Monday, December 5, 2011

The tents are gone. But what about the ideas?

The tents are gone in New York’s Zuccotti Park and many other cities - including Toronto's St James Park. Daily we can follow how other Occupy sites in the US are closed down by more or less forceful police actions. By and large, one has to say that the movement as such is fading out, at least in its initial shape.

A good time then to assess two important questions. What, if anything, has the movement achieved? And, equally important: Where is it going from here?

As to the first question, even skeptics like Jeffrey Simpson from the Globe and Mail admit that the movement has put the finger on an important issue, namely the one of income inequality in most developed democracies. He has quite impressive numbers to make his case - that while Canada, thanks to a tighter regulated banking sector, has not felt the brunt of the current crisis quite as badly, the issue of inequality is no less a matter close to home. As Politico’s Ben Smith has shown, the mentioning of ‘income inequality’ in print and web media has quintupled over the course of the Occupy protests (from 91/week to over 500).

So there can be little doubt that the movement has raised long acknowledged issues and has given them a legitimate place in the public. That is a success - no doubt. Other than that though, I am quite pessimistic about the impact of the protests. Despite sympathizing with many of the concerns and this new way of political protest I am rather disillusioned because – by and large – most media outlets, print and TV alike, have not really taken the issue seriously. This certainly applies to the Canadian papers, and apart from TVO, I have a hard time to see some more engaging coverage on TV. Similar observations hold true to the US media – which nearly unanimously ignored Occupy Wall Street for the first couple of days. Even with lone voices such as Keith Olbermann’s on Current TV it is hard to mobilize a broader public when your message is somewhat obscured, watered down or ridiculed.

This leads to my second question of where the movement is going. A good measure of the validity of an argument is still the determination of its opposition. Pepper spraying peaceful students (UC Davis) and 84 years old ladies (Seattle), or fracturing the sculls of Iraq veterans (Oakland) are just the tip of that iceberg which is the violent response from public authorities in the United States.

The destruction of public spaces or safety concerns were popular arguments in Canada. My home is right next to St. James Park where Occupy Toronto took place. The park, a hangout for homeless people and drug consumers on normal days, has never been safer than during Occupy. And it were police vehicles that ploughed the turf into a brown mess two weeks ago.

Be that as it may, the reaction to the movement was decisive and uncompromising. Perhaps no one other than Frank Luntz, long time strategist for the Republican Party has put the underlying sentiments in better terms:
I'm so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I'm frightened to death... They're having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism.
He said these words instructing Republican campaigners on how to clean up their language to immunize it against Occupy’s agenda. In my book, that endorsement just takes the cake.

The tension in a society that embraces both capitalism, free markets and private property on the one hand and democracy on the other has always been there. In the early decades of the 20th century we saw it spiraling out of control, leading to fascism or communism in Europe. In the US it led to the great depression, upon which Franklin Roosevelt took leadership in assigning a new role to government in bridging this inherent contradiction.

Capitalism is hampered by two things. First, its inequality of wealth distribution and second, its cyclical ups and downs. Both of which have always put those in a precarious spot who just had their labor to bring to the party of capitalism. The reason capitalism and democracy have now been able to coexist for some 60 years in many developed countries has to do with the fact that mechanisms of economic empowerment and redistribution had been implemented to mitigate against those two problems.

Keynes’ solution was that government addresses the problem, by guaranteeing basic welfare state provision and actively spending in times of economic downturn. The ‘neoliberal’ solution, linked to Reagan and Thatcher’s approach in the 1980s has been to turn labor into ‘mini-capitalists’: boosting home ownership and moving from tax-based to investment-based entitlement plans (e.g. retirement, life insurance) has given millions an active stake in the capitalist systems.

The financial crisis has pointed out the limits of both approaches. The reality of the Occupy movement is that it has been strongly driven by those ‘middle class’ Americans who fell into poverty in the last years. The movement only started now just because the effects of a rigged system are only now painfully palpable for a critical mass of people, as described in the current issue of the New Yorker.

The issue of inequality therefore is here to stay, never mind the preliminary seizure of Occupy protests this past autumn. Looking at the Republican presidential contest in the US offers a somber glimpse at the alternatives. Candidates with no interest in governing and no interest in the institutions that have provided some peace and prosperity for quite some time, dominate the debate. Even George W. Bush’s former speechwriter agonizes about that.  If democracies cannot secure a stake for those who just bring their labor to the market of the capitalist system, it has to come up with some other ‘mortar’ for keeping the social fabric together: religion, xenophobia or crude nationalism are just some of the offers we currently see.

This is not just a North American problem. The rise of the far Right in Europe – from The Netherlands to Hungary – or the militant protests in Greece point into the same direction. A system of majority based rule only works if the majority has some ‘stake’, some form of participation and real grounds of aspiration with regard to the 'system'. This is exactly what is eroding under our eyes. Occupy deserves credit for making these shifts manifest.

One of the sources of antagonism towards the movement was its strong anti-corporate bias. In some ways this preoccupation points towards one avenue of solutions. Heavily indebted governments or individuals disenfranchised by the financial system are not generating the solutions any more which we dearly relied on so far. If we ask for securing the buy-in of the working middle class in the capitalist system, a more active role falls to the corporate sector. In some ways one might argue that this demand has been well heard – the vociferous efforts to shut the movement down certainly allow this interpretation. The social responsibilities of business – beyond avoiding all these obvious scandals surfaced in the financial crisis – certainly extend now beyond pure philanthropy. Paying decent middle class wages, providing employment and affordable access to basic products and services is an imperative - provided we want to see an ongoing coexistence of basic forms of both democracy and free markets. It is in the ‘enlightened self interest’ of business to live up to these demands.

So yes, the tents are gone. But the core issue is here to stay. As is the struggle to address these them.

1 comment:

  1. Completely agree. I'm an activist/singer and tried to set up many events with the Occupy LA movement - their disorganization and varied goals and key issues made it nearly impossible. At one GA, a person suggested that our main goal be to start a compost pile...sigh...
    The core issue of corporate corruption of our government needs to be pushed forward by a cohesive, organized group. It is something I'm trying to work on, particularly with Move to Amend, as yesterday LA became the first major city to pass a resolution stripping corporations of their constitutional personhood rights.
    Onwards and upwards. As I told the local news, the tents may had to have been cleared to make way for the real movement.



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