America shOWS its soul

By insisting that America's socio-economic renewal must be more just and equitable, the Occupy Wall Street movement has captured the imagination of the world. But can it really transform the political landscape?

Updated - November 17, 2021 12:50 am IST

Published - October 29, 2011 05:17 pm IST

A demonstrator in Zuccotti Park. Photo: AFP

A demonstrator in Zuccotti Park. Photo: AFP

For many of us covering politics in the United States for foreign publications, no mystery has been greater than the power of resurgent conservatism in recent years.

While nearly two decades of laissez-faire policies under former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush succeeded in bankrupting the American middle class and driving it to Depression-era despair, the initial, angry response came not from the Left but the Right. Thus the Tea Party was born, warts and all.

When the Tea Party then went on to enjoy a stunning success in getting its sympathisers elected to Congress in last year's mid-term polls, that made the footprint of the American Right on policymaking impossible to ignore. More recently, the colourful, if sometimes hateful, debates between potential Republican Presidential contenders have proved to be a handy platform for bashing President Barack Obama's record in office.

Late response

Yet it was only as late as September 17 this year that a movement appeared on the national stage that not only identified the true malaise of governance during the Clinton and Bush years but also finally showed that America had a soul, a sense of balance in its understanding of history, and a recognition of the harsh toll of the recession years. That movement is Occupy Wall Street (OWS).

In the brief five weeks that it has been alive OWS has not only been the first real locus of rightful indignation of a disenchanted middle class reeling from the onslaught of the downturn, but it has captured the imagination of many across the world, from Beijing to Tehran.

Ironically, assuming a leaderless and loosely organised structure like its antithesis the Tea Party movement, OWS strikes at what is now widely recognised as the epicentre of the financial markets collapse of 2008 — the traditional home of the world's largest banks in New York City's financial district.

Although it was initially said to have been instigated by a Canadian activist group called Adbusters, it quickly ballooned into a massively popular series of marches that aimed to highlight inequality and corporate greed.

Its statistics-based war cry of “We are the 99 per cent” reaches to the very core of the problem with American economics today, that the rules of the game have led to a deeply unequal distribution of wealth in the world's only superpower.

With almost 40 per cent of that wealth held by the top percentile of the population, who further pay a far lower tax rate than those much poorer than them, widespread anger has centred on the fact that ordinary Americans are trapped in the vice-like grip of housing foreclosures and job losses and have borne the brunt of the crisis.

Thus what began as a march on Wall Street by approximately five thousand protestors at Manhattan's Zuccotti Park rapidly mushroomed into a movement of many hundreds of thousands in other major U.S. cities too, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Boston.

By the time the movement hit the one-month mark it began to spread to other nations as well, with copycat demonstrations being held across Asia and Europe, in many cases again pulling in thousands of protestors.

Yet, similar to the Indian government's clumsy early response to the Jan Lokpal movement, the New York Police Department unwittingly gave OWS even more publicity when, on September 24, one of its officers viciously attacked an unarmed, penned-in group of four female protestors with pepper spray.

Insensitive handling

With the NYPD's heavy-handed action against the protestors being captured live on film and going viral on the Internet within the hour, the officer in question, Anthony Bologna, faces an internal disciplinary charge.

New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg appeared to learn a lesson from this episode, about the dangers of violently repressing peaceful demonstrators, especially when thousands of cell phone cameras were silently recording and transmitting every such incident to millions of viewers across the world.

While NYPD arrested over 700 demonstrators marching north from Zuccotti Park on October 1, Mr. Bloomberg softened his stance two weeks later. Although he had issued an evacuation order to clean up Zuccotti Park he however backed off from that course of action and avoided another confrontation with the demonstrators.

By this time the rest of mainstream American politics was quickly waking up to the emotive power of the new movement, with Democrats unsurprisingly voicing sympathy for it and Republicans and the Tea Party questioning its credibility.

Even as major U.S. labour unions such as AFL-CIO, the Transport Workers Union, the Service Employees International Union and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union joined OWS, the Democratic leadership expressed cautious support.

Mr. Obama spoke through the voice of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, when he said at the unveiling of a statue of Dr. King that if he were still alive, “I believe he would remind us that the unemployed worker can rightly challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonising all who work there.”

The powerful denizens of Wall Street either remained mute in the face of OWS' direct criticism of their role in the economic meltdown or joined Democratic leaders in expressing sympathy. Even when OWS embarked on a “Millionaires March” targeting the private homes of captains of industry such as Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan and Jeff Immelt of GE, it only received a positive response.

Mr. Immelt was quoted as saying, “Unemployment is 9.1 per cent and underemployment is much higher than that, particularly among young people that don't have a college degree. It is natural to assume people are angry, and so I think we have to be empathetic and understand that people are not feeling great.”

Expected Republican response

Many mainstream Republican leaders too indicated a sense of understanding about people's frustration at the high unemployment rate and depressed state of the economy. Yet some of the more radical among them, such as Herman Cain, former Godfather Pizza CEO and current Republican Presidential race contender, insinuated that OWS protestors were “jealous” Americans who “play the victim card” and want to “take somebody else's” Cadillac.

Mr. Cain's rivals, such as former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, however chose to sympathise with the protestors' sentiment but lay blame for their plight on the Obama administration's policies. Mr. Gingrich said, “There are a lot of people in America who are angry... This is the natural product of President Obama's class warfare.”

At the heart of these diverse responses is the question of what the rise of OWS could mean for American politics today, particularly the question of whether it could challenge the assumptions of the Tea Party movement and thus bringing the battle to the Right-wing group's doorstep.

What was most remarkable about the Tea Party's meteoric rise in U.S. politics since 2009 was not so much that a horizontally-structured movement could capture the imagination of so many ordinary Americans, but the fact that it could do so despite representing a conservative view of American history that completely repudiated blame for engendering the worst economic downturn this country has seen since the 1930s.

Thus the Tea Party has relentlessly pressed legislators to cut the size of government spending and roll back regulation in a majority of industries, even though it was obvious that an utter lack of regulation of financial market players such as mortgage lenders had contributed to the unprecedented housing market collapse in this country.

Similarly, Tea Party-backed legislators such as Michele Bachmann, also a Republican Presidential hopeful for 2012, have vowed to have what they pejoratively refer to as “Obamacare” repealed, unmindful of the fact that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated the path-breaking healthcare reform will cut the U.S. deficit by $138 billion over the first decade of its implementation and by $1.2 trillion over the second.

But wasn't deficit reduction at the heart of the debt limit negotiations over the summer, in which Republicans held the government and indeed the entire nation hostage through their veto power in Congress?

The fact that the Tea Party has been so politically successful despite such glaring contradictions is down to one major attribute of the movement — it taps into widespread public anger over the large-scale regulatory failure that led to the country's economic woes in the first place.

OWS could present the ultimate challenge to the Tea Party's partisan answer to the problem, because it directly links laissez-faire policies, rather than over-regulation, to the crisis. If this means more support to the unemployed, more medical care for the elderly and more educational resources for poorer students, then OWS may well ring true with impoverished American voters in 2012 where the Tea Party does not.

At the crossroads

Yet, even as it heads towards its two-month birthday, OWS is at a crossroads and the choices it makes in the weeks ahead will determine whether the movement will retain salience in terms of what matters most to middle class Americans, or whether it will become another catch-all Leftist, or even worse, “hippy,” movement.

For, while it is certainly commendable that OWS protestors have spoken of numerous, wide-ranging ills that plague American society today, from environmental destruction to minority discrimination, nothing would give the movement coherence as much as a well-defined set of core demands that the political leadership could adopt if they so chose.

It is hard to imagine Obama or indeed even a far more Left-leaning member of Congress take up the variegated rainbow portfolio of OWS as it stands in its current form. The argument that OWS has made in favour of thus far avoiding the core-demands question would appear to be that its Declaration of the Occupation of New York City document is sufficient, and “The open democracy of Zuccotti Park is the point of the movement,” as the New York Times noted.

Instead, it would be a welcome irony if OWS took a page out of the Tea Party's book and focused on its impact on mainstream American politics through grassroots mobilisation. This step alone could mark an inflection point for a transformative phase in the movement. It could also endow OWS with the power to remake the political landscape of a country in dire need of socioeconomic renewal.

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