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Occupy Wall Street: The People versus the 1% Dominance of Wall Street Profiteers

[Translated from Gegenstandpunkt: Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift 4-11, Gegenstandpunkt Verlag, Munich]

A movement of the aggrieved wants its democratic government back

In the fourth year of the global financial crisis, demonstrators gathered first in New York, then in other cities throughout America and Europe, protesting against the agencies and institutions they hold responsible for the financial crisis and its consequences: “Occupy Wall Street! Occupy Frankfurt! Occupy London!” They declare themselves to be “the 99 %” and even “the people,” who “feel wronged” by 1% of the population and “express a feeling of mass injustice.” They demonstrate in front of local stock exchanges, suspecting that the harmful minority of corporate and financial managers have their real and symbolic home in the financial centers of the world, but they also show up in other public places, set up camps, and encounter much, often extremely positive, attention in the media.

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The protestors’ demonstrative rejection of the “power of banks” gives the impression that they have a notion of how the business with money and debts harms them and others like them. But then the declaration of their outrage sounds a bit different:

“We have peaceably assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known.

They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage. They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give Executives exorbitant bonuses… They have donated large sums of money to politicians, who are responsible for regulating them… They have perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one’s skin, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation. They have poisoned the food supply through negligence, and undermined the farming system through monopolization. They have profited off of the torture, confinement, and cruel treatment of countless animals, and actively hide these practices. They have continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions. They have deliberately declined to recall faulty products endangering lives in pursuit of profit. They have consistently outsourced labor and used that outsourcing as leverage to cut workers’ healthcare and pay. …They have sold our privacy as a commodity… These grievances are not all-inclusive.” (Declaration of the Occupation of New York City, September 30, 2011, by the NYC General Assembly)

This list of broad-ranging grievances, which the authors explicitly claim could be extended at will, does not establish any objective link between the machinations of the financial world and the extremely diverse injuries suffered by the various aggrieved parties. But in the eyes of the demonstrators, this in no way lessens the vehemence of their charges. Apparently they expect their list of evils will be all the more convincing if they always blame the same evildoers. They offer a bitter variation on the American constitutional principle that promises the people a government of the people, by the people and for the people, lamenting the power of the money “of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%.” Their laundry list of grievances, including illegal foreclosures and racial discrimination, food contamination, wage-dumping, lamentable product liability, political corruption, and cruelty to animals, in some cases allows the conclusion that the financial vultures on Wall Street are the cause, but in other cases not so much.

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But that doesn’t really matter, since their public protestations are not aimed against particular causes of particular abuses, so nobody really needs to know them anyway. After four years of crisis nobody really doubts that the business of “Wall Street” and its agents has somehow led to the current crisis in all areas of life, which obviates the need for any more precise elucidation. Regardless of the individual causes of the exceptionally varied hardships suffered by the majority, it is much more important to recognize that the machinations of a financially powerful minority cause victims of all kinds. The hope is that this will provide the new protest movement with the needed unity and political momentum: if it succeeds in letting as many cases and examples as possible of unjust disadvantages “be known” as “facts,” and if it manages to convert as many people as possible from the vast ranks of the discontented into active protesters, the movement will grow automatically.

Their indifference — literally — to the political and economic reasons for the harm done to so many vital interests is in this sense a virtual necessity for a movement which aims to incorporate as natural allies anybody who feels they have gotten a raw deal in some way or another, and which seeks to be a true movement of all the people. Agitating for individual material interests, not to mention fighting for the interests of a sub-collective against a common foe, would only represent an inappropriate separation and exclusion from the movement, thus threatening it and denying the fictitious common bond between all the protesting victims and those who are also invited to join up. The movement therefore does not aim to forge a common interest that could function as a basis for a collective struggle to achieve that interest, rather it asserts an abstract common ground: the sheer fact that someone has been injured. This commonality takes in the claims of all the various aggrieved parties, entirely indifferently towards how disparate and even opposed they might be, without any intention of fighting for a single one of them. The occupiers thus view the numerous grievances on their open-ended scale of victimhood as so many violations of everything they feel the overwhelming majority actually deserves — irrespective of their diverse circumstances and political preferences. What they deserve can be summarized in the single most important right of the people: the right to a “true democracy” currently denied them by the rich and powerful minority.

“As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their neighbors; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.” (ibid.)

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The sufferings of the homeless, of unemployed and exploited workers, of gays and laying hens, are all ultimately caused by a lack of “true democracy. That is why governments are not “run” by those who govern, who should “determine” themselves how to use the “just power” of government to ease the pain and sorrow of their people and preserve the “future of the human race.” In this biblical sounding judgment on the state of the “human race,” the profit that “corporations” make off of people without their consent is not intended as an economic category. Most of the protestors don’t want anything to do with explaining profit as a surplus over an advance of money, whose capitalistic use has been causing trouble for the proletarian part of the “human race” for some time now, precisely because the governments of capitalistic nations rule with profit and for it as a source of their power. For the protestors, “profit” is instead a metaphor for misplaced moral priorities, for a moral hierarchy that has been turned upside down. In a “true democracy,” which the sympathizers of the Occupy movement have conjured up alongside the allegedly phony democracy that exists in reality, profit would be placed explicitly under rather than “over people.” They thus take profit to be a reprehensible motive, a case of shameful greed and selfishness that has split the nation into 99% victims (the good guys) and 1% profiteers (the bad guys). That is the cause of all the ubiquitous and unbearable consequences deplored by the protestors, who speak as afflicted citizens and human beings, Christians, feminists, and vegetarians. In the light of their value-based analysis and in their unshakeable faith in the tasks of their governments, they can easily imagine that this unfavorable outcome has been brought about by the agents of profit, who have bought the people’s elected leaders and usurped the democratic power of the government over the people, a power that the people are entitled to have exercised by government.

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The aim of the movement, therefore, is to realize “true democracy” and “reassert our sovereign control of our land.” It turns “to all the people in the world,” inviting them to join the movement and demonstrating by their actions just how this aim can be achieved:

“To the people of the world: We, the New York City General Assembly occupying Wall Street in Liberty Square, urge you to assert your power. Exercise your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone …Join us and make your voices heard!” (ibid.)

Because the movement is interested in “solutions” that are understandable and acceptable to everyone, its members emphasize and display their neutrality and non-partisanship, repudiating politicians who wish to take part in their demonstrations and refusing to show any special favor for any of the parties, or for a critique of them. In both cases, this would make the movement itself a party, which could then no longer invoke or claim to represent “the 99%.” Not only are they absolutely determined to drown the disparity of interests expressed in their list of grievances in their abstract commonality as victims, they also refuse to recognize — because this is not their intention — that their protest in fact includes a partial, notional negation of property and free enterprise. And they cannot understand why a movement from below — not ordered from above — that intervenes in the relationship between business and government could lead to any serious trouble, even though the armed force of law, despite greetings from some politicians, has made that clear from the start. Instead, they underline how legal and peaceful their protest is, show demonstrative kindness to one another, while letting equally non-partisan celebrities (e.g., Canadian author and social activist Naomi Klein) confirm the “beauty” of their protest. The members of the movement optimistically count on the irresistibility of the “jolt” they are giving to the world of politics, provided that enough of the silent majority join them, thus entirely disregarding their own judgment that today’s politicians are either bribed or partisan representatives of special interests.

The members of the movement want their protest to be a living example of true democracy as they understand it by constantly voting on everything, subjecting all concerns to a clear group consensus and harmony, thus robbing all individual interests and concerns of any strength or substance. The movement thus aims to credibly demonstrate its standpoint of concern for the community as a whole, as well as the constructive nature of the protestors’ critical attitude toward the deplorable situation, for which the 1% on Wall Street bears sole responsibility. It is against the latter’s self-centered and unjust influence that the primacy of democratic government must be restored, thereby clearing the way for efforts to repair the damage that has been done to society.

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This aim unites the Occupy movement with a majority of political party interpreters and expert crisis analysts, whose explanations of the crisis over the last four years have taught the protestors everything they need to know. The prevailing opinion, after all, is that the current disaster has not been caused by the normal course of business, which accumulates debt for the purpose of fostering growth until a point is reached at which debt no longer functions as capital. Instead, the abnormal, dangerous, and foolhardy speculation of a minority of dubious gamblers has gotten homeowners, enterprising capitalists, and ultimately the government along with its sound bonds into such a serious mess that even it is helpless to do anything about it.

When the Occupy movement pledges to restore the “sovereign” democratic authority of a state deprived of its power by finance capital, they essentially echo the hardly changing crisis explanations called down from above. Presidents and prime ministers always have an open ear for their own interpretations of the crisis; so much consent from below deserves an acknowledging word from above about such a good-natured movement.

Of course, those in charge of public order — with the eventual endorsement of the silent majority — expect the movement to pack it in at some point. And since the weather has become less friendly and gotten too cold for camping, a great number of permanent occupiers indeed have gone home. That compels the remaining occupiers to prove their stubborn and increasingly discredited claim that they still represent the concerns of the“99%.” The longer they cling to their protest — inspired by their conviction that they are in the right, which is indeed capable of turning radical — and the fewer that remain, the more they get accused of being outsiders, of tending toward radical sectarianism, and of dirtying public spaces. If the activists of the movement still refuse to give up, they are declared to be troublemakers and are more or less rudely cleared out by the police. It seems that democratic politicians still have just enough sovereign control over the land to be able to pick and choose their own supporters.