Occupy: A populist response to the crisis of inequality

7 November 2012
Only in en
The Occupy movement resembles nineteenth-century American populism in its anger at the avarice of bankers and financiers and in its notions of majoritarian democracy. Where it differs from the old Populists is in its attitude to the state, writes Charles Postel.

In the late nineteenth century, the telecommunications revolution and steam power “annihilated time and space” and made possible large-scale organization and centralization. In the Unites States, the new technologies unfolded in the midst of what Mark Twain described as the “Gilded Age”. Corporate power grew exponentially, a handful of business executives amassed immense fortunes, financial panics took a devastating toll, and the society was split by an unprecedented chasm of economic inequality. The farmers, labourers and other citizens at the short end of these wrenching changes responded with the Populist movement of the 1890s, the most powerful challenge to corporate power in American history.

Over the last thirty years, we have witnessed a new telecommunications revolution, a resurgence of corporate power, and a growing crisis of inequality. For good reason, many commentators have noted that the United States is experiencing a “Second Gilded Age”. Yet, the challenges to corporate power have been tentative and sporadic. “The Battle in Seattle”, the mass protest at the 1999 World Trade Organization conference, promised to be the start of a movement against global corporate malfeasance. But the 2000 election, 9/11, the invasion of Iraq and “the war on terror” pushed other issues to the fore. Then, in February of 2011, tens of the thousands of workers, students, and activists converged on the Wisconsin state capitol in Madison to protest a new law restricting the collective bargaining rights of public employees. For the first time since the onset of the Great Recession of 2008, citizens had boldly taken to the streets to defend their rights and livelihoods from the encroachments of corporate power.

Taking inspiration from Tahir Square and the Arab Spring, as well as the Wisconsin protests, the Occupy Wall Street Movement was born in September 2011 with the encampment in Zuccotti Park in New York’s financial district. The movement quickly spread to hundreds of American cities and dozens of countries. Many of those involved in the encampments have been young people — students, as well as employed, semi-unemployed, and unemployed graduates with too much student debt. And they have been joined by teachers, nurses, transit workers, and other sections of the labour movement, along with a broad array of activists involved in housing, education, women’s rights, immigration and other causes. Although the Occupy Movement has no specific set of demands, and is ideologically and organizationally amorphous, it represents the most strikingly populist response to the present crisis. The Occupy Movement corresponds to the Populism of the last Gilded Age in three interrelated ways.

First, Occupy Wall Street, as its name implies, lays the blame for the financial crisis and the economic wreckage produced in its wake at the feet of the bankers and financiers and their speculative avarice. Here it needs to be kept in mind that one of the most critical decisions made by the Obama administration on taking office was that it would not investigate the Wall Street executives who had pushed the global economy to the edge of the abyss. Moreover, the Tea Party-backed Republicans have been fighting strenuously against any regulations or other measures to check the power of corporate finance. If nothing else, the Occupy Movement has accomplished something important by putting the focus on the corporate interests most responsible for the present financial and economic suffering. The old Populists would be proud.

Second, the Occupy Movement slogan, “We are the 99 per cent” corresponds to populist notions of majoritarian democracy. In their day, the Populists used variations of the 99 per cent slogan, convinced that the bankers, railroad corporation executives, and other “robber barons” only represented a small fraction of the population. If democracy meant anything, it meant majority rule, that is rule of “the people.” The Occupy Movement has effectively wielded the 99 per cent slogan to similar effect. Indeed, the slogan itself has proven both more accurate and more effective than its critics have allowed. A major study of the Congressional Budget Office has confirmed that during the thirty-year period from 1977 to 2007, Americans who receive the top one percent of incomes have seen their earnings rise by over 270 per cent. For most everyone else, incomes have stagnated and their portion of the national income has declined. This reality is especially striking given that these decades have also witnessed rapid increases in productivity and wealth creation. It might be argued that the “We are the 99 per cent” slogan does not add up because, of course, there are tens of millions of Americans who identify with the wealthy or who otherwise embrace the taxation, regulation, and other policies that have so benefited the top 1 per cent. But this is a problem of political arithmetic that plagued the old Populists as well.

Third, the Occupy Movement has let light into the deep crevasse of economic inequality. The late nineteenth century produced levels of inequality unparalleled in American history. Fantastic fortunes provoked fears of a new aristocracy or plutocracy that would sit astride a society fixed by class and station. In the Populist critique, the crisis of inequality was a result of corporate bribery of the courts and legislatures; a monetary and tax policy that favoured banks and corporations at the expense of the people; and the destruction of the rights of labour. “From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice,” exclaimed the Populist Platform of 1892, “we breed the two great classes — tramps and millionaires.” Similarly, the Occupy Movement has put into the public debate the idea that today’s vast chasm of inequality is not the product of a natural law, but the result of the influence of corporate cash on the political process and resulting pro-corporate tax and regulatory policies. Again, the old Populists would be proud.

At the same time, the Occupy Movement, or at least currents within it, would be confusing to the old Populists. Most significantly, Occupy activists tend to have an ambivalent attitude towards government action in the economy. Observers have speculated at length about why the Occupy Movement does not have specific demands. Part of the reason is that given the fractious and diverse nature of the movement it would be difficult to come to an agreement on what those demands might be. More specifically, a considerable number of activists have doubts about making demands that would imply government action. Financial regulation, debt relief, employment programs, and so forth, all suggest wielding governmental power especially at the federal level. In their distrust of government some of these activists share something in common, at least superficially, with the libertarian wing of the Tea Party movement. However, at a deeper and broader level, Occupy activists tend to embrace a decentralized, anti-hierarchical, and egalitarian vision. The world they seek to create will not be built by way of new or reinforced structures of vertical power, but through the horizontal and consensual networks of community — whether face-to-face at Occupy encampments, or remotely by way of the web and computer technology.

The Populists of the first Gilded Age had no such qualms about vertical and bureaucratic structures of power. They understood that alternative vertical and centralized institutions were essential to contest the vertical and centralized power of the corporations. They applied this principle to the farm produce exchanges and other cooperative enterprises they built to counteract corporate monopoly. And they applied this principle to government action. In the Populists’ majoritarian vision, government could and must be bent to serve public needs and to provide a counterforce to corporate power. To rein in the railroad corporations, they fought for the construction of railroad commissions and other regulatory structures. To break the grip of Wall Street, they demanded public ownership of the national bank system. More than that, they championed what they called the “Subtreasury System”. This signature Populist proposal would have built a system headquartered in the Treasury Department in Washington, and with a federal warehouse in every agriculture district in the country for storing crops and providing farmers with low cost loans. As for other banking needs, the Populists demanded postal savings banks.

The attitude of the Populists towards the post office was telling. In the late nineteenth century, the Post Office Department was nation’s largest bureaucracy, the biggest department of the federal government, and the only part of the government with which most Americans had regular contact. For Populist farmers, the post office was a model of equitable, efficient, and economical service. Today, it is easy to deride the postal service as the plodding “snail mail” of a web-savvy generation’s contempt. But the post office provided amazingly efficient and low cost service. (To a large extent that is still true, despite the most profitable sections of the industry being handed over to FedEx and other private corporations.) When farmers and labourers often could not afford the rates charged by the telegraph and railroad corporations, the postal service provided cheap access to the communications revolution. Moreover, subsidized second-class postage allowed the Populists to build a network for the distribution of inexpensive reform literature that reached even the remotest villages.

For the Populists, the postal service provided an example for governmental reform. As the Populist Platform of 1892 put it:

We believe that the power of government — in other words, of the people — should be expanded (as in the case of the postal service) as rapidly and as far as the good sense of an intelligent people and the teaching of experience shall justify, to the end that oppression, injustice, and poverty shall eventually cease in the land.

Today’s Occupy Movement lacks such confidence in “the power of government”. Unlike the 1890s, in the 2010s the largest governmental agencies no longer deliver the mail, but instead deliver drone missile strikes on villages around the globe, or supervise the prison-industrial complex that holds over two million Americans in steel and concrete cages. The distrust runs deep, and many Occupy activists embrace a vision of creating non-statist, non-hierarchical, networks for the modelling of new possibilities of social transformation. This vision is frequently described as anarchist, but it more closely resembles a variety of anarcho-syndicalism in that it is collectivist in a non-coercive and consensual sense. The Occupy Movement shares its focus on the “general assembly” with anarcho-syndicalist movements in Spain and elsewhere. The US also has a tradition in anarcho-syndicalist radicalism, especially with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the early 1900s. However, whereas the IWW was a labour movement focused on breaking the industrial class structure, the Occupy Movement is more diffuse, and Occupy activists tend to express a vision of dismantling hierarchy in its multiple manifestations of power, wealth, race, and gender.

This vision is reflected in the Occupy Movement’s insistence that it does not have and does not need leaders. At the same time, there are more and less influential people within the movement. Significantly, although Angela Davis and other activists associated with previous generations of leftwing movements have spoken at Occupy Movement events, their influence tends to only go so far. Some of those with the most sway belong to a new generation of academically trained activists with what might be described as a decentred and anti-hierarchical sensibility. Perhaps this group is best represented by David Graebner, an anthropologist who taught at Yale and is now at the University of London. He reportedly is the one who first proposed the “We are the 99 per cent” slogan, and has been a guiding intellectual influence on the movement. Graebner is a self-described anarchist, but whereas anarchists in the past viewed the enemy as some combination of property and the state, he seeks a radical dismantling of an array of social structures. In so doing, Graebner comes up with strikingly populistic answers. Much of his work focuses on the relationship between creditors and debtors. His widely read anthropological monograph, Debt: The First 5000 Years (2011), is an exploration of money and debt across the history of Eurasia. In many ways, Debt is just the type of book that inspired the old Populists, who also viewed the nexus of money and debt as the root of the social problem. Like the Populists, Graebner also calls for cutting the Gordian Knot of debt relationships to realize a more just society.

Graebner, of course, is anti-statist, and does not spell out the need for the modern equivalent of the Populist Subtreasury or similar governmental institutions for reorganizing credit relationships. Yet, Occupy activists, while often sympathizing with anti-statist ideas, mainly do not take these ideas to where America’s best-known anarchist took them back in the first Gilded Age. During the economic depression of 1893, Emma Goldman lectured a crowd of jobless and hungry labourers in New York’s Union Square on the “stupidity” of expecting any redress from the state, “the worst enemy you have”. Better, she advised, to attack the property of one’s wealthy neighbours. Such sentiments may be reflected in the small “black bloc” groups on the margins of the Occupy Movement. But, reflecting a much broader current, many within the Occupy Movement translate these ideas about debt into populistic slogans that amount to demands on the state to provide relief for homeowners facing foreclosure, for debt-strapped students, and for the unemployed facing bankruptcy.

Judith Butler, the renowned post-structuralist philosopher and gender theorist from the University of California Berkeley, has also lent her voice to the Occupy Movement. Although not as directly involved as Graebner has been, Butler has made a widely publicized defence of the Occupy Movement’s idealism and lack of practical demands. In October 2011, she spoke at Occupy general assemblies in New York City, Oakland, and elsewhere, and in doing so she struck a populist tone:

People have asked, so what are the demands? […] Either they say there are no demands […] or they say that the demands for social equality and economic justice are impossible demands. If […] the right to shelter, food and employment are impossible demands, then we demand the impossible. If it is impossible to demand that those who profit from the recession redistribute their wealth and cease their greed, then yes, we demand the impossible.

Butler, like Graebner, does not spell out how these goals might be accomplished. But as Butler suggests, ideals matter. And on the streets Occupy Movement activists frequently translate these social justice ideals into specific state-centred measures. Occupy Education, like the Populists of old, campaigns in favour of the public common schools, and to improve access to the public universities. Occupy activists campaign for a single-payer or Medicare-for-all health care system. In California, Occupy activists have mobilized in support of a millionaire’s tax on the super-rich. And the Occupy activism at Wall Street demands, directly and indirectly, tighter governmental regulation of the financial sector and prosecution of the financial swindlers.

Soon after the first Occupy Movement encampments, law enforcement adopted a policy of repression. Across the US, police have driven Occupy protestors from public spaces with tear gas, pepper spray, concussion bombs, and truncheons. In Seattle, Oakland, and other cities, small groups of “black bloc” anarchists have taken part in Occupy events to smash store windows and throw firebombs, and this has taken a toll on the movement in terms of both publicity and the police crackdown. Although the Occupy Movement continues to organize its network on the web, and in dozens of cities continues to mobilize on issues as diverse as transgender rights and justice for immigrants, it is difficult to predict its future. But it has already done a great deal in terms of forcefully inserting the crisis of inequality, majoritarian principles of democracy, and corporate accountability into the American political debate. In this sense, Populism is indeed alive in America.

Published 7 November 2012

Original in English
Translation by Hendrikje Schauer
First published in Mittelweg 36 5/2012 (German version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Mittelweg 36
© Charles Postel / Mittelweg 36 Eurozine

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