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An American Fall


The Arab Spring and European Summer have now inspired a wave of demonstrations in the U.S. as well. It may well prove to be the most significant wave of protests the nation has seen in many years.

The occupation of Wall Street began on September 17th and quickly mushroomed into dozens of occupations around the country – and all of this before the long planned major occupation in D.C. that began on October 6th.

The timing is propitious. Forty-nine percent of likely voters “think neither party in Congress represents the people,” according to the conservative polling agency Rasmussen.

The Washington Post reports that “Americans have reached a new level of disgust toward Congress that has left nearly all voters angry at their leaders and doubtful that they can fix the problems facing the country. Whether Republican, Democrat or independent, more Americans disapprove of Congress than at any point in more than two decades of Washington Post-ABC News polling.”

There are some in the public who still support the record of the legislative branch: 14 percent.

The discontent reaches beyond displeasure with the particular representatives currently in power to encompass fundamental aspects of the nation’s governance.

Gallup finds “Americans Express[ing] Historic Negativity Toward U.S. Government,” with “A record-high 81% of Americans… dissatisfied with the way the country is being governed, adding to negativity that has been building over the past 10 years.”

Elites are admitting the structural causes leading to the popular anger. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told the Congressional Joint Economic Committee that protesters are blaming “with some justification the problems in the financial sector for getting us into this mess. …. At some level, I can’t blame them.” The Wall Street Journal accurately characterizes this as a warning to legislators. Action must be taken to ensure the continued stability of the system.

In much the same way, a politburo official in the old USSR might have acknowledged that mistakes were made by the state leading to the unrest, and a course correction will be needed.

Those structural roots of the crisis include one third of Americans, including those earning higher incomes, living with so little savings that they would miss their next rent or mortgage payment if they lost their job.

As the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein admits, “The top 1 percent account for 24 percent of the nation’s income and 40 percent of its wealth.”

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Procter & Gamble Co. is the latest corporation to adapt to what Citigroup has identified as the “Consumer Hourglass Theory.” P&G,

“which estimates it has at least one product in 98% of American households, [will] fundamentally change the way it develops and sells its goods. …. The world’s largest maker of consumer products is now betting that the squeeze on middle America will be long lasting. …. A wide swath of American companies is convinced that the consumer market is bifurcating into high and low ends and eroding in the middle. …. [Citigroup has] since 2009 has urged investors to focus on companies best positioned to cater to the highest-income and lowest-income consumers. It created an index of 25 companies, including Estée Lauder Cos. and Saks at the top of the hourglass and Family Dollar Stores Inc. and Kellogg Co. at the bottom.”

A society with a gouged out middle class – of designer clothing for a few, and meals of Frosted Flakes in water for the rest – is bound to be more prone to restiveness. As is the case globally, the youth are particularly burdened by diminishing opportunities.

In another sign of the times, Sesame Street is introducing a new Muppet that is bedeviled by food insecurity to “bring awareness to the ongoing hunger struggles that families face in the United States.” There are 17 million children in the country with “limited or uncertain access to food.”

These declining fortunes are reflected in Occupy Wall Street. Klein describes the message evident in the signs (notably at the We Are the 99 Percent Tumblr) in Zuccotti Park:

“They’re small stories of people who played by the rules, did what they were told, and now have nothing to show for it. Or, worse, they have tens of thousands in debt to show for it.

College debt shows up a lot in these stories, actually. It’s more insistently present than housing debt, or even unemployment. That might speak to the fact that the protests tilt towards the young. But it also speaks, I think, to the fact that college debt represents a special sort of betrayal. We told you that the way to get ahead in America was to get educated. You did it. And now you find yourself in the same place, but buried under debt. You were lied to.”

It is encouraging that the occupations have not only endured and garnered media attention, but that they have spread throughout the country.

Here in New Orleans an occupation began on Thursday. (It cannot have come soon enough. As I write this, out my window on the street below a thin middle-aged man is up early picking through the garbage bins of the apartment complex, eventually strolling away with his harvest of recyclables.)

The Occupied Wall Street Journal – an early print run ran to 50,000 copies on the strength of $10,000 quickly raised – featured a timeline of the global movement, beginning on December 17th, 2010, when the Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi, seeing no economic prospects and nothing but harassment from the government, lit himself aflame in public. It was the beginning of a response to, as an article in Slate puts it, the “global class war.”

Elites have also connected the occupations to the global revolt. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg commented, “You have a lot of kids graduating college, can’t find jobs. That’s what happened in Cairo. That’s what happened in Madrid. You don’t want those kinds of riots here.”

 

Origins

The genesis of Occupy Wall Street came from a call published by AdBusters. Weekly organizing meetings began in early July.

David Graeber, who was involved in the process, observed (in a Washington Post interview conducted by Ezra Klein, to their credit, though it was only published on the paper’s blog) that:

“One thing that helped a lot was a smattering of people from Spain and Greece and Tunisia who had been doing this sort of thing more recently. They explained that the model that seemed to work was to take something that seemed to be public space, reclaim it, and build up an organization headquarters around that from which you can begin doing other things.”

Much like other occupations of 2011, dozens of committees have been created to manage the day-to-day tasks of a 24/7 occupation. The Greek protestors in Syntagma Square have had over two dozen committees operating in their Square.

Graeber writes that there are “30 different working groups for everything from handling sanitation to discussing labor issues and tax policy. …. Of course, this is nothing compared to what happened in Tahrir Square, where they even had dry cleaners.”

Nathan Schneider characterized the Occupy Wall Street General Assembly as “a horizontal, autonomous, leaderless, modified-consensus-based system with roots in anarchist thought.”

One can only hope that the use of consensus does not become a road block – consensus is a nice goal to aim for in any group decision-making, but it should rarely be a rigid requirement and can sometimes act as an impediment to timely or democratic results.

The extent to which these protests are dominated by people totally new to protesting is an immensely encouraging indication of the opportunities present for this movement to grow. There is a profound opportunity for humbly undertaken educational programs – listening as well as teaching. Ideologies are diverse and, among many, surely newly forming and fluid – this is precisely as it should be.

Food is ordered by people all over the world to feed the “American indignados.” Pizza has become the medium of global solidarity.

The scene, despite the many challenges occupiers face, has impressed many observers:

The protestors have transformed the park into a village of sorts, complete with a community kitchen, a library, a concert stage, an arts and crafts center and a media hub.”

 

Labor

On October 5th, unions joined the Wall Street occupation.

The bureaucracies of the establishment unions recognize the occupation movement as important, but remain uncertain of how to capitalize upon it. The New York Times reports:

“Several union leaders complained that their own protests over the past two years had received little attention, though they had put far more people on the streets than Occupy Wall Street has. A labor rally in Washington last October drew more than 100,000 people, with little news media coverage.”

While the corporate media certainly do minimize events like last fall’s One Nation rally, it is hardly shocking that their tepid events fail to generate substantial popular interest. The politically cautious centrism and bland rhetoric of the establishment unions does not exactly inspire hope that they are building a meaningful movement.

Perhaps the current occupations will nudge them towards greater militancy. The Times reports that labor leaders were hearing from union members wondering why organized labor was missing in action.

Of course, the conservatism of the labor bureaucracy has not disappeared. “Behind the scenes,” the Times comments, “union leaders have debated how to respond to Occupy Wall Street. …. [Some] said they were wary of being embarrassed by the far-left activists in the group who have repeatedly denounced the United States government.” Heaven forbid.

Fortunately, thus far such sentiments appear to have been drowned out. Certainly, many in the rank-and-file appear eager to participate. A 32-year-old lawyer and union member told the 

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