It was about a five hour drive from Boston to the remote campsite in High Falls, New York that played host to this year’s summer conference of the Union for Radical Political Economy (URPE). Pulling into the retreat grounds, surrounded by thick verdant woods on one side, and a small lake-side chicken farm on the other, this place seemed an unlikely spot for a radical gathering focused on Occupy, and on developing “political economy for the 99%” (this year’s URPE theme).
URPE was founded in 1968 and is “devoted to the study, development and application of radical political economic analysis to social problems.” A product of the Sixties social movements that has survived to see and to support the most recent flowering of social protest, members of URPE include longtime radical activists, organizers, and academics, from across the country and beyond.
This year’s conference, focused on the “Political Economy of the 99%,” brought together longtime political economists associated with URPE and members of the Occupy Movements from New York City, as well as New Hampshire, Boston, and elsewhere to explore the challenges that the Occupy movement faces, to discuss the nature of the various crises facing contemporary society, and to develop strategies to confront capitalism as well as alternatives to it. Attendees included not only Americans, but activists from Italy as well as participants in the Indignados from Spain.
Jackie DiSalvo, an organizer with Occupy Wall Street’s Labor Outreach working-group gave a spirited presentation at the opening plenary session, analyzing the great breakthroughs, as well as the limits and the present challenges facing the Occupy movement. DiSalvo closed with an appeal to Occupy to think seriously about a nation-wide strategy that can actually build the power of the 99% and challenge the rule of the 1%.
Throughout the conference the relationship between struggles for reform and more radical goals of revolution were a constant theme of discussion, as was that of the relationship between the construction of “utopian” alternatives to the present order, and the struggle to defend aspects of the present order—such as Social Security, Medicare, or union rights—that are presently coming under 1% assault.
Nearly 100 people attended. Joe Ramsey of Occupy Boston and the Boston Fare Strike Coalition (BFSC) gave a presentation on the continuing budget crisis of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) and how Occupy activists are conducting mass education around the MBTA fare hikes and service cuts “by linking the crushing of public services to the irrationality of how wealth is distributed in a capitalist society.” Ramsey also demonstrated the riding the rails tactic developed by BFSC. Members of BFSC use the 2-minute interval between subway stations to speak to fellow T riders about the injustice of fare hikes and about how they can take action.
A great deal of attention was devoted to understanding the nature of the current crisis. A workshop on the European Crisis looked at the weakness of the European Union that is most pronounced in Greece and Spain. Though this was linked to a housing bubble which popped and threatened to destroy European banks, economist Paddy Quick pointed out, “The ruling class propaganda shifted the blame from the banks to the public institutions which bailed them out.” Governments took on bank debt and this was subsequently used by the ruling classes of Europe as an excuse to launch austerity measures against the welfare state and other gains of the working class. In another workshop, economist Fred Mosely facilitated a discussion about the competing theories of the underlying causes of the current global economic downturn. Pervasive across the conference was the belief that it is necessary for Occupy activists and others aiming to change the world for the better to understand the historical and social roots of the systems they are up against.
One of the workshops on “Alternatives” discussed what it would mean to design socialism. “Contrary to public perception,” Al Campbell said, “socialism is fully compatible with human nature, since we are a collective species and we strive to make things better and socialism gives us a way to do that.” Part of the socialist project, Campbell noted, was getting workers to fight for their own collective interests and to avoid the demoralization that comes from seeing capitalist competition as the only horizon to human civilization. Socialism it was argued could be a system where “people have collective self-agency and we develop our individuality by helping other people develop theirs.”
Other workshops covered topics ranging from the state of the Cuban and Venezuelan revolutions, the relationship between gender and class oppression, and Occupy’s use of media. In a movement-building workshop, the role of workers’ cooperatives in Mondragón Spain was critically debated, with some of those present seeing workers’ cooperatives as a way to offer a real world example of workplaces without bosses. Others contested that a focus on cooperatively run enterprise could be a diversion from the struggle to expose and overthrow the 1%, and that, despite successes here and there, cooperatives could not possibly cope with competing against giant capitalist firms in the marketplace, without taking on-board some of those capitalists’ worst practices.
The URPE conference ended on Monday with participants discussing their upcoming projects and views on leftist electoral strategy. Views ranged from critical support of the Democratic Party as the “lesser evil,” to support for third parties to such as the Greens, to electoral abstention, to those who saw the Democratic Party as an organization of the ruling class and urged the development of an independent revolutionary party. One provocative idea was for those voting this year to wear orange jumpsuits to the polls, to call attention to the millions of people—undocumented immigrants, prisoners, detainees at Guantanamo Bay—who have absolutely no say within the current electoral system, as well as the way that our money dominated system imprisons all of us, in the name of “democracy.”
The URPE conference saw the melding and mutual infusing of activists and academics, scholars and students, workers and intellectuals, all of whom are engaged in a common struggle. Members of the Boston Occupier, for instance were able to secure promises from several presenters to contribute their insights to the pages of the paper in the near future. As Occupy New Hampshire’s Katie Talbert put it: “Workshops were vibrant, the presenters encouraged discussion and truly knew their field of study. Voices of those from other countries, voices from those on the ground and voices and discussion with academics and researchers enlighten each other.”
Those interested in learning about the Union of Radical Political Economists can find more information at www.urpe.org/