Why Occupy Wall Street Has Left Washington Behind
Public discussion of the Wall Street protests has focused on the movement’s indictment of the economic elite, but Occupy Wall Street marks an equally profound critique of the country’s political system. As the weeks tick by, the protests at Zuccotti Park and across the nation are driving home this profound realization: this is a fight that can’t be won by voting. The crisis that most fundamentally shapes our lives cannot be solved through the legislative process. This is not because the agenda is unpopular—54 percent of Americans support OWS, with only 23 percent opposed—but because the system is corrupted beyond repair. This slowly dawning realization is both invigorating—an invitation to engage in the kind of bold, blue-sky strategic thinking that leftists have not entertained for decades—and disturbing, a harbinger of just how nasty the future may get.
What makes OWS different from the mass marches against the Iraq War or at the 2004 GOP convention is not just that it’s an ongoing occupation rather than a one-day affair. It’s that this protest is not, at its core, voicing an appeal to lawmakers.
The OWS turn away from the political system began with the choice of location—Wall Street rather than the National Mall. It is driven home, above all, by the refusal to encapsulate the protest in policy demands aimed at Congress. I don’t know whether the absence of specific policy proposals is intentional or accidental. But I do know that it’s part of what lends such power to the occupation and renders its targets so palpably uncomfortable.
The “demand for demands,” The Nation’s Betsy Reed has noted, is misplaced. What would our rallying cry be? “The people demand a .05 percent transaction tax on stock purchases held for less than fifteen days”? Everyone knows what OWS is for. And its essential demand is powerful precisely because of its startling simplicity: “You know what you did. You have our stuff. Give it back.”
The movement comes at a time of economic crisis and unparalleled cynicism about government, particularly in the wake of the Citizens United decision. Congress’s approval rating—13 percent—is the lowest ever recorded.
The protests are also in large part a response to the disappointments of the Obama administration. Indeed, almost every policy demand that OWS might possibly voice has already been proposed, debated and defeated—at a time when Democrats controlled all branches of government. Members of Congress considered but declined to enact proposals to impose a tax on Wall Street transactions; to limit executive compensation; to fund a mass WPA-style jobs program; to allow bankruptcy judges to mark underwater mortgages to market; to make it easier for Americans to form unions and bargain for better wages; to eliminate tax benefits for companies that transfer our jobs overseas; and to forswear any more NAFTA-style trade treaties. The OWS refusal to articulate policy demands reflects the conviction that any remedies that fit the scale of the problem are impossible to pass—not only in the current Congress but in any Congress we can realistically imagine.
I say this as someone who at this time last year was working as senior staff on the House Labor Committee. I still believe in the importance of that work, because even modest accomplishments at that level can improve the lives of millions. But this crisis calls for more than modest accomplishments.
I went to Washington in 2009 because, like many others, I believed the moment was finally ripe to make progressive changes for working people. But I discovered what we all kind of knew beforehand: if the Republicans are cheerleaders for the 1 percent, most Democrats are quiet collaborationists. I met some very dedicated and hard-working people in Congress. But ultimately the Democrats are too beholden to big money. In last year’s Congressional elections, more than two-thirds of all campaign contributions came from one-quarter of 1 percent of the population. Even Democratic candidates got ten times as much money from corporations as they did from labor unions. There is simply no chance that the little people will triumph over big business in this process.
There has been much written about “disillusionment with democracy” in Latin America, as many countries replaced dictatorships with democracy only to discover that their new governments were powerless to address the most pressing problems of poverty and inequality. Democracy is measured not only by the fairness of elections but also by the scope of national life that is subject to popular control. When the dictates of foreign debt or trade treaties put core economic decisions beyond the control of elected representatives, “democracy” becomes a cruel joke or, worse, a spectacle designed to absorb popular frustration while the real deals go down elsewhere. Keep your eyes over here—don’t pay attention to that man behind the curtain!
The OWS moment seems to reflect a recognition that we have joined our neighbors to the south in being ruled by a system that, whatever its other virtues may be, is powerless to solve the most important problems plaguing the country.
It is this realization, even more than the demand for economic redistribution, that makes OWS such a radicalizing experience. Policy demands aimed at Congress implicitly affirm the legitimacy of the legislative process. The refusal to submit demands is a refusal to legitimate an illegitimate system.
In some ways, it’s the White House that pushed people to turn outside the system. The administration has long admonished the left not to expect too much. Former press secretary Robert Gibbs famously declared that “the professional left” needed to understand that things like “Canadian healthcare” are simply “not reality.” The president repeatedly asks that we appreciate his modest achievements as the high-water mark of what can come from such a limited system. For the OWS protesters to be coaxed back into the legislative game, they’d have to believe that Obama is lying when he says this is the best we can expect. The problem is that the protesters believe the president is telling the truth.
As Barack Obama and Mitt Romney hone their lines, trying to work out a position that sympathizes with the aggrieved while reassuring their donors, the OWS message to both candidates is the same: “This isn’t about you. It’s between us and them,” pointing up to the Masters of the Universe on the executive floors—not the mouthpieces of the corporate chieftains but the actual power.
OWS is clearly inspired by Tahrir Square. Yet Egyptians succeeded in toppling the Mubarak government not because they occupied the square but because their occupation exerted direct pressure on the country’s most powerful business interests. As SUNY Stonybrook sociologist Michael Schwartz has detailed, by shutting down the tourist industry, disrupting construction projects whose financing had already been committed and initiating general strike actions that threatened to shut the Suez Canal, the occupiers of Tahrir threatened the interests of the economic elite—and that is what brought down the regime.
Clearly, something similar—nonviolent action that directly challenges the economic elite—is required here if we’re to succeed in making serious change. It’s daunting, but there is a precedent. Before there were civil rights laws, people broke the back of Jim Crow by picketing, boycotting, getting beaten and arrested by the tens of thousands, in direct action against the most powerful forces of their society.
OWS has resonated with millions of normally apolitical people across the country who recognize in it the crucible of their own struggles. If the movement moves beyond the occupied squares and into foreclosure defense (as has already begun in Los Angeles and New York) and student debt strikes—if it becomes not only the voice but the arm of those resisting immiseration at the hands of the 1 percent—then it may achieve by popular action what the political system is incapable of accomplishing.
This is the nightmare scenario for those at the top, and the promise of a new day for the rest of us. This is something that could get out of hand. This is Shays’ Rebellion without the guns.
Also in This Forum
Sam Pizzigati: “OWS Revives the Struggle for Economic Equality”
Rinku Sen: “Race and Occupy Wall Street”
George Zornick: “How to Be a 1 Percenter”
Tamara Draut: “Occupy College”
Sarah Anderson: “The Costs of Wall Street Greed”