Demands for the 99%


In a helpful review and constructive critique of the current status of the Occupy movement, Ismael Hossein-Zadeh makes several good suggestions.  And I’ve seen some other comments more recently that seem worth sharing with you, in case you haven’t seen them.  Hossein-Zadeh focuses on proposing demands for the movement, and as I generally agree with that approach, that discussion makes up the bulk of this entry.  But I also cite and quote some other commentaries here, to present a broader set of views to help you make your own assessment.

Here’s how Hossein-Zadeh sums up OWS’ achievement thus far:

“Occupy Wall Street (OWS), giving vent to the pent up anger of the 99%, has inspired the people in the United States and other parts of the world to expose capitalism for what it is: a profit-driven system that tends to enrich and empower a tiny minority at the expense of everyone else. The movement has successfully shown how the two-party machine of the US politico-electoral system has increasingly become a charade, as the moneyed 1% is essentially in charge of the government. Regardless of its shortcomings and how it would evolve henceforth, the movement’s achievements have already been truly historical, as it signifies an auspicious awakening of the people and a new spirit to fight the injustice.”  http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/01/20/occupy-wall-street-at-the-crossroads/

It would be hard to deny the second observation, that the movement has focused public attention on how the two major parties and the government have come to be dominated by the rich.  But I have some reservations about whether the maldistribution of wealth and power can be attributed to capitalism as such.  It also appears that not all participants in the Occupy movements are against capitalism.  And finally, I’m not sure that replacing capitalism with some other form of economic organization is either possible, or necessary to address the problems raised by the movement.  I’ll expand on those reservations further below.

Commentators, mainstream and otherwise, have proposed that the movement formulate specific demands, or criticized it for not doing so.  Among those defending the absence of specific demands, one of the more thoughtful appeared in this past weekend’s Financial Times:

“The most prevalent criticism of the Occupy movement in the media is that it lacks a clear agenda or programme.  This misses the point.  What Ocupy is doing primarily is opening up a space – which you might call the space of deliberative democracy – as a necessary counterpoint to the often over-managed and media-controlled routines of official politics.  What will fill that space cannot, by definition, be decided in advance.”  Harry Eyres, “A Vital Space to Occupy,” FT January 28/29, 2012, Life & Arts p. 22, which I think you can access without a subscription at http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/fa644c86-428a-11e1-97b1-00144feab49a.html#axzz1ktEmml8C.

On the other hand, just a few days earlier, three members of the economics working group at Occupy London in fact suggested several issue areas to focus on:  Tax policy, the housing shortage, and income inequality.  See their discussion at http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/89d242b0-4687-11e1-89a8-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1ktEmml8C (David Dewhurst, Peter Dombi, and Naomi Colvin, “How Hayek helped us to find capitalism’s flaws,” FT, January 25, 2012).

And, there are several useful pieces in the February 2012 issue of Z Magazine, including this comment from Kevin Zeese  of Occupy Washington, DC on a major tactical issue that has bedeviled the movement:

“When we were organizing Occupy Washington, DC before Wall Street began, we were in conversations with movements around the world.  The Spanish indignados told us that an occupation should last no more than two weeks.  After that it becomes a diversion from the political objectives.  This has been experienced by occupiers around the country.

“Occupying for a short time accomplishes many of the objectives of holding public space – the political dialogue is affected, people are mobilized, and people can see that fellow citizens can effectively challenge the corporate state.  Staying for a lengthy period continues to deepen these goals, but the impacts are more limited and the costs get higher.”

As a subscriber, I’ve just read Kevin’s article on the goal of Occupy and several others, including one by Andy Kroll on how the 99% won a major victory in Ohio, and another by Frederick Nagel on electoral politics and OWS, in my hard copy of the February 2012 issue, but I believe selected articles from that issue will soon become available online.  Check at http://zcommunications.org/zmag.

Because I think the organizing impact of Occupy is its most important achievement so far, I repeat here my own assessment, from my December 2011 blog entry:

“To me, the most profound gift and achievement of Occupy Wall Street thus far is that it has catalyzed organizing for a better world.  Organizing is, after all, most fundamentally the development of common understandings and relationships of trust that enable people to act collectively to further their common interests.  From this perspective, OWS is already a success (if still only a beginning), in that it has changed the terms of popular discourse, and developed common understandings and relationships of trust, both by its actions and by the success of those actions in shining a spotlight that couldn’t be ignored on the maldistribution of wealth, income and power in our country.  And I think such organizing is not only critically important but perhaps the only possible answer to the seemingly intractable problems of our time.  We apparently face simultaneous climate change, resource depletion, and economic collapse, together with elites of wealth and power in control of a political and propaganda apparatus that makes addressing any of these problems, or even recognizing them, even more difficult than it would otherwise be.  I have worried that the situation could degenerate into chaos, a war of each against all.  The Occupy movement(s) can’t solve all of these problems, but perhaps by bringing back an emphasis and focus on the common good, they can contribute very substantially to easing the transition out of the world we know to the one that is emerging.  Maybe we can face the future helping one another, and producing and sharing the means of survival and community, in the spirit of the Occupations, rather than fighting over scraps that are inadequate, in any event, to go around.”

In the context of the all but hopeless situation we seemingly faced last fall, these achievements are truly monumental.  But to build on this beginning, where does the movement go from here?

Hossein-Zadeh discusses three major criticisms that have been made of OWS: (1) the vagueness of its demands and lack of a program for change; (2) lack or insufficient mobilization of working people; and (3) reluctance to organize and coordinate nationally.  After a very informative and useful discussion of these points, he concludes,

“The Occupy movement seems to be at a crossroads. It may continue with the self-imposed policy of ‘no leadership,’ ‘no program,’ ‘no organization’; limit itself to sporadic protest and occupation activities around general goals such as peace, democracy and social justice—and quite likely witness its gradual decline. Or it could grow and become a true vehicle for meaningful changes in favor of the 99% by making specific winnable demands, by communicating with and organizing the broader layers of the working people around such demands, and by building a nationwide political organization of, by and for the 99% with its own candidates for public office.”

Specific, Winnable Demands:  Jobs for All, Medicare for All, MORE & BETTER Social Security

As the collection of articles in Z and the piece in FT by Occupy London participants indicate, at least some Occupiers are willing to formulate demands, and are not averse to involvement in electoral politics.  My focus here is what the most useful demands might be in the context of US politics, society and culture, both for their own sake and as organizing vehicles.  As daunting as the task may seem, I think Hossein-Zadeh has come up with a very promising and simple program, with which I generally agree, in suggesting that the movement demand “jobs for all,” “Medicare for All,” and “no cuts in Social Security.”  At one point he formulates the healthcare demand, as “affordable healthcare for all.”  And his third demand is to “save Social Security.”  Since how we formulate or phrase things matters, I propose that we stick with “Medicare for all” as the healthcare demand, and that we work to INCREASE AND EXPAND rather than merely “save” Social Security.

I understand these demands “are more radical than the Democrats can stomach, but make some Occupiers yawn.”  Shamus Cooke, “Reform vs. Revolution Within Occupy,” http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=28196.  I have the summer and fall issues of Adbusters.  (If you don’t, you may want to get them:  http://www.adbusters.org/.  Adbusters is the Canadian magazine that has been credited with catalyzing the initial Occupation of Wall Street last fall).  I know that underlying some of the motivation to Occupy Wall Street is a profound disillusionment with consumerism and other attitudes and ways of life that have become dominant or at least widespread in our culture, but that not only fail to satisfy but indeed frustrate our ultimate and deepest needs and desires, and are destroying the biosphere, and with it the possibility of continuing life in any form remotely similar to what we now have, or have known.  It is to the resumption of that debt-driven consumerist way of life that the actions of the Obama administration  and the Fed are directed.  And I believe that the resurrection of that way of life, if it can be effected (though I don’t think it can), would renew and speed up that process of destruction, which has been slowed somewhat by the economic crisis.  So there are many who say we need more than “just” jobs, healthcare, and a good social safety net.  And they’re right.

And yet, “only a truly mass movement of working people has the potential to achieve the various [as yet inchoate] demands of the Occupy movement.”  [Shamus Cook’s article, above.]  To me, anything that buys time, by forestalling the dissolution of existing institutions – the good with the bad – and the possible descent into chaos, has the potential to broaden the base of resistance and allow time and room for creation of the conditions for continuing civility and civilized life, of community.  So the demands that may bore some people – jobs, Medicare, and MORE Social Security – which provides not only retirement security but aid to younger people with disabilities, by the way  – are eminently sensible and appealing to me.  A people that has united and mobilized to achieve such demands would be better informed and empowered and in a better position to achieve more fundamental change, while people who are struggling for the means of sustenance can’t even think about such things.  And if we add to my trio the demand that these things be paid for by taxing Wall Street, large corporations and the rich and substantially dismantling the war machine, we have the makings of a comprehensive program with enormous appeal to, if not the entire 99%, at least substantial majorities for each component and for the program as a whole.  So with that prelude, let’s take a look at Hossein-Zadeh’s suggestions in more detail.

“Jobs for all” speaks for itself and is pretty hard to misinterpret or confuse, and we have ample historical examples and precedent in the Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, and other New Deal programs.

I would shy away from formulating a demand as “affordable healthcare for all,” though, because the opposition and even many people in favor of the general idea may argue that there are many ways in which it might be fulfilled.  Some even argue that we already have affordable healthcare for all (based on the availability of emergency rooms).  Okay, I know that’s crazy, and cruel, but it’s what some people think, and argue.  And it’s important to Simplify, Simplify, and – did I mention the importance of simplicity?  Partly because there are devils waiting in the wings to kill any good social program with details, and anyway, in simplicity there is clarity.  So I would demand “Medicare for all,” because that demand is based on a specific, existing program, and expanding it to include everyone is the simplest way to meet the demand without risking confusion over the details, which are already practiced by the existing Medicare program.

Similarly, I would not formulate the third demand as “save Social Security,” because there are many ways in which that might be done, including by cutting benefits and increasing the eligibility age, both of which have been proposed by people whose real goal is ultimately to gut the program.  I would formulate the third demand as, “MORE Social Security,” by which I mean, EXPAND the program to lower the retirement age and increase benefits.  This would not only directly help a great many people, but would be a useful stimulant to the macro-economy.  More detail is available from Steven Hill, “Don’t Cut Social Security, DOUBLE It,” http://archive.truthout.org/dont-cut-social-security-double-it64139 and Joshua Holland, “We’re Being Conned on Social Security – How We Could Easily Raise Benefits or Allow People to Retire Earlier,” http://www.alternet.org/story/148082/.   Demanding MORE Social Security also has the advantage of seizing the initiative, playing offense instead of defense, and combining clarity with simplicity.

Why the Resistance from Occupy Wall Street?

Hossein-Zadeh gives an example of an effort to have a practical demand adopted by OWN.  On December 18, 2011, the “Demands Working Group” proposed the following demand to the New York City General Assembly:

“JOBS FOR ALL—A Massive Public Works and Public Service Program:

“We demand a democratically-controlled public works and public service program, with direct government employment, to create 25 million new jobs at good union wages. The new jobs will go to meeting the needs of the 99%, including education, healthcare, housing, mass transit, and clean energy. The program will be funded by raising taxes on the rich and corporations and by ending all U.S. wars. Employment in the program will be open to all, regardless of immigration status or criminal record” [6. “Proposal for Sunday, 12/18, General Assembly: Jobs for All – Demands Working Group”: http://www.nycga.net/2011/12/18/proposal-for-saturday-1217-general-assemblyjobs-for-all-demands-working-group/].

Hossein-Zadeh reports that this Proposal did not pass the General Assembly.  I don’t know how I could determine why it didn’t, and in any case have not had time to try, but the fact certainly gives one pause.  I suggested above some reasons why the demands I’m advocating here might make some Occupiers yawn, and reflect a bit further here on some of the possibilities.  These thoughts go not just to rejection of the above Proposal by the General Assembly in NYC, but also to some other issues my proposed demands might raise.

I can only speculate, but perhaps OWS might be reluctant to endorse demands favoring Medicare or Social Security in part because of the relative youth of many of its participants.  Although I know it’s something of an obsession even for many young people now, and catastrophic medical problems can certainly strike at any age, at least in my own early twenties I was not terribly concerned about medical insurance, let alone retirement income, and many young people (and others of all ages) have been deceived (by a very well organized propaganda campaign) into thinking that Social Security can’t possibly last, and won’t be available to them in their later years.  And it’s understandable that people concerned about getting a job in this impossible market and putting food on the table, and perhaps paying off student loans in the process, would have a hard time focusing on their retirement income.  All I can say is that as organizing tools, and as practical and realistic demands, I respectfully recommend the three-part focus on jobs, healthcare, and security in old age, formulated as “Jobs for All,” “Medicare for All,” and “MORE Social Security.”

These three demands, and the demand that they be paid for by taxing Wall Street, large corporations, and the rich, and by dismantling much of the war machine, have several great things in common.  As poll after poll has shown, they are, or have the potential to be, enormously popular with the great mass of the public.  Each would give a much-needed helping hand to millions of people in need, while also stimulating the economy as a whole, so the total benefit would be even greater than the sum of its parts.  And together they would promote both the reality of the common good and the underlying idea that we should care about and for one another, that we have interests in common that we can and should address collectively, through government as well as other forms of social organization. That we need not and should not be engaged in a perpetual war of each against all. That core idea, along with the living standards of the 99%, has been under relentless attack for several decades now, and each of the proposed demands is a blockbuster defense.  Simply by demanding that Social Security be DOUBLED, OWS could transform the debate on that subject, putting advocates of cuts on the defensive and focusing attention on the benefits of the program, and the ease of expanding and strengthening it.

Regarding the relentless attack on the common good that has been going on for at least 30 years, a very good overview is in Bill Moyers’ January 13, 2012 interview, “Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson on Engineered Inequality,” vimeo and transcript both available at http://billmoyers.com/segment/jacob-hacker-paul-pierson-on-engineered-inequality/.  I also recommend my Financial & Economic Crisis: An Assessment and Action Plan (http://healingjustice.wordpress.com/the-financial-and-economic-crisis-an-assessment-and-action-plan/), for an analysis of the problem and some rudimentary suggestions as to how we might transition to a new and sustainable economy.

To Vote, or Not To Vote?

So what is to be done in order to implement these demands?  The recent, amazing and successful lobbying effort to stave off repressive regulation of the internet shows that even without taking to the streets, it’s possible for people to mobilize and defeat powerful forces.  And the Occupy movement has shown that taking to the streets can also be effective, at least up to a (very important) point.  But some people who want fundamental, compassionate change, perhaps including many Occupiers, may balk at the idea that we should vote at all, let alone try to run candidates for office and build a political machine or party to do so.  Chris Hedges stands out, at least in my mind, as one of those who argue that the ballot box is useless and nothing but direct action is meaningful in the present crisis.  But as I’ve argued before, and as Noam Chomsky frequently points out,

“[W]e do still have enormous freedom to agitate, organize, protest and struggle for change. The ballot box isn’t useless, it just isn’t being used nearly enough. But we still have it. And for its use to be more effective, we need a great many more people who recognize our real problems and demand that our political structures and players address them. It isn’t yet quite true, as Leonard Cohen said so long ago, that ‘the cities they are broke in half, and the middlemen are gone.’ So ‘let me ask you one more time, O children of the dust: All these hunters who are shrieking now, do they speak for us?’

“But it won’t be enough to ask just one more time. We need to keep asking, nagging, agitating, informing, sharing information and analysis – in a word, organizing – to build a sufficient and sustained opposition to the evils of our time, and to regain and defend the commons and the common good.”  http://healingjustice.wordpress.com/2010/11/

To say that we should mobilize at the ballot box is not to say that a new party needs to be built from scratch.  That is one option, but there are also several organizations working to build alternative political parties – check them out.  There are also organizations working to reform the Democratic Party.  Daunting or perhaps hopeless as that task may appear, I still take some encouragement from the work of Progressive Democrats of America, which works both inside and outside the Democratic Party, and endorses a very limited list of candidates.  For my money – or vote – it would be hard to beat, as a candidate, Elizabeth Warren, now running for the US Senate from Massachusetts.  I mention these details to illustrate the alternatives, but my basic point is, as  Hossein-Zadeh suggests, there is nothing quite so effective to pressure an officeholder as an alternative candidate running or threatening to run against him or her.  So it seems, well, quixotic to eschew the electoral process in favor of exclusively street actions, for the same reasons it seems inadvisable to refrain from formulating any specific demands.

A footnote to the discussion:  What about capitalism?

I understand many participants in OWS consider capitalism as intrinsically flawed, and believe at least some would demand some sort of revolutionary restructuring of our economy and society.  Personally, I’m not sure an economic system has yet been devised which is not in some sense flawed or at least, subject to abuse by those in power.  I understand there are people who think having government do just about anything is “socialism.”  But that deprives the word of useful meaning.  If socialism is defined as public/government ownership of the means of production, I don’t see it as a solution to all the problems created by our current economic system.  I actually think the ultimate answer lies in the direction of decentralized, more walkable communities, with more participatory forms of government than we now have, and that might be more practical on a small-scale, local or regional basis.  But how do we get there from here?  I would favor a nonviolent, incremental or evolutionary approach to a restructured economy, with the details necessarily emerging gradually over time.  I tried to at least hint at some of the directions such a restructuring might take toward the end of my paper on the Financial & Economic Crisis, http://healingjustice.wordpress.com/the-financial-and-economic-crisis-an-assessment-and-action-plan/.

In any case, to me, power is the key variable, and the ultimate problem is its unfair or repressive exercise.  “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  So I think the fundamental problem we face now arises from the concentration of power and its inevitably repressive exercise, and the failure of the 99% thus far to confront and resist it effectively.  And so the answer, for me, lies in developing and exercising the political will to restructure the economy, and in organizing to make that possible.

On a longer-term, evolutionary basis, greater decentralization seems both desirable and inevitable.  And the more organized we are, the more smoothly that evolution can take place, and the more humane and compassionate the outcome can be.

But to the extent it makes sense to address problems on a national level, I propose that we demand jobs for all, Medicare for all, and MORE Social Security.  And doing so does not require, and need not await, the overthrow of capitalism as such.  In fact, as one who grew up in the Fifties and Sixties of twentieth century US, I think fondly of the so-called “mixed” economy, with a relatively progressive tax structure, a smaller and controllable financial sector, and a limited welfare state, that we had then.  It’s the dismantling of the domestic safety net built by FDR and LBJ and the movements that pressured them that has led us to the present pass, and the deregulation of the financial and other key sectors, by Bill Clinton’s repeal of Glass-Steagall as much as anything else, that have pushed us to, if not quite yet over, the brink.  Interestingly, I find a useful statement on this topic in a recent Financial Times editorial, “Ruling capitalism”:

“By capitalism, we mean well-regulated free-enterprise economies – systems where resources are governed mostly by the responsible choices of private individuals, within ground rules that are clear, consistent and immune from bias in favor of any special interest.  …

“The excesses that drove the bubble and the breakdown that followed happened because leaders forgot that free enterprise requires rules.  When some people benefit not from bringing useful products to market but stopping others from doing so; when some takes risks from which they reap the gains but others face the losses; when many are deprived of opportunities to make their way in the job market – that is not capitalism but an economy captured by cliques.”  FT, January 27, 2012.

Personally I find the FT’s view of capitalism somewhat utopian, or perhaps I should say naïve, in that the editors seem to believe the system can be made to work fairly toward the common good by the adoption of proper rules by the leadership and the exercise of moral values by capitalists themselves.  While Adam Smith certainly recognized and indeed assumed the key role morality should play in an economic system, it seems clear that the control of capitalist excesses requires, in addition, the exercise of political control by an organized people.  But making capitalism function humanely seems to me ultimately to present no more of a problem than we might encounter with any economic system.

So where do we go from here?  National Organization and Coordination?  A Solidarity Social Forum in Olympia

Hossein-Zadeh usefully discusses the promise of national organization and coordination in his article, at pp. 4-6, and I have nothing to add here to that discussion, at  (http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/01/20/occupy-wall-street-at-the-crossroads/).  There are both strengths and weaknesses in a decentralized movement.  But as for what comes next, in case you haven’t already heard, the Alliance for Global Justice, fiscal sponsor of OWS, has announced a Social Forum to be hosted by Occupy Olympia (WA) and held in Olympia this February 18-19.  For details, check in with the Alliance at http://afgj.org/occupy-wall-street-fiscal-sponsorships-the-alliance-for-global-justice, and see http://occupyolympia.org/ossf-2012/.  Then spread the word!

Robert Roth blogs at www.healingjustice.wordpress.com.

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