Thousands demonstrated in Washington and across the US yesterday to protest NSA spying on citizens’ phone calls and electronic communications. A very broad coalition crossed political lines, reflecting a genuine popular movement. Although the “Stop Watching Us” rally was ignored by the mass media, an excellent account of it was carried by Russia Today.
The protest united organizations as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Green Party, Color of Change and Daily Kos to the Libertarian Party, FreedomWorks and Young Americans for Liberty, as well as individuals like Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei and journalist Glenn Greenwald; a punk band, YACHT, performed their song “Party at the NSA/Twenty-twenty-twenty-four hours a day!”
Banners and speeches thanked Edward Snowden for revealing the extent of government surveillance, and a statement from him was read to the crowd by Jesselyn Radack, director of the Government Accountability Project: “Today, no telephone in America makes a call without leaving a record with the NSA. Today, no Internet transaction enters or leaves America without passing through the NSA’s hands.” He denied that surveillance was anything to do with countering terrorism: “It is about power, control, and trust in government; about whether you have a voice in our democracy or decisions are made for you rather than with you. We’re here to remind our government officials that they are public servants, not private investigators,” he said.
Snowden’s revelation that the US is also spying on foreign leaders’ personal phone calls has created more than diplomatic embarrassment. The international relations of the US have been weakened and its Anglophone accomplices in surveillance (the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) isolated at a time when these connections are central to the institution of new trade agreements, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership which gives transnational powers to US corporations. These negotiations are now unlikely to be completed before the end of the year deadline because other states in Southeast Asia and the Americas are pushing back against the terms of the agreement that undermine their national sovereignty. In addition, the government shutdown and impending debt ceiling standoff has called into question the dollar’s facilitation of world trade.
In Congress, Tea Party ideologues have done more than split the Republican party; they have also disrupted Obama’s efforts to rationalize the US state while containing domestic dissent within the established political system. Despite the acquiescence of the political elite, Obama has been unable to negotiate a “Grand Bargain” with Republicans that trades minor tax increases on the rich for cuts in Social Security and Medicare. Robert Reich comments that Washington’s political discourse has been framed entirely “around the size of government and the budget deficit – thereby diverting attention from what’s really going on: the increasing concentration of the nation’s income and wealth at the very top, while most Americans fall further and further behind.”
The plutocratic campaign to avoid taxes, defund the state, and minimize regulation has jeopardized the US’s role in maintaining the conditions for international capital accumulation. But this crisis pales in comparison to its impact on the domestic situation. As Jo Comerford and Mattea Kramer pointed out, “Deep in the politics of the shutdown lies another truth: that it was all about taxes — about, to be more specific, the unwillingness of the Republicans to raise a penny of new tax revenue, even by closing egregious loopholes that give billions away to the richest Americans. Simply shutting down the tax break on capital gains and dividends (at $83 billion annually) would be more than enough to triple funding for Head Start, domestic violence protection, the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program, and cancer care at the NIH.”
The media obsession with the Tea Party has masked the fact that real poverty has increased, especially in the South and West. The middle class has been hit by job cuts and mortgage defaults and is sinking into the ranks of the poor. Millenials are jobless or low-waged and unable to pay back huge student loans. Meanwhile, CEOs’ compensation is skyrocketing while the average wage has plateaued. According to a new study, based on a federal meals program as a proxy for poverty, a majority of students in public schools throughout the American South and West are low-income for the first time in at least four decades. “Children from those low-income families dominated classrooms in 13 states in the South and the four Western states with the largest populations in 2011,” reported the Washington Post. “A decade earlier, just four states reported poor children as a majority of the student population in their public schools. But by 2011, almost half of the nation’s 50 million public-school students — 48 percent — qualified for free or reduced-price meals. In some states, such as Mississippi, that proportion rose as high as 71 percent.”
Resistance doesn’t make the headlines, but is building in different forms. The low-waged campaign for a $15 minimum wage is, of necessity, not an economic strike struggle, but is aimed at mobilizing public opinion against highly-paid CEOs, leveraging the rhetoric of the Occupy movement. The overwhelming support for Bill DeBlasio in the New York mayoral election is a sign of the popular reception of politicians who – at least rhetorically – address the actual problems faced by voters and oppose the enrichment of the one percent. Unrepentant Marxists like Louis Proyect have questioned his character, but this focus misses the significance of the support he is getting for an openly left populist platform. No doubt he will make compromises with the financial class, as anyone with connections to the Clintons would, but his support for fast-food workers in New York City does more than burnish his populist credentials. It also gives major legislative encouragement to the broadening of their campaign.
The Nation comments: “… de Blasio’s appearance Wednesday outside a downtown Burger King signaled a potentially new moment for both city politics and Fast Food Forward, the coalition behind New Yorkers fast-food worker campaign. As the mayor-apparent of New York City, de Blasio is not just some scrappy, local pol offering a thumbs up to a worthy cause; he is a rising political power with a broad mandate and potentially national platform (indeed, de Blasio is now one of the highest-ranking elected officials to embrace the fast-food workers’ movement).”
Another signal of the popular mood is the viral internet response to comedian Russell Brand’s BBC interview, not only because of his articulation of the estrangement the public feels from the parliamentary process, but also because of his spirited deconstruction of the arguments of the interviewer, Jeremy Paxman. Brand insisted that voting had not stopped the corruption of politicians or the jeopardy of the planet and that the political system had created a disenfranchised public that it failed to serve. “It is not that I am not voting out of apathy. I am not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery and deceit of the political class that has been going on for generations,” he said. He placed the blame for voter apathy on a system that no longer heard or addressed the vast majority of people, suggesting that politicians were only interested in “serving the needs of corporations” and that an administrative system based on the “massive redistribution of wealth” should replace the status quo.
The indications are that the corporate-led squeeze on workers and the push of the wealthiest to destroy the social safety net has created the possibility of a renewal of protests along the lines of the Occupy movement, but on a vastly broader scale. The tactics of the old Occupy confined direct participation to those able to spend nights away from home or work. A more extensive and diverse challenge to the plutocratic hijacking of the political system may well appear in the next few months, with the restoration of popular sovereignty at its heart.