Sunday, September 16, 2012

Is Occupy a Fizzle?

Occupy is one year old this weekend.  As quickly as it appeared, it seems to have just as quickly dropped off the radar.  What happened?

Certainly heavy handed police tactics played a role, and they seem to have been effective, culling participation down to the hardcore few by scaring off sympathizers who might not want to go up against teargas, pepper spray, and clubs.  The NYPD might not have been the worst, but they were the most effectively brutal with their eviction of Occupiers from Liberty Park in the wee hours of the morning, and their raids on the homes of Occupy activists in Brooklyn on the morning of May Day. And now, some Occupy activists are facing trial here in New York and elsewhere.

Intimidation works.

I also think disappointment played a role.  Occupy was born out of disappointment; disappointment with the cautious watered down progressivism of the Obama Administration and the Democratic Party.  From what I've been able to observe, the Left is too easily prone to discouragement (and I include myself here).  We expect the Masses to rise up and rally round the Torch of Liberty at the opening shot, and that Social Democracy will arise like the morning sun.  And when that doesn't happen, we all go home and sulk.  Our anarchist sympathies prevent us from setting up structures and building institutions for sustained struggle.

I remember when shortly after Occupy began, all these fired up formerly middle class white kids descended upon neighborhoods like East New York in Brooklyn to fight home foreclosures.  They arrived to find neighborhood activists who were neither white nor middle class who had been fighting this struggle for a long time.  At first, the residents resented the enthusiastic intruders, but eventually became their mentors, teaching them skills and resilience necessary to fight foreclosures back in their own formerly middle class neighborhoods.  Indeed if the movement survives and continues, it's in thousands of smaller local efforts to tackle the excesses and criminality of a too powerful financial industry that go unnoticed by the media or the cops.

Will we see Occupy or its like again?  Who knows.  We still have our system of legalized corruption.  Our country still steadily transitions from democracy to oligarchy.   The grievances that caused Occupy are still there unabated.


The media frequently compare Occupy and the Teabaggers, part of the conventional media truism that both left and right are equivalent, a truism that says more about the media than it does about reality.
Media experts frequently point out how Teabaggers got involved in electoral politics and Occupy didn't.  What's missing from this analysis is a crucial distinction.  Teabagistan got lots of corporate funding (I once joked that a Teabagger occupation in the winter would take place in heated pre-fab huts donated by one of Karl Rove's pacs).  Occupy operated on  shoestring budgets and relied heavily on contributions, not just of money, but of supplies and services.  The teabaggers got appropriated by the GOP, but they wanted to get coopted.   I've always argued that the Tea Party is nothing more than the same old right wing of the GOP that's been around for 60 years.  Its fury is not driven by the Lesser Depression, but by the fear of demographic and cultural change.

Occupy really did come out of the economic collapse of 2008.  Media experts noted how late after the collapse Occupy appeared.  It took all those young white middle class kids raised on rugged individualism awhile to figure out that they were not alone in facing huge amounts of debt with little or no employment prospects, or while working long hours for tiny wages.  It took awhile for people to realize that they were not alone in seeing the equity on their homes collapse while their mortgages continued to rise, or in losing their homes to foreclosure, sometimes arbitrary and mistaken foreclosures by banks in actions that in other parts of society would be called crime.  My friend Weiben Wang always pointed out the very white and middle class nature of Occupy, even while attending Occupy events.  Indeed, a lot of people who always counted on being enfranchised, respected, and secure found themselves disenfranchised, dissed, and in peril after 2008.  Professionals found themselves reduced to salaried employees.  Students found themselves shut out of the professional class, even if they had exceptional skills and graduate degrees.  Home owners who counted on the security of their property found themselves with broken nest eggs.
People who for 3 or 4 generations took for granted that they would be the beneficiaries of The System, now found themselves rejected and outside of it.  They awoke and found themselves the losers in what turned out to be the largest redistribution of the nation's wealth in history.  Since 1981, Uncle Sam has been robbing from the poor (and the middle) to give to the rich.  We now have effectively a tax-payer subsidized plutocratic oligarchy. Those who long thought they were the System's beneficiaries discovered that they were only its chumps.

Occupy emerged out of those very bourgeois virtues of independence and initiative, and in reaction against those very bourgeois vices of greed and hypocrisy.

White middle class people suddenly found that they had common cause with those not-so-white, not-so-middle class people that they feared and resented for so long.  Fortunately, people on all sides of the color and class divide found the grace to come together and to work toward common ends.  But these efforts are small and vulnerable to demagogues always willing to stir up ancient bigotries and fears for their own ambitions.

I hope Occupy returns and becomes something more durable and effective.  They accomplished in one year what the Progressive Caucus in Congress tried to do for 30 years, reshape the terms of the national debate over economics.  Occupy more than anyone else took issues of social justice, fairness, and equality out of the realm of private conversation and into the public forum where they belong.  I hope they can come back and influence real policy change that would make our country once again a just, humane, and truly democratic republic of free men and women.

If nothing else, Occupy produced some great posters.


Grandmère Mimi said...

Will we see Occupy or its like again?

Yes, we will. Occupy (or something like it) is not dead. Don't forget that throughout the world, there are many more have-nots than there are haves. Is there a link between the removal of dictators in the Middle East and Occupy? Is there a link between the present demonstrations in the Middle East and Southeast Asia and Occupy? I don't know. What I think is that the movements of the have-nots and those who sympathize with them to stand against the haves is not dead. Movements can take decades to produce results. Yes, it's discouraging, and most people in the US are not yet ready to take real risks such as beatings and arrests to bring about change, but it's a mistake to think the movement is dead.

JCF said...

I sometimes think that George W Bush is the LUCKIEST politician the USA has ever produced (moreso than Reagan, who was called "Lucky").

Not only did the Republican SCOTUS appoint him in 2000, not only did the US electorate NOT blame or punish him for 9/11 in the elections of 2002 or 2004, but as the economy he crashed WAS CRASHING in 2008/2009, he was out-the-door to his cushy retirement!

The Occupy Movement was hampered from the beginning in that the political administration MOST responsible for the mess (yes, Admins before and after Dubya have their share of blame) was not there to be targetted by the Mvt. There's always been an element of "Huh?" about Occupy of this. Yes, "Wall Street" is still there. But let's never forget, ultimately Wall Street is protected by the GUNS of the State. You can never get at Wall Street, w/o getting Washington (and, reprehensibly, vice-versa too). It's a two-headed hydra.

it's margaret said...

Doug --in an American history class at a two-year college in northern California in the mid-80's, I remember distinctly how the professor jumped up on his desk, knelt and then on all fours began, ummmm, making us believe he was screwing somebody. He said, in a bellow --this is what the government is doing to you! With a bunch of other descriptors....

I knew he was right then --and I hope he is still teaching somewhere. --And, I hope and pray you continue to teach for a very long time.

Sid said...


I think you should consider that the idea of a kinship between Occupy and the Tea Partiers has some truth to it. Both (as I see it) are reacting to a system that feels rigged against the ordinary American. My sympathies are with the Tea Party in that I think a huge source of the system being rigged in that way is the government. At the same time, there's no question Wall Street was bailed out and made whole in a way that ordinary citizens were not. But, to support my assertion, the decision to conduct events that way was made by the government. Bush supported TARP (as did most every Member of Congress), but so did Obama; in fact, Obama used it for purposes far beyond its legal intent. TARP was for Wall Street; Occupy should oppose that kind of action. The Tea Party certainly does.

I understand how the government creates a system that oppresses Americans, restricts what we can do, and makes us felony lawbreakers three times a day, subject to arrest at the State's whim should we cross It. What I don't understand is how "Wall Street" does the same. How do they? That I'm poor isn't a result of somebody else being rich. Since when has anybody thought anything other, for example, than that I can lose my house to the lender if I don't make payments on the mortgage? But the fact that I'm foreclosed on by a corporation making money isn't the reason I'm broke.

I don't know how you can write that "Uncle Sam" has been taking from the rich and giving to the poor. It's the opposite; the data is readily available and very clear. If your objection is that the government hasn't taken enough money from the rich and given enough to the poor so that our incomes are all roughly equal, well, why should it? On what moral principle? And why do you think such an approach would end well?

My sense is that Occupy doesn't resonate with ordinary Americans, because half of the OWS crowd hold signs demanding anarchy, and half hold signs demanding socialism, and Americans want neither. Plus, OWS engaged in plenty of violence itself. When will they learn that throwing trash cans through store windows doesn't engender sympathy? Or that beating drums all night so that people who live in the neighborhood can't sleep doesn't rally people to its cause?

It's too bad, really. There's no question Occupy speaks to real frustration. So does the Tea Party. And, between them, there ought to be at least a few things they could agree on and motivate their supporters to accomplish.

Counterlight said...

Sorry Sid.

I grew up Republican in a Republican household in Texas, among the reddest of the red states. The first politicians that I voted for were Republican.
I've lived both sides of this struggle in my lifetime.

Who says that there really is an antagonism between government and business? I believe it was David Rockefeller who said that only the small businesses don't like government. Big businesses (like David Rockefeller's real estate and development business) love government. They can use it in so many ways from influencing regulatory legislation to disadvantage competitors to using eminent domain to seize property. They can even use foreign policy to acquire resources and open markets. Certainly Wall Street, the Petroleum Industry, and big Pharma did quite well with government policy. The Petroleum industry, the most profitable in all of history, still gets government subsidies, and arguably ran our foreign policy for at least 8 years. In fact, with our system of legalized corruption, industries can and do write their own regulatory legislation.

I'm all for smaller government. I want the police and war-making powers of government dramatically reduced. I would like to see us return to the company of civilized nations and permanently repudiate the indefinite detention and torture of prisoners of war. I oppose any and all attempts by government to regulate and even dictate the most intimate and personal medical, moral, and religious decisions of citizens. The state ends at the bedroom door, the church door, and the examination room threshold.
We spend more on our military than all other nations of the world combined. We imprison more people, and for longer, than any other country including China.
Surely all that money could be better spent and that aspect of state power could be reduced.

And what kind of society would you have if the "successful" had everything and everyone else was reduced to chattel?
Liberty and Justice for those who can pay for it?
With money comes power, and the skyrocketing pay of CEOs with major shareholders and the declining wages of everyone else reflects not just a shift in income, but also in power. It was government policy that created this growing gap, starting with the piecemeal repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act under the Reagan and Clinton administrations. It was government policy that the financial industry wanted and got. Who has the most money gets to bend the government's ear.
There is shareholder democracy where votes can be bought and sold like shares. The Kingdom of Prussia had that kind of system. My great grandparents, foolish lefties that they were, believed in one person one vote and left Prussia for the USA.
Even Adam Smith, that screaming red Bolshevik, believed that labor should have the right to bargain collectively, and that some amount of taxation and regulation were necessary to maintain a society that anyone in their right mind would want to live in.

No one has ever yet pointed out to me where exactly in the Bible it says that "God helps those who help themselves," unless you consider the writings of Ben Franklin to be part of Scripture.
I do remember a passage in the Gospel about rich people and camels passing through the eye of a needle. I also remember a passage where it says when someone asks for your cloak to give them your tunic as well.

Sid said...

Thanks for your comments. While I don't agree with every particular, I don't disagree at all that the business uses government to advantage itself. That's an argument in itself for making government smaller, not just out of the bedroom, etc. If regulatory powers are limited, there's not much point in businesses lobbying the government - certainly not to the extent they do today. The health insurance industry was right at the table with Obama and his health care reform. Those emails between administration officials and lobbyists cutting their own deals and cutting out the interests of the people have been published. And I would go pretty far in putting an end to that if I could. You know, even in a "minor" sense, a business can put a lien on you in a dispute and damage your credit rating, but what can you do to inflict damage on the business? I would take a lot of that power away. There's certainly no reason that I can think of that businesses should be advantaged that way over their customers.

Beyond that, some of what you're arguing against are straw men. Few people - I include myself - have said the "successful" should have everything and everybody else should be chattel. Few people say we should have no taxation or regulation. (That would be a move in the direction of anarchy, which, as you and I both pointed out, is the position of many in the Occupy movement.) Personally, I think much of what the financial industry has evolved since the 1980s is positive. In its roles of being an intermediary between those who have capital and those who need it, and of allowing risk to be hedged, it's helpful for our economy. At the same time, a lot of activity in the markets seems to be tangential to those roles, if not completely irrelevant, yet introduces enormous risk into the real economy. I'm certainly willing to take a tough look at that architecture, even coming from the right. What I don't want to do is blame "Wall Street" for all of our ills, as though we, the people, have no culpability. What brought down the economy in '08 wasn't anything George Bush did, it was all the obviously bad mortgage debt being traded around like prices could only go up. But that's on us just as much as Wall Street. Lots of people were "flipping" homes, buying second and third vacation homes, and so on. Anybody with any sense knew that was going to crash, the question was only when it would happen. If a lot of people had said, you know, I only make $50,000, and I'm not buying a million-dollar home just because there's a 5-year adjustable rate product that makes me think I can afford it, there's no meltdown.

Nor did I go down the road to which you allude in your last paragraph. Jesus said I should give to the poor, not the government acting on my behalf. I'll go out on a limb and assume you loathe the Citizens United decision; if so, then if corporations aren't people, neither is the government. Jesus spoke to us as individuals.

Counterlight said...

Since I expect to be busy at work for the next few days (in my job as a unionized public employee), I will give you my considered answer later.