Occupy: A populist response to the crisis of inequality
The Occupy movement resembles nineteenth-century American populism in its anger at the avarice of bankers and financiers and in its notions of majoritarian democracy. Where it differs from the old Populists is in its attitude to the state, writes Charles Postel.
In the late nineteenth century, the telecommunications revolution and steam power “annihilated time and space” and made possible large-scale organization and centralization. In the Unites States, the new technologies unfolded in the midst of what Mark Twain described as the “Gilded Age”. Corporate power grew exponentially, a handful of business executives amassed immense fortunes, financial panics took a devastating toll, and the society was split by an unprecedented chasm of economic inequality. The farmers, labourers and other citizens at the short end of these wrenching changes responded with the Populist movement of the 1890s, the most powerful challenge to corporate power in American history.
Over the last thirty years, we have witnessed a new telecommunications revolution, a resurgence of corporate power, and a growing crisis of inequality. For good reason, many commentators have noted that the United States is experiencing a “Second Gilded Age”. Yet, the challenges to corporate power have been tentative and sporadic. “The Battle in Seattle”, the mass protest at the 1999 World Trade Organization conference, promised to be the start of a movement against global corporate malfeasance. But the 2000 election, 9/11, the invasion of Iraq and “the war on terror” pushed other issues to the fore. Then, in February of 2011, tens of the thousands of workers, students, and activists converged on the Wisconsin state capitol in Madison to protest a new law restricting the collective bargaining rights of public employees. For the first time since the onset of the Great Recession of 2008, citizens had boldly taken to the streets to defend their rights and livelihoods from the encroachments of corporate power.
Taking inspiration from Tahir Square and the Arab Spring, as well as the Wisconsin protests, the Occupy Wall Street Movement was born in September 2011 with the encampment in Zuccotti Park in New York’s financial district. The movement quickly spread to hundreds of American cities and dozens of countries. Many of those involved in the encampments have been young people – students, as well as employed, semi-unemployed, and unemployed graduates with too much student debt. And they have been joined by teachers, nurses, transit workers, and other sections of the labour movement, along with a broad array of activists involved in housing, education, women’s rights, immigration and other causes. Although the Occupy Movement has no specific set of demands, and is ideologically and organizationally amorphous, it represents the most strikingly populist response to the present crisis. The Occupy Movement corresponds to the Populism of the last Gilded Age in three interrelated ways.
First, Occupy Wall Street, as its name implies, lays the blame for the financial crisis and the economic wreckage produced in its wake at the feet of the bankers and financiers and their speculative avarice. Here it needs to be kept in mind that one of the most critical decisions made by the Obama administration on taking office was that it would not investigate the Wall Street executives who had pushed the global economy to the edge of the abyss. Moreover, the Tea Party-backed Republicans have been fighting strenuously against any regulations or other measures to check the power of corporate finance. If nothing else, the Occupy Movement has accomplished something important by putting the focus on the corporate interests most responsible for the present financial and economic suffering. The old Populists would be proud.
Second, the Occupy Movement slogan, “We are the 99 per cent” corresponds to populist notions of majoritarian democracy. In their day, the Populists used variations of the 99 per cent slogan, convinced that the bankers, railroad corporation executives, and other “robber barons” only represented a small fraction of the population. If democracy meant anything, it meant majority rule, that is rule of “the people.” The Occupy Movement has effectively wielded the 99 per cent slogan to similar effect. Indeed, the slogan itself has proven both more accurate and more effective than its critics have allowed. A major study of the Congressional Budget Office has confirmed that during the thirty-year period from 1977 to 2007, Americans who receive the top one percent of incomes have seen their earnings rise by over 270 per cent. For most everyone else, incomes have stagnated and their portion of the national income has declined. This reality is especially striking given that these decades have also witnessed rapid increases in productivity and wealth creation. It might be argued that the “We are the 99 per cent” slogan does not add up because, of course, there are tens of millions of Americans who identify with the wealthy or who otherwise embrace the taxation, regulation, and other policies that have so benefited the top 1 per cent. But this is a problem of political arithmetic that plagued the old Populists as well.
Third, the Occupy Movement has let light into the deep crevasse of economic inequality. The late nineteenth century produced levels of inequality unparalleled in American history. Fantastic fortunes provoked fears of a new aristocracy or plutocracy that would sit astride a society fixed by class and station. In the Populist critique, the crisis of inequality was a result of corporate bribery of the courts and legislatures; a monetary and tax policy that favoured banks and corporations at the expense of the people; and the destruction of the rights of labour. “From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice,” exclaimed the Populist Platform of 1892, “we breed the two great classes – tramps and millionaires.” Similarly, the Occupy Movement has put into the public debate the idea that today’s vast chasm of inequality is not the product of a natural law, but the result of the influence of corporate cash on the political process and resulting pro-corporate tax and regulatory policies. Again, the old Populists would be proud.
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Tags: Charles Postel, Occupy, Occupy Wall Street, OWS, Populism, Wall Street