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The Media Already Know Why We're There
After a valiant attempt to ignore #occupywallstreet, the US media pretended not to understand why the American people might be unhappy with the corporate takeover of government. It's an extremely flimsy façade. Witness the abrupt turnabout by the New York Times in their October 9 editorial, under the headline "It's obvious what they want. What took so long, and where are the nation's leaders?" (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/09/opinion/sunday/protesters-against-wall-street.html)
The editorial speaks of "income inequality grinding down the middle class, increasing the ranks of the poor, and threatening to create a permanent underclass of able, willing but jobless people" and the outrage being "compounded by bailouts and by elected officials' hunger for campaign cash from Wall Street, a toxic combination that has reaffirmed the economic and political power of banks and bankers, while ordinary Americans suffer."
It concludes with the highly insightful paragraph:
"It is not the job of the protesters to draft legislation. That's the job of the nation's leaders, and if they had been doing it all along there might not be a need for these marches and rallies. Because they have not, the public airing of grievances is a legitimate and important end in itself. It is also the first line of defense against a return to the Wall Street ways that plunged the nation into an economic crisis from which it has yet to emerge."
#OccupyWallStreet: A Quandary for Longtime Activists
(November 5, 2011)
Many long time activists are in a quandary how to relate to #OccupyWallStreet (OWS). A vibrant, growing mass movement involving thousands of activists is always far more interesting and exciting than the dreary drudgery (fundraising, event organizing, education and outreach, etc) of keeping existing grassroots organizations going. There is a strong temptation to abandon current organizing commitments to join the groundswell created by the Occupy movement. While this might be the right move for some activists, it's also vitally important that others use their existing roles in union, peace and justice and environmental networks to bolster and support the anti-greed movement. There is still lots of furious debate over OWS’s long and short term goals. However there seems to be broad agreement about the need to end corporate rule and establish an alternative non-corporate economy and political system
All Our Single Issues Have the Same Root Cause
There are strong strategic arguments for all unions and single issue peace and justice and environmental groups to get on board, in some way, with the Occupy Movement. All the corporate and government abuses our single issue groups are fighting have the same root cause -- namely the corporate takeover of government. Yet many of us find it difficult to address the corporate tie-in from our single issue silos. Moreover there is already evidence (as I discuss in the introduction to Part I) that recent civil unrest in the major US cities is beginning to impact global financial markets, as well as US policy-making, both domestically and abroad.
How to Best Support OWS
At the same time, I question the value of long time union, antiwar, pro-democracy, peace and justice, homeless, sustainability and immigrants rights activists abandoning our existing commitments to camp out in the park. Many older activists, especially in the Open Source, sustainability and local democracy movements have already made significant gains in undermining corporate rule (see Part V “Making Change”). The sustainability movement, for example, is responsible for an explosion of community-based alternatives to corporate controlled food and energy production and distribution and even banking/financial services (See “Sustainability: Choosing the Right Crisis” in Part V “Making Change”). Equally impressive are the hundreds of communities in the local democracy movement which have passed ordinances restricting the right of corporations to build new hog farms, spread sewage sludge and deplete aquifers with bottled water operations (see “The Citizens Rights Movement” in Part V “Making Change”)
I think it makes more strategic sense to use our influence in the grassroots networks we have built up over decades to support and collaborate with #OccupyWallStreet. In this way we can provide inroads for younger, more militant OWS activists to sectors of society they might otherwise find difficult to access. We can also provide logistical, material and tactical support as the Occupy movement expands into the productive sector. . We are unlikely to see major policy or infrastructure changes until our new movement hits the 1% where it really hurts – in their pocketbook. OWS can only exert real pressure on government, banks and other multinational corporations by disrupting business as usual -- with corporate-targeted sit-ins, consumer boycotts, wild cat strikes or a combination of all three. In Egypt, it was the unions' threat to shut down the Suez Canal that ultimately forced Mubarak to step down.
Appealing to a Broad Base of Supporters
For their part, the Zuccotti Square occupation has already been remarkably effective in networking with existing groups. Good examples include the participation of OWS members in a march supporting Communication of American workers in their dispute with Verizon, an anti-eviction action OWS helped homeless advocates organize in Brooklyn, and the formal backing OWS has received from organized labor. I attribute this success in coalition building to OWS’s insistence on a broad inclusive vision (i.e. refusing to make specific demands). This enables them appeal to the widest possible base of potential supporters. I can't count the number of large coalitions I have joined in the last thirty years that were scattered to the winds the moment we decided to formulate concrete demands. The last one was the 9-11 Coalition Seattle activists formed in September 2001 to protest the impending US war in Afghanistan. Over the five weeks we spent arguing over specific demands, our numbers shrank from one hundred plus to fifteen.
The Role of Organized Labor
Despite nominal support from organized labor, full union participation is one area where OWS differs significantly from the major uprisings in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. In other parts of the world, massive anti-austerity demonstrations received a major boost from general strikes that shutdown economic activity. In Egypt, it was the unions’ threat to shut down economic activity. The November 2 general strike that shut down the Port of Oakland was the first real test of OWS's fragile coalition with labor. In a period of high unemployment, persuading unionists who still have work to put their own jobs on the line is no mean feat. While Occupy Oakland was unsuccessful in shutting the city of Oakland down, a wild cat strike by Oakland longshoremen succeeded in closing down the Port of Oakland:
In the US the choice of a port shutdown is no accident (on Dec 12, ILWU and Occupy activists also shut down ports in Longview, Seattle, Tacoma, Oakland, Long Beach, Portland, Vancouver BC, San Diego and Ventura County), as the ILWU is one of the few unions to undertake industrial action for political issues unrelated to conditions of employment. For example, in 1935, they refused to load scrap metal bound for Italy, during Mussolini’s war of aggression against Ethiopia. In 1971, during the civil war in Pakistan, they shut down all arms shipments to the Pakistani dictator who was trying to crush Bangladeshi independence. In 2008, 25,000 longshoremen walked off the job to protest the war in Iraq.
Is #OccupyWallStreet Working Class?
(November 19, 2011)
This is the first of two articles on the effect of #OccupyWallStreet (OWS) on the traditional working class.
The personal profiles of OWS occupiers suggest that most are disenfranchised members of the middle class. Their interviews, blogs and tweets portray individuals originating from comfortable professional, academic or union-wage homes, who have come of age with no hope of ever replicating their parents' lifestyle. The critical question for me is the effect extended unemployment and OWS itself has had on the way participants perceive and project themselves. Have they come to identify with the 80% (that's the real number -- not 99%) who live at or around minimum wage? Or are they still holding out for a cushy professional, academic or business career when the recession ends?
Getting the Numbers Right
It's an extremely difficult question to unpack because discussion of social class is still largely taboo in the US (see the article “Working Class Culture” in Part II and “Engaging the Working Class” in Part V). Since the end of World War II, there has been a concerted effort by government and the corporate media to portray America as a classless society. In the US, referring to oneself as a "worker" or "working class" invokes a sense of shame. Thus even minimum wage workers consider themselves middle class. Calling OWS the 99% is also extremely misleading. A more accurate demographic breakdown would be 1% elite, 80% low income workers (including manual labor, office and domestic work, caretaking, retail clerking and similar "entry level" work), and 20% "salaried" professionals, academics, and managers.
Getting Real About Social Class
The ultimate success of OWS in expanding into the traditional working class will depend on their willingness to discard the label middle class. Although our corporate-controlled western democracies are rapidly dismantling the middle class in the name of austerity cuts and debt reduction, the professional and academic bedrock of the American middle class is still largely intact. What's more, middle class values and prejudices die hard, even as individual economic circumstances change.
In all western democracies, the upper middle class has always played a critical role in maintaining social order as teachers, college professors, lawyers, judges, doctors, social workers, bank managers, religious leaders and similar "helping" and gatekeeping professionals. They do so mainly by defining and enforcing "appropriate" social behavior (examples include formal or unwritten rules against gangsta dress and culture, profanity, bad grammar, public expression of anger, racial slurs and sexual harassment) . While "appropriate" social behavior is formally defined as behavior advantageous to social stability, it's nearly always behavior that protects the interests of the ruling elite.
While the role of lawyers and judges in enforcing "appropriate" behavior is obvious, the role teachers, college professors and religious leaders play is more subtle. Many teachers and college professors play both a teaching role in the rules of "appropriate" social behavior and a gatekeeping role in selecting who gets credentialed for admission to the upper middle class. Bank managers, doctors and social workers also function as gatekeepers. Bank managers control admission to the middle class by controlling access to credit. Doctors also play a major economic role, as they have sole authority to declare whether workers are eligible for sick leave and health and disability benefits. Social workers, in turn, have the power to ascertain fitness to parent and terminate parental rights.
The Source of Class Antagonism in the US
In the working class clients I encounter, class antagonism stems less from income inequality, than from resentment towards upper middle class professionals who are perceived as arbitrary and/or biased in exercising their gatekeeping role. Working class Americans learn from an early age that American society isn't a level playing field and that so-called equal opportunity is a myth. Overt discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, physical disability, social class and age are still rife in determining who will receive bank loans, be admitted to college and professional schools, and be granted sick leave and disability benefits.
Yet much of the bias in these situations stems from the mistaken belief on the part of professionals that earning a comfortable living is the result of hard work and sacrifice. Most middle class professionals automatically lump workers who are stuck on minimum wage into a category of "others" who fail to meet minimal stands of self-discipline and personal responsibility.
The majority of low income Americans know this is rubbish. When 80% of the population struggles to meet basic survival needs, there are obviously factors at play other than personal responsibility. Most low income workers have always known that failing to land a high paying job -- or any job for that matter -- has nothing to do with personal failing. It's the natural result of social and political policies that only work for 20% of the US population.
Why the Working Class Abandoned Progressive Politics
The important question is whether the majority of OWS occupiers know this. If OWS comes to be seen as a movement run predominantly by and for the working class, it will be the first grassroots movement to do so since the Great Depression. The last major mass movement during the Vietnam War was mainly a student-led movement. The working class, which in the sixties was represented by organized labor, was cleverly manipulated through a variety of strategies to throw their support behind the Vietnam War and other reactionary pro-corporate policies.
The anti-union restrictions of the 1948 Taft-Hartley Act and extensive red-baiting during the McCarthy Era laid the groundwork for turning organized labor into the reactionary servant of corporate interests. After red-baiting caused the expulsion of militant rank and file unionists, unions became largely toothless in addressing workplace grievances outside of wage demands. It also gave rise to a trade union bureaucracy that felt closer to management than the workers they supposedly represented. Corporate managers rewarded union officials with all manner of perks for delivering "labor discipline" (i.e. preventing rank and file workers from participating in disruptive industrial action). As former CIA officer Tom Braden bragged in the Saturday Evening Post in 1967, many AFL-CIO leaders were also on the CIA payroll. See http://revitalisinglabour.blogspot.com/2009/04/lenny-brenner-on-tom-braden.html, http://www.laboreducator.org/darkpast2.htm and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Braden
Ideological Barriers to Organizing the Working Class
While the decline of the trade union movement (representing only 11.9 percent of US workers according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics -- http://topics.nytimes.com/topics/reference/timestopics/organizations/b/bureau_of_labor_statistics/index.html?inline=nyt-org) is a catastrophic event for workers faced with massive layoffs and job and benefit cuts, it also means there are no well-funded institutions like the AFL-CIO to obstruct working class participation in populist causes.
In 2011 the main obstacle to organizing the working class is ideological. As Wilhelm Reich notes in his 1933 Mass Psychology of Fascism, fascism and reactionary politics have always exerted a powerful attraction for men (and some women) from authoritarian working class families. Karl Rove and other spin doctors in the Republican Party are masters at exploiting these tendencies to convince low income men and women that pro-corporate candidates like George Bush and last year's freshmen Tea Party candidates would significantly improve their lives. Obviously this flies in the face of a well established pattern of enacting laws that actually make living conditions much more difficult (for example, by cutting unemployment benefits, scrapping public services, laying off public service workers, and gutting Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and food and environmental standards).
As noted by Reich, John Strachey (The Coming Struggle for Power 1933) and other students of early fascism, working class allegiance to reactionary politics is only temporary, as reactionary lawmakers consistently fail to improve working and living conditions. This has certainly been the case with newly elected Tea Party congressmen, who abandoned basic Tea Party goals of shutting down the Federal Reserve and ending the Middle East wars the moment they took office.
The Danger of Progressive Involvement in Lifestyle Campaigns
Nevertheless the same right wing spin doctors who gave us George W Bush and the Tea Party movement have also been remarkably successful in painting liberals and progressives as politically correct intellectuals whose main goal in life is to moralize and dictate lifestyle choices for low-income Americans.
Unfortunately many liberals and progressives play into their hand by jumping in on the wrong side of lifestyle debates. When liberals and progressives champion anti-smoking, anti-obesity, and gun control campaigns, it only solidifies their reputation as politically correct lifestyle police. Low income workers have difficulty distinguishing these lifestyle campaigns from the moralizing and gatekeeping role many liberals play as "helping professionals" (teachers, lawyers, religious leaders, social workers, doctors, psychologists). Thus they serve to reinforce natural resentment, mistrust and class antagonism these professionals generate as enforcers of so-called "appropriate" behavior. This is doubly dangerous with reactionary spin doctors like Karl Rove in the wings, ready to gleefully exploit these feelings to win Republican votes.
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