Friday, October 21, 2011

One of the creators of #OccupyWall Street reflects on its success so far

Without issuing a single concrete demand, the Occupy movement has already scored a significant victory: it has shifted the political discourse in USA back in a more progressive direction, examining real problems. Less than two months ago, most Americans watched morosely as USA elites “debated” the debt ceiling and vied to come up with the most “acceptable” program of austerity, including cuts in Social Security and Medicare at the federal level, and education and police and fire protection at the state and local levels.

Now, the focus of political discourse are the inequalities of wealth and income, and how they cripple our economy and democracy by allowing the rich a disproportionate role in setting national policies.

That is a monumental shift in political direction. Especially considering the billions of dollars the rich and wealthy have poured into trying to dominate the political process and public perceptions, such as by astro-turfing the so-called Tea Party.

Many people have wondered just who is behind the Occupy movement. If you don’t know, the idea of occupying Wall Street was first proposed by the Canadian culture-jammers, Adbusters. I have known about Adbusters for a few years now, because of their excellent work on revealing the darker sides of economic neo-liberalism, and our consumerist culture. (One of the best articles attacking neo-liberalism was Adbusters’ November 2007 take-down of leading economist Gregory Mankiw, Economic Indoctrination.)

Last night, David Graeber, one of the people who had been present at the first “planning” sessions inspired by Adbusters’ call to action, posted his recollections of the (for him) hectic events of the past two months. Graeber identifies himself as a “small ‘a’ anarchist” but his insights into the social forces at work in USA at this point in history are well worth reading. In particular, I believe Graeber correctly identifies one of the key characteristics of the Occupy movement and what drives it:

I found myself… asking “what did we actually do right?”

My first take on the question came when The Guardian asked me to write an oped on Occupy Wall Street a few days later. At the time I was inspired mainly by what Marisa Holmes, another brilliant organizer of the original occupation, had discovered in her work as a video documentarian, doing one-on-one interviews of fellow campers during the first two nights at Zuccotti Plaza. Over and over she heard the same story: “I did everything I was supposed to! I worked hard, studied hard, got into college. Now I’m unemployed, with no prospects, and $50 to $80,000.00 in debt.” These were kids who played by the rules, and were rewarded by a future of constant harassment, of being told they were worthless deadbeats by agents of those very financial institutions who—after having spectacularly failed to play by the rules, and crashing the world economy as a result, were saved and coddled by the government in all the ways that ordinary Americans such as themselves, equally spectacularly, were not.

“We are watching,” I wrote, “the beginnings of the defiant self-assertion of a new generation of Americans, a generation who are looking forward to finishing their education with no jobs, no future, but still saddled with enormous and unforgivable debt.” Three weeks later, after watching more and more elements of mainstream America clamber on board, I think this is still true. In a way, the demographic base of OWS is about as far as one can get from that of the Tea Party—with which it is so often, and so confusingly, compared. The popular base of the Tea Party was always middle aged suburban white Republicans, most of middling economic means, anti-intellectual, terrified of social change—above all, for fear that what they saw as their one remaining buffer of privilege (basically, their whiteness) might finally be stripped away. OWS, by contrast, is at core forwards-looking youth movement, just a group of forward-looking people who have been stopped dead in their tracks; of mixed class backgrounds but with a significant element of working class origins; their one strongest common feature being a remarkably high level of education. It’s no coincidence that the epicenter of the Wall Street Occupation, and so many others, is an impromptu library: a library being not only a model of an alternative economy, where lending is from a communal pool, at 0% interest, and the currency being leant is knowledge, and the means to understanding.


Why would a protest by educated youth strike such a chord across America—in a way that it probably wouldn’t have in 1967, or even 1990? Clearly, it has much to do with the financialization of capital. It may well be the case by now that most of Wall Street’s profits are no longer to be being extracted indirectly, through the wage system, at all, but taken directly from the pockets of ordinary Americans. I say “may” because we don’t really have the numbers. In a way this is telling in itself. For all the endless statistical data available on every aspect of our economic system, I have been unable to find any economist who can tell me how much of an average American’s annual income, let alone life income, ends up being appropriated by the financial industries in the form of interest payments, fees, penalties, and service charges. Still, given the fact that interest payments alone takes up between 15-17% of household income,[1] a figure that does not include student loans, and that penalty fees on bank and credit card accounts can often double the amount one would otherwise pay, it would not be at all surprising if at least one dollar out of every five an American earns over the course of her lifetime is now likely to end up in Wall Street’s coffers in one way or another. The percentage may well be approaching the amount the average American will pay in taxes. In fact, for the least affluent Americans, it has probably long since overtaken it.


So 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.
There are many other very interesting insights Graeber shares, but let me note here, before again linking to the full article, the one major weakness of most anarchists’ beliefs. Most fail to identify and recognize the very real benefits of an advanced industrial economy. Consider, for example, the ramifications of being unable to mass produce the humble medicine bottle. It would become extremely difficult, perhaps even impossible, to package and distribute medicines we now take for granted. Do we really want to return to a stage of economic development in which measles, whooping cough, pertussis, small pox, and other diseases we now rarely see, carry off one third of children before they reach the age of five?

This major concern aside, I heartily recommend for your edification and enjoyment, David Graeber’s On Playing by the Rules: The Strange Success of #OccupyWallStreet. Here are the major details of how the Occupy movement was conceived and launched. Bookmark it for future reference to help rebut the increasingly wild-eyed lies the wrong-wing will concoct and circulate to try and belittle, marginalize, and contain the movement.

By the way, Adbusters is now suggesting that the Occupy movement adopt one concrete policy demand: a financial transactions tax of one percent on all trades in the financial markets. Adbusters has dubbed it the Robin Hood Tax and created a new website to support it. Since the 1980s, I have repeatedly proposed exactly such a tax as a way of curtailing socially useless speculative trading in the financial markets, and forcing flows of money and credit back into real, productive investments, so I warmly welcome the Robin Hood Tax. It is probably the single most important measure we can take to save ourselves from the predatory ravages of Wall Street and the Chicago futures pits.


  1. Actually I'm a pro-technology anarchist.

    Actually I'm in the middle of writing a piece on why one of the most compelling reasons to drop capitalism is it will never get us all the technological breakthroughs we were promised by now as children: flying cars, anti-gravity shoes, mars bases, etc. Capitalism has become technologically regressive.

    David Graeber

  2. Thanks for coming by by Dave. What you folks folks have accomplished at #OWS is truly amazing. Thank you for your persistence, vision, and creativity.

    About those techno disappointments of childhood. Because I have been a member of EAA, I have actually talked to some of the guys who tried to invent a flying car. It never happened because no one could come close to solving the ultimate problem—how do you bring a flying object to a stop as necessitated by routine traffic control and not have an energy pig like a helicopter. Of course there were dozens of other problems—how do you stow wings, how do you propel yourself on the ground, or how does a vehicle light enough to fly mix with traffic including trucks laden with cargoes.

    While I totally agree that our technological progress has been severely hampered by crazy economic ideas over the last 35 years, I am not sure that the flying car is a good example of a technological disappointment. It was never possible and the creators of children's cartoons should not have been promising it. On the other hand, the creators of the Jetsons never imagined the smart phone and it was obviously possible.