The Solidarity of ‘Occupy’
As the temperature drops and the wind pokes us with cold fingers to remind us that snow and ice are on their way, I often think of the Occupy protesters and wonder: Can they outlast winter? I also have to ask: What could spur that amount of determination? What is it they are protesting? It would seem they don’t have a unified grievance. Who are they disgruntled with? Sly and shadowy, always there, but seldom named, “It” has quietly woven itself into the fabric of society. Neoliberalism is the Trojan horse of the 21st century.
Neoliberalism emerged in 1947, prompted by the spread of totalitarian societies. A group of economists, historians and philosophers known as the Mont Pelerin Society began to lay the foundation for our current nation-state and the financial institutions that hold power in it.
They called themselves “liberals” because they adhered somewhat to the ideals of freedom, and “neo” because they adhered to neoclassical economic theory that was opposed to Keynesian economics and the idea of state involvement in the economy. Neoliberals advocate privatizing any state-run activities, reducing the influence of solidarities such as unions, and removing any and virtually all restrictions on business and finance. The cornerstone of their perpetual economic growth is acquisition by dispossession.
For neoliberals, the only significant function of government is to advance trade and do whatever it takes to maintain economic growth. Here they face a problem. In democratically elected governments, citizens may demand more than that. They may demand higher minimum wages, environmental protection laws, public safety standards, more funds for education, etc. — all of which neoliberals say are economically harmful.
Governments have three general strategies to address this problem. The first is to pay lip service to these concerns. The second strategy is to displace regulatory power to unelected and remote global institutions such as the World Trade Organization. The final strategy is to free corporations and the mass media to spin events and news to allay public fears and interests.
The manufacturing of consent through the media and other public outlets is known as “soft” power. When that fails the state can and will turn to “hard” power: the use of force. This “hard” power has been used at almost every occupy protest to date, a sure sign that the first three strategies have failed to gain consent.
Neoliberalism, with its emphasis on removing government programs to help the poor, eliminating public subsidies for necessities like food, fuel, and medical service, cutting or eliminating funds for education, while privatizing virtually everything, generates protests at various levels.
Regardless of the intent of neoliberalist economic policy, in the process of transforming the economy, it has also changed society. Neoliberalism places emphasis on the individual and less on society. David Harvey, a cultural anthropologist said, “If there is no such thing as society, but only individuals … then the chaos of individual interest can easily end up prevailing over order.”
So could it be, that “occupy” is a protest, demanding that those holding power and influence, value our quality of life and social capital, as much as they value their monetary capital?
A Response to ‘Reclaim Your Mind’
Occupy Wall Street is barely two months old, yet everybody has an opinion about it, often based on misunderstandings. OWS is a resistance movement that has now branched out into hundreds of organizations across the country (and abroad). So you can’t define it by at one particular occupation — say NYC or Oakland. OWS is also in Fayetteville, where more than 300 people recently marched peaceably against corporate personhood.
OWS resists the stranglehold that the very wealthiest have upon our political system. Precipitating events were the bank bailout in late 2008 and the Citizens United Supreme Court decision last year that gave corporations the power to overwhelm American elections. The corporate person fantasy acquired “free speech” defined as money.
Instead of effective measures to create employment and prevent foreclosures, we got political wrangling. The bank fraudsters have not been prosecuted. The inequity between wealthiest and poorest citizens is greater in the U.S. than other developed countries, and it has been steadily growing for 30 years. Our economic system is unfair and dysfunctional.
Yet OWS is no more “anti-capitalist” than Teddy Roosevelt, who became President a century ago by campaigning as a “trust-buster.” Trusts were corporate monopolies that were skewing the economy then as now. Most OWS participants call for the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act and other financial regulations put into effect after the ’30s Depression to prevent another 1929 crash. They were dismantled since the 1980s.
Ken Smith does not see the point of “camping out in a park,” but people willing to endure discomfort, inconvenience, and sometimes harassment to occupy a public space do keep the issues squarely before the public. They become symbols. The suffragettes were an earlier example, as well as the bonus marchers. Today’s occupiers also demonstrate that we the people are real, we are many, and we have Constitutional rights to assemble peaceably and present our grievances.
I agree with Mr. Smith that change begins with individuals, but not ALL change. As he notes, the protests of the 1960s brought civil rights and ended a war. We need a change of consciousness away from consumerism AND we need to join together in nonviolent actions in order to be heard.
Fayetteville, AR 72701