Leave the Banks Alone

Leave the Banks Alone

Bhaskar Sunkara: Leave the Banks Alone

Part of me was heartened to read Sarah Leonard’s call for bank occupations. It feels like the paradigm of American politics has shifted over the past month and I’m glad to see the avowedly reformist young minds at Dissent radicalized a bit by the spirit. After spending my first years on the left struck by how depoliticized the milieus I engaged with were, I’m thrilled that people are now not only interested in talking about tactics and strategy, but are doing so with a sense of urgency. So it’s with equal vigor that I insist that Leonard’s call would be completely counterproductive.

She’s right on one major count. Everyone with any belief in social justice should get involved. The occupations represent a still inchoate anti-austerity movement that needs as many sharp and sane minds and bodies as possible. And talk to strangers when you’re down there too. They’re more articulate than the mainstream media would have you believe and they’re eager to discuss issues that affect their lives. This is how movements get politicized. Nobody emerges out of a decade plus of dormancy and latches onto a completely coherent worldview immediately.

More controversially, despite my oft-derided Old Left sensibilities, I think Leonard is also right about the lack of a unified set of demands being a good thing so far. Come December, I might start leafleting copies of my “minimal program” in Manhattan. For now the class struggle continues without it. By the very act of having a visible anti-corporate movement we’re regaining some footing to defend what’s left of the social safety net. Whether this can grow into something less defensive, capable of forcing real concessions out of the state, is another question.

My disagreement is tactical. A bank sit-in is a symbolic action and the movement to this point has been all about the symbolic. I can’t imagine a better image for the Right than hordes of largely privileged twenty-somethings sitting in banks with no demands and no substantive critique.

What the movement needs is more concrete actions in solidarity with unions and working communities. Prevent some foreclosures. Go join a picket or help with a union drive. Launch a series of sit-ins at Walmarts and Targets until they drop their hostility to collective bargaining. Or disrupt every Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods in the country until they decide to pay their growers a living wage.

On the whole, these suggestive actions sound petty and none too dramatic. But despite the broad resonance the anti-corporate message has among the American people, the lingering perception that occupiers are insipid kids throwing a temper tantrum would be completely invalidated by mobilizations like these. We need less spectacle and more truly threatening actions. And not just action. Let’s not forget that the great slogan of the Left implored young radicals to “educate, agitate, and organize” their peers, not “agitate, agitate, and then agitate some more.” If “community outreach” seems like something good in theory, but impossible to act out in practice, it just means that the (dis)organizational forms currently being practiced at Liberty Plaza and elsewhere need to be combated.

Yes, I’m down with occupying everything and I really need to vamp up my youthful radical credentials before I write that “God That Failed” memoir, but bank branches are pretty low on my list of targets. If anything the single-minded obsession with “finance capital” in the Occupy movement seems a bit off to me. I’d sooner respect some of those greasy Wall Street types than a General Motors plant manager. Merged with the localism of some of the occupiers I spoke to this weekend, one ends up with a creepily reactionary vision of the future. A return to the land and to “real capital” doesn’t sound like emancipation to me.

Leonard not only has the sophistication to understand these points, she alludes to the “caveats” of others directly in her piece, before copping out and dismissing them as arguments that “may be well beside the point.” But I can’t think of a more relevant point. The Left is thirsty for ideas. The atmosphere at an event hosted by Jacobin on Friday is testament to this fact?even the older panelists like Left Business Observer editor Doug Henwood called it the most contentious debate (“discussion” seems too tame a word) he’d ever witnessed, much less took part in. It seemed like a scene from another era. And despite the craziness of some of the Left—I had to duck a neo-Malthusian or two—I mean that in a good way. It looked like a scene from a political era. And in eras like these we have to argue over politics. These disputes have real repercussions. So all I’m saying is let me deposit my tiny, tiny paycheck in peace. It’s the 17th and I’m a couple days late on my rent. Help me figure out how to put some pressure on my landlord instead.