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Occupy's Anniversary

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The first anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street action has come and gone, and with it so has the hope that American politics is about to take up the issue of economic inequality. Of the possible outcomes envisioned by Todd Gitlin in his new book's sympathetic portrayal of OWS, the least desirable among them is what seems to be occurring. OWS has "devolve[d] to the point where it puts out calls for action and people stop showing up."1 Instead of the plight of the 99% becoming the focal point of debate, the Republican candidate for president demeans half of the voters, and the Democratic candidate is silent on the subject. The only time achieving greater equality has even been raised is when, in what it thought of as damage-control, the Romney campaign trotted out a 1998 speech by Barack Obama in which the then state senator offered a carefully hedged defense of income redistribution.

What has gone wrong? Why, in Gitlin's words, did OWS not "evolve into an enduring force - an awakening that, like its predecessors in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and in the sixties, irreversibly changes the values that Americans live by?"2

The answer is that OWS failed to offer the American people a reason to believe that its actions would actually be effective. It did not propose a strategy that could deal with the very real problems of unemployment, poverty, and household indebtedness that the movement had exposed. Something more must be offered than the dictum stated by David Graeber, an influential voice in the movement, that "to create a genuine democratic system could only mean starting over entirely."3

For more than thirty years, the country has moved to privilege the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. The resulting trend toward oligarchy is largely the consequence of policies emerging from our political system - a system that few doubt is decisively shaped by the same rich individuals and big corporations who benefit from those policies. The political process is responsible for the fact that tax policy has favored high income earners, union organizing has been made all but impossible, and the financial system was allowed to decimate the economy. Today, more than ever, money rules over people. Our distorted political system is the reason we needed OWS; but OWS has not satisfied that need. Even today Graeber maintains that "Occupy was right to resist the temptation to issue concrete demands."4

However, there were other voices within OWS making the case that it should have engaged the political system. Gitlin quotes David DeGraw, another prominent participant in the movement, as saying that the idea of a constitutional amendment to get money out of politics was "the most 'consensed' issue" in the movement. 5 But those views did not prevail. OWS remained exclusively a movement of opposition; a self-limiting stance that meant that it fell tragically short of the potential (and hope) that it originally generated. It did not seize the moment.

Nevertheless if anything is certain, it is that OWS is not the last egalitarian insurgency we will see. The belief that our politics as well as our economy is rigged and unfair is palpable throughout the country. The trend line towards class polarization has not been reversed. And even an Obama second term is unlikely to set the country on a new course. The same grievances that produced OWS therefore will be present in the future - and they likely will be intensified. The emergence of renewed grassroots activism is only a matter of time.

The next time, however, the movement needs to be much more strategically clear than OWS. One guiding principle is critically important: the movement will have to demand legislation that can prevent rich people from using their wealth to disproportionately shape the rules that govern the economy. Banks should not exercise veto power over financial markets; corporations should not have their way with regard to labor law; and the rich should not be allowed to decisively influence tax policy. Under the current system, though office holders are elected by voters they find it necessary primarily to serve the interests of their financial patrons. This has to change. A new movement will have to insist that a wall be constructed between the use of private money and political power. We cannot move to a more egalitarian society until we adopt a more egalitarian politics.

Numerous schemes have been developed to build such a politics. They all call for public funding to be made available to candidates as a counter-weight to private financing. But whatever its design, the availability of tax money to pay for political campaigns is essential. Without it, the spectacle of politicians catering to the wishes of their big donors will persist.

Notes:

1. Todd Gitlin, Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012), p. 227.
2. Ibid., p. 227
3. David Graeber, "Can Debt Spark Revolution?" The Nation, September 24, 2012, p. 24.
4. Ibid., p. 24.
5. Todd Gitlin, Occupy Nation, p. 205.