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Contesting Petty Bourgeois Spaces

The growth of the "occupy" movement that started on Wallstreet (and will soon arrive, for better or worse, in Toronto) has produced a discourse about the exploited 99% and the exploiting 1% that, although accurate, is being preached by a sector of people who might otherwise resist the use of such terminology.  Since this movement is currently dominated by a class of people who make up, perhaps, the top 20% of the ninety-nine in the US and Canada––and probably only four or five per cent of the global ninety-nine––the fact that it is speaking, in very broad brushstrokes, in language vaguely akin to the language of communists is extremely interesting.

At the same time, though, due to the class that is currently in command of this movement (the supposed lack of leaders does not mean, as it never does, the absence of an informal leadership – meaning, a leadership dominated by the most privileged) the discourse of the 99%, though clearly important as a starting point, is locked within boundaries of reform, a return to Keynesianism––a possibly healthy capitalism with a welfare "socialism" that is contingent upon greater exploitation in the peripheries.  That is because the class dominating this new activist zeitgeist is the petty bourgeoisie and its demands (or, more accurately, semi-intentional lack of demands) are still primarily the demands of its class.  Even the fact that the movement has been resisting the need to place key demands on its agenda, falling back into some sort of "strength in directionless" ideology promoted by AdBusters (one of the key magazines for the activist, "culture-jamming" petty bourgeoisie), demonstrates the consciousness of a petty bourgeoisie in crisis––directionlessness, confusion, the realization that its class position is, and has always been, unstable.

So many of the activists interviewed around the "occupy" movement have demonstrated that this movement began as a manifestation of the petty bourgeoisie in crisis: some have spoken about a future where they can't get the same jobs they could get in the past, revealing the widespread belief that this class deserves certain jobs; those calling for the "occupy" movement on facebook and twitter and countless "social networking" sites and tools (all of which are instruments that the majority of the global ninety-nine cannot access) focus primarily on the greed of the top one per cent––a psychological problem rather than the structural reality of capitalism.

But the fact that the petty bourgeoisie is in crisis is not something that we should overlook.  If anything, the space that was opened up by the "occupy" movement––despite the limitations of its initial discourse and use of language––is a space that needs to be further radicalized, a space that needs to be taken over by the majority of the 99%, a space where a revolutionary ideology that truly represents the 99% should be fostered.  We don't do this by kow-towing to the informal leadership, by allowing the people who were taken by the original "occupy" discourse to continue dominating the ideological terrain, or by tailing a petty bourgeois agenda and hoping it magically radicalizes just because those of us who reject its limitations are hanging around.  Already it is clear that there are organizers involved in some of the "occupy" sites (I'm looking at you, Boston!) who are working hard to reject the current boundaries of the movement's discourse, bring in groups and people who represent the majority of the ninety-nine, and push a more revolutionary agenda.

If the petty bourgeoisie currently dominating this movement represents a class in crisis, then we have to understand that what we are witnessing is a moment of proletarianization where the more privileged upper classes, though also dominated by the top one per cent, are being pushed further down the ladder of exploitation.  Although today many of them might still cling to a petty bourgeois ideology, though their consciousness might represent this class's way of seeing the world, tomorrow, in this climate of austerity, they will most probably discover a consciousness that better fits the class position they are being forced into.

Furthermore, we can't ignore the fact that some of the criticisms levelled at the "occupy" movement come from activists and organizers who themselves are petty bourgeois in their consciousness––from people who speak the proper radical language but whose entire approach to activism is still squarely within the boundaries of social reform.  (I should point out, however, that the critiques of the "occupy" movement promoted by the Ignite Collective and People of Color Organize! have been extremely thoughtful and useful for debate.  None of these critiques were simplistically dismissive but, rather, were sober engagements with the limitations of the "occupy" movement from insightful critics who still thought it was necessary to be involved.)  The problem is that the traditional leftwing activist scene at the centres of capitalism is dominated by a petty bourgeois consciousness and ideology, a default opportunism, and it seems rather hypocritical (and perhaps sadly amusing) when the more radically educated petty bourgeois feel the need to self-righteously school a more confused but angry sector of their class––especially since the former's activities haven't produced a properly revolutionary movement regardless of their better terminology and analysis.

The fact is that the obstacle of the organized left in Canada and the US is its own petty bourgeois consciousness that has been produced by decades of welfare reforms and culture industry pacification, both of which are contingent on imperialist exploitation in the peripheries.  The established trade unions have long been part of the labour aristocracy, as petty bourgeois as the initial forces of the "occupy" movement.  So this class as a whole comprises the dominant forces of the traditional left in upper North America because this left, its own consciousness affected by the spaces in which it continues to organize, refuses to recognize the actual class composition of itself and its organizational terrain.  And, as Engels reminds us in The German Revolutions, "this class [as a whole] is entirely unreliable except when a victory has been won.  Then its noise in the beer saloons is without limit."

So if the left on the whole has wasted so much time organizing amongst the petty bourgeoisie, taking on the unreliable limitations of this consciousness, then there is no point in ignoring another petty bourgeois space simply because it is a space that is not as acceptable as the average docile demonstration or a trade union march.  Moreover, the spaces opened up by the "occupy" movement are spaces connected to the fear of proletarianization––maybe a prophetic fear since the workers in trade unions and the students at demonstrations are also facing this reality though still, in so many ways, acting as if they should just fight tax cuts and plead with bourgeois politicians to keep welfare reforms––and thus might possess more potential for radicalization than typical demonstrations and marches.

The danger for the petty bourgeoisie as a class––a danger possibly immanent to this "occupy" movement––is that, as Engels also reminds us, members of this class generally hope "to climb up to the big bourgeoisie, and they are fearful lest they be pushed down to the ranks of the proletariat.  Between fear and hope they will in times of struggle seek to save their precious skin and to join the victors when the fight is over."  Obviously, only the most deluded will believe that capitalism will be toppled by these "occupy" movements that lack revolutionary ideology and structure, structured only by a general discourse surrounding the 99% delimited by petty bourgeois ideology.  The so-called "Arab Spring" did not, as some were loudly proclaiming, result in the end of comprador capitalism in the middle east and it was far more radical than this "occupy" movement.

When this movement peters out, as it surely will, and the majority of its most vocal supporters decide they want "to join the victors when the fight is over," then we must ask ourselves what victories could be claimed by the left in the aftermath?  If the immediate overthrow of capitalism is already highly unlikely due to a lack of a unified revolutionary movement, then what do we want to see emerge from these uprisings?  Something for the future, an accumulation of revolutionary forces, possibly a minority of the original "occupy" population, that will be committed to continuing the struggle and participating in a sustainable and structured revolutionary movement.  None of this can emerge if: a) we ignore these spaces because they aren't perfect (and what space is perfect?); b) if we simply tail the struggles in these spaces because we superstitiously believe in the myth of spontaneity.  The point, then, is to radicalize these spaces so that the properly anti-capitalist left will be seen as the victor in future struggles.


  1. Hey comrade.

    Holy fucking shit am I glad to see that someone else recognizes the petty bourgeois origins of the Occupy Location X Movement, as well as the fundamentally petty bougeois nature of the informal leadership.

    A lot of the so-called revolutionary "left" that has been tailing the movement in the US like a pack of lost puppies (such as the Kasama Project) have been incredibly hostile to discussing and recognizing the implications of this point. A few days ago I posted a quote from Omali Yeshitela about what it is like to see the petty bourgeoisie in motion ( and Mike Ely of the KP got so up a tree that he wrote an entire essay in response, and the discussion that followed contained a number of personal attacks on me for my speaking out.

    I think its a serious sign of the actual nature of these groups when they allow themselves to be lead around by a leash by the petty bourgeoisie (not to mention the labour aristocracy).

    Likewise people have also been incredibly hostile to many of the indigenous anti-colonial critiques of the movement that I have been posting and which have been making their way through the interwebs.

    That said I also agree that we do need to engage them. Many comrades of mine - indigenous, African and white solidarity people - have tried to engage the Occupy movements in their respective cities on the kinds of concerns that I and others have raised and they have been totally shot down, blocked, had their comments deleted, and have in general run up against walls of white petty bourgeois liberalism and hipster activism (or in the case of Occupy Tampa, outright white power, pro-imperialist, pro-capitalist politics).

    However we have also found many allies to our cause. Lots of people from the Uhuru Solidarity Movement traveled the Occupy Wall St. demos to try and talk to people about our "A Day in Solidarity with African People" efforts and the upcoming Black is Back Coalition's march against the Other Wars in Philly and they had some amazing success.

  2. Thanks for the comments, as always. It was actually that quote you posted a while back that, in retrospect, was pinging around in the back of my mind for over a week that eventually led to this post.

    Clearly these spaces are important because who knows who will be there, and there is definitely the anger that needs to be organized, but the tailing of what is clearly an informal petty bourgeois leadership is disappointing. I think if we get involved we have to according to our political line and with goals that go beyond the [lack of] demands generated by the structural confines of this "occupy" this or that site.

    At the same time, as noted in this post, I've heard so many dogmatic critiques from people in the left whose own practice is suspect and probably equally petty bourgeois, even if they say the right words, etc. That always strikes me as some sort of annoying activist envy: why are people listening to this new group of p.b. activists and not us?

    Glad to hear about the successful efforts of USM. I know that some folks in Boston have also been successful in bringing their own coalition groups to the movement and refusing to simply tail the initial organizers... seems like the groups getting involved in Boston are much more disparate and representative of the "99" than in other places.

  3. I was at an occupy protest on Saturday, and I'll be at one again this weekend. Most of them told me that this was the first time they had ever done anything overtly political, most of them had never voted before. People were talking about politics without many preconditions beyond "I am pissed off." Talking about communism raised some eyebrows and objections, but there was none of the knee-jerk suspicion one gets from someone who still trusts the political system to deliver for them. Nobody mentioned any politicians in office with anything but disdain. It feels like this group of people has already decided that traditional politics won't work for them, and that's kind of cool. OWS isn't going to bring down capitalism, but it's definitely an opportunity to radicalize people. I'm generally pretty upbeat about it.

  4. Definitely an important opportunity if it's approached properly––as was the G20 and previous spaces such as this one... though clearly this occupy stuff, though probably less politicized than places like the G20, is possibly more ripe for radicalization due to the fact that it's not just designed around specific weekends in a defensive manner.

    Not sure if the whole "occupy" movement is going to take on in Toronto and Montreal in the way that it has south of the border, though. I guess we'll see on Saturday. But when we get involved our plan is to have specific goals and be open about our political line.

  5. Hey, just wanted to give a shout out. I've been reading your blog on and off for about a year now, and it always provides me with an intellectual challenge, which is more than can be said about most left-wing blogs. Solidarity from the U.S.A.

  6. Thanks! Solidarity from this side of the border.

  7. Great post. I think it's absolutely essential for leftist and communist ideas to contend in the spaces opened by the "occupy" movement, while still holding no illusions about it (currently) being anything other than a cry of petite-bourgeois alienation, guided accordingly by petite-bourgeois ideology and leadership. Because when I see groups of primarily white disenfranchised petite-bourgeois and declassed Americans marching under populist, anti-bourgeois, and anti-corporate slogans, my mind jumps to Sakai's "The Shock of Recognition". Which is obviously not to say that the "occupiers" are future Brownshirts, but I think it is clear that something embryonic is being born here and it would be a fatal mistake for the already weak left to continue oscillating between ineffectual reformism and ultra-left liquidationism. I've already witnessed the barely concealed fascist rhetoric of the anti-corporate, anti-globalization Ron Paul types begin to gain traction with some segments of the "occupy" groups, and that is very, very worrying.

    Our task, I think, has to be to organize and build power to bring radical, explicitly communist ideas into contention in the rifts created by the ongoing crises of capitalism. To be sectarian, opportunist, to tail the petite-bourgeois, or to allow ourselves to be "out-radicalized" by fascists at this critical juncture would be a disaster, IMO.

  8. Good points. Clearly, if we don't try to build in these spaces in an explicitly communist way (but, as you noted, without being sectarian or condescending) then we end up abandoning these spaces to the right. Over the past decade the right has been out-maneuvering us in the US and Canada; we cannot allow that to keep happening, especially during this crisis.


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