05/07/2012 12:10 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2012

OWS and the Class Struggle Revised

Let's start with the news: This was the week Occupy Wall Street was supposed to shuck its winter coat and restart the global revolution. On May 1, May Day, OWS declared a general strike, which by my count is at least the second general strike called by OWS affiliates (the first was in Oakland last fall). General strikes have a long and distinguished history, particularly in Europe, where they occur with regularity, driven by well-organized unions and by mass parties of the left (including once the communists). The trouble, however, with calling a general strike is that it looks pretty weak if there's no "general" and no "strike." New York City and the police shook off Tuesday's general strike like a dog drying itself off. There was no evidence of large numbers of folks taking off from work in solidarity, and despite some transit problems in the morning, probably from the rain, the city operated pretty normally. On Wall Street, where a band of OWSers had been trying (not very successfully) to secure a foothold -- first on the sidewalk, then on the steps of the Federal Building -- there were expectations of the kind of crowds that effectively shut the place down for a few hours last fall. Apparently protesters arrived, but after most everyone went home.

OWS has a problem. Given its refusal to offer policy positions, even radical ones, beyond the sound bite, "we are the 99 percent," they really don't stand out from other groups that regularly straggle through the streets of New York. What's clear is how they really miss Zuccotti Park, which was not only a living demonstration of their core anarchist notion of a community built upon consensus-based democracy, but was a demonstration of power in the face of the authorities. (The police have learned a few things, one of which is: Don't let them settle in.) The latter particularly impresses the media. And if there's one thing we can see with OWS now: without the media, OWS withers.

OWS realized this quickly last fall. In its first days, what separated it from the dissenting pack was its playfulness, irony and media savvy. OWS protests, then and now, were profoundly self-referential. Even if there was no media around, they were constantly filming themselves; everything OWS does take on the air of a performance (flags, drums, costumes, chants). Several weeks ago in a late-afternoon greatest-hits sing-along and mic-check at Federal Hall, everyone -- tourists, protesters, even cops -- had cameras (real or on cell phones). The clicking and whirring sounded like locusts. Protesters on the steps held up phones to shoot the (small) crowd, which shot back, while OWSers moved in and out of the protest itself, which formed and reformed, erasing distinctions between participants and observers. But there was no outside media.

The danger to the movement, whether it's the participatory democracy or this self-referential memorializing, is that it becomes narrower, more inwardly focused and more prone to fantasy. A long winter can do that anyway, though the seeds were there last year. Playfulness can easily turn to tendentiousness and self-regard. That's not to say that OWS is going away -- there are many warm months for its leaders (and there are leaders, for all the talk) to come up with a bit of brilliance or serendipity, like Zuccotti, to refresh interest. But without that, and with a presidential campaign already absorbing OWS's message -- inequality -- the movement will need to hunker down and wait for more bad economic news, or for a spectacular provocation. Once they lost the park and the slogan, all they had to market was themselves and their plan to transform democracy. Neither is sufficient right now.

And then there's the notion of the 99 percent. The fact is if OWS's message was even close to convincing even a part of that 99 percent, the rich would already be paying higher taxes. Asked another way: Where is the upwelling of class-consciousness that such a situation demands? OWS takes the traditional Marxist notion of class, simplifies it and inflates it into two cartoons -- the 99 percent and the 1 percent. In the process, it manages to ignore about 150 years of Marxist discussion and debate over classes, how they are constituted, how they conflict, how they shape consciousness. But it's not just OWS; the left generally has lost the intense interest in the determinative role of class struggle, or at least resorted to a simplistic and mechanical process.

I've been reading The Crisis of Neoliberalism, which a number of left-leaning economists have cited of late, by two French economists, Gérald Duménil and Dominique Lévy, both directors of research at the Centre National de la Recherché Scientifique in Paris. What seemed to be appealing about the book, or at least intriguing, is the argument they make that the financialization of the economy, beginning in the '70s, has led to our current crisis of capitalism. (Most of it's about the U.S.) That financialization, which is undeniable, hasn't been studied nearly enough. Frankly, I was disappointed. The pair write horrendously, a combination of econo-speak, left jargon and presumably an uncomfortableness with English that doesn't seem to involve a translator. Even worse, the great bulk of this book is a tedious step-by-weary-step review (with charts and graphs) of much of what we already know, but with a leftist interpretation (including little boxes explaining great moments in Marxist economic analysis). It's as if by calling it "neo-liberal" they can retell the same old story.

What one really wants to know is how the various strands of this "neo-liberal" consensus came together. What Duménil and Lévy provide instead is cobbled-together class analysis. Now they clearly recognize that the old Marxist categories don't work. "Beginning with the observation that the distinction between capital income and wages does not account for the complexity of social relations in contemporary capitalism," they offer helpfully, "the present chapter establishes the framework of a tripolar class configuration in which capitalist, managerial, and popular classes are distinguished." They then declare that inequality has increased under "neo-liberalism." They then ram the postwar period through this tripolar class interpretation. But while they slice up these classes in various (and often baffling) ways, they ultimately come out as crude categories. The "popular" class, for instance, seem to contain eveyone that's not a corporate manager or capitalist who makes their living off the markets; they are, in short, wage slaves. This is extremely broad. Simply put, they argue that after the war, the managerial class made a grand compromise with the popular class (basically: you get unions and decent wages; we get to run big companies), which was buoyed by good times. When that came apart in the '70s, the managerial class decided to throw in their lot with the capitalists, and financialization and neo-liberalism ensued.

Again, that's a broad summary. But does this highly abstracted historical analysis make a huge amount of sense as motivation? Was the history here overtly -- as they suggest -- conspiratorial or deliberate, as if they all recognized their own future self-interest and moved toward it? In anthropomorphizing these classes, they give the history a rational meaning it lacks in the real world. Despite the mind-fogging jargon, it makes the mechanism simple and the motivations as simplistic as the income-maximizing utility models of more conventional economists, not to say the simplistic, media-friendly analysis of OWS.

But they are not completely wrong, which we should keep in mind. In Thursday's New York Times, Paul Krugman linked inequality to political polarization, arguing that the Republican Party has been taken over by the truly wealthy. That's a bit simplistic, but then it's Krugman on politics. But there is a fascinating point buried here. We often have only a very vague and inchoate sense of "class," and of class interests, which undermines the pretensions of class analysis. But there are times when an income group, a racial minority or an interest group develops both a self-consciousness that it constitutes an interest and realizes it has the power to act on it. I would argue that in the '70s managers and capitalists had little idea of what was coming; indeed, both groups initially fought financial reforms. But over time, increasing inequality makes the differences stand out more prominently, creating, if not a class consciousness, a group consciousness: We're part of the 1 percent or the 0.1 percent -- no new taxes! That consciousness of self-interest often comes not in the early development of a new configuration, or a new trend, but in defending a trend that has matured. That's a subtle, if important, difference and the reason they call those groups conservative.

Robert Teitelman is editor in chief of The Deal magazine.