Ken Knabb on the Rise and Fall of the Occupy Movement

Criticism &c. recommends Ken Knabb’s recent retrospective analysis of the significance of the Occupy movement (“Looking Back on Occupy“), originally composed for a French audience.

Knabb has very little criticism to offer of the movement. In our opinion, the chief weakness of his analysis is revealed by his response to this question, “Would you agree that Occupy has changed the perception of the social question in the States?” Knabb’s reply: “Yes. First and most obviously, the “99% versus 1%” theme refocused people’s attention to the increasingly extreme economic divisions. Second, the form of the movement gave a hint of how such divisions can and must be overcome—by participatory collective action, as opposed to relying on politicians or other leaders to act for us.”

The problem lies in the ambiguity of his phrase “extreme economic divisions.” If Knabb defines these divisions—as Occupy Wall Street did—as the disparity in the distribution of income in the U.S., then the problem is a political one which may possibly be remedied by the “participatory collective action” of politics and workplace organization.

But what if the problem is a more profound one? The capitalism of 2013 is a state of affairs in which the human being is becoming an increasingly smaller part of the production process relative to any previous point in the history of humanity. Can “participatory collective action” reorganize a society in which the material production of commodities (the production of value and surplus value) has become almost totally automated? Will it be possible to satisfy the “human wants of some sort or another” that have arisen in the course of humanity’s existence under the conditions of centuries of capitalist society in a reorganized regime of production, that is, without the production of value? These are open questions, but neither Knabb, nor in our opinion, the Occupy movement as a whole, came close to raising them.

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