Americans in particular have been inculcated for decades with the belief that even substantial outcome inequality is acceptable (even desirable) provided that it is the by-product of fairly applied rules. What makes this inequality so infuriating (aside from the human suffering it is generating) is precisely that it is illegitimate: it is caused and bolstered by decisively unfair application of laws and rules, by undemocratic control of the political process by the nation’s oligarchs, and by a full-scale shield of immunity that allows them — and only them — to engage in the most egregious corruption and even criminality without any consequence (other than a further entrenching of their prerogatives and ill-gotten gains).
– Glenn Greenwald
While Glenn Greenwald's encapsulation of the ethos behind the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement is incomplete — it makes no mention of protesters' concerns regarding the developing climate crisis, e.g. — it is more than sufficient to explain the movement's breadth and staying power. Long years of personal experience and a gradually developing acquaintance with critical analysis of the US system have persuaded an unmistakeable majority of the country of the corruption of the system in the interests of a narrow elite. Unmistakeably, OWS perceives both political parties as part of the problem. In this sense, it is much more radical than the Tea Party, which has remained attached to the Republican Party. Whereas the Tea Party seeks to reshape America through the existing channels of the Republican Party and the political system in Washington and at local levels, OWS is borne out of disgust and despair at the whole system. Important questions arise once we frame OWS in this way. Will OWS grow? Will the Democratic Party co-opt or splinter it? Will it change the face of American politics, by ushering in a multi-party system, or will something more sinister emerge?
Having survived for more than a month now, the main OWS encampment in lower Manhattan has put down roots that will survive any forced or voluntary dispersal of the protesters. Protest encampments, gatherings, or marches have sprung up in over 100 cities, and the number of active participants has been rising. Occupy Wall Street movement has readied masses of Americans for a rethinking of the country's economic and ecological priorities, and the movement has acquired a self-sustaining momentum.
The momentum behind OWS is all the stronger on account of the unceasing drumbeat of news confirming the grip of the plutocracy on the country. Just in the few weeks since OWS began, headlines have informed Americans that median income is in long-term decline, having sunk by 7.1 percent from 1999 to 2010; outstanding student loan debt has topped $1 trillion for the first time ever; hunger affects 50 million citizens three or four days per week, cash-strapped cities are considering decriminalizing domestic violence; the four largest oil companies booked $546 billion in profits from 2005 to 2010, while reducing their US workforce by 11,200; big business is angling to paralyze regulations so as to foist the cost of pollution, injuries, and other externalities onto the population at large, by imposing a new cost-benefits analysis assessment on all commercial and industrial regulations (the fact that money spent on regulations brings society an average return of 7 to 1 in accidents and injuries avoided is of little interest to corporations); banks, communications providers, and other companies are compelling customers to sign away their rights to litigate disputes in court, in favor of industry-arranged arbitration processes; large banks have been exposed for stealing $2 billion or more from pension funds through mispricing of foreign exchange transactions.
“Let's give a big tax break to the biggest tax cheats”
– Matt Taibbi, characterizing the proposed “tax holiday” for corporations repatriating profits from overseas.
Meanwhile, recent political news has been even more disconcerting than the economic news. For instance, the White House is supporting a plan to exonerate the large banks from fraud and related claims in connection with the housing bubble and mortgage-backed securities over the last decade, in return for a paltry $20 billion penalty fee. The administration has been pressuring State Attorneys General to accept this universal settlement, and it remains to be seen how many (if any) will withstand the pressure and reserve the right to pursue justice through the courts. The universal settlement would shield the banks from penalties that could reach apocalyptic size, and so is properly characterized as yet another enormous bailout plan. Next, Congress is now considering a “tax holiday” regarding the hordes of profits US multinationals are keeping offshore. The stated justification of the tax holiday (which would allow repatriation of the profits at a 5.25 percent tax rate, in place of the statutory 35 percent, is to stimulate investment inside the US. Apart from the obvious fact that US corporations are sitting on unprecedented piles of cash inside the US (i.e., they are not investing inside the US), researchers have concluded that an analogous tax holiday in 2004 led to a net loss of jobs, as many as 600,000. In 2007, then-Senator Obama actually co-sponsored the Stop Tax haven Abuse Act, but now-President Obama has not uttered any objection to proposals for a new tax holiday.
“It is way worse than NAFTA”
–Matt McKinnon, International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, on the US-South Korea trade agreement.
In short, the present looks scarier to informed Americans now than it did just one month ago. And other headlines are darkening perceptions of our future. Thus, even though 86 percent of American express deep reservations about free trade, just last week the White House and the Republicans, with minimal Democratic support, passed three bi-lateral free trade agreements that honest appraisers estimate will expand US trade deficits and cost as much as 160,000 US jobs over the next seven years. Still more discouraging, the agreements deliberately open the door to abuses of labor and tax havens (in Panama). The agreement with Colombia exempts exports from there from compliance with International Labor Organization standards, and implicitly sanctions an establishment that has overseen the murder of 2,800-4,000 union organizers in the last decade or so. The agreement with Korea, for its part, permits Korean exporters to source components from North Korea, thereby openly sanctioning egregious abuses of labor.
While Congressmen are busily protecting large corporate interests, they are also busy safeguarding their own nests, by Gerrymandering congressional districts in the aftermath of the 2010 census. If the past is any guide, incumbents will even more difficult to dislodge once the districts are redrawn. Still worse, business lobbyists have for the first time infected the redistricting process. Some states, it is true, have implemented safeguards against self-serving Gerrymandering. But the sense that the system has ossified and closed its doors to outsiders is inescapable.
As we have outlined in other pieces for this forum, the social consequences of burgeoning inequality and the drawn out recession are ominous. New data identify a lost generation of youth now taking shape. The employment rate among 16-29-year olds has sunk to 55 percent, its lowest level since WWII, and the marriage rate for those 25-34 has hit a new low of 44 percent. Naturally, hopelessness among youth is fuel for social protest movements. What is especially encouraging about OWS is the movement's adamant commitment to non-violent forms of direct civic activism. Civic activism is certainly on the rise in the US, testimony to the force of the pro-union demonstrations in Madison, Wisconsin this winter even more than to OWS. The marquee protest is the ongoing demonstration of environmentalists around the White House, urging President Obama to veto the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to Houston. But plenty of other actions are afoot – including a series of citizen lawsuits against the Obama administration's decision to relax proposed air quality standards, e.g. – and the intensity of popular activism is unmistakeable.
“We know electoral politics is a farce.”
– Chris Hedges, regarding OWS.
Given the relentlessness of the corporate takeover of American politics and the economy, opportunities for local public activism are almost ubiquitous. The OWS movement stands to grow deeper and spread wider through the medium of this activism, as citizens mobilize to keep advertising out of public schools, tighten pollution and safety controls, resist the privatization of public assets, etc. And, given the demonstrated unwillingness of the Obama administration and the upper leadership of the Democratic Party to protect the interests of the mass of the population, we can expect to see the OWS movement avoid co-optation into that party. Indeed, the movement looks very likely to remain completely aloof from the formal political system. As Chris Hedges put it in a piece that is the closest thing OWS has to a manifesto,
We are not pleading with the Congress for electoral reform. We know electoral politics is a farce. We have found another way to be heard and exercise power. We have no faith in the political system or the two major political parties…. We know that to survive this protest we will have to build non-hierarchical communal systems that care for everyone.
OWS is liable to disdain formal alliance with established trade unions as well, tainted as they are by decades of deference to corporate power. No one currently knows what direct forms of action OWS may take, but many plausible lines are open. The movement might, for instance, amplify the call associated with former Manchester United great Eric Cantona, for retail investors to withdraw their deposits from major banks and keep their money in credit unions. Indeed, the first shots in this specific battle seem to have been fired this past weekend. Additionally, OWS may begin advocating specific forms of self-government, such as a co-operative movement modeled on recent experience in British Columbia.
No matter what degree of success OWS may have in elaborating new forms of politics, the chronic dysfunction in Washington, DC will continue to undermine Americans' allegiance to the formal political system. Perhaps a better politics will emerge out of an expanding OWS movement, and national policy will gradually navigate along the healthy social democratic trajectory northwestern Europe has traced… This is not inconceivable. But historical experience provides very different, sobering outcomes for societies experiencing rapid disillusionment with representative democracy. For instance, as Peter Fritzsche argued is Germans into Nazis, the combination of the German people's experience with self-organization during the First World War and the dysfunction of parliamentary politics in the Weimar period contributed strongly to the disintegration of moderate political movements and the ascendance of the Nazis and the Communists. We do not foresee a duel between extremist parties of the right and the left coming over the American horizon. Still less are we are predicting any rerun of the Third Reich in the US. But, notwithstanding the remarkable progress of the OWS movement, the prospects for an escalation of authoritarianism in the country are in fact very good. And the rest of the world has many reasons to fear this outcome, including military aggression and the derailing of measures to coordinate responses to climate change.