Wall Street still occupied

If the gap between rich and poor seemed like it was widening a bit more slowly this morning, it was probably because Occupy Wall Street is still going on. Exactly how it goes on remains a matter of conjecture, although certain non-televised journalists are beginning to pierce the veil. Michael Greenberg’s longish tour of Zuccotti Park in the New York Review of Books provides us with a slightly less vague picture of the movement than what we’ve gotten so far, including their use of “the people’s microphone.” Because city ordinances prohibit the use of amplification devices, public speakers at the OWS demonstration have their words repeated by the crowd. It’s a big ol’ objective correlative for a protest that has coalesced out of Twitter, Anonymous and maybe a few emails from the insufferable Adbusters, and now has to grapple with the problem of propagating a message when no one has been designated to speak first.

Occupy Wall Street is organized as a radical democracy. Its governing body is the General Assembly, composed of people who decided to attend the General Assembly that morning and addressing proposals those people submit. Passage of a proposal requires a 90% vote, which does not measurably hamper the effectiveness of the General Assembly, since most proposals are of the declarative kind. Here’s an example from Greenberg’s article:

We are not Left, we are not Right. We are the 99%. We are leaderless. Just stay away. We are here to end corporate influence in government. We don’t want to be like the Tea Party which was started by Ron Paul and co-opted by the Republican theocratic Right.

As usual when someone proposes a declaration, you nod through this one right until the end, when you begin shaking your head furiously. Mission statements do not usually contain bitter, possibly false recollections of other organizations, but Occupy Wall Street does not have a usual mission. It pretty much doesn’t have a mission at all. They definitely want to stay in the park, as last week’s successful staredown with its owners indicated. Other objectives are unclear. There’s been a lot of talk about abolishing the banking system, which sounds like a great idea provided you do not think about it for even one second. Otherwise, it’s an occupation without demands.

A demand requires a demander, and OWS doesn’t have one. In this way it is a pure protest, an “outcry,” as one Greenberg interviewee put it. The other word for that is “complaint.” Complaining as a tactic has always enjoyed broad popular support, and OWS certainly does. A recent Quinnipiac poll claims that 67% of New Yorkers agree with the protestors, although what that might mean is problematic given that said protestors have made few declarative statements. In this way, they resemble the Tea Party: leaderless, objectiveless, vaguely exciting.

I am certainly not the first to make the comparison. It’s tempting to see OWS as the Tea Party’s left-wing counterpart, since it’s an ostensibly spontaneous uprising of people who hate this but can’t say what they would like better. Like the early Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street presents a show of broad support for an idea that has yet to be articulated. They’re mad as hell, and they’re going to continue being mad until you acknowledge that—possibly after. The difference is that Occupy Wall Street is mad about something that actually happened.

Wealth inequality in the United States is at a historic high. Corporate profits are at an all-time high and average CEO compensation is up 300% since 1990, yet wages have stagnated. For whatever reason you choose, things have gotten much, much better for rich people in the last 50 years. Meanwhile, ordinary people are kind of hosed. Unemployment is higher than it’s been since the Great Depression. The recession is ostensibly over, but the only people who have recovered from it are the ones who caused it.

So the richest people in America are doing great, and the Supreme Court recently decided that they can spend as much money as they want on politics. Maybe it is an accident of history, or maybe they are rigging the game in their favor. In either case, the jobs numbers, the wage figures, the bailouts and the court cases are indisputable. We are not talking about a bunch of retirees who suddenly became concerned about a federal deficit that had existed for 20 years, who woke up after the inauguration of the first black President and decided to “take our country back.” That’s a plan as garbled and stupid as “abolish the banking system” or “share everything.” But at least Occupy Wall Street is about something real. Now is a fantastic time to be rich in America. It’s one of the worst times to be middle-class—to be young, to work, to try to have some say in the direction of this country—since we invented the automobile. Complaining won’t do a damn thing about it, but at least we are beginning to complain about the right things.

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  1. It may not be well-organized or clear in its aims, but I like that Occupy Wall Street is community-driven and inclusive rather than led by a core group with an agenda. It’s messy, but it’s kind of refreshing.

  2. I’m glad you included that last sentence. I think its just too early to expect more specific policy ideas from these people. The fact that there are no demands (yet) is not too surprising: the actions of Wall Street and global finance are too complicated to be grasped at once, that is, any single proposal for a fix won’t fit on a sign. “Reinstate Glass-Steagall” is specific (though not too catchy) and though I’ve read plenty about what the undoing of G-S meant, I’m not sure that reinstating it would even fix anything after its decade of absence. The tendency for Americans is (I imagine) to compare this to the 1960s, but because of the opacity of Wall Street and the obvious Frankensteinian suturing of Wall Street to K Street it is much much different. “End the War” was both a specific policy statement and a goal. The actions of banks and pols are just more complicated than napalm. I think it’s amazing enough that people have rallied around a complaint rather than a defined goal. It’s easy to diagnose and decide on a treatment when your arm has gangrene (as in Vietnam), but when the problem is much more systemic and ingrained with multiple bodily systems (like the political-financial complex), you have to learn exactly what will save you. Right now, OWS knows the country has metastatic cancer, but it isn’t yet putting forth one single treatment. I think this is perfectly understandable. With time, I bet “they” put forth a more complex set of treatments.

    And none of that will matter by itself. Whether they’ll be listened to by the government doesn’t depend on the clarity of their prescriptions but on how loud and long they shout.

  3. I’m glad you posted this, I know at least a few of us have been waiting to hear your thoughts on OWS.

    Beyond these gentle shores, there does seem to be some kind of agreement on a kid gloves strategy by Sensible Thinking People to not say anything about this hullabaloo just yet in the hopes that it turns into something substantive soon so we can all be sure that this is something worth getting worked up for & not likely to crushingly disappoint us (ahem, Barry O).

    But doesn’t this (cynically, though reasonably) assume that OWS will eventually turn into a left-wing Tea Party, and that the whole ordeal is basically just more un-winnable pre-election year shenaningans set in the usual left-right set-up?

    I’d say that the reason that the media is having such a hard with covering the protestors is exactly the opposite. The protestors have refused to come up with a definable platform to live and die by. It’s hard to hit a moving target if there is no target.

    Really, I think the best thing I’ve come across about OWS is the op-ed by Hardt & Negri in Foreign Policy (?):


  4. How about some actual indictments for fraud. The failure of wall street wasn’t merely because they were gaming the system in a legal way. Many of the failed loans were fraudulent even under the current rather limited regulations. The reason they got away with it so easily is that so much of the FBI was redirected from white collar crime to the war on terror. There is a professor from The University of Missouri who talks about this a lot, William Black. here’s a link to one of his interviews.


  5. Much of the current “What is the goal?” critique against Occupy Wall Street seems like fear of dissent prettied up as a sophisticated argument, an attempt to silence obscured as dispassionate analysis. The “What’s our goal?” question makes a lot of sense in formal nonprofits, and I felt myself going to that critique when I first heard about OWS. Yet people decrying OWS’s supposed lack of goal or solutions should reexamine the actual source and nature of their concerns.

    I mean, are people actually concerned with whether Occupy Wall Street is goal-oriented? How often do we ask that question of things with which we agree?

    To needle OWS about the methodology of calculating “the 99%” or for not having a perfect solution to one of the most complex challenges in US history is to miss the point. OWS is demonstrating dissatisfaction with the present social and economic condition in the US. It is clear from OWS activity that this is a goal, even if it isn’t written in a memo or PPT deck. Not only is this goal rational, the OWS gatherings are spurring a national conversation about our economic priorities. Do they need any greater goal or purpose?

    For elected representatives (Senator Grassley, ahem), media pundits, and people who are used to “driving social change” as professionals from a position of comfort to critique OWS on the grounds of insufficient goals or solution reveals a discomfort with someone else setting the agenda, not the absence of an agenda.

    It is standard—and short-sighted—to view anyone who protests as the problem, rather than to consider the possibility that systems which we usually uncritically accept have a problem. The knee jerk critiques have been the same throughout our country’s stumbling but impressively persistent efforts to realize its ideal: don’t cause a scene, don’t make any problems, everything is fine just as it is. Anyone paying attention to the least of these in our society can tell that everything is not okay. I do not know that OWS has a solution, and I do not expect them to. But clearly we can do better, dismissing OWS for lacking a mission statement short circuits a conversation we need to have.

  6. This movement is being financed by the typical suspects on the left for the obvious reasons. The dupes on the street are just that, dupes. This is not an organic movement from the proletariat. The leftist attempts at overthrowing a government never are. The communist and socialist movements have always co-opted the discontented youth. Right now there are a lot of them as the Occupied Oval Office people are very successful at bringing down Traditional Mainstreet so it can stir up the masses. This whole mess of a movement is classic Marxist Revolutionary stuff. Unfortunately, we have dumbed down history in our schools so that this looks new and cool.

  7. “But at least Occupy Wall Street is about something real.”

    The budget deficit, our ability to service our debt from tax receipts and the ludicrous size of unfunded SS obligations is very much “real” and is something that ought to terrify us, especially as the recession draws out and appears to worsen.

    Wealth inequality itself isn’t a problem (unless we’re talking about problems in the normative sense). The problem is that the economy isn’t growing.

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