Occupy Wall Street has some lessons to teach us, not the least of which is the shear unpredictability of political events. With the European economy under the spell of dismal central bankers, the US Congress equally obsessed with deficits and austerity for the poor, and the Obama Administrations hard pivot to jobs both long overdue and hardly audible, it seemed that progressives had little to hope for. In the face of these trends Occupy Wall Street has brought at least some hope for the future.
Features that in the eyes of the corporate media are weaknesses may well turn out to be enduring strengths of the movement. Not surprisingly, some segments of the corporate media resorted to a familiar trope when characterizing the initial stages of the movement as a mob.
It seems that any organization without a clearly designated leader and fixed principles must be an unruly and self-destructive mass.
Pacific University political scientist Jules Boykoff calls our attention to this gem: Right-wing columnist Rich Lowry offered an extreme caricature of the attack-dog punditocracy when he wrote, The lefts tea party is a juvenile rabble, a woolly-headed horde, a band of stereotypically aging hippies and young kids who could have just left a Phish concert. Notice what gets lost: actual ideas. Corporate critics of course should know whereof they speak. It would be hard to imagine more destructive mob behavior than the sub prime mortgage market and the shadowy derivatives world that enabled and in turn was fueled by such toxic monstrosities as CDOs and CDSs.
Unlike the corporate finance mob, Occupy Wall Street insists on transparency and openness of deliberation, a voice for anyone. Not only is such radical democracy a check upon arbitrary power, it is also an occasion for ordinary citizens to develop a clearer sense of who they are and to explore and clarify new grievances. Heather in WP puts it this way: This is not just a charming mess. We are all leaders represents a real praxis, and it has a real history. In the 1960s and 70s, feminists convened consciousness-raising meetings aimed at politicizing the various forms of womens oppression that were occurring in private.
Women in the ranks were tired of being excluded from the inner circles of leadership where the issues and demands were being decided.
And, they were sick of the generalized hypocrisy regarding gender roles.
For this reason, feminist consciousness-raising eschewed formal leadership because each womans experience and opinion had to be valued equally. The personal was the political.
Whether consciously or not, Occupy Wall Street seems to have learned some valuable lessons from earlier movements. The lack of a clear focus or a set of specific demands is cited by the corporate media as a debilitating failure of the movement. Yet it is clearly focused on one central concern, the vast imbalance in both political and economic power. This concern, however, cannot be reduced to one issue or set of demands, certainly not ones of tax or finance policy alone. Occupy Wall Street seems to understand that it cannot redress the vast inequality in our economic and political lives by ducking or excluding the controversial social issues that have often dogged the left.
The politics of immigration today plays a central role in shaping our economic agenda. Occupy Wall Street now seems open to all who will join and one hopes that this will curb the urge among some to scapegoat illegal immigrants for working class wage declines and population flows attributable to corporate trade treaties and central bank policies that served finance capital at the expense of export industries.
Occupy Wall Street has reached out to unions to ask their support in rolling back the power and wealth of the pampered one percent. Many unions have lent their support and voices, leading Columbia University historian Steve Fraser to comment: Community organizations, housing advocates, environmentalists, and even official delegations of trade unionists not normally at ease hanging out with anarchists and hippies gave the whole affair a social muscularity and reach that was exhilarating to experience.
Nonetheless, the movement is unlikely to endure if it becomes the mouthpiece or adjunct of particular unions or established progressive organizations.
What may well emerge and be the most enduring would be a loose coalition whose members share some goals even as they differ on other policies and fundamental principles. One can imagine an Occupy Wall Street movement that endorses labor law reform even as it critiques some union choices, such as the almost automatic support for the Democratic Party or the union advocacy of some environmentally destructive projects, such as the tar sands pipeline. Historically, many on the Left have shared with conservatives one underlying philosophical commitment, the notion that society endures only when most citizens can endorse one set of core principles. Writer David Schlosberg acknowledges there is a world out there, but it is grasped only though our particular concepts. There is no guarantee that these could ever be sufficiently unified to yield one overarching worldview.
The world of course is not utterly chaotic and some provisional guidelines and principles can be established and agreed to by wide segments of any population, but the best and most enduring forms of consensus may be based on a sense that the world is messy and indeterminate, that core convictions cannot be fully demonstrated to the satisfaction of all parties. Our best hope is a willingness to admit gaps in our own fundamentals, engage others across a range of policy and philosophical differences and remain attuned to new challenges and injustices.
Political reformers face a never finished task of creating the space and the political agendas that will allow disparate and evolving life styles, ethnicities, and worldviews to live and thrive together.
It is a bit too early to determine whether Occupy Wall Street will represent a basic turning point in our politics. But for now this movement, this event is giving us something more than a set of demands, a radically democratic way to embrace a world of difference and flux.
John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2011
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