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Countering Corporate Power

Coalition of the Disenchanted

by JEFF GOODWIN

The global capitalist crisis prompted protests and rebellions in different countries, poor and rich. In the US, budget cuts and attacks on the collective bargaining rights of state employees led to action earlier this year notably in Wisconsin, where hundreds of thousands took to the streets and occupied the state capital building.

But Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is possibly a more radical social movement. Started in early September with the occupation of a small park in Manhattan’s financial district, it has spread to hundreds of cities and towns across the US. Unlike the Wisconsin protests, OWS is not a response to a particular bill, budget or specific government threat: instead, it expresses a broad indictment of corporate power, economic and political.

The “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City” drawn up by OWS activists sums up their perspective:

“We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies. As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members; 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 overpeople, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.”

Though the movement has targeted the banks and financial institutions we associate with Wall Street, it views corporate power more generally as the source of the problems of the 99% of the population the movement claims to represent. In a country where capitalism has only been weakly and intermittently challenged, this is clearly not US politics as usual.

OWS activists in New York are not exactly Marxists. They tend to decry “corporate greed” rather than capitalism as such. In this respect, OWS resembles the indignados (the indignant) who are protesting in Madrid, Athens, London and elsewhere. The tactic of permanently occupying public space was clearly influenced by the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo this January. This is not simply a movement against unemployment, austerity, home foreclosures, union busting, environmental degradation, student debt or the corrupting power of money in politics: OWS activists embrace all these causes and link them to overweening corporate power.

Can the movement already have notched up a victory in just two months? In OWS has sparked conversations and debates across the US about matters that have hardly entered mainstream public discourse in recent years. It has also spawned a growing number of demonstrations and political initiatives by providing a focal point around which groups with a wide range of specific grievancesunions, community groups, students, anti-war groups, environmental activistshave gravitated, piggy-backing on the growing media and public interest in the movement. We can now speak of a loose OWS coalition that encompasses these groups.

The key question, still unanswered, is how the movement will transform the anger and excitement it has helped to generate into real leverage against its adversaries. Most of the core OWS activists are students or unemployed (or irregularly employed) youth who do not play a strategic role or have any other direct influence within the powerful banks and corporations they eloquently criticise. What muscle the movement is able to muster is more likely to come from organised groups with at least some leverage in important institutions which have begun to coalesce around OWS community organisations, student groups and especially trade unions. But the crisis has put these groups and unions (which were already weakened) on the defensive. What’s more, union officials in the US (with a few exceptions), do not share the anti-corporate worldview or militant tactics of OWS activists.

Another threat to OWS comes from liberal Democratic politicians who would love to divert and channel its energy into their own electoral campaigns in 2012. As Robert Reich, labour secretary under Bill Clinton, recently pointed out, it is exceedingly unlikely that OWS will push the Democratic Party to embrace anything like anti-corporate politics. The Democrats are far too dependent on corporate money, media and connections to move more than a centimetre or two in this direction. Yet some Democratic politicians will no doubt try to present themselves to the public as anti-corporate populists, to draw on OWS energy and enthusiasm as even President Obama sometimes did in 2008, despite his close ties to Wall Street.

Will this strategy work? Clearly not with the core OWS activists, whose disdain for liberal Democrats like Obama and New York senator Charles Schumer, another Wall Street favourite, is palpable. However, some of the groups and unions that are part of the broader OWS coalition will certainly plunge into Democratic Party campaigns next year, along with some students and others who have not fully bought into the critique of corporate power, and the Democratic Party. Many of today’s enthusiasts may peel off as we head into next election season.

Jeff Goodwin is professor of sociology at New York University and author of No Other Way Out: States and Revolutionary Movements, 1945-1991,Cambridge University Press, 2001

This article first appeared in the October edition excellent monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com The full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique and CounterPunch  features two or three articles from LMD every month.

All rights reserved ©  Le Monde diplomatique.