Archive for February, 2012

Liberals for Recession

February 28th, 2012  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism

Rick Perlstein’s recent Rolling Stone column performs what is now a routine left-liberal critique of Obama: by failing to articulate an ideology and differentiate himself from Republicans, the President has allowed Republicans to redefine mainstream political debate ever farther to the right. This argument has certain charms, but I couldn’t help but notice the way Perlstein himself inadvertently enacts the same error he ascribes to Obama, and “ratifies his opponent’s reality, by folding it into his original negotiating position.” In the course of refuting various Reagan-era calumnies against Jimmy Carter, Perlstein informs us that:

What’s more, to arrest the economy’s slide, Jimmy Carter did something rather heroic and self-sacrificing, well summarized here: He appointed Paul Volcker as Federal Reserve chairman with a mandate to squeeze the money supply, which induced the recession that helped defeat Carter – as Carter knew it might – but which also slayed the inflation dragon and, by 1983-84, long after Carter had lost to Reagan, saved the economy.

This has settled in as the preferred narrative of the “Volcker shock” across the mainstream political spectrum, with Carter and Volcker as the self-sacrificing heroes who forced unpleasant but life-saving medicine down the throat of an unruly nation. We are to imagine them wistfully reading Brecht’s “To Posterity” as they sacrifice their political reputations on the altar of contractionary monetary policy; do not judge them too harshly.

Not to worry, for judgment has been remarkably generous, even among liberals. It falls to radical malcontents like Doug Henwood and David Harvey to tell a different story. If the heroic mythology of Volcker’s recession is reminiscent of the self-congratulatory rhetoric of the contemporary pro-austerity faction, this is no coincidence. In the radical account, the Volcker shock is the beginning of the long era of opportunistic disinflation, in which wage and employment gains may never be tolerated if they come at the expense of a little inflation. Here is how Harvey describes the opening salvo:

In October 1979 Paul Volcker, chairman of the US Federal Reserve Bank under President Carter, engineered a draconian shift in US monetary policy.18 The long-standing commitment in the US liberal democratic state to the principles of the New Deal, which meant broadly Keynesian fiscal and monetary policies with full employment as the key objective, was abandoned in favour of a policy designed to quell inflation no matter what the consequences might be for employment. The real rate of interest, which had often been negative during the double-digit inflationary surge of the 1970s, was rendered positive by fiat of the Federal Reserve (Figure 1.5). The nominal rate of interest was raised overnight and, after a few ups and downs, by July 1981 stood close to 20 per cent. Thus began ‘a long deep recession that would empty factories and break unions in the US and drive debtor countries to the brink of insolvency, beginning the long era of structural adjustment’.19 This, Volcker argued, was the only way out of the grumbling crisis of stagflation that had characterized the US and much of the global economy throughout the 1970s.

This was all understood at the time. Here is the New York Times on December 31, 1981:

The outlook for inflation, said Richard G. Lipsey, of Queens University in Ontario, “turns on the determination of wage increases,” not supply-side tax cuts or quick changes in inflationary expectations. For Mr. Lipsey, this means that the fight against inflation requires accepting the pain of high unemployment and a sluggish economy.

Mr. Volcker said he was optimistic. “The picture looks a little better to me,” he said this week after leading a panel discussion at the social science convention. But, he added with his usual caution, “the evidence is not clear yet.”

“The problem,” Mr. Volcker said, “is not only making gains at a high cost during a recession, but also keeping them when the recovery begins.”

“I’m agnostic,” said Charles L. Schultze, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Carter Administration. “I don’t know. We will get the special ones, like autos, but I don’t know the extent to which they will slop over into the rest of the economy.”

Volcker was trying to accomplish the same thing that Ronald Reagan was trying to do when he smashed the air traffic controllers’ union: weaken labor. Here, Volcker offers that:

the single most important action of the [Reagan] administration in helping the anti-inflation fight was defeating the air traffic controllers’ strike. He thought that this action had had a rather profound, and, from his standpoint, constructive effect on the climate of labor-management relations, even though it had not been a wage issue at the time.

And yet it’s hard to imagine a writer like Rick Perlstein calling Reagan’s attack on PATCO “courageous”.

But perhaps the neglect of the Volcker regime’s class nature reflects a deeper shortcoming in liberal politics. The stagflation that Carter faced was a more intractable problem than the demand shortfall that confronts the American economy today, and it was far less susceptible to the traditional Keynesian remedies. When capital refuses to invest, and labor refuses to take no for an answer, then something has to give. The alternative to neoliberalism’s assault on the working class was not simply a continuation of the Fordist golden age, but a more radical attack on the capitalist mode of production. Reflecting on the stagflation era in 1988, the socialist economist Diane Elson remarks:

Conventional Keynesian fiscal and monetary remedies are unable to deal with a situation in which prices and wages are rising while output and employment are falling. This has opened the way for ‘monetarist’ policies to confront the problem by a combination of deflation and attempts to make markets more ‘competitive’, in the sense of more like the markets of Walrasian and Austrian theory, with prices falling as demand falls. Such policies impose enormous costs in terms of unemployment and wasted resources, and are ultimately self-defeating. Most markets fail to behave like those in Walrasian and Austrian theory not for lack of competition, but precisely because of the existence of competition. An accessible exposition of this point is provided by Okun, who concludes: ‘ . . . the appropriate functioning of customer markets and career labour markets requires a marked departure from the price flexibility of the competitive model. Customers and suppliers, employees and firms develop methods of reducing price variation that help to perpetuate relations and minimize transaction costs over the long run.’ [39] At the micro-level, there are good reasons for firms to raise wages and pass on increased costs in price increases while reducing output and employment. By doing so, they may be better able to maintain the co-operation and loyalty of their customers and workforce than by cutting wages and prices.

The policy conclusion commonly drawn from this type of reasoning is the need for Keynesian monetary and fiscal policy to be supplemented by some kind of incomes policy which will restrain firms from raising wages, and thus make it possible for conventional Keynesian policies to maintain a higher level of demand without running into the problem of inflation. However, this penalizes households in relation to enterprises if there is no complementary mechanism restraining prices. Recognizing this, some advocates of incomes policies also advocate price controls. But if the process of setting prices is left in the hands of enterprises, there still remains a fundamental imbalance: households cannot monitor price formation in a way that enables them to enforce restraint on enterprises in the same way that enterprises can monitor wage formation and enforce a wage restraint programme upon workers. [40] Moreover, the vital knowledge of unit costs and profit margins remains in the hands of enterprises, and without this Price Commissions have no teeth, and the implementation of price guidelines cannot be effectively monitored. This imbalance could only be removed by socializing the price formation process, making it transparent to households by making information on unit costs and profit margins public. Capitalist enterprises will always resist this, because secrecy gives them a competitive advantage and private ownership implies the right to withhold information. State-owned enterprises will also resist such disclosure if they are enjoined to focus their efforts on maximizing their own surpluses, and to relate to other enterprises, and to households, primarily through the market. It is not surprising that price formation is such an explosive issue in the marketization of socialism.

Elson goes on to detail her radical solution, which includes free public services, an unconditional basic income, worker-managed public enterprises, and public accounting of prices and wages. Around the same time, others were experimenting with less ambitious—yet still extremely radical—solutions such as the Rehn-Meidner plan. Such far-reaching proposals may perhaps seem quaint now, and this kind of grand theorizing may indeed be ill-suited to the present moment. But that only underscores the difference between the crisis we face today and the one the capitalism faced around the 1970′s. Today’s crisis stems, ultimately, from labor’s weakness, and its historically low share in total output; this is a problem that the ruling class could in principle solve, even if they choose not do so (whether for political reasons or merely out of ineptitude). The previous crisis was something else, the consequence of labor’s strength and of capital’s increasing inability to contain it.

Such crises represent social democracy’s revolutionary limit, and hence conventional reformist liberalism has no good answers to them. At best, it finds itself in the position of William Greider, mounting a defense of inflation as the friend of the debtor—a reasonable claim at moderate inflation rates, but more tenuous for the situation of the early ’80s. Today, liberals and socialists can find themselves aligned in calling for aggressive fiscal policy to restore effective demand. But if they don’t grapple with the historic impasse that the stagflation era represented, then liberals may well find themselves in the uncomfortable position of endorsing the Volcker shocks of the future.

A Victory at Foxconn

February 22nd, 2012  |  Published in Political Economy, Work

A recent article in the New York Times reports an encouraging victory for the workers at Foxconn, the gigantic Chinese manufacturer that makes products for Apple and many other companies:

The announcement by Foxconn, which said that it would raise salaries as much as 25 percent, to about $400 a month, came after an outcry over working conditions at its factories. In recent weeks, labor rights groups have staged coordinated protests in various countries after reports that some of Apple’s Chinese suppliers operate harsh, abusive and dangerous facilities. To stem criticism, Apple hired a nonprofit labor group to inspect the plants it uses.

It seems that this move came in response to the efforts of the workers themselves—including the martyrs who committed suicide in protest against Foxconn’s labor practices—and increased awareness among consumers. Mike Daisey’s report for This American Life, in particular, deserves credit for raising consciousness. This victory, if it holds up, is an encouraging example of how trans-national labor solidarity can work.

In a follow-up, however, the Times carefully avoids the class struggle at the heart of this story: as Ned Resnikoff observes, the story goes through remarkable linguistic contortions to avoid ascribing agency to the Foxconn workers themselves. We are told that for higher wages to be sustained, companies “must convince consumers in America and elsewhere that improving factories to benefit workers is worth the higher prices of goods.” The fate of Chinese workers is thus placed in the hands of corporate marketers and beneficent consumers rather than, say, the workers themselves.

Mobilizing consumers has its place in a labor organizing campaign, but I’m dubious that the altruism of atomized consumers on its own is a durable basis for increasing wages. The market is simply too good at obscuring the true relations of production, except when rare instances like this one break into the open; ethical consumerism can easily be subverted by companies that sell a false sense of moral purity by marketing themselves as virtuous capitalists. A better model for the role of consumers in labor struggles are things like the California Grape Boycott, which was initiated and led by the United Farm Workers.

There are a couple of other interesting things about the Foxconn story, which actually ties together a lot of my preoccupations. One thing to note is that in this case, the struggle over time was at least as important as the fight over money. In addition to higher wages, Foxconn is pledging to reduce overtime—the punishing 14-hour days and 7-day weeks have been reported as a major factor behind the wave of suicides. Given how much of 19th Century labor history in the West was devoted to the fight over the working day, it’s not surprising that the same struggle is being recapitulated in China.

The other thing that jumped out at me is the last paragraph of the Times story, which is tacked on almost like an afterthought:

And worried that the old model is dying, Foxconn has announced plans to invest in millions of robots and automate aspects of production.

Just last week, I wrote a post where I described the relationship between worker bargaining power and technical change as follows:

Suppose, for example, that employers had to pay much higher wages for work outside of standard hours, for irregular schedules, and for last-minute re-schedulings. In the short run, this would increase the income of some workers, which is good. It would also make employers more reluctant to use employees in this manner, unless it made them enough money to pay the higher wages. But in the long run, it would create stronger incentives for employers to simply use fewer workers, perhaps by replacing their labor with machines. This might sound like a dystopian scenario in itself—we win higher wages, and the end result is that we just get replaced with robots! But the alternatives are, in my view, even worse.

If Foxconn follows through on its wage and hour concessions, and on pledge to automate, it will fulfill this dynamic perfectly.

Moreover, this case demonstrates that the disappearance of human labor in manufacturing is not just a rich-country phenomenon, and the data suggests that Foxconn is not anomalous. Recently, Felix Salmon came up with data showing that the absolute number of manufacturing jobs is declining, not just in the United States and other rich countries, but even in China. Some of this may be a result of production shifting to even lower-wage countries, but it also lends support to my longstanding contention that the most important story behind deindustrialization is technological change rather than outsourcing. If even China isn’t growing manufacturing employment, this suggests that the global economy is going through a gradual transition from an industrial to a post-industrial economy, much as rich countries made the transition from being predominantly agricultural to a stage where farming only makes up a tiny percentage of jobs and GDP. Going back to a manufacturing dominated workforce doesn’t seem much more plausible—or, when you think about it, much more desirable—than reverting to a situation in which most people worked on farms.

That’s not to say manufacturing doesn’t matter. Jared Bernstein had a good post the other day that describes the ways that a strong manufacturing sector benefits a national economy. But direct job creation is only a minor component of the case for manufacturing, and the declining employment in the sector means that a revival of manufacturing is unlikely to play a large role in reducing the unemployment rate. Matt Yglesias gets to the central issue here:

But even in China, job growth is coming primarily from the service sector. It’s not a nation of factory workers and it likely never will be. But China has been de-ruralizing very rapidly. And it turns out that one way to characterize the “good old days” of rapid income growth in the United States is as not a move to factories but off of farms.

To Yglesias, this implies that growth in the service sector is the key issue for global economies in the future. But to take this a step further, one way to characterize what is happening in the United States today is not a move to the service sector but out of manufacturing. And it’s true that, if you want the aggregate amount of employment to grow in step with the growth of the population, you are committed to creating a whole lot of service jobs. But as I have argued before, this implies a strong normative judgment about the socially-optimal level of commodification.

As Ursula Huws has pointed out, the creation of service sector jobs often entails “a socialisation of the kinds of work which are also carried out unpaid in the home or neighbourhood”, things like “health care, child care, social work, cleaning, catering and a range of personal services like hairdressing.” Insofar as people experience these tasks as unpleasant drudgery, it is desirable to reduce the need for them to performed unpaid—particularly since unpaid work is done disproportionately by women. But just as in manufacturing, there are more and less labor intensive ways of replacing domestic labor. As Cat Valente observes in her fascinating post on gender-biased technological change in Japan, innovations that reduce the need for household labor can be at least as significant as iPhones or assembly-line robots. This is the alternative to the system in which one privileged group of workers hires another group of workers for the domestic tasks they no longer have time or inclination to perform.

To what extent do we deal with de-industrialization by turning more and more of human activity into paid work, and to what extent do we try to decrease the total amount of wage labor by reducing the work week and allowing people to spend more time out of the labor force? That is one of the key questions facing us in the 21st century, as the jobs that currently form the basis of our economy begin to disappear.

The Dialectic of Technology

February 14th, 2012  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism

I was surprised and pleased to see that Bhaskar had decided to put Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex up on the Jacobin blog, as it’s one of my favorite pieces of Marxist-feminist writing. In spite of its occasional outlandishness, it does two things exceptionally well. The first is to extend Marxist analysis into the realm of sex and gender by simply taking Marx and Engels’ own framework to its logical conclusion, which they themselves were too blinded by the patriarchal assumptions of their time to recognize. The second is to see modern technology as an indispensable element of women’s liberation, going so far as to argue that “Until a certain level of evolution had been reached and technology had achieved its present sophistication, to question fundamental biological conditions was insanity.”

My recent writing has, I think, created an impression in some people’s minds that I’m reflexively pro-technology. I even jokingly refer to myself that way sometimes. It’s true that I will sometimes treat a certain kind of technical change as an unexamined premise, and that I tend to be skeptical of arguments that are centered on the criticism of technology and its effect on labor. But it isn’t so much that I think more technology is always good; I just think that arguments for or against certain technologies often begin by asking the wrong question.

Via Aaron Bady’s indispensable Sunday Reading, I found this post from Richard at the blog “The Existence Machine”, which I hadn’t previously known about. Richard quotes, and objects to, a passage from the journalist Paul Mason asserting—and attributing to Marx—the notion that a classless society “must be based on the most advanced technologies and organisational forms created by capitalism itself.” His objection is that this naturalizes technology and prevents us from being critical of its effects and its sustainability. But that’s not the only way to interpret that formulation, and I think it somewhat misconstrues what the argument is about. The question is not whether technology, or capitalist production methods, are good or bad. Technology mediates social relations, and it is those social relations that should be the object of critique.

It is possible, however, to interpret Mason as saying that “advanced technologies and organizational forms” have an existence independent of class relations. To get into the technical weeds for a moment, this way of thinking reflects a dualism between what Marxists call the “forces of production” and the “relations of production”. The forces of production are the machines, factories, and techniques that make large scale industrial society possible, while the relations of production are the human inequalities between the mass of workers who have nothing to sell but their labor power, and the handful of bosses who control the means of production. Taken to its extreme, the forces-relations dualism implies that we can keep the economy pretty much the way it is now, but just change who’s in charge of it through some combination of worker ownership and government planning. I find this to be inadequate—even if it’s possible, it doesn’t really address some of the worst aspects of life in a capitalist society. And in the past, I’ve critiqued both market socialism and pension fund socialism on this basis.

The forces-relations dualism can also lead to a crude kind of technological determinism, in which technological changes somehow automatically lead to social transformation when they become incompatible with capitalist social relations. That’s how this passage from Marx’s 1859 Preface is sometimes read:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

The most famous modern version of technological-determinist Marxism is probably G.A. Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence. But while I think there’s a grain of truth to this reading, pure technological determinism is untenable as social theory, and politically it leads either to quiescence or to something like accelerationism. Indeed, part of my purpose in writing “Four Futures” was to demonstrate how the same technical conditions could be made compatible with very different social relations.

Yet for all that, I find myself sympathetic to Mason’s formulation: socialism “must be based on the most advanced technologies and organisational forms created by capitalism itself”. That’s not because I think it’s possible to build a classless future while keeping the capitalist forces of production exactly as the are. It’s because, on the contrary, I think that altering relations of production inevitably leads to transformations in the technologies of production. So my amended claim would be that the successor to capitalism must begin from the capitalist forces of production, but it will not leave them unchanged. There is a critique to be made of technology, but it’s the one that comes from workers themselves, and it is enacted in the workplace and in the labor market. The answer to the dehumanizing qualities of technology under capitalism is to attack the inequalities of class power that make them possible.

A concrete example of what this means can be found in a recent report on retail work in New York City, which I heard about from Nick Serpe. Nick alerted me to the following passage:

Surveyed workers reported erratic scheduling that could change hourly, especially with the use of computerized or online scheduling systems that can track projected sales and adjust labor costs daily. A JC Penney worker stated, ‘They switch the schedule around a lot and they expect that you look on the computer every half hour to know your schedule. They change my time and if you didn’t print your schedule that week as evidence of the change, they will disregard your complaint.’ The practice of hour-to-hour scheduling adjustments means that workers expect to be nearly always on call.

This is a clear example of technology being used to intensify worker exploitation, in a way that makes it appear to be both a force and a relation of production. And here is where I would distinguish my perspective from technological utopianism, which Mr. Teacup glosses as “good things are technologically determined and bad things are socially determined.” I reject this position because I reject the idea that technology can be separated from society in this way, which is just another version of the forces-relations dualism. I begin from the premise that technologies reflect, embody, and arise in the context of social relations, and can never be socially or politically neutral; the forces and relations of production dialectically determine one another.

So I accept that technology can have negative effects on labor, and the passage quoted above is a good example. But labor also affects technology—that is, the form that technological change takes is shaped by the strength and organization of workers. I usually avoid writing in a way that directly criticizes technology, not because I’m a techno-utopian, but because I’m more interested in approaching the dialectic of worker and machine from the other side. The trouble with writing critiques of technology is that it tends to lead into either outright Luddism, or else Frankfurt School-style cultural pessimism that’s not clearly connected to any collective agent or political project. The most plausible answer to the negative consequences of technology for workers, I believe, is not to denounce the machines but to strengthen labor so that it is able to contest the path of technical development on more favorable terms.

Being subject of the whims of a scheduling computer that can shift your hours around at any moment is, to be sure, not a pleasant situation. And if approached from the standpoint of critiquing technology, it’s tempting to view this as a testament to the hollow nature of “progress”, proof that the development of better machines only allows workers to become more immiserated, precarious, and exploited. But I read this not so much as a story about technology, but a story about the noxious interaction between technology and a weak, underpaid labor force.

Consider that most research shows that workers prefer to work regular, standard hours rather than having rotating or off-hour schedules. Yet most do not make any more money than they would doing the same job in a standard 9 to 5, at least in the United States. This strongly suggests that workers are unable to resist the desire of employers to impose non-standard work schedules, or to demand higher wages in return for taking them. The technology described in the passage above intensifies this dynamic, but is not the primary cause of it. The technology wouldn’t have such baleful effects if not for the weak bargaining position of the workers. What is at issue, to use mainstream economics terms, is whether technological change tends to be labor-saving or labor-complementary.

What would happen if workers were in a better position to resist these kinds of crappy scheduling policies? Suppose, for example, that employers had to pay much higher wages for work outside of standard hours, for irregular schedules, and for last-minute re-schedulings. In the short run, this would increase the income of some workers, which is good. It would also make employers more reluctant to use employees in this manner, unless it made them enough money to pay the higher wages. But in the long run, it would create stronger incentives for employers to simply use fewer workers, perhaps by replacing their labor with machines. This might sound like a dystopian scenario in itself—we win higher wages, and the end result is that we just get replaced with robots! But the alternatives are, in my view, even worse.

There are two primary mechanisms by which capitalist enterprises make themselves more profitable. The first is to exploit their workers harder, by extending their hours or by paying them lower wages. The second is to produce the same amount of stuff with fewer workers, by adopting new production techniques and new technologies. (If you want the long technical explanation, these are what Marx calls the absolute and relative forms of surplus value, and the relevant chapters of Capital are roughly chapters 7 through 12.) Since the two ways of increasing profits are to some degree substitutes, closing off one avenue tends to push the capitalist in the direction of the other.

If the absolute exploitation of labor is not an option—because the workers, for whatever reasons, are capable of demanding high wages—then the incentive to innovate in labor-saving ways will increase. Indeed, some technologies that aren’t economical in an environment of low wages will become so when wages are high. This is the main argument of my post about the connection between low wages and technological stagnation. On the other hand, if labor-saving technological innovation isn’t an option—whether because it’s directly barred or because there’s a great stagnation on—then employers will focus on exploiting their workforce ever more intensely.

The final possibility is that both strategies are closed off: workers are powerful enough to maintain high wages, and labor-saving innovation is either prohibited or impossible. The result will just be a stagnant, low-growth economy. Some might view this as the best case scenario, since it would heighten the contradictions and make calls for an alternative to capitalism more convincing. But the evidence suggests that economic stagnation is not conducive to building a powerful and successful Left—often it’s quite the opposite, as Doug Henwood and Duncan Foley have argued. So until it’s possible to make a radical break with capitalism, even socialists need to make their peace with economic growth—the question is whether that growth happens primarily on the basis of hyper-exploiting labor, or is instead predicated on using it more efficiently.

It’s this way of thinking, perhaps, that leads me to be occasionally sympathetic to the cluster of ideas some of us refer to as left neoliberalism. To me, the core of left-neoliberalism (or globalize-grow-give progressivism) is growth-maximizing deregulation plus redistribution, as an alternative to directly intervening in the labor market to assure broad-based high wages. Where I part company with this school of thought, however, is in my emphasis on the need to strengthen the overall bargaining power of labor. This doesn’t need to be brought about entirely through labor unions of the traditional sort; as Chris Maisano notes, their prognosis remains rather grim, and they have major drawbacks as presently constituted. But it does imply the need for some combination of unions, state regulations, full employment, and basic income. Ultimately, of course, a powerful and confident working class will tend to provoke a crisis for Kaleckian reasons, but that is a development I would very much welcome.

I stress the importance of strengthening labor precisely because I’m not a techno-utopian. Technological change may be almost inevitable—and in any case, I think it’s very desirable—but the form that change takes is very much a question of social relations. As the early Mario Tronti had it, “it is the specific, present, political situation of the working class that both necessitates and directs the given forms of capital’s development.”

I’ve spoken only about the relation between technology and labor. Equally important are the ways that technology intersects with the environment, and with everyday life outside of the workplace. But a fuller consideration of those issues will have to wait for a future post.

No Police Order

February 2nd, 2012  |  Published in Politics

Recently on the Jacobin blog, Alex Hanna wrote some reflections on the relationship between Occupy movements and the police. He concludes with the provocative argument that the cops “can be the most ruthless, corrupt organizations, but they can be on our side. In the US, trying to battle them is often going to blow up in our faces.” This kind of argument always grates on me, maybe because I’m a child of the ’90s whose views on the cops were shaped by gangsta rap and crust punk. But it’s a form of hand-wringing that crops up all the time on the liberal-left, so I’m going to attempt to actually formulate a rational critique of what Hanna is saying. Although you can find a more complete theorization of why the cops aren’t your friend in this post by Richard Seymour, I’m just going to try to explain why the notion of getting cops “on our side” is such a problem from the perspective of radical mass movements. The main point is that police repression is a reality whether or not activists “provoke” it, intentionally or not, and recognizing that reality should change how we think about the relationship between protests and police.

Hanna’s post begins by blurring together two very different questions: whether mass protests should intentionally provoke violent conflict with the police, and whether movements should actively seek to maintain conciliatory and friendly relations with the police. The conflation occurs in the first two paragraphs. The opening refers to John Pike, the University of California Davis’s infamous pepper spray cop; the second paragraph asks, “what does provoking police actually accomplish towards the ends of Occupy?” Yet what made the pepper spray cop so shocking was precisely that his brutality was so clearly un-provoked. He casually inflicted agony on a line of seated demonstrators—and with copious photographic documentation, the university administration was left scrambling for the bizarre claim that peacefully disobeying a police instruction (i.e., civil disobedience) now constituted a form of violence.

Hanna uses a comparison between Egypt and Wisconsin to argue that activists must pay close attention to the legitimacy and institutional history of police forces, in order to determine whether confrontation will be effective. Given differences between police forces, “it’s a matter of tactics”, he says, “whether we choose to chant ‘Join us!’ at police or face them black bloc-style”. Not only does this reductively narrow the menu of possible approaches to police power, it inverts the whole problem we face as radicals. Hanna implies that the legitimacy of the police in the U.S. calls into question the wisdom of confronting them. But recent conflicts over Occupy illustrate that this legitimacy is itself a prop for repression and a major obstacle to mass organizing, one which needs to be attacked directly.

After correctly noting that police repression and brutality were important factors in the pre-history of the Egyptian uprising against Mubarak, Hanna downplays the extent to which this was also true of Occupy. Part of this is due to his choice of example: using the Wisconsin anti-Walker protests as a case study in American policing is misleading at best, at least if it is meant to generate lessons for the Occupy movement. In Wisconsin, protesters dealt with an unusual and idiosyncratic mixture of capital police and state troopers; the most prominent occupations in New York and Oakland, in contrast, are dealing with some of the most arrogant and brutal examples of police power in urban America. Examples of the NYPD’s thuggishness and authoritarianism abound; these range from the almost comical sight of police boorishly defending their colleagues’ right to fix tickets, up to more malevolent behaviors like framing suspects and conducting pervasive surveillance of Muslims. And of course there is the long trail of Patrick Dorismonds, Abner Louimas, and Sean Bells, which calls into question just how clear the contrast is between the New York cops and their Egyptian counterparts. In Oakland, the parallel with the Egyptian revolution is even clearer: the crucial prelude to the eruption of Occupy Oakland was the protests over the police shooting of Oscar Grant while he was face down on a train platform.

Even granting all this, one could still accept Hanna’s argument that Occupy should avoid conflict with the police, in order to avoid offending the sensibilities of observers who are still inclined to give the cops the benefit of the doubt in any confrontation. After all, consider this scenario:

About 400 people were arrested and three police officers were injured after a weekend protest by members of the Occupy movement in Oakland, Calif., turned into a violent confrontation with law enforcement officers that led to an assault on City Hall.

The clashes began about 3 p.m. on Saturday when protesters marched toward the vacant Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center and began to tear down construction barricades, and the violence extended into early Sunday. The Oakland Police Department said in a statement that the crowd was ordered to disperse after protesters “began destroying construction equipment and fencing.”

“Officers were pelted with bottles, metal pipe, rocks, spray cans, improvised explosive devices and burning flares,” the police statement said. Officers responded by firing smoke and tear gas canisters and beanbags, and they initially arrested 20 people.

Several hours later, some protesters broke into City Hall, the police said, although some of the demonstrators said they found the building’s door ajar. Mayor Jean Quan surveyed the damage there on Sunday, and the city administrator, Deanna J. Santana, said at a news conference that the protesters had broken a window and damaged a historic model of the building. Flags were stolen, she said, and one of them was burned in front of City Hall.

Surely this reflects badly on the protesters and hurts the movement, certainly in contrast to something like this:

The police kettled the marchers — contained them in one area with no way to leave — twice. The first time, they declared an unlawful assembly, but provided no escape route, and then shot tear gas into the crowd, sending people into a panic and forcing them to escape by tearing down fences around a lot, by the park, where they were contained.

Occupy [protestors] did not storm or attempt to take over the YMCA [as reported]. Employees there opened the doors for people begging to be saved from a kettle and mass arrest action where 300 to 400 people were taken down — including myself and other journalists. There are also several reports that Occupiers broke into city hall shortly thereafter. Property was definitely vandalized, but several people have told me they did not break in — that the doors were actually open.

The punchline, of course, is that these two passages are describing the same event, and in the second version it’s unclear what the protesters did to “provoke” anything. Some people might be inclined to give credence to the first version, which comes from the New York Times, over the second account from freelance journalist Susie Cagle. But as Aaron Bady points out, the Times and other mainstream outlets often lazily cobble together their stories by regurgitating the Oakland Police Department’s press releases. Cagle, meanwhile, is one of the few journalists who has been on the scene reporting on Occupy Oakland from the beginning, getting arrested twice for her efforts. But people who aren’t deeply involved in these movements aren’t likely to know that they should be reading Susie Cagle and not the New York Times. And so, if they’re willing to give the police the benefit of the doubt, they’ll likely go along with the Times story and shake their heads at those irresponsible and infantile protesters.

This is where Hanna’s argument unravels, once we correctly distinguish between not intentionally provoking the police, and actively trying to propitiate them. It’s backwards to regard the legitimacy enjoyed by the police as something that ought to motivate Occupy activists to avoid conflict with them. This is not to say that provoking fights with the cops should be a goal of protests—this, I agree, is generally a tactical mistake. But it is also a mistake to think conflict can always be avoided, if only protesters are perfectly polite and peaceful and obedient. Attempting to avoid such conflict at all costs leads to a cycle in which whatever protesters are doing is continually redefined as “violence” in order to justify crackdowns, even as activists themselves accept more and more restrictions on their freedom to act. Rather than fretting about the public relations consequences of the police attacks on Occupy, we need to fight back hard against the rhetoric that defines all resistance to power as impermissible violence, whether it’s UC Davis students sitting on the sidewalk or Palestinian kids throwing rocks at armored battalions of Israeli soldiers.

So long as the police—and more importanly, the politicians who control them—can define the limits of permissible protest and lie to the public with impunity, they are free to take whatever repressive measures they wish, all the while blaming everything on the actions of the protesters. The legitimacy of the police is a cause of police violence, and therefore the only way to ultimately reign in the cops is to tear away their veil of public support. It’s worth remembering that when the tide turned in the Egyptian revolution, it wasn’t because the cops stood down in the face of mass protests; it was because they were literally chased off the streets.

Delegitimizing police is one possible good outcome of the Occupy movements. My sense, at least from anecdotal evidence, is that some of the folks who participated in or observed the Occupy protests were genuinely shocked by the authoritarianism and brutality of the cops. Perhaps just as significant are the indications that the media, at least in New York, is starting to get tired of being pushed around by the police department. For me, it can be hard to avoid being a little blase about all this—although I’m a straight white male from an upper middle-class background, and thus not objectively a regular target, I did grow up going to urban public schools, alongside non-whites, poor kids, punks, skaters, and other undesirables. So I learned pretty early on the value of hating and fearing the cops. If Occupy can help teach that lesson to a bit more of white America, so much the better.