I was talking with a friend of mine the other day about Occupy Wall Street. She said to me “This is what I’ve been waiting for my whole life”. I told her I feel exactly the same way.
The only difference is that she’s in her early twenties, and I’m in my early fifties.
I’m not sure which is better. She’s had an entire lifetime full of nothing but the downsizing of her country, and the theft of her future. The only two presidents a person her age could have had any mature appreciation of were George W. Bush, the thief and liar, and Barack Obama, another thief and liar. She has never known an America that wasn’t reeling under the assault of Wall Street plutocrats and the kleptocrats they hire to do their bidding in Washington.
On the other hand, people her age could at most have suffered with the pain of being under this siege for a mere five years or so, unless they happen to have been astonishingly attentive and precocious preteens. My generation, on the other hand, has been living this nightmare for three solid decades now, through Republican abominations and – in many ways, worse – Democratic as well. We have known indisputably throughout this era that a better country is not just a pretty aspiration or a theoretical proposition. We know that because we once lived there. I’m glad I had that experience. But, that said, carrying around the heartache of observing our national suicide by greed for more than thirty years’ time has also been a painful, soul-numbing burden I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
I don’t know what will come of Occupy Wall Street, and its brother an sister movements in cities across the world. On the one hand, this is the most hopeful development I’ve seen since the dark finale to the year 1980 gave us Ronald Reagan and took away John Lennon. On the other, I’ve learned through ugly experience and hard-won (and, the more cynical amongst us might say, belated) wisdom not to expect too very much from purported agents of sweeping change. Consider the last two of note. Egyptians rose up and threw off their own violent kleptocracy through mass action. Less than a year later, the military rules the country and is repressing dissent using the same bloody tactics of the prior regime. Closer to home, we’ve got a Wall Street occupation of a rather different sort than the one in Zuccotti Park. The guy who – when he wanted something from us 99 percenters – spoke passionately of change and hope and the fierce urgency of now, has instead allowed Wall Street to occupy our White House, and has delivered to millions of hurting Americans a substitute program of no change, crushed hope, and the tepid lethargy of whenever.
So hope is not always a good bet. Who therefore knows what will happen on the streets of Manhattan in the coming weeks and months? At some point, The Man may decide he’s had just about enough of this truth-telling shit, thank you very much, and sweep the place clean. Don’t want to be giving the ordinary folks watching at home too many ideas, y’know? If that happens, other possibilities immediately arise. Maybe the folks on the street resist. Maybe if they do, lots and lots of people come running to their side to stand up both for what they’re protesting and for their very right to protest. Maybe a police sweep could be the best thing that could happen, causing the movement to metastasize in a swelling of national support. It could all get very interesting, very quickly. Or not.
I dunno. Here’s what I do know, however, and why I allow myself to once again risk being hopeful: This is the first time in a very long time that we’ve had any honest content to our national political discourse. All else follows from there, and thus this is the crucial first step, the sine qua non for any chance whatsoever of righting the badly listing ship of state. If we cannot identify our true maladies, we cannot possibly hope to treat them.
And we have been doing neither for a very long time. The most astonishing and depressing aspect of our era is (or, perhaps, has been) the fact that, at the very time when conditions are such that one could almost not possibly write a script more favorable to the rise of a robust politics of the left in America, precisely the opposite has been happening. What left there is left in the country has been moribund, its heartbeat barely detectable. Meanwhile, what is described as the left, operating under the banner of the Democratic Party, has shown itself every bit as capable of whoring for capital as the other party, though it swims even deeper in the cesspool of treason by pretending it is still the party of the people. And then there’s right, which has absolutely gone insane by increments over these last three decades. I don’t know if my young friend quite believes me when I tell her that the rhetoric and policies of a Cheney or a Bachmann or even a Romney would have been inconceivable (except, by definition, as fringe lunacy) in Gerry Ford’s 1970s. But they would indeed have been just that. We have traveled very far from that world.
In any case, think about it. Suppose you were asked to play ‘Sim America’ and create from whole cloth the conditions you thought most likely to produce a vibrant political left, rising up to reform the country, as it did during the 1930s and 1960s. What factors might you include in your blueprint? How about a nation riddled with economic insecurity at best and widespread real suffering at worst? Check. Rampant and unremitting unemployment? Check. A rapacious class of financial predators and wealthy plutocrats who have taken every penny of economic growth for themselves over the last three decades, leaving only stagnation for the rest of us? Check. A distribution of wealth so skewed toward the rich that it would embarrass Zimbabwe? Check. A political class completely unresponsive to the needs of the people and devoted instead to serving the gluttonous pigs whose money puts them in office? Check. A massively broken health care system devoted to profits instead of health? Check. Endless government spending of taxpayer money to bail out the disastrous bets of sociopathic Wall Street nihilists and their destruction machines, combined with zero support for ordinary citizens struggling with ballooning debt and underwater mortgages? Check. A generation of downsized middle-aged workers who know they will never again be able to restore the basic economic stability they once enjoyed? Check. A generation of young people looking ahead to lives of lousy jobs (when any at all can be found), lousy pay, massive debt, massive taxes to pay for previous borrowing, epic environmental destruction, endless wars, and living at home with their parents rather than starting families of their own? Check. A discredited far-right previous government whose crony capitalist policies made profound and direct contributions to all of the above? Check.
And, if none of those items seem alone sufficient to generate a vibrant progressive response, how about all of them (and lots more), all at once? Check, check, double-check, and checkmate. Here is the check for a lovely meal of greed, theft, war and planetary destruction held in your honor. Or at least at your expense. What, you don’t want the bill?
I can hardly think of better conditions for the rise of a New New Left. But what do we get, instead? The freaking Tea Party!! Like I said, this is the single most depressing characteristic of our time (and because of the deep and broad array of repugnant choices for that loathsome title, that’s saying a lot). It’s like, even when you win you still lose.
But maybe, at long last, things are finally turning around with the advent of the Occupy movement, and people will at last get it. And maybe they’ll figure out who the real enemy is, and act accordingly. Unfortunately, however, even that prospect involves a longer term solution. Consider that the best case scenario for January 2013 is that the hopelessly hapless Barack Inc. Obama will once again be inaugurated as president. And that even if he can’t get Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner and Robert Gates to be in his administration because they’re all too busy making money, he will most assuredly be getting people like that. Don’t expect to see a Paul Krugman or a Joseph Stiglitz or a Paul Volcker on Obama’s team any more than he appointed Elizabeth Warren to run the Consumer Protection Bureau or went for the public option in his health care obombination. And that’s the ‘best’ case scenario. Far more likely will be a Scary Perry or a Ken-Doll Romney taking the oath that day.
There actually is one better scenario, and this is again why the Occupy movement represents a breath of genuine hope (as opposed to the merchandised, fast-expiring kind Obama peddled in 15-second TV spots in 2008). Our solutions no longer reside, if they ever did, in the ballot box. The Republicans are a sheer criminal enterprise, whose entire function is to redistribute wealth from the rest of us to already wealthy elites. But the Democrats are actually worse, because they do exactly the same thing, while trading on the party’s past reputation for representing the public interest. For my money (which, along with yours, is precisely what is at stake), Obama and Clinton and their ilk in Congress have betrayed me and the country more than, say, any of the Dicks – Cheney, Armey or Nixon. You expect the asshole kid on the playground to live up to his reputation. It hurts a lot more when your best friend is the one sticking in the knife.
No, while there will still be elections and presidents and a new Congress, no matter who those people are in 2013, they will all be cut from the same cloth, and I guarantee you that you can’t afford that frock. This country is going to have pretty much go all Egypt on the ruling class to have any hope of changing what fundamentally ails us. That doesn’t mean the Constitution has to be shredded and new institutions of government created. It just means that, at the end of the day, the people in government must be responsive to the public interest, not the oligarchy’s.
That’s a hugely tall order in many ways. But, on the other hand, context is everything. People are fed-up now, and growing increasingly sick of being subjected to a steady diet of bogus wars, gay-bashing or empty platitudes in the place of real solutions to real problems. There is a giant vacuum today in American politics, which will only grow dramatically in scale about two years or so into a Republican administration’s term. But political nature abhors a vacuum, and the opportunity today for a genuine set of people-first politics to attract votes (whether as a third party or through a hijacking of the Democratic Party) has not been greater in decades. More and more, Americans are coming to the realization that the choice between Democrats and Republicans is the political equivalent to the choice between Goldman Sachs and Citibank. That is to say, none at all. And more and more they will demand a real alternative, if only from sheer desperation.
I don’t think the American political class will see such a development coming, any more than they did in Egypt, and any more than they are able to grapple with Occupy Wall Street. It’s been alternately amazing, amusing, sickening and predictable to observe the reaction that these demonstrations have engendered among our ruling class and their stable of media bots, including the obligatory condescending tropes about dirty hippies and clueless youth occupying the park. That’s fine with me. I hope the powers-that-be continue to stand by, establishing a record for themselves of befuddlement and contempt, so that there’s no ambiguity whatsoever about which side they were on when the chips were down, and so that they can all the more rapidly and definitively be transformed into the powers-that-were.
Their critiques have been fast and furious, so much so that, golly, it almost seems like the establishment needed to find something for which to criticize the movement, even if they had to invent it. I’m sure the Eric Cantors and New York Timeses of this world would never be so nefarious and disingenuous as to do something like that, of course. But it sure seemed that way, especially as you hear the ubiquitous critique that the folks in Zuccotti Park “don’t have a message”.
Gee, you think? I mean, if ten thousand people march around the Pentagon, what do you think that could mean? That they want an increase in Social Security benefits? A longer baseball season, perhaps? If thousands of blacks march on Selma, what do you suppose is their demand? Deregulation of derivative trading? A ban on cloning? And if thousands decide to occupy Wall Street, what ever might one imagine is the reason they are there in particular? Because lower Manhattan has the best falafel stands?
Still can’t figure it out, Masters of the Universe and talking head plastic media arbiters of American culture? How about this for a hint: The protesters keep chanting, “We are the 99 percent! We are the 99 percent!” What could that possibly mean? Yes, it’s true that there are no leaders for you to coopt, jail or ridicule, and we know that makes you, er, uneasy. Yes, there is a manifest absence of manifestoes with forty-seven point plans full of tax reform schemes and new educational testing initiatives. But even you pompous blow-dried blow-hards in your gated communities should be able to get the general gist of what we’re saying, that we in the 99 percent are sick and tired of being exploited and thrashed for the sake of satiating the pathological greed of the one percent.
Even if you have no brains inside your immaculately coifed heads, you should still be able to decipher that no-brainer. Unless, of course, the problem is that you just don’t want to. Take for example the fine specimen of a regressive columnist Mark Steyn, who writes for the Orange County Register (of course), and just recently scribbled this dribble: “My colleague Rich Lowry correctly notes that many of the beleaguered families testifying on the “We are the 99%” websites have real problems. However, the “Occupy” movement has no real solutions, except more government, more spending, more regulation, more bureaucracy, more unsustainable lethargic pseudo-university with no return on investment, more more more of what got us into this hole. Indeed, for all their youthful mien, the protesters are as mired in America’s post-war moment as their grandparents: One of their demands is for a trillion dollars in “environmental restoration.” Hey, why not? It’s only a trillion.”
What Mr. Steyn doesn’t want you to notice (among many other things), and what most of his readers won’t in fact notice, is the basic lie at the heart of his dismissive assertion. What got us “into this hole” is precisely the opposite of what he suggests. It wasn’t some liberal Frankenstein experiment gone shatteringly awry that wrecked the country, but, quite to the contrary, it was in fact the dismantlement of the liberal experiment of the mid-twentieth century, a program that had been so successful that it created a massive and wealthy middle class in America far beyond anything that had ever existed anywhere in the world prior to that time. But regressives decided to take it apart, and over the last thirty years they’ve won every policy battle on every question of political economy, from taxes to trade to labor relations to regulation to privatization to deficits and beyond.
Thus, what Mr. Steyn and his ill ilk are desperate for you not to know is that what wrecked the country and the planet is their conservatism (or so-called conservatism – it’s really regressivism). That’s why they want you to forget who was in the White House when the shit hit the fan. And that the last two Democratic presidents have created White House economic teams comprised of Wall Street executives. And that taxes are far lower than they used to be, and regulation of bankers nearly nonexistent, and social programs dismantled, and job-exporting trade deals signed, and unions crushed, and on and on and on. These people appear to “not get” Occupy Wall Street because they’re desperate for it to disappear. In truth, they get it thoroughly and entirely (and, deep down, they can’t believe it’s taken this long for it to arrive), and they know it for precisely the existential threat to their sickeningly indulgent lives of infantile greed that it absolutely is.
But just in case I’m being unduly harsh to a class of boardroom rapists and murderers and the media and political marionettes who enable their predatory agenda, let me see if I can be helpful to them and simplify the message. It’s just this: “We are not your human resources”. We. Are. Not. Your. Human. Resources.
The truth is, the one percent in this country sees the rest of us – not as equals, or even as human beings – but as commodities put on this earth to serve them, no different from machines or infrastructure, computers or chemicals. We are their resources, who just happen to have bodies and minds somewhat similar to their own (though of an entirely different class, of course!). Which means we’re a pain in the ass because, unlike machines, we have an annoying tendency to want a moderately decent salary and time off to spend with our families, not to mention bathroom breaks on the job. What a drag, eh Thurston?! To them, we’re not human beings entitled to human rights and empathetic respect. We are, instead, the frustratingly-expensive remaining elements of a wealth-production machine that cannot (yet) be replaced by computers, robots or Asian peasants.
This is – in the minds of the one percent – a pure relationship of sheer exploitation. In truth, it fundamentally differs little from slavery or patriarchy or environmental destruction. What all these systems have in common is the age-old notion of one class of people living large at the expense of other creatures’ misery.
And rarely in the last century have the oligarchs and plutocrats been as successful at doing just that as they are today. Moreover, under the generous leadership of an entire political class ranging from Barack Obama to Scott Walker, they are at this moment still relentlessly attempting to destroy what little is left of American middle class prosperity in the name of unquenchable elite greed. And why not? Since when were three yachts ever enough?
What frightens these people about Occupy Wall Street – and, make no mistake, their attempts at ridicule are the purest possible expressions of their fear – is the idea that the public might actually be on to their game at last.
That a critical mass might have reached critical mass.
That we might no longer be susceptible to diversion by means of ethnic or lifestyle divisions pitting us against one another, or by foreign bogeymen and the endless national security ‘crises’ they are said to represent.
That we might remember that things were once better here, before we abandoned our humanity and wisdom in the name of greed and expediency and oligarchy.
That we might realize how weak the one percent actually are – just as our Egyptian brothers and sisters found out about their own kleptocracy – and that we might discover how easily toppled corrupt regimes are once exposed for what they are.
That we might demand a modest but fair share of the national wealth, and a political system in which people, not just special interest campaign contributors, actually have a voice in policy decisions.
That we might insist on a decent quality of life for ourselves, and a real future for our children.
And that we understand ourselves to be real people, with real rights, real needs and real aspirations, rather than as tools placed here for the realization of their pathologically bloated obsessive greed.
Because – Mr. Steyn, Mr. Walker, Mr. Cantor, Mr. Murdoch and, yes, Mr. Obama – however much you might stamp your feet, hold your breath, and insist otherwise:
We are not your human resources.
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles (email@example.com), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.