“We Are Not Aimless”: Reflections on OWS, the Profits System, and Wisconsin
We are not aimless; we simply speak a different language – a language of mutual respect, participation, self-management, and action. We make our demands in this language that screams we are here for the long-run, that our goal is not merely reform, that our vision is deep and radical, that we will not be bought off or co-opted, and that we are prepared to struggle in order to win not only those gains we can pronounce not but also those we can’t even fully articulate yet….
– Yotam Marom, OWS activist, October 13, 2011
One commonly hears that carping critics complain about what is wrong, but do not present solutions. There is an accurate translation for that charge: “they present solutions and I don’t like them.”
– Noam Chomsky, 2006
Freedome is the man that will turn the world upside downe; therefore no wonder he hath enemies…And assure yourselves, if you pitch not right now upon the right point of freedome in action, you will wrap up your children in greater slavery than ever you were in….
– Gerrard Winstanley, Watchword to the City of London, 1649
Iowa City, IA, October 17, 2011. Recently a friend of mine related a complaint she heard from a campus-town liberal-progressive academic Democrat against the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement that has spread like wildfire across the United States in the last two weeks. The liberal OWS critic compares the new movement unfavorably with the mass protests that broke out in Madison, Wisconsin last February and March. She says that the Madison actions were principled, “adult,” highly organized and clearly focused on a specific winnable and concrete agenda – defeating right-wing Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s effort to strip public sector unions of their collective bargaining rights. Te Wisconsin activists “knew what they were about.”
By contrast, the critic argues, OWS is “unfocused,” aimless, uncoordinated, and, well, “childish.” The critic thinks that the young occupiers in her home town (Iowa City) and across the country are looking for “an excuse to party,” “camp out,” and generally make a freaky spectacle of themselves. “They don’t what they’re about, what they want.”
She has not attended a single Occupy Iowa City event or meeting.
Well, sorry, but I have witnessed and participated in a number of occupation movement sites, actions, and meetings in New York City, Chicago, and Iowa City. I see the new protest movement in a very different and more positive light and frankly as much, much better than the Madison protests, in which I also participated.
The charge that they are bunch of partying slackers is off base. There’s fun and entertainment in the people-occupied zones, of course. There should be: they are essential ingredients of any popular movement culture worth a damn, and they always have been! Still, the occupiers I have met in all of the above locations are putting in a remarkable, even heroic amount of hard work on the many difficult tasks involved in building, sustaining, and expanding their movement: maintaining safe and sanitary occupation sites, interacting with civic authorities to stay in public compliance and avoid eviction, developing community outreach and media strategies, providing for homeless and hungry people who have come to their site for assistance, soliciting and processing outside support, maintaining a treasury and bank account, planning and holding workshops, marches, and other events; printing flyers, leaflets, and other educational and promotional materials; monitoring developments across the country and the world, and much, much more. Since the occupation movement is dedicated to a detailed and respectful, democratic and participatory decision-making process, they put a significant amount of hard work into their nightly General Assembly sessions, where group actions and principles are discussed and chosen in a careful and egalitarian way that is inspiring to behold. It’s a lot of work. And while the movement is in fact quite youthful, there are more than just a few mature adults, middle-aged and even seniors showing up to behold and participate in the new movement.
The charge of no clear focus is also incorrect. It is true that the occupation movement has taken its time – and shows some reluctance – to articulate specific and detailed policy demands. But this is the smart way to go. As the veteran U.S. radical activist and writer Michael Albert recently counseled OWSers from Ireland: “it is the arena of activism that schools [the deepest] insights…When the chattering media hounds demand demands…ignore them. Amass support. Find your collective pulse. Only then generate demands in accord with that collective pulse.”
And the new movement is hardly aimless. There’s nothing remotely mysterious about the target of its anger. It is clearly and unambiguously upset over and opposed to the many sided deadly and authoritarian control that the nation’s rich, corporate, and elite financial Few – “the unelected dictatorship of money” (Edward S. Herman and David Peterson) – exercised over American and global economic, political, cultural, and personal life. There’s nothing all that vague or difficult to understand about the focus of their ire as articulated in their Declaration of the Occupation of New York City: “We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies….We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.” The Declaration’s list of grievances against corporations includes the following:
“They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process….”
“They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give Executives exorbitant bonuses.”
“They have continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions.”
“They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right.”
“They have consistently outsourced labor and used that outsourcing as leverage to cut workers’ health care and pay.”
“They have sold our privacy as a commodity.”
“They continue to block alternate forms of energy to keep us dependent on oil.”
“They purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through control of the media.”
“They determine economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce.”
“They have donated large sums of money to politicians, who are responsible for regulating them.”
A young New York City activist named Yotam Marom recently responded eloquently on AlterNet to the charge of unfocused directionless-ness. “It’s not that we don’t have demands.” Marom writes; “it’s that we speak them in a different language. We speak them with our struggle. Our movement is made up of people fighting for jobs, for schools, for debt relief, equitable housing, and healthcare. We are resisting ecological destruction, imperialism, racism, patriarchy, and capitalism. We are doing it all in a way that is participatory, democratic, fierce, and unwavering. There is nothing vague about that.” Further:
“We want a political and economic system that we all actually control together, one that is equitable and humane, one that allows for people to self-manage but act in solidarity, one that is participatory and democratic to its core. We want a world where people have the right to their own identities, communities, and cultures, and the freedom from oppression and constraint. We want a world with institutions that take care of our youth, our elderly, and our families in ways that are nurturing, liberating, and consensual. We want a world in which community is not a hamper on individual freedom, but rather an expression of its fullest potential…If that’s not a clear enough statement of demands for you, CNN, I don’t know what to tell you.”
“…We are not aimless; we simply speak a different language – a language of mutual respect, participation, self-management, and action. We make our demands in this language that screams we are here for the long-run, that our goal is not merely reform, that our vision is deep and radical, that we will not be bought off or co-opted, and that we are prepared to struggle in order to win not only those gains we can pronounce not but also those we can’t even fully articulate yet….”
Albert is right to note that “we all know broadly where it will aim” – for a future of good jobs, fair distribution, increased social justice and security, greater democracy, reduced imperial expense and a peace dividend, enhanced housing, infrastructure, and education. “The details will emerge from the participants, as consciousness and solidarity climb,” Albert notes.
Ultimately, many OWSers want a world turned upside down. With good reason: the current top-down world controlled by “the one percent” and its profits system is slipping into terminal environmental catastrophe accompanied by endless war, horrifying authoritarianism, and shocking mass inequality and misery. The rich are destroying the Earth and annexing the future, holding the rest of us – the 99 percent – hostage to a hopelessly stunted, soulless, narcissistic and totalitarian vision of life and human nature. They are crucifying humanity on a cross of greed and power.
“The Enemy is a System”
As many occupiers know, there’s no shortage of good progressive and radical policy ideas to rollback and indeed (of ultimate interest to me) to collapse the rule of the corporate state and the top 1 percent and replace it with a much more genuinely democratic and participatory form of political and socioeconomic existence. There’s nothing mysterious about the numerous and interrelated proposals to check the plutocratic rule of the rich and its coordinators and ultimately to replace that rule with genuinely popular, self-determining governance. As Noam Chomsky once observed, “One commonly hears that carping critics complain about what is wrong, but do not present solutions. There is an accurate translation for that charge: ‘they present solutions and I don’t like them.’”
What’s been lacking on the left has been the power to put our many policy ideas into practice. And the biggest thing required at present to grow that capacity is the development of an independent social movement with the energy, structure, and determination to challenge the standard top-down corporate-managed game of politics and force progressive policy change and more – societal restructuring – from the bottom up. The fluid, eclectic, diverse, and remarkably democratic new occupation movement is doing more than anything in recent historical memory to light the spark of such mass movement politics.
It has been able to do this largely because it has had the brains and courage to – in the words of the black radical commentator Glen Ford – “call out the enemy’s name and address: finance capital, Wall Street” At the risk of sounding too negative, let’s acknowledge that getting the right and real enemy is a critical prerequisite for building a movement that matters. As Ford recently argued, the new movement could collapse tomorrow and it would have already done us the great service of identifying the real danger to freedom democracy at home and abroad: the hyper-parasitic financial super-elite, the people with real wealth and power, NOT the usual scapegoats (Muslim extremists, Latino immigrants, urban criminals, welfare mothers, union thugs, abortion doctors, gay marriage proponents, and radical professors, to name a few) that the upper 1 percent has long used to keep Americans diverted, divided, and confused.
But the new peoples’ movement challenges more than finance capital and Wall Street. The intimately related but bigger enemy is capitalism. A sign held by one young female protestor at a recent OWS march in New York City displays a single word written three times on a cardboard poster: “System, System. System.” I was instantly reminded of a remarkable passage from the Winter Solider testimony of a young American Iraq War and occupation veteran Mike Prysnor, who said the following in December of 2009, 11 months into the “hope and change” presidency of the Empire’s New Clothes Barack Obama:
“I threw families on to the street in Iraq only to come home and see families thrown on to the street in this county in this tragic, tragic and unnecessary foreclosure crisis. I mean to wake up and realize that our real enemies are not in some distant land. They’re not people whose names we don’t know and whose culture we don’t understand. The enemy is people we know very well and people we can identify. The enemy is a system that wages war when it’s profitable. The enemy is the CEOs who lay us off from our jobs when it’s profitable. It’s the insurance companies who deny us health care when it’s profitable. It’s the banks who take away our homes when it’s profitable. Our enemy is not 5000 miles away. They are right here at home. If we organize with our sisters and brothers we can stop this war. We can stop this government. And we can create a better world.”
The enemy is a system that concentrates ever more wealth and power in the hands of an upper 1 percent that currently owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent of Americans. That top hundredth owns more than a third of the United States’ wealth and a larger share of its elected officials – Democrats as well as Republicans – while the bottom 40 percent owns nothing (well, 0.3 percent of the nation’s private wealth) and a record-setting 46 million Americans now struggle to live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level.
The Kids Struck a Chord
The new movement’s isn’t about to collapse tomorrow, since it identifies and resists a class and an ethos of greed that is deeply unpopular with the preponderant majority of Americans. A vast swath of survey data shows that the American public is well to the left of both of the nation’s reigning business parties. As Kevin Young recently noted on ZNet, “The public is fiercely distrustful of corporate power and thinks that workers should have far more income, workplace protections, and political influence than they do. Strong majorities believe that the government has a responsibility to ensure that everyone has access to food, education, and health care. On tax and spending issues, polls have repeatedly confirmed that majorities favor large cuts to the military budget, higher taxes on the wealthy, and government stimulus spending to create jobs; this trend holds true for polls from the last two months. Yet public disgust with the unrepresentative nature of US politics and what Edward Herman and David Peterson call ‘the unelected dictatorship of money’ is sky-high. One 2010 poll from the Program on International Policy Attitudes found that an astounding 81 percent of the US public thinks that their country ‘is pretty much run by a few big interests.’”
Among the 50 percent of Americans who consider themselves familiar with the OWS protests, 79 percent think the gap between rich and poor is too large in the U.S.; 68 percent think the rich are under-taxed; 73 percent favor raising taxes on millionaires, and 86 percent think Wall Street and its lobbyists enjoy excessive influence in Washington.
No wonder that just three weeks into OWS, a TIME poll found that 54 percent of Americans had wither a “very favorable” (25 percent) or “somewhat favorable” (29 percent) view of the movement. OWS is considerably more popular among Americans that the fake-populist so –called Tea Party, a top-down creation of right wing business and Republican elites that dominant corporate media sold as a genuine independent and anti-establishment citizens’ movement.
Beyond Wisconsin and the Democrats
The OWS NYC Declaration’s statement of concern over corporate control of politicians per se is very important, I think. The Wisconsin struggle and its offshoots in Ohio and Indiana were inspiring and impressive. They helped inspire the current new radically democratic populist wave. They contained seeds of something far more radical and far-reaching (my favorite protest sign in Madison read “Governor Walker You Have Awakened a Sleeping Giant: The Working Class”). But let’s be honest about their geographic and ideological limits. When I told one New York activist dressed up as a greedy billionaire that I’d seen similarly clad street thespians protesting the anti-union policies of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in Madison last March, he was quick to make a perceptive and critical distinction between OWS and the wonderfully welcome Wisconsin rebellion earlier this year. “The Wisconsin thing was shut down out of subordination to the Democratic Party and the union bosses,” he said. “ They got angry, understandably, because a crazy right wing Republican governor was going after their power. And so they put a lot of people in the streets and in the Capitol building and it was really cool. But then it was like ‘thanks a lot for all that direct action and people power, now you all need to go home and help us recall Walker and those nasty Republican senators and get some Democrats back in office. Enough with all that scary direct action. Get out of here. Run along now. That was fun, but its time to get serious and focus on elections.’ And you know what? They all pretty much went home. Never mind that the Democrats, including Obama, are also going after public sector wages and unions, and also take money from the big banks and corporations. This thing here is different. It’s about the whole system, which is run by and for the rich whether they’ve got Republicans or Democrats out front. We aren’t going home.”
Even Wisconsin was a top-down affair and all-too captive to the Democrats at the end of the day.
Most of the occupiers I have met know that Democrats from Obama down to MoveOn.org (currently working to channel the movement’s anti-Wall Street energies into anger at the Republicans) are captive to the moneyed class. They get it that Democrats are the other wing of the corporate -controlled one-and-a-half party system in the United States, where “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business” (John Dewey). Unlike the 2008 Obama campaign and the 2009-2010 “Tea Party,” and to a much greater degree than the Wisconsin rebellion, OWS is a really grassroots and independent, anti-establishment movement. It is much more powerfully inoculated against liberal and electoralist co-optation than the Madison uprising. Its growing base of participants is not going to be easily pushed off their laser-like focus on corporate and financial power by the standard elite game of partisan distraction and divide-and-rule. Their movement has learned its lessons from the fake-progressive Obama HOPE and CHANGE ascendancy, followed by the in-power “betrayals” of NOPE and CONTINUITY. It knows that American “democracy” is no less crippled by the dark cloud of big money and corporate rule when Democrats hold nominal power than when Republicans do. It grasps that real progressive and democratic change can only come from an epic bottom-up peoples’ fight with concentrated wealth and power – a fight that goes to the economic root of social, environmental, and political decay. It knows in its bones that (to quote Howard Zinn) “it’s not about who’s “sitting in the White House” (or the governors’ mansion or the congressional or state-legislative or city council office) at the end of the day: it’s about “who’s sitting in,” marching, demonstrating, occupying, and (last but not least) organizing on a day-to-day basis beneath and beyond the masters’ “personalized quadrennial [electoral] extravaganzas” (Noam Chomsky’s term). It knows also that real and lasting change of a desirable nature involves radical-democratic, bottom-up restructuring of natural and socioeconomic existence – of humanity’s relationship to itself and nature. More than simply imagined, the restructuring required is test-run and modeled in the remarkable OWS decision-making process, replicated each night in hundreds of nightly General Assembly meetings in people-occupied spaces across the country.
To some degree, then, OWS is less continuous with Madison than it is with the remarkable workplace occupation that took place at the Republic Door and Window plant on the North Side of Chicago in December of 2008. Also chanting “They Got Bailed Out, We Got Sold Out,” that exceptional rank-and-file action targeted taproot capitalist institutions – an absconding firm and its finance-capitalist backer/banker. It all-too-briefly raised fundamental questions about class, ownership, finance, and power beneath and beyond the partisan divisions of the masters’ one-and-a-half party system. The fact that corporate Democrats rather than corporate Republicans held elective office in Chicago (or that a fake-progressive corporate Democrat “from Chicago” had just been elected to the White House) did not deter them even slightly in their direct action struggle, which also (like OWS and Madison) won rapid widespread approval around the country.
The “kids” of Zucotti Park in New York City, College Green Park in Iowa City and countless other occupied zones across the U.S. know what they are about. They have struck a radically democratic populist chord that resonates with tens of millions across the restrictive red-blue map of U.S. political geography. They are walking to some extent in the footsteps of the great British radical Gerrard Winstanley and his band of 17th century Diggers by insisting that we plow deeper into the economic and institutional roots of modern inequality and oppression to imagine and act on the possibility of a better world turned upside down, beyond the rule of the wealthy Few and their filthy profits regime. But whereas Winstanely struck the soils of revolutionary London at the birth of a bourgeois order that had only begun to conquer and reorganize the world, to miraculously harness the species’ productive potential on a previously unimaginable scale, the occupiers who have planted themselves in the belly of the global economic beast in New York City’s financial district are challenging a rotten, purely parasitic late-capitalist system that has nothing left to offer but death and destruction- a descent into an at once Huxlean and Orwellian Hell in which life for the majority becomes ever more (to quote the 17th century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes) “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of numerous books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011). Street will speak on the last book (and on the OWS movement) at 57th Street Books in Chicago (Wednesday, November 2 at 6pm), the Third Unitarian Church in Chicago (Sunday, November 6 at 9 AM), and Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City (Monday, November 7 at 7pm). Street can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org