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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Welcome to the Occupation

Time to take this thing off blocks, blow out the lines, check the plugs and points... ok, I have no idea what most of that means, just quoting Springsteen lyrics, hehe

But, yeah, haven't posted in a long while... why? Cuz shit's been depressing!! Republicans have been doing everything in their power to prevent the economy from recovering while pinning the blame on Obama, and it's totally working. What a sad, sad spectacle it's been to behold.

But the good news is we seem to be entering into a new phase. That's not to say things will necessarily get better, but at least the dynamics are changing. For one thing Obama seems to have finally figured out he's been played and is gonna get his ass handed to him if he doesn't start taking his own side in the argument.

Some chick up in Massachusetts with the temerity to suggest the middle class should have someone representing their interests figured if no one else wanted to do it, then she would.

And, oh yeah, a rag tag bunch of anarcho-hippie-punks formed one hell of a drum circle in downtown Manhattan, unleashing social forces beyond anyone's control in the process. It's been a heartening development, as well as a fascinating one to watch.

Watching OWS unfold I've repeatedly found myself thinking 'but, this doesn't work, you can't do it this way.... HOW IS THIS WORKING!?' These people are talking about throwing out our entire economic system... and the country seems open to the idea!

Backing up for a moment, I'd like to preface by noting that my own ideas about what is and is not possible in politics came out of the 2000 election. At the time I was disillusioned with both parties and felt corporations were able to use the government to bend the rules for their own benefit at everyone else's expense, and that nothing would change without a dramatic challenge to the status quo coming from outside the two party system. (Sound familiar?) So, I voted Nader/LaDuke, in a state that was, uh, close. Well, things changed... for the much, much worse.

To say the 8 years of Bush/Cheney that resulted from the 2000 debacle had a major impact on my political outlook does not capture it. It defined it. I learned that politics is not an opportunity for personal expression. There are serious, even deadly, consequences. You ignore political realities at everyone's peril.

But, it is possible to over-learn lessons. Peter Beinert made a good point about those of us who have been so focused on working within the system and being 'pragmatic:'

Starting with Howard Dean’s campaign in 2004, a younger generation of Web-savvy liberals congregating around websites such as DailyKos and groups like MoveOn, began using their fury against the Iraq War to create a leftist activist movement inside the Democratic Party. What distinguished these “netroots” activists from the anti-globalization activists was their willingness to work inside a major political party. That pragmatism (which stemmed partly from the memory of Ralph Nader’s 2000 independent presidential campaign, which had helped elect George W. Bush), was a source of the movement’s strength. And it was in the Dean campaign that many younger activists learned the organizational skills that helped power Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008.

But in retrospect, the netroots movement’s focus on candidates as a vehicle for change left it unprepared for the aftermath of Obama’s election, when Obama failed to articulate a story about why the financial meltdown had occurred—and why America’s regulatory system and welfare state needed to be rebuilt—that could compete with the Tea Party’s narrative of a government grown so large that it was stifling both economic growth and personal liberty.

Today’s Wall Street protests represent the left’s decoupling from Obama and the Democratic Party, something that the global nature of the movement will only reinforce. That doesn’t mean the movement has a clear critique of unregulated capitalism yet, let alone a concrete agenda for reform, but it means that the left finally is forcing those questions onto the public agenda. By confronting Wall Street, it is creating the populist energy that Obama himself has not.

The 2008 election seemed like the ultimate vindication for those of use who felt that working within the system was the best way to move this country in the right direction. Ironically, though, it seems to have only ended up proving the opposite point for many Americans.

David Graeber, one of the founders of the OWS movement, recently penned a wide ranging post about the movement that considered why it, as opposed to the many that preceded it, actually caught on:

the social scientist in me has to ask: Why? Why now? Why did it actually work?

Again, I think the answer is generational. In politics, too, as in education, we are looking at a generation of young people who played by the rules, and have seen their efforts prove absolutely fruitless. We must remember that in 2008, the youth vote went overwhelmingly to Barrack Obama and the Democrats. We also have to remember that Obama was running, then, as a candidate of “Change”, using a campaign language that drew liberally from that of radical social movements (“yes we can!”, “be the change!”), and that as a former community organizer, he was one of the few candidates in recent memory who could be said to have emerged from a social movement background rather than from smoke-filled rooms. This, combined with the fact that Obama was Black, gave young people a sense that they were experiencing a genuinely transformative moment in American politics.

How, then, do you expect a young American voter to feel, after casting a vote for a fundamental change to our political and economic system, on discovering that in fact, they have elected a man who twenty years ago would have been considered a moderate conservative?

After all, how could there have been a more perfect alignment of the stars than happened in 2008? That year saw a wave election that left Democrats in control of both houses of congress, a Democratic president elected on a platform of “Change” coming to power at a moment of economic crisis so profound that radical measures of some sort were unavoidable, and at a time when popular rage against the nation’s financial elites was so intense that most Americans would have supported almost anything. If it was not possible to enact any real progressive policies or legislation at such a moment, clearly, it would never be. Yet none were enacted. Instead Wall Street gained even greater control over the political process, and, since Republicans proved the only party willing to propose radical positions of any kind, the political center swung even further to the Right. Clearly, if progressive change was not possible through electoral means in 2008, it simply isn’t going to possible at all. And that is exactly what very large numbers of Americans appear to have concluded.

Say what you will about Americans, and one can say many things, this is a country of deeply democratic sensibilities. The idea that we are, or are supposed to be, a democratic society is at the very core of what makes us proud to be Americans. If Occupy Wall Street has spread to every city in America, it’s because our financial overlords have brought us to such a pass that anarchists, pagan priestesses, and tree-sitters are about the only Americans left still holding out for the idea that a genuinely democratic society might be possible.

The frustration and disillusionment is palpable and well justified. For me, the debt ceiling fiasco over the summer was the last straw. Simply put, our government, in it's current form, does not work.

I suppose it should always be mentioned at this point that the reason it's not working is the utter cynicism of Republicans and their willingness to sabotage the country for their own political gain. And, yet, we have a system that allows and rewards such behavior. How can that be?

The OWS insistence on working outside the political system is shaking up the debate in a much needed way. It's revealing dynamics that usually remain camouflaged. New York DJ Jay Smooth made a great point along those lines:

Indeed, it's a great thing.

But it has also revealed longstanding fault lines between liberals and the activist left. Consider, for example, this piece by Chris Hedges, another 'occupier,' who clearly has nothing less than sheer contempt for liberals:

The liberal class functions in a traditional, capitalist democracy as a safety valve. It lets off enough steam to keep the system intact. It makes piecemeal and incremental reform possible. This is what happened during the Great Depression and the New Deal. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s greatest achievement was that he saved capitalism. Liberals in a functioning capitalist democracy are at the same time tasked with discrediting radicals, whether it is King, especially after he denounced the war in Vietnam, or later Noam Chomsky or Ralph Nader.

The stupidity of the corporate state is that it thought it could dispense with the liberal class. It thought it could shut off that safety valve in order to loot and pillage with no impediments. Corporate power forgot that the liberal class, when it functions, gives legitimacy to the power elite. And the reduction of the liberal class to silly courtiers, who have nothing to offer but empty rhetoric, meant that the growing discontent found other mechanisms and outlets. Liberals were reduced to stick figures, part of an elaborate pantomime, as they acted in preordained roles to give legitimacy to meaningless and useless political theater. But that game is over.

Human history has amply demonstrated that once those in positions of power become redundant and impotent, yet retain the trappings and privileges of power, they are brutally discarded. The liberal class, which insists on clinging to its positions of privilege while at the same time refusing to play its traditional role within the democratic state, has become a useless and despised appendage of corporate power. And as the engines of corporate power pollute and poison the ecosystem and propel us into a world where there will be only masters and serfs, the liberal class, which serves no purpose in the new configuration, is being abandoned and discarded by both the corporate state and radical dissidents. The best it can do is attach itself meekly to the new political configuration rising up to replace it.

An ineffectual liberal class means there is no hope of a correction or a reversal through the formal mechanisms of power. It ensures that the frustration and anger among the working and the middle class will find expression now in these protests that lie outside the confines of democratic institutions and the civilities of a liberal democracy. By emasculating the liberal class, which once ensured that restive citizens could institute moderate reforms, the corporate state has created a closed system defined by polarization, gridlock and political charades. It has removed the veneer of virtue and goodness that the liberal class offered to the power elite.

Liberal institutions, including the church, the press, the university, the Democratic Party, the arts and labor unions, set the parameters for limited self-criticism in a functioning democracy as well as small, incremental reforms. The liberal class is permitted to decry the worst excesses of power and champion basic human rights while at the same time endowing systems of power with a morality and virtue it does not possess. Liberals posit themselves as the conscience of the nation. They permit us, through their appeal to public virtues and the public good, to see ourselves and our state as fundamentally good.

But the liberal class, by having refused to question the utopian promises of unfettered capitalism and globalization and by condemning those who did, severed itself from the roots of creative and bold thought, the only forces that could have prevented the liberal class from merging completely with the power elite. The liberal class, which at once was betrayed and betrayed itself, has no role left to play in the battle between us and corporate dominance. All hope lies now with those in the street.

Hedges goes overboard in his criticisms here (sure, some of us may have been too focused on 'what's feasible,' rather than what's right, but at the same time I'd like to see at least some sort of acknowledgement of the political constraints).... but, still, there is a kernel of truth to his criticisms.

It's worth remembering though, that the tension between liberals and the left is nothing new, and indeed things work best when both sides are being heard.

John Judis considers this dynamic:

LIKE THE LABOR MOVEMENT, or the old Populists and Socialists of Eugene Debs, liberalism arose in the early twentieth century as a reaction to the excesses of laissez-faire capitalism. But instead of trying to overthrow capitalism, as radicals did, it sought to create a more egalitarian version of it.

In that way, liberals and the left have always had a complicated, symbiotic relationship. Franklin Roosevelt disdained Huey Long’s Share the Wealth movement and was probably not excited about armed farmers preventing foreclosures or about striking workers. But unlike Herbert Hoover, who turned to Douglas MacArthur to drive the Bonus Marchers out of Washington, Roosevelt responded to these pressures from below not with troops, but with positive legislation—indeed, it was precisely Roosevelt’s liberalism that inclined him to do so.

The movements saw it as their task to force Roosevelt’s hand; he, in turn, understood his mission as the transformation of their sometimes unreasonable demands into the great reforms of the Second New Deal. And that is how it was throughout the 20th century. Social security, the minimum wage, Medicare, environmental protection, the government’s commitment to civil and sexual equality—all these came out of liberalism’s interaction with the left.

Sometimes, liberals have hemmed and hawed about protests, pleading that things were complex and that change was too difficult. The left, on the other hand has sometimes dismissed liberals as tools of corporate capitalism. But this kind of suspicion and derision has not benefitted either side. Without liberalism, the left and its movements slip into extremism that ends up validating their harshest opponents. That happened in the 1920s when the Communists vied with the Socialists for leadership of the left; it happened again during the late 1960s when the New Left veered out of control. The converse is equally true: Without leftwing ferment from below, liberalism becomes powerless in the face of business and the organized right. That happened in the 1920s and the 1980s and in the early part of this century—and it threatens to happen again now.

That was part of a response to a New Republic editorial that warned liberals they will rue the day they associated themselves with the radicals of OWS. If anything TNR believes liberals should condemn the protests and hope to escape what they believe as the inevitable coming backlash.

Reminds me of the old Phil Ochs song:

Well that TNR editorial got a lot of liberals talking and writing about how to respond to this new movement, and TNR itself published many of them. Here are a few notable responses...

Timothy Noah:

Apparently the demonstrators have had some unkind words to say about capitalism. I have my doubts as to whether very many of them are serious about wanting to abolish it. Put me down as opposing any effort to overthrow capitalism in America. But American capitalism is overdue for reform more drastic than anything under current consideration within the polite mainstream.

A year ago I wrote, from my former perch at Slate: "Today, the richest 1 percent account for 24 percent of the nation's income, yet the prospect of class warfare is utterly remote. Indeed, the political question foremost in Washington's mind is how thoroughly the political party more closely associated with the working class (that would be the Democrats) will get clobbered in the next election. Why aren't the bottom 99 percent marching in the streets?" Well, now they are marching in the streets, waving signs that say "We Are The Bottom 99 Percent." Do I wish they were paying more attention to the Federal Register so they could properly support the writing of forceful regulations under the undeniably valuable Dodd-Frank financial reforms? Of course. Do I wish they'd stop occasionally trying to perform the latter-day equivalent of trying to levitate the Pentagon? What do you think? But until they give me a concrete reason to feel otherwise, I'll be glad that protesters are finally taking notice of America's 30-year income-inequality binge. It's long overdue.

David Greenberg:

Now, it is a hallmark of the hardheaded brand of liberalism that The New Republic rightly cherishes that such enthusiasms be met with scrupulous skepticism. Cold water runs freely at the magazine’s offices. Amen. The magazine’s party-pooping editorial about Occupy Wall Street at least has the virtue of questioning the spreading delirium that unfortunately resembles nothing so much as the Obamamania of 2008, to which embarrassingly large numbers of hardheaded liberals happily succumbed.

Yes, there is reason to wince at the ideology emanating from some quarters (though, we should stress, only some) of Occupy Wall Street. Yes, there is something excruciating about watching the “human mike” in action—and even one of the twenty-something activists I drank with the other night attacked that ritual as part of “the fetishization of process” and a promoter of “Stalinist groupthink” because it made people repeat words before knowing what they were going to be saying. Myself, I find it rather less threatening than all that, evoking above all the balcony scene from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” (“You’re all individuals!” “Yes, we’re all individuals!” “You’re all different!” “Yes, we’re all different.”)

But this is silly stuff. The main and perhaps obvious point is that the protesters are doing something very right and very important. They have gotten the nation to focus on the costs and injustice of inequality, on the need for financial regulation, on the problem of job creation, and on other urgent concerns that, but for a brief spell in late 2008 and early 2009, Washington has largely avoided addressing. They’ve rekindled a feeling of hope, and created a sense of political possibility. Most important, they’ve begun to put pressure on our political leaders, including President Obama, who as Ron Suskind’s devastating Confidence Men confirms, has been far too timid in challenging the banks and financial firms. All of this liberals should applaud.

Liberals and the left have had a troubled relationship in American history, as often pitted in opposition as yoked in alliance. Liberals deserve credit for those occasions when they’ve repudiated radical cadres that have strayed from humane values—rejecting Communists who sought to co-opt labor unions, renouncing the violence of the late-1960s New Left. But each period of progressive change in the last century—the Progressive Era, the New Deal, the New Frontier and Great Society—gained energy and power from a left-liberal coalition. The radicalism of the anarchists was not reason to spurn the liberals’ push for regulatory government at the turn of the last century; the anti-capitalism of the communists did not lead New Deal liberals to forget that their immediate adversaries were the protectors of privilege; the fringe sympathizers with the North Vietnamese hoisting NLF flags did not stop the mainstream, middle-class Moratorium movement of 1969 from mounting an anti-Vietnam War protest of unprecedented size. Shared enthusiasms and common goals have overcome, if provisionally, persistent tensions and conflicts.

If this history should make liberals see that the reasonable left can and should be a partner in achieving reform, it should also help today’s radicals see some important patterns. I am not bothered that Occupy Wall Street hasn’t presented any concrete list of demands; their concerns are self-evident enough, and besides, the protesters who flock under their banner are too heterogeneous and too diffuse to be expected to speak with one voice (human microphones notwithstanding). What they do need, however, is politics—without which radical reform efforts have almost always run aground.

More troubling to me than the anti-capitalist cant I hear from the movement is the contempt for politics and the two-party system. History again: Radicals have traditionally fared best when they’ve worked within the Democratic party, not against it—keeping up pressure but not tearing down the organization that has been, for better or worse, the most reliable instrument for liberal change over the last century. Perhaps the protesters can be forgiven for not knowing the history of the ’30s or the ’60s, but none is too young to know the consequences of Ralph Nader’s 2000 campaign.

Franklin Foer is also worried this may all be leading to a repeat of 2000:

Protests movements, with their outpourings of camaraderie and idealism, often lead to lyrical writing and wishful thinking. Some Democratic politicians and think tanks apparently now see a scenario for salvation in Zuccotti Park—a possibility that the protests could morph into the Democratic answer to the Tea Party. Perhaps Washington operatives could descend on the movement and drive it in that direction. But that seems like an awfully daunting task, given the scene on the ground and the ideological tendencies of Occupy Wall Street—and it misreads the symbiotic relationship between liberals and the left. Let’s say Occupy Wall Street can overcome its self-limiting strategic philosophy, develop some concrete goals, and blossom into a full-fledged social movement. Over the long-term, then, liberals will want to position their reforms as the most reasonable mechanism for staving off the radicals. That’s how FDR played it—“Liberalism becomes the protection for the far-sighted conservative.” But you can’t triangulate against a social movement if you fully embrace it.

On one level, the protests have already wildly succeeded. They have helped remind the public of how blame for the crisis should be properly apportioned. And when Eric Cantor mouths the words “income disparities,” you know the conversation has shifted. But as the protests drag on, will they continue to be beneficial? To answer that, the protestors need to answer, at least for themselves, the question: Will they work to actively undermine Barack Obama’s reelection?

Under the best scenario, this moment emboldens Obama to rhetorically cudgel Wall Street, lock arms with Elizabeth Warren, and make symbolically potent appointments to his economic team. His turn towards populism reassures his political base and helps him paint Mitt Romney as the tribune of the economic royalists. While the movement continues to harp on Wall Street, and maintains useful pressure on him to overcome his cautious instincts, it does nothing to actively campaign against his reelection. This shift would set the stage for a second term that would further financial reform and take other measures against income inequality.

There is, however, another, plausible possibility: that Occupy Wall Street is poorly timed. After all, there’s no legislative debate to usefully prod at the present juncture, but there’s a chance to scupper the president’s re-election. As John Nichols cheers in The Nation, the “movement might well develop into a virtual primary challenge to Obama.” Even if Obama attempts to co-opt the message of Occupy Wall Street, the movement will likely continue to harp on his inadequacy. (Many of the complaints with Obama unfairly view him as a central villain in the crisis, rather than a disappointingly ineffectual foe of it.) Protests might erupt at the convention in Charlotte that overshadow his case for reelection; all this further diminishes enthusiasm for his candidacy. Or worse, a third-party candidate emerges and we know how that story goes. Indeed, much of the gripe with Obama reflects the canard that a Republican president wouldn’t be worse. I hope the protesters are surrounded by allies who remind them it actually can get much worse.

Matt Yglesias thinks that rather than distancing themselves from the left, liberals need to be engaging them and persuading them to our side:

The basic economic premise of modern American liberalism, as I understand it, is that with appropriate regulation and taxation a market economy can be made broadly beneficial to the overwhelming majority of citizens. This stands in contrast to the pure capitalist view that a rising tide will inevitably lift all boats, and to the radical claim that market economies are inherently immiserating.

The liberal view is, I think, correct. But it’s clear that for the 20 years between 1980 and 2000 what was possible in theory wasn’t necessarily happening in practice, and for the past decade it hasn’t been working at all. The story is familiar, but worth repeating. We’re seeing not just growing inequality, but actually falling wages and incomes at the median. People are outraged—and rightly so—that the economy and economic policymakers are failing them.

Faced with these realities, the TNR staff editorial on the subject feels distinctly like an op-ed penned eleven years ago about anti-globalization protestors, put on ice, and then re-animated with a hasty rewrite that fails to consider the actual political and economic circumstances.

Beyond a critique, any movement for social and political change ultimately needs solutions and it is true that some of the solutions offered by some protestors are unsound. This is all the more reason that liberals with confidence in liberal solutions should show up and try to persuade people to champion a more sustainable set of economic policies.

But the alternative of staying aloof out of some kind of fussy disdain for drum circles helps nobody. On the contrary, it’s worth reflecting on the idea that the instinct toward ideological police actions represented by TNR’s editorial has had a malign influence on American politics for years. Liberalism, in its triumphant years, represented the “vital center” of American politics. The silence of further-left voices over the past decade has merely served to marginalize liberalism, creating an atmosphere in which center-left technocrat Barack Obama can be tarred as a radical socialist.

Yglesias is getting at what I think is the real significance and contribution of Occupy Wall Street (at least so far), which is the re-framing of the terms of debate in this country. Likewise, this is a time to re-conceptualize what each of our roles might be in trying to bring this country's reality into line with our ideas. As we question OWS, it behooves us to pose similar questions to ourselves.

Todd Gitlin:

When idiots drive John Lewis off a platform in Occupy Atlanta, condemn them for that. I do. But pure condemnation is self-defeating. The more conventionally organized had better learn how to engage Occupy Wall Street in friendly discussion. They’ve breathed life into a suffocating polity. So what does Occupy Wall Street “actually believe”? What, in other words, is its essence? A good question to ask all political phenomena: for example, what is the essence of the Democratic Party? This is a good time to find out.