Never underestimate the elitist pessimism and disdain of intellectuals—even ones on the nominal left. Take the eminent British half- or post-Marxist historian Perry Anderson. In a largely informative New Left Review essay on the corporate-dominated state of U.S. politics in the neoliberal Obama years last spring, Anderson offered a chilling take on the majority working class populace that endures the United States’ business-dominated political order—an order shaped by what Anderson called “the all-capitalist ideological universe—a mental firmament in which the sanctity of private property and superiority of private enterprise are truths taken for granted by all forces in the political arena.” Anderson was clearly unimpressed with the U.S. citizenry. “So far,” he wrote, “there has been little popular protest.” Further: “The one attempt to arouse it, the Occupy movement, failed to ignite any mass response. Even when its slogans were—all too easily—rendered down into presidential boiler-plate, they still had only a limited take-up. A campaign highlighting the arrogance and egoism of the rich, personified by his billionaire opponent, kept Obama in office. But it galvanized no popular upsurge.
Fewer bothered to vote than in 2008; the incumbent lost some four million supporters; his adversary gained half a million. Like his predecessors, the president returned to the White House with the assent of roughly a quarter of the adult population. The predominant mood continues to be not indignation, or enthusiasm; it remains a depoliticized quietism…. Just this underlying environment of mass apathy is what lends active minorities a power in the political system beyond their numbers…. In the vacuum created by the many—an unorganized, passive citizenry dispersed across a vast continent—the passions of the few, those with the will and means to mobilize, take on a peculiar intensity, little affected by the surrounding numbness” (Perry Anderson, “Homeland,” New Left Review 81, May-June 2013).
Strange Chronology and Deletions
Did Occupy really “fail to ignite a mass response?” Tens of thousands of citizens and activists set up Occupy encampments in hundreds of towns and cities across the United States once the story broke about left activists’ takeover of Zucotti Park in lower Manhattan in the fall of 2011. As left commentator Glen Ford noted in early October of that year, “Like a political Andromeda Strain, the anti-Wall Street phenomenon has replicated itself in a thousand locations, a pattern of leftish activism resembling a new and successful cell-phone service map.”
Why would government authorities have felt compelled to crush a popular movement that had failed to ignite any mass support and response? Anderson’s chronology deleted the often quite brutal repression of Occupy that preceded its replacement by the coming major party big money-candidate-centered and highly “personalized quadrennial electoral extravaganza” (Noam Chomsky) as the nation’s leading media story in late 2011.
There is no telling how Occupy might have developed further, but for the federally coordinated police state repression it faced across the nation, facilitated by no small degree of federal coordination. As progressive economist Jeff Madrick noted in Harper’s earlier this year, writing only of New York City, “the movement was undone by a concerted [multi-jurisdictional] government effort to undo it…. Taken together, the coordinated and disproportionate actions of the NYPD, the FBI, and Homeland Security represent a campaign of suppression without which Occupy might well have evolved into something more formidable, even in the cold of New York City’s winter (“The Fall and Rise of Occupy Wall Street,” Harper’s, March 2013). And what was true in New York City was both relevant for and true in relation to what happened across the nation. The left author Chris Hedges is right to note “that whatever the internal faults of the Occupy movement—and they were there—the Occupy movement was destroyed. The state was quite rattled by the Occupy movement and is determined not to allow a mass movement like that to rise up again” (Chris Hedges, “America is a Tinderbox,” The Real News Network, July 4, 2013).
Perry Anderson had no business claiming to find it a sign of ordinary American’s quiescence that Obama’s appropriation of (some of) Occupy’s rhetoric failed to “galvanize a popular upsurge.” Consistent with the longstanding relationship between rank and file social movements and the Democratic Party in U.S. history (Lance Selfa, The Democrats: A Critical History, Haymarket, 2008) the discursive appropriation was meant precisely to co-opt, capture, and marginalize popular protest—that is, to channel popular anger into the narrow choices offered by the elite-controlled and corporate-managed U.S. party and electoral system.
As for low voter participation in the 2012 election, why or how was it proof in any way of the absence of popular protest and anger in the U.S? Anderson’s essay even gave an erudite dissection of how painfully limited the spectrum of acceptable debate is between the two major neoliberal U.S. political organizations and their respective candidates. It seemed fully aware that Obama’s claim to represent “the 99%” against “the 1%” was a mendacious campaign fairly tale, consistent with the formerly left Christopher Hitchens’ onetime description of “the essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism.” Anderson, therefore, had little reason to present failure to vote for the fake-progressive Brand Obama in 2012 as a sign of passivity and quiescence. Many Americans who find the “choices” offered by the major parties too narrow to merit participation register a protest of sorts by not voting.
Protests Beyond Occupy, 2009 to Present
Occupy has hardly been the one and only attempt to arouse popular U.S. protest to have emerged during the Obama years. Leaving aside the right wing, corporate-funded “Tea Party” explosion of 2009 and 2010—an Astroturf, fake-grassroots, pseudo-movement that (nonetheless) captured no small amount of genuine popular indignation—progressive activists affiliated with the Connecticut Working Families Party protested Wall Street bonuses and bailouts at the homes of American Insurance Group (AIG) executives and at an AIG office in Connecticut in March 2009. That same year saw the emergence of significant large-scale student and faculty protests against budget cuts and tuition hikes across the sprawling University of California system. A Time magazine dispatch from California in March 2009 includes some remarkable reporting from Perry Anderson’s own campus of UCLA: “During two days of protests at UCLA where UC regents met to vote on the fee increase, about 2,000 students from the 10-campus system confronted riot police, shouted slogans, and blocked building exits. Like a scene out of the angry 1960s, students surged against barricades and briefly seized a building near the main campus quad. Police used taser guns on several protesters and arrested nearly 20.
All the while, police helicopters hovered overhead, TV vans stood ready, and students played drums and strummed guitars…. At a sit-down strike that blocked vehicles from leaving, UCLA student leader Michael Hawley spoke through his bullhorn, ‘We want one regent to come out to speak to us about why the world’s richest country will be denying some students higher education next quarter.’ Police responded by telling demonstrators they had three minutes to leave before being arrested. Then, forming a flying wedge, police led a small group of regents to another building…. In addition to the mass protest at UCLA, students at UC Davis, UC Berkeley, and UC Santa Cruz occupied buildings to signal their displeasure with the fee increase” (Kevin O’Leary, “Tuition Hikes: Protests in California and Elsewhere,” Time, November 21, 2009).
There’s much more. In April of the following year, CNN reported that thousands of protesters organized by the AFL-CIO “rallied in downtown New York City to voice their anger over what they perceive as the roles Wall Street and big banks played in America’s economic crisis. Marching from City Hall to Wall Street, the protesters chanted “good jobs for all,” and held signs with messages including ‘Hold banks accountable,’ ‘Make Wall Street Pay,’ and ‘Reclaim America’” (Protestors Descend on Wall Street, New York City Banks,” CNN, April 30, 2010).
An epic, multi-week firestorm of remarkable and creative, pro-labor popular protest (including the occupation of a state capitol building) against the anti-union policies and austerity agenda of Wisconsin’s corporate-funded Teapublican governor Scott Walker captured national and global attention in February and March of 2011. The Wisconsin uprising garnered many thousands of visiting supporters from all over the country. It spread to state capitols in Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan. Madison helped inspire Bloombergville, a campsite formed to protest fiscal austerity in New York City that provided a bridge between the Wisconsin struggle and Occupy Wall Street. Along the way we’ve also seen:
- the rise of nationwide movements against senseless neoliberal school closings and related “high-stakes” public schools testing
- a massive turnout of marchers opposing military imperialism and corporate globalization at the combined meetings of NATO and the G8 (despite an incredible demonstration of massive, high-tech repressive power by the militarized, multi-jurisdictional national and local police state and its private/corporate security allies) in Chicago (Obama had to move the second meeting to Camp David because of his fear of mass protest in May 2012)
- a national movement against bank foreclosures of lower and working class homes
- major protests (involving tens of thousands of marchers across the country, including 50,000 marchers in Los Angeles, on May 1, 2010) against Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant Senate Bill 1070
- a large number of protests against the low and negative tax burdens and other protections enjoyed by leading banks and corporations like Wells Fargo and General Electric in numerous locales in early 2011
- protests against police brutality and racial profiling in California (including riots in Anaheim after police shootings of Latino youth last year) and New York City (site of a large silent march against the city’s racist “stop and frisk” policy in the spring of 2012)
- a growing movement of people speaking out and standing up to protest the use of drones by the United States in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, as well as the United States
- prisoner work and hunger strikes in Georgia and California
- giant marches and demonstrations against the racist killing of Trayvon Martin and the jury verdict that exonerated Martin’s killer
- significant protests around climate change and the eco-cidal Keystone XL Pipeline, including a sizeable (50,000) march on the White House last March
We’ve seen “the emergence of CORE the ultimately victorious progressive faction within the Chicago Teacher’s Union, CTU, and the increased militancy of the CTU in waging a fight-back against school closures, privatization and austerity that has produced a new labor-community alliance that offers more promise than anything we’ve seen in this town in decades” (Chicago activist Richard Reilly). Last fall, on the eve of the presidential election, the progressive CTU used the poplar power it developed through that alliance to win significant concessions from the city’s neoliberal mayor and former Obama chief-of-staff Rahm Emmanuel. The 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike focused to a remarkable degree on the business elite’s campaign to advance authoritarian “skill and drill” standardized testing as the main criteria for assessing teachers, students, schools and education in general (Lee Sustar, Striking Back in Chicago: How Teachers Took on City Hall and Pushed Back Education “Reform,” Haymarket Books, 2013).
Over the past three years, hundreds of workers at the notoriously anti-union retail giant Wal-Mart have conducted one-day strikes, including one last year on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year. At demonstrations held across 15 U.S. cities last September, workers and activists affiliated with OUR Wal-Mart promised to mount the biggest strike ever against Wal-Mart on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) this year. Also beginning before Anderson’s essay was published and continuing through the summer of 2013, the “Fight for 15” has emerged. Many thousands of fast food and retail workers marched and struck this summer, demanding a doubling of their minimal minimum wage, which is pegged well below livable compensation. Thousands of fast-food workers have taken part in a movement that has drawn energy from the example of Occupy.
As New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse noted after one such walkout last July, “From New York to several Midwestern cities…these strikes…carry the flavor of Occupy Wall Street protests and are far different from traditional unionization efforts that generally focus on a single workplace…[since they] aim…to mobilize workers—all at once—in numerous cities at hundreds of restaurants from two dozen chains” (“A Day’s Strike to Raise Fast-Food Pay,” New York Times, July 31, 2013). New York City fast food worker activist Jonathan Westin told the Guardian that ”Occupy helped raise the issue of inequality and inspired a whole movement for protest. But this is a more direct action approach. We’re taking these strikes all over the country. People have to take to the streets to be heard. That’s what we see and that’s why this is going all over the country” (Edward Helmore, “US Fast-Food Workers in Vanguard of Growing Protests at ‘Starvation Wages,” the Guardian, August 10, 2013).
In late August and early September of this year, Obama confronted significant majority public opposition to his plans—currently on hold—to attack Syria with cruise missiles and bombs. Millions of Americans left, right, and center have contacted their congressional representatives and the White House to voice their dissent against war. A new anti-war movement awakened in response to the president’s latest military chest-pounding. Liberal Congressperson Alan Grayson (D-FL) calls the blocking of a U.S. military intervention in Syria “the biggest victory for the peace movement since the end of the Vietnam War.”
People Fighting Back Under the Media’s Radar
Speaking to Bill Moyers this October, liberal political scientist Peter Dreirer rightly noted that, “there’s lots of evidence all over the country…that people are fighting back against big business and the right.” Dreirer cited numerous recent and ongoing examples:
- the effort by the progressive mayor and city council of Richmond, California (supported by community activists and organized labor) to use eminent domain to seize the underwater mortgages of local citizens from Wall Street financial institutions and to sell those mortgages back to local homeowners at reasonable rates
- a successful effort to unionize 500 sanitation workers in Atlanta, Georgia
- the Wal-Mart and fast food worker wage fight
- a successful campaign by the Teamsters Union and the Sierra Club to clean up the Port of Los Angeles, creating healthier working conditions for the port’s mostly immigrant truck drivers
- a grassroots campaign leading the government of a Seattle, Washington suburb (Sea Tac) to introduce a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
- a growing campus movement of students demanding that universities and colleges divest from fossil fuels (some small colleges have already initiated divestment actions)
- a four-week summer 2013 occupation of the Florida Governor’s office by hundreds of black, Latino and white students (the Dream Defenders) demanding an end to racial profiling and the violent “stand your ground” law in that state
- regular weekly “Moral Monday” protests outside the North Carolina state capitol, registering labor, religious, and civil rights opposition to the right wing agenda of that state’s government (Moyers and Dreirer, “Saving Democracy is Up to Citizen Activists,” Moyers & Company, October 25, 2013)
By Dreirer’s account, “The campaign in Richmond, CA is driving Wall Street crazy. Major banks like Wells Fargo and money management firms like PIMCO and Blackrock have poured enormous resources into lobbying, lawsuits, and media campaigns to block the city’s plans. They know that over ten million American homeowners are drowning with underwater mortgages and that Richmond is only one of many ‘hot spots’….. If [activists]…and their allies are able to defy Wall Street in Richmond, the idea will spread quickly to other cities. ‘We hope our city provides a model for other cities,’ says Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, ‘and that this becomes a national movement’” (Huffington Post, October 28, 2013).
Dreirer could also have noted a recent successful four-day transit worker strike (against unfair labor practices) in San Francisco and the recent takeover over of the Washington office of the U.S. Trade Representative by activists protesting the secret corporate neoliberal “free trade” Trans Pacific Partnership agreement being negotiated by the Obama administration. Also worth noting, two explicitly socialist candidates linked to the Marxist group Socialist Alternative (SA) are mounting viable, potentially victorious campaigns for city council seats in two major American cities (Seattle and Minneapolis) this fall. (as this article went to press the Seattle candidate appeared to be near victory in a close final vote count).
This protest and resistance is occurring largely under the radar screen of the corporate mass media, unlike the fake populist right wing Tea Party “movement”—something that only reinforces the dismissive disdain of aristocratic academicians like Perry Anderson. Working people, students, and activists, “are fighting back against Wall Street. They are taking their own lives into their own hands. And that’s happening all over the country,” Dreirer notes. “[But]…you don’t see this in the New York Times every day. You don’t see this in the Wall Street Journal or in the Washington Post…. You see snippets of it, but you see the Tea Party every day [because] they have a great publicity machine….But the everyday grassroots work on the ground doesn’t give you the sense that there’s a movement all over the country, burgeoning in every state in the country.” (“Saving Democracy”).
Welcome to the 21st century version of what the radical historian and activist Howard Zinn described in the 1990s as “The Unreported Resistance.” The term refers to the activities of the millions of Americans, “largely unreported by the media,” who “refuse…either actively or silently, to go along” with the nation’s reigning “elite corporate, military, and major party consensus” (Zinn, The Twentieth Century: A People’s History, 1998).
And welcome also to what the left political scientist Anthony DiMaggio and I identified three years ago as the distinction between “worthy” and “unworthy protest” in U.S. corporate media. Authentic popular struggles that question and confront concentrated wealth and power and “refuse to surrender the possibility of a more equal, more humane society” (Zinn) are considered unworthy and receive short shrift in that media. Fake social movements that conform to the needs and views of the rich and powerful receive much more extensive and favorable news coverage and commentary. The Tea Party is a graphic example of a “movement” that falls within the spectrum of acceptable (worthy) protest in the eyes of the mass media (Street and DiMaggio, Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics, 2011).
“To Bring People Together”
It’s not all about protests and political struggle. Across the country, Americans are involved in efforts to build democratic community and culture from the bottom up in the soulless, vacuum of finance-led neoliberal abandonment. A recent report from savagely deindustrialized, fiscally bankrupt Detroit tells a curious story of hidden, grassroots social and economic successes beneath that city’s official narrative of failure: “Believe it or not, the worst of times is well on its way to becoming something truly inspiring. The very isolation of Detroit has created the conditions for…a new paradigm of economic activity…. It is single moms stretching dollars from government programs for the poor as creatively and as far as they can. It is back alley auto repair shops and church’s selling dinners on the street. It is off the books home child care. It is what African-Americans have had to do for many generations to make a way out of no way…. It is also scrappers who are repurposing the copper, weathered wood and other valuable products left by the abandonment of homes, stores and factories…. The living, breathing Detroit new economy movement taps into Detroit’s deep political traditions of advocacy for economic and social justice. It is especially dependent on the decades long visionary analysis and activism of the late James Boggs and 98 year old Grace Lee Boggs” (Frank Joyce, “The Real Story of Detroit’s Economy,” Salon, September 3, 2013).
This is consistent with and perhaps partly inspired by Occupy, whose many sites across the country were noble if brief demonstrations of people’s ability to govern themselves. Noam Chomsky has noted that one of Occupy’s most significant successes was to “to bring people together to form functioning, supportive, free, democratic communities—everything from kitchens to libraries to health centers to free general assemblies, where people talk freely and debate. It’s created bonds and associations,” Chomsky observed in January 2012, “that, if they last and they expand, could make a big difference”( Chomsky, Power Systems, 2013).
Anger and Indignation Rife
What of Anderson’s “underlying environment of mass apathy?” It’s an aristocratic illusion. Poll after poll has for many years, and indeed decades, registered widespread popular anger, indignation, and disgust with the plutocratic and authoritarian state of U.S. society and politics. The survey data is regularly reflected in daily U.S. life and conversation, rife with irritation, resentment, exasperation, and rage at the ways elites have destroyed democracy and “run the country into the ground.” The widespread popular indignation is largely progressive in its broad outlines. Most U.S. citizens reject corporate and financial dominance, harsh socioeconomic disparity, and the ruination of social and ecological health in service to the rich and powerful. The vast majority do not accept “plutonomy” and plutocracy. They prefer a roughly egalitarian society where wealth and power are well distributed and the government is run by and for the populace in pursuit of the common good. As Dreirer observes, “this is a moment where big business is vulnerable. All the polls show that Americans think that business has too much political power, the rich don’t pay enough taxes, the government needs to protect us from predatory banks and from polluting corporations. Americans are now realizing more than ever that we need to go in a new direction.”
Beyond the All-Capitalist Ideological Universe
Might that direction point beyond Anderson’s “all-capitalist [U.S.] ideological universe?” Yes. Consistent with the strong showing of openly socialist candidates in Seattle and Minneapolis, two recent polls by the right-leaning survey group Rasmussen Reports showed that Americans younger than 30 are almost evenly divided on whether capitalism or socialism was preferable. A December 2011 Pew survey discovered that 49 percent of young Americans aged 18 to 29 view the term “socialism” favorably compared to 46 percent who reacted negatively to the term. By contrast, more of those young people viewed capitalism negatively (47 percent) than saw it positively (46 percent).
Something new and left is in the political air, beneath the dominant media’s obsession with elite happenings and spin. Writing about “the rise of the new New Left,” liberal commentator Peter Beinart notes that Americans “coming of age in the 21st century” have confronted “a genuine historical disruption. Compared to their Reagan-Clinton generation elders, Millennials are entering adulthood in an America where government provides much less economic security. And their economic experience in this newly deregulated America has been horrendous,” scarred by a viciously “downward slide” in wages and benefits and collapsing rewards for ever more absurdly expensive educations. To make matters worse, “the government safety net is far more threadbare for the young than for the middle-aged and old…younger Americans are less likely than their elders to qualify for unemployment insurance, food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or the Earned Income Tax Credit” (the Daily Beast, September 12, 2013).
It helps, perhaps, that this terrible capitalist performance—including remarkable demonstrations of plutocratic authoritarianism, police statism, and environmental collapse—is being experienced under a Democratic president. “If there were a Republican president,” Michelle Goldberg notes in a recent essay on the rising number of young intellectuals who are exploring and embracing Marxism, “they might see hope in electing a Democrat. But Barack Obama already won, and it didn’t help.” As one such intellectual, Bhaskar Sunkara (editor of the popular left zine Jacobin), told Goldberg, “If you win something and you are disappointed with the results, in a way that’s more politicizing than just losing and losing and losing over again” (Michelle Goldberg, “Crash Prompts Young Intellectuals to Revisit Marxism,” Tablet Magazine, October 14, 2013).
There’s more disappointment—and activism and radicalization—to be expected in coming months and years. As the most recent elite-manufactured, bipartisan austerity-enhancing federal fiscal crisis revives to re-nauseate the nation this holiday season, all indications are that U.S. and global capitalism are mired in a long term rut of slow growth and depressed job creation. “As economic failure continues to create massive social and economic pain and a stalemated Washington dickers,” Gar Alperovitz observed last spring, the “search for some alternative to the current ‘system’ is likely to continue to grow” (Alperovitz, “The Question of Socialism Is About to Open Up in These United States,” Truthout, April 12, 2013). That search is more important than ever in an era when even slow growth, capitalist style, is clearly capable of ruining livable ecology and thereby posing grave questions regarding the survival of human and other living beings.
Paul Street is the author of many books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis(2007), Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (2008) and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (2014).