Hot or Not? Autumn 2010 Revisited

Back at the beginning of August I wrote a post called “Hot Autumn 2.0?” in which I speculated about another wave of anti-cuts protest this fall. A few recent events and discussions have prompted me to revisit the tentative perspective laid out there.

The economic crisis, and the ruling class response to it, underlies everything. The jobs report for September underscores that fact: the private sector is barely growing, and public sector cuts are starting to arrive thick and fast. The American ruling class has, I believe, now made a decisive turn in favor of austerity. Projecting into the future a little, Obama will begin to announce plans for cuts and austerity measures after the midterm elections, at which point a largely Republican Congress will shift the debate even further to the right. The question will become not whether to cut, but where, when, and how deeply to cut.

Outside of mainstream politics, the economic crisis is having a different, but still contradictory, impact.

In the first instance it now seems pretty obvious that the opening for anti-capitalist politics has grown pretty significantly amongst American youth in particular. In the broad sense, this means that lots and lots of students and young workers–perhaps as many as one in three–think socialism is better than capitalism. More narrowly, a much smaller but still significant layer of people are turning to Marxism, oftentimes outside the orbit of existing or established revolutionary socialist groups.

With the partial exception of several universities in Northern California, however, this radicalization is largely taking place in the absence of sustained social struggle. Young people are radicalizing as a result of their experiences during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, but they are not becoming anti-capitalists as a result of their participation in the fightback.

In this context, I recently had a couple of very interesting conversations with a comrade in Chicago. He is fairly pessimistic about the overall political climate at the moment. At the risk of butchering his argument, this comrade was arguing that the working class and the social movements are not in a position to resist the ruling-class attacks that are about to go down, and that the task of revolutionaries in the coming period would be essentially educational and propagandistic.

I found this to be quite persuasive at first. The autumn had turned out to be less “hot” than I was hoping. The immigrant youth fighting for the DREAM Act suffered (what seems to me) a pretty serious setback when the movement first divided over whether to support DREAM as an amendment to the defense spending bill and then failed to get the amendment passed anyway. Anti-cuts organizing seemed much slower to get off the ground than it did at this time last year.

Two things have caused me to reevaluate these ideas. The first has been an interesting discussion on the Gathering Forces blog. I’ve been debating perspectives with the comrades from GF and Advance the Struggle for about 6 months, on and off. They’ve consistently argued that my own view of what’s possible right now is too conservative–that if anti-capitalists were more “daring” in this period we could mobilize a large radicalizing constituency of students and workers.

The second debate has centered on recent events at Berkeley. I don’t have every side of the story, but on the day of action to defend education on 10/7, several hundred people engaged in a sit-in at Doe Library. A General Assembly was held; some people wanted to maintain the sit-in as an occupation, but for some reason it didn’t happen and the action dispersed. Since then, the occupationist (for want of a better word) and anarcho-communist wing of the movement has attacked the GA as an obstacle to militant action.

See the first critique of the Berkeley GA here.

See JBC’s considered response to these arguments here.

I don’t really have a whole lot to add to JBC’s excellent intervention. I’ll only say a couple of things. I don’t see the critics of the Berkeley GA offering anything in the way of alternatives, beyond the same old call for “militant action.” I think this strategy played itself out in the early months of 2010–small groups would attempt to take radical action with no demands, no program, and no attempt to reach or dialogue with folks outside their narrow circles. These actions were easily broken up by the police or attracted so few participants that they didn’t take place at all. Unless there’s some kind of public balance sheet of this process I’m not inclined to take the critics of the GA all that seriously.

Having said that, I would very much like to hear more about what this wing of the movement thinks is possible right now. These folks played a very important role in radicalizing the movement last fall, in terms of both analysis and tactics. My impression was that they’d lost the faith a little bit, so any signs of life–even a pretty weak polemic like this–might be a good thing. Is the struggle ready for another escalation? This question is given added urgency by rumors that the Regents are set to raise tuition at the University of California by another 20% next month.

So I’m not coming to any conclusions here. At GF one commenter posed the question thusly: “how much is possible right now?” I think that’s the right question, but I haven’t heard any satisfactory answers yet. I want to hear more than “strikes are possible” or “we should occupy something.”

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