The Occupy Wall Street/We Are the 99 Percent movement has sparked a tremendous amount of discussion in the media this past week. Much of this commentary reveals only how difficult it is for people whose thinking is steeped in an understanding of how politics is “supposed to work” to get their heads around the nature of this new movement. However, there are also many indications in the blogosphere that some hard thinking is being done about it.
“Not Yet a Sansculotte” comments on my post “the (Tea) Party’s over”: “Without losing solidarity with other citizens around the globe who have demanded justice and accountability from their governments at great risk, I think we must emphasize the need to make sense of the 99 Percent in terms of what is particular to our American context at this moment. By unsettling conventional ways of framing political power, the 99 Percenters are challenging us to come up with new categories for thinking about our personal, local, and national reality.”
While it is clear that “Occupy Wall Street” indeed took inspiration from movements in Egypt, India, Spain, and elsewhere, I must agree with my critic that stressing this aspect tends to minimize and distract from the particularity of the 99 Percent movement. Firstly, I would suggest that a major difference with other movements is that the initial target of the occupation itself – Wall Street – is ideally symbolic of the systemic crisis at the heart of the U.S. today. It has resonated so loudly with the rest of the country because millions of Americans are already feeling the effects of the bank bailouts, the drive to cut welfare spending, and home foreclosures.
Naomi Klein makes some interesting points along these lines in the New York Times “Room For Debate” discussion: “Today’s protesters have chosen a fixed target: Wall Street, a symbol of the corporate takeover of democracy. And they have put no end date on their presence. This gives them time to put down roots, which is going to make it a lot harder to sweep them away, even if they get kicked out of one physical space. Something else they are doing right: they have committed themselves to nonviolence and to being good neighbors to local businesses. That means broken windows and street fights aren’t upstaging the message in the media. And when police attack peaceful occupiers (and the protesters catch it on camera), it generates tremendous sympathy for the cause.”
Secondly, because the occupiers have refused to put forward formal political demands at this stage, their stand has not only attracted public support, but also has given a focus to other movements which were already campaigning on diverse issues which are all at bottom aspects of the political domination of the super-rich. Unions, anti-war protesters, and environmental groups protesting the Alaska-Texas pipeline, for example, have joined forces with the occupation in recent days.
And a third difference is that the U.S. government and Obama himself have so brazenly refused to punish the bankers who caused the financial meltdown of 2008 and have allowed them to remain in place, continue their illegal practices, and turn on the taxpayers who funded their bailout. People who feel disempowered, disenfranchised and disgusted by these events see their reflection in the stance of the occupiers against corporate control of the whole political process.
Jodi Dean in her blog “I cite” did me the great honor of reproducing my attempt to explain the way the movement was self-organizing in “Grassroots organization with integrity.” But she also criticized a quote I took from Washington Post’s Ezra Klein to the effect that the majority of Americans want to see the social bargain restored. This, she said, was implicitly imposing a limit on how far the movement could go, was ruling out revolution by “a restorationist practice that wants to go back to an America mythologized as one where the rules worked.”
And of course she’s right. This restorationist mythology is even now being taken up by the Democratic leadership in an attempt to confine the movement to Obama’s re-election campaign. My intention was to indicate the breadth of support for the movement from the majority of Americans because of the urgency of our problems. On reflection I should have written more critically that the past only appears appealing right now because we are working to exhaustion trying to stay afloat. The refusal of the Wall Street occupiers to limit their presence or their aims signifies a connection with this reality.
The attempts of political operatives to contain and denigrate the occupations highlight the vulnerability of the ruling elite, as Yves Smith pointed out in Naked Capitalism: “Despite the high level of press coverage, relatively few people have yet to participate in these gatherings. But this effort is applying pressure on the deepest fault line in American society, is not going away and continues to gain ground. Even if OWS does not mature into a political force, it is already having an impact, by shifting the nature of discourse and unearthing rotting corpses that the top 1% and their allies in the chattering classes hoped to keep buried: the fact that ordinary citizens have been on the wrong side of the greatest transfer of wealth in history, and virtually all of their supposed protectors stood by or had their hands in the till. No wonder those at the top of the food chain feel so threatened.”
Many commentators in the mainstream media are comparing the “We Are the 99 percent” movement to the Tea Party, describing them both as populist. But there is no real comparison here. The Tea Party from its beginnings was a top-down movement dominated by Republican operatives and interest groups. Paul Street and Anthony DiMaggio, who conducted an investigation of the organization, could find little evidence of actual grassroots activity and much evidence of a “populist” mythology invented to cover its real function in electing Republicans in 2010 and pushing the party to the right. (Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics, Paradigm, Boulder, CO, 2011)
Those in the public who express general support for the Tea Party even when they themselves are not rich do so on an ideological basis. But people’s ideologies can change. The “Occupy Wall Street” movement, on the other hand, is rooted in the realities of people’s lives. Many of the young people who started the occupation have been to college and found themselves with crippling student debt and no hope of finding a job to pay it back. Their futures are literally mortgaged to the banking industry. They are living paycheck-to-paycheck and in constant fear of eviction and homelessness. This economic straitjacket not only motivates their protest but also links them to millions of Americans who face similar pressures. This is why “We Are the 99 Percent” slogan is so effective: it defines a collective class and political identity in opposition to the one percent who have taken control of the country’s wealth and power.