Monday, 17 October 2011

OWS is Only the Beginning

The first exhilarating steps in a very long journey.

It is a wonderfully warming sight. Thousands camped out now for weeks in solidarity and protest against the deteriorating state of social justice in our society.

There is much to say -- and much has already been said -- about the OccupyWallStreet movement. The first call to action; how to sustain and shape the momentum; where it will lead; the rising concerns over messaging, leadership and demands.

For those of us inclined toward liberal democracy and social justice, this is a tremendous moment. Commentators in the alternative media have long called -- largely in vain, it appeared -- for action against the excesses of a corporate culture that now dominates almost every facet of our lives. In the OWS movement, we have finally found an answer to Ralph Nadar's question, Where's the Spark?.

In posing his question, Nadar was reacting to the first swell of protests in the Arab Spring, which had begun to fire the imagination of many around the world. Wishing for some of that magic at home, he said,
"How do we break the cycle of despair, exclusion, powerlessness and endless betrayal by those given authority to bring down the exploiters and oppressors to lawful accountability?
The spark can come from a recurrent sequence of abuses that strike a special chord of deeply felt injustice. Or it could be a unique episode or bullying that tolls the feeling 'enough already' throughout the land. Such sparks cannot be manufactured; the power to arouse and break people's routines is spontaneous.
When that moment comes, millions of Americans whose self-respect and keen sense of wrong will remind them precisely why our Constitution begins with We the People and not, We the Corporations."
And so we finally see the spark. Following from the protests in Greece, Israel and in the Arab Spring, there is a growing sense that public dissent is the only viable path by which we can achieve social change. The OWS movement is the first tangible effort to affect that change.

I say "first" because it may be just that. It might be the first of many sparks, the first among many faltering steps. If OWS is seen as a good beginning, it might be just that, a beginning.

The early success of OWS is, in my view, the spontaneous gathering of like-minded people who are finally heeding Mr. Nadar to say "enough already" -- those who are mad as hell and aren't going to take it any more. And they've done it without leadership and top-down thinking, a revolutionary concept in and of itself that typifies the movement's anti-corporatist sentiment. If OWS can sustain itself, perhaps its greatest legacy will be the notion that active dissent is a right and a duty, and that opposition to unjust power is a habit and a mindset that requires effort and dedication.

But for all the hopeful reporting from the left, we are nowhere near such an outcome. Chris Hedges recently wrote that the rich are now trembling at the prospect of the OWS movement. They are most certainly not. Naomi Klein says that OWS is the most important thing in the world. It is not -- at least, not yet.

The rich will tremble, and OWS will become truly important, only when millions take to the streets. It is certainly a welcome start that 2500 people (or more, or less) have taken on the occupation of Wall Street. And it is a good beginning that hundreds (maybe thousands) of like-minded citizens are occupying and protesting in solidarity in communities across the country and in countries around the world.

But there are more than 25 million unemployed people in the United States. Millions more live in poverty and millions have lost their homes to the avarice of our now dominant corporate culture. This is the core constituency from which the dissenters must be drawn and mobilized. And even this subset does not represent the 99. There are millions of union and government workers, teachers and healthcare providers, whose rights have been trampled; there are millions of students who will not find work for which they have trained; and there are millions from the so-called middle class who now hang on in quiet desperation, hoping against hope to keep the modest lifestyle they've won through a lifetime of playing by the rules. And then there are the millions more around the world suffering under government imposed austerity designed solely to rescue the rich from themselves.

It is the concerted action of these millions, in countries around the world, that will finally put the elite and the governments that serve them on notice that change is inevitable. Bring 25 thousand to the streets and they will be denounced as hoodlums and radicals; send a million to the streets and governments will put their security forces on high alert. But bring 25 million out in sustained protest, and then, truly, Hedges and Klein will be right.

The trick is getting from here to there -- and doing so in the most peaceful way possible. The power that will oppose the OWS movement (and anything that looks like it) is the enormous power of the state. Even in our so-called democracy, the state will employ every means at its disposal to suppress the exercise of free will and public dissent, as was made clear this past weekend, when security forces were on full display at Occupy events around the world.

It will take time to nurture and mobilize the numbers needed to truly tip the balance in favor of the 99, so there is no immediate need for a list of demands. In fact, the absence of specific demands deprives our opponents of a recognizable target. And in any case, there is no doubt that the monied class, and the governments who serve them, know full well what the issues and grievances really are. They have spent the last 30 years denying them.

As the numbers grow, and the momentum builds, OWS must resist both the attacks from its enemies, and the warm embrace of its so-called friends. While the reaction from the right is expected, there is growing concern that Obama and the Democrats, the unions, and the liberal class in general, will try to co-opt and leverage the protests for their own advantage -- it is abundantly clear that they all are tone deaf to the movement.

And so finally, OWS is still a work in progress. There is no clear and obvious path to a finite result within a well defined timeline. What is clear and obvious, though, is the urgency. It is now critical that we navigate the obstacles and maintain the momentum in order to build participation to a critical mass. And then Nadar and Hedges and Klein might be right, and we might yet see a return to liberal democracy and social justice.

These are, however, only the first steps on a very long road.

Update. I want to pull at a few threads from the main post. First, a quick return to the writing of Chris Hedges. His two most recent posts have been much more upbeat in tone than usual. The OWS movement seems to have softened his earlier view that "The war is over, and they won." He seems absolutely giddy over the "imminent" toppling of the monied class -- see the links here, and here. However, his enthusiasm has outpaced reality. True, OWS may prove to be an historic moment, but we are still at the very earliest beginnings, and the outcome is far from assured -- hell, the outcome has yet to be articulated!

But I want to return to Hedges' Death of the Liberal Class to expand on a thought in my post. A central thesis in Death is the notion that the liberal establishment, the institutions of liberal democracy, have been co-opted by the forces of the now-dominant corporate culture. Hedges correctly notes that the liberal elite exchanged their relevance for position and comfort (I'm reminded of the line from Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here "And did you exchange / a walk-on part in the war / for a lead role in a cage?"). And so the liberal establishment has become an empty and contemptuous vessel in today's society. Where representatives of the professional left (unions, churches, universities, social democratic political parties) have nothing to offer in the struggle for social justice and liberal democracy because they have become so thoroughly compromised.

From this brief discussion, it is important to note that OWS did not grow out of the professional left. It is borne of a truly populist, grass-roots phenomenon. If it weren't so sad a sight, it might be comical to watch the institutional left as it scrambles to catch up, fighting for its own relevancy. As I said in the main post, OWS must be wary of the death-grip embrace of its so-called friends. Already the pundits and the politicos are strategizing this movement -- see the post by Eugene Robinson, How Democrats can Use Occupy Protests to their advantage as the most recent example of this cynical opportunism (note the word "use"). Or read this post by Glen Ford about how the Democrats have already begun to co-opt the OWS movement. And finally, Matt Taibbi posts his thoughts on the gathering threats to the movement.

As I said in the main post, OWS will be challenged by its enemies, and tested by its so-called friends. And all the while, it must find a way to grow to a critical mass of participation.  

By David.


Your musical accompaniment for the day: Insomniacs' Boogie, by the Insomniacs, from the album At Least I'm Not With You.  Enjoy.

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