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.


Shag from Brookline said...

My introduction to economics was an introductory course back in 1949 when I was enrolled in a pre-law college program. At the time, I was not aware of the descriptive "dismal science" for the subject. But the course was dismal as the instructor spent most of the class time putting graphs on the blackboard with very little narrative; and the text for the course also lacked narrative.

I have only two chapters left of Sylvia Nasar's "The Grand Pursuit." She is a great storyteller and no longer is the subject of economics dismal to me. While the author focuses upon geniuses, I learned more history than I had previously known on economics. I learned of many protests over the years in both England, America and continental Europe during difficult financial times, which places the OWS protests in perspective.

I have tried to access the 92nd St. Y recent program featuring Nasar and Paul Krugman, but without success. Krugman had an interesting NYTimes column on the OWS protests yesterday (10/7/11). Overtime, perhaps these protests may become more effective. Unemployment is a serious condition. Perhaps more of the unemployed/underemployed will express their concerns.

I'm reminded of the story about a man and his stubborn mule who would not move as desired. A bystander told the man he was not dealing with the situation properly, so the man said, "OK, if you're so smart, you do it." So the bystander picked up a nearby 2x4 and whacked the mule between the eyes, then was able with the rope tethered to the mule to move the mule, telling the man: "First you've got to get its attention." So perhaps politicians - of both parties - will cease to be stubborn as the OWS protests spread.

Rob said...

The public disquiet (seen as 'disquiet' in Australian news coverage) may eventually turn into Shag's proverbial 4 x 2 (Australians must stack their timber on the other edge).

The transfer of power will need more than just individuals doing more for themselves, as Brenda Rosser suggested will be ecologically necessary, see an earlier comment. There are human needs that are best met by large-scale industries. We simply don't have enough years in our lives to fashion ploughs out of old Cadillac exhaust systems - or enough food to waste on the donkeys that will pull them. That said, fending for one's self is a good use of the spare time of the 'unemployed'.

The role of transfer of power to support the needs of the general population must still come from some sort of democratic process. And the language needed to frame the debates must come somewhere - academics, sure, but not alone.

Policies need to be based on some key fundamentals to constrain the existing run-away exploitation by both the financial sector and the companies that they fund.

I see the concept of 'risk' as a pivotal notion. It is one that could do with some public discussion. Seems to me that the point at which money seems to be divorced from human need is when it is given to non-human entities with human rights. The ecological constraints that act on humans should constrain companies. I see this as dealing with the risk of losing real wealth.

Then there is the risk of losing financial wealth. This is where some economists could help me. Is there some way to tune policies to distinguish between speculation and the risk needed to develop ideas that are useful to humans?

I gather that first order derivatives such as futures started out as useful. What about bundles of mortgages? How do we get to the stage where we have more debt on the planet than wealth to repay it? Why is it that the worth of a company is defined by the creativity of accountants and the dreams of their investors - banks or otherwise?

Financial transactions tax might go some way to dispersing the speculative accumulation arising from the game of 'pass-the-debt-parcel'. I suspect such a tax will just inflate the debt rather than redistribute the 'returns'. Is there a way to stop the game itself - a language that distinguishes right transactional risk from wrong risk transaction?

TheTrucker said...

For Rob:

I THINK that we will be seeing a correction in the coming months as people really are moving their money out of the big banks and into state banks and credit unions. In itself this will not resolve the issue. But if the FED and the congress refuse to reinstate the wall between baking and "investment" (otherwise know as speculation) then it may well be that the people will do a large part of it on their own. I can see no real need for the true small businesses and/or most individuals to use the the big banks.

At present, the FED is giving them a gravy train by paying interest on reserves. Ludicrous.