The young people camped out near Wall Street in lower Manhattan to protest the power of the financial elite are an easy target for cynical and know-it-all types of various ideological persuasions. The kids are “dirty” and “disorganized.” They lack a “clear focus” and a “concrete agenda.” They are a passing and excessively Caucasian “circus of Deadheads” – neo-Yippie “post-modern neo-Rastafarian Know Nothings.” They are a bunch of silly “slackers” – a group of aimless “twenty-somethings with too much time on their hands.” They are carping and complaining about complex policies and an economic “system they don’t understand” and to which “they have no alternative.” They need to clean themselves and their act up, find their places, read some serious great books (a good capitalist neoliberal recommends Milton Friedman or Friedrich Hayek, and a good Marxist recommends, well, Marx) and develop more rigor, realism, and/or radicalism.
Well, I’ve been down to the New York financial district’s Zucotti Park twice. I’ve marched with and attended a General Assembly meeting of Occupy Chicago. And I’ve spent some time with Iowa City’s version of Occupy Iowa, which is camped out three blocks from my house. And I’m not too impressed with all the criticisms. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a technically middle class, middle-aged, and over-educated left Marxist who has probably read a few hundred too many books for my own good. Do I wish I’d met more tough-minded critics of the profits system and the bourgeoisie than I have on my journeys into the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement and its different regional offshoots? Sure. Was I disappointed to meet a young starry-eyed New York protestor who thinks capitalism can and should be saved in a “more humanized form” (a completely utopian and counter-productive belief in my opinion) and another such protestor who had good things to say about the racist libertarian Ron Paul? Yes. Do I wish I’d seen more folks from New York, Chicago’s, and Iowa City’s most truly disadvantaged, working and lower class, and non-white communities? Okay. Yeah.
But so what? They’re kids and this movement is in its very early stages. I sure didn’t have “everything figured out” in my 20s, that’s for sure. I still don’t! I met more occupiers who share my sense that capitalism itself – the source of the egregious inequality that is the main target of OWS’ ire – is the problem. It may well draw in more genuinely oppressed and working class Americans as time goes on. And there’s much to be said for the movement’s distinctly fluid, diverse, non-doctrinaire, and even eclectic ideological character. That sort of free-flowing diversity and eclecticism is precisely characteristic of protest movements that possess a genuinely grassroots and popular character. This is not the fake-populist “Tea Party,” where all the supposedly “grassroots” and “anti-establishment” messages come in the form of 5 or 6 canned grievances and demands cooked up in the propaganda shops of hard-right Republican elites like Dick Armey and the Koch (Charles and David) brothers.
OWS is also not a front for the Democratic Party. I haven’t met a single occupier who thinks that Barack Obama is anything other than another political tool of the moneyed class. When I told one New York occupier dressed up as a greedy billionaire that I’d seen similarly clad street thespians protesting the anti-union policies of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in Madison last March, he was quick to make a critical distinction between OWS and the Wisconsin rebellion. “The Wisconsin thing was shut down out of subordination to the Democratic Party and the union bosses,” he said. “They got co-opted. This is different. It’s about the whole system, which is run by and for the rich whether they’ve got Republicans or Democrats out front.”
I’ve met a few OWS activists who seem to have difficulty naming that system. But please give them major credit for picking the right target: neoliberal capitalism’s unelected dictatorship of money, which does in fact have the closest thing to what we can reasonably call its headquarters in New York City’s currently barricaded financial district. It’s a target that resonates strongly with many millions of ordinary working (and non-working) Americans, who have in the last three years been given a brutal lesson in the harsh realities of class and power under Democrats in the Age of Obama. Government has lots of money to spend when “the right people” want it. The “right people” are those who already have the most money – the filthy rich who own more than a third of the nation’s wealth and a probably larger percentage of its elected officials, and who enjoy extravagant hyper-opulence while a record-setting 46 million Americans now “live” below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level.
If the kids in Zucotti Park are in some ways the reincarnation of the Yippies, they are Yippies of a very different and more working class kind than their 1960s antecedents. The movement they have sparked (with no small technical assistance from the Canadian anti-consumerist outfit Adbusters) this fall is something that holds basic and elemental meaning with millions who wouldn’t be caught dead wearing dreadlocks, smoking from a hooka, or dancing in a public circle, much less sleeping 20 nights a row in a cold city park. It’s about the authoritarian control of economy, society, and politics by the super-rich and the deadly consequences of that control for democracy, community, social justice, livable ecology and more.
This is something that ordinary working class Americans understand very well. It’s not for nothing that tens of thousands of union members showed up in a giant sympathy march last Wednesday to support the Zucotti Park occupiers and to make their own statement against the nation’s hidden senate of the wealthy Few. At least 39 unions and community organizations joined the march, including the United Federation of Teachers, the United Auto Workers, United Healthcare Workers, and Public Employees Union DC37. “As the last brightness of sun washed the buildings of Broadway,” wrote the venerable New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin, “the crowd gathered in anger at what has been happening to them, the college tuition bills for their kids being too much to pay, the foreclosures of their homes, the jobless.”
How different the scene was from the tense conflicts that took place between union “hard hats” and the anti-war counter-culture in New York City and other major cities during the late 1960s and early 1970s! Never underestimate the power of shared capitalist misery to help people overcome their differences and see the commonality of their interests.
“We have to make people understand this is not just students who decided to occupy Wall Street, this is really Main Street,” said Charles Jenkins, director of organizing for Transit Workers Local 100. “This,” Jenkins added, “is three years late. The Fortune 500, the banks, and the auto companies have all been taken care of. But people are still suffering and need jobs.”
John Samuelson, head of the same local, spoke about how much the top 1 percent dominates and exploits the rest of us – “the 99 percent.” “We can’t be in the hall talking to politicians. Get out in the streets.”
This isn’t about politicians per se. The main institutional target is the ruling financial class that pulls the strings behind the highly personalized, candidate-centered “electoral extravaganzas” (Noam Chomsky) that big money and big media stage for us every four years, telling us “that’s politics” – the only politics that matters.
“This is three years late.” Think about the radical rank-and-file wisdom of that comment, elicited from a union officer by a few hundred courageous and counter-cultural kids and some Canadian anti-advertising insurgents.
Listening to Samuelson and Jenkins, I was reminded of late great radical American historian Howard Zinn’s comments on the severe limits of the nation’s narrowly defined politics and its corporate-crafted one-and-a-half party system as an avenue for progressive change. “The really critical thing,” Zinn used to say, “isn’t who’s sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in – in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating – those are the things that determine what happens.”
Of course, as Zinn knew, it wasn’t just about marches, occupations, and other happenings. It was also and more fundamentally about the difficult day-to-day work of organizing. Here’s how he put it at the height of the “election madness” that he saw “engulfing the entire society, including the left” in the spring of 2008:
‘The election frenzy seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us.’
‘And sad to say, the Presidential contest has mesmerized liberals and radicals alike…I'm not taking some ultra-left position that elections are totally insignificant, and that we should refuse to vote to preserve our moral purity. Yes, there are candidates who are somewhat better than others, and at certain times of national crisis (the Thirties, for instance, or right now) where even a slight difference between the two parties may be a matter of life and death.’
‘I'm talking about a sense of proportion that gets lost in the election madness. Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes – the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.’
‘But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.’
‘ Let's remember that even when there is a "better" candidate…that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore’
Well, here’s to Howard Zinn and the wisdom and energy he brought to the American past. And here’s to the OWS activists and supporters and the wisdom and energy they are bringing to current American history in an age of savage empire, inequality, and financialized corporate totalitarianism.
Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of many books, including The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010) and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio), Crashing the Tea Party (Paradigm, 2011). Street can be reached at [email protected]
 The New York Times reported in August that the rich and super rich have fully resumed their ways of conspicuous and opulent luxury consumption. “Even Marked Up,” a Times headline ran, “Luxury Goods Fly Off Shelves.” Further: “Even with the economy in a funk and many Americans , the rich are again buying designer clothing, luxury cars and about anything that catches their fancy. Luxury goods stores, which fared much worse than other retailers in the , are more than recovering — they are zooming. Many high-end businesses are even able to mark up, rather than discount, items to attract customers who equate quality with price.”