Occupy Wall Street: The Roots of a Social Movement

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By Rowan Wolf

Portlandia rides the Wall Street Bull

Mic Check!

There is a seemingly constant mantra from the corporate media propaganda machine, and now from some avowed “progressives” (such as Maddow, Harris-Perry, and Rhodes), that the Occupy Movement needs to focus its demands; make clear political policy statements; and form a “recognizable” organizational structure. Rachel Maddow had a conversation with Melissa Harris-Perry on November 17th regarding the Occupy Movement. It is summarized thusly on Maddow’s site:

Melissa Harris-Perry, professor at Tulane University, talks with Rachel Maddow about how the Occupy Wall Street movement can convert its energy, passion and broad support into political power and action.


I find even making these suggestions of “transitioning” to “political power and action” troublesome at best, and an undermining of the movement at worst.

This is a coalescing social movement. It has its roots in the protests in Seattle during the WTO in 1999. What we saw then was a number of different groups with different base concerns (globalization, labor, environment, etc) coming together to engage in a visible coalition statement against globalization which impacts all of these concerns.

However, what we see with the Occupy Movement is not a redux of Seattle in 1999. All of those players and more are certainly present across the country. However, they are largely present in a more holistic way. The exception to this seems to be the unions which vaguely stand apart, but increasingly they are merging as various actions around the country move forward.

The Occupy Movement appears to be an evolution from 1999 that reflects a growing awareness of the interlocking nature of various issues, and how they are linked to the concentration of wealth and power. In Seattle we saw distinct groups coming together for joint action. In Occupy we have the issues present and the different groups largely vary in strategy – not by organizational affiliation. Further, there is a dramatic change in organizational structure. The Occupy Movement has decided to utilize a decentralized consensus model.

The Occupy citizenry have made clear that they are operating in a flat, decentralized organizational structure. There are no “leaders,” and the movement eschews hierarchy. They meet in General Assemblies and break up into smaller groups for discussion of complex decisions. The decisions are made via a form of consensus. The calls from outside to the movement for an organizational structure are a blind slap in the face as there already is a structure. Once again the 1% (and their lap dog media spokespeople) are trying to force their model upon others. Essentially saying “take me to your leader” for a group that deliberately has none. Concluding that the Occupiers are disorganized because they don’t follow the dominant model is propaganda. Further, is the apparent belief that in order to “move forward” the Occupy Movement must change to a hierarchical organization with leaders and become a political movement (at best) lacks imagination.

The organizational model that has been chosen is the carrier wave of the movement – “we are doing this differently.” This choice is linked to one clearly identified problem – “the system” (our social system) is broken. Choosing to organize and function using a different model is a direct challenge to cultural practices – not just political issues. It is one of the many things that identify the Occupy Movement as a social rather than just a political movement. It is a clear statement that we must think and act differently to achieve different results.

Calls for the Occupy Movement to transition to a political movement are calls for the movement to fit a failed model. It is an attempt to bring the movement under a political party tent when the clear statement is that that system (political) is also broken. Certainly there are policies and legislative changes that can help address some of the issues raised by the movement. However, there are things that go beyond the political – such as communality, low consumption, direct democracy, non-violence, that are clearly social. Further, in theclassification of social movements, the Occupy movement falls into “revolutionary.” Essentially:

Revolutionary movements are not interested in working within the system. For members of such movements, the system itself is the problem and it cannot be fixed; therefore, the only solution is to get rid of the system and replace it with a system that members think is better. ~ Global Sociology

There have also been those who have proposed that the Occupy Movement is (or is trying to be) the flip side of the Tea Party. The two are not comparable in a variety of ways that have been detailed by others. However, the Tea Party is clearly a political movement, and is totally integrated into the Republican Party (regardless of claims of “independence.”) If we look at the Tea Partiers socially rather than politically (though this distinction has become moot in the Republican Party with virtually all of the Republican Presidential candidates pledging their “born again” vitas at the Family Leader Forum) we would identify it as a “reformative” movement. Such a movement advocates returning to a former time (a pressure in the Republican Party since Reagan), and operating within the existing institutions. In fact the Tea Partiers are largely an extension of a long term extreme conservative takeover of the Party. This connection to the accepted reins of power is clear as Tea Partiers can show up for a demonstration carrying automatic weapons (including when the President is present) and not be met by the police. Far different than the shoulder to shoulder police presence at Occupy events across the country.

Corporate media further the meme that the Occupiers need to take “action.” I am not sure what counts as “action,” but that has been characteristic of the movement across the country. We have seen the movement strategically physically claiming territory as a component of free speech and direct social action. What more action are folks looking for?

NHNE Occupy Wall Street

While the movement is monikered the “Occupy Movement,” or “Occupy Wall Street Movement,” what is happening is a claiming of space – be that park, mall, building or street. This physical claiming of space for the people is a powerful statement. It proclaims each space as public – even when that occupation is a branch of Chase.
Yet a floating critique has surfaced that the focus of the movement is unclear. Really? Unclear? It seems perfectly clear to me that there are multiple clear foci. If one listens to 30 minutes of streaming video of almost any of the occupy groups one will likely hear the following issues:

• politicians should legislate to the good of the 99% – not the 1%;
• drastically narrow the wealth gap;
• prosecute the criminality of the investment banks;
• stop investment into private prisons;
• protect and serve the environment;
• universal college education;
• universal, single-payer health care;
• house the homeless;
• house the homeless vets;
• stop the wars.

In short, most of the focus is on social justice and equity. This is a movement towards fairness in a society and economic system which is beyond unfair.

With typical lack of historical context here in the U.S., one might assume that this is the first time we have been in this situation of revolt of the masses. It is not. I think that the following quotation is stunning on its reflection of what is happening today. It is from United States History: American Labor Movement..

Concentrations of wealth by 1900
Mass concentration of wealth through acquisitions, such as one with J.P. Morgan to form the United States Steel Company in 1901, and the unbridled power of investment banking firms, led labor unrest to the doorstep of a population of one percent owning more national wealth than the other 99 percent.

Between the years of 1897 and 1903, approximately half of America’s families did not own property. And by 1900, 18 million of the 29 million made an annual wage of around $500, which was below the cost of living for a industrialized family of four, while Andrew Carnegie earned $23 million himself.

In fact, time after time it has been workers who have risen up to fight the concentration of wealth that leaves workers in essentially a slave labor situation. Each time, there has been the use of violence against workers to bring them back under control. That violence has been carried out by police, the state, as well as private brigands hired by the wealthy (as if they were really separate groups).

However, historically those who were revolting were more than workers. Like the Occupy citizenry of today, they were the 99%. While much of the resistance across time has been the unions, many times those unions were more than political – for example the International Workers of the World (IWW or “Wobblies” still still extant).

Since we have been on this loop before, one might ask if we will do something different this time. I have heard people say that capitalism needs a “re-set.” Clearly that doesn’t really work. The inequality stays high and then ultimately reaches a point where there is an “uprising.” The reality is that the very rich stay very rich across time.

In America’s Richest Families by Duncan Greenberg and Marie Thibault (Forbes. 12/03/09), they state:

The 25 families on our list are worth a combined $418 billion. Given the stance of secrecy often adopted by American aristocracy, all of the net worth figures should be considered “at least” estimates.

Of the 25 families we’ve identified, 44% owe their fortunes to companies founded in the 19th century. Another 36% trace their wealth to businesses started in the first half of the 20th century. Three companies–Stryker Corp. ( SYK – news – people ), Estée Lauder and Fidelity Management and Research–were founded in 1946.

(See end of article for list of the families)

Today we point at the top 1%, but there is a huge range of wealth distribution among that group. William Domhoff points us to a couple of excellent sources on the top 1%. First is an investment manager who works with the wealthy. According to him, folks enter that 1% range at about $300,000 in earnings and $1.2 million in net wealth. While that is clearly a lot of money for many of us, it is also clear that the wealth skewing is higher up than the 1% line. We climb up to the 0.01% level at about $24.4 million. Then above that lofty group (according toDavid Caye Johnson) we have the top 400 taxpayers who in 2008 had an average annual income of $240 million.

So $300,00-$400,000 annual income and a net worth of $1.2 million gets one into the top 1%, but the top .1% it takes roughly $24 million, but the top 400 tax payers earned an average of $240 million, and beyond them we have the billionaires. I have trouble wrapping myself around $240 million a year (much less billions). That would be like winning a lottery every year. Welcome to capitalism.

IBT. Occupy Wall Street: Top 10 Protest Signs and Slogans

After the disaster of 2008 which continues as a depression (not a recession or a slow economy for the majority of us) many people realize that the deck has been stacked and drastic action is needed to even attempt to right the scales. Sure the “banks got bailed out and we got sold out.” It happens every time. We have a presidential candidate (Romney) openly arguing for corporate personhood, and we have a sitting President whose administration is reportedly actively working to break up the Occupy Movement. In this case I am referring to the Department of Homeland Security working with Mayors to bust up the encampments.

Attempts to Delegitimate the Movement
There are common and long-used tactics to discredit the movement. The encampments drew in those who were already on the streets – the diverse array of the homeless. (As one Portland woman put it, these people have been “occupying” Portland for decades.) They brought their already unmet issues with them. The Occupy encampments did not create homelessness, or mental illness, or substance abuse problems. They did, however, largely respond to these groups with compassion, food, and inclusion. What they got for doing what communities largely have not done is for the encampments to be branded as hotbeds of crime and drugs, and the Occupiers as criminals and drug users.

Another delegitimating tactic has been to equate anarchy with lawlessness, vandalism, violence, and crime. Anarchists are not necessarily lawless and violent, and there are certainly those who are not Anarchists who are lawless and violent. The use of vandalism, and non-peaceful response are tactics – as is civil disobedience. Anarchism has a long and complex history with many different “flavors” at this point in time. To use it as a euphemism for what is considered “bad and lawless” by the corporate lapdogs is propaganda and not information.

I believe that watching the live feeds, and watching the people’s media reports and analysis dramatically demonstrate the discrepancy between what is happening and what gets reported. There are even weird discrepancies in what does get reported. So, for example, on N17 at 8am, a march was to take place across the Steel Bridge in Portland, Oregon. The police closed the bridge to traffic at 4am. However, a handful of people were arrested for sitting on the bridge and refusing to move. One of the charges in their arrest? Interfering with traffic.

While the Occupy Movement reaches across the country and appears to continue to grow, the people’s movements continue across the world. In Europe, the issues are similar to our own. Namely protests against rapacious capitalism and the efforts to address the depression on the backs of the 99% – not the financial system and very wealthy who both caused the problem and reaped the riches of the various bailouts. In the Middle East, the protests are against the repression of regimes which have held power with the blessings of the “West.” The people of the world are restless under the yoke of systems which interlock and have the same population at the invisible helm of power and influence.

The scales have been weighted against us – if we count economic resources as the only thing that counts. But there are other options and other resources. We do have numbers and our ability to control (to some extent) our participation in the system which is grinding most of us into the dust. This is not just an economic problem, nor a political problem. It is (as the Occupiers know) a system problem which has stretched across centuries and now occupies our lives – something else we need to take back!

Mic check!

******
The 25 Richest Families from Forbes.com
Waltons ($90 billion)
Kochs ($40 billion)
Mars ($35 billion)
Cargill/McMillan ($30 billion)
Cox ($21 billion – media)
Johnson ($20 billion – investment)
Pritzkker ($17 billion – Hyatt Hotels and Marmon Industries)
Du Pont ($15 billion)
Hearst ($14 billion)
Johnson ($13 billion – Johnson and Johnson)
Ziff ( $12 billion Ziff-Davis Publishing, investments)
Dorrance ($12 billion Campbell Soup)
Johnson ($11.5 billion SC Johnson)
Mellon ($10 billion Alcoa, Gulf Oil)
Bass ($10 billion oil investments)
Newhouse ($9 billion publishing)
Johnson ($9 billion investments)
Taylor ($9 billion Enterprise Rent A Car)
Rockefeller ($7 billion Standard Oil)
Lauder ($7 billion Estee Lauder)
Scripps ($6.7 billion media and technology)
Bechtel ($6 billion)
Fisher ($5.5 billion The Gap)
Stryker ($5.2 billion hospital beds)
Phipps ($5 billion Carnegie Company)

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