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Posts Tagged ‘occupy Wall Street’

On Occupy Wall Street’s “general strike” Mayday, a thought on activism and history. I think I just heard David Graeber, author of Debt, a book I admire very much, say on Brian Lehrer’s show that the term “general strike” is now being redefined in context of the inescapable fact that American organized labor has not come out on strike today. Graeber explained that dissonance by noting that laws have made sympathy strikes illegal, anomalously in Graeber’s view when compared to standards of labor activism that he says prevailed in the 19th century.

Lots of stuff to unpack there historically. But politically, my immediate reaction: I can’t imagine that even if any and all “general strike” legislation were instantly repealed, much of American organized labor as we know it would be out on strike today. More to my point, I can’t imagine Graeber thinks so either.

So what’s up? Something to do with wishful uses of history, writing, and criticism in the service of activism. What Occupy intellectuals seem to want to do, both with the past and with current realpolitik, is to construct current and historical conditions as favoring immense growth and success for Occupy — i.e., rally to the cause. Graeber’s soundbite may well distill a nuanced historical view in which, had things gone differently in American labor history, American labor would be radically different from what it is today. If such a view enables his implying that absent a legal crackdown on the big unions, they’d be on strike today, the nuance is perverse.

As always, I think these constructions are not only misleading, possibly deliberately so, thus politically and existentially inauthentic, but also counterproductive to developing any realistic critique, an actively usable one, of American finance, economics, and government. A critique I remain unsure the Occupy movement even wants to develop. But I do.

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(More b-roll, cut from my forthcoming book Founding Finance. Might have some resonance for those in protest today against government money corruption and high finance.)

We often see 1760′s and ’70′s patriot Boston as especially well-unified, across social and economic classes, against British oppression, and it’s true that, certainly with the occupation, much unity did prevail there. But dramatic examples of conflict in the relationship between Adams and the Loyal Nine and Sons of Liberty, on the one hand, and Boston’s workers and poor on the other, occurred even during one of the most famous Boston riots, the Stamp Act protest of August 1765. In the same traditional styles of protest we’ve seen [or will have seen, in the forthcoming book] in the Regulator riot in Hillsborough, North Carolina, the Boston protest involved attacks on not only on hated stamp-administration offices but also on officials’ homes. A large crowd — which today might have appeal for both the Tea Party and Occupy for being of mixed classes — hanged in effigy Andrew Oliver, the stamp tax official.

But then, at night, Boston’s two most famous street gangs, previously at war with one another, the South End Gang and the North End Gang, burned a property Oliver owned in Boston. Even later that night a smaller crew and entered his house in Cambridge and ransacked it. The attack on Oliver’s home went beyond protest against England. Breaking elegant things seemed to many an assault on extravagance and luxury itself. In that effort, the North End and South End gangs ceased making war on one another.

Some see the gangs’ new unity as responding to a common enemy in British corruption; others see their unity as the formation of a class consciousness that distinguished the workers and poor of Boston not only from British-connected Bostonians like Oliver but also from anti-British upscale Bostonians like Adams, Hancock, and Sons of Liberty. What’s most illuminating to me is that upscale Whig resisters, including Sons of Liberty, tried to distinguish themselves from the gangs even as they hoped the gangs’ violence would pressure and harass British officials. The Boston town meeting didn’t censure the attack on Oliver’s house — but two weeks later, the gangs tore down Governor Hutchinson’s house, and the town meeting, while anything but friendly to Hutchinson, did condemn that action.

Upscale people, however anti-British, now began turning out to protect property. They created their own militias in distinction to the laboring gangs. In revolutionary Boston, rich people on both sides of the taxation question feared the working-class crowd. And the working class knew it.

General Gage of the British Army had an interesting point of view on the situation. Occupying Boston with troops, he lived with the Cassandra curse: always right, always ignored. Gage understood Boston far better than his British masters; ultimately he was recalled to England for offending them by having been so right.

And Gage’s take on the elite-vs.-crowd issue was that Whig gentlemen had begun by arousing crowds, assuming ordinary people had none of what historians call “agency” of their own and would defer to establishment leaders. Then those leaders found, to their dismay, that crowds would rise unbidden. Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty, far from endorsing the crowd’s desire for equality, nevertheless needed the crowds to pressure the British establishment and lend credence to the seriousness of the resistance. So even in Boston, seemingly so unified against England, revolution in America was full of social, economic, and political tension on the part of the revolutionaries.

That’s the story Occupy gets wrong here (see “From the Liberty Tree to Liberty Park”) and the Tea Party gets wrong here (just for example).

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My forthcoming book — forthcoming six months from now, for the election — is already on Amazon: Founding Finance: How Debt, Speculation, Foreclosures, Protests, and Crackdowns Made Us a Nation. The book is from University of Texas Press, part of Mark Crispin Miller’s series “Discovering America.”

And to me it’s a big one: a different mode from my two narrative histories, in this case mixing historical narrative with the kinds of connections between founding history and current politics and economics — and with criticism, in that context, of the historians who precede me, especially Wood, Morgan, Hofstadter — that I’ve explored in this blog (especially regarding the Occupy movement).

For example: Should you want a view of the founding period absolutely the reverse of those presented by Akhil Reed Amar or Grover Norquist, this is the book. I hope it undermines all Tea Party/Norquist claims on the founding period while also questioning — OK, more than questioning — the impact of the academic liberal consensus on public conceptions of founding history over the past fifty years. Even as, I hope, it also tells some lively and startling stories about Paine, Herman Husband, Robert Morris, Thomas Young, Hamilton, et al. Oh, and raises questions about the debate over debt, finance, and protest in the 2012 election. And the real roots of Occupy’s economic protest. That’s it!

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nice, huh?

A Boston-area speaking engagement — just learned this is open to the public. I’ll speak at Boston College High School on Tuesday 3/6, at 3:30 PM, part of the Corcoran Living Library Lecture Series (which has hosted some pretty cool people).

The talk will be in the Bulger Performing Arts Center, 150 William T Morrissey Blvd., Boston, MA (that’s it, to the left) . Along with playing a little banjo music, I’ll be talking about — and encouraging discussion of — Tea Party and Occupy appeals to founding economic history; failings in liberal/conservative consensus histories of the founding; what we should and should not mean by accuracy in historical research and narrative; why “constitutional conservatives” aren’t. Should be lively. If you’re in the area, come on in — it’s free.

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I haven’t been blogging, because I’m buried in finishing a book on founding-era taxes, public debt, tea parties, occupations, and other economic and financial struggles of that period, but an article entitled Betrayal of the Founders (sent to me this morning by Jerry Fresia because, I suspect, he knows what I’m going to say about it!) is so germane to the problems in founding history I’m exploring that I want to make hasty comment. The piece is on the “Counterpunch” site, the free online component to the dissenting political newsletter of the same name edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, and it’s by Ray McGovern, formerly a U.S. Army officer and CIA analyst, now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.

McGovern criticizes President Obama’s signing the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which he describes, I think rightly, as

affirming that the president has the authority to use to detain any person “who was part of or substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.” Under the law, the president also may lock up anyone who commits a “belligerent act” against the U.S. or its coalition allies “without trial, until the end of the hostilities.” The law embraces the notion that the U.S. military can be used even domestically to arrest an American citizen or anyone else who falls under such suspicion — and it is “suspicion” because a trial can be avoided indefinitely.

McGovern also trenchantly criticizes Obama’s reassuring us that we can take the act as more or less okay because Obama is committed to never using it to do anything wrong. The absurdity of that claim is so manifest, at least to me, and I think so damaging to the whole idea of the rule of law, that with McGovern, I wonder why there hasn’t been more coverage criticizing it. The Constitution isn’t clear on everything (originalists to the contrary), but it’s clear as a bell on habeas corpus. Liberals who excoriated Bush’s use of torture, detentions, signing statements, etc., have been strangely silent on Obama’s behavior here.

But McGovern fatally contradicts his own realism about Obama’s policies in this area with a completely unrealistic paean to none other than George Washington, presented by McGovern in typically glowing terms as our great and nearly godlike fighter for the individual liberties set out in the Bill of Rights.

I bring this up because this is what we always do: reach for “the founders”  to support an objection to current policies. And because in the case of Washington, that reach is a grope, at best, in the dark, and because McGovern uses his invocation of Washington as a call to what sounds like revolutionary action against Obama, I think it’s worth remembering Washington’s impatience with dissent and scorn for the civil rights of citizens he branded, without due process, enemies.

If we’re going to have a revolution on these issues — and I’m pretty sure we’re not! — we won’t find any real inspiration for it in our founding president. He would have cracked our heads. And if we’re not going to have a revolution, but hope instead to take effective action against executive overreaching, we’d do better to stop living in fuzzy dream about the past.

Here’s some of McGovern on Washington:
(more…)

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Why Is This Man Laughing?

I did half an hour yesterday with Boston College Radio on my various topics. Scroll to Saturday, November 26, 11:00 AM  “Sounds of Dissent.” The whole show’s interesting; I think I start about halfway through.  [UPDATE: Reader John TK says at about the 36-minute mark.]  The interview.

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Here’s an AlterNet piece exploring some of the historical ramifications of the militaristic stance of some police departments during the “Occupy” crackdowns:

Police, not military. The distinction may seem academic, even absurd, when police are bringing rifles, helmets, armor, and helicopters to evict unarmed protesters. But it’s an old and critical distinction in American law and ideology and in republican thought as a whole. The 17th-century English liberty writers, on whose ideas much of America’s founding ethos was based, believed that turning the armed might of the state, (necessary in waging war against foreign enemies), to domestic policing of local communities tends to concentrate power in top-down executive action and vitiate treasured things like judiciary process, individual liberty, representative government, and free speech. . . .

Read more.

Comments have been dispiriting (unlike comments on my previous AlterNet post, where a real dialogue took form). This batch involves a lot of  “Yeah, duh. This is a fascist state. Off the pig!” Nobody much seems interested in the Edmund Randolph-Alexander Hamilton debate during the Whiskey Rebellion, the fact that these struggles have been going on from day one, and we’ve never come down on one side or the other. Ah, well.

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Here are some useful and to me refreshing tactical procedures from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” What’s weird is that some of them may sound, to today’s geared-up young protestor, wimpily moderate or even weak, compared to chanting stuff like “Whose park? Our park!” and making fantastical claims of utter revolution, etc. But King thoroughly and invigoratingly blasts moderation in other parts of the letter. And his stuff worked. Not much else ever has.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.

…We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?”

In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.

These and other parts of the letter bring home to me what I think is a problem for the Occupy movement (along with not having or probably even believing in having leadership like King’s): what it’s trying to change doesn’t come down to an evil law that can be lovingly broken. The goal is vast, the necessary change systemic. That doesn’t make it impossible, but even Occupy’s indirect civil disobedience — sleeping in parks, etc. — they insist is not lawbreaking at all, loving or otherwise, as they believe the first amendment gives them an absolute right to be there; they say the city is breaking the law. (That, and/or some protesters simply glory in temporarily breaking the law, unlovingly. I remember having that feeling, in the same streets of New York, too well to comment cogently on it right now. It’s seriously stupid, probably unavoidable.)

Mutual defiance ensues. Debate ends up devolving on whether the city is acting illegally in trying to disperse them (of course many other people — equally members of “the people” — are enraged at the city for not having moved them out earlier); and then naturally on whether the police are acting illegally in using violent tactics. Connections to the original goal of the protest can only be made via the familiar, non-usable accusation that all of society, at every level, is evilly combined in a well-oiled machine to oppress, and so must be constantly opposed at every turn. . . . And we’re back to business as usual.

Anyway: I like “I don’t see no riot here!/Take off your riot gear!” I hate “Whose park? Our park!”

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Or: How Liberalist Consensus Fails Both History and Politics

This is just classic:

With their steadfast resistance to taxes, their hostility toward central government, and their willingness to risk a national default, today’s Republican candidates tap into a different American tradition–one that begins not with tea but with whiskey: the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.

To understand that rebellion and why President George Washington was willing to send troops to put it down, go back to the early days of the Revolution and look at what really motivated the founders.

So runs the apparent thesis statement — the straw man, really, since “that rebellion,” supposedly so important to understand, almost never comes up again in the piece — of an essay by Simon Johnson and James Kwak, intended to criticize Tea Party history and economics, in the current issue of Vanity Fair. In the top-five “most popular” online VF pieces, the essay is a perfect example of its (to me) dispiriting type: seemingly learned, reasonable-sounding, liberal; presented for a general readership by noted thinkers; glib, complacent, superficial, and therefore fatally flawed to the point of being just flat-out wrong in its effort to examine both the American populism of the 18th century and today’s populism, as represented by the Tea Party and other current right-wing sensibilities. (Or, for that matter, left-wing sensibilities.)

As such, the piece distills (ha! ha!) all the many ways in which highly informed, well-regarded, no-doubt well-meaning authors can so easily, almost reflexively, abuse history, especially when it comes to finance and economics.

Especially distressing about the piece is how many details the authors can get right, obvious and unexciting details to any student of the period, while somehow managing to ignore the all-important historical context that would give the piece any useful meaning for general readers. So they get all the big stuff, and indeed a certain number of critical facts, wrong, and wrong in a damaging way. Even as they tell their story, purportedly imparting historical wisdom to help us understand current debates, Johnson and Kwak prevent us from engaging with the realities of that history, or with today’s political conflicts over public debt and taxes, their ostensible subjects.

The main idea of the piece, right enough as far as it goes and as far as I’m concerned (and hardly meant to provoke Vanity Fair‘s readership to any new thought): the Tea Party is wrong about the founding-era history on which its claims are based. The Tea Party and the “constitutional conservatives” think the founding was about disempowering government, keeping taxes miniscule, and having no national debt. It wasn’t.

Because yes, yes, it’s true, as the authors say: Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first treasury secretary, believed that a nation could thrive as such only if it enjoyed access to credit supported by reliable taxation. And yes: the Constitution enabled the Congress to tax, and the first Congress, advised by Hamilton, assumed all the state war debts in the federal one, levying taxes proposed by Hamilton to pay for the program. So yes: when Tea Party people say “the founders” excoriated debt and hated taxes, they’re not talking about Hamilton, or the Washington administration, or the first Congress, or even the Constitution as drafted, amended, and ratified.

Those observations are banal, but the piece is far worse than banal. The truisms lose all meaning when the authors try to develop their ideas both in terms of the founding period and in terms of today’s politics. (more…)

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Yes, reading. Might help with attempting coherence, distinguishing between a grievance and a demand, stuff like that. Call me a patronizing elitist — you won’t get any argument from me! — but in a world where sincerity is equated with the inarticulate and cogency is supposedly only a telltale sign of privilege and hierarchy, these readings show that sounding authoritative does not equal selling out to authority.

The Putney Debates. 1647. Rank and file in Cromwell’s Army believed they deserved the vote. Cromwell disagreed. The “Levellers” lost — but this is one of the first articulate demands for disconnecting rights from property.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail. 1963. Martin Luther King, Jr., argues for the validity of taking direct action in the street, not just waiting for courts to catch up.

The Port Huron Statement. 1962. In a time not of recession but of immense prosperity, students who had benefited from that very prosperity questioned its basis and demanded a renewal of American political values, at home and around the world. Prescient or self-fulfilling or both? Anyway, at once passionate and crystal clear.

The Populist Party Platform. 1892. “We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized; most of the States have been compelled to isolate the voters at the polling places to prevent universal intimidation and bribery. The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists.”

Common Sense. 1776. Paine’s call not only for American independence but also, and more importantly — and this is the part routinely and deliberately ignored or marginalized by liberal “consensus” historians — for social equality, in a new kind of American republic.

That’s a start. . . .

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