Please excuse the deviation from my normal format of not editorializing.
I have delayed posting on Occupy Wall Street until now, largely because I knew I was going to discuss it in class and wanted to get student reactions untainted by having read the professor’s opinion in advance. But we talked about Occupy Wall Street, Occupy DC, etc. last week, so I decided to finally tackle the Occupation (OWS). As a starting matter, Frank Pasquale has done a number of posts on OWS that have good links and respond to criticisms directed against the movement.
- Frank Pasquale, Recommended Reading on Occupy Wall Street, Concurring Opinions, Oct. 2, 2011
- Frank Pasquale, The Moral Authority of Occupy Wall Street, Concurring Opinions, Oct. 8, 2011 [Note, the closing graphics are worth getting to].
My own view, not too surprisingly, is that OWS is a good thing for lots of reasons. In 2008, I attended a property conference where the hope was expressed that the crisis would lead to a reconsideration of exclusion and inequality. OWS partly reflects the duration of the great recession, in particular society’s inability to provide jobs to the young, and the Obama administration’s ineffective and limited responses to the economic downturn. The stimulus packages amount to Keynes-lite, doomed by their modest nature to largely lessen the pain but not provide adequate demand-side support. A recurring question for those on the left (especially those uncomfortable by the centering moves of first Clinton and now Obama) has to be whether crisis is a necessary precondition for questioning and rethinking our economic system. “Fortunately,” the underlying causes of the current recession and legal changes combine to highlight the Wall Street – Washington mutual support network at a time when change is perhaps possible because the economy continues to be unable to produce job growth.
This semester many of my students tend to be anxious or depressed, and, given the job prospects for recently minted lawyers, this is not entirely shocking. But part of me thinks it is also great to live in exciting times when societal rules are in play. It can be hard to be a social democrat (or New Deal democrat, or marxist, or really anything other than center-right) in the U.S., where often defending the New Deal programs is the extent of the progressive vision and where market-ideology and market-faith serve to silence or discredit alternative visions of economic organization. (This week for example a New York Times’ story highlighted the Wall Street view that the protesters were “gullible and unsophisticated” which Paul Krugman rightly responded.) OWS is succeeding in drawing attention to important matters of inequality in a way that was not true throughout the Bush presidency.
Another thing I think is great about OWS is that it makes, indeed is based upon, the connection between the wealthy and the rest of the country, the 1% and the 99%. Poverty is often, wrongly I believe, treated as involving only the poor. This view obscures the advantages enjoyed by the wealthy/successful and serves to limit the obligations society expects of those with privilege. By locating in Wall Street, and even marching to the homes of the wealthy in NYC, the protesters are asserting that the 1% get to know the rest of the country, including the poor. Even as antipoverty work serves to assert that improving the lives and opportunities of those in the worst situations of poverty must be a priority of a humane government, OWS affirms that a view of poverty that treats inequality as irrelevant is misguided.
I even like the “message” problems that OWS critics like to highlight. Nicholas Kristof’s changing view of OWS highlights the challenges and success the movement has when it comes to making demands. On Oct. 1, 2011, Kristof, criticizing the lack of message from the protestors, wrote:
Where the movement falters is in its demands: It doesn’t really have any. The participants pursue causes that are sometimes quixotic — like the protester who calls for removing Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill because of his brutality to American Indians. So let me try to help.
After this somewhat patronizing paragraph, he then proceeded to list fairly technical changes that failed to capture the extent of the challenge to the economic structure that the protesters hoped to create. As someone who does Indian law, I just thought, that’s an awesome idea — should we really have an Indian fighter and a President willing to disregard the law on our $20 bill? But Kristof’s more recent column from Oct. 15, 2011, entitled “America’s ‘Primal Scream’,” does a much better job anchoring the protests in structural inequality and the manipulation of economic returns by elites. Kristof explains, “The banks have gotten away with privatizing profits and socializing risks, and that’s just another form of bank robbery.” Agreed. Heck, even a Harvard Business Review blog post agrees that “underlying economic inequality issues” are behind the protests and argues that businesses “need to find ways to reward performance without increasing pay disparities.” The Tea Party had lots of messages and their goals were unclear before they coalesced (or were captured) and even at the Anti-Iraq War Protests in 2003-04, the main message had competition from all numbers of protesters who show up wherever crowds gather (in London there were end-of-the-world pastors, marxists, and even anti-top-up fee students). But multiple voices have not drowned out the main message, and protests to the contrary make me imagine a protester holding an “inequality is bad” sign and the wealthy stating in response, “I don’t understand.”
The movement is, if anything, gathering strength. The Guardian newspaper is cataloging on a world map confirmed “occupations.” An article in The Nation provides some of the history of the growth of the movement. My own concerns about OWS is that it will be minimized to be only about Wall Street. Paul Krugman’s recent, Oct. 16, 2011, column on Wall Street losing its immunity does a great job showing why anger at Wall St. is justified. But the blame is not limited to Wall Street. Ironically, Herman Cain can be quoted on this:
They might be frustrated with Wall Street and the bankers, but they’re directing their anger at the wrong place. Wall Street didn’t put in failed economic policies.
The danger I think is perhaps greatest from the Democratic party’s efforts to claim or own the protests in some way. For while the Republican primary provides continuous reminders of how bad it could get if Obama loses the White House — Cain’s blaming of the unemployed is simply an untactful expression of the shared view of the candidates — with a few counter-examples (the Jobs speech), Obama in 2008 shuffled to the right to stand where he does in 2011. And while some argue that he had little choice given political pressures, that is overly forgiving on many issues and I think concedes the impossibility of progressive change too lightly. As Francis Fox Piven stated in an interview on OWS, “And Obama, of course, when the general election approaches will appear as more of a left-liberal than he actually has been since he took office, and people will forever be deluded by that.” Progressives have spent much of the Obama Presidency missing Obama the candidate, but the protesters are showing the importance of action, and hopefully they will help push the Democratic party off its comfortable position supporting center-right politics in the name of reelection victories. I was born in 1977 so the split between productivity and income growth for most Americans has been one of the defining aspects of the American economy my entire life. It is great that a counter-narrative and vision for the country is being expressed.