Thursday, November 1, 2012

Final Thoughts on Occupy Wall Street

A bit of satisfaction was experienced as the seemingly spontaneous displays of outrage began to appear from what would be termed "Occupy Wall Street." Clearly, the financial abuses that caused so much suffering were worthy of some outrage. As time went on and a sense of where the protests were heading, and what the protestors intended to accomplish were not forthcoming, satisfaction was replaced by a sense of foreboding, and finally by dismay and a bit of shame. As a dedicated liberal/progressive I see many things in our society that should be corrected. I also believe that action to correct any of them requires dedicated people focusing on a defined objective; one that is capable of marshaling support from a large segment of the nation. What I feared I was seeing was an undisciplined bunch of activists who would, in the end, offend most citizens and make the left once again look confused, disorganized, and out of touch.

Michael Greenberg wrote two articles for the New York Review of Books discussing Occupy Wall Street. He spent a lot of time visiting with the protestors in an attempt to understand who they were and what they wanted. The second article sheds light on the protestors and confirms my concerns. He summarizes the situation:

" Occupy Wall Street enters its fifth month, dislodged from most of the public spaces it had staked out around the country last fall, the movement seems weakened, its future uncertain. It sometimes appears to be driven by a series of tactics designed to maintain its public presence with no discernible strategy or goal—a kind of muddled, loose-themed ubiquity. The movement has proven adept at provoking media attention, but one may wonder what it amounts to, apart from its ability to reaffirm its status as a kind of protest brand name."

The people Greenberg quotes seem to be interested in something bigger than reform, something more akin to revolution; but, a revolution leading where? The most succinct expression of a goal Greenberg could quote seemed to be this:

"A government accountable to the people, freed up from corporate influence."

That is an admirable goal, and some of the protestors actually believed it was time to specify demands that would generate movement towards such a goal.

"In October, a "Demands Group" did spring up among the protesters. When members of the group went public with a few suggestions, the General Assembly attempted to vote them out of existence and by some accounts succeeded."

Why the resistance to explicit demands? Greenberg received this explanation:

"Any such demand would turn them into supplicants; its very utterance implied a surrender to the state that went against Occupy Wall Street’s principles."

One supposes that if a revolution is what is desired, then it makes no sense to try to make incremental changes because that would always mean working within the system that you wish to overthrow. But if revolution is the goal, then the nation has to be convinced to support it. The protestors seemed to want to generate public support for goals that they refused to specify. They also seemed to wish to generate a revolution without generating an organization—as if pure motives by themselves could generate momentum.

David Runciman writes a well-deserved dismissal of the Occupy "movement." His article appears ostensibly as a review of The Occupy Handbook. It appeared in the London Review of Books under the title: Stiffed.

Runciman begins by disposing of the notion that Occupy could have any practical relationship to its slogan proclaiming "We are the 99 percent."

"It relies on a wishful view of the 99 per cent and an absurd caricature of the 1 per cent, who are described as having been revealed ‘as a band of feckless, greedy narcissists, and possibly sociopaths’. What, all of them? Many of the 1 per cent think of themselves as members of the 99 per cent, precisely because they do not feel they belong with the monsters and sociopaths. Many of them are right: the 1 per cent starts at a household income level of around $350,000, so it includes a wide mix of people, including plenty of liberal professionals. Really, as Paul Krugman likes to point out, it’s the 0.1 per cent or even the 0.01 per cent who have been getting away with it on the grandest scale. But ‘We are the 99.9 per cent’ or ‘We are the 99.99 per cent’ seem like increasingly pointless slogans. You can’t play the victim when there’s ten thousand of you to every one of them."

Runciman then estimates the actual number of Occupy protestors as being about 0.1 percent of the population. So it could be said that the 0.1 percent were contending against the 0.1 percent. As we have seen, this 0.1 percent itself was not particularly well organized or focused, so how could it claim that the 99 percent was with them?

"What the 99 per cent have in common is that they don’t have enough in common to make a difference politically, compared to the very rich, who are a well-organised bunch. The 99 per cent are a lot more numerous than the 1 per cent; they are also a lot more divided, and it’s the second fact that counts."

Although the notion of the 99 percent as an abused majority was destined to fail, getting a large fraction of the population motivated to support an abused minority is definitely possible.

"Amid all the grandstanding and parading of manifestos in the Occupy Handbook, one essay that stands out is an old-fashioned piece of historical reportage by Michael Hiltzik. It’s called ‘The 5 per cent’, and it tells the story of the campaign during the 1930s to secure a decent social security programme for the elderly."

In the 1930s, the number of people over 65 consisted of about 5 percent of the population. These people were in the greatest need, but had the least political clout and were being overlooked as New Deal legislation was being proposed. A doctor named Francis Townsend organized a grass roots campaign to obtain a national pension plan.

"Though he didn’t get the scheme he wanted, he drew the nation’s attention to a group of people who were the clear losers in a crisis that had left the rich relatively unscathed."

"By focusing on the 5 per cent, the Townsend campaign made effective political use of the idea of victimhood. ‘Reduced to its essentials,’ Hiltzik writes, ‘the Townsend movement was a quest for justice for an oppressed and abused segment of the population. From this simplicity it drew its political potency’."

Runciman has a suggestion of a new 5 percent group that could use some help.

"Who are the 5 per cent today? It’s definitely not the old, who are now far more numerous and far wealthier than ever before....The losers are the young, especially those aged 25 and under who are not in education but are looking for work. In the US the unemployment rate for those aged 16-24 is 17.1 per cent; for black workers in that age-group it is 29 per cent. But the truly scary picture is the one emerging from Europe. In countries like Greece and Spain the youth unemployment rate is around 50 per cent. In these countries too, the old are better protected than the young, who are often being abandoned. Add to this the fact that the old are the ones who have enjoyed the benefits of years of relative prosperity and security across the Western world, whereas the young are facing a future in which the money has run out, and it is clear who the real victims are."

We must thank Runciman for reminding us that we can produce solutions when we have a specific problem to address, and for providing an appropriate target for our efforts. Addressing the needs of our youth will not require a revolution, but it will require dedicated people to come up with a proposed plan of action that makes sense within the context of the world and the economy in which we exist. And it will require these people to set up an organization to drum up support for the concept.

Goals, plans, and organization were all things that failed to emerge from Occupy. What a frustrating waste of energy and opportunity.

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