With a mild, quick winter comes an early Spring for Occupy Wall Street. Events kicked off last Saturday on the six-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street with 73 arrests at New York City’s Zuccotti Park. However, look to May Day (May 1st) for Occupy to reenter the public consciousness with an old symbolic action—a general strike.
First, a brief history of the general strike.
A mass strike across cities, states and nations, some trace the general strike’s origins back to Rome, but it’s more likely that it was first used by William Benbow, a radical non-conformist preacher and journalist. By the late 19th century, its use was most often advocated by anarchists in the US and Europe. To limit its use to those of such philosophical inclinations misses the greater point of the general strike. If done correctly, it hits at the heart of modernity’s economic engines, and leaves the ruling class with no alternative but to respond.
That said, it’s no coincidence that the rise of the general strike grew simultaneously with the growth of socialism and anarchism in the late 20th century. Yet, it is important to understand that one need not be a socialist or anarchist to recognize the symbolic value and practical potential in a general strike. In fact, it is just as vital to middle and lower class capitalists who witness an oligarchical capitalist system recklessly rotating off its axis.
For example, the 1877 Saint Louis general strike—generally recognized as the first of its kind in the US—had as its goal the introduction of an 8-hour work week and a ban on child labor. It should be noted that it was anarchists and socialists, not the religious or democrats, in the most general sense, who managed to create this momentum. Such people would have us believe that anarchists and socialists are wreckers of civilization, to appropriate the phrase to describe Throbbing Gristle and COUM. Naturally, the upper class organized a militia—armed citizens with no official authority—to quell the protests. Obviously, we know who was on the wrong side of history and progress, as always.
According to Jeremy Brecher’s book “Strike!,” one Saint Louis general strike speaker was noted to have said:
All you have to do, gentlemen, for you have the numbers, is to unite on one idea – that workingmen shall rule the country. What man makes, belongs to him, and the workingmen made this country.
The most revolutionary idea of the 19th century was, in fact, born of the very substance of the so-called “American Dream,” where an individual could, with effort, gain financial freedom. Talk to any person in this country, be they Democrat or Republican, Liberal or Conservative, and they’re likely to say, “What I make and buy is my property.” But suggest that a worker who labors in making an automobile or in mining coal owns the fruits of his labor, as just a few examples, and you will most certainly hear the dread cry, “Communism!”
America is nothing if not a country built on the skeletal foundations of cognitive dissonance.
May Day also commemorates the Haymarket Affair, a national shame that occurred during strikes organized for the 8-hour work day but Chicago-area anarchists and socialists. As noted in my article published on Labor Day 2011, “the deaths of the workers, the policeman and the rally organizers all occurred because of the length of a work-day; because of man’s greed.”
Occupy’s May 1st general strike, however, doesn’t have the same support of unions, as noted by BuzzFeed. That likely has more to do with federal and state legislation outlawing general strikes for public employees such as educators, police, fireman, etc., than any great reticence on the part of unions. Also keep in mind that Wisconsin school teachers, while technically banned from striking, simply called in sick and attended Scott Walker protests. Which is to say, the law can be circumvented by the committed.
While lack of union support would seem to be a significant obstacle for effectively launching a day of mass action, it wasn’t the union who created Occupy’s momentum in the first place—it was people. Indeed, more critical than any union support is that in these tough but slightly more promising economic times is the reality that a general strike might not garner the support it could have in the ferment of mid-to-late 2011, when public and union sentiment for OWS was at its vibrant apogee.
The intended strike does, however, have the support of groups and unions like the United Auto Workers, Moveon.org and Greenpeace. And OccupyWallSt.org notes, “Labor organizers, immigrants’ rights groups, artists, Occupiers, faith leaders, and more have all joined in the discussion to get ready.”
But can the call for “No Work, No School, No Housework, No Shopping, No Banking – and most importantly, TAKE THE STREETS!” rekindle Occupy’s political influence and lead to some positive momentum going into the 2012 presidential, congressional and state elections? It’s hard to say, but it’s very possible that May 1st could be that spark.
As noted by OWS itself, during the winter it “refocused” its “energies on fostering ties with local communities, saving homes from corrupt banks and jobs from greedy corporations, and building and expanding our horizontal infrastructure.” And it did this all across the country, not merely in the nexus of New York City. The expulsions from parks merely clipped some tentacles, but did not kill the leviathan of people.
Occupy’s goal, of course, is to keep its agenda at the forefront of the 2012 election cycle—an agenda that cuts across political ideology and social classes. If OWS again makes waves, it will force President Obama to stay attuned to the movement’ demands, while possibly moving the flip-flopper Mitt Romney more toward the political center.
And if OWS’s claims of stronger local community ties are to be believed, the results could have some effect on local and state elections; electoral and legislative battlegrounds where conservative activists and operatives like the Koch Brothers and ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, are quite active.
Will OWS’s political fortunes rest on the success or failure of the May Day general strike? If Occupy has shown Americans anything, it is that its amorphous blob, open-source, viral-like movement allows it to shape-shift and respond to events with great velocity. Whether the general strike is only a minor success or a relative failure is almost irrelevant.
One way or another, OWS will have an effect on the 2012 elections.