Rise like Lions after slumber/In unvanquishable number/Shake your chains to earth like dew/Which sleep had fallen on you/Ye are the many—they the few.
– Percy Shelley
The Occupy Movement, now in myriad cities across the country and, indeed, the globe, is too big to ignore. Many thousands of people, frustrated with the current status quo but hopeful for another, have made their disgruntlement palpable by turning parks, streets, and capitols into a choir of complaint—complaint complimented, however, by a contrapuntal harmony of hope and aspiration. Although the catchy slogan “we are the 99 percent” is not literally correct—it would be more accurate to use the unfortunately cumbersome slogan “we are the 99.9 percent”—it does make clear a simple fact: inequality has exploded in this country and people no longer believe that the coterie of elites who possess much of the wealth earned it fairly or have used it to benefit the rest of the population.1 Not surprisingly, the growth of the Occupy Movement has caused a concomitant critical reaction, mostly among media members who favor the status quo, plus or minus a few adjustments. This is a predictable pattern. A movement, either political or intellectual, begins and is ignored; it grows and is criticized; finally, it becomes appropriated by the mainstream, and many contend that they were a part of the movement from its inception. (A pattern followed by the civil rights movement, for example.) Although it is not clear if the Occupy Movement will progress to the third stage (and many within the movement would prefer, to one degree or another, that it does not2 ), it is clear that it has progressed to the second.
In this article, I would like to briefly respond to a few of the most popular criticisms, criticisms that have almost become platitudes. The criticisms that I will respond to are not drawn from the extreme right (mostly dismissing the movement as a swath of unemployed parasites); but rather, from the mainstream center or left of center. This is useful, I think, because some of the criticisms are probably held or at least sympathetically considered by the populace, a populace that has consistently received a distorted portrait of the world and of the Occupy Movement. I should also note, as a caveat, that I do not—and do not presume to—speak for the Occupy movement. Opinions about the desires of the Occupy Movement are a result of discussions with members of Occupy Tallahassee and of reading and watching interviews. I do not feign to have any special insight into the heart of a diffuse movement.
The most common criticism of the Occupy Movement that I hear and encounter in the media is that it is composed of radical and ignorant people who fancifully believe that the government can be used as kind of magical wish fulfilling machine. Or as Fred Siegel, from the New Republic, put it “… these epigones seem to think of government as a black box: You put your wishes in at one end and a smoothly running government bureaucracy fulfills those wishes at the other end.”3 His evidence is that many in the Occupy Movement desire to live in a country with single-payer universal healthcare, free college education, and are meanwhile ignorant of the minutia of the “298 pages of explication” of the Volcker rule. The protestors, therefore, are oblivious to the labyrinthine complexity of bureaucracies, and to the dangers of the debt, substituting socialist fantasy for hard-headed, fiscally sound, realism. According to Siegel, protests should focus more on the machinations of the government than on the treacheries of Wall Street. An editorial at the Economist,4 generally agrees, noting that the protests are aiming for the wrong target because the economic woes of the world have “less to do with the rise of the emerging world than with state interference.” (The idea that protestors want some kind of parochial nationalism and fear globalization is utterly without merit, a point to which I return.)
Siegel’s “government as a black box” argument is fairly common and utterly without merit. Let’s start with the second half of his argument and work backward. He argues that many in the Occupy movement are ignorant of the voluminous details of the Volcker rule and its exceptions. True enough. And many mainstream authors on foreign policy have never read all of the declassified NSC documents that are available. In the case of foreign policy writers, the NSC documents are actually very important. For the Occupy Movement, the exceptions and exceptions to exceptions of the Volcker rule are relatively trivial. Most understand that the provisions of the Glass-Steagall Act were repealed by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, and that the subsequent breakdown of the separation between investment and commercial banking has had deleterious effects on the economy. That is important. If Siegel’s argument is that the 298 page explication of exceptions et cetera indicates how cumbersome government bureaucracies can be, that is also well-known among the Occupy Tallahassee members that I have spoken to, some of whom are intimately involved in the legislative process.
Siegel’s other adduced evidence is that the Occupy movement wants “free education” and “free healthcare,” as if the government can just hand such things out without going broke. This is made clear, later, when he argues that the Occupiers are “oblivious” to our national debt. But precisely the opposite is true. As Siegel should know, two of the chief contributors to our deficits are our horribly inefficient and expensive health care system and our bloated military budget. Most in the Occupy movement would like to carve a significant amount of fat from the military budget; and, as Siegel himself asserted, most also desire single-payer universal health coverage. What Siegel apparently doesn’t know is that according to sound economic analysis by Dean Baker and others, if our health care costs were in line with the rest of the world’s, our deficits would be significantly mitigated.5 ,6 ,7 Finally, it is hardly utopian to believe that a country should have a decent, publically funded education system that runs through college. Nor is it a colossal strain on the budget, especially if properly funded through a reasonable tax system. Many intelligent commentators, including Noam Chomsky, believe that the exorbitant cost of college in the United States has less to do with economic issues than with issues of population control.8 ,9
Siegel and the Economist both argue that the Occupy Movement is confused about its target. It should be targeting the government, not Wall Street. First, in Tallahassee, we have been “occupying” the Capitol building, so we are “aimed” at the right institution. And second, the argument, although not entirely erroneous (the government’s subservience to financial interests is lamentable), and consistent with standard propaganda, misses a very important point: the government can, and is the only institution that can, provide a check on the power of corporations, a check that is absolutely necessary. Most in the Occupy movement aren’t thrilled about this pragmatic compromise. But, the question for any serious political thinker has to be, “what are the practical consequences of an action?” Reducing the size and power of the government may or may not be a future desideratum; but, as our system currently exists, reducing the size of government means increasing the power of corporations, corporations that are almost entirely impervious to public input (save for public purchasing) and therefore “tyrannical” in the classical liberal sense of the word. Given this state of affairs, it seems wise to protest the corporations, especially the financial corporations that were directly responsible for the economic collapse.
Finally, the Economist paints the Occupy movement as an insular group, a group that, although not as “mindless” and parochial as the Seattle protestors, is still confused and frightened by “the emerging world.” In other words, the Occupy movement is filled with people who fear “global integration.” This is standard propaganda that was perfected during the NAFTA debates. So, if one were against NAFTA, a radically unfree trade agreement,10 one was against globalization, regardless of whether or not one was in favor of increasing connections across the globe. Many are against unfair, investor rights’ agreements that force laborers to compete against each other while sedulously blocking competition amongst professionals. But the Occupy Movement is probably the most globally interconnected protest movement ever. Last week, Asmaa Mahfouz and Ahmed Maher, both famous for their courageous stands against the Mubarak regime, came to New York and spoke to the OWS protestors. Signs across the globe declare unity with protest movements in countries far away. The Occupy Movement is not afraid of “global integration,” it is afraid of corrupt, corporate integration. And it is only parochial if one considers humans, as opposed to corporations, irrelevant.
I do not know what the Occupy Movement will accomplish or where its future lies. I do know that it is exciting to witness the aspirations and frustrations of thousands of people finally rise in a conflagration of protest against a corrupt system that is consistently becoming more unjust and more detached from the average citizen. If nothing else, the movement has vivified the souls of thousands, perhaps millions, of people and has contributed to a growing sense of unity among disparate peoples from around the globe.
- Glenn Greenwald (October 25, 2011). Immunity and Impunity in Elite America: How the Legal System was Deep-Sixed and Occupy Wall Street Swept the Land. TomDispatch.com. [↩]
- That is, if being “appropriated” means sacrificing the substance of the movement to the interests the current system. [↩]
- Fred Siegel (October 19, 2011). Occupy Wall Street and the Return of the McGovernites. New Republic. [↩]
- Capitalism and its Critics: Rage Against the Machine. Economist. [↩]
- Dean Baker (October 31, 2008). The Deficit and Health Care Costs. San Diego Union-Tribune. [↩]
- Health Care Budget Calculator. Center for Economic and Policy Research. [↩]
- Congressional Budget Office (June, 2009). The Long-Term Budget Outlook. [↩]
- Noam Chomsky (August 9, 2011). Public Education Under Massive Corporate Assault—What’s Next? Guernica Magazine. [↩]
- This video contains a condensed synopsis. [↩]
- Dean Baker (2006). The conservative Nanny State. [↩]