Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
“When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?”
— Slogan of the Peasants’ Revolt, England, 1381
Until early September, when the members of what became Occupy Wall Street first hit the streets of New York’s financial district, staging marches from a campground on a private park whose owner had given them permission to be there, it looked like the whole concept of economic class as a political issue was as dead in U.S. politics as free silver. Earnest commentators filled the pages of liberal and progressive publications with sober articles documenting how the richest 1 percent of Americans had slowly increased their share of the nation’s wealth until they now control 50 percent of it all — and the nation yawned. Republicans instantly denounced any hint of a proposal to tax the rich as “class warfare,” motivated solely by envy on the part of social “losers” who could be rich themselves if they’d only worked harder, saved more, been more “worthy.” (Actually most rich people, now as in 1381, got that way by coming out of the right womb.) Democrats, anxious to appear on the side of the working people but scared shitless over anything that might stop the rich from contributing to their campaigns, basically ignored it altogether. And the rag-tag remnants of an American Left pretty much confined themselves to talking about it … to each other.
Then came Occupy Wall Street, a movement consciously patterned after the “Arab Spring” protests that brought down the governments of Tunisia and Egypt, and all of a sudden the phrase, “We are the 99 percent,” became part of U.S. public consciousness. No longer is political debate in the U.S. trapped between a Democratic Party which once — because a mass Left pressured them to do it — gave us a minimum wage, Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare, Medicaid and the legal recognition of labor unions, and is now killing all those advances with the death of a thousand cuts; and a Republican Party and a Tea Party which joyously and proudly want to get rid of the social safety net, the labor movement and any government taxation or regulation of corporations in one fell swoop. While it’s unclear what the future holds for the Occupy movement — whether they’ll remain as resourceful and intelligent as they’ve been so far in coping with police repression, media ridicule and their inability (so far) to affect the political process or whether they’ll repeat the mistakes made by previous attempts to revive the U.S. Left — they’ve opened the dark sky of American politics, economics and media propaganda with a simple message: a free society cannot remain so if its wealth, income and political power are brutally concentrated at the top of the economic scale.
Occupy protests have spread not only nationwide, but worldwide. The nations of Western Europe, which American progressives once looked to as models of social democracy, have become as repressive as the U.S. Their so-called “socialist” or “social democratic” parties are now no more radical than the U.S. Democratic Party, and the Right-wing regimes currently in power in all Europe’s major economic powers — Britain, Germany, France, Italy — as well as the nominal “socialists” currently running Europe’s worst economic basket case, Greece — offer nothing but “austerity,” code for slashing the size of government, making workers poorer and impoverishing their people for the sake of their bondholders. The determination of the upper classes not only to enrich themselves and impoverish their people but root out any discussion of social justice has gone so far that it’s creating a backlash. People — not enough people to make a difference politically, but enough to put the ideas of redistribution and the social responsibility of the well-to-do back on the table — are rising up, just as they did in England in 1381, in France in 1789, throughout Europe in 1848, in Russia in 1917 and in the Arab world earlier this year.
The Occupy movement is often criticized for not offering a specific list of demands. That’s taking one of the great strengths of the movement and calling it a weakness. Occupy is not a top-down hierarchy like the various Tea Parties, which though they have genuine, committed grass-roots support (which we ignore at our peril) have been designed largely by their wealthy funders and whose agendas and slogans have been supplied to their activists like recipes in a cookbook. Naomi Klein, a strong supporter of Occupy, got it right when she told MS-NBC that Occupy was “not a movement, but a moment” — a moment of awareness that there has got to be a better way to run an economy, a nation, a world, than to base all decisions on profit, greed and exploitation. Occupy shouldn’t be making demands yet because we’ve been told for so long that capitalism is the end of human history — that “there is no alternative,” as former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher put it — that we have only the foggiest ideas of what a non-capitalist or post-capitalist economy and society should look like.
When Occupy Wall Street expanded and new Occupy movements started springing up across the country, including in San Diego, I worried that they would repeat some of the mistakes that have hamstrung previous attempts to revive the U.S. Left. They’re avoiding, or working their way away from, some of them — like the insane obsession with so-called “consensus decision-making” that has made many Left organizations not only unworkable but actively unpleasant and soul-draining. Occupy Wall Street began as a consensus organization but quickly worked away from that model and set up a so-called “super-committee” to plot direction and strategy — risking the alienation of some ultra-Leftists for whom any resort to representative democracy is a denial of their principles. It also seemed to have dawned on Occupy that the reflexive anti-Americanism of many U.S. Leftists has cut us off from the strategy used so effectively by the Tea Parties of linking their struggle to the American Revolution. At the end of September Occupy Wall Street issued a “Declaration” (published here in full above) consciously modeled on the U.S. Declaration of Independence, complete with bullet points listing the abuses uncontrolled corporations have loosed on the American people.
The biggest issue Occupy will need to address, and hasn’t yet, is its relationship to the electoral system. This has become a pitfall for generations of American Leftists, and Occupy confronts it at a dangerous juncture in U.S. politics comparable to the situation in Germany in the early 1930’s. The deepening economic crisis, the power of the corporate media in general and the Right-wing media of talk radio and Fox News in particular to shape the way many Americans perceive that crisis, and the failure of the Democrats’ half-measures to get us out of the slump have created the strong possibility of a total Republican takeover of the U.S. government — of which they already control half, the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court — in the November 2012 elections. If they win the presidency (quite likely, though by no means assured, since presidents running for re-election on a piss-poor economy usually lose) and take the Senate (virtually a mathematical certainty since the Democrats will be defending 23 seats and the Republicans only 10), the result will be a sweeping transformation of the U.S. into a Right-wing country — from the USA to TPA, Tea Party America — comparable to what Hitler and the Nazis wreaked on Germany in 1933.
In my analysis — and I know most Occupy participants would almost certainly disagree with me — it is absolutely crucial for America’s future that we unite, vote and campaign straight down the line for Democrats in 2012. We should do that without any illusions that the Democrats are our friends, but with the full awareness that the Republicans are such dastardly enemies, not only of the 99 percent but of the earth itself, that in the short term at least, we need to keep what Noam Chomsky calls “the reality-based wing of the ruling class” in power. We shouldn’t hang back from criticizing especially egregiously corporate-friendly Democrats and challenging them in primary elections. But we should give up any notion of not voting at all — or voting for alternative parties, which in the U.S.’s winner-take-all election system means the same thing — in the present emergency. Given that the Republicans are committed to wiping out all controls on corporate power, ending organized labor, privatizing virtually all government functions and getting rid of the welfare state, and their “drill, baby, drill” assault on the environment will virtually ensure the end of the earth’s ability to support the human species, we have to bite the bullet and accept that in the current crisis, any Democrat is better than any Republican.
In the medium term we can debate reforms we can demand from the political system, including a Constitutional amendment to end the idiotic fiction that corporations are “persons,” worldwide taxes on financial speculation, a return to the upper-bracket income tax rates of the 1950’s and 1960’s, an end to corporate subsidies and tax loopholes, restoration of the Glass-Steagall Act and other New Deal-era legislation that severed consumer banks from investment banks, reform of the labor laws to make it easy for workers to organize, and aggressive antitrust enforcement literally to cut the giant corporations down to size. In the long term we can work out the models by which humanity can grow beyond capitalism — and throughout this process we must do the work on ourselves to grow beyond our own individualistic, competitive urges and, in a saying of Gandhi’s that’s become an obnoxious cliché, “be the change that we wish to see in the world.”Twelve years ago, in November 1999, a Leftist movement swept through the streets of a major American city — Seattle — with a simple demand: an end to unfair “free trade agreements” that enriched corporations and greased the skids on which they sent American jobs overseas. It was killed by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the wave of repression that followed. Occupy could likewise be killed by a Republican sweep of the November 2012 elections and the even more intense repression against it likely to follow. But if it can hold on, learn from its mistakes and build for the future, Occupy has a chance to break the corporate-capitalist stranglehold on America’s and the world’s imagination and begin the process of moving away from economies and societies based on greed, individualism, monopolism, imperialism and a capitalist system that rewards humanity’s worst traits and punishes its best.