Wither Wall Street: The Challenge of the Occupy Movement

by | 2 Jan 2012

Over the last three months New York City has been electrified by the Occupy Wall Street movement. Prachi Patankar and I have been participating in some of the actions. We have also been part of a number of discussions within the South Asia Solidarity Initiative (SASI) on how an organisation like ours can bring an internationalist perspective to this movement. Prachi is also on the board of the War Resisters League (WRL). Through such discussions SASI and WRL organised Empire on Wall Street actions.

In December 2008, protesting the layoffs without severance and vacation pay, over 200 workers of the Republic Windows and Doors occupied the factory plant and refused to leave. During their occupation, they criticized the companies’ creditor, Bank of America, which received US$ 25 billion in a financial bailout package from the government. Newly elected President Obama publicly supported the workers right to raise their demands. In late 2008, the housing rights advocacy group, Take Back the Land, also started occupying empty and foreclosed houses to move in homeless people and their families. In February 2011, tens of thousands of Wisconsin public sector workers and their supporters occupied the state capital in Madison to protest a bill that removed the workers’ collective bargaining power and forcing them to pay more for their health benefits and pension. In September 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement began occupying public spaces around the country to protest income inequality and economic policies that privilege the top 1% over rest of the 99% of the population. The Occupy Wall Street movement is building on the rising tide of discontent and protest to reclaim the economic future of the American people from finance capital.

Wall Street’s Hegemony

The economic crisis of 2008 exposed the ravages of finance capital and questioned the legitimacy of banks and Wall Street. However, well before the current economic crisis, income inequalities, persistent unemployment and poverty have been on the rise since the 1970s. It is this long arduous experience that led to the majority of public opinion turning against the government for bailing out Wall Street while ignoring the economic devastation people were facing on “Main Street” through foreclosures and massive job losses. Indeed, soon after the financial crisis of 2008, there were small protests against the banks and insurance companies such as AIG. However, reflecting the weakening of social movements and the political culture of protest in the US, these protests did not immediately gain traction. The legitimacy crisis and the emergence of a protest movement to expose the nexus of finance and government – as evident from Wall Street’s tremendous influence on policy in Washington – takes time.

The popular anger building against Wall Street is historically situated in conjuncture of the 1970s leading to the emergence of a neoliberal economy. The consolidation of financial and defence interests with Reaganomics of the 1980s ushered in a new era of tax-cuts to the wealthy and reduction in government spending under the pretext of stimulating the economy. These decades were characterised by severe attacks on organized labour with the National Labour Relations Board shifting to favour employers. There was also a significant rise in military spending during the Reagan era along with the Strategic Defence Initiative to shield the US from the nuclear arsenal of the Soviet Union, escalating an arms race between the two super powers. Repression of immigrants also became more pronounced with the annual budget for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) increasing four fold in the 1980s.

The Clinton Administration continued this trend, accelerating the financialisation of the economy through deregulation and continuing the military build up despite the end of the Cold War. Former Goldman Sachs Chairman Robert Rubin as Treasury Secretary under President Clinton was central to promoting the capital markets both inside the US and their expansion around the world. Indeed, a series of legislations constituting the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act and the broader deregulation of the finance and telecommunications industries led to a dot com boom during the Clinton era initiating a stock market bubble which would then be transformed into a housing a bubble in the next decade.

What can one say about the legacy of the Bush years? The economic crisis that could have deepened in the early 2000s was deflected by both political and economic developments. Following the September 11th attacks, the Bush regime launched the “war on terror” through the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. The geopolitics of these imperialist wars was an attempt to control oil flows and consolidate US power globally. Such imperialist policies were the implementation of the long held neo-conservative vision outlined in the previous decade by the “Project for the New American Century.” This global project of the Bush regime was paralleled by a housing bubble inside the country through extension of debt in the form of mortgages and equity financing, which ensured high levels of consumption to keep a booming economy, despite the risks of massive default and foreclosures in the future.

Those close to the Bush regime – including bankers reflected by former Goldman Sachs Chairman Hank Paulson who was Treasury Secretary and the Military Industrial Complex including defence contractors such as Halliburton of which Vice President Cheney was a former chairman – made a financial killing in the short run despite the imminent unravelling and the failure of these global and national policies. The wars abroad over the Bush years and the bail out of banks and insurance companies that caused the housing bubble in late 2008 by the Bush Administration would each cost over US$ 700 billion.

According to a 2010 report titled ‘Income Inequality and the Great Recession’ by the US Congress Joint Economic Committee: “the share of total income accrued by the wealthiest 10 percent of households jumped from 34.6 percent in 1980 to 48.2 percent in 2008. Much of the spike was driven by the share of total income accrued by the richest 1 percent of households. Between 1980 and 2008, their share rose from 10.0 percent to 21.0 percent, making the United States as one of the most unequal countries in the world.” A previous report by the congressional committee found that the after-tax income of the richest 0.1 percent rose 400 percent between 1979 and 2005. The present day right-wing offensive against what they call “big government spending” and union bargaining power build on the budget cuts and income inequalities over last three decades.

These are the consequences of what David Harvey has characterised as a neoliberal class project, where consolidation of class power is tied to “accumulation by dispossession”. After selling risky mortgages to disproportionately low-income and working class people whose houses were eventually foreclosed with the economic crisis, the banks continued to thrive while the people were forced to the streets without homes and jobs. Eight years of Bush policies focused on increased militarism abroad, entrenchment of repression including torture and indiscriminate detentions, attacks on women’s rights and science, tax-cuts to the wealthy and cuts to public spending on education and health-care. In 2006, stringent immigration laws against undocumented workers brought out hundreds of thousands of people out on the streets in protests. The outrage against these policies gave rise to a new movement in 2008 that mobilized around the candidacy of Obama who ran on a platform that promised hope and change.

The Obama Administration once elected did little to change the direction of the country and the hopes for change have been dashed. Millions of people, especially the youth, who built the movement to elect Obama, have been disillusioned. In the face of continued high rates of unemployment, students graduating from colleges all across the country have been left without jobs and with crippling student loans. The defensive posture of the Obama Administration toeing the line of finance capital has in fact emboldened the Right. Seizing the popular disaffection with the economy and consolidating gains over the last two decades a powerful right wing lobby is shaping policy in Washington. Indeed, the proliferation of the Tea Party movement in 2010 and its influence on the conservative policies passed in states across the country has been a troubling development in contemporary US politics. Over the last three decades and into the current moment, it is the Military Industrial Complex and finance capital that dominate Washington.

The Occupy Movement

This is the context in which the Occupy Wall Street movement began this September in New York and is quickly spreading to cities all across the US. It started with a small group of activists occupying Zuccotti Park in New York City targeting the role of the Wall Street firms head quartered in that neighbourhood. Occupying public squares became the tactic of the movement with a very broad based vision of uniting 99% that suffers at the expense of the richest 1% of US population. The Occupy movement has gained participation from various sectors that include students, labour unions, environmental groups and community organizations. Thousands of youth newly introduced to political action are in the front lines of this movement. They are now working with experienced activists involved in economic justice work over the last many decades. This is the strength, determination and creativity characterising this movement.

The Occupy movement has created a radically different political culture where activists are engaged in a collectively run democratic and participatory space. For example, in occupied spaces throughout the country “in-house” kitchens are feeding hundreds of people every day, comfort and sanitation committees are addressing health and safety, and design working groups are using their skills to support actions and projects for the movement. This political culture is challenging the notion that American youth don’t care about political change. It is in fact, a youth led movement, where youth are determined to create direct democracy structures and change the direction of the country. Such a political culture is exposing the inability of the government institutions to provide for its citizens and awakened youth to the possibility of an equitable society.

Much has been said regarding the lack of concrete demands of the Occupy movement. Some media outlets as well as friendly supporters on the periphery of this movement have been sceptical about a movement without concrete demands. Yet, the movement has grown remarkably in the first three months since its inception. Perhaps the strength so far, is the absence of a narrow definition of the movement and the avoidance of concrete demands, which have drawn people from various backgrounds and political ideologies. The broad vision of 99% and occupation of public places has encouraged an inclusive space coalesced by the sentiments of frustration and anger felt by the broader population.

Instead of focusing on particular demands from the system, the Occupy movement has been engaged in direct actions that expose the economic misery of the American people; the homeless families, workers, the unemployed, loan burdened youth and immigrants. Indeed, as Frances Fox Piven has emphasized, disrupting the system is a central aspect of changing it. Has the Occupy movement become a “movement of movements”? The decentralized and “leaderless” nature of the movement has given space for various working groups to mobilise around a variety of grievances under the banner of the 99%. It is an effective slogan because it has been able to capture the broader politics of this moment where income inequality, unemployment and homelessness continue to rise in this country. The focus on actions that support existing movements rather than particular single-issue demands is an effective strategy, as it allows the movement to remain broad, inclusive and defiant and yet give space for longstanding issue based groups and movements to make specific demands. The legitimacy and strength garnered by the Occupy movement is spreading and emboldening movements across Middle America as it inspires people through a broad vision addressing the predicament of common depravation. The momentum of this movement and the large support it has received has shifted the debates in the public sphere about the state of the country.

Repression and Militarised Policing

Even as the Occupy movement struck a chord with the wider public, it is not coincidental, that it faced state repression. After being allowed to occupy Zuccotti Park for almost two months, Mayor Bloomberg evicted the Occupy Wall Street encampment just days before the National Day of Action on November 17th. In what appeared to be coordinated police raids by Mayors of sixteen cities across the US, the occupiers were evicted. Sadly, these were the same mayors whose collective action had resulted in an overwhelming vote for a resolution urging Obama and Congress to bring war dollars home to promote job creation, infrastructure growth and address the national debt. In a recent speech, Mayor Bloomberg said, “I have my own army in the NYPD [New York Police Department], which is the seventh biggest army in the world.” Furthermore, preparations for the eviction from Zuccotti Park were conducted like a disaster drill few days earlier on Randall’s Island.

In some places the repression has been even more brutal. Iraq war veteran, Scott Olsen, was hit by a tear gas canister while protesting at Occupy Oakland. Olsen is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, which has been campaigning against the wars and more specifically the deployment of soldiers who are facing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from their previous tours. In the attacks on Occupy Oakland, Olsen endured severe damage to his skull and had to undergo brain surgery. Many have noted the visible involvement of veterans at Occupy protests. This can be attributed to the economic situation that veterans in the US face today. One third of the homeless adult population in of this country are veterans, the unemployment rate for young veterans now is 30% and the number of veterans with PTSD has increased dramatically in the last few years. The presence of veterans at these protests is also reflective of a long tradition of protest by veterans on progressive issues in the US.

After the 1999 anti-globalisation protests in Seattle and the counter terrorism measures adapted after Sept 11th, political repression and militarised policing has grown stronger over the past decade. Critical journalist Max Blumenthal claims, US police forces are increasingly using “counter terrorism” tactics borrowed from Israel’s national security regime. This sharing of repressive measures between governments reflects the broader militarisation of policing that came with the “war on terror”.

In recent weeks the financial district in New York City looks like an area under siege with barricades. The shocking site of armed police with assault rifles and dogs, police mounted on horseback and large number of police cars and vans present at protests and entrances to subway stations intimidate the public. While Black and Latino youth in inner city ghettos have long known such repression, for those new to political activism, the mass arrests and police brutality at protests has been a rude awakening about the character of state power and violence. Indeed, such repression has been unleashed despite the Occupy movement being muted in its militancy. Here, even the larger marches of the Occupy movement have only been in the tens of thousands, compared to the hundreds of thousands of protestors on the streets in Spain or the militancy of tens of thousands in Greece and Egypt. The Occupy movement has a long way to go if it is to take the police repression head on.

Challenges for the Movement

The physical occupations of places like Zuccotti Park were symbolically important for what this movement stands for and what is possible. The movement may not have grown to the extent that it has without the inclusive character of the occupied spaces. Given the recent evictions, some worry that the decrease in occupied public spaces could mean setbacks for the movement; the absence of a rallying point makes it appear as if the movement is now left to a few diehards. However, the Occupy movement is certainly far from over; it is now characterized by a diffusion of General Assemblies, vibrant local discussions and ongoing protests on a range of issues.

Reflective of the impact of broader mobilisations, on November 8th, the State of Ohio repealed a recent law restricting collective-bargaining rights for over 350,000 public-sector workers. Students in public universities are challenging tuition hikes with protests despite enormous repression. On Nov 18th, police brutality involving pepper spraying of Occupy student protesters at University of California at Davis gained national attention and condemnation. On November 21st, fifteen City University of New York students were arrested while protesting tuition hikes. On December 6th, the Occupy movement launched a new campaign called Occupy Our Homes, with actions in defence of the mostly poor Black and Latino families who are homeless, or face eviction or have been foreclosed by the banking system. Protesters in more than twenty cities including New York occupied and moved in homeless families into foreclosed homes. On December 12th, Occupy activists in the west coast from Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle and more blockaded the West Coast Ports in solidarity with longshoremen and port truckers’ struggles against Export Grain Terminal and Goldman Sachs, which owns many of the port terminals and is guilty of exploiting the non-union and short-run port truck drivers.

Big banks like JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America continue to be sites of protests by the movement, with strategic potential to make connections between profiteering on military spending and domestic economic justice issues. More than 50% of the yearly federal discretionary spending is for wars, while public spending is increasingly being cut. This includes spending on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, military aggression in Pakistan and the increasing militarisation of the US-Mexico border. While banks were bailed out by the government, they are profiteering from the US led wars by investing in weapons and resource extraction in countries like Afghanistan. The connection between the economic devastation of the American people aggravated by the decrease in public spending and continuation of high military spending, exposes the priorities of an imperialist state versus its citizens. While the rhetoric around economic issues is not devoid of economic nationalism including calls such as bring back our jobs, it might now be time for the Occupy movement to articulate Wall Street’s complicity in economic devastation around the world. Indeed, an internationalist agenda linking domestic economic woes with the ravages of imperialist militarisation and financialisation abroad might be important for shaping the Occupy movement’s transformative politics.

Perhaps for the first time in US history, the younger generations are facing a future much worse than the previous generation. The economic system in other words is failing them with what Stanley Aronowitz has called a jobless future. Engagement on the everyday issues facing the larger population and particularly the Black and Latino communities is a priority if this movement is to reach the scale and militancy of seriously challenging repressive apparatuses of the state. This is where a more nuanced understanding of the divisions within the 99% and a politics that can unite the 99% has to engage with the concrete predicament of poverty and dispossession.

For the Occupy movement the looming 2012 Presidential election presents itself as an opportunity and a problem. Many on the Left have been fearful of the cooptation of the movement by the Democratic Party. Here, attempts to portray the Occupy movement as the liberal alternative to the Tea Party has met with vehement rejection by Occupy activists and supporters. Indeed, many activists are concerned that the outpouring of support for the movement over the last few months will be used to garner support for Obama’s re-election in 2012 without addressing the deeper structural issues raised by the Occupy movement. Nevertheless, the election period will raise some important domestic issues affecting the broader population. As such, it is also an opportunity for the Occupy movement to intervene in the debates during the elections and starkly contrast the real priorities of the 99% from those issues raised by the electoral candidates.

The openness and the inclusivity of the movement have also meant that the visions and the end goal of this movement are varied. Even fundamental questions about Wall Street and banking, which the movement has identified as the central problem, produce very different answers. Some would like to see legislations to regulate and reform banking, others would like to see alternative forms of community banking, while yet others would like to see the nationalisation or abolition of banking. Underlying such differences are larger questions about the people’s relationship to state and private property. This is where the anarchists, Marxists, socialists, liberals and even some conservatives who constitute the movement are unlikely to arrive at a consensus, even if the movement claims to be built around consensus. In the years ahead, a deeper debate about the transformation of state and society including productive and social relations will have to emerge if the visions about another world floated in movement slogans are to move forward.

More than three months into this movement, is it time to strategically shape demands and a concrete vision? Does the movement which is now national in character require greater coordination and a decision making structure? In the shorter term, what kinds of mobilisations and campaigns can achieve outcomes addressing the predicament of people facing the brunt of the economic crisis and the effects of the decade long “war on terror”? While considering the urgency of this political moment, the historic opportunity created by this movement should not be squandered. The Occupy movement has boldly questioned the legitimacy of the capitalist system. If it continues to grow in strength it can be propelled into a force that challenges the deeper systematic issues related to the hegemony of finance capital, which has plagued American society and devastated societies around the world.


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