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Occupied by Occupiers | davelovell.net
Oct 162011

There’s a dif­fer­ence between an emo­tional out­cry and a move­ment,” for­mer U.S. Ambas­sador to the United Nations Andrew Young said recently of the Occupy Wall Street demon­stra­tions. “This is an emo­tional out­cry,” he went on. “The dif­fer­ence is orga­ni­za­tion and artic­u­la­tion.” Young knows some­thing about social move­ments: as a young pas­tor in the South, he joined the South­ern Chris­t­ian Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence and was jailed for par­tic­i­pat­ing in demon­stra­tions in Alabama and Florida. But his sug­ges­tion that what is hap­pen­ing today in lower Man­hat­tan lacks real momen­tum rings false — the civil rights move­ment is not a prece­dent one can use to under­stand Occupy Wall Street. Nei­ther is this move­ment a Tea Party of the left, as some observers have sug­gested . Occupy Wall Street is a move­ment of a com­pletely new type.

Both the civil rights move­ment and the Tea Party were cre­ated to serve spe­cific con­stituen­cies — in the first case, African Amer­i­cans suf­fer­ing under the bur­den of Jim Crow in the South; in the sec­ond, older, white middle-class Amer­i­cans who saw them­selves as vic­tims of an over­ween­ing fed­eral gov­ern­ment. “This is about the peo­ple who work hard to bring home the bacon and want to keep it”, one Tea Party group mono­syl­lab­i­cally declared. In con­trast, Occupy Wall Street puts for­ward few pol­icy pro­pos­als and has a shift­ing con­fig­u­ra­tion of sup­port­ers as it spreads across the coun­try. The clos­est its activists have come to issu­ing a clear state­ment of aims was in the “Dec­la­ra­tion of the Occu­pa­tion of New York City,” posted on Sep­tem­ber 30th. “As one peo­ple, united,” the dec­la­ra­tion pro­claimed, “we acknowl­edge the real­ity: that the future of the human race requires the coop­er­a­tion of its mem­bers; that our sys­tem must pro­tect our rights, and upon cor­rup­tion of that sys­tem, it is up to the indi­vid­u­als to pro­tect their own rights, and those of their neighbors.”

That is hardly a pol­icy plat­form, nor is it Das Kap­i­tal. But pol­icy plat­forms are not the point of this new kind of move­ment and Das Kap­i­tal is hard (and in german).

Charles Tilly, the late Colum­bia soci­ol­o­gist, divided move­ments into three types, based on the poli­cies they demand, the con­stituen­cies they claim to rep­re­sent, and the iden­ti­ties they are try­ing to con­struct. Both the civil rights move­ment and the Tea Party com­bined the first and sec­ond goals. Occupy Wall Street is what we might call a “we are here” move­ment. Ask­ing its activists what they want, as some pun­dits have demanded, is beside the point. Par­tic­i­pants are nei­ther dis­il­lu­sioned Obama sup­port­ers, nor are they a “mob,” as really creepy House Major­ity Leader Eric Can­tor cyn­i­cally described them. By their pres­ence, they are say­ing only, “Hey…WTF?!”

If Occupy Wall Street resem­bles any move­ment in recent Amer­i­can his­tory, it would actu­ally be the new women’s move­ment of the 1970s. When that strug­gle emerged in the wake of the civil rights move­ment, it shocked con­ser­v­a­tives, befud­dled lib­er­als and kept mak­ing me gig­gle because they said the word “bra.” The first saw the activists as a bunch of bra-burning anar­chists (gig­gle); the sec­ond con­sid­ered them unla­dy­like, or, well-meaning lib­er­als gone off the reser­va­tion. Although the lead­ers of the new women’s move­ment had poli­cies they wanted on the agenda, their fore­most demand was for recog­ni­tion of, and credit for, the gen­dered real­ity of every­day life. Like­wise, when the Occupy Wall Street activists attack Wall Street, it is not cap­i­tal­ism as such they are tar­get­ing, but a sys­tem of eco­nomic rela­tions that has lost its way and failed to serve the public.

Peri­od­i­cally, thou­sands of Amer­i­cans from no sin­gle social class or region, and with no explicit goal, come together in what the Cor­nell polit­i­cal the­o­rist Jason Frank has called a “con­stituent moment.”  Like­wise, the Yale con­sti­tu­tional the­o­rist Bruce Ack­er­man names three such moments in Amer­i­can his­tory.  The most recent was dur­ing the Great Depres­sion, when hard­ship and out­rage came together in a wave of strikes and demon­stra­tions, some of them far more mob-like and trun­cheon wield­ing than Occupy Wall Street. They had no spe­cific pol­icy agenda, but they demanded recog­ni­tion and rad­i­cal change in the rela­tions between gov­ern­ment, the peo­ple, and corporations.

The par­al­lels between the 1930s and today are strik­ing. The econ­omy has plunged to his­toric lev­els of unem­ploy­ment and hard­ship. The eco­nomic cri­sis again is global, forces of obscu­ran­tism and reac­tion are afoot (think of the anti-immigrant leg­is­la­tion recently passed in Ari­zona and Alabama), and pol­i­cy­mak­ers are demand­ing sav­age spend­ing reduc­tions. The Supreme Court, which, in the 1930s, was unaware that the judi­cial doc­trines of the nine­teenth cen­tury were hope­lessly inad­e­quate for the eco­nomic prob­lems of the early twen­ti­eth, today has returned to a doc­trine of orig­i­nal­ism, which seeks to go even fur­ther back — now to the 18th cen­tury (aka; good old days)

But the energy gath­er­ing behind Occupy Wall Street may very well not bring on another New Deal. Per­haps no “con­stituent moment” will result from it. Dur­ing the Depres­sion, unem­ploy­ment topped 25 per­cent; today it is 9.1 per­cent. Then, the United States had a pres­i­dent, Franklin Roo­sevelt, who said of the plu­to­crats who opposed his poli­cies and hated him per­son­ally: “I wel­come their hatred!” Like the Wall Street pro­test­ers today, he spoke of “gov­ern­ment by orga­nized money” and of the “forces of self­ish­ness and lust for power.” The response was elec­tric, and Roo­sevelt was re-elected by a greater major­ity than in the pre­vi­ous elec­tion. The dif­fer­ence this time is that the White House and the Demo­c­ra­tic Party offer no lead­er­ship to the inchoate anger that Occupy Wall Street reflects.

In his press con­fer­ence last week, after acknowl­edg­ing that he under­stands the anger of the pro­test­ers, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama was quick to assure the finan­cial sec­tor of his con­tin­u­ing sup­port.  And in that state­ment he may have missed his chance at Roo­sevelt­ian sta­tus; none of the debonair alacrity of FDR, none of the bull­ish girth of Theodore.

We are here” move­ments often flare up rapidly and fade away just as quickly, or dis­in­te­grate into rivulets of par­tic­u­lar claims and inter­ests. Oth­ers, like the new women’s move­ment, even­tu­ally coa­lesce into a few orga­nized sec­tors, each with its own set of pol­icy demands and polit­i­cal iden­ti­ties. It is too soon to tell which of these will be the fate of Occupy Wall Street. But one thing is cer­tain: we are hear­ing a wake-up call to a com­pla­cent cor­po­rate sec­tor and its Wash­ing­ton enablers, sig­nal­ing that there is a new force demand­ing change at the grass­roots of Amer­i­can soci­ety.  One thing remains to be seen; will things get bad enough to awaken the besot­ted mass of our repub­lic?  The 1% is pretty sure we will just con­tinue our long national nap.

Do you hear an alarm clock ringing?



 Posted by at 8:35 am

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