11/10/2011 12:06 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

How Wall Street May Be Reformed

The New York Times has published no less than 150 articles on the Occupy Wall Street movement since October 1, all of them apparently intended to be somewhere between objective and positive, at least according to the standards of the newspaper of record.

The occupiers themselves may not, and perhaps should not, agree with this assessment by the mainstream media. But the fact is that, after an early phase of denial and dismissal, the movement has received a steady stream of interested coverage, as much or more as any movement I can recall. Where the Times leads, other major papers follow, along with MSNBC and, most of the time, CNN. Right-wing outlets like FOX promote further public interest with their vitriolic semi-hysteria.

Progressive activists networks like MoveOn, the American Dream Campaign, and the Campaign for America's Future have become allies, as has the AFL-CIO and many Democrats.

Public support is growing. As an anecdotal example, I was getting off a plane at Logan Airport the other night when a man at curbside, waiting for a ride from his sister, noticed me and asked if I was going to Occupy Boston. His name was Mike Walsh, he was middle-aged, and wore a plaid shirt under a plain sports coat. Adopting a journalistic mode, I replied by saying I was in Boston to speak at Clark University, and then asked him what he thought of Occupy. He gave the thumbs up, and I asked if he would mind telling me why he personally was supportive.

Smiling, he said, "I can give you 99 reasons."

Walsh was not an Occupier. He was taking a little vacation. But his thumbs up was an indicator of the rapid polarization of this movement still in its infancy, partly an effect of the media coverage.

And now the Times' coverage is reaching a new phase with a full-page Sunday report entitled "A Protest Reaches A Crossroads." (November 6, 2011) In general, campaigns and movements that live by the media, die by the media. In this case, the Times has given the movement a cautious pass, at least for now. A crossroads is not an epitaph.

But why a "crossroads" at this point? In part the approaching weather suggests hard times. The tycoons are upset. The patience of local officials is fraying. The police in some places are itching. The media needs fresh meat. Local stories report rising numbers of previously homeless people entering the encampments, adding to internal tensions. Most of all, reports the Times, "the protest's leaderless and non-hierarchical structure raises the question of how effective it can be."

As some say, however, it is what it is. The Occupy movement is not going to be indoors with a leader and executive board.

It may be weakened and dispersed by police raids and the toll of winter. A massive show of civil disobedience is unlikely, at least so far, in the absence of a national crackdown and a national resistance.

There could be a period like Valley Forge in 1799, when twelve thousand Continental soldiers withstood the winter storms to resist the British Crown. When I asked a young college teacher in a Boston tent what kind of goals he was thinking about, he simply replied "getting through the winter." That's Valley Forge thinking.

After winter comes a spring of possibilities. As one example, the Global One Percent will gather in Chicago for summits of NATO and the G-8. The Occupy movements in many countries could rise up together around an alternative economic, environmental and security vision, culminating in a global encampment at the Chicago summit. What if the Occupy movement can make a proposal to end and defund the wars, tax the speculators and invest in jobs? Attention will be paid. At the very least, the national political campaigns, in hyper-speed by then, will be filled with candidates keeping the issues alive with their mostly vacuous thoughts.

Frank Rich of the Times probably is right that this movement will continue through the 2012 elections and beyond. Our institutions simply are too paralyzed to achieve the kind of deep reform that will have the Occupiers fold up their tents any time soon.

There are internal dangers too, not simply external threats, that afflict any movement busy being born. None of these have much to do with decentralization or endless meetings. The chief danger is ideological sectarianism. These are heady times for advocates of anarchism, for example. One hears them on Pacifica describing the Occupy movement as a new phase of the anarchist ideology in history. Another leading theoretician of the Occupy movement emphasizes the importance to the present moment of Mikael Bakunin, a 19th century anarchist rival of Karl Marx and defender of the lumpen-proletariat. (According to the Times, a member of the Zuccotti Park general assembly said, "Mikhail Bakunin warned us of the hierarchy of bureaucrats." He was speaking against a proposal to delegate decisions to small groups, not sending dissidents to the firing squads.)

What would be the reaction of the 99 Percent to emails describing the differences between Bakunin and Marx, or calls to join the anarchists at the barricades? What if they were sent with funds supplied by the Koch brothers? Can the Occupiers leave the margins behind?

Perhaps the most formidable ideological foundation of the Occupy movement comes from the Vancouver-based Adbusters magazine, a colorful and creative "culture-jamming" publication, which called for an "American Autumn" to begin on September 17, in response to the Arab Spring. To its credit, and perhaps to its surprise, the Adbusters call was the spark that unleashed the Occupy movement, at least in New York, which has since spread around the globe. Social movements do have a pattern of entering history unexpectedly, by surprise, but they also require agency, which in this case the editors of Adbusters and their allied networks of anarchists, artists and veterans of past uprisings like Seattle.

It is far from correct to think that Adbusters controlled its creation, however, any more than plans for massive civil disobedience on October 6 had anything specifically to do with the stirrings in Zuccotti Park on September 17. Adbusters urged, based on the Cairo model, that the Occupy Wall Street converge around a single demand - jobs - and to bring tents. But there was no agreed parallel to the Egyptian slogan, "Down with Mubarak", on which the Wall Street protesters could be unified. The Adbusters' ideological viewpoint went further, however. As Adbusters editor Kalle Lassen explained to Justin Elliott of Salon on October 4:

"We are students of the Situationist movement. Those are the people who gave birth to what many people think was the first global revolution back in 1968 when some uprisings in Paris suddenly inspired uprisings all over the world. All of a sudden universities and cities were exploding. This was done by a small group of people, the Situationists, who were like the philosophical backbone of the movement. One of the key guys was Guy Debord, who wrote 'The Society of the Spectacle'. The idea is that if you have a very powerful meme, a very powerful idea, and the moment is ripe, then that is enough to ignite a revolution. That is the background that we come out of."

While there is a kernel of historical truth in Lassen's insight, it is mainly misleading. What is true is that an artistic sensibility can ignite a revolution. But the Vietnamese, Cubans and Black Panthers knew nothing of the French Situationists. One hundred American ghettos did not burst in flame because of the French students. Nor did Columbia University and a hundred American campuses go on strike for that reason. And in France, the student uprising came to an end when an alliance with the French trade unions broke apart over differences between cultural and economic demands. The European and American student movements did succeed in achieving significant reforms, but otherwise morphed into forms of Green parliamentarianism or were crushed as revolutionary vanguards.

What is fundamentally new and exciting about Occupy Wall Street is the spirit of its slogan, "We are the 99 Percent," an embrace of a movement based in the everyday life of mainstream Americans. While currents of Bohemianism, anarchism, Marxism, and radical counter-cultures have a significant place in the history of American social protest, they are notable by their defiant marginality. The only alternative is for people of radical sensibility to awaken, engage, learn from, and form powerful populist political and economic associations with Americans from many mainstream backgrounds, from the inner cities to the stagnant suburbs to the dream world of Silicon Valley.

The alternative to the encampment of Occupiers cannot be politics as usual, however, with a bit of progressive freshener added. As an example of this non-choice, Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Yorker advises the following:

"Ultimately, inevitably, the route to real change has to run through politics - the politics of America's broken, god-awful, immutably two-party electoral system, the only one we have. The Tea Partiers know that. Do the Occupiers?" (November 7, 2011)

The simple answer to Herzberg's question is, no they probably don't. But why should they? Why crawl out of a tent to enter the claustrophobic trap of a "broken, god-awful" electoral system? Framed that way, it's a non-starter, as Hertzberg should know.

There are alternatives to repression, Valley Forge, and joining the broken system, however. The tiny encampments are poles of opposition, magnets creating new counter-currents of energy against the status quo. The Occupiers are a prophetic minority at the gates, asking some very old questions: What side are you on? What are you going to do about this? The Occupiers need the rest of us to be occupied about the crisis we all are in. The small tents of the resisters need a big tent of progressive activism.

If there are leading voices and leading ideas to come from this movement, they will arrive organically from within, not before and from without. At this point it is very important to read the provisional declaration issued by the Occupiers at the very beginning of the protest, and everything else they churn out on line or in video. Their statement of grievances is compelling, and their conclusion a simple one: it's time to assert our democratic rights against the corporate usurpers.

Occupy Wall Street supporters outside the tented encampments can, as Dick Flacks points out:

"emphasize finding ways for people to act within the framework of their lives and interests. The best example is to 'move your money', an action people can take that is effective and doesn't require living in tents. There are at least two other issues that maybe can generate that kind of action, the student debt and tuition question and the issue of mortgage relief." ( Flacks-Hayden correspondence)

At the same time, community-based groups, unions, environmentalists, intellectuals and political clubs can generate an atmosphere in which alternatives to the Wall Street Crisis are debated and popularized. Politicians can and should enter this competition, offering their own proposals for public solutions. Now, for example, ex-president Bill Clinton tells us he should have done more about financial derivatives -- he should elaborate on what he should have done. Now, too, we learn from Ron Suskind's, Confidence Men, that President Obama thought a global financial transaction tax was a good idea -- until his economic advisers ignored and sabotaged him. If so, let's float the idea out there before the coming G-8 Summit and see who dares to oppose it. What does Al Gore have to propose about Green Jobs? Turn it into a proposal. What are Jerry Brown and Mario Cuomo considering about foreclosures and infrastructure investments in their Democratic states that might be models for the nation? Instead of complaining that Occupy Wall Street wasn't around during last year's congressional debate, as he recently did on Rachel Maddow's show, Barney Frank should speak out against removal of strong derivatives reform in the Dodd-Frank law. Above all, Sen. Bernie Sanders should take his populist economic crusade on the road now that the audience is aroused and interested. It's time for teach-ins leading into the legislative and electoral battles of 2012.

Not that we should rely on recycled ideas from our established political leaders. But they should stop reading the latest polls on Occupy Wall Street and see the new movement as creating a more favorable climate for their best proposals. The time is ripe to float new policy ideas, thanks to the public's surging interest in Wall Street bailouts amidst their collapsing standard of living. The Occupiers will know, and let the rest of us know, when there are emerging ideas that resonate with their hopes.

Reforms like the New Deal began as the Franklin Roosevelt presidential campaign slogan years before their content was filled in -- an experimental, multi-year and multi-issue package of labor law reforms, Social Security, public works investments and the like, which came out of a tumultuous process like this one, not from the editorial advice of columnists or white papers by brainy ideologues.

What was named the New Deal began with encampments. There were "hobo jungles" and "Hoovervilles" sprouting everywhere, "a few dozen to a thousand people thrown together surviving in structures made of cardboard boxes or corrugated metal." (Paul Buhle, Sabrina Jones and Harvey Pekar, FDR and the New Deal, Steerforth, 2010, p. 28)

As the Hoover era ended, there arose the so-called Bonus Army, in which "desperate bands of men traveled to Washington and set up camp within view of the Capitol... The men were mostly middle-class patriotic Americans," insisting that they be paid their paltry bonuses for service in World War One. The Senate and President met them with fierce repression and rejection, but they awakened a national mood that became the atmosphere for the New Deal. (New York Magazine, October 23, 2011)

After a short period of waiting for Roosevelt to act, a many-layered popular front surged into existence. It's correct, as historian Robby Cohen says, "just about all the movements whose demands were translated into policy... had a specific reform agenda that included concrete demands - students winning federal aid to needy students, the Townsend movement winning old age pensions, the labor movement winning the NLRB, etc." (Cohen-Hayden correspondence)

Cohen, a professor at NYU, doesn't think "OWS can or will offer such specific demands in part because they view the political system as too corrupted by money and in part because they see such incremental change as co-opting." While Cohen may be right about OWS, I have a less tidy view of how the New Deal came to be. The steady disruption of the status quo order provided the leverage, even the necessity, for significant reforms to be improvised by FDR's Brain Trust. Wildcat strikes were attempted. Farm and home foreclosures were fought. Artists painted murals and wrote inspired literature. Students turned into labor organizers. Through the Civilian Conservation Corps, a half-million unemployed people moved out to plant millions of trees, channel floods and conserve the soil. Public works jobs employing nearly five million Americans were launched through the Civil Works Administration.

By 1933-34, according to Buhle, millions of Americans began to "get radical." There were general strikes in 1934 in San Francisco, Minneapolis-St.Paul, Seattle and Rhode Island. Workers occupied and shut down auto, steel and rubber plants as well as coalmines. By 1935, the Wagner Act was passed, recognizing collective bargaining rights. Social Security was achieved, and emergency relief programs as well. By 1938, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was launched, one of the most radical organizing efforts in US history. Anarchists, Wobblies, Trotskyists, Social Democrats, all threw themselves into popular struggles, while also attacking each other whenever time allowed. It was a cauldron, not a seminar.

With Upton Sinclair and Floyd Olson on his left, Huey Long on his populist flank, and Father Coughlin, Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh on his right, Franklin Roosevelt -- and his much more progressive partner, Eleanor -- navigated their way through a swirling political center to the achievement of reforms which the Tea Party and most Republicans even today continue trying to repeal. The Left would suffer both repression and demise in the aftermath of the New Deal, but without the Left there might have been no reforms at all, only an American form of fascism. The New Deal was never ideal, always a work in progress. Unemployment was reduced, but it took World War 2 to achieve full employment. FDR died in 1945 before his "Economic Bill of Rights" could be implemented, and the nation slid into the Cold War era.

Little of this was foreseen by anyone as the 1930s began. Direct action, organizing and politics were essential in achieving the ad hoc and piecemeal New Deal reforms, forcing the attention of decision-makers on finding answers to the spiraling economic and political crisis.

History suggests that the present Occupy movement may repeat the same process.

  1. The spread of the occupations;
  2. A change in the national mood and thinking about reforming and containing finance capitalism;
  3. The imagining and invention of public policy alternatives, from the bottom up;
  4. Their debate and partial adoption by government authorities.

The alternative is unpredictable civil strife and democracy's erosion.

Occupy Wall Street is the kind of catalyst which is capable of creating the chemistry in which it will be possible -- just possible -- to visualize, write down, organize around and campaign for a new array of reforms, economic, political and environmental, that may yet become another American Consensus for decades to come.