NEW YORK - For some reason I haven’t written anything about Occupy Wall Street or any of its offshoots. I am an enthusiastic supporter and advocate; I would not presume to call myself an activist. The activists are the heroes who have been down there day after day, giving up material comforts, preserving the struggle and refusing to let it die. Spending the day down there a few weeks ago was an amazing experience. I have not been back since, although I plan to go a week from Tuesday. If any of you live within reasonable distance of an Occupy protest, please stop by to show solidarity with the protesters. It’s a movement worth supporting.
None of the shrill criticisms of Occupy Wall Street deserve a serious response or even make any sense. I’ve heard that the protesters lack any clear demands and also that their demands are Utopian and pie-in-the-sky. I’ve heard that they’re hippies and they like drums which, by some chain of logic, discredits their economic message. I’ve heard that the movement is anarchic and inchoate and also that it’s an organ of Obama or the Democratic establishment. The Occupy movement is driving the right crazy because a message of economic justice for the 99% is virtually impossible to attack without openly advocating for the interests of the super-rich. The protests have been overwhelmingly non-violent and public polling has shown a surprising level of support (Occupy is twice as popular as the Tea Party).
What are their demands? The movement is not even six weeks old. Right now it’s about adding numbers, raising awareness, spreading geographically, changing the conversation, and so on. Besides, a movement of economic justice will necessarily have a broad range of demands, because there are a lot of injustices! The driving force behind this, however, is unmistakable: the hyper-concentration of economic and political power, which has become the central fact of American society. The game is rigged for the powerful, against the population, and you would have to have blinders on not to see it.
The American people have always taken pride in living in the land of equal opportunity. Granted, this is in many ways wishful thinking, but from the 1940s to the 1970s we really did witness an economy that worked for just about everyone. In these decades the U.S. experienced the greatest and most widely shared economic prosperity in recorded history, with legitimately egalitarian growth (workers at the bottom of the income ladder actually saw gains that proportionally exceeded those made by people at the top). Workers made enough money to purchase the products they were producing. We had established a decent social safety net with Social Security, New Deal welfare programs, and eventually Medicare and Medicaid. Sensible regulations governed the financial system and we had no major financial crises. There was still a vibrant manufacturing base and we had not yet seen the financialization and hollowing out of the economy that would take place in the following decades. Labor unions played an important role in both the economic and political domains. Executives made 30 or 40 times what workers made; hardly ideal from a social democratic point of view but a far cry from the 300-400 to 1 ratios of today.
Then everything changed. In the mid-1970s, Big Business decided to go on the offensive and flex its muscle in the political arena like never before. Their first victory was to kill an important piece of legislation establishing an Office of Consumer Representation. This had passed with bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress, unions were strongly behind it, and the population favored it by a 2-1 margin. Business mobilized, lobbied with unprecedented vigor, and President Ford vetoed it. This shocked the political world and sent a message that a new era was dawning. Emboldened, the business lobby became more and more engaged and starting defeating labor on issue after issue, with this change in the zeitgeist cemented by the election of Reagan in 1980.
All bets were now off. Reagan got into office and made it clear that his administration intended to essentially ignore labor laws. He slashed taxes for the wealthy. He demonized the poor and welfare recipients. The financial services industry exploded as a percentage of GDP. Deregulation evolved into a kind of religion. Capital became more mobile than ever before and job security became an anachronistic concept. Celebrity executives like Jack Welch seemed to take pleasure in laying people off and glorified the idea of trimming their companies down.
In the Clinton years, the New Deal welfare regime was gutted, free-trade agreements were enacted against the wishes of populations, and two disastrous pieces of deregulatory legislation were passed by the Republican Congress and signed into law by Clinton. The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act repealed the 66-year-old Glass-Steagall Act mandating the separation of commercial banks, investment banks, and insurance companies, and ushered in the era of these too-big-to-fail monstrosities. The Commodities, Futures, and Modernization Act deregulated the derivatives market. These two pieces of legislation played a crucial role in creating the conditions that led to the 2008 crisis.
We know all about the Bush years. The 2001 vote to once again slash taxes on the wealthy was a defining moment in American politics. It forced every legislator to state unambiguously if he or she stood with the many or the few. It passed, of course, culminating 25 years of government and business working tirelessly, with a laser-like focus, to make the rich richer. The Bush tax cuts were the crowning achievement.The housing bubble kept inflating throughout the decade, and finally burst, destroying the American economy and much of its (illusory) wealth in the process.
What we have seen, then, since the 1970s, is a relentless collaborative effort on the part of political and business elites to redistribute more and more wealth to the top. The top 400 Americans now have more wealth than the bottom 155 million. The top 1% make over 20% of the income and control almost 40% of the wealth, numbers not seen since the 1920s. We live in a society in which billionaires who manage hedge-funds are paying lower taxes than firefighters. Something has gone profoundly wrong.
Occupy Wall Street has already scored a very important victory, namely, changing the entire political conversation. Just a couple months ago – in the face of all economic sense – all we heard about was deficits and debt and austerity. The game was played on the right’s turf. Now, unquestionably due to the protest movement, politicians and establishment media have been forced to talk about income inequality, joblessness, and other subjects that are oh-so-boring to them.
In societies with highly concentrated wealth and power, and an economically devastated population, real change can only be affected with the power of numbers. It’s the one edge that the people hold over the elites, which is why the latter have such contempt for the democratic culture. Occupy Wall Street has provided an invaluable service by making elites uncomfortable and letting them know that we will not quietly accept our descent into kleptocracy. The ultimate goal for the movement should be to attract allies from all across the political spectrum. This is the ultimate fear of America’s plutocrats, of course: the possibility that the proles will get sick of arguing with each other about abortion and finally stand together under the banner of shared economic interest. As Matt Taibbi – whose writings on OWS have been fantastic – said recently, the Occupiers and the Tea Partiers should be natural allies on most of the material issues facing this country. I emphasize “should” because I think Taibbi is quite a bit more sanguine than me about the possibility of a genuine alliance between left and right members of the 99%. The members of the Tea Party are so credulous, so misinformed, so resentful, that I’m afraid there’s no hope for them. Fortunately, however, the Tea Party constitutes a very small percentage of the country and popular support for it continues to be minimal. Occupy Wall Street can command broad support even without touching the Tea Party faction of the country. Here’s hoping it will.