The Democratic Party leadership are attempting to explain the “We Are the 99 Percent” movement as merely an expression of people’s anger and frustration with the banks, and not with themselves. Joe Biden asserted “there’s a lot in common with the Tea Party” – a ridiculous and superficial comparison which has no basis in fact. As I have argued consistently in this blog, the Tea Party is a fake movement which was set up by Republicans so they could behave badly; a rebranding of the Republican Party with no more substance than changing the name of NYNEX to Verizon.
In any case, the “Occupy Wall Street/We Are the 99 Percent” movement has made the Tea Party as yesterday’s news as Sarah Palin. It is a qualitatively new, genuine grassroots movement which channels the energy and enthusiasm of a generation of Americans, while at the same time taking inspiration from Cairo’s Tahrir Square and Spanish acampadas, the exact opposite in fact of corporate globalization. Interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, Laurie Penny, a writer and journalist, noted how similar the non-hierarchical leadership structure of the occupation was to protests in London and Spain. She said: “… it’s striking to me how much this seems to be not about America or about any individual country, but about a global uprising.”
Tim Frasca emailed this account of Wednesday’s march to the Guardian: “I can say as a veteran of these things (I’m 60) that the march had a real spontaneous spirit, tons of hand-lettered signs, that sort of thing. I felt that it is tapping into a widespread sense of anger and discouragement and lack of an outlet to express oneself given that Obama is so much in the pocket of the banks. There was nothing directed at him, but it is interesting to see that there was no mention of politicians at all, just banksters like Blankfein et al. And the main chant, Banks got bailed out, We got sold out, reflects this attitude, that we are on our own and no one represents us. This is bad news for Obama, but it means that no one is looking to the electoral system to resolve anything. I find that significant. My favorite sign: ‘I’ll believe corporations are people when the state of Georgia executes one’.”
Precisely because of its horizontal democracy and its refusal to be incorporated into the stalemated electoral system, the movement touches many of those who encounter it in a way that changes them. The New York Times reported that the occupation in Zuccotti Park has become a magnet for scores of New Yorkers who have never been involved with a protest before. Among them, “Peter Gavaghen, 50, a Brooklyn-born ironworker who lives in New Jersey, first went to the square with his 12-year-old daughter last week for her school project about current events. But Mr. Gavaghen, who is grizzled and lanky and working on 2 World Trade Center, found himself returning. He said his own father had saved $250,000 to pay for college for Mr. Gavaghen’s three children, but he said the money was lost when Lehman Brothers collapsed. Mr. Gavaghen said the government bailout of banks still bothered him. ‘I’ve never been a victim of anything, but I feel like a victim now,’ Mr. Gavaghen said softly. ‘I feel connected to these people’.”
Matt Stoller has written a very perceptive piece in Naked Capitalism about how this connection is sustained: “I have been through a few general assemblies now, and they are remarkable because the point of the assembly is to truly put listening at the heart of decision-making. There’s no electronic amplification allowed in Zuccotti Square. So the organizers have figured out an organic microphone system. A speaker says a half a sentence, everyone in earshot repeats, until the whole park can hear that half a sentence. Then the speaker says another half a sentence. People use hand signals to indicate approval, disapproval, get a move on, or various forms of objections and clarifications. During these speeches, speakers often explicitly ask for more gender and racial diversity, which is known as ‘progressive stacking’.
“At first it’s extremely… annoying. And time-consuming. But after a few hours, it’s oddly refreshing. I felt completely included as part of a community forum even though I had not been a speaker. But what I realized is that the act of listening, embedded in the active reflecting of what the speaker was saying, created a far richer conversational space. Actually reflecting back to one another what someone just said is a technique used by therapists, and by pandering politicians. There is nothing so euphoric in a community sense as truly feeling heard. That’s what the general assembly was about, not a democracy in the sense of voting, but a democracy in the sense of truly respecting the humanity of everyone in the forum. It took work. It took patience. But it created a communal sense of power. … This kind of power, the power that comes from the trust and love of other people, doesn’t emerge from a list of policy demands. It comes from the formation of a public, through the appreciation and sharing of a public space. …
“This dynamic is why it’s so hard for the traditional political operators to understand #OccupyWallStreet. It must be an angry group of hippies. Or slackers. Or it’s a revolution. It’s a left-wing tea party. The ignorance is embedded in the questions. One of the most constant complaints one hears in DC about #OccupyWallStreet is that the group has no demands. Its message isn’t tight. It has no leaders. It has no policy agenda. Just what does ‘it’ want, anyway? On the other side of the aisle, one hears a sort of sneering ‘get a job’ line, an angry reaction to a phenomenon no one in power really understands. The gnashing of teeth veers quickly from condescension to irritation and back.
“Many liberal groups want to ‘help’ by offering a more mainstream version, by explaining it to the press, by cheering how great the occupation is while carefully ensuring that wiser and more experienced hands eventually take over. These impulses are guiding by the received assumptions about how power works in modern America. … The Democratic establishment is finding itself tied in knots over how to react to the protests. Many want a left-wing version of the tea party, whereas others are deeply uncomfortable with democratic impulses like this one.”
As I write this on my Mac laptop, I am saddened by the death of Steve Jobs. All of us who use Macs or iPods or iPhones are connected to him in some way. Much is being written about him, good and bad, but I only know that he had an amazing sense of how products could be made an extension of how people thought and felt. He employed artists to design interfaces, and once said: “Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer, that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”