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Catalytic Conversion

“Occupy Wall Street” has had tremendous effects even if they were all to pack up their tents and leave right now. It has refocussed the political agenda after years of contrived misdirection by the legislators and “official” commentators who depend on Wall Street for patronage. It has put looting and its consequent inequality firmly at the center of discourse, and despite the organizers’ insouciance about mere electoral politics, the Occupation surely played a role in the reversals of the Republican right agenda on November 8th.

OWS has provoked mixed reactions from across the traditional spectrum. Some on the orthodox left were bemused about how a bunch of counter-culturals with no recognizable (and thus attackable) ideology had managed so much more publicity and, dare we say, effect, than several generations of traditional marches, petitions and rallies by unions, parties and NGOs.

In many a sectarian committee room there is probably much gnashing of teeth with frustration at their inability to seize the leadership of a leaderless movement and set it on the correct path of party building. Of course, OWS is less leaderless than it pretends, but the non-leadership has made a pragmatic principle out of the old religious maxim that anonymous good deeds are worth ten times more than those with names attached.

They had worked for long weeks before hand, preparing for the logistics of food and comfort as well as developing ground rules – above all of non-violence and non-provocation.   They bemused traditional leftists by refusing to draw up a shopping list of demands, which, one suspects designedly defused the sectarian objections that would have certainly have followed any such declaration. There have been some attempts to draw up a program, but some of the published results almost sound like parodies, like the discussions of the radical groups in “The Life of Brian.” Their vacuity is as good as nothing!

That and the flat structure  allows OWS to distance itself from would-be hijackers such as, in early November, the 9-11 Truthers who piggy-backed on the original protest with “Occupy Building 7,” or, presumably any other infiltrators.

Not to detract from OWS’s considerable achievements, they did not have to to reinvent the wheel. The occupation drew from the union-inspired occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol and in some of its showier aspects draws on the more flamboyant end of the progressive spectrum such as “Billionaires for Bush.” Echoes of occupations and situationist tactics from the sixties ring round Zuccotti Square.

Like the  Wisconsin protestors, OWS also learnt from the Arab Spring: occupy a prominent public place, get attacked by thugs in the name of order – and use social media to publicize those excesses. The NYPD obliged when a senior police officer was videoed unprovoked, walking over to women protestors and pepper-spraying galvanizing active participation and support from many people who would otherwise have been passive supporters.

OWS has two roles – on the one hand, its internal dynamics, which cement group solidarity and maintain enthusiasm for long occupation. Even if the rituals of the daily assembly, how to agree or disagree with varying finger wiggles, the human microphone and so on are not exactly calculated to bring in the broad masses, they do keep a sense of solidarity and involvement.

Self consciously taking the collective role of Mohamed Bouazizi as “the single spark that lit a prairie fire,” – without actually spontaneously combusting themselves, OWS is a catalyst.  Catalysts can promote reactions even if they are not affected by  the various components, which might stay inert if not for the presence of the catalyst. In some ways, the question is why the various ingredients of the American (and indeed the global) situation had not exploded earlier. The combination of OWS’s astuteness, timing, location and the fortune of gratuitous police violence have produced success far beyond their wildest dreams.

The causes for an explosion of anger are manifest. Unemployment, immiseration and insecurity spreading: bankers and financiers expecting taxpayers to pay for their mistakes while rewarding themselves with ever-increasing bonuses and fighting off all attempts at regulation, while the legislative process has rarely been so visibly dysfunctional and disconnected from the electoral base. The ruling on the “personhood” corporations was just one part of a process that saw corporation-bought legislators blocking almost all measures to ameliorate the crisis or its effects on ordinary people let alone take remedial measures to prevent a repetition.

However, while ordinary Americans were seething with anger, with few exceptions, none of their elected representatives articulated that anger and one reason was the amount of money that Wall Street firms made available to candidates on both sides.

At a BBC seminar years ago, I asked Tom Brokaw why television had missed the Savings and Loans scandal and he explained that “no one had raised it on the hill.” That was not completely true, Rep. Henry Gonzales of Texas was constantly raising it, and being ignored as the major media went with the Washington consensus of those with their hands in the till, rather than the reality expressed by alleged “fringe” figures.

But now, when Bernie Sanders and others raise the issue of the crisis, it goes viral on alternative media. The 99% were not a silent majority: they were a muffled majority in the major media. Even so, respected economists were articulating reality and people were listening. Even Paul Volcker former Chair of the Federal Reserve shocked his former colleagues  by sympathizing, “It obviously reflects a feeling of restiveness and concern, which I guess is understandable.” The discontent was in the air, like firedamp in a coal-mine waiting for a spark

The showmanship of OWS, the location itself, and the ill-considered officer whose pepper spraying was “worse than a crime: it was a blunder,” ignited all those compounds of discontent. Imaginative and astute New York union leaderships realized that the protest brought their issues to the foreground and helped without trying to take to the helm.  New York’s radical tradition, conveniently existing in the same city as Wall Street, came back to life in solidarity.

To the poll-evaluated satisfaction of the public, the movement put in the pillory the financial engineers who had  brought about the immolation of their world economy had hidden in the smoke and directed the spotlight at Obama, at government spending, at social security and made “entitlement” a pejorative.

The movement made some Democrats choose between their campaign donations and the voters and gave space for others to articulate what they thought anyway. It created space, even on the traditional political playing fields, for the left field to come out fighting. We all owe OWS a huge debt, but unless we indulge in dreams of tumbrils and barricades, the battlefield to be won is electoral – a long March through the government institutions of a kind that many of those shivering Winter Soldiers in Zuccotti Park probably disdain.

 

 

 

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