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.

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.

My — our — long wait: Enduring the Reagan Revolution

Ronald Reagan lays down the law to PATCO

I’ve pined thirty-years for something like the Occupy Wall Street movement. Thank God — I’m an atheist! — it’s here. I’ve waited that long because it’s been a little more than thirty years since the 1981 Washington, DC Solidarity Day March. The AFL-CIO organized and paid for it. (I was collecting unemployment but took a union sponsored bus to DC.) Estimates of the march’s size range from 100,000 to 5000,000 (I’m drawing upon my memory here). Whatever the precise numerical count might have been, the March was large. The purpose of the March was clear to the participants and to its adversaries. It expressed a popular disgust with the Reagan Administration, which had recently concluded the PATCO strike by firing the striking air traffic controllers. The PATCO strike was a seminal event in American history. It revealed the weakness of organized labor in America and the willingness of the Reagan administration to demolish a conservative union filled with labor aristocrats who had supported Reagan in the 1980 election. I thought then that the March would be the initial event of an on-going popular response to the Reagan Presidency. Surely many if not most Americans would see Reagan and his policies for what they were and what they promised. Surely they would push back.

In 1984, ironic as that date may seem to America’s critics, the Reagan reelection campaign gave us the now famous Morning in America advertisement, a trope which became the theme of the 1984 Republican National Convention, America’s kleine Reichsparteitag. This staged event frightened me when I watched it, more so when the spectacle was generally well-received; likewise the Reagan-Mondale debates, during which one could see Reagan’s dementia for what it was. As we know, a demented and ideologically driven Reagan easily won the election. His victory allegedly and likely did signal the death of the New Deal Coalition, Mondale being a figure associated with that kind of politics and Reagan having a political project opposed to the New Deal and its legacy. Americans could have repudiated Reagan and Reaganism in that election. But they did not.

Today, Americans must try to master the consequences produced by their past political mistakes. Among these mistakes we would want to include our tolerating or even applauding policies which produced a declining standard-of-living and our accepting a party politics meant to insulate the political elite from the electorate. To be sure, our current and future standard-of-living along with the democracy deficit of the legacy parties provide just two of the many motives that have elicited the Occupy Wall Street movement. And these ‘problems’ were foreseeable outcomes specific to the so-called Reagan Revolution, which we today should characterize as a political project which consolidated neoliberalism and imperialism in American politics. We are living in the Reagan Revolution’s long shadow, and it is this history which we must master to address the problems of our present.

I wish to conclude by pointing out that it seems to have taken the many failures and betrayals of the Obama administration to convince some — many? — Americans that the legacy parties do not represent their interests. Perhaps, Americans needed to elect a black man president in order to learn that the political project created by rich white men only results in disasters for so many of them. They could recently learn this while they watched the one-time community organizer selling what they considered their birthright to Wall Street and America’s imperial apparatus. In any case, whether my speculative point about Obama’s historical significance is at all sound, it is unfortunate that Americans needed thirty discouraging years before they could begin face the truth about their leaders and their country. Let us hope that it is not too late to pull hard on the brake handle.