Occupy Wall Street, Part Three

This is part three of my reflections on the relevance of Deleuze & Guattari’s political philosophy to the Occupy movement: the first one was on war machines; the second one was on ahistorical becomings.  Part Two ended with the claim that Occupy Wall Street had both a long-term or systemic large-scale target (Wall Street) and an immediate small-scale goal (instantiating democracy). Satisfying this double requirement is one aspect of what I have called (in my book on Nomad Citizenship) the slow-motion general strike, which is discussed below. But it poses some problems for the politics of the war machine, as discussed above, which lead us to ‘the minor,’ the topic of Part Three (below): How do you make political action that is not obviously revolutionary into something contagious? How does the felt need for social change become urgent? In the 1960s United States, it was anti-war protest, and the prospect of dying in a war we didn’t believe in, that lent the counter-culture movement its sense of urgency; in 1960s France, however, there was no such focal point, and yet the French student movement proved far more contagious than its American counter-part, and ended up mobilizing a far greater proportion of the French people than were mobilized by the American counter-culture and anti-war movements combined. The Occupy movement certainly became contagious, but despite the name ‘Occupy,’ it never had concrete long-term ambitions: what will become of ‘Occupy 2.0’ is a pressing question that so far remains unanswered. One of the unfortunate difficulties of the war machine and non-linear history is that they are so unpredictable – practically by definition. It is just as impossible to produce enthusiasm or solidarity at will as it is to predict the timing or extent of a bifurcation point in advance. But it was certainly no accident that ‘ground zero’ for the Occupy movement was none other than Wall Street.

The Minor

And it may be just as revealing that the single most enduring, significant and vigorous off-shoot of the Occupy movement has been the (inaptly named) ‘Occupy Student Debt’ movement. To help explain why this might be so, we can turn to Deleuze and Guattari’s adaptation of Marx’s analysis of capital, which I call their ‘minor marxism.’ The key difference between most ‘major’ or dialectical Marxism and this minor or structural marxism is that while the former focuses on the results of the dialectical process of capital accumulation, the latter focuses on the structural preconditions for capital accumulation – also known as ‘primitive accumulation.’ The watchword of major Marxism follows from the dialectical precept of the negation of the negation: expropriate the expropriators; confront the power of accumulated capital head-on, and wrest it from its illegitimate private owners by force. The approach of a minor marxism is different: address the structural preconditions for capital accumulation rather than the power of accumulated capital itself; disrupt and reverse the process of primitive accumulation. This is the basis of the strategy I call the slow-motion general strike. It is a general strike in that it is not directed against a single industry, but against capitalist industry as a whole; and indeed, following the example set in France in May 1968, it could be considered to be a strike against many or all facets of social life, not just industry – and in particular a strike against a nominally democratic political system that, then as now, has clearly not served the interests of the majority (the 99%). But the slow-motion general strike is also distinctive because, unlike the traditional or major general strike, it is not punctual and not confrontational: it unfolds gradually over the long haul rather than provoking (or hoping for) immediate wholesale changes in social life; and rather than confronting the power of accumulated capital, it seeks to undermine that power by subtracting greater and greater areas of social and economic activity from capitalist markets through the development of alternative economies and social networks that provide alternative means of life outside the circuits of capital. As the work of Gibson-Graham has amply demonstrated, economic activity already actually takes many different forms, even ‘under’ or ‘within’ capitalism, and many of them are in fact non-capitalist, if not explicitly anti-capitalist. The political strategy of a minor marxism thus centers around people gradually extricating themselves from dependence on capitalist markets, goods, and means of life, by instead relying on and further developing alternative means of life – community-supported agriculture, open-source software, DIY (do-it-yourself), fair trade, the list goes on and on – until a tipping point or bifurcation point is reached where capitalist markets begin to starve and then eventually wither away. This is what it would mean to reverse the process of primitive accumulation from which capitalism first emerged and on which it continues to depend.

As Marx points out – although he waits until the concluding part of Capital, Volume One to do so – the process of ‘so-called primitive accumulation’ (called so by Adam Smith) is better understood as a combined process of accumulation and destitution. For capital investment to emerge, there must be a prior accumulation of wealth in liquid form (not land), available to be invested. But equally or even more important, there must be a population stripped of their traditional livelihood, who thus have no way of surviving other than by selling their labor-power for a wage. ‘So-called primitive accumulation,’ Marx insists, ‘is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production’ (1887: Ch. 26, Para. 3). Capitalism emerges on the basis of this fortuitous encounter between liquid wealth and destitute labor, which Deleuze and Guattari call the primary axiom of capital accumulation. Innumerable other axioms can be added and subtracted – consumer tastes, production technologies, state forms, and so on – but the axiom that converts wealth into investment capital and work into dependent wage labor remains at the heart of the capitalist mode of production. Major Marxism focuses on accumulation; minor marxism focuses on dependency. In the course of capitalism’s historical development, dependency has taken three basic forms. The first form of dependence to predominate was work: destitute workers were forced to sell their labor-power to survive. But this form was from the start inextricably linked to a second form, involving consumption: workers were obliged to buy means of subsistence from capitalists (rather than producing them independently). Availability of non-capitalist ways of procuring the means of life would aggravate capital’s ‘realization’ problem: capitalists can’t make a profit if the goods they produce are not bought back in sufficient quantities. As brute starvation (in some parts of the global economy) declines in importance as a way of enforcing dependency, marketing and advertizing intervene to make people psychologically dependent on the purchase of capitalist commodities. Even leisure time gets commodified, as people become increasingly unable or unwilling to entertain themselves and purchase mass-produced entertainment instead. Even worse than the subsumption of production, consumption and leisure time by capital, however, is the third form of dependency, which is debt. As Deleuze puts it in his prescient essay on ‘control society,’ ‘modern man is no longer a man confined, but a man in debt.’ This context renews and heightens the significance of the fact that the first known word for freedom is an economic rather than a political term: it meant freedom from debt peonage. Trading the unfreedoms of disciplinary confinement for the unfreedom to go into debt in neoliberal society of control is hardly a bargain: while capitalist production and consumption certainly subsumed huge portions of social life, the debt to capital weighs ‘like a nightmare’ on every decision in every minute of every day, 24/7/365: for those in debt, each and every moment of their entire life must enter a calculus of whether it reduces, merely defers, or actually increases their debt burden.

But modern debt itself takes several different forms. Modern debt-financed capital investment, of course, dates back to the early days of mercantile capitalism, and continues unabated under industrial capitalism. ‘The public debt [was] one of the most powerful levers of primitive accumulation’ from early on, Marx notes (1887: Chap. 31 Para. 15). But as capitalist production develops and massifies, the ‘realization problem’ emerges, as we have seen, and debt-financed consumption arises alongside debt-financed production. Indeed as long as profit gets extracted from the entire sum of exchanges between wages and commodity prices, capitalism requires debt-financed consumption in order to survive. But debt-financed consumption itself takes two very different forms. The first was the great Keynesian-New-Deal-Fordist-welfare-state gambit, whereby states would go into debt in hard times to bail out capital through deficit spending, with the expectation, supposedly, that the debt would be repaid in good times. Except that, as we know, the debt never does get repaid; instead, it continues to grow and grow and eventually goes through the ceiling – until or unless the ceiling itself is conveniently moved, as it has been repeatedly in the United States by bipartisan acts of Congress. But the debt ceiling can’t be moved forever, at least not without exposing the whole capitalist accounting system as a massive hoax or Ponzi scheme. The inevitable conclusion is that capitalism has been living on borrowed time for at least the last 83 years – or on borrowed money, which as we know is more or less the same thing. Nation states around the world, and not just the United States, face this long-term ‘sovereign debt crisis,’ as it is called – Argentina, notoriously, a decade ago; Greece, Italy, Spain, and Ireland more recently – with no final solution in sight. As the Occupy movement spread around the world, it often focused on this form of debt. But in the United States, the ‘original’ OWS focused on the other form of debt, which we can call neoliberal debt or indentured debt peonage – the kind that Deleuze associates with what he calls control society. In this form, some of the debt required to keep capitalism afloat gets displaced from sovereign states onto private individuals (home mortgages, car loans, student loans, credit card retail debt, and so on). While private consumer debt is hardly new, the scale of predatory abuse of consumers perpetrated by finance capital, including most notably in home mortgages and student loans, went through the roof, and were a key motivation for OWS, and for the choice of Wall Street as the place to occupy in the first place.

Minor marxism offers another kind of explanation for OWS choosing Wall Street as its prime target, which has to do with the nature of debt to begin with. Marx likens the role of ‘so-called primitive accumulation’ in bourgeois political economy to that of original sin in theology: it is crucial to everything that follows, but it itself remains unexamined and/or unexplained. Deleuze and Guattari offer a very different account of ‘primitive accumulation:’ on their account, pre-capitalist accumulation is responsible for the appropriation of surplus-labor long before the rise of capitalism, and the consolidation of capitalism as a mode of production entails the transfer of what had been an infinite debt from gods or despots to capital itself. What had been owed to them in various forms of tribute or taxation is henceforth owed to capital in the form of interest. This means that finance capital has not just a historical precedent (as most Marxists will admit, from the period of mercantile capitalism), but a theoretical precedence as well. For major Marxism, credit becomes possible because of, and out of, the surplus generated by capitalist production; the dialectical account occupying the first few hundred pages of Capital, Volume One shows how through a process of increasing abstraction money emerges from in-kind exchange, and then how the commodification of labor-power enables money to become capital, and finally how interest on money represents a share of the surplus-value generated through the production process owed to finance capital. Deleuze and Guattari, by contrast, insist that finance capital is prior to industrial capital not just at the historical emergence of capitalism, but in principle and throughout the history of capitalism. This is so in principle because Deleuze and Guattari follow Nietzsche in understanding money to be primarily a vehicle for debt and the establishment and enforcement of unequal power relations rather than a vehicle for the exchange of equivalents among formally equal parties. For minor marxism, then, ownership of capital is first and foremost the power to create value ex nihilo, if only for the purpose of subsequently introducing it into the production process in order to appropriate even more surplus-value. Modern state regulations, it is true, require what’s called a ‘cash reserve ratio’ – which means that banks must hold some modicum of assets against which to make loans; recently, these ratios have been found to be scandalously low, and have in some cases led to bankruptcy: but the point is that the cash reserve ratio for banks is never anywhere near 100% – so even if technically speaking capital is not being created completely ex nihilo, it is nonetheless the case that most of it is, and that a major function of the finance sector is, in the strongest sense, to invent or create fictitious capital for investment in productive enterprises, with the expectation that surplus-value will be generated and some of it paid back in interest. With Wall Street’s development of complex derivatives and markets for insuring them, the disparity between actual ‘industrial’ value and fictitious ‘financial’ value became too great and too obvious – yet another reason for choosing Wall Street as the prime target for the Occupy movement.

Minor marxism focuses on the dependence (or ‘precarity’) generated by so-called primitive accumulation, and particularly by the degree of dependence accompanying the wholesale fabrication of ubiquitous debt relations by contemporary finance capital, among which the home mortgage and student debt crises became the most visible, and therefore became precipitating factors in the Occupy movement. A student debt-strike is one of the most important ideas to emerge from the aftermath of OWS – but there is no reason to limit such a strike to students, when practically everyone suffers from the imposition of debt in one form or another. But eliminating or reducing debt is by no means the only laudable goal of the Occupy movement: its sights were set on far more than that. By modeling post-capitalist and post-representative social relations, OWS points to a more far-reaching and thoroughgoing transformation of contemporary society, which perhaps only a slow-motion general strike, based on principles similar to those instantiated in OWS, will be able to bring about.

What’s land got to do with it?

If there is one thing that Becoming Poor has come to expect me to say about autogestion or some similar means, my question invariably comes back to the earth. Where, exactly, to we construct these alternative systems? How do we acquire land initially, if we are not currently in possession of any? And with what money? Or, is squatting enough? Does that allow us to flourish, whatever that might mean for us individually, or does it allow us to simply ‘persevere in our being’, to recall Spinoza?

In some respects, I feel a bit misunderstood. It’s not that I don’t believe alternatives to Capitalism can be developed. I think there are countless instances where real alternatives have been built and are actively utilized, either from a marketplace perspective, like Craigslist, or something more immediate, like food growing alternatives, such as Alley Cat Acres, guerilla gardening; knowledge commons like Wikipedia or open-source code sharing, etc. I like thinking about these instances as they do provide concrete examples of something other than… So, when I insist on talking about property, my motivation is to not squash hope. These questions come from a real interest is ‘how can we make this work?’ rather than, ‘how will this ever work?’

Harvey mentions two things earlier in the text that strike me as important to this line of questioning. In ‘The Urban Roots of Capitalist Crisis’, Harvey points to one key problem with the Marxist perspective- here speaking to the housing crisis, but also in general, he asserts that while there is much attention paid to the movement of capital, not enough attention is paid to the role the property market had in this crisis. He faults Marx for focusing so heavily on the ‘production and realization of surplus while abstracting from and excluding what he called the ‘particularities’ of distribution (interest, rents, taxes, and even actual wage and profit rates), since these are accidental, conjunctural and of-the-moment in space and time.” (36)

So sure, with the housing crisis there were countless fraudulent or predatory practices that created the wave of foreclosures. But a key element is the use of land as a means to grow capital; land speculation, flipping houses, artificial inflation of the ‘value’ of land; not to mention a perceived belief that land should only increase its value, etc. (Detroit, anyone?) Without doubt, it was a complex assemblage of a variety of actors and forces, from the individual to the government, from the construction to the banking/finance sector, and to reduce it to one element is a failure to understand the conditions in which it was borne.

In the ‘Creation of the Urban Commons’, Harvey points out that the commons is not merely a space in which the idea of the commons comes alive- it is a social relation, a spatial practice, which he describes as ‘commoning’, born out of interactions and engagements in a spatial context, not fixed and not given. This seems in line with a spatial becoming, in my mind… (Which is not to say that this cannot happen virtually, but as embodied beings, we still move through space.) For Harvey, and addressing the idea of the ‘Tragedy of the Commons”, it’s not that the commons are the problem, “but the failure of individualized private property rights to fulfill common interests in the way they are supposed to do.” (75) This key point of contradiction, the needs of capital to produce versus the social character of the land, cannot be simply set aside. Both elements require actual space, and they are at odds with each other, especially given that land is but one element of the machine, bought and sold for a profit.

And this is where I hit a real wall in how we move from the smaller, manageable alternatives to actually breaking free from capitalism. While land is not treated in the same manner throughout the world, in the US, there is a history and an active practice of purchasing and selling of land, or renting as right of use. Unless we are in the UAE or Netherlands, and major land reclamation results in the production of new territory – at no small cost – land is finite. We face a limit of finding a little spot of land ‘free for the taking’ in which we can get out of the circuit of paying rent, which makes us reliant upon earning a wage. For Harvey, and I think worth thinking about, as long as we participate in capitalism on some level, we easily/quickly find ourselves subject to the ‘coercive laws of competition’. (160)

Just for the record, I am so much more in line with Holland’s thinking about potential in front of us –and its inherent uncertainty – given the conditions we find ourselves in, rather than looking for a neat program that we can install and then perform. But I think if we could figure out this element of spatial needs, we’d be on to something, as so many other parts/elements are already in place. And perhaps Detroit really is the first place to look, since capitalism doesn’t seem to be very interested….