The Occupy movement is ratcheting up the resistance. Inspired by the Spanish indignados, this Tuesday activists all over the United States will be taking the struggle indoors: to the homes of poor families who are under threat of being evicted by large and powerful Wall Street banks. The move from occupying public space to reclaiming private property marks a radical escalation of civil disobedience, striking the capitalist system right at its institutional heart.
On December 6, during a national day of action, the Occupy movement will mobilize activists in over 25 cities to “protest fraudulent lending practices, corrupt securitization, and illegal evictions by banks,” by physically halting the attempt to evict families from their homes and by “liberating” vacant bank-owned property for those in need. As Occupy Wall St. reported, “the day of action marks a national kick-off for a new frontier for the movement.”
The action is partly inspired by the 15-M movement in Spain, which — through the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca, or the platform of those affected by their mortgage — has stopped hundreds of evictions already, and has occupied numerous large vacant buildings and offered them to people who had been kicked out of their homes by their banks. Locally, the action also builds on the groundbreaking activism of Take Back the Land.
A Radical New Phase for the Occupy Movement
The new wave of direct action is significant for three reasons. First of all, because it takes the struggle to the neighborhoods, exposing the movement to people who might otherwise not have engaged with it, and incorporating marginalized communities who have not always been adequately represented in the protest camps. In the process, the movement is also further decentralized and made more resistant to crackdowns on the key hubs, such as Zuccotti Park.
Secondly, the initiative is relevant because it will allow the movement to transcend the discourse of opposition that has so far predominated and move towards an action-based discourse of mutual aid. This is no longer just about banners decrying corporate greed — this is about physically coming to the aid of our fellow human beings whose very livelihoods are under threat as a result of an inhumane economic system that eternally values profits over people.
And thirdly, the move is relevant because it directly confronts the root of all evil — the core legal institution underpinning the profoundly unjust status quo: private property. Essentially, the movement is making a micro-level statement with macro-level implications: we no longer respect our society’s notion of property; we reject the private ownership of capital. Housing is a basic a human need that should not be compromised by corporate greed.
Occupy Our Homes as a Polanyian Counter-Movement
The issue is particularly salient because the banks often used manipulative and downright fraudulent tactics to push sub-prime mortgages onto low-income (or even no-income) families who could ill-afford them. We previously quoted a famous Wall Street trader who pointedly observed that “this system is fuck the poor.” Indeed, “It was blatant fraud,” he said. “It never entered my mind that this could possibly happen. They were tricking their customers.”
The implications are profound. As Karl Polanyi wrote in The Great Transformation, the rise of capitalism led to the commodification of land, labor and money, by which he referred to the transformation of the three core elements sustaining communal life into goods that can be privately-owned and sold on a market. But this process, by undermining the moral foundations of social life, actually led to a widespread popular backlash.
This is what Polanyi called the “counter-movement“: the insurgent reaction of the masses to the enclosure of the commons. How appropriate is this today, as poor Americans find themselves struggling in wage slavery to pay their mortgages, which have essentially been reduced to bargaining chips of wealthy casino capitalists speculating on the ability to transform these homes — and thus the livelihoods of millions of families — into the banks’ private property.
An Institutional Challenge to an Amoral System
Ultimately, the belief underpinning the fraudulent sub-prime mortgage industry was that house prices would keep rising, and therefore it didn’t matter much if people could afford their mortgages or not. If a homeowner defaulted on their mortgage (which they were bound to do given the manipulative small print in the contract), the bank would simply seize the property and sell it to a third party at profit. It couldn’t care less about the fate of the families it evicted.
It needs to be understood that this cold and calculated behavior by the banks is not just the product of greed but is encoded into the DNA of the free-market economy. Capitalism is by its very nature an amoral system that does not care for ethical concerns. Capital accumulation is not only the goal but the modus operandi of the system. As such, competition simply forces capitalists to be ever more ruthless in their exploitation of consumers, workers and nature alike.
Occupy Our Homes is remarkable precisely because it challenges that system right at its institutional core, violating the legal property rights of the banks in the pursuit of real justice. It symbolizes the conscientization of the masses, who have begun to realize that, not just our government, but our entire legal framework is slanted in favor of big business. Just like the political system does not ensure real democracy, so our legal system no longer ensures real justice.
Fighting the Law to Defend Social Justice
As such, Occupy Our Homes is part of a broader dynamic in the global protest movement, which has seen a radical escalation of non-violent civil disobedience in recent weeks. In November, a group of protesters in London occupied an abandoned office block of the UBS bank and transformed it into The Bank of Ideas. Unfurling a huge banner visible from the UBS headquarters across the street, the occupiers referred to their act as a “public repossession“.
Similar occupations have been the rocking the United States, Spain and Greece. What is fascinating about them is that they mark a willingness to break the law in order to uphold the notion of social justice. As one activist put it in an interview with Salon, “property is a terrain of conflict, and people [are] stepping into it in a forbidden way. They’re deciding they’ve had enough. Squatting is a practical way of exhibiting this self-expression.”
None of this means that the movement is on course to create lawlessness and chaos. Indeed, the main purpose is to defend justice rather than overturn it. As Martin Luther King, Jr. famously put it, “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 the law.”
Mutual Aid and Self-Arbitration as our Guiding Principles
Ultimately, we know that the legal institution of private property favors the 1 percent more than it favors the 99 percent. State expropriation (the old communist way) is no longer a realistic option either, as the state itself has been corrupted and diminished to a power lever for the 1 percent. Bank nationalizations merely socialize the debts, while keeping the profits privatized, providing little hope for emancipatory state action in this respect.
This is why David Graeber, the respected anthropologist and author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years, recently alluded to the anarchist roots of the Occupy movement. While many activists would be loathe to self-identify as anarchists, the left-libertarian principles of mutual aid and self-organization are clear pillars of the movement. The surfacing of these values, while nothing short of revolutionary, is ultimately only natural. As Kropotkin put it:
All that was an element of progress in the past or an instrument of moral and intellectual improvement of the human race is due to the practice of mutual aid, to the customs that recognized the equality of men and brought them to ally, to associate for the purpose of producing and consuming, to unite for purpose of defense to federate and to recognize no other judges in fighting out their differences than the arbitrators they took from their own midst.
Where will these principles take us in the weeks, months and years ahead? We can only speculate. But one indication might come from a Spanish flyer distributed in Zuccotti Park early on in the occupation. It carried a simple message: “The greatest violence would be a return to normalcy. We don’t want the plaza; we want the whole city.”