiser, dissatisfied with working to elect Democrats, who ends up at Occupy; a community organiser who rewrites a song she wrote for Occupy Homes with new lyrics for BLM protesters; a union organiser involved in a 2008 workers’ occupation of Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago and an employee walkout at a Walmart warehouse in 2012.

But there are also patterns that emerge simply because people are responding to a common predicament: issues like housing, racism and employment are so tightly related that any separation between them is artificial. Rasheen Aldridge, a St Louis-based worker active in the fight for a $15 minimum wage, saw the news of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson and ‘didn’t think too much of it’. But as he saw more and more police cars headed down towards Ferguson, he called a Fight for $15 colleague who worked at a McDonalds on West Florissant Avenue, which would become the centre of the protests in Ferguson, and realised something bigger was going on.

In Jaffe’s anatomy of the new wave of protests, we recognise most of the hallmarks of Occupy, but less stringently defined and usually aimed at more specific targets. Instead of strict horizontalism, for example, the new movements converge in ‘mostly putting aside hierarchies for more open-ended structures’. Rather than firmly avoiding making demands, they accommodate a ‘range of demands, from the mundane and even wonky to the transformative’, so that activists can claim concrete victories without implying that any single reform obviates the need for further protest. Tactics such as the occupation of physical space, or the formation of ad hoc popular bodies, such as the People’s Movement Assemblies convened by the Organisation for Black Struggle to facilitate discussion of grievances and strategies among residents of St Louis county, also recur across different protests, but are rarely seen as an end in themselves. Many activists worry that Occupy’s universalist rhetoric obscured inequalities within the 99 per cent, but even so, they have prioritised broad coalitions, ‘wrapping up issues as seemingly disparate as mortgage debt and climate change into one’.

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Jaffe is committed to the basic job of reporting, in ‘meeting activists where they lived and worked and organised’. Her prolonged engagement (she spent, for example, four years covering union efforts at Walmart) gives her rare authority in describing the ethos of the movement. It has also yielded dozens of revealing interviews with a wide range of participants, whose explanations of their own activism provide a different perspective on the new protests than the familiar analysis of the chattering classes. We hear two kinds of story again and again. The first describes the moment when previously apolitical people take action in response to some insupportable element of everyday life – a vicious boss, a foreclosure, the sight of police officers pointing guns at neighbours. In the second, established activists, dedicated but accustomed to frustration, realise that this time it’s not just ‘another Madison protest’ or ‘just another young man in St Louis being gunned down’. Movements, Jaffe suggests, require both unpredictable and experienced organisers. (She reinforces this point by showing how important leftist cadres have been historically, and how devastating anti-communism has been to social movements in general.)

The new movements are rarely ‘prefigurative’, in the strong sense that Occupy was meant to be: creating a new world right now, on a small scale. But many protesters do find themselves transformed by the experience of defiance. For some, this is to do with overcoming the shame of debt and poverty. ‘As I resolved to fight,’ one foreclosed homeowner says, ‘I realised I had nothing to be ashamed of.’ Others gain a new sense of the way the world is structured, and the way they fit into it, as with the worker who ‘realised early on that if we could change Walmart, then we could help change the country’. Above all, Jaffe stresses her protagonists’ discovery of their own power, an ability to alter previously unyielding conditions by stepping outside the bounds of regular behaviour. As one Walmart supply-chain worker, used to being ‘treated like a machine’, found after an employee walkout, ‘There was this shift in power. Our bosses would come up to us and say: “Do you need anything?” I said, “Yeah I need gloves,” and they’d go get gloves.’ Power is the key word throughout Necessary Trouble. ‘Being able to donate millions to a single candidate is power,’ Jaffe writes, but so is ‘disruption … when it is used strategically’: workers going on strike, BLM protesters shutting down freeways, occupying a state capitol building. The general argument that a challenge to elite dominance requires the construction of independent bases of social power is hard to fault. It is a more open question whether post-2008 disruptive protests represent a power strong enough to reshape American politics. Jaffe acknowledges that the movements she chronicles have hardly marched from victory to victory.

Even so, the book leaves it slightly unclear how these movements are supposed to translate the momentary discoveryof collective power into durable political change. Early on, Jaffe relates an instance in which crowds of sympathisers, including contingents from the Communication Workers of America, United Auto Workers, and the Service Employees International Union, gathered to prevent a scheduled clearing of Zuccotti Park. When the announcement came that the eviction had been cancelled, Jaffe’s companion said to her: ‘This is power.’ What was this power capable of? In this case, it delayed the destruction of the camp for a month. As I remember myself, it felt invigorating. But it was still a rather limited power, relevant mostly to the occupation itself, with few ramifications for national politics.

The heart of the problem may be what Jaffe aptly calls the ‘fraught’ relationship between the new movements and electoral politics. As she writes in her introduction, ‘this is mostly not a book about electoral politics,’ and part of her diagnosis of the historical moment is that, in large parts of the electorate, ‘people didn’t want to vote.’ And yet no movement that wants to offer people concrete improvements can afford to disengage from party politics. In the best-case scenario, there is a division of labour: extra-parliamentary activism pushes elected officials to the left, an implicit partnership that combines antagonism with mutual dependence. The best example recently in the US is the campaign for a $15 minimum wage, where symbolic one-day strikes by non-union workers and civil disobedience by sympathisers forced the idea onto the platform of the Democratic Party. (Platforms, for what it’s worth, are hardly binding: the platform of the victorious Democrats in 1976 committed the party to ‘national economic planning’.)

But this process of tacit co-operation is only one potential outcome. Another is that elected officials, and the party organisation behind them, work actively to suppress rather than encourage social movements. There were plenty of examples of this at the Democratic National Convention in July, where the party betrayed a breathtakingly low tolerance for dissent (going so far as to confiscate signs opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement that Hillary Clinton herself ostensibly opposes). In this case, unless these movements are strong enough credibly to challenge the political establishment, they must acquiesce or disaffiliate.

The behaviour of two unions that have played important roles in the struggles discussed in Jaffe’s book illustrates the point. The Service Employees International Union led the Fight for $15 but campaigned for Clinton by lying to its members about her support for the $15 minimum wage. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union led the campaign OUR Walmart but endorsed Clinton, who once boasted: ‘As a shareholder and director of our company, I’m always proud of Walmart and what we do and the way we do it better than anybody else.’ It is difficult to criticise anyone for refusing to take a chance on a long-shot like Sanders, but their choices reveal who holds the whip hand.

Another complication is suggested by the framing of Jaffe’s book. It opens with a man called J.D. Meadows speaking about economic conditions: ‘A lot of it has to do with Wall Street. I’ve had a lot of family lose jobs.’ Meadows belongs to the very first post-2008 populist movement, the Tea Party. The overlap between right and left-wing populisms is a major theme in Necessary Trouble. Jaffe is appropriately harsh when it comes to the constitutive racism of many right-wing grievances, but she takes the disaffected white working class more seriously than many liberals. Meadows’s complaints about the economy, she writes, ‘sound like the ones my friends and I make to each other’. The fact that ‘distaste for both political parties and their connections to wealthy elites’ could cross party lines is an important part of Jaffe’s portrait of ‘America in revolt’. She even suggests that Americans ‘on opposite sides of the political spectrum have joined forces to shake up the powerful’.

Under the sign of Trump, however, right-wing populism seems more likely to bolster the political establishment than to undermine it. In response to Trump and Sanders, Clinton has decided not to appeal to diffuse working-class discontent but to court middle-class Republicans. Jaffe portrays a country where it is ‘no longer a question, for many people, of left or right, of Democrat or Republican, but of powerful and powerless’, while the liberal media sees an election that’s about the ‘crazy versus not crazy’. Responsible people, in this new rendition of beyond left or right, are called to support the not-crazy powerful Clinton as a bulwark against the crazy powerful Trump. The powerless fall out of the picture, as Clinton woos Condoleezza Rice and Henry Kissinger.

Every popular front leaves someone out. The Democratic Convention featured speakers ranging from the mothers of victims of police murder to Michael Bloomberg, an unapologetic defender as mayor of New York of stop-and-search policing. It did not include any young black activists, perhaps because it was difficult to find any willing to mouth the pro-police bromides that accompanied every criticism of policing at the convention. The subsequent release of a comprehensive set of demands by the Movement for Black Lives marked the distance between the Democrats and the social movements. While Clinton had successfully fought to keep the word ‘occupation’ out of the party platform, the M4BL programme speaks explicitly of the ‘homes and land routinely bulldozed to make way for illegal Israeli settlements’, and has been heavily criticised for this.

Jaffe believes that by 2014 it ‘became clear that something was fundamentally changing. Americans, in short, were getting radical.’ A pessimist might see today’s protests as the latest in a series of staccato outbursts, comparable perhaps to the late 1990s. In 1997, the Teamsters led 185,000 UPS workers off the job – the largest strike in a generation, unmatched since. Organising against sweatshops and free trade agreements led to a ‘civil emergency’ in Seattle in 1999. In 2000, protesters injured 23 police officers at the funeral in Brooklyn of Patrick Dorismond, an unarmed Haitian-American killed by an undercover cop. Were these anticipations of the current moment? Is it different this time around? Leftists once took comfort in the idea that every generation of radicals is doomed to fail, except the last one. The absence of an equally powerful way of thinking about the rhythm of history is conspicuous today.