Capitalism or Common Sense?

by Pham Binh on February 23, 2013

An Occupy Wall Street Class War Camp pamphlet:

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Occupy!

Who would’ve imagined the word “occupy” would inspire millions to take direct action and stand up for the 99% here in America after brutal occupations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine?

Now there’s Occupy Pakistan and even Occupy Nigeria.

Occupy is more than a movement, less than a revolution, and long overdue. Occupy isn’t about ideology, it’s about the 99%, hence why pacifists and insurrectionists, anti-capitalist anarchists/socialists and pro-capitalist libertarians, liberal Democrats and Ron Paul Republicans, vegans and omnivores have come together despite our differences.

jesusJust as Jesus took direct action 2,000 years ago by chasing merchants and money-lenders out of a Jerusalem temple, so today we’re chasing “too big to fail” bankers and corporate lobbyists out of government. They’ve made government “a den of thieves” (as Jesus put it) and it’s time to clean house.

Figuring Out the Problem

Occupy’s mobilization of people across the political spectrum doesn’t mean that our differences will go away or that they don’t matter. The medicines we choose depend on our ills.

The libertarians and Ron Paul supporters believe that government interference with the free market is the main cause of the problems facing the 99% today. “Too much socialism and not enough capitalism,” they say. Their solutions: end the Federal Reserve, bring back the gold standard (meaning every dollar in circulation should have an equivalent gold bar sitting in Fort Knox), and shrink government (no bailouts, minimize regulations, cut social programs).

Let’s imagine what America would be like if we took their medicine:

1.) Ending the Federal Reserve would end the government’s ability to set interest rates. This would empower the huge banks like Citigroup and Bank of America to charge whatever they can get away with since they are the biggest players in the capital markets.

Ending the Fed would also put Congress in charge of monetary policy. If you think Congress is a circus now, just wait until clowns like Michelle Bachmann have a say over the money supply.

2.) Returning to the gold standard by making sure that each dollar in circulation has an equivalent piece of gold in a government vault would do nothing to help the 99%. The reason the cost of living keeps going up isn’t because there is no gold backing the dollar, it’s because the raises the 99% get (if we get raises!) are less than the price increases of rent, gas, food, and health care. If inflation was happening, the price of everything would be going up, but the price of labor (wages, salaries) has stagnated and housing prices have collapsed dramatically, so inflation can’t be the problem.

Capitalism’s biggest fans have no clue how the system really works. That’s no coincidence.

3.) Shrinking/minimizing government is a mixed bag. When the federal government and local law enforcement disregard the Constitution and openly target Muslims because of their religion, shutting down Big Brother should be on everyone’s priority list.

socialism-for-the-rich2And yes, the government has no business bailing out bankers who make huge bets and lose. When Wall Street wins, they keep their profits; when they lose, they hand their losses to us by using their control of government to pour trillions of our taxpayer dollars into their bankrupt, insolvent institutions.

Heads they win, tails we lose.

When we’re down on our luck, out of a job, or need a helping hand politicians tell us “tough luck, there’s no money! Stop asking for a handout!” Our social safety net catches fat cats but not veterans who today make up 1/6 of our homeless population.

We’ve got to end the system of socialism for the 1% and capitalism for the 99% where profits are privatized and losses are socialized.

That said, minimizing or eliminating regulations is a truly terrible idea, on par with giving George W. Bush a third term or hiring Casey Anthony to babysit your kid. President Clinton repealed many laws that regulated banking and finance. After that, the size of banks dramatically increased as investment banks gobbled up commercial banks, creating the problem of “too big to fail.”

Too big to fail is too big to exist.

Without regulations, oversight, and government-enforced transparency, consumers, smaller businesses, and workers are at the mercy of credit card companies, banksters, and multinational corporations.

Don’t forget, there was a time in American history without the Federal Reserve, when the dollar was backed by gold, and there were few laws governing the economy, protecting workers’ rights, or safeguarding the environment. It was a time of tenements, child labor, sweatshops, deadly workplace accidents, brutal exploitation, and environmental destruction, when the war between labor and capital was lethal for the 99% because the 1% hired armies to drown union organizing drives in blood.

Who in their right mind would want to go back to that?

Cutting government spending by closing schools, shrinking agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, privatizing Social Security, and firing teachers, cops, firefighters, and postal workers is the worst thing that could happen to the 99%. Greece did exactly that after the bottom fell out of their economy in 2008, and their economy has shrunk every year since: -3.3% growth in 2009, -3.4% in 2010, and -6.8% in 2011.

debs

“I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.” – Eugene V. Debs

Greece’s shrinking economy is making their debt problem worse with each passing year. The deeper in debt they go, the more cuts Europe’s banks demand in exchange for bailouts, the more cuts there are, the more their economy shrinks, the deeper in debt they go. It’s a vicious cycle.

Capitalism Is the Problem

Greece is stark example of what capitalism has in store for us in the not-too-distant future. Under capitalism, it is rational for banks to avoid losing money on loans to governments like Greece because profits are priority #1. If those profits come at the expense of Greece’s pensions for the elderly, their minimum wage, or other things that serve the 99%, so be it.

What’s rational for capitalism isn’t rational for us. The more you think about capitalism the less sense it makes.

Take health care. Medical bills are the #1 reason for personal bankruptcy in America. We are #1 in the world when it comes to health care costs but #37 when it comes to delivering quality care according to the World Health Organization. Our for-profit health care system is all buck and no bang, although the CEOs of health care companies are among the best paid of any industry’s.

So insurance companies nickel and dime their customers out of benefits, drug makers spend billions to prevent cheaper generics from getting onto the market, and the 99% either get lucky to find a job with benefits or they end up waiting for hours in emergency rooms after it’s too late to be cured. Or both.

Health care should not depend on where or whether you work or how much you’ve got in your bank account.

The result of a for-profit health care system is this: the people who have the least and need care the most are the least likely to get it, while the people who have the most and need the care the least receive the best care and enjoy the longest, healthiest lives.

The 99% live longer, healthier, and for less when we remove profit from the health care system. We get more bang for the buck once the system isn’t dedicated to making a buck.

The Common Sense Solution

The encampments we created showed on a small scale what a society not geared around making profits for the 1% could be like. Did we charge people for the food we served? Did we charge rent for tents? Did we make people pay for gloves, coats, and first aid? No! Everyone was fed, housed, and given clothes despite our limited means.

We didn’t use markets, we used common sense.

And we did it without creating bosses or rulers from our own ranks, without creating our own armies or engaging in police brutality of our own making.

No wonder the 1% were quick to shut down our encampments.

Were the encampments perfect? Hell no. We had problems that we didn’t find good solutions to – sexual assault, drug and alcohol abuse, cliques, racism, sexism, class privilege, and even suicides in a few cases, although Oakland’s police chief noted that crime actually decreased in the city during the Occupy Oakland encampment, so we did better on that front too. And we did better without indefinitely detaining and torturing the innocent, launching wars for oil, evicting people with no money, or forcing old people to choose between paying for medicine and food.

mlk

“Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Why not replicate that on a bigger scale?

If kids are starving in Africa, why not send them the food they need with no strings attached? Why let over 18 million homes stand empty when there are 3 million people without homes? Why not lower unemployment by hiring people to rebuild our schools, roads, and public transit systems using green energy instead of fossil fuels? Why not put General Assemblies of teachers, students, and parents in charge of schools, curriculums, and standards instead of government and corporate bureaucrats?

Why not replace capitalism and markets with something a lot more efficient and humane: common sense?

Socialism, Anarchism, Communism, Horizontalism, Direct Democracy

The idea of a common sense society is not new. Thomas Paine wrote a pamphlet in 1776 advocating American independence under the title Common Sense. The revolt of the 99% that is Occupy in America, the indignados in Spain, and the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa is just the latest chapter in a long-running battle for a common sense society between haves and have-nots, 1% and 99%, rulers and ruled, exploiters and exploited. It’s what Karl Marx was talking about in The Communist Manifesto.

To overcome and replace capitalism, we have to 1) mobilize and organize tens of millions of people where they live and work and 2) create in those places institutions of direct democracy like General Assemblies that empower people to build a new social order that cracks the shell of the existing social order.

hoodImagine this happening in every workplace, school, hood, barrio, project, prison, community, and barrack across America and you get an idea of what it would look like to replace the rule of the 1% with the rule of the 99%. This radical extension of democracy would replace the circuses called elections held one day every four years to fool us into believing that Coke or Pepsi is a meaningful and healthy political choice. Instead, democracy would be something we’d live every day, and we’d have a say over all aspects of our lives: education policy, foreign policy, economic decisions, health care, you name it.

This vision has been called socialism, communism, and anarchism. All three share the same goals but differ on how to get there and what exactly a post-capitalist, post-profit common sense society would look like.

Between each of these schools there is a lot of overlap with its “neighbor” – socialists and communists look to the working class as the key social force to overturning capitalism, but so do anarcho-communists and anarcho-syndicalists; both socialists and anarchists have created communal farms based on principles like solidarity, equality, economic democracy, and leaderlessness.

And there is a lot of disagreement within each school as well. No two anarchists agree 100% of the time and get three socialists into a room and you’re likely to see four groups form.

The important thing is NOT the label, word, or which “ism” we use as an imperfect but necessary shortcut to describe something complex and profound. The important thing is the content underneath the label, the substance.

The other important thing is what we do to get to a horizontal, ecologically sustainable world without the oppressive divides between 1% and 99%, between nations, classes, races, genders, sexual orientations, lifestyles, and ways of being. That world is possible, necessary, and unavoidable if we want to survive as a species on a planet resembling today’s Earth.May1

Either we finish capitalism, or capitalism finishes us.

Finishing Capitalism

Capitalism has changed a lot in the past 200 years, but one thing that hasn’t changed is that capital still depends on labor, the labor of working people. That is still capital’s main weakness. Mobilize working people at their jobs, where they produce and distribute goods and services, and the profits the 1% depend on to buy politicians, gamble on the stock market, and hire lobbyists, P.R. firms, and mercenaries dry up.

That’s what makes general strikes so effective.

The huge militant street protests that rocked Egypt in 2011 did not cause dictator Hosni Mubarak to resign immediately. Instead, he granted minor concessions, organized armed gangs on camelback to assault protestors, and announced he would not leave office before his term was up. The military stood behind Mubarak until a huge, uncontrollable strike wave swept every industry, city, town, and workplace in Egypt as millions of people quit work to take to the streets and push for the downfall of the regime. The military then forced Mubarak to step down to save itself from the flames of revolution.

“Better him than us,” the generals thought.

Mobilizing working people is absolutely necessary to overturn capitalism but it also not enough. General strikes are powerful but they are not a magic bullet or a final blow. In Greece, general strike after general strike since 2010 hasn’t stopped the Greek government (controlled by so-called socialists!) from making huge cuts to social services; in Egypt, the general strike that brought down Mubarak was not enough to end the military dictatorship.

Malcolm X

“I believe that there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those that do the oppressing. I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the systems of exploitation. I believe that there will be that kind of clash, but I don’t think it will be based on the color of the skin.” – Malcolm X

This is why mobilizing the 99% to take direct action and create direct democracy is critical. Occupy has been a smashing success because it is inclusive, not exclusive; replacing capitalism with a common sense society will require the same approach.

So yes, mobilize workers, but don’t forget military personnel, students, the unemployed, the underemployed, the differently abled, street kids, farmers, small business owners, the religious, the clergy, the homeless, soccer moms, Joe Six Pack, seniors, anyone, everyone.

This is how the Arab Spring succeeded and this is how we’ll succeed too.

What to Do?

Occupy yourself – get involved in your local Occupy if you haven’t already, even if you can’t make every (or any) working group meeting or General Assembly. Meetings aren’t the most important thing, participation is.

Use this text to organize debates with Occupy’s Ron Paul libertarians or start a reading and discussion group. Take direct action and organize with others in some way – reach out and help someone who is in danger of being evicted, or connect with an existing community or neighborhood activist group.

No one can do everything but we can all contribute something.

In the big scheme of things, we need to get a lot more organized. We can’t outspend the 1% so we have to out-organize them. To win, we have to challenge the 1% on every front – politically, economically, institutionally, ideologically, culturally, even electorally.

We need political action to match direct action and no, that doesn’t mean voting for a Democrat or Republican. Voting for an Establishment candidate and hoping he/she does the right thing is political inaction. If only we can represent ourselves, we should run our own candidates on our own ballot lines instead of “demanding” (really begging) Democratic or Republican politicians to fight for us.

People who reject electoral politics are right to fear being co-opted or absorbed and de-clawed by the system. Some people will also object to any tactic that might legitimize a government that orders police brutality to protect the morally bankrupt social order known as capitalism.

signFor those who think this way, consider this: if we want to shut down the system, what better way to do so than by infiltrating it? If we want no more business as usual, what better way to disrupt the dirty-dealing, lobbying, and maneuvering by putting occupiers right where it happens, in city halls, state legislatures, and Congress? The 1% send their cops to infiltrate and disrupt our institutions, General Assemblies, and working groups, why shouldn’t we do the same to them and their institutions?

Decades ago the Communist Party (CP) in New York City won rent control for the 99% through a combination of direct action in the streets and political action in the halls of government. They organized tenant rent strikes, physically blocked evictions, moved people’s furniture back into apartments after cops put it on the sidewalk while the CP’s city council members fought the powerful landlord lobby and passed pro-tenant legislation.

The 1936 Spanish revolution began not with direct action but with political action – the election of the Popular Front, an alliance of socialists, communists, liberals, reformers, radicals, and even some anarchists.

The only way we can beat the system is by working inside, outside, and against the system all at once. Political action and direct action, working within the system and outside the system are not either/or choices, just as mending capitalism and ending capitalism is not an either/or choice. We can and must do both.

By every means necessary.


If you would like this pamphlet for your local group’s table, email thenorthstar.info [at] gmail.com to have the backpage and text customized as a PDF.

  • David Berger

    Given that Pham Binh’s pamphlet, “Capitalism or Common Sense,” is the major work about socialism to come out of the Occupy movement so far, it deserves to be taken seriously. For that reason, I’m presenting here a systematic critique of it. My opinion, so you’ll know in advance where I stand, is that the pamphlet is deeply flawed, and I would not recommend it as an introduction to socialism. It’s ideological presentation leaves a lot to be desired and rhetorically and stylistically, it’s not much. So, since Pham Binh has decided to post it at North Star, instead of letting it die a decent death, here goes:

    ______________

    Pham Binh: Occupy ! Who would’ve imagined the word “occupy” would inspire millions to take direct action and stand up for the 99% here in America after brutal occupations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine?

    David Berger: How quickly, time passes. While it was reasonable fifteen months ago to play on the word “occupy,” for some purposes, the connections involving the word and the US actions in Iraq and Afghanistan (which were never popularly called “occupations”) is tenuous. (The same is true for Palestine although the Left Bank is sometimes called “Occupied.”) And, it should be stressed, this pamphlet was written for popular use.

    Pham Binh: Now there’s Occupy Pakistan and even Occupy Nigeria.

    David Berger: Long gone. And only briefly in existence. If these examples are to be used, they need to be evaluated, and the pamphlet needs to be updated. By now, these references are about as obscure as “Metternich and Guizot” in the “Communist Manifesto.”

    Pham Binh: Occupy is more than a movement

    David Berger: While that sounds nice, it wasn’t/isn’t true. Elsewhere, Binh even referred to Occupy as an “uprising,” which was even less true. It was/is a movement, albeit of a new kind. But so were the sit-ins in their time and the sit-down strikes in theirs. If you want to look for some precedents, during the period when Zuccotti Park was occupied, this movement most reminded me of the Poor People’s Campaign organized by Dr. King in 1968 and the Mayday Tribe demonstrations of 1971. Both of these involved an occupation of sorts. The Mayday Tribe events involved much of the same illusions of taking territory from capitalism and staking out a place to build a new life. This is an illusion as old as American utopian socialism, which is old indeed.

    Pham Binh: less than a revolution, and long overdue.

    David Berger: No argument there.

    Pham Binh: Occupy isn’t about ideology

    David Berger: And that was both briefly a strength and over the long-term a weakness. This should have been acknowledged and analyzed, if only briefly.

    Pham Binh: it’s about the 99%

    David Berger: With all due respect, that’s about as useless a political remark that can be made, even in an introduction to socialism.

    Pham Binh: hence why pacifists and insurrectionists, anti-capitalist anarchists/socialists and pro-capitalist libertarians, liberal Democrats and Ron Paul Republicans, vegans and omnivores have come together despite our differences.

    David Berger: This may have been true briefly. And one may question the political advantage of being in the same “camp” with libertarians and Republicans even at the very beginning, giving the outright racism, sexism and classism of such people. But this diversity lasted a very brief period of time, and it was only the liberal, labor-oriented, radical and left-wing elements that survived the evictions. Not too many Ron Paul Republicans were around for the labor struggles in Oakland.

    Pham Binh: Just as Jesus took direct action 2,000 years ago by chasing merchants and money-lenders out of a Jerusalem temple, so today we’re chasing “too big to fail” bankers and corporate lobbyists out of government. They’ve made government “a den of thieves” (as Jesus put it) and it’s time to clean house.

    David Berger: Just as a strategic point, given the large number of Muslims, Jews, atheists, Buddhists and Hindus involved with Occupy, is this a good debating point? One of the features of Occupy Wall Street was, on the west side of the park, a small spiritual area that was decidedly not Christian. Also, in terms of rhetoric, there are way too many ideas sandwiched into two sentences.

    Figuring Out the Problem

    Pham Binh: Occupy’s mobilization of people across the political spectrum doesn’t mean that our differences will go away or that they don’t matter. The medicines we choose depend on our ills.

    David Berger: This last sentence is enigmatic at best. A working class person, infected with libertarianism, has the same “ill” as a person in that situation who is a socialist. However, they will choose very different “medicines.”

    Pham Binh: The libertarians and Ron Paul supporters believe that government interference with the free market is the main cause of the problems facing the 99% today. “Too much socialism and not enough capitalism,” they say. Their solutions: end the Federal Reserve, bring back the gold standard (meaning every dollar in circulation should have an equivalent gold bar sitting in Fort Knox), and shrink government (no bailouts, minimize regulations, cut social programs).

    David Berger: What is missing here is the crucial element of class (which is missing from most of this pamphlet). A libertarian or Ron Paul supporter (Aren’t they pretty much the same?) who is a broker on Wall Street, and one who is a union plumber, may have the same beliefs, and both of them might espouse the same program, but the meaning is different in the two situations because of the class difference.

    Pham Binh: Let’s imagine what America would be like if we took their medicine:

    David Berger: It is my opinion that the following critique is basically a liberal critique. Far from being a socialist critique of a right-wing program, it is basically a critique that could be endorsed by almost anyone to the left of Harry Reid.

    Pham Binh: 1.) Ending the Federal Reserve would end the government’s ability to set interest rates. This would empower the huge banks like Citigroup and Bank of America to charge whatever they can get away with since they are the biggest players in the capital markets.

    Ending the Fed would also put Congress in charge of monetary policy. If you think Congress is a circus now, just wait until clowns like Michelle Bachmann have a say over the money supply.

    David Berger: The message here is that what’s wrong with the right-wing call to end the Fed is that it would take away the power to regulate monetary policy from those who have been regulating in the past, like (libertarian) Greenspan and Bernanke and give it to the equally odious Michelle Bachmann. And that under the current system, the banks were somehow restrained.

    The problem is not that Michelle Bachmann can’t get her hands on monetary system. The problem is that we have a capitalist monetary system. And given that Greenspan and Bernanke have contributed to causing and supervising the current crisis, it’s hard to believe that Bachmann is some kind of dire threat. Like I said, liberal criticism.

    Pham Binh: 2.) Returning to the gold standard by making sure that each dollar in circulation has an equivalent piece of gold in a government vault would do nothing to help the 99%. The reason the cost of living keeps going up isn’t because there is no gold backing the dollar, it’s because the raises the 99% get (if we get raises!) are less than the price increases of rent, gas, food, and health care. If inflation was happening, the price of everything would be going up, but the price of labor (wages, salaries) has stagnated and housing prices have collapsed dramatically, so inflation can’t be the problem.

    Capitalism’s biggest fans have no clue how the system really works. That’s no coincidence.

    David Berger: This criticism doesn’t even address the problem of the gold standard on its own terms: That it’s impossible: there isn’t that much gold in the world, for openers. Secondly, from a socialist point of view, this idea is crazy and denies the quality of gold as a commodity. The problem, again, is not the presence or absence of the gold standard. The problem is capitalism itself, and this critique does not illuminate the nature of that problem.

    Pham Binh: 3.) Shrinking/minimizing government is a mixed bag. When the federal government and local law enforcement disregard the Constitution and openly target Muslims because of their religion, shutting down Big Brother should be on everyone’s priority list.

    David Berger: This is confusing. On the one hand, Binh is relying on the old liberal saw that all we have to do is follow the Constitution. Following the Constitution is hardly the kind of thing a socialist should be calling for. On the other hand, he refers to shutting down “Big Brother.” The use of the term “Big Brother” and calling for it to be shut down is, as I said, confusing.

    Pham Binh: And yes, the government has no business bailing out bankers who make huge bets and lose.

    David Berger: Actually this is exactly the “business” of government. This is what government under capitalism is designed to do. Marx, in the Communist Manifesto, states that “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”

    his is, one more time, a liberal argument. Now if, as a tactic, we are using liberal rhetoric to attract people to the socialist cause, in my opinion that is not a good method. Just the opposite: we should be stating, baldly that the purpose of the state is keep capitalism going. This has the added advantage of giving the lie to the libertarians.

    Pham Binh: When Wall Street wins, they keep their profits; when they lose, they hand their losses to us by using their control of government to pour trillions of our taxpayer dollars into their bankrupt, insolvent institutions.
    Heads they win, tails we lose.

    When we’re down on our luck, out of a job, or need a helping hand politicians tell us “tough luck, there’s no money! Stop asking for a handout!” Our social safety net catches fat cats but not veterans who today make up 1/6 of our homeless population.

    David Berger: I find this rhetoric to be clumsy and hectoring. If it were the product of a group’s praxis over a period of time, focused on a target population, it would be more effective.
    On the other hand, this is the only place where there’s anything approaching a discussion of the origins of the current crisis, inadequate though it is.

    Pham Binh: We’ve got to end the system of socialism for the 1% and capitalism for the 99% where profits are privatized and losses are socialized.

    David Berger: Now, for the first time, you’ve introduced the notion of socialism, and then you’re using this notion without explaining it.

    Pham Binh: That said, minimizing or eliminating regulations is a truly terrible idea, on par with giving George W. Bush a third term or hiring Casey Anthony to babysit your kid. President Clinton repealed many laws that regulated banking and finance. After that, the size of banks dramatically increased as investment banks gobbled up commercial banks, creating the problem of “too big to fail.”

    Too big to fail is too big to exist.

    Pham Binh: The question is: Why after decades of regulation, the Glass-Stiegel Act, etc., did both liberals and conservatives go on an orgy of de-regualation. In the absence of a discussion, or at least a mention, of the global economy, it looks like a stupid mistake that can be remedied by people of good will.

    Pham Binh: Without regulations, oversight, and government-enforced transparency, consumers, smaller businesses, and workers are at the mercy of credit card companies, banksters, and multinational corporations.

    David Berger: This is misleading. Even given all of the above, which were more or less present under capitalism until recently, and to a certain extent still are present, the workers would be squeezed by the pressure of capitalism’s relentless pursuit of profits.

    Pham Binh: Don’t forget, there was a time in American history without the Federal Reserve, when the dollar was backed by gold, and there were few laws governing the economy, protecting workers’ rights, or safeguarding the environment. It was a time of tenements, child labor, sweatshops, deadly workplace accidents, brutal exploitation, and environmental destruction, when the war between labor and capital was lethal for the 99% because the 1% hired armies to drown union organizing drives in blood.

    Who in their right mind would want to go back to that?

    David Berger: None of these ills were remedied by the Federal Reserve. Why bring them up in connection with it?

    Pham Binh: Cutting government spending by closing schools, shrinking agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, privatizing Social Security, and firing teachers, cops, firefighters, and postal workers is the worst thing that could happen to the 99%.

    David Berger: Hardly the worst thing. There’s always nuclear war. My point is that the rhetoric here is unfocused and inflated.

    Pham Binh: Greece did exactly that after the bottom fell out of their economy in 2008, and their economy has shrunk every year since: -3.3% growth in 2009, -3.4% in 2010, and -6.8% in 2011.

    David Berger: I’m not saying it’s necessarily wrong, but it’s worth a discussion as to whether it’s effective to bring up another country, especially a small one like Greece.

    “I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.” – Eugene Debs

    Pham Binh: Greece’s shrinking economy is making their debt problem worse with each passing year. The deeper in debt they go, the more cuts Europe’s banks demand in exchange for bailouts, the more cuts there are, the more their economy shrinks, the deeper in debt they go. It’s a vicious cycle.

    David Berger: The problem with this comparison is that, and correct me if I’m wrong, the American economy is not shrinking in the way the Greek economy is shrinking.

    Capitalism Is the Problem

    Pham Binh: Greece is stark example of what capitalism has in store for us in the not-too-distant future. Under capitalism, it is rational for banks to avoid losing money on loans to governments like Greece because profits are priority #1. If those profits come at the expense of Greece’s pensions for the elderly, their minimum wage, or other things that serve the 99%, so be it.

    David Berger: You’re confusing two problems here. The problem for the US economy right now is not the fact that the government is borrowing money beyond its means as the Greek government did. The problem is that the capitalist class in the US is using the crisis they created as a justification for squeezing the working class even further, politically and economically, in terms of wages and benefits on the job and in terms of the so-called “entitlements,” union and civil rights, etc.

    Pham Binh: What’s rational for capitalism isn’t rational for us. The more you think about capitalism the less sense it makes.

    David Berger: Again, that’s a class issue. For the 1%, capitalism makes enormous sense, especially in the short run.

    Pham Binh: Take health care. Medical bills are the #1 reason for personal bankruptcy in America. We are #1 in the world when it comes to health care costs but #37 when it comes to delivering quality care according to the World Health Organization. Our for-profit health care system is all buck and no bang, although the CEOs of health care companies are among the best paid of any industry’s.

    So insurance companies nickel and dime their customers out of benefits, drug makers spend billions to prevent cheaper generics from getting onto the market, and the 99% either get lucky to find a job with benefits or they end up waiting for hours in emergency rooms after it’s too late to be cured. Or both.

    Health care should not depend on where or whether you work or how much you’ve got in your bank account.
    The result of a for-profit health care system is this: the people who have the least and need care the most are the least likely to get it, while the people who have the most and need the care the least receive the best care and enjoy the longest, healthiest lives.

    The 99% live longer, healthier, and for less when we remove profit from the health care system. We get more bang for the buck once the system isn’t dedicated to making a buck.

    David Berger: While healthcare is a crucial issue. I wonder, since it is not being raised at the moment, as opposed to labor rights, if it’s a good idea to spend so much space on it.

    The Common Sense Solution

    Pham Binh: The encampments we created showed on a small scale what a society not geared around making profits for the 1% could be like. Did we charge people for the food we served? Did we charge rent for tents? Did we make people pay for gloves, coats, and first aid? No! Everyone was fed, housed, and given clothes despite our limited means.

    David Berger: With all due respect, this is ridiculous. If we wanted to construct a model of what “a society not geared around making profits for the 1% could be like,” it would have to be based on production, not consumption and distribution. Everything listed above as being distributed is no different from what FEMA, the Red Cross and churches, should be distributing during a crisis (and of course they didn’t after Sandy, which is another issue).

    Pham Binh: We didn’t use markets, we used common sense.

    David Berger: Actually what we used was a combination of political contributions and charity. I find the idealization of the encampments, whose problems and contributions were obvious from Day 1, to be weird for someone who calls themself a socialist.

    Pham Binh: And we did it without creating bosses or rulers from our own ranks, without creating our own armies or engaging in police brutality of our own making.

    David Berger: If you want to scant the rapid development of an undemocratic, self-appointed leadership, that’s your business.

    Pham Binh: No wonder the 1% were quick to shut down our encampments.

    David Berger: I don’t think that the encampments were shut down because they were models of the socialism that is to be. Because they clearly weren’t. They were shut down because they were a potential magnet for all kinds of political organizing, especially working class organizing. I find it amazing that you engage in a major discussion of socialism and Occupy without mentioning the role of labor, which was present at the start and which prevented Bloomberg’s first attempt to shut Zuccotti down.

    Pham Binh: Were the encampments perfect? Hell no. We had problems that we didn’t find good solutions to – sexual assault, drug and alcohol abuse, cliques, racism, sexism,

    David Berger: In other words, the ills of capitalism. We also didn’t find “good solutions” to the fundamental problem of capitalism: the exploitation of labor. As a matter of fact, from my relatively systematic observations of Zuccotti Park during the whole course of the occupation, all the above problems, were getting worse.

    Pham Binh: and even suicides in a few cases, although Oakland’s police chief noted that crime actually decreased in the city during the Occupy Oakland encampment, so we did better on that front too. And we did better without indefinitely detaining and torturing the innocent, launching wars for oil, evicting people with no money, or forcing old people to choose between paying for medicine and food.

    “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

    Why not replicate that on a bigger scale?

    If kids are starving in Africa, why not send them the food they need with no strings attached? Why let over 18 million homes stand empty when there are 3 million people without homes? Why not lower unemployment by hiring people to rebuild our schools, roads, and public transit systems using green energy instead of fossil fuels? Why not put General Assemblies of teachers, students, and parents in charge of schools, curriculums, and standards instead of government and corporate bureaucrats?

    Why not replace capitalism and markets with something a lot more efficient and humane: common sense?

    David Berger: Considering that the Occupation was based not on labor and production, but on charity and voluntary contributions, while claiming to get around the labor question, it’s hardly an example of common sense.

    Socialism, Anarchism, Communism, Horizontalism, Direct Democracy

    Pham Binh: The idea of a common sense society is not new. Thomas Paine wrote a pamphlet in 1776 advocating American independence under the title Common Sense. The revolt of the 99% that is Occupy in America, the indignados in Spain, and the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa is just the latest chapter in a long-running battle for a common sense society between haves and have-nots, 1% and 99%, rulers and ruled, exploiters and exploited. It’s what Karl Marx was talking about in The Communist Manifesto.

    David Berger: It’s actually not what Marx had in mind at all. Trotsky has the following to say about common sense, and he’s spot on:

    Leon Trotsky (“Their Morals and Ours”): Democracy and “generally recognized” morality are not the only victims of imperialism. The third suffering martyr is “universal” common sense. This lowest form of the intellect is not only necessary under all conditions but under certain conditions is also adequate. Common sense’s basic capital consists of the elementary conclusions of universal experience: not to put one’s fingers in fire, whenever possible to proceed along a straight line, not to tease vicious dogs … and so forth and so on. Under a stable social milieu common sense is adequate for bargaining, healing, writing articles, leading trade unions, voting in parliament, marrying and reproducing the race. But when that same common sense attempts to go beyond its valid limits into the arena of more complex generalizations, it is exposed as just a clot of prejudices of a definite class and a definite epoch. No more than a simple capitalist crisis brings common sense to an impasse; and before such catastrophes as revolution, counter-revolution and war, common sense proves a perfect fool. In order to realize the catastrophic transgressions against the “normal” course of events higher qualities of intellect are necessary, philosophically expressed as yet only by dialectic materialism.

    David Berger: It shows exactly the limitations of common sense that Pham Binh would attempt to generalize from less than two months of squatting in a park to a whole new system of society without coming within hailing distance of the problem of the exploitation of labor. Trotsky’s line, “a clot of prejudices of a definite class and a definite epoch,” is a fine explanation of this confidence trick.

    Pham Binh: To overcome and replace capitalism, we have to 1) mobilize and organize tens of millions of people where they live and work

    David Berger: For the first time, we get some notion that the achievement of socialism might have something to do with mass mobilization and, especially, workplace mobilization. However, this insight is muddied by a failure to mention the fundamental hallmark of socialism: class. Are we to organize Wall Street bankers in their workplaces? Are we to organize the idle rich in their homes?

    Pham Binh: and 2) create in those places institutions of direct democracy

    David Berger: Just like that, huh? Is Binh calling for soviets here? No mention of course just how such institutions of direct democracy are going to take over from the organized power of capitalism in the workplace and in society as a whole. There is no hint here that to establish democracy in power in the workplaces will require not the distribution of free pizzas but a revolution.

    Pham Binh: like General Assemblies

    David Berger: To quote Thomas Harris: “Jesus God, save my bod.” Do you really want to build socialism on the basis of the chaos, manipulation and out-and-out bullshit of the GAs? Did you ever attend one? I have seen a bunch of kids in a daycare center do a better job carrying on a democratic discussion and decision-making.

    Pham Binh: that empower people to build a new social order that cracks the shell of the existing social order.

    David Berger: Much as I love the Occupy movement, which I’ve been an active member of for seventeen months now, it did not crack the shell of capitalism. Would that it had.

    Pham Binh: Imagine this happening in every workplace, school, hood, barrio, project, prison, community, and barrack across America and you get an idea of what it would look like to replace the rule of the 1% with the rule of the 99%.

    David Berger: The democracy of a good union local; the functioning of elected shop stewards; the rough and ready democracy of the workplace, where the workers “control production” while under the dictatorship of capitalism: these are a hell of a lot better models for socialism than the GAs. The out-and-out manipulation of the GAs, and the completely destructive behavior of the later Spokescouncil, were only ideal models for people who saw them from the outside.

    Pham Binh: This radical extension of democracy would replace the circuses called elections held one day every four years to fool us into believing that Coke or Pepsi is a meaningful and healthy political choice. Instead, democracy would be something we’d live every day, and we’d have a say over all aspects of our lives: education policy, foreign policy, economic decisions, health care, you name it.

    David Berger: The fundamental democracy of socialism is workplace democracy. It’s not a matter of “having a say.” It’s a matter, as you say, of something “we’d live every day.”

    Pham Binh: This vision has been called socialism, communism, and anarchism. All three share the same goals but differ on how to get there and what exactly a post-capitalist, post-profit common sense society would look like.

    David Berger: I think that, by ducking the issue of Stalinism, Communism or whatever you want to call it, and the issue of social democracy, you show the limits of “common sense.”

    Pham Binh: Between each of these schools there is a lot of overlap with its “neighbor” – socialists and communists look to the working class as the key social force to overturning capitalism

    David Berger: What tendency or group do you mean by “communists”? This is by no means clear.

    Pham Binh: but so do anarcho-communists and anarcho-syndicalists;

    David Berger: I guess it’s reasonable to expect that people know what anarcho-syndicalists are, but what the fuck is an anarcho-communist (as opposed to any other kind of anarchist)?

    Pham Binh: both socialists and anarchists have created communal farms based on principles like solidarity, equality, economic democracy, and leaderlessness.

    David Berger: And all such utopian experiments have failed. That’s hardly a strong point to express socialist/anarchist commonality.
    Pham Binh: And there is a lot of disagreement within each school as well. No two anarchists agree 100% of the time and get three socialists into a room and you’re likely to see four groups form.

    The important thing is NOT the label, word, or which “ism” we use as an imperfect but necessary shortcut to describe something complex and profound. The important thing is the content underneath the label, the substance.

    David Berger: Indeed it is, and contrary to some opinions, those differences in substance are usually quite significant and real.

    Pham Binh: The other important thing is what we do to get to a horizontal, ecologically sustainable world without the oppressive divides between 1% and 99%, between nations, classes, races, genders, sexual orientations, lifestyles, and ways of being. That world is possible, necessary, and unavoidable if we want to survive as a species on a planet resembling today’s Earth.

    Either we finish capitalism, or capitalism finishes us.

    David Berger: Okay. I little bloodless, but okay.

    Finishing Capitalism

    Pham Binh: Capitalism has changed a lot in the past 200 years, but one thing that hasn’t changed is that capital still depends on labor, the labor of working people. That is still capital’s main weakness. Mobilize working people at their jobs, where they produce and distribute goods and services, and the profits the 1% depend on to buy politicians, gamble on the stock market, and hire lobbyists, P.R. firms, and mercenaries dry up.

    David Berger: The implication here is that the purpose for the derivation of profits is for marginal uses instead of realizing that the derivation of profits through the forced extraction of surplus value is the fundamental motor of capitalism. The dependence of capitalism on labor is, indeed, its weakness. It is also its greatest strength.

    Pham Binh: That’s what makes general strikes so effective.

    David Berger: General strikes are preludes to actual revolution, to the seizure of power. You either do not understand this or you’re willfully ignoring this.

    Pham Binh: The huge militant street protests that rocked Egypt in 2011 did not cause dictator Hosni Mubarak to resign immediately. Instead, he granted minor concessions, organized armed gangs on camelback to assault protestors, and announced he would not leave office before his term was up. The military stood behind Mubarak until a huge, uncontrollable strike wave swept every industry, city, town, and workplace in Egypt as millions of people quit work to take to the streets and push for the downfall of the regime. The military then forced Mubarak to step down to save itself from the flames of revolution.

    “Better him than us,” the generals thought.

    David Berger: Fascinating that you can discuss a general strike without mentioning that the general strike is a weapon of the working class. The essence of a general strike is that it halts production. The first step beyond a general strike as protest, is when the workers begin to take over production. This has not yet happened in any modern general strike to any significant degreee.

    Pham Binh: Mobilizing working people is absolutely necessary to overturn capitalism

    David Berger: Are we dealing with working people or the working class?

    Pham Binh: but it also not enough.

    David Berger: Who in the last half century has ever said it was?

    Pham Binh: General strikes are powerful but they are not a magic bullet or a final blow.

    David Berger: No, that’s revolution, which you seem not to want to discuss.

    Pham Binh: In Greece, general strike after general strike since 2010 hasn’t stopped the Greek government (controlled by so-called socialists!) from making huge cuts to social services; in Egypt, the general strike that brought down Mubarak was not enough to end the military dictatorship.

    David Berger: And nothing that came after the general strike in Egypt has been able to end capitalism. This is because none of these actions have gone beyond the general strike as protest. When we see, in the midst of a general strike, the working class beginning to seize and organize production, we will know that things have gone to a new level.

    “I believe that there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those that do the oppressing. I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the systems of exploitation. I believe that there will be that kind of clash, but I don’t think it will be based on the color of the skin.” – Malcolm X

    Pham Binh: This is why mobilizing the 99% to take direct action and create direct democracy is critical.

    David Berger: What are you talking about? Are you talking about establish “direct democracy” just like that? Socialism by free choice?

    Pham Binh: Occupy has been a smashing success because it is inclusive, not exclusive; replacing capitalism with a common sense society will require the same approach.

    David Berger: Occupy has done no such thing. First of all, it was not a “smashing success.” Occupy, as the physical occupation of Zuccotti Park, lasted two months. Second, as a coherent political movement, it began to fall apart almost immediately. Third, in New York, the parts of Occupy that are still functioning are mostly those directly concerned with the class struggle. The rest of Occupy has largely ceased to function or exist.

    Pham Binh: So yes, mobilize workers,

    David Berger: Okay.

    Pham Binh: but don’t forget military personnel, students, the unemployed, the underemployed, the differently abled, street kids, farmers, small business owners, the religious, the clergy, the homeless, soccer moms, Joe Six Pack, seniors, anyone, everyone.

    David Berger: More questions are begged here than can be handled in such as short space. But I would love to hear about your notions of the role of small business owners in a socialist revolution. Interesting that you failed to deal with Black and Hispanic people and women and LGBT people. But I guess they fall under “anyone, everyone,” as opposed to “the religious [and] the clergy,” who deserve special mention.

    Pham Binh: This is how the Arab Spring succeeded and this is how we’ll succeed too.

    David Berger: Considering that elsewhere you have been calling the Arab Spring a bourgeois-democratic revolution, one which has left capitalism in place, what kind of success are you talking about?

    What to Do?

    Pham Binh: Occupy yourself – get involved in your local Occupy if you haven’t already, even if you can’t make every (or any) working group meeting or General Assembly. Meetings aren’t the most important thing, participation is.

    Pham Binh: Considering that, only a year after this was written, Occupy scarcely exists, this is not the best advice. In New York the places where it’s most vital are those where Marxists have tried to work out a relationship with the working class. I wonder what would have happened if socialist groups had followed your former advice to “merge with Occupy and its offshoots.”

    http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/3629

    Pham Binh: Use this text to organize debates with Occupy’s Ron Paul libertarians or start a reading and discussion group. Take direct action and organize with others in some way – reach out and help someone who is in danger of being evicted, or connect with an existing community or neighborhood activist group.

    David Berger: Nothing, of course, about making an alliance with the working class: the prime task of socialists.

    Pham Binh: No one can do everything but we can all contribute something.
    In the big scheme of things, we need to get a lot more organized. We can’t outspend the 1% so we have to out-organize them. To win, we have to challenge the 1% on every front – politically, economically, institutionally, ideologically, culturally, even electorally.

    David Berger: Let’s see what your version of the challenge to the 1% is. Do we hear about labor action: organizing the unorganized, rank-and-file groups, strike support? No, we hear about elections. And, recently, we even hear about entering into Democratic Party primaries.

    Pham Binh: We need political action to match direct action and no, that doesn’t mean voting for a Democrat or Republican. Voting for an Establishment candidate and hoping he/she does the right thing is political inaction. If only we can represent ourselves, we should run our own candidates on our own ballot lines instead of “demanding” (really begging) Democratic or Republican politicians to fight for us.

    David Berger: But why should we engage in electoral action? This is not clear, especially when we are talking about becoming Democrats.

    Pham Binh: People who reject electoral politics are right to fear being co-opted or absorbed and de-clawed by the system.

    David Berger: Especially when some people are advocating alliances with Democratic Party fronts or entering DP primaries.

    Pham Binh: Some people will also object to any tactic that might legitimize a government that orders police brutality to protect the morally bankrupt social order known as capitalism.

    David Berger: Well, yes. But there is still the question of: what should we expect to get from an election? Over the past 50 years or so, the Left has used electoral action to try to build itself up and to build mass movements. This hasn’t worked very well.

    Pham Binh: For those who think this way, consider this: if we want to shut down the system, what better way to do so than by infiltrating it?

    David Berger: What would make a socialist think that this can be done? What is being discussed here is, I believe, two different strategies. One, which was discussed extensively by the New Left in the Sixties, is called permeationism. Or, as it was once called: “boring from within.” It didn’t work. This seems to be what Binh is suggesting here. Another possibility is that socialists, through electoral action, can actually win important victories and significant reforms. Capitalism no long has the kind of surplus that can be used for this.

    Pham Binh: If we want no more business as usual, what better way to disrupt the dirty-dealing, lobbying, and maneuvering by putting occupiers right where it happens, in city halls, state legislatures, and Congress? The 1% send their cops to infiltrate and disrupt our institutions, General Assemblies, and working groups, why shouldn’t we do the same to them and their institutions?

    David Berger: Okay, what we’re talking about is disruption. We will win electoral victories to disrupt the fundamental workings of capitalism: throw our elected bodies on the rails of the system. Protest candidates. Great!

    Pham Binh: Decades ago the Communist Party (CP) in New York City won rent control for the 99% through a combination of direct action in the streets and political action in the halls of government. They organized tenant rent strikes, physically blocked evictions, moved people’s furniture back into apartments after cops put it on the sidewalk while the CP’s city council members fought the powerful landlord lobby and passed pro-tenant legislation.

    David Berger: Is Binh really suggesting that at this time the kind of concessions that were won from American capitalism during its period of triumph in the 1940s can be won now? Please note, in addition, the two CP city council members (Caccioni and Davis) worked with liberal Democrats as part of the Popular Front strategy. Without getting into a discussion of the Pop Front in the USA (which had the CP endorsing Roosevelt) does anyone think that such a strategy would have an ounce of success now?

    Pham Binh: The 1936 Spanish revolution began not with direct action but with political action – the election of the Popular Front, an alliance of socialists, communists, liberals, reformers, radicals, and even some anarchists.

    David Berger: Given the fact that the Popular Front alliance, which was a multi-class alliance (Binh’s “reformers” and “liberals” are the bourgeoisie) went down to defeat by the fascists, this is an odd example at best.

    Pham Binh: The only way we can beat the system is by working inside,

    David Berger: Again, what does this mean? Does it mean that socialists should adopt a strategy of using the institutions of the state to undermine the state? Nice slogan, but what does it mean, concretely?

    Pham Binh: outside,

    David Berger: And what does this mean? I will make an assumption that this means something of the order of building parallel institutions to replace capitalism. If this kind of utopianism is what’s meant, it should be noted that revolutionary as it sounds, this method has been tried and has failed for about 200 years. It is not possible to build institutions that significantly compete economically with capitalism institutions under capitalism.

    Pham Binh: and against the system all at once.

    David Berger: And this is the unclearest term of the series.

    Pham Binh: Political action and direct action, working within the system and outside the system are not either/or choices, just as mending capitalism and ending capitalism is not an either/or choice. We can and must do both.

    David Berger: By all means, inh, get in there, get elected, run in Democratic Party primaries, play bourgeois politics and mend capitalism.

    Pham Binh: By every means necessary.

    David Berger: That slogan is not an invitation to sell out.

    • http://www.planetanarchy.net Pham Binh

      Thanks to you, this piece got 128 views yesterday. Keep ‘em coming!

  • Jon Hoch

    Lol, Berger do you have a job? The only reason I’ve been able to post so much in the last couple days is because I’m waiting to pass a background check for my next job. But here you’re having like thirty foot long dialogues with yourself!!

    • http://www.planetanarchy.net Pham Binh

      I believe he is retired, another reform they are slowly taking away from us that we are going to have to fight like hell to keep and expand, claims that there can be no more reforms notwithstanding.

    • http://www.planetanarchy.net Pham Binh

      If you like the writing, you’ll love the PDF printed out. A lot of the writing was shaped by the layout and page constraints and to me it looks a hell of a lot nice than any red paper or pamphlet I’ve ever seen. I was up against the anarchist ‘zines and they didn’t make it easy.

  • David Berger (RED DAVE)

    For the record:

    (1) I have a full-time job as a classroom teacher: I teach ESL 6 hours a day in front of a class, plus homework, papers, paperwork, etc.

    (2) I work with my wife on her burgeoning career as a singer/songwriter;

    (3) I am an activist with the Labor Outreach Committee of Occupy Wall Street;

    (4) I am currently writing two books, accepted by major publishers, to be published in the next two years;

    (5) I can leap tall buildings at a single bound.

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