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#OccupyWallStreet is a church of dissent not a protest
Matt Stoller, naked capitalism
Last weekend, I spent a few days with the protesters downtown near Wall Street, and it was an eye-opening experience. The people there want something, but it’s not a list of demands, and it is entirely overlooked by the media and most commentators on the protest.
If all you read are news stories and twitter feeds about #OccupyWallStreet, the most trenchant imagery that will stick in your mind is that of police brutality, and the politics of Wall Street greed. The debate seems to be organized around whether the protest will be “successful” or not, how the protesters are stupid or a new American Tahrir Square, or rhetoric designed in a media sphere that maximizes attention. Glenn Greenwald suitably demolishes the sneering commentariat. But I think there’s something to add about what exactly this protest is, what it is doing, and most of all, what the people there “want”. They don’t have a formal list of demands.
And it’s obvious that this isn’t just about Wall Street, nor is it really a battle of any sort. There are political signs there attacking Fox News, expressing anger about Troy Davis, supporting the Iranian revolution, urging the Federal Reserve be reigned in, and demanding rich people pay their taxes. There are personal signs about debt, war, and medical problems. And people are dressed in costume, carrying lightsabers, and some guys are driving around a truck with a “Top Secret Wikileaks” sign on the side. I asked if they were affiliated with the site, and one of them responded with “That’s what the Secret Service asked”. Most of all, people there are having fun.
What these people are doing is building, for lack of a better word, a church of dissent. It’s not a march, though marches are spinning off of the campground. It’s not even a protest, really. It is a group of people, gathered together, to create a public space seeking meaning in their culture. They are asserting, together, to each other and to themselves, “we matter”.
Meaning is a fundamental human need. The act of politicization, of building any movement, is based on individual, and then group self-confidence. As Daniel Ellsberg said, “courage is contagious”. I’m reminded of how Howard Dean campaign worker and current law professor Zephyr Teachout characterized the early antiwar blogosphere and then-radical campaign of Dean, as church-like in their community-building elements. That’s what #OccupyWallStreet reminded me of. Even the general assemblies, where people would speak, and others would respond, had a rhythmic quality to them, similar to churches or synagogues I’ve attended.
By Matt Stoller, the former Senior Policy Advisor to Rep. Alan Grayson and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. You can reach him at stoller (at) gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at @matthewstoller.
(29 September 2011)
Gandhi goes to Wall Street
Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Washington Post
Protestors carry signs that say, “Bring Down the Wall, but this is not Berlin in 1989, it is New York’s financial district in 2011. They carry signs that say “Love, Compassion, Awareness, Understanding,” but this not Selma in 1965, it is Wall Street in 2011.
The #occupywallstreet protests in New York’s Wall Street district exhibit all the dynamics of the non-violent direct action movements of the 20th century as seen in the work of Mohandas K. Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the April 6 movement in Egypt that so symbolizes the “Arab Spring.” These are the young Egyptians chanting “peaceful, peaceful” only this time while crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, not on a street in Cairo, or in front of a wall in East Berlin.
And like in Cairo and Selma and East Germany, they are met with force, sometimes even with brutality.
The police response follows Gandhi’s prescription for why non-violence is so effective; non-violent protest exposes the underlying violence of unjust systems, and the dilemma that non-violence poses to armed authority.
Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Professor, Chicago Theological Seminary. Former president of Chicago Theological Seminary (1998-2008), Thistlethwaite is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.?
(3 ctober 2011)
Don’t Feed the Zombies: The Problem of Protesting the Thing You Depend On
Sharon Astyk, Casaubon’s Book
A number of readers have asked me what I think about the Wall Street protests. In general I think public protest is usually a good thing, and I’m pleased to see demonstrations in favor of good things like corporate accountability and against bad things like climate change. I think there are plenty of reasons for political activism in our country, and am always pleased by it.
On the other hand, do I think that this is the beginning of something profound and important? I can’t say for sure, but I would guess not. Protesting Wall Street isn’t a bad idea – but there’s a fundamental problem in marching and demonstrating against something you are wholly dependent upon.
The college students who are admirably taking the lead depend for their educations on investments and growth – private savings invested to enable them to go to college by parents, but also government subsidies and loans that must be supported by economic growth in order to continue. The very act of taking out a loan to support your education implies a presumption of growth – the idea that your earnings will grow in order for you to pay it back with interest.
Standing against Wall Street and calling them out to justify their implication in the political process and in issues like climate change is great – except that Wall Street gets its money in large part from, well, us. An economy that depends for 70% of its worth on consumer spending is not one in which one can look entirely to the powerful abstract evil of “corporations” but to the specific evil of that fact that all of us depend for food, clothing and shelter on those institutions we claim to deplore.
This is the same problem that leads those who protest middle-eastern oil wars to drive their cars to the demonstrations, to those who protest coal plants writing their angry blog posts on grid, coal powered laptops, and any number of other hypocrisies. Now hypocrisy itself is not evil, and it is generally inevitable – none of us can live here without implication in a larger economic system – all of us are complicit.
That said, however, the disconnect between personal action and political action, carefully fostered by a society that believes that personal choice is personal choice and has little to do with your political convictions, constantly undermines real political action. Yes, deplore Wall Street. Remember when you do so that while large corporations (or polluters or whatever) would prefer, ideally that you both love them and give them great big wads of cash, given a choice, all such institutions prefer the cash to our love. It is a very good thing to remind them that they are zombie institutions, but it helps not to feed the zombies your money – and that involves a radical reinvention of lifestyle.
None of us trust a politician who depends on the campaign dollars of those who oppose their fundamental values. Why should we trust ourselves to depend for food, shelter and our basic way of life on institutions that are also destroying that way of life? While recognizing that the Thoreau-model of perfect disconnection is not open to most of us, should we not hold ourselves to at least the same standard we hold public officials to – asking that we disconnect economically from the structures that warm the world, deplete its resources, etc… and that we participate as little as we can (and that means we are critical of our own excuses) in that degradation?
None of us will ever get this perfect – we live in our interconnected, oil fueled, coal warmed, economically messy society. Perfection is not the goal – but it does not take a vast contraction of earnings to send a much more impressive message than public protest can provide alone – if you want to change the world, stop feeding the zombies.
(3 October 2011)
Encounters with Occupy Wall Street
Louis Proyect, The Unrepentant Marxist
These are some very provisional thoughts on Occupy Wall Street, which is showing signs already of having a rippling effect across America. With recognition by both the protesters and commentators sympathetic and hostile that the Arab Spring has inspired the movement, we are dealing once again with the phenomenon of movements that cross borders, and that can even become global. This is not just something that the Internet has spawned. Back in 1968, when I was about the age of the people occupying Liberty Park, the May-June events in France were midwifed by the American antiwar movement and eventually served as a model for the movement for a “red university” in Yugoslavia.
The most notable aspect of this movement is that is the first to confront the new realities of the economic crisis and to articulate the grievances of the American people without being subject to the constraints of a reformist leadership. Obviously Wisconsin erupted over the same sense of economic resentment but the movement suffered from being under the control largely of the trade union bureaucracy and local Democratic Party officials. Instead of taking on the system full-bore, activists were diverted into a sterile recall campaign. As the activist I interviewed in the video that accompanies this article stated, he is not that interested in “politics”. I had asked him what his political experience amounted to before coming down to Wall Street, assuming that he would talk about Amnesty International or Greenpeace. It turned out that he understood “politics” to refer to ringing doorbells for candidates and he was not having any of that.
The intuition that the activists of Liberty Park had that they were speaking for the “99 percent” of Americans has resonated with the working class in a way that the organized left has never achieved. Starting with the traditionally left-of-center TWU leadership, the OSW activists are on the verge of winning over the heavy battalions of organized labor to their side. This is not because they have any special skills at winning over workers to their side. Rather it is because their action has resonated with deep grievances among working people.
… There is a very strong possibility that over the next five years or so the mass movement that is taking shape today might take on epic proportions and mount a serious challenge to the powers-that-be. It will be absolutely incumbent upon Marxists to figure out a way to relate to that movement not as learned professors chiding it from above but as dedicated participants whose loyalties are to the movement rather than their own group. If they can meet that challenge, the movement will be all the more powerful as a result. If they function in a narrow and self-interested manner, they will have nothing to offer.
(2 October 2011)
Understanding the Theory Behind Occupy Wall Street’s Approach
Mike Konczal, Rortybomb
The Occupy Wall Street protests have been collecting demands from people in order to create their own list. In their words, their demands are “a process” intended to allow people to “talk to each other in various physical gatherings and virtual people’s assemblies … [and] zero in on what our one demand will be, a demand that awakens the imagination.” I contributed the three demands I think they should consider focusing on over at Good Magazine here.
Here’s a really moving We Are the 99 Tumblr where people across the country are writing their stories on a sheet of paper and sharing them. This recession has scarred generations of Americans for the foreseeable future and yet few in power are really rattled about it.
There’s been a lot of back and forth, especially from liberals, about what the protestors are trying to do in their occupation. Where are their finely-tuned lists of concrete demands? What are the action items, spokespeople and who are the key influencers they need to reach?
… There’s a conscious focus on the methodology to create an explicit space of real, direct democracy. The main concern is the methods used for the expressing the actions of the community. To me, with all due respect, the lazer-focus on the explicitly proper methods to the exclusion of all else reminds me a bit of cartoony High Liberalism Theory. The kind of theory where the point is to obsess on the proper type of auction for buckets of goods on the deserted island so wine snobs, beach bums and the hard-working shoemakers all are equally well off, instead of confronting the vicious, feudal hierarchies of power that actually exist.
But it isn’t just both the methods and the focus on methods that is unique. There’s an actual occupation going on in the park. And, as Stoller pointed out, it is designed to be fun. Is there something deeper about both the communal and festival spirit of the protests? It can be read as a reaction against the atomized, privatized forms of capitalism as it evolved into modernity.
(30 September 2011)