Nov 26 2011

Why Occupy Wall Street matters

Watch the TV news or read the newspaper coverage and you come away wondering just what it is those crazy protestors camping out downtown want. Sure, they want something done about bankers and financiers getting rich off of the misery of ‘the 99%’. Certainly they want social justice. Clearly there is a fairly standard leftist streak running through a disorganized movement that looks and smells (literally) like the anti-war movement of 1969. There is general agreement as to who and what they are.

But what do they want, specifically? You can be forgiven for wondering that because, frankly, there are no specific demands coming out of this movement. It might surprise you to learn that the lack of specifics is a feature, not a bug! The New Yorker has a ‘must read’ article describing the roots of OWS as a mass movement deliberately modelled on the Arab Spring. The New Yorker article describes how this vagueness of purpose came about:

What did the movement want? On September 20th, three thousand miles away from Zuccotti Park, White and Lasn tried to write a manifesto in the form of a letter to President Obama. They sought to have banking-industry regulations tightened, high-frequency trading banned, all the “financial fraudsters” responsible for the 2008 crash arrested, and a Presidential commission formed to investigate corruption in politics. “We will stay here in our encampment in Liberty Plaza”—Zuccotti Park’s post-occupation name—“until you respond to our demands,” the letter concluded.

“Micah, this is a wonderful draft,” Holmes replied on September 22nd, when White e-mailed her Adbusters’ proposed letter. “However, the General Assembly is going through this very process of drafting a statement. It should be ready this afternoon.” A week later, the General Assembly adopted a “Declaration of the Occupation,” which is more a world view than a list of demands. “We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies. . . . No true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power.” The rest of the six-hundred-word declaration is taken up mainly by “grievances,” which place the blame for everything from poison in the food supply to cruelty to animals on these corporate forces, also known as “they.” What should be done to remedy these grievances? “Exercise your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face; and generate solutions accessible to everyone.”

Thus the protestors managed to forge a consensus out of a multitude by avoiding any specific demand that some might find difficult to support. Moreover, they were left free to morph the message later into anything that can find traction in the greater national and international consciousness. This was a very smart move and one that, depending on who you ask, either shows the Wisdom of Crowds or the influence of old-style marxists, anarchists, and rabble rousers with plenty of experience in this kind of thing.

I’m guessing there is some of both. The open question is: whom is using whom here?

The important fact is this: despite or due to the lack of a coherent message, OWS has captured an amazing amount of mindshare. Even those who don’t like the people protesting tend to agree with them that the financial meltdown of the last few years should have resulted in the trials of more than a few financial criminals. That the rich exercise too great a power in the political process and democracy is suffering as a result. That the disparity between the rich and everyone else has grown to the extent it seems like a symptom of a greater disease.

So, in a sense, OWS is winning the meme war right now. In my opinion this is why there is a nationally-coordinated push back against the protests:

Embattled Oakland Mayor Jean Quan . . . casually mentioned that she was on a conference call with leaders of 18 US cities shortly before a wave of raids broke up Occupy Wall Street encampments across the country. “I was recently on a conference call with 18 cities across the country who had the same situation . . .”

There is little chance the attempts to stop the protests is unrelated to the success of the protests. In fact, it seems likely that those they are protesting against are getting worried and, as a result, they are exercising the very same illegitimate political power the protestors have succeeded in getting us talking about. It has even been claimed that the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI helped to organize the crackdown:

. . . according to one Justice official, each of those actions was coordinated with help from Homeland Security, the FBI and other federal police agencies.

Think about this for a minute: what business does DHS have involving itself it what has been a mostly peaceful process involving no terrorist activity? If DHS wanted to avoid looking like jackbooted stormtroopers out to suppress legitimate political dissent by people exercising a right guaranteed in the constitution of the U.S.A. the last thing they would do is get involved in actions against the OWS movement. Yet it looks like they made that choice, for good or ill.

Even if none of the above was the intent, the end result is the same: the protestor’s message has been amplified by the crackdown and a new message is percolating through the masses. That message is: the powerful and rich in the U.S.A. are starting to use the ancient tools of despots everywhere to suppress dissent. We have the secret police and the shock troops already. Can disappearances and assassinations be far behind?

I’m not suggesting that this is what is actually happening. I’m not claiming that President Obama is getting ready to open political prisons or ‘postpone’ the next elections. This isn’t some kind of paranoid screed featuring black helicopters and detention centers. Please do not misunderstand me or misrepresent this post!

What I am saying is that such a message of paranoia will resonate with certain people on both sides of the political spectrum. I am saying that the more the federal government gets involved the more people will come to believe it. It is even possible that it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy; that extremists will cloak their actions in OWS rhetoric and the government will fight back with significant and widespread violations of constitutionally guaranteed rights. No black helicopters needed.

In truth, even the small constitutional violations we are already seeing are a really big deal, in context with the federals entering the picture. In The Guardian, Naomi Wolf looks at the national crackdown of OWS and comes to similar conclusions:

To Europeans, the enormity of this breach may not be obvious at first. Our system of government prohibits the creation of a federalised police force, and forbids federal or militarised involvement in municipal peacekeeping.

Wolf says this is happening because those in power fear the protestor’s message for good reason:

in recent years, members of Congress have started entering the system as members of the middle class (or upper middle class) – but they are leaving DC privy to vast personal wealth, as we see from the “scandal” of presidential contender Newt Gingrich’s having been paid $1.8m for a few hours’ “consulting” to special interests. The inflated fees to lawmakers who turn lobbyists are common knowledge, but the notion that congressmen and women are legislating their own companies’ profitsis less widely known – and if the books were to be opened, they would surely reveal corruption on a Wall Street spectrum. Indeed, we do already know that congresspeople are massively profiting from trading on non-public information they have on companies about which they are legislating – a form of insider trading that sent Martha Stewart to jail.

Since Occupy is heavily surveilled and infiltrated, it is likely that the DHS and police informers are aware, before Occupy itself is, what its emerging agenda is going to look like. If legislating away lobbyists’ privileges to earn boundless fees once they are close to the legislative process, reforming the banks so they can’t suck money out of fake derivatives products, and, most critically, opening the books on a system that allowed members of Congress to profit personally – and immensely – from their own legislation, are two beats away from the grasp of an electorally organised Occupy movement … well, you will call out the troops on stopping that advance.

So, whatever the reasons why, OWS matters because the protests are focusing attention on as-yet unpunished financial wrongdoing. On the corrupting role of money in our political system. On the inequity embodied by the super-rich. On the illegal use of federal power to suppress dissent and the need to protect our constitution. On all the things people should be thinking about as the next election approaches and they get to choose between two flavors of the same bland ice cream.

OWS matters because OWS is turning the national discourse to things that matter. And, right now, nothing matters more than that.