Occupy!

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It’s the only thing I know to say, my friends.  I simply want my country back again.  

                                                                                                   – Jimmy LaFave

Silly me, I fantasize.  As a kid, I used to imagine that aliens came to Earth, selected me and my girlfriend to save the human race from itself, gave us a spaceship with lots of amazing powers (like the power to deactivate nuclear weapons) and a secret base on the far side of the moon, and then went on their way, wishing us all the best.

In 1984, at a Nuclear Freeze press conference, I just happened to be near a TV camera when a reporter wanted to ask someone, “Will the death of Yuri Andropov increase the chances of the United States signing nuclear weapons treaties with the Soviet Union?”  Staring into the camera, knowing as I did that the Reagan Administration had no interest in any new nuclear weapons agreements and was undermining existing ones, I answered, more or less immediately, “I don’t think our chances of nuclear arms control will improve unless the Soviet Union ceases to exist.”  The reporter smiled and turned away.

Of course, the improbable demise of the Soviet Union a mere seven years later was unimaginable then.  People were saying soon thereafter that Ronald Reagan had made it happen, so I had to snuff out the budding fantasy that I myself had wiggled my nose and made the Soviet Union collapse.  Reagan, it turned out, had wiggled his nose.

When I wrote a welcome page for this blog back in March of this year, we knew we were getting an alarmingly late start; the situation was fast deteriorating, and time was of the essence:

Most Americans are probably unaware of how dangerous the current situation is for everyone but the very wealthy.  * * *  Too many people in the middle class and below, we believe, are not yet sufficiently aware of the dramatically increased consolidation of wealth and income within the top 1% of Americans over the past 30 years, and this group’s steadily increasing control of government and the media.   Nor,  we suspect,  do they yet realize how significantly  that consolidation  of wealth  has hurt  them economically. * * * [W]e intend to post suggestions and discussions (our own and from others) about what the bottom 99% can do to turn things around. Our most important purpose right now is to encourage everyone to get involved and stay involved until our lives, our democracy, and our American way of life are safe from the corporate attack.  We urge everyone to organize, join political action groups, learn about what is happening in America, learn the truth and broadcast it far and wide.

Silly me, for imagining that our little blog might be any more noticeable than a snowflake in a blizzard.  Since then I have shared a widespread sense of pessimism and helplessness, realizing that the mainstream media is happily promoting fantasies none of us can afford to buy into anymore, and I’ve been running out of hope.

But then this!  In one of the amazing developments of modern history, Occupy Wall Street has suddenly awakened hundreds of thousands all over America, and around the world as well, to the possibility that oppression can be overcome!  People everywhere are declaring that they will take to the streets and sleep in the parks – and keep it up indefinitely.

And the beauty of it is that it transcends the current political framework, leaving the power elite temporarily dumbfounded.  Obnoxious hatemongers like Glenn Beck (“They will come for you and drag you into the streets and kill you”) [1] rail about “Marxism” and other imaginary threats.  They literally have no idea how to react, and their irrelevance has never been more apparent.

Significantly, even somewhat more substance-oriented pundits from the right revealed surprisingly shallow, narrowly-focused, and result-oriented thought processes.  As Frank Rich observes:

What’s as intriguing as Occupy Wall Street itself is that once again our Establishment, left, right, and center, did not see the wave coming or understand what it meant as it broke. * * * [F]or the first three weeks, the protests were alternately ignored, patronized, dismissed, and insulted by politicians and the mainstream news media as a neo-Woodstock for wannabe collegiate rebels without a cause—and not just in Fox-land. CNN’s new prime-time hopeful, Erin Burnett, ridiculed the protesters as bongo-playing know-nothings; a dispatch in The New Republic called them “an unfocused rabble of ragtag discontents.” Those who did express sympathy for Occupy Wall Street tended to pat it on the head before going on to fault it for being leaderless, disorganized, and inchoate in its agenda. [2]

The poorly received New Republic piece deserved the criticism it got for ridiculing protesters by portraying them as little (or no) more than a collection of empty-headed party-goers angst-driven by the false rumor of a Radiohead solidarity concert.  Erin Burnett, selecting bongos and banjos (always a popular choice) as frivolous instruments of scorn, tried to dismiss the entire event as misguided with her own killer point that the bailout will eventually produce about $20 billion of benefits for “taxpayers.”  (Uh, Erin, that doesn’t quite make up for the $8-9 trillion loss of home equity wealth resulting from the collapse of the residential real estate bubble, does it?)

Albert R. Hunt, the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News, has taken a more serious, and half-way decent, stab at figuring out what’s behind Occupy Wall Street:

The anti-Wall Street movement has confounded Republicans, Democrats and analysts alike.  The take on the right is that Occupy Wall Street is the same old riff-raff of leftist anarchists, unlike the grassroots conservative Tea Party; seen from the left, it’s an authentic uprising against the huge income disparity in America and a call for redistributing the wealth.

Actually, it is part of a combustible global protest that goes beyond the professional rabble rousers. There is a focus on income inequality; “Tax the Rich” is a favorite slogan. The protesters are diverse and seemingly directionless.

Income and wealth inequality in America have been growing for decades with little public outcry. The catalyst for the movement now is that during the worst financial crisis since the Depression, there is a perception that Wall Street and the wealthy were taken care of while average folks suffer. That isn’t a fringe view.

Wall Street generally has flourished since the government rescue of 2008 and the big banks have posted record profit and booming bonuses. Although Goldman Sachs Group Inc. reported a rare quarterly loss last week, Lloyd Blankfein, its able chairman and chief executive officer, was paid $19 million for his work last year, up 50 percent from the year before. JP Morgan Chase & Co.’s Jamie Dimon was awarded $23 million in compensation. A prime target of the protesters in New York is John Paulson, the hedge fund billionaire who made a fortune betting on the mortgage debacle, assisted by a sweetheart deal from his banker.

In good times it’s considered class warfare to rail against successful leaders who’ve added value. There have been few complaints about the wealth that accrued to Microsoft Corp.’s Bill Gates, Apple Inc.’s Steve Jobs or Jack Welch of General Electric Co. When taxpayers directly facilitate that success and firms then lavish massive payouts on executives, it would be naïve not to expect public resentment. [3]

Not bad, but this isn’t just about resentment, and Hunt belittles the movement when he says the protests are “diverse and seemingly directionless.”  The movement is diverse because it potentially encompasses all the grievances of the dwindling middle class and those in poverty, and there are many.  Paulson has unreasonably profiteered in rigged financial markets, and hedge fund manager David Tepper’s $4 billion 2010 income is beyond outrageous, certainly; but it’s wrong to imply that the only sensible complaint the bottom 99% may have is that their tax dollars have been used to bail out the rich without helping them.  That’s just the tip of the iceberg, as the widespread implications of the continuous growth of inequality are enormous.  Before the 2008 crash and the bailouts, the top 1% had already increased their wealth, at the expense of the bottom 99%, by some $8.8 trillion since 1979. [4]

Of course, as Hunt notes, “Income and wealth inequality in America have been growing for decades with little public outcry.”  But that does not mean, as he seems to imply, that Americans aren’t or shouldn’t be greatly concerned about it now.  There has been, as I’ve noted, little public awareness of the issue, and I doubt if Hunt himself was paying much attention to it over the years.  It was certainly under my radar screen for most of the last 30 years.

It’s not as if there were headlines in the papers warning of wealth and income transfers to the top, and increases in poverty.  Not until now, when the bottom 99% is finally in a depression.  We are learning more all the time, but as many Occupiers around the country settle determinedly into their sleeping bags at night, most are still unaware (as are we) of much of what has happened to us over the last 30 years.

What’s the Point?

At base, Occupy is not (nor should it be) about ideology, nor is it really about politics.  In fact, it’s a rejection of both.  It seems to be simply this:  The bottom 99% has awakened to the demise of their economy and their democracy at the hands of the top 1%.  This is not some counter-culture; these are not Hunt’s “professional rabble rousers,” whoever they may be.  These are everyday Americans, and they want their opportunities, their jobs, their freedoms, and their lives back again.  They want their country back again.

The substantive strength of this movement – to which I hope it doggedly clings – is its lack of leadership and affiliation with specific groups and demands.  This posture finesses politics and forces a focus on reality-based analyses and discussion of the current situation.  It says:  “We’re here, we’re wide awake, and we mean business.”

That thousands of people would physically arrive at Wall Street and vow to stay is, of course, a crucial show of power.  They cannot be imagined away, they cannot be ignored.  And equally important is their rejection of politics as usual, and general condemnation of Washington politics as a broken system.

In my view, the diversity of demands like “tax the rich” and “feed the poor” and “protect women’s rights” and “leave Afghanistan,” and hundreds more appearing on the homemade signs can be viewed as summing to one central complaint:  The control of government by special interests has got to end.  Collectively, they reveal a people tired of being victimized.  It literally forces a closer examination of the implications of inequality and corporate domination of government, and how they are leading to the destruction of America.  The general focus of the movement is exactly what it should be.

Moral Framing

The fact is, however, that many of the bottom 99% do not and never will see their self-interest in this movement.  Witness the response of “the 53%” (referring to the 53% that pay income taxes).  This response suggests that people with problems need to “suck it up” and work harder, and not blame anyone else, not even Wall Street.  The 99%ers, from their perspective, are whiners. [5]  But see “An open letter to the 53%,” in which the author observes that there is no apparent dispute about the distribution of income, only about who should be asked to contribute more.  He opines:

Occupy Wall Street will dramatically change America. That’s not hubris, or political bias. It’s based on math, science, and common sense. The pendulum has gone all the way to one end, and now it will swing back to the center. [6]

The 53%ers advance their viewpoint by controlling the way the Occupy movement and the 99% are “framed,” which suggests that framing may be crucial to the movement’s success. Language guru George Lakoff explains how framing works:

It’s normal. Everybody engages in it all the time. Frames are just structures of thought that we use every day. All words in all languages are defined in terms of frame-circuits in the brain. But, ultimately, framing is about ideas, about how we see the world, which determines how we act.

In politics, frames are part of competing moral systems that are used in political discourse and in charting political action. In short, framing is a moral enterprise: it says what the character of a movement is. All politics is moral. [7]  

Lakoff identifies the moral basis of conservatism as “the primacy of self-interest. Individual responsibility, but not social responsibility.”  The progressive moral basis, however, “starts with citizens caring about one another and acting responsibly on that sense of care, taking responsibility both for oneself and for one’s family, community, country, people in general, and the planet.”  And, he continues:

It appears to me that OWS has a progressive moral vision and view of democracy, and that what it is protesting is the disastrous effects that have come from operating with a conservative moral, economic, and political worldview. I see OWS as primarily a moral movement, seeking economic and political changes to carry out that moral movement — whatever those particular changes might be.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Lakoff recommends that the American Occupy movement should frame itself, take a positive stance, and advance a moral conception that counters the conservative morality that brought us here:

I think it is a good thing that the occupation movement is not making specific policy demands. If it did, the movement would become about those demands. If the demands were not met, the movement would be seen as having failed.

It seems to me that the OWS movement is moral in nature, that occupiers want the country to change its moral focus. It is easy to find useful policies; hundreds have been suggested. It is harder to find a moral focus and stick to it. If the movement is to frame itself, it should be on the basis of its moral focus, not a particular agenda or list of policy demands. If the moral focus of America changes, new people will be elected and the policies will follow. Without a change of moral focus, the conservative worldview that has brought us to the present disastrous and dangerous moment will continue to prevail. [8]

Michael Moore was recently asked what he thought the next step should be, and his response reflected such a moral focus, and a focus on reality:

They don’t need to worry about a next step. It’s already happening. This is something that has sprung up. There’s no organized group with dues behind this. This is literally an uprising of people who have had it. This has already started to spread across the country in other cities. This started with a few hundred and has already started to grow to a few thousand. It will be tens of thousands then hundreds of thousands of people. The great thing about what they’re doing is that the work ahead is not as difficult as that of other movements. During the civil rights and other movements the majority of Americans were not with them. That’s not true right now. The majority of Americans are really upset with Wall Street. Millions of Americans have lost their homes or are facing foreclosure. Fifty million do not have health insurance. Fourteen million officially are unemployed (probably actually over twenty). You have already got an army of Americans who are just waiting for someone to do something and the something has started. [9]

What I am especially excited about is this:  Ordinary people of all walks of life, mainstream Americans, are taking to the streets because they sense – somehow they know – that they have to do it.  It involves work and sacrifice, and it’s getting cold at night here in the Northeast.  But they are on the streets, certain that they must take action now.  That collective public sensibility is phenomenal.  It corroborates our sense of danger, and it is almost certainly correct:  To wait any longer to draw a line in the sand, it suggests, would seriously risk losing everything.

JMH – 10/23/11 (rev. 10/24/11)

______

[1] Does Glenn stand by ‘controversial’ comments? Yup

[2] The Class War Has Begun, by Frank Rich, New York Magazine, News & Features, October 23, 2011.

[3] Real Grievances Fuel Occupy Wall Street Protests: Albert R. Hunt, Bloomberg Businessweek, October 23, 2011.

[4] Growth of Inequality of Wealth: 1979-2007

[5] See We are the 53%, which frames the issues pretty much as pride in self-sufficiency (supposedly the top 53% that pays income taxes) facing off against those who complain, more than against those who don’t pay taxes.  See also:  ‘We Are the 53 Percent’ Claims Middle Ground Between Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, Tells Protesters to ‘Suck It Up’.

[6]  Open Letter to the 53%, by Xavier Onassis, EMT-P

[7]  A Framing Memo for Occupy Wall Street, by George Lakoff, Nation of Change, Op-ed, October 20, 2011

[8] Id.

[9] Michael Moore on the Occupy Wall Street Protests that Could Spark a Movement, Nation of Change, September 28, 2011.

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One Response to Occupy!

  1. lamplight3r says:

    A friend came up with this short answer to what, why, and how of OWS.

    “We, the 99%, are expected to make it here in America.
    “You, the corporations, need to find a way to do it too.

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