When will the unemployed choose politics

Salon does a movie

A Philly Cop joined an Occupy Wall Street March!

His sign:

Look at the Empire striking back

Some American cities have recently cleansed or have attempted to cleanse the following occupations from their public and private parks:

  • Austin
  • Chapel Hill
  • Denver
  • New York
  • Oakland
  • Portland
  • Richmond
  • St. Louis

The authorities might find suppressing a decentered and informally organized movement difficult, akin, perhaps, to herding cats.

Quote of the day

Writing for TomDispatch, The inimitable Francis Fox Piven points to a few of the political achievements rightly attributable to the Occupy Movement:

We’ve been at war for decades now — not just in Afghanistan or Iraq, but right here at home. Domestically, it’s been a war against the poor, but if you hadn’t noticed, that’s not surprising. You wouldn’t often have found the casualty figures from this particular conflict in your local newspaper or on the nightly TV news. Devastating as it’s been, the war against the poor has gone largely unnoticed — until now.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has already made the concentration of wealth at the top of this society a central issue in American politics. Now, it promises to do something similar when it comes to the realities of poverty in this country.

By making Wall Street its symbolic target, and branding itself as a movement of the 99%, OWS has redirected public attention to the issue of extreme inequality, which it has recast as, essentially, a moral problem. Only a short time ago, the “morals” issue in politics meant the propriety of sexual preferences, reproductive behavior, or the personal behavior of presidents. Economic policy, including tax cuts for the rich, subsidies and government protection for insurance and pharmaceutical companies, and financial deregulation, was shrouded in clouds of propaganda or simply considered too complex for ordinary Americans to grasp.

Now, in what seems like no time at all, the fog has lifted and the topic on the table everywhere seems to be the morality of contemporary financial capitalism. The protestors have accomplished this mainly through the symbolic power of their actions: by naming Wall Street, the heartland of financial capitalism, as the enemy, and by welcoming the homeless and the down-and-out to their occupation sites. And of course, the slogan “We are the 99%” reiterated the message that almost all of us are suffering from the reckless profiteering of a tiny handful. (In fact, they aren’t far off: the increase in income of the top 1% over the past three decades about equals the losses of the bottom 80%.)

The movement’s moral call is reminiscent of earlier historical moments when popular uprisings invoked ideas of a “moral economy” to justify demands for bread or grain or wages — for, that is, a measure of economic justice. Historians usually attribute popular ideas of a moral economy to custom and tradition, as when the British historian E.P. Thompson traced the idea of a “just price” for basic foodstuffs invoked by eighteenth century English food rioters to then already centuries-old Elizabethan statutes.
But the rebellious poor have never simply been traditionalists. In the face of violations of what they considered to be their customary rights, they did not wait for the magistrates to act, but often took it upon themselves to enforce what they considered to be the foundation of a just moral economy.

Quote of the day

Tariq Ali wrote:

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth glancing at,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “for it leaves out the one country at which humanity is always landing. And when humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.”

The spirit of that 19th century socialist is alive among the idealistic young people who have come out in protest against the turbo-charged global capitalism that has dominated the world ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The latest in agent provocateur technology

One of New York City's demoralized homeless persons

A recent news report (also see this) reveals the New York City Police Department has begun to direct a “contingent of lawbreakers and lowlifes” found in New York City’s public parks to take their party to Zuccotti Park! Divide et impera! By creating a status distinction within the occupied space, this handy tactic forces the Occupy Wall Street group to police its space, suffer drug sales and other crimes, secure its individual and collective possessions, restrict the food it supplies, etc. Worst of all, it might also create a social condition which New York City’s government can use to remove the Occupation.

That said, let us appreciate how quickly the city’s government and the NYPD abandoned broken windows policing when doing so suited its purposes! Indeed, if we assume that the lawful exercise of an American’s free speech rights is not at all disorderly and that the Occupy Wall Street group has not broken a legally rational law, it follows that the Bloomberg administration and the Police Department have generated the urban disorder one can find around the Occupation!

Freedom of assembly

While Fox News promotes the belief that some cities have treated the Occupy Wall Street activists better than they treated their Tea Party protesters, we have had numerous incidents like this (h/t Eclair) falsify such propaganda:

The American Autumn

Ralph Nader offered here what I consider an apt description of the Occupy Wall Street movement’s significance and its place within the greater political situation in the United States and the world:

In the Arab Spring of Cairo, Egypt earlier this year, it was said that a million people in Tahrir Square lost their fear of the dictatorship. It can be said that in this “American Autumn,” some 150,000 people have discovered their power and rejected apathy. They have come far in so little time because the soil for their pushback is so fertile, nourished by the revulsion of millions of their countrypersons moving toward standing up and showing up themselves.

I agree. Americans surely are now surpassing the collective denial which characterized the Reagan Revolution. They are learning that the United States is not what they recently believed it to be. An insistent and changing world has exposed the Reagan Revolution for what it is and what it was when first announced: A kind of class war occluded by myth. Therefore, I would not say that the Occupy Wall Street movement is more able than other recent social movements in the United States, and has succeeded where others have failed because of its abilities. Rather, Occupy Wall Street is, in part, a mirror reflecting the emerging — dare I say it?!? — class consciousness in the United States, a conscious experience of the essence of wage labor under capitalism by members of the popular classes.

Cleansing public space in Oakland, California

Darwin Bond-Graham reports:

In a pre-dawn raid Tuesday involving hundreds of officers drafted from seventeen departments across northern California, the notoriously aggressive Oakland Police violently raided
and wiped out that city’s Occupy encampment. By sunrise most of the protesters had fled beyond a cordon that stretched for several blocks back of Frank Ogawa Plaza, so far back that reportedly no media or bystanders could watch the scene unfold within. A communique from Occupy Oakland described the military-style eradication mission:

“Tear gas and flash bangs were fired into the camp where children were sleeping, people were beaten and shot with rubber bullets. The assault was also levied against our property in the camp, and the cops tried their best to completely destroy everything we had there. Almost every tent has been destroyed, many slashed with boxcutters, structures smashed, basically this was not an eviction, they came in to destroy everything we had.”

Upwards of 85 persons were arrested and dragged away with their arms zip-tied behind their backs, and charged with unlawful assembly and illegal lodging. Many Oaklanders close to those arrested report that the charges also include failure to disperse and crossing a police line, and that bail is set at $10,000. A smaller satellite camp just blocks away at Snow Park was also raided and torn asunder. Numerous first hand accounts circulating on the Internet tell of rampant acts of police violence during the blitz against mostly slumbering occupiers.

Occupy Oakland responded:

Last night Oaklanders responded to their eviction by attempting to retake Frank Ogawa Plaza (which they have renamed Oscar Grant Plaza after the young man murdered by BART Police in 2009). The Oakland Police repelled the occupiers by rioting with their armaments of tear gas, sound weapons, and rubber bullets. For now the ideals of autonomy and mutual aid in the shadow of the warfare state have been expelled from Oakland’s central square, roaming about the city’s streets.

A once-captive audience begins to listen, learn and act

The left died, and remains dead. That’s been a mantra among some leftwingers, all system politicians and respectable pundits for the last 30-years. Americans chant this whenever the left appears in public.

It was the Reagan Revolution which annihilated the American left. He defeated PATCO and buried the New Deal Coalition. He stood tall for America. He was America. More importantly, Reagan and Thatcher proved to anyone willing to see clearly and with their own eyes that there is no alternative to capitalism as we know it. The subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union, along with François Mitterrand‘s tournant de la rigueur and the eventual political ‘failure’ of the Sandinista Revolution, only affirmed the obvious: Collectivism is always a mistake. “Society does not exist.” Markets are rational. Consequently, resistance was/is futile, and resistance only made/makes the resister look irrational, inane, laughable — a “loser,” to use common talk.

To be sure, the death of the left did not imply that leftwingers did not exist in the United States. They existed, wrote, criticized, marched, organized, etc. Anyone could find them if they cared to, especially if they looked for the left in America’s major cities and college towns. Nevertheless, Americans in general ignored the left even when they knew leftists existed: Leftists, it was believed, wasted their time, whereas their ideology was dangerous and akin to the ranting of a Harold Camping, Louis Farrakhan, L. Ron Hubbard or a flat earther. They could be found only on the margins of America’s civilization. They belonged there. After all, America had triumphed over its adversaries. Individualism also triumphed. Events in the late 20th century confirmed F.A. Hayek‘s famous diagnosis (1994). Americans knew they lived in the best of all possible worlds.

When considered at first glance, it appears that the Occupy Wall Street or 99% movement changed all of that. After all, leftwing concerns about class conflict, political power and economic justice have recently impinged upon America’s public space. The OWS/99% promoted these causes. Before late September American politics revolved around budget deficits, tax cuts and entitlement ‘reform’. Austerity talk remains in play, of course. But movement talk of justice now threatens to push it aside. The establishment media now pays attention to a fraction of the left, namely, to that fraction willing to encamp outdoors and directly contend with the security-surveillance apparatus. The marginal have come to occupy center stage, at least some of the time. The movement thus captured the attention of the nation in just one month. This is plain as day. And it is news.

Yet, I must ask: Did the OWS/99% movement actually accomplish this?

The answer to the question is ambiguous because it refers to our ambiguous situation. Something besides the motives, thinking or tactics of capitalism’s left critics recently changed. The left, such as it may be, remains much as it had been. Occupy Wall Street did not overcome obstacles others failed to surpass. OWS trods a well-worn path. Rather, what did change — and decisively so — is the audience the left always tries to address, namely, the 99% to which the Occupy Wall Street slogan refers. The 99% slogan points to common Americans, to everyone who is not an owner or elite manager of capital, especially finance capital. It is the many — the demos — that has changed. To grasp one effect of this, consider the following passage taken from a Tom Engelhardt piece:

Here are a few observations from recent trips to Zuccotti Park and various marches I’ve been on, including last Saturday when the Occupy movement went global with, the Washington Post reports, rallies in “more than 900” cities in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the United States. Having been at many demonstrations in my life, here’s the strangest and perhaps the most striking thing I’ve noticed: I have yet to see a single counterdemonstration, or even a single counterdemonstrator. Not one. Nor a single sign expressing disapproval, outrage, or upset with the Occupy Wall Street movement. This, believe me, is not normal for protests. Talk about expressing the will of the 99%!

And the earliest public opinion polls reflect this. According to an Ipsos poll, a startling 82% of Americans have heard of the movement, striking percentages are following it with some attention, and — according to TIME magazine — 54% of Americans have a favorable view of it, only 23% an unfavorable one. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising in a country in which 86% of those polled believe “Wall Street and its lobbyists have too much influence in Washington,” or in which median household income fell by 6.7% after the Great Recession of 2008 was officially declared over (9.8% since it began).

America once had a political culture captivated by hype promoting the belief that America was the exception among nations. “[W]e are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us,” as Madeleine Albright once stated. Americans ‘knew’ that America is the richest, greatest most powerful country in the world. They knew these beliefs to be true because they were part of America’s common sense, its civic religion, its collective identity. Affirming America’s self-conceit was a conspicuous feature of the Reagan Revolution. Indeed, the Reagan Revolution might have been labeled the “Reagan Renewal.” Reagan, it was thought, restored America’s belief in itself, in its destiny. America became America once again (yet, see this!) during the Reagan administration. Achieving this affirmation of an atavistic American nationalism was Reagan’s greatest political victory. And he had the scalps that seemingly paid for his claims about his America.

Today, however, a belief in American exceptionalism is faltering, slowly but surely. The audience receptive to crude Americanism shrinks accordingly. In other words, Americans are learning the truth about the Reagan Revolution. They are learning that it was anything but “Morning in America” in 1984. They are learning that they were conned, that decades of Reaganism in practice has undermined their security and the future their children must face.

I do not believe this demystification to be a collective harm. In fact, I believe it is the demise of this myth that is now creating the political space in which the OWS/99% movement can publicly make its case. From this case-making movement work, a new political situation in the United States is coming into being. The Occupy Wall Street/99% movement has merely called attention to some of the destructive effects caused by Reaganism in practice. Its very presence calls for government actions meant to make things right for most Americans. Nevertheless, everything today greatly depends on the willingness of the 99% — Alan Simpson’s “lesser people” — to listen to and even to join the protesters. It is their receptive ears and eyes which make the OWS/99% movement powerful. The attention and beliefs of the many, of the demos, pulls the movement into America’s public sphere, a system managed by the elite to keep just this kind of critique off-air, so to speak. They provide the horizon from which the movement may form a new public space, new political entities and from which it may even force needed reforms onto the elite. It is only the demos that can lay just claim to speaking in the name of “We the People.”

We the People. From this idea we may derive a defense of a radical democracy. It is this possibility which frightens Wall Street and the political elite.

So, is it reasonable to expect common Americans will listen to and even join the protesters? I believe it is. One can reasonably expect the 99% to listen, learn and even act as long as the 1% runs roughshod over them. We can expect these of them when they are forced to endure defeat after defeat in American’s class struggle. When put into different terms, the point I want to make is that an inescapable but unnecessary poverty is an effective teacher of rude truths and a compelling motivator of political action! I would call this listening and learning an education in democratic accountability and action. The telos contained within this education: The creation of democratic spirit that has been nurtured by the class aggression conducted under the auspices of the Reagan Revolution.

Simpson’s “lesser people” are now pushing back, and they are learning why they need to do so and how to actually do it.