Saturday, October 8, 2011
Occupying Occupying Wall Street?
I admit I was one of the doubters. The initial actions of the occupiers—their diffuseness, the tendency toward a psychological interpretation of the problem (greed versus niceness)—led me to think that this would be just another blip on the political radar.
How wrong I was. There was a deep insight beneath the gentle anarchy, that a movement against the rule of finance must be amorphous, at least initially, so that as large a swath of society as possible could see themselves reflected in it. Of course, it also helped that the timing was spot on: we are in the political season of debates between Republicans about how far back we should go—whether to 1959 (erase the 60s), 1932 (erase the New Deal), 1912 (erase the Fed and the income tax), or somewhere further on—but not a squeak from the other side against the dreadful politics of the Obama administration. OWS is giving us the chance to have this missing debate out in public. That’s why it has attracted labor unions, enviro groups and even a few dissident economists to its encampment in New York, while it spawns occubots in towns and cities across the country.
This success also presents a big risk, the potential for cooptation. The problem is very specific: the Democratic Party has a modern history of deploying populist rhetoric during its campaigns (Clinton, Obama) and doing the bidding of Wall Street and its minions once in power. This is one reason why the rhetoric has lost a lot of its force: denouncing the upper 1% sounds like a cynical ploy to get ordinary people, once more, to sign off on policies that will fleece the bottom 99.
It has to be added that the labor movement has not yet extricated itself from this game. It talks the right talk, but when election time roles around class mobilization translates into staffing phone banks for just about any Democrat to the left of Newt Gingrich.
What I’m suggesting is that the occupards need to develop enough of a collective voice to distinguish their movement from generic populist rhetoric. This is not at all the same as agreeing on a list of demands. The point to bear in mind is that the fundamental problem is not that there aren’t good ideas out there, but that finance and allied wealth-holders who see the world through their portfolios have too much power. The purpose of citizen activism should be to take that power away. This will require, sooner or later, an institutionalized force separate from the Democratic Party that, while it may disagree internally about lots of things, knows that this power shift is job one. In other words, it’s not about demands but self-definition—who we are and what brings us together.
99% is a start, but it needs that extra piece that clearly distinguishes itself from empty populism. However it expresses itself, that piece has to be about breaking free of the hostage syndrome (of which Obama is the current spokesman) and calling for less money and less political power—a whole lot less—for finance.