US media are obsessed with Tea Party Republican threats to crash the economy and Ted Cruz’s self-promoting talkathon about Obamacare, while more important news gets buried. US Senate hearings into abuse of NSA surveillance powers, far from representing popular opposition to the spying, in practice demonstrated nothing but the security agencies’ regulatory capture of Congressional committees. Fuming at their exposure by Edward Snowden, officials said they were finding ways to “counter the popular narrative” in order to keep monitoring citizens’ phone calls. Only Senator Ron Wyden challenged this story: the NSA leadership, he said, “built an intelligence collection system that repeatedly deceived the American people.”
This is the defining feature of US politics today – the diverging trajectories of the public and the executive branch. While the administration is negotiating secret trade agreements that would lock in corporate hegemony over small nations and the US population (such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP), there is growing domestic opposition to the administration’s plans for far-flung military interventions and its refusal to curb the excesses of big banks.
The lack of international and domestic support for these strategies is what constrains the Obama administration from continuing the course set by George W. Bush. Obama’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday was a blunt assertion of neo-imperial ideology, while denying the label of empire. He said: “The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure our core interests in the region. … We will ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world.”
His realpolitik made Bush look like a starry-eyed idealist, while giving his message a liberal tinge by warning that US disengagement from the Middle East would lead to chaos by “creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.” This tone-deaf (to other countries) remark seemed intended primarily to bring his Congressional critics into line. Journalist Jeremy Scahill was flabbergasted by the speech, pointing out that Obama “basically stakes out a neo-con vision of American foreign policy and owns it and kind of wraps it in this cloak of democratic legitimacy.”
On the one hand, public disillusion with the US imperial role stems from Americans’ experience of Iraq and Afghanistan. But it is also connected to the revelations of NSA surveillance and growing economic impoverishment at home. Americans see themselves potentially caught in a vise of lost opportunity and lost rights. The administration is seeing pushback from several fronts: from the Occupy movement to whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, and even real congressional opposition within the Democratic party, to be distinguished from the sideshow theatrics of the Tea Party extreme right.
Take for instance the success of Democratic senators’ opposition to Obama’s pick for Federal Reserve chair, Larry Summers. Ezra Klein reported in the Washington Post: “Summers really fell because those Senate Democrats — and many other liberals — don’t trust the Obama administration’s entire approach to regulating Wall Street. … Liberals want to see the biggest banks broken apart so they’re easier to oversee and less of a threat to the financial system if they go bust. … The Obama administration simply disagrees that this concentration is, in and of itself, a problem.”
Harold Meyerson makes clear that these political divisions have their source in a profound social distrust of corporations and the financial sector. He explains that “the abject failures of the market economy” are creating a “growing conflict between those Democrats who have hitched their wagons to Wall Street [like Cory Booker and Rahm Emanuel]… and those … who believe government’s role is in advancing the interests of the middle class and protecting it from finance. … what Warren & Co. have going for them is millennials’ pervasive disenchantment with the market economics that have plunged them into a nightmare of unemployment and undercompensation.”
The same pervasive disenchantment with the results of neoliberal market economics that led to Occupy Wall Street’s rise two years ago continues to simmer. The campaign of the low-waged for a $15 minimum hourly rate taps into that same sensibility. Their argument is that they are forced to subsist on a pittance while the corporate owners make billions out of their labor. Bill de Blasio’s campaign for New York mayor is also boosted by the same anti-inequality sentiment.
Before Occupy came on the scene, public criticism of the super-affluent was taboo. Media commentators and political figures felt obliged to portray them as a shining symbol of capitalism’s success. Occupy’s most lasting legacy is a shift in the national discourse that identifies the antagonism between the “one percent” and the American public, one that surfaced again clearly in the political reaction to Romney’s “47 percent” remarks during the 2012 election.
Many of Occupy’s activists had voted for Obama in 2008 and became disgusted with his administration’s refusal to curb bank predations or to prosecute a single banker. The wildfire spread of occupations – alarming the establishment – brought together many preexisting protest and community campaigns around a common focus. As Rebecca Solnit writes: “Almost as soon as Occupy Wall Street appeared in the fall of 2011, it was clear that the national conversation had changed, that the brutality and obscenity of Wall Street was suddenly being openly discussed, that the suffering of ordinary people crushed by the burden of medical, housing, or college debt was coming out of the shadows, that the Occupy encampments had become places where people could testify about the destruction of their hopes and lives.”
The experimental communities of occupiers were not able to withstand systematic state disruption and the difficulties of maintaining their camps in a hostile environment. The movement returned to its diverse origins – transformed by the experience but unable to continue general assemblies without the imperatives of communal survival keeping the components of the movement together – leaving intact networks that re-emerged when state institutions failed the community, such as Occupy Sandy.
Writing in CounterPunch, Steven Sherman discusses Occupy’s inherent weaknesses. He writes: “Occupy encampments were already starting to suffer exhaustion when they were swept off the streets by the police after about two months … Movements have been known to meet in union halls, community centers and many other places. You don’t actually need a camp out to have a movement. And yet Occupy did go into a tailspin. … The sense that the movement was growing and growing, that a call for a radically different sort of politics had truly touched a nerve, that ‘we are unstoppable’ has utterly receded.”
But it did not simply fall apart. Author and journalist Nathan Schneider points out: “This was a movement that was systematically torn apart by the security state, by the militarized police forces in cities all across the country. …It was not only brute force. In meeting after meeting after meeting, there were clear infiltrators who were disrupting the discussions and making sure that no sustainable organizing practices could take hold.”
Clearly the movement did not pose a physical danger to society by taking over public spaces. The threat to the ruling elite was primarily ideological, it seems to me. Occupy captured the public imaginary in a way that had not happened since the 1970s, and broke through the structure of social control that had confined dissent to ineffective and contained protests and to the two-party system.
Obama’s public role was to divert resistance into his re-election, leveraging the sentiment Occupy channeled by adopting its rhetoric. It’s a testimony to his political skill that his own role in the 2008 TARP bailout is not more clearly remembered and that he is able to retain his appeal as a symbol of the social movement that elected him.
The suppression of Occupy didn’t destroy this social movement, which is making itself felt in a subterranean way through the political system. The unlikely alliances of Democrats and libertarian Republicans in Congress express, however mutedly, intense public discontent with the way the Obama administration is running the country on behalf of Wall Street and the business classes while the plight of the average American is glossed over with soothing rhetorical phrases.