The aspirations of Occupy Wall Street

November 10, 2011

Tithi Bhattacharya explains how the development of the Occupy Wall Street protest movement has contributed to its widespread appeal.

I TOLD my class I was going as Junk Bond for Halloween. They quipped, "Is your daughter going as Derivative?"

I know that's funny (hilarious, actually), but it also speaks to an aspect of the Occupy movement that is unique to this movement.

The Occupy movements in all parts of the world have focused their anger on the economy. This is a significant departure from the "culture wars" of previous years and even general political questions about identity and categories of oppression.

As we know, the movement began at Wall Street, and not coincidentally, the occupiers have consistently focused on the inequality of the economic system in general and on capitalism as a brutal economic system in particular.

This level of political sharpness and ideological clarity in articulating a systemic critique of capitalism is unusual for any movement. But it is practically unique if you consider that the Occupy movement has only just begun and that a vast majority of its participants are neither Marxist economists nor veteran activists, but young people.

The most obvious precursor to Occupy Wall Street (OWS), in terms of composition and political maturity, is the wave of anti-capitalist protests of the early 2000s, which followed the now famous "Battle of Seattle" against the World Trade Organization in 1999. Those protests had the same expression of anger against the system as a whole and, similar to OWS, saw unelected bodies--such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF)--as the real wielders of power in society.

However, the current political moment and form of struggle is different from this particular past in at least one significant way.

The aspirations and reach of the previous wave of anti-capitalist movement was often more international than local. The dispossession of the Global South by capitalism and the rampant neo-imperialism that was ruining the planet formed the leading concerns for the young activists.

Socialists and other organized left groups of course argued within the movement to translate and direct this anger at local rulers who did the bidding of institutions such as the IMF, but the insurrectory mood remained against international organizations that were (rightly) seen as pillaging the "third world."

OWS, on the other hand, has a fantastic understanding of the simultaneity of capitalist exploitation at both the national and international level. It has a clear political target: the national or local ruling class. At the same time, the Occupiers also understand the international reach of capital--hence the anger against the banks and institutions of high finance.

For the most part, the occupations are physically positioned around at least one of the two centers of authority: either political or economic (banks, state houses, stock market). There is thus a powerful recognition by the movement of the structural intimacy between these two nodes of power, a recognition that is crucially important for political organizing.

When protesting against the way capitalism robs the 99 percent, who are we actually holding responsible? The banks, of course, but OWS is also showing us the capillaries of corruption and profit that joins together the banks, the corporations, the police and our elected political leaders.

Simply put, by asking systemic questions about capitalist distribution of resources, the Occupy movement is drawing attention to the hollowness of "democracy" and bourgeois politics under capitalism.

Banks and corporations are often anonymous, protest against them run the risk of being abstract. But showing how our elected leaders are serving these anonymous giants, gives the movement a clear target. We can now say with confidence, we know who is responsible for the corporate take over of our society: because they have a state house address.

PUTTING THE economy center stage, as OWS does, also puts the right wing at a tremendous disadvantage. Talking about the economy reveals the obscene inequalities in our world, where Bill Gates' wealth is greater than the gross domestic product of Costa Rica or Michael Bloomberg's is worth more than Zambia.

As long as OWS sets the political agenda by keeping the focus on the economy and economic resources, the right will find it difficult to talk about increasing the defense budget to bomb yet another country, or allocating more money to attack immigrants. Issues of economic inequalities are the forte of class politics, an arena where the right has little maneuverability.

Where the hard right has faltered, the liberals, however, have taken up their cause. Several media and academic pundits (in the U.S. at least) have "discovered" similarities between the OWS movement and the Tea Party. By invoking puerile formal characteristics these "experts" claim that since both the OWS and the Tea Party direct their criticism at the government, they must share a common political cause and should possibly unite.

This argument about an organization that is funded by millionaires and whose members use the n-word with impunity is so absurd that one ought to almost dismiss it. But for a large number of Occupiers, the argument seems attractive because, as first-time activists, they have the wonderful and genuine thirst for unity with any political force that seems to be standing up to the corrupt political leaders.

But the Tea Party is not opposed to the government for the same reasons as the OWS. In fact, they hate the government for the exact opposite reasons. The Occupiers' disgust with the government stems from the politician's inability to curb capital's hold on society. The Tea Party, however, is asking for a "free-er" free market, where government has minimal or no control over corporations and banks.

The point is not, as the liberal media argues, whether ordinary people in the past have supported or voted for the Tea Party. Of course they have. The point is to expose the politics of the Tea Party and show whose interest they seek to serve.

As part of OWS, when we voice our anger at the government the occasional Tea Partier may jump onto our side, which is why we need to shout even louder against the rich and against the corporations--at which point the Teabagger is bound to slink off (possibly to his mansion). Here again, the continued focus on the economy and material inequality that OWS has makes it harder for right-wing ideas, even of the Tea Party variety, to take hold of the movement.

THE USUAL histories of struggle teach us that struggles begin over specific issues and demands. As they develop in scope and confidence, the more politically advanced sections of the movement start to generalize the experience and direct the movement towards more systemic critiques.

The Occupy movement is a reverse of this tendency. It starts from a systemic critique and is gradually building its way to local demands and specific political forms. It should then come as no surprise that what is often a culmination of protracted struggle--the general strike--has become one of the first stepping-stones for the Occupy movement in Oakland.

There is no doubt that, compared to the rest of the globe, the United States have been "backward" when it comes to large number of people hitting the streets against the neo-liberal consensus. The Occupy movement proves that just because it is coming late to political struggle, does not mean it is any less prepared or angry.

Indeed, it almost seems that coming late into the arena has given it the advantage of having learnt and generalized the lessons from elsewhere. We should not be surprised at the political maturity of Occupy Wall Street--for the road to Zuccotti Park ran through Tunisia, Cairo, Gaza and Wisconsin.

The idea that lies at the heart of revolutionary socialism--that the resources of the planet is controlled by a tiny minority--has suddenly been put in the front page of every newspaper around the world by the force of the Occupation movements. The answer to such oligarchic control is also emerging from within the movement. It is a political act that cannot be co-opted by the Democrat begging for our votes, or the Tea Partier ranting against immigrants--it's the strike. And Oakland has shown the way.

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