The Occupy Movement and the General Strike on #MayDay

Professor and chair of comparative studies at Ohio State University

The Occupy movement has already spawned one general strike—a spontaneous mass reaction to police brutality in Oakland last November that ended up shutting down the fifth-largest port in the country overnight. The movement is now calling for a General Strike on May Day (May 1st), and so far, well over one hundred U.S. cities, along with groups around the world (in Germany, Greece, Hungary, and elsewhere), are planning actions. Occupy Los Angeles might have the most intricate strike plan: groups from the four points of the compass will march through their parts of the city, engaging in various interventions along the way, and end up together in downtown L.A. for a “convergence celebration.”

A one-day mass strike represents a significant development of Occupy strategy. As everyone (including the initial organizers) knew, the occupation of public sites in North America was not destined to last through the winter, even if it did last far longer than expected. Rather than an indeterminate occupation of space, next week’s general strike involves a determinate action in a strictly delimited time frame: its aim is to strike a single blow against a broad range of inequities in an equally broad range of places, all at once. The prioritization of time over space could have unexpected benefits for participants: using hand-held social media, marchers could alternate between concentrating in compact groups and dispersing as ordinary pedestrians (something like a flash mob, or a flock of birds), thereby becoming a more difficult target for police action.

Very much like the original Occupy strategy, however, general strikes are not about making specific demands. They are therefore very unlike your run-of-the-mill union strike, which revolves around specific demands at a specific workplace. Instead, the general strike involves anybody and everybody, and it is directed against an entire social order, economic and political. As the original name and location suggests, Wall Street serves as a convenient focal point for all kinds of discontent. So even if the general strike targets an entire system, that system is now obviously dominated by finance capital—by Wall Street and the “too-big-to-fail” banks.

And so the issue underlying the strike is no longer just the exploitation of workers at the workplace, but the indebtedness of everybody, everywhere: from students leaving college saddled with student load debts in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, to credit-card holders, to the countless homeowners facing balloon payments or foreclosure, to supposedly sovereign nations all across the globe forced to cut back on social services in order to repay bond-holders. (Just recently, student debt surpassed credit-card debt as the second-highest kind of personal debt, after home mortgages; U.S. student debt now exceeds 1 trillion dollars.) At this stage of the game (often referred to as “real subsumption”), the new rallying-cry is not so much “workers of the world, unite!” as “debtors of the world, unite!”—and rough estimates of the proportion of people sharing an “objective interest” in cancelling the debt run as high as … 99%.

In this context, the “Occupy Student Debt” movement has faced a telling alternative: try to work within the system, or directly challenge it. One in-system alternative might involve something like a counter-Norquist “Jubilee petition.” (“Jubilee” was a term for the regular and routine cancellation of outstanding debts, which occurred in all pre-capitalist societies.) Candidates would be asked to sign a petition pledging to side with the people against the banks (or even to cancel the debt). The other, direct-challenge alternative was for students themselves to pledge to go on a “debt strike”—to refuse to pay their students loans—once a specified threshold number of students signed the pledge. Unfortunately, the recent tightening of U.S. bankruptcy law made student loans one of the few debts that cannot be discharged through bankruptcy proceedings, so the threshold number is probably higher than initially proposed. But what if a student loan strike prompted a homeowners mortgage strike, which in turn prompted a credit-card strike? For one of the important effects of a general strike, rather than issuing specific demands, is to express solidarity, and to reveal the extent to which we, the 99%, are all in this together. If the breadth and depth of shared discontent can be demonstrated and widely recognized, there may be enough momentum to advocate for significant social change, working within the system as well as against it. (The possible relation between Occupy and the November elections is already a pressing issue.)

One distinctive feature of the Occupy movement that risks getting all but lost in the call for a punctual, one-day general strike—as important and exciting as it may be—is Occupy’s instantiation of the Gandhian principle to “be the change you want to see in the world.” With its lending libraries, collective kitchens, people’s mics, general assemblies and so forth, Occupy struggled to model a more participatory democratic social order in defiance of the oligarchy our so-called “representative democracy” and the global social order have so obviously become. Along these lines, it is possible to reconceive of the general strike not as a punctual event but as a gradual process—as a slow-motion general strike that might start with the transfer of money from banks to credit unions, say (already taking place in the wake of the crash of 2008), and then combine with the growth of community-supported agriculture, fair trade, open-source software, and so forth and so on.

The point of such a slow-motion general strike would be not just to “be the change you want to see,” but to slowly but surely free everyone from dependence on capital for their means of life (and thereby reverse the process of “so-called primitive accumulation” lying at the heart of capitalism). Pervasive indebtedness is only the most blatant form of that dependence, and it may turn out to be one of the unexpected (call it dialectical if you wish) ironies of neoliberalism that in drowning nearly everyone in debt, it ends up turning nearly everyone against itself.


Eugene W. Holland is professor and chair of comparative studies at Ohio State University and author of Nomad Citizenship: Free-Market Communism and the Slow-Motion General Strike.

“This is a brilliant and important book which provides both vital insight into our contemporary political situation and, through a novel synthesis of nomad Marxism and complexity theory, ways for thinking the future differently. Eugene W. Holland’s conceptions of an affirmative nomadology and free market communism make a fresh and invigorating contribution to the contemporary critique of capital and attempts to produce small and large-scale, long-lasting alternatives to its dominion. A superb achievement and essential reading.”
—Keith Ansell-Pearson, University of Warwick

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