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

Signs at Occupy Portland, November 9, 2011 © Another Believer | Wikimedia Commons

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 . . .

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Politics as an End in Itself: New Media and the Persistence of OWS

A member of Anonymous at the Occupy Wall Street protest in New York, Sept. 17, 2011 © David Shankbone | Wikimedia Commons

I am still jet-lagged, or is it a cold? I can’t tell. Whatever it is, I have not been up to par for the past few weeks. The trip to Europe, including visits with my daughter and her family in Paris and the seminar in Wroclaw, was more challenging than expected. Naomi, my wife and Deliberately Considered’s Art and Design Editor, and I slowed down in our posting. But now, we are back. I expect to regain my strength, and you, dear Deliberately Considered readers, can expect in the coming weeks more posts on Wroclaw and on American and global politics and culture. Here, today and tomorrow, my thoughts on OWS responding to the discussions at the Wroclaw seminar. -Jeff

The starting point of the Wroclaw Seminar was Occupy Wall Street. It then served as our primary case for comparative investigation throughout and informed our final conclusions. Seminar participants Pamela Brown and Sidney Rose suggested additional readings for the seminar when we focused on OWS — Rose on the link between Anonymous and OWS. She was particularly interested in the online pre-history of OWS. Brown, an Occupy activist, was focused on the present challenges and recent accomplishments of the movement.

Rose suggested a piece describing an embrace between Cornell West, the philosopher, social critic and activist, and Gregg Housh, a leading figure in the shadowy group, Anonymous, at an occupy demonstration in Boston. This informed our discussion about the virtual infrastructure that supported the embodied occupations. As we tried to understand what is special about the new “new social movements,” the interaction between virtual and the embodied was a topic we knew we needed to explore.

We discussed how events in the Middle East and North Africa, combined with virtual actions, led to Occupy Wall Street, and sparked a global social movement wildfire. Following the Arab Spring, OWS developed with an Adbusters initial proposal to occupy wall street on September 17, 2011 , supported by politicized hackers such as those associated . . .

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OWS at Six Months: Reflections on the Winter Occupation

Banner made for May Day © March 17, 2012, Christopher Brown

Occupy’s six-month birthday celebration last Saturday at Zuccotti Park was first spent in celebration: the scene was joyous with friends reuniting after winter hibernation. “Spring training” regimes were conducted. The drum circle was back, and mic checks once again created a collective voice.

But when protestors undertook a spontaneous, albeit brief, reoccupation, they were met with the most violent and unrestrained NYC police force to date. MTA buses were commandeered and over seventy arrests were made. The significance and power of the park was clear once again.

Police violence was immediately challenged with solidarity marches in New York and throughout the country on Sunday. In spite of a winter predicting our demise, Occupy is alive again this spring. Not that we were ever really dead, but since the cops evicted Zuccotti the first time last fall, OWS has been struggling to find a way of staying meaningful without the spectacle of the park. Liberty Park offered a sense of commonality, a point of access, and a feeling of empowerment that has been difficult to replicate.

In fact, as the winter approached, the occupation had already started to weaken. Social problems appeared within the park. The influx of those bearing the stigmas of long-term homelessness, substance abuse and mental illness had already created divisions, cutting across the usual lines of class, race and “mental status.” Neighborhoods and maps developed to segregate social groups, restricting movement within what was established and claimed as a space of “openness.” Just after the fall storm, a woman pushed past me rushing from one side of the park to the other, and I heard her say to a friend, “Oh noooo, we don’t want to get caught in that part of the ‘hood.’ ” That comment stuck.

Many of us felt relieved that the police closed the park – that the occupation went out with a bang, rather than slowly disintegrating in front of an increasingly disinterested television audience, suggesting the movement’s ideals as being fundamentally in conflict to the wider public.

Nonetheless, the movement did continue. The loss of the park . . .

Read more: OWS at Six Months: Reflections on the Winter Occupation

Between Radical Hopes and Practical Projects: Reflections on the Flying Seminar Session with Bill Zimmerman

Bill Zimmerman speaking at "The Flying Seminar" at The New School, Dec. 3, 2011. © blogs.newschool.edu/tcds

Monday morning, I took a bit of a break from my plan for the day. I decided my class preparation and work on some overdue papers would wait. After I replied to Corey Robin’s response to a critical passing comment I made about his book, The Reactionary Mind, on Facebook, I put off until later in the week my search for interesting conservative intellectuals. I decided to ignore the Republican madness, and not worry about the ups and downs in the upcoming Presidential race, and didn’t read the reports on the Super Bowl (the annual sports media event that I usually ignore but did tweak my interest this year, New Yorker that I am). Instead, I opened my computer and watched the video of the Flying Seminar meeting with Bill Zimmerman (which I missed because I was at that time at a conference in Sofia). It was a particularly interesting meeting, very nicely captured in the video (thank you Lisa Lipscomb). I entered a different world, beyond the mundane, considering the connection between radical hopes and practical projects.

This is what the Flying Seminar is. Recall, Elzbieta Matynia and I developed the Flying Seminar in response to Occupy Wall Street. OWS reminded us of our days observing and participating in the Solidarity (Solidarność) movement in Poland, and the great independent academic project of Solidarity times, the Flying University of the Polish underground. We started with a meeting with activists in Shiroto no Ran (Amateur Revolt), a counter-cultural anti- nuclear movement which came to take part in the occupation of Zuccotti Park. We then arranged a meeting with Adam Michnik, the outstanding Polish critical intellectual and political activist, who also visited the Park. Our third meeting was with Zimmerman, an old New Leftist (it takes one to know one), author of the recent book, Troublemaker: A Memoir From the Front Lines of the Sixties. Last month, after a technical delay, we posted the video recording of that meeting.

The seminar . . .

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The State of the Union: Opening the Debate of 2012

President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 24, 2012 © Pete Souza | Whitehouse.gov

I continue to be struck by the constancy of Barack Obama. His tactics shift and weave, but his overall principles and project are firmly rooted. In the State of the Union address, he revealed his core convictions, explained his policies and their consequences, and linked his accomplishments with his promises.

Obama is a centrist, working to define common sense, working to move the center left, as I have earlier argued. In his speech last night, he focused on fairness and the viability of the American dream. He argued for the way the government can support economic development and the interests of the vast majority of the American public. Though he did not use the language of Occupy Wall Street, his focus on fairness was clearly supported by the fruits of the social movement’s labors. And the principled debate before the American people in the coming election was illuminated, as Obama argued for his side: a “smarter more effective government” versus limited government, the Republican ideal.

The speech was elegantly crafted and delivered, something that is now expected from Obama and therefore doesn’t impress and is not really news. But the fine form delivered a well rounded argument.

He opened and closed with a call for common purpose, exemplified by the military and its virtues, as he highlighted major milestones in foreign affairs: the end of the war in Iraq and the killing of Osama Bin Laden. A move that makes me uncomfortable, though I understand that it works well.

The opening:

“Last month, I went to Andrews Air Force Base and welcomed home some of our last troops to serve in Iraq.  Together, we offered a final, proud salute to the colors under which more than a million of our fellow citizens fought — and several thousand gave their lives.

We gather tonight knowing that this generation of heroes has made the United States safer and more respected around the world.  (Applause.)  For the . . .

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My Big Mistake: The End of Ideology, Then and Now

Revolutions of 1989 - Top left: Round Table in Warsaw. Top right: Fall of the Berlin Wall. Middle left: Romanian Revolution. Middle right: Velvet Revolution in Prague. Bottom: Baltic Way in Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian SSR. © Various (collage by Kpalion) | Wikimedia Commons

Ideological clichés are deadly. In 1989, the end of the short twentieth century (1917 – 1989) with all its horrors, I thought this simple proposition was something that had been learned, broadly across the political spectrum . I was wrong, and the evidence has been overwhelming. This was my biggest mistake as a sociologist of the politics and culture.

When Soviet Communism collapsed, I thought it had come to be generally understood that simple ideological explanations that purported to provide complete understanding of past, present and future, and the grounds for solving the problems of the human condition, were destined for the dustbin of history. The fantasies of race and class theory resulted in profound human suffering. I thought there was global awareness that modern magical thinking about human affairs should and would come to an end.

My first indication I had that I was mistaken came quickly, December 31, 1989, to be precise. It came in the form of an op ed. piece by Milton Friedman. While celebrating the demise of socialism in the Soviet bloc, he called for its demise in the United States, which he asserted was forty-five per cent socialist, highlighting the post office, the military (a necessary evil to his mind) and education. He called for a domestic roll back of the socialist threat now that the foreign threat had been vanquished. Friedman knew with absolute certainty that only capitalism promoted freedom, and he consequentially promoted radical privatization as a solution to all social problems. This was an early battle cry for the neo-liberal assault of the post-cold war era.

The assault seemed particularly silly to me, and hit close to home, since I heard Friedman lecture when . . .

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The Occupation of the New School as a Childhood Ailment of the OWS

Day 14, Sept. 30, 2011, of Occupy Wall Street - March to police headquarters to protest police brutality © David Shankbone | Flickr

(In the memory of Vladimir Ilyich, who in spite of everything was a great political man.)

The Occupation of Wall Street has already done important things. It has put the very important issue of inequality on the collective American agenda. It has experimented with forms of direct democracy and in ways of seriously influencing the political system outside the official channels. It has the potential of becoming not only the forerunner, but also a key component of a new American movement for more democracy and more justice. But, as all movements, it must confront its own worst tendencies to realize its genuine potential.

By tendencies I mean strategies rather than people or individuals or groups.  Such a negative strategy is symbolized by the slogan that appeared just before the taking of a part of the New School: “occupy everything.” I regard it as a childhood ailment not to denigrate any participants or to represent their age (they were adults!), but to indicate problems of an early, developmental phase that can still be overcome.

“Occupy everything” is a slogan and a program incompatible with a non-violent movement aiming to raise moral as well as political consciousness. The idea of “seizing public or quasi-public spaces to make broad claims about the overall (mis)direction of our society” cannot be justified as a general right in the name of which the law is violated to transform or improve it. It is incompatible with productively addressing “the public at large.” Finally, and most clearly “occupy everything” is deeply contradictory with the creative slogan “we are the 99%.”

“Occupation” as against “sit-in” is a military metaphor. Occupation easily calls to mind the occupation of Iraq, and of the West Bank of the Jordan River. Sit-in means that we enter and stay in the space of an institution, non-violently, space where we have some kind of right to be and exercise civil disobedience, accepting to pay a price when arrested. For example, African Americans who sat in had a right to . . .

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The Metrics of Protest: Black Friday and Low-Wage America

Black Friday at Walmart © Dustin | BlackFriday.com

The headline on the front page of the Thanksgiving Day The New York Times: “Opening Day for Holiday Shopping Shows Divide.”

The next day – Black Friday – Bloomberg ran a story with the headline “U.S. Workers’ Pay Slide Poses Consumer Risk. ”

It may turn out to have been a “Black Friday” for top end retailers, but it’s a bleak season for low income America and the businesses that cater to it. According to the Times’ story: “Wal-Mart’s profits declined in the third quarter as it kept many prices low so its shoppers could afford them.” Michael T. Duke, Wal-Mart’s chief executive, told analysts that ‘There is a real sense that the economic strain is taking its toll.” Without the fuel of credit that had increasingly been required to power spending by low-income workers, Wal-Mart now has to resort to layaway plans for its shoppers.

As 10 percentage points of national income has been directed away from the bottom 80% to the top 1% since 1979, those paid the lowest wages have seen their buying power erode the most. While the quality and quantity of education force can explain much of the distribution of income within the bottom 99% (together with personal networks, effort and luck), differences in educational attainment have nothing to do with the transition of the American economy to extreme inequality since the 1970s. It is also quite clear that among developed countries, America is exceptional: only the UK comes close to US-style extreme inequality.

The lesson is that extreme inequality is the outcome of political choices that have empowered a tiny minority. It has to do with political choices, the way institutions function, and social norms; it is not a natural market payoff to investments in education. The shift of income to the top .1% (which has driven the growth of the top 1%) reflects the market power of a small number of CEOs and finance, medical and legal professionals.

Here are some metrics that focus on what has happened to the wage/salary earnings of American workers.

Employee compensation in . . .

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Mayor Bloomberg versus Occupy Wall Street

Mayor Michael Bloomberg © Rubentstein | Flickr

“Protestors have had two months to occupy the park with tents and sleeping bags. Now they will have to occupy the space with the power of their arguments.” -M. Bloomberg

I find this to be the most interesting component of Bloomberg’s statement today. On its face, it appears to be an appeal to the virtues of public discussion and critical public debate. Bloomberg suggests that if the Occupy Wall Street movement is in possession of the most truthful account of our current collective predicament, then it will be proven in the so called marketplace of ideas.

Yet, in my judgment, Bloomberg’s appeal to the tenets of deliberative democracy is nothing more than cynical, and, in fact, a strategic attempt to silence protest and squash democracy. At the forefront of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement is a critique of the inequality of voice within the public sphere. The kinds of arguments members of the political elite, such as Bloomberg, are even capable of hearing is precisely what is at issue. Take, for example, Bloomberg’s recent critique of the association of Wall Street Bankers with the 2008 economic collapse. Bloomberg blames the collapse on government housing policy that encouraged the expansion of the home owning class in the United States. In Bloomberg’s mind, the federal government put pressure on lenders to lend to unqualified borrowers. Yet, as Michael Powell of the New York Times points out, all available evidence proves this argument to be baseless. Bloomberg cannot even imagine that Wall Street banks could possibly be at fault for the great ongoing economic calamity we are all suffering through.

A fundamental critical point of OWS is that political elites have difficulty even hearing certain kinds of arguments. The fact that the elite commentators and politicians continuously prove their myopia by misunderstanding the basic structure and symbolics of OWS movement demonstrates the movement’s ongoing critical importance. Some, such as the Times’ David Brooks, acknowledge that the OWS movement has successfully “changed the conversation,” but they still decry the movement’s lack of leadership and what they perceive to be . . .

Read more: Mayor Bloomberg versus Occupy Wall Street

The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street: Unhappy Warriors

Tea Party rally against the health care bill. March 13, 2010 © Fibonacci Blue | Flickr

Grievance is the electricity of the powerless. It energizes masses. Yet, lacking bright vision, cursing the overlords cannot become a political program. Cures need calm confidence. Complaint awakens protest, but it is insufficient for transformation. Escaping dark plagues begins collective action; spying Canaan must follow.

In our dour moment in which citizens of all stripes are taking to the streets, the plazas, and the parks, we see accusing placards, but no persuasive manifestos. As sociologist William Gamson has pointed out, the first step is to demonstrate an “injustice frame” as a precursor to action. Point taken, but it is a start.

Despite their manifold and manifest differences, the polyester Tea Party and the scruffy Occupy Wall Street protests have at least this in common: palpable anger and resentment. We feel at the mercy of distant puppet masters, and elites in pinstripes and in gowns have much to answer for.

Neither the Partiers nor the Occupiers are wrong to recognize the sway of elites, even if they are not sufficiently aware of those powers that stand behind their own movements: David Koch, the Alliance for Global Justice, and FreedomWorks. Anti-elites are the playthings of the powerful.

Yet, despite their backers, both the Partiers and the Occupiers are solidly 99%’ers. Both radicals of the left and upstarts of the right think that there is not so much difference between the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration. The oil establishment and the financial services establishment could share breakfast of caviar and champagne, discussing whether their interests are better served by this president or the last one. Peasants with pitchforks are on no guest lists, whether they dress in denim or dacron. Despite partisan bickering, it is easy to feel that on the basic issues of security and capital the gap between competing establishments is small. I am struck by how little fundamental restructuring, hope and change has brought. The same powers will control health care, energy development, and financial services.

The fatal illusion of the Tea Party Movement is that America . . .

Read more: The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street: Unhappy Warriors