Quo vadis, Occupy? With the encampments folding or forcibly shut down -- for reasons of public health or winter weather -- and with eulogies already appearing, what next for the earthquake known as Occupy Wall Street?
Rather than go dark 'til spring, inventive activists are pressing on with useful actions like Occupy the Classroom -- protesting for example the teaching of economics, specifically the school of thought promoting the predatory market capitalism that produces, and tolerates, the large-scale social suffering we have today. Occupy the Campus protests have sprung up across the country, with students protesting hefty tuition hikes, unbearable debt loads, and a future short on jobs.
Other actions, like Occupy the Ports, are arguably less productive. How does preventing a worker from getting to his/her job on the docks---a job all the more precious in a recession that grinds on and on -- defend and advance the interests of the 99%, the constituency Occupy purports to represent? Tellingly, a growing number of unions are disavowing the "aid" of these particular occupiers (here and here).
To the question of what next for Occupy, best guide might be a look back -- at New York's Zuccotti Park, where the earthquake began. Locating the first protest within hailing distance of the beast -- Wall Street -- was symbolically so powerful that millions of us non-New Yorkers got it quicker than a New York minute: This is about economic justice -- a banner and a deal that the 99% could eagerly embrace.
I submit, however, there is unfinished business there in Zuccotti -- and it has to do with a figure operating just up the street: Gordon Gekko, predatory Wall Streeter of recent myth and creator of mass economic injustice. This unfinished business is not about hoisting tents again, but hoisting a metaphor.
We need to occupy the Gekko myth and revise his nefarious motto---that "Greed is good"---a "truth" that has seeped deep, deep into American culture since Wall Street, the film he featured in, came out in 1987. While intended as a cautionary tale by its creator Oliver Stone (here, here, and here), how often have we heard real Wall Street figures---and, let's be fair, a fair number of the 99%---say they embraced "Greed is good" as their operational mantra, greed having been legitimated as a cultural OK thanks to the film, with the cautionary part pretty completely ignored?
A quarter-century later, we see that the greed, with its money-power, has gone too far, is not OK. (As my Republican mother established, "Greed is killing this country and we have got to turn it around.") Were we to create a counter-motto, "Greed is not good," or more realistically and also much better for economic recovery, "Greed is OK---within clearly defined bounds specified by the U.S. Congress and enforced by the S.E.C.," not only Wall Street might be reformed but our culture repaired.
Call it sustainable greed. Imagine: Responsibility and prudence would again become good things, not laughable or uncool. Might a sense of shared fate follow?
Occupying the Gekko myth is doable because it's about the culture, not (polarized) politics. It's safe to talk with Republicans about how greed distorts the grand American experiment of capitalism-and-democracy and to agree in principle about economic justice, whereas to talk about, say, raising the debt ceiling, not so much. Such culture-focused talk enables supporters to better counter two big knocks on Occupy: that it's anti-capitalist and pro-"free handouts." We want capitalism with a human face and without the thumb of the 1% on the scales. (Note to economists from a dummy on the subject: Isn't there a theory that proves a humane capitalism is also the most productive?)
Sooner or later of course we must return to politics -- where some Occupiers disdain to go. How else do we achieve the economic justice that Occupy proclaims? The to-do list is long. Finally we could press, for example, for serious campaign finance reform, to reduce the influence of money-power and greed in politics; and for a Constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, the one giving the 1% way more than 1% of a voice.
Significantly, also: Stepping back into politics will separate the anarchists of Occupy from the conscientious...
Speaking of greed and anarchy, a note: At a Seattle Town Hall meeting set up ostensibly for Occupy Seattle and the community to interact, the Occupiers brought things to a quick halt -- with incessant "mic checks," twinkling fingers, innocent questions shouted down, and with political "contamination" vehemently rejected. This is anarchy not democracy, said I to myself, and I walked out -- along with droves of others (see news report). Memo to Occupy: Primal screams -- for economic justice -- can't be copyrighted or occupied.
Happily, none other than President Obama has taken up the call for economic justice in a major way, with his recent speech in Kansas (here and here). In it he cited Wall Street for "breathtaking greed" and "irresponsibility all across the system" and made a ringing defense of the middle class -- a strategy with which he can (to risk overuse of a dandy new verb) occupy the 2012 presidential campaign. To reoccupy both houses of Congress -- only way to break the present logjam -- other Democrats might follow suit. Meanwhile, Republican contender and former financier Mitt Romney expects to be Gekko'd (here and here).
Finally: My enduring problem with Wall Street the film was that the villainous Gordon Gekko was never forced to face off against a proper antagonist, a challenger of equal weight, one who could put the "cautionary" in the tale. The character who ultimately brought Gekko down and sent him to prison was an underling who was if anything even more greedy and predatory than his boss.
Wouldn't it be wonderful -- not to say nation- and culture-saving -- if We the People stepped up and, lo these many years later and in our maturity, decked Gekko the Greedster ourselves?
Carla Seaquist is author of Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character. Also a playwright, she is author of the forthcoming volume, Two Plays of Life and Death, and is at work on a play titled, Prodigal.
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