Politics as an End in Itself: Occupy Wall Street, Debt and Electoral Politics

As I observed in my last post, I think that an OWS focus on debt, as Pamela Brown has been advocated, makes a lot of sense. We discussed this in the Wroclaw seminar. I continue to think about that discussion and how it relates to American electoral politics.

The issue of debt provides a way to keep focus on the frustration of the American Dream as it is part of the experience of many Americans, from the poor to the middle class to even the upper middle class. It is an issue of the concern of the 99%.

Yet, there are many activists in and theorists observing the movement who council against this, such as Jodi Dean. Debt is too individualized a problem. It would be better to focus on an issue of greater common, collective concern (e.g. the environment). The issue of debt is too closely connected to the right wing concern about deficits, and criticism of student debt can too easily become a criticism of higher education.

This presents a serious political problem. There is no broad agreement on debt as the central issue, and no leadership structure or decision making process which can decide on priorities. And of course, there are many other issues of contention. Primary among them, in my judgment, is the question of the relationship between OWS and American electoral politics.

It is here where the activists in OWS, like their new “new social movement” colleagues in Egypt and the Arab world more generally, are not prepared for practical politics. Coordinated strategy is beyond their capacity. One faction’s priority, debt or the reelection of President Obama, is not the concern of another’s, or even a position which it is forthrightly against. There are too many different positions within the movement for it to present a coherent sustained position. People with very different positions were able to join with each other and act politically thanks to the new media, but also thanks to that media, they were not required to work out their differences and priorities. They never developed the means to decide them.

Thus, the secular liberal and socialist activists of Tahrir Square have not played a major role in post Mubarak politics, and thus, OWS is struggling as it approaches its first anniversary of the occupation of Zuccotti Park. It is interesting to note that the serious comments to Brown’s recent article on debt discussed not the issue involved but the means by which the issue has been given priority (the other comments were by anti-OWS readers).  But the story doesn’t end here.  Activists continue their work beyond the glare of the attention of the media mainstream.

The problem of sustaining movements, as they are an outgrowth of the way they have formed, should be noted. Yet, while this all intriguing with interesting theoretical and practical implications, I do not think it is of critical importance. Movements don’t legislate and don’t elect Presidents and parliaments and members of Congress. Rather, they shape the political culture (something which I will reflect on more directly in my next post on new social movements in Russia and Israel). Indeed by helping shape the story people tell themselves about themselves, they lead to legislation and election, and sometimes this takes time. This is where the success of OWS is undeniable.

OWS changed the conversation. Inequality again became an issue of broad public concern in the U.S. and beyond. A simple calculation became a theme infusing discussion around the world: “the 99%”and “the 1%.” In lower Manhattan, a symbolic center of global capitalism, a small group of protesters globally unsettled things. While the speech and action within the movement is important, the way it influences the speech and actions beyond the movement is probably even more important.

This is quite evident in American politics. Under the influence of the Tea Party, the discussion in the midterm elections was about debt and deficits and the Democrats received a shellacking, as Obama put it. For a while Obama and the Democrats were humbled, influenced by the Tea Party movement and its momentum, and by the Republican victory. This changed thanks to OWS.

The President and his party found a new voice, often speaking of “the 99%” directly. There is a steadfastness when it comes to the issue of taxing the rich. Obama himself refused attempts by so called moderate Democrats to bend on the issue (instead of ending the Bush tax cuts for those making $250 thousand and over, ending them only for those making over $1 million), and now the issue of inequality is at the center of his campaign. Obama’s clarity, along with his party’s on the issue, along with the way they are trying to define Mitt Romney, all have an OWS accent.

The challenge for activists in OWS, such as Brown, is to extend and deepen this influence. She, like many others, is working to sustain the impact of OWS. I think she is right about this and about the substance of the matter. Debt is a key issue. For the last twenty years broad segments of the population have managed to keep the illusion of the American Dream alive by going into debt. Now payment is due, and the responsibility requires not only individual action, but concerted public efforts to change the rules of the game. And as the Tea Party is a force for capitalism and individualism run wild, it is important that a social movement works to present a clear alternative.