a journal of modern society & culture

Wall Street Walkers

Resistance always “comes out of nowhere” and smug establishments always are bewildered by it. Such was the case with the irresistible rise of the American civil rights movement, the May 1968 upheaval in France, and the breakup of the Soviet bloc. Just over a month ago it looked like mighty financial players would have it all their own way, awarding trillions to banking malefactors and dispensing costs to everyone else: the old pattern of socialism for the wealthy and social Darwinism for the hoi polloi. This malevolent process has not been reversed but the institutionalized deceits enabling it to go unchallenged no longer work as well as they used to. The ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement, long overdue, will not subside. This is the real thing, the eruption of a countermovement against shameless pro-wealthy policies promoted by both major Parties. The Republicans are incorrigibly hypocritical about, and the Democrats are hopelessly hypnotized by, free market rhetoric (and campaign contributors). Corporate mass media will mock, maul and misrepresent this many-stranded movement until the sustained growth of the new organizing forces make moguls reckon honestly with it.

Vulgar marxists have scored a point. The remorseless squeeze that the economic system, rigged (more than usual) by the super-rich over decades, has inflicted on working people reached the strangling point. Even the slickest propaganda has  real world limits. You cannot get away with telling people who can’t afford to pay needlessly soaring bills that they are doing fine. A swelling but inchoate opposition finally hit on a key crystallizing slogan, compelling sound bites (reflecting deeper thinking), and conjured up an organizational vehicle through which to fuse discontent. The much-mocked leaderlessness, and lack of central manifesto, of the movement is a strength in the early going when authorities unleash every dirty trick in their bulging repertoire to derail this oncoming locomotive. This formidable anarchic movement is the threat that Rightwing billionaires contrived the Tea Party to divert popular energy from becoming. The Tea Partiers blindly blamed the State and refused to notice the privileged private powers who stealthily captured that State.

Since the much-maligned 1960s, which was the high point of real wages, social benefits and civil rights, the Right has connived in every well-funded way to cut salaries and strip rights of “average” Americans, whatever their skin color. Right-wingers detest the 60s because it was a rare era when improving conditions fueled mass demands for social justice at home and abroad. The idolizing of the ‘market’ since Ronald Reagan’s reign camouflaged corporate ploys to escape regulation and to behave lawlessly. Pollute as you like, mistreat workers as you like, corrupt the political system as much as you like – and do it all legally. There comes a point, beyond despair, where ordinary families cannot take it anymore and scramble to find ways to fight back to restore some semblance of decency, where a society again strives to redirect the wealth generated through collective labor for the common good. The Democratic Party, and Obama, are no friends to the people clamoring in the streets but quite soon they will try ever so insincerely to be.

The odious outcome of this four decade squeeze, relieved only by shiny bubbles and easy credit, is destitution for tens of millions and gnawing insecurity for all but the top tier. The Great Recession, as Paul Krugman calls it, is not a ‘double-dip phenomenon. It never ended for the 99%. The US would be sinking in an endless 1930s-style Depression except for the few remaining props of welfare state measures that the Right’s sorry train of presidential candidates all fight so fiercely and deviously to discard. Donate your social security money to Wall Street. It’s safe there, for as long as they can wring commissions and fees from it. The Right’s ideas are confetti. The Tea Party is likely to lose swarms of adherents as a genuine debate arises in the country over the actual causes of national woes. At a Chicago “Occupy” rally I spotted several signs that were Tea Party holdovers carried by folks who don’t understand how the economy really works but may be in for a bracing education. On the other hand, for another possibly telling anecdote, I met a disgruntled Chicago commodities broker, whose clearing bank headed by Jon Corzine just crashed, who utterly identified with the 99%. A movement with that range of allegiance is not going to vanish.

The recitation of motivating calamities ought to be familiar. All productivity gains since 1971 were siphoned by the top bracket. Had those gains been split according to the previous pattern, families would have at least 10 thousand dollars more to spend each year and there would be no excuse for cutting social programs. The US government, hitherto guided by frothing free marketers, devised a technique of practicing Keynesianism exclusively for rich people via bailouts and quantitative easing, which hurts everyone else by driving up prices during a severe economic downturn – which otherwise ought to be impossible. A Wall Street acquaintance told us that his cronies knew the instant the Government announced the first “quantitative easing” cash avalanche that it would flow to Wall Street, which was the only mechanism that could handle influxes of that magnitude, which they then would nudge into commodities speculation to uphold the fortunes of the very people who crashed the economy. Oh yes, and how many troops are being left behind to run Iraq and keep defense industries humming along after Obama “withdraws”?

Obama’s 2008 election demobilized and gulled the very constituencies who otherwise would have applied pressure on government to undertake true remedial, if not radical, policies.  In the 1930s ‘Make me do it,” is what Franklin D Roosevelt encouragingly dared popular organizations to do as he was assembling the New Deal that saved capitalism from itself. Unlike FDR, Obama clearly does not care about people who lack connections and resources, and never really did.  The next question is what is to be done, and I’m not sure that I or any other analyst will come up with answers more creative and potent than will emerge naturally from the growing movement. For now, I’m just glad it’s there.