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Walking Wall Street

Certain times require a spark: not merely to ignite action but to foster some sense of historical understanding. This is one of those moments and Occupy Wall Street struck the match. Frustrated over the seemingly intractable character of the financial crisis that began in 2007, and the inability of established political organizations to do anything about it, American activists and anarchists of a new stripe took up a suggestion from the Canadian magazine Ad-Busters to occupy the center of New York’s financial district and the heart of global capitalism. These activists were not part of some half-crazed mob of fanatics as suggested by Newt Gingrich, Eric Cantor, Bill O’Reilly and other luminaries of the Tea Party and Fox News. Occupy Wall Street was inspired by the Arab Spring but even more by the street protests in Greece, Italy, and other nations teetering on the brink of financial insolvency. Everywhere the insatiable greed and arrogant irresponsibility of banks “too large to fail” and their lavishly paid CEO’s were generating the kind of economic inequality that was virtually unimaginable a generation ago. So it was that the bold actions of those who flocked to tiny Zuccotti Parkin Manhattan on September 17, 2011 produced a chain reaction of other occupations in major cities throughout the United States and nearly one thousand cities worldwide — undoubtedly with more to follow.

The ruling classes may not yet be trembling but now, at least, they have something to think about. If nothing else, and this is a great deal, Occupy Wall Street has changed the political discourse. For nearly two years, Americans have been caught between a rock and a hard place. Political debate has been stifled. Intent upon obliterating the welfare state, and turning the United States into an unrestricted playground for corporate capital, Republicans have waged war against President Barack Obama. Disclaiming responsibility for the legacy of President George W. Bush, whose reign was marked by the gutting of all corporate oversight, and the largest upward shift in wealth and income in American history, these reactionary free marketers wouldn’t give an inch and they spit on the olive branches that were offered them.  One deal followed another on health care, the bailouts, energy, and the deficits. Saddled with a significant minority of conservative “blue dog” Democrats, vilified by the Tea Party, Obama’s policies appeared as one long attempt to appease the far right and mitigate its agenda. Even the most stalwart of his former supporters were becoming disillusioned and demoralized. The old talk of “hope” and a “new day” rang increasingly hollow with each report of rising unemployment coupled with rising corporate profits. Traditional demonstrations inWashingtonand a few other big cities sponsored by unions and various left-wing coalitions were sparsely attended. They lacked energy and a purposeful sense of solidarity.  

Occupy Wall Street stepped into the breech. Its slogan “We are the 99%!” sought to highlight the blatant unfairness of a situation in which, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (September 9, 2009), two-thirds of the nation’s total income gains from 2002 to 2007 flowed to the top-1 percent of U.S. households. Taxation is outrageously skewed to the rich. Federal bank bailouts show that the most powerful institutions are not willing to play by the rules that they impose on everyone else. Dealing with an unemployment rate of above 9% is far less important than shrinking federal budgetary deficits for the 1% of America that controls nearly half its wealth. Outsourcing becomes just another way for the kings of capital to find cheaper labor –and deregulation allows them to work every loophole to increase their profits. Recession and reaction spurred Occupy Wall Street and, even more than that, its supporters among unions, community groups, and everyday people who undertook the peaceful marches to City Hall, Times Square, and elsewhere.   

Occupy Wall Street had an anarchist flavor from the beginning. Banners magically appeared and slogans were coined. Tents were pitched, sleeping bags tossed one next to the other, food was donated, first aid stations were manned, and sanitation facilities were imported. Street performers provided entertainment and music. The style was that of the 1960s. A flurry of practical innovation took place in Zuccotti Park. Political forums spontaneously arose with a host of committees, unwritten rules of procedure to allow even the most shy and reserved to participate, and a general assembly. Dozens of plans are making the rounds on the web. Some are naïve and others disturbing. A few people envision shutting down the Federal Reserve and ending bailouts. There is also talk about a National Convention on July 4th resting on the election of one man and one woman from each of the 435 existing congressional districts to a general assembly that will then present a list of grievances and demands to all branches of government: refusal to act on these various petitions will supposedly result in recalls of all governmental officials including those sitting on the Supreme Court. (Linette Lopez, “Occupy Wall Street’s Plans for a National Convention” in Reader Supported News: 15 October 2011).  But, then,Occupy Wall Street has only been in existence for a short time. Its activists have shown no lack of visionary ferment while coordinating various days of action.

Occupy Wall Street has its pretentions. And, for the time being, they have been inflated by less a critical than a pandering media. The young people in the tents and the sleeping bags, who were prepared for an indefinite stay, are deeply disillusioned with representative democracy. All of them consider their movement new – a break from the past. But it is actually a contemporary expression of a tradition that reaches back to the ParisCommune, the Mass Strike of 1905, the workers councils of 1918-1923, the Spanish Anarchists of 1936, and the global uprisings of 1968. In the United States, more specifically, Occupy Wall Streetstands in a direct line with the radical tradition of participatory democracy, the town meeting, and the horizontal organization of power. Its anarchist advocates call for a new language, a new consensus, and even a new spirituality that rejects ideology and “political” conflict. What might be termed the core of the movement is obsessed with the thought of being co-opted by those liberals and socialists on the periphery still willing to play ball with capital and the political establishment.

There is nothing wrong with thinking about new ideas on political participation and mobilization. But self-styled radicals should begin thinking more cogently about the structural imperatives of the capitalist accumulation process, its contradictions, and the dynamics that produced the financial crisis in the first place. Idealists need to consider how democracy might enter the workplace. Democrats cannot afford to ignore how the lack of vertical structures of procedure and accountability made it easy for tight-knit sectarian groups to manipulate participatory movements in the past. Imagination is required to develop new forms of solidarity that link class and identity, centralization and decentralization, as well as institutional accountability and democratic participation. These are long-range undertakings and, arguably, utopian. But they contribute to fostering a class ideal and an ethical framework for the pursuit of more concrete tasks. Occupy Wall Street is (for right or wrong) already identified in the public mind with bringing the troops home, free education, regulating capital, equitable tax codes, and placing “people before profits.”

Liberal “pragmatists” should not feel too smug. They have not exactly faced up to the parochial and energized minions of the Tea Party. Their criticisms are also often hypocritically used to justify a return to business as usual. Asking what has been “accomplished” or the inevitable follow-up questions about “tactics” and “goals,” more often than not serves as an indication of bad faith. Occupy Wall Street has sparked world-wide demonstrations with millions of participants – all while the cynics were making their wisecracks.  It alone has responded to the economic and political class war initiated by the Bush Administration. Not liberal pragmatists or political professionals but the idealists and the radicals have driven the Tea Party and its Republican sycophants off the front pages. Occupy Wall Street has energized the unions and community groups. Occupations in different cities with different needs and different constituencies have created publicity for a plethora of progressive and radical issues ranging from free higher education and jobs for teachers to aid for the elderly and animal rights. Occupy Wall Street  has also provided the impetus – and a kind of practical legitimacy — for what has become a more aggressive jobs-oriented left-turn by the Obama Administration. Those are all good things.

Tempering the whip of the market, controlling capital and preventing its poisoning of the electoral process all call for strengthening the bureaucratic welfare state – not abolishing it. Dealing with these concerns in practice assumes making this explicit in theory. But that admission does not compromise Occupy Wall Street. Quite the contrary: changes of this sort will not come without public outrage, without radical attempts to mobilize the base, and without radical dreams of a new and better society. Formulating specific policies and legislation is what the movement is about: it is the province of the pragmatists and the technocrats. Occupy Wall Street can best protect itself from them  — and mitigate the inevitable dangers of bureaucracy and co-optation – simply by continuing to do what it is already doing: target ever new sites of injustices, highlight grievances, build class solidarity, and inspire mass action. To the extent that Occupy Wall Street is successful it will increase its ability to criticize and badger the progressive establishment to address the needs of working people and the poor. The fact of the matter is that the core and the periphery, the idealists and the pragmatists, the mass movement and the political establishment are fare ultimately interdependent. Each set of forces is different in what it can and cannot do. Tensions will inevitably exist between them. Especially in the United States, however, spontaneous radicalism and organized progressivism are now feeding off one another. And they are doing so in a remarkably constructive way. Such is the fascinating dialectic has turned Occupy Wall Street into “the tipping point” of contemporary politics.

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1 comment

1 Claire Snyder-Hall { 11.16.11 at 6:23 pm }

Great analysis. I look forward to seeing the movement move forward constructively.