Intellectuals and Occupy: Seven Reasons to Reject Condescension

One of the many refreshing aspects of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is its openness to outside ideas and thinkers. The Occupy Movement (occasionally referred to as “Occupy” below) has welcomed the reflections of writers, professors, researchers and other thinkers at hundreds of teach-ins it has organized across the country in the last two months. Unlike the neo-McCarthyite right wing “Tea Party movement,” Occupy is not at all anti-intellectual.[1] Its message to intellectuals has been inviting, almost to a fault: “Come talk with us. Tell us what you know and how it might help grow this movement.”


Many intellectuals and academics have been reluctant to return the affection. They criticize the movement’s lack of clear and specific policy goals. Some charge that the movement is fatally flawed by its refusal to advance leaders or public personalities. Others attack the supposed excessive moralism of Occupy’s opposition to economic inequality and the wealth and power of “the One Percent.” Occupy speaks against egotism and greed. But the real problem, good Marxists know, isn’t simply or primarily selfishness and avarice. It’s structural and systemic. It is the de facto class dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, rooted in capitalism: the private ownership of the means of production and distribution and their operation on behalf of the creation and accumulation of surplus value and profit, leading by its very nature to the ever-greater concentration of wealth, the rise of gigantic corporations, and the inter-penetration of corporate, financial, and state power. The solution is what Dr. Martin Luther King called “the real issue to be faced…the radical reconstruction of society itself.”[2] It isn’t simply less greed and materialism. It’s popular revolution leading to democratic control over the economy and a new politico-economic order that privileges the common good over private profit.


Angry at the Right People


These criticisms of Occupy have at different times formed in my own mind. But they have not taken hold of my sense of the movement for seven basic reasons. First, I think Occupy deserves major credit for getting the structural and systemic enemy right. As the black radical commentator Glen Ford argued early on at Black Agenda Report, the new movement could collapse tomorrow and it would have already performed the great service of identifying the real danger to freedom democracy at home and abroad: the hyper-parasitic financial super-elite, the people with real wealth and power, not the usual scapegoats.


“There’s something happening here,” liberal economist and columnist Paul Krugman wrote five weeks ago. “What it is ain’t exactly clear, but we may, at long last, be seeing the rise of a popular movement that, unlike the Tea Party, is angry at the right people.”[3] 


Re-reading Krugman’s comment recently, I was reminded of something that Matthew Rothschild, the editor of Progressive Magazine, said about the Tea Party phenomenon, in October 2010, when the so called Tea Party was the peak of its political significance and media attention. “With economic pain at the highest level ever seen by most Americans, and with minorities especially hard hit,” Rothschild wrote, “we’re seeing a revolt not by people of color, not the unemployed, nor the foreclosed upon. Instead, we’re seeing a revolt by the white middle class. It’s a revolt against the very notion of a positive role for government in helping people. It’s a revolt against Latin American immigrants. It’s a revolt against Muslim Americans. And it’s a revolt against our black president…Opportunistic and rightwing Republicans, politicians, business front groups, and media outlets like Fox have ginned up the hatred…”[4]


By “the right people” (to be angry at), Krugman meant, of course the top 1 percent – the 1. 4 million families that “earned” on average $1 million in 2009[5] and who together enjoy more wealth than the bottom 90 percent of Americans. He meant the wealthy 1 percent that owns well more than a third of the nation’s total household wealth [6] and a possibly larger share of the nation’s elected officials. He meant the opulent masters of a country where multiple trillions of taxpayer dollars were found to bail out the giant financial and corporate institutions that caused the greatest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression but where there doesn’t seem to much available for the record-setting 46 million Americans who now live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level[7] or for the 1 in 15 Americans who live in what researchers now cal extreme poverty – at less than half that miserly poverty level.[8] That’s less than $11, 517 for a family of four, by the way. These forgotten 1 in 15 are the 19 or so million Americans at the bottom of the nation’s two quintiles, the bottom of the lower 40 percent who together own just 0.3 percent of the nation’s net worth, essentially nothing.[9] 


A genuinely populist, grassroots, and anti-poverty people’s revolt close to what Rothschild wanted is underway now. It receives considerably higher support than the fake-populist right Republican Tea Party does in public opinion polls, this even as the Tea Party’s infrastructure is funded by the top .001 percent billionaire likes of Charles and David Koch to help enforce the ever more hard right drift of the Republican Party and its presidential candidates.