The decisive defeat by referendum of Ohio’s anti-union legislation on Tuesday was a clear rejection of Tea Party Republican assaults on unions and social programs. Across the country, from Iowa to Mississippi, Maine and Arizona, right-wing initiatives were repudiated by large margins. The votes show that the public never really supported Tea Party policies: they were conned in 2010 by demagogic rhetoric which appealed to a sense of losing ground economically.
Washington Post writer E.J. Dionne describes the vote as a rebellion against Republican “overreach” which should guide them to back away from social-issue extremism. But he assumes that the Republicans are capable of returning to a centrist policy: their presidential candidate circus has given no indication that this is possible.
Political commentators have seen the Ohioans’ rejection of mandatory healthcare plans as inconsistent: but it’s not difficult to understand. Voters were not expressing support for the Democratic party leadership and don’t want to be chained to making regular subsidies to insurance and pharmaceutical companies any more than they do to one for the banks. Their motivation is to resist corporate encroachments on living standards: a survey of those voting in Ohio revealed that 57 percent believed “Republicans backing Kasich’s law are putting the interests of big corporations ahead of those of average working people.”
Union support cohering around the Occupy movement, from the base rather than the top, is a clearer indication of the public mood. Union activists are adopting some of the direct action tactics of the occupiers, and have provided material and political support to the occupations. The New York Times reports that: “A dozen Verizon workers plan to begin walking from Albany to Manhattan on Thursday in a ‘March for the 99 percent.’ … In Los Angeles, labor leaders have repeatedly lobbied Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa not to evict the protesters.”
The Occupy movement has its problems – the weather, security, and a drumbeat of official concerns about public safety – but they are addressing them imaginatively in New York through the use of large military tents for communal use, which not only provide more warmth but make it easier to maintain occupiers’ security. They are oriented outwards to the public: together with initiatives to join with grassroots groups in minority/immigrant communities, a march from New York to Washington, called “Occupy the Highway,” is taking their message into communities not normally reached by political movements. The march will go through Trenton, Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore, as well as smaller cities. And they are due to arrive when the congressional supercommittee announces its decisions on cutting social welfare, in order to focus attention on the continuing tax cuts for the super-rich.
In Oakland, a fatal shooting near the camp has intensified the pressure to close down the occupation as the mayor now calls on protesters to disband, but the biggest problem facing occupiers is the political paralysis of the General Assembly in the face of an ideological incoherence introduced by a concentration of dissident anarchists.
These anarchists are rushing to throw themselves into street battles with Oakland’s militarized police when the real fight is to win over the public in a way which creates divisions among state forces. KALW reporter Ali Winston comments: “A lot of the momentum that built up before the General Strike seems to have stalled, and that is due in no small part to the chaos that broke out late in the evening following the General Strike. There has been a lot of soul searching about the failed occupation of the vacated Travelers Aid Society on November 2. … many of the people involved in that action, not all of them, were actually visitors to Oakland from other west coast areas, such as Olympia, Washington, Santa Cruz, and Modesto in California, which are communities where there are large anarchist elements as well.”
Wednesday night’s General Assembly voted to march Saturday in support of Egyptian activists, but had difficulty reaching a decision on a resolution disavowing black bloc tactics. Oakland North reported some of the discussion: “‘Violence and vandalism only leads to one thing,’ one middle-aged protester with long hair said from the stage during the ‘pro and con’ portion of the meeting. ‘They escalate, we escalate, and this thing does not end well.’ ‘We can’t start developing ways to police people’s behavior,’ said another man from the stage.” However, after the shooting on Thursday the general assembly declared: “This is what we are fighting against” and “This is a peaceful revolution.”
America is not a dictatorship: black bloc vandalism only alienates the majority the movement needs to win over. One participant in the Oakland general strike notes: “there is this consistent need by black block anarchists to be coercive with their tactics, by bringing property destruction to [nonviolent protests] without any kind of agreement from others who are participating … The use of property destruction around the general strike was terrible strategy as we are now seeing with the footage that has been broadcast across the globe. … The events that followed left a sour taste for everyone as local small businesses were smashed and vandalized. … With this masculine centered eroticism of property destruction, there also appears to be a general sense of entitlement around ownership of a protest event.”
The self-centered individualism of the dissident anarchists and their attitude to property mirrors that of the financial elite they are protesting: they think that simply taking possession of something gives them the right to dispose of it as they see fit. But what has to be changed is social acceptance of the right of individuals to privately “own” and control resources needed by the community, be it water supplies or buildings. This right is enforced by the state, but a democratically-based state can only govern if it is recognized as legitimate by the majority of citizens.
In other words, activists can’t substitute their own actions for a necessary political and ideological change in the whole of society. “Occupy Wall Street/We are the 99 percent” is developing and counterposing a new morality to the property owners of Wall Street through the use of nonviolent actions which to date have successfully challenged the legitimacy of the financier-controlled political system.