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Reading the Signs at the Occupy Movement

The Occupy movement with its myriad signs and slogans still appears to be an inchoate protest movement railing against economic inequality, free market capitalism and its most visible institution - Wall Street in the United States. But its unmistakable insistence on taking on the established political parties - including the Democrats - and its radical democratic form of organisation suggest a new ambitious grass-roots politics with the potential to mature further.

COMMENTARY

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Reading the Signs at the Occupy Movement Arjun Jayadev and sometimes contradictory strands that are visible; from extreme libertarian demands (“End the Fed”) to old school socialist credos (“Free School for All”), to more specific grievances (“Destroy the Incarceral State”). Faced with the burgeoning movement,

The Occupy movement with its myriad signs and slogans still appears to be an inchoate protest movement railing against economic inequality, free market capitalism and its most visible institution – Wall Street in the United States. But its unmistakable insistence on taking on the established political parties – including the Democrats – and its radical democratic form of organisation suggest a new ambitious grass-roots politics with the potential to mature further.

Arjun Jayadev (arjunjayadev@gmail.com) is at the economics department, University of Massachusetts Boston.

1 A Revolutionary Moment?

The Beginning is Near

T
– Sign at Occupy Wall Street he Occupy movement, begun as a seemingly small act of protest in early September as a response to a viral campaign by the magazine Adbusters has spread across the US and indeed the world with astonishing speed. At last count there were over 2,000 cities and towns worldwide that had joined in the protests. In initial responses, the media and commentators struggled to make a coherent analysis of these developments and the implications for the US polity. Much like the only other previous movement with this flavour (the anti-globalisation movement that peaked around 2000) there are a large and disparate set of issues and engagements which have coalesced together in a seemingly inchoate but potentially powerful movement. Visiting the sites (my own engagement has been in Boston and only a little in New York), one is struck by the multiple overlapping

december 3, 2011

and the realisation that a wide variety of Americans had broad sympathy with the group, commentators have tried to create their own narratives about the movement. The two dominant strategies, given the rightward slant of the media in the country are:

  • To categorise it as a left-wing version of the Tea Party, albeit without the nous or the coherence, and without adequate clarity about its demands.
  • To portray it as a deeply anti-social barbarian horde seeking to stir up hatred, always at the edge of violent action, without purpose, and only seeking handouts from the public purse.
  • These narratives, ranging from sympathetically concerned to virulently hostile in their tones, speak more to the knee-jerk impulse to classify the movement into something recognisable and mouldable within the frame of the two-party system – primarily as a potential grass-roots advocacy group for the Democrats. These readings are narrow and miss the point. In fact, the movement may eventually be

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    better seen as another recent manifestation of the rich American radical tradition

    – a continuation of a line which has included abolitionists, feminists, civil rights workers, environmentalists and gay and lesbian activists. Whether or not this movement will appear to be as important as previous ones in terms of their success in advocating for freedom, equality and genuine democracy remains to be seen; but the intention is plain.

    At the time of writing, the future of the movement is somewhat unclear. In several sites, perhaps most importantly in New York and Oakland, the permanent encampments have been disbanded and left the movement in need of rebuilding. It remains to be seen whether indeed “the beginning is near” as a poster had it. Having said this, it is instructive to look at the kinds of signs and slogans that have animated the movement thus far and which fly on flags at various occupy sites I have visited. They speak quite directly to the overriding failings of US democracy and capitalism to deliver anything approaching a just and tenable system; failings that will not disappear without continued political and social pressures to remedy them.

    2 Failings of ‘Free Market Capitalism’

    “Hey Capitalism, It’s not you, It’s us. Just

    kidding. It’s you”

    “The banks got bailed out, we got sold out”

    “Debt is Slavery”

    “USA=United Shareholders Association”

    “Free Enterprise is not a Hunting Licence”

    –Signs at Occupy Wall Street and

    at Occupy Boston

    Signs around Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Boston make pointed, sardonic reference to the nature of capitalism in the US over the last few decades. While the Occupy movement is a broad tent, including a relatively strong libertarian element, there is a clear sense of dislike for the current operational system of capitalism. Indeed, the movement in this is echoing a trend that has been noted by pollsters in the last few years: a marked fall in the number of people who view “free market capitalism” positively. A well-known Pew poll1 from 2010 showed that a narrow plurality of Americans viewed capitalism favourably (53%), a smaller group than in Brazil or

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    Figure 1: Income Gains by Quantile (%) 300

    250

    200

    150

    100

    50

    0 Lowest Quintile Second Quintile Middle Quintile Fourth Quintile 81st - 99th percentiles Top 1% Income Group

    Source: “Trends in the Distribution of Family Income: 1979 to 2007”, Congressional Budget Office, available at. http://www.cbo.

    gov/ftpdocs/124xx/doc12485/10-25-HouseholdIncome.pdf

    China. Equally importantly, about 43% of millennials (those between 18 and 30 years of age) saw “socialism” and “capitalism” as positive. What is interesting here is that a plurality of young Americans do not see capitalism as a positive and that both “isms” gain the same support in a test of political rhetoric.

    The overwhelming sense among the protestors is that they have been betrayed by what may be termed the “Horatio Alger” myth that has become the imagined narrative of Americans. The foundational idea that leading an exemplary life in the face of adversity can allow anyone to climb from rags to riches seems cynical and bare in the face of the events of the last three years. When Wall Street blew itself up in a paroxysm of greed and foolishness, not only did the state intervene to support it (an intervention that was inevitable given how overgrown and central to the US economy the financial sector had become), it also took down the whole US economy with it. The homeowners who have lost savings and their main asset through no fault of their own and the students who face dire futures with large overhanging debts and poor job market opportunities have been in their own terms “sold out” by the powers that be and condemned to a life of debt slavery.

    While much of their anger has been directed at Wall Street – the nerve centre of those pulling for the creditor class – there is a larger underlying anger at the nature of corporate capitalism itself. There is recognition that the social contract has

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    been overwhelmingly slanted in favour of corporations, even to the extent of declaring them to be persons who have a legitimate say in funnelling money to politicians as an expression of their free speech. The protestors harbour the bitter sense that American corporations have been doing well and have recovered, at their expense.

    In all of these suspicions, the facts are overwhelmingly with the protestors. While a complete accounting of the ways in which the crisis has been disproportionately imposed on working class Americans is beyond the scope of this article, it may be worth pointing out a few key statistics. The median duration of unemployment is the highest on record, and for the first time since statistics have been kept, an unemployed person is more likely to drop out of the labour force entirely than to get a job.2 Student debt is around $1 trillion, and the average student debt is around $23,000 (or roughly about 50% of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita).3 According to the housing data firm CoreLogic, in 2010, about 11.1 million households, or 23.1% of all mortgaged homes, were underwater (i e, their values were below that at which they were bought). At the same time, corporate profits as a percentage of GDP which saw a sharp decline in 2008 has recovered to reach historical heights in 2011.4 The major banks are sitting on nearly $2 trillion of cash while making some profit from a neat carry trade (borrowing at the fed funds rate of about 0.25% and lending to the US treasury at

    COMMENTARY

    higher rates). In the face of this manifestly lopsided rebalancing, the protestors see the system as unfair and destructive and are attempting to articulate this as a feature of the latest manifestation of rentier capitalism.

    3 Solidarity

    “We are the 99%” “We are Too Big to Fail” “Plutocrats Go Back to Your Planet” “We are the Tired Poor Huddled Masses” “Due to the Recent Budget Cuts, the Light at the End of the Tunnel has been Switched Off”

    –Signs at Occupy Wall Street

    The blogger J W Mason writes:

    Most of us very seldom experience ourselves as political agents, in the sense of being active participants in the collective decisionmaking of our community. For better or worse, most of the time we delegate collective decision-making to specialists who represent us more or less faithfully, as the case may be. The only reason for protest – for any kind of mass politics – is that this system has broken down. The message of any protest is: There is a political subject, a We, that is not being represented.5

    The comparison of the Occupy movement with earlier struggles might appear strained at the current juncture. The movement is in its infancy and while it has garnered some attention, the political success of other earlier political protests such as the civil rights or gay and lesbian movements in terms of actual legislation and in changing the terms of debate are manifestly greater. Having said this, it should not be forgotten that the early stages of many of those struggles were also simply about acknowledging solidarity in the face of systemic breakdowns and oppressions. Specific demands almost never come fully formed and movements at the outset begin by noting a political subject that is inadequately represented in the polity – whether these are African-Americans, immigrants, queer people or in this case “the 99%”.

    The call to arms of the movement – and the one that has had the greatest resonance – has been the recognition of a common position of the great majority of Americans in the last few decades. A previously felt sense of social contract has been replaced by the idea that free market capitalism and a minimum of constraints on wealth accumulation serve everyone well. As families and individuals have come under more strain, the sense that the system works only for a few has become more acute. As several scholars have suggested, for the last couple of decades, the failure to achieve substantial improvements in one’s standard of living has been papered over by easier credit. When this was no longer viable, the vast majority of the American populace has seen their sense of well-being and hope for the future sharply shaken. The nature of the unbalanced growth is substantiated by the Congressional Budget Office’s latest report on growth by income quantile.

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    Figure 1 (p 29) drawn from the report shows that the lowest quintile saw their real incomes grow by about 25% since 1979 while the highest percentile saw their income grow by over 250% during the same time.

    For decades the country had been told that inequality is the result of uneven education (particularly differences in college and non-college educated workers), but more and more data suggests that this is not true for the 99%. Instead, inequality in America is increasingly seen as the story of a small elite pulling away from everyone else including those who have college education. Bringing this fact to the forefront has been one of the signal achievements of the movement. Even conservative Republicans who defend the 1% as deserving of their riches must speak the language of 99% vs 1%. As the political adage goes, if you oppose me, while using my language, I am winning.

    4 New Form of Political Engagement

    “Took our money, but didn’t give us change”

    (sign with picture of President Obama).

    “2nd Time I’ve Fought for My Country, 1st

    Time I’ve Known My Enemy” (Sign held by

    a Veteran).

    “Dump the Crony Do Nothing Congress”.

    “If Voting Made a Difference, It Would

    Already Have Made a Difference”.

    “Wall Street Should Buy Stocks, Not Politi

    cians”

    “I Can’t Afford a Lobbyist, So I organise”

    –Signs at Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Boston Perhaps the most baffling element of the movement to observers is its very deliberate eschewing of the current party system, and the lack of specificity in the demands that are put forward. The Democratic Party might have been the natural umbrella organisation for the movement to take its concerns through the political process. Spokespersons from its party regularly display sympathy for the aims of the movement (primarily in order to obtain votes) and yet, it has not benefited from the energy evinced. The reason however is clear. Unlike the Tea Party which had a top-down approach from the outset, the Occupy movement is deeply distrustful of the Democrats, and in particular, Obama’s betrayal of the

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    hopes of the youth vote. The willingness of the Democratic leadership to give up on support for the general population (whether accepting weak regulations of the financial sector or putting deficit reduction at the head of their agenda) has meant that the movement has no clear political home. At the same time, there is a widespread acceptance that the political system is ossified and corrupt with politicians up for sale to lobbying groups and corporates.

    This is not to say however that the movement has no potential future. Rather, a closer observation suggests that it is a deeply experimental space where a fundamental questioning and reimagining of the forms of political engagement is occurring. Anyone who has watched the very long “general assemblies” in the various encampments would be struck by the intensely democratic process. Important decisions generally require unanimous consent, and even a single member can stop decisions. This process sacrifices “efficiency” for radical democracy and consensus building. This has been an issue of deep concern and frustration for those who share the aims of the movement but wish to engage more directly with the existing political process. No Occupy move ment has a spokesperson for example. The tensions between “democratic horizontalists” and “pragmatic verticalists” (in the parlance of those involved) may yet end up leading to disillusionment and fracturing of the movement, but at the moment, these groups are pulling together.

    Even the nature of the protest-redressing the failings of the political system through the occupation of highly visible urban real estate is something very unusual. While there have been occupations of offices and schools before (a not atypical form of protest in a university for example), the idea of physically occupying Wall Street, and pointing out and humiliating those at the nerve centre of financial power is an extremely powerful symbolic manoeuvre.

    In each Occupy site, there are now multiple working groups, thinking about ways in which to address issues ranging from community banking to racism to reforming the incarceral state and to town planning.

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    The seeds are being laid for an ambitious grass-roots politics.

    5 Postscript

    “This is So Not Over. Occupy.” “If you don’t know whats’ going on or what we’re talking about, turn off the news and tune into the movement. Occupy Together.” “The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict. Occupy Everything.” “Sorry for the Inconvenience. We are trying to Change the World. Occupy.”

    – Signs at Occupy Wall Street

    At the time of writing, the Occupy movement is reeling from heavy-handed and sharp crackdowns by police forces in different cities. In one sense this has only hastened the inevitable breaking up of the encampments. With the onset of winter, it would have been impossible to maintain the same level of energy and commitment that the movement has been able to generate. But the next few months will be critical. The movement has had some immediate successes and building on these with the same levels of enthusiasm will be imperative. Yet there are precedents for this – most recently in the form of the “indignados” in Spain, where an equally heterogenous and seemingly unfocused group of protestors left the centre of Madrid, only to return with redoubled force. That movement continues to generate support while being able to bring together hundreds of thousands of people in its marches, most recently in October). The Occupy movement has also tapped a certain rich vein of discontent and change. There is no reason that it should not continue to live on and strengthen as the objective conditions of life in the US do not improve. But the process of growing and transforming in order to “Occupy Everything” will require enormous effort and not a little luck. The work of the movement in the winter will decide that.

    Notes

    1 http://www.people-press.org/2010/05/04/ socialism-not-so-negative-capitalism-not-sopositive/

    2 http://www.newdeal20.org/wp-content/ uploads/2010/09/stagnant_labor_market.pdf

    3 Source: project on student debt (http:// projectonstudentdebt.org/).

    4 Source: Businessinsider.com (see http://www. businessinsider.com/what-wall-street-protestersare-so-angry-about-2011-10?op=1).

    5 http://slackwire.blogspot.com/2011/10/this-iswhat-democracy-looks-like.html

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