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Occupation Preoccupation

October 7, 2011

If you haven’t heard about the movement loosely referred to as “Occupy Wall Street,” there’s a reason for that. But if you have heard of it through mainstream channels, you might think of it as “a left-wing counterweight to the Tea Party” because that’s the readymade analysis that a less-than-savvy reporter might apply to the phenomenon of citizens actually engaged enough to demonstrate.

Moreover, the phrase “Occupy Wall Street” is increasingly misleading as protests in the same vein have spread throughout the country, including to Washington, DC, and to a virtual march. But there’s some logical, if not geographical, consistency with the term: the indisputable goal of the protestors is to force the class of individuals and corporations collectively personified as “Wall Street” to “play by the same rules as the rest of America.” For example, OWS protestors might demand that the NYPD grant them the protection of the First Amendment, given the fact that 700 protestors were arrested for “impeding traffic” on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Citation to the Constitution is at least one point of overlap between OWS and the Tea Party.

But is OWS a “counterweight” to the Tea Party? Not so much. Part of what makes OWS distinctive is that it began without a fully-formed set of motives in place; the initial stages of the occupation involved consensus-building and goal-setting, done by the people actually on the ground (with some help from labor unions, Reddit and other such online communities). As a result, OWS has a diffuse and sophisticated set of policy objectives, which make the movement difficult to reduce to an easily parsed buzz-phrase that can be regurgitated on each and every media outlet. The refusal to play the media’s game is most likely deliberate (or convenient, in any case), given that the thrust of the movement is to buck the system that feeds the powers-that-be, including the broken cycle of feedback manufactured and filtered by the mainstream corporate media.

By contrast, the Tea Party has always had top-down direction from the powers-that-be (i.e., the Koch brothers). The Tea Party is an embodiment of why money is speech; a surprisingly small fringe group has been given several megaphones (e.g., Fox News), to make their views appear more popular simply because they are louder. The Tea Party thus exemplifies why extremely rich individuals and corporations threaten to drown out individuals’ speech with their own if they are afforded the right and opportunity to do so).

OWS is a natural result of this imbalance in the fundamental dynamics in how a democracy operates, if you can even say that what remains of America’s polity is even a democracy and not an oligarchy. It is the backlash against the 1% by the 99%, the most media-savvy moniker that has been self-applied to OWS. The 99% have means of getting their message out, most specifically the Internet, by which they have unlimited space to make their personal appeals without the need for moneyed backing.

The most curious thing about OWS still to unfold is whether or not America will perceive this movement as just another fringe group like the 9/11 Truthers without mainstream media support to focus, explain and legitimize the movement.  Will OWS be dismissed out of hand by the bulk of the status quo preferring masses? The demos does not like political upheaval. Moreover, most of the 99% cannot afford to take time off their day jobs or family lives for political strategizing and demonstrating (a contributing factor for why the status quo is as entrenched as it is today, of course).

As a tactical choice, deriding the establishment seems likely to make OWS unpalatable to the 99%. As I’ve repeatedly cited, Gramsci observed that power is hegemonic if it makes all other alternative arrangements seem impossible. The oligarchy we currently live in is successful at making it seem like any additional tax or regulation would make the whole economic system collapse or flee to another, “less repressive” country. Of course, these are the kinds of taxes that are actually required to fund social safety nets and government checks to power that might have cut down on the fraud and abuse perpetrated on the rest of society by irresponsible traders. Giving in to “too big to fail” meant that Wall Street could be certain that all gains would be privatized while the losses are socialized.

Because of money’s capture of career politicians constantly in need of contributions, without campaign finance reform or some other overarching legislation, or even just a sustained attitudinal shift in the country, the hegemonic power seems unlikely to reverse the trends in increasing concentration of wealth to the top 1%. The hegemony of this power discourages middle-of-the-road voters through disenfranchisement with any alternatives (note how ridiculous Ralph Nader now appears), thereby empowering further fringe movements like the Tea Party.

Therefore, even assuming that OWS has some short-term success, its real challenge lies in sustaining influence between elections and instilling faith that organizations and ideas will persist to counterbalance Wall Street. What the protectors currently need are organizing organizations that operate and lobby year-round. The ACLU is a perfect example of an endowed (read: moneyed) organization that now has an institutional life of its own that is capable of sustaining its ideological momentum in perpetuity. OWS needs an equivalent institution that does not become pigeonholed and balkanized like MoveOn was in 2004. Conversely, the Tea Party has the money problem solved (since there is no shortage of capital  that is anti-tax, anti-regulation and anti-government), and are on the lookout for the votes to embody and voice those positions in a democracy that is at least partially dependent on flesh-and-blood people for power.

As a bit of evidence, the AARP (previously, the American Association of Retired Persons, now they don’t have the retirement requirement so it’s just “AARP”) has power not because they donate any money (which they didn’t until very recently), but because AARP has a reliable voter base. Old, single-minded, and pliable, it’s a threateningly imposing voter base that sways politicians. What OWS needs to do is translate short term passion into long-run structure or else the passion will fizzle and dissipate and be forgotten, or worse, assumed fruitless. See Federalist 10.

Then again, the Federalists didn’t have the Internet in their equation.

So, who knows, maybe we’re witnessing the beginning of an American Spring?

Occupy Sesame Street

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