Why Occupy is so politically explosive


It has been more than two months since the Occupy Wall Street actions began in New York. The occupation in Zuccotti Park ended after the New York City government mobilised the police for a middle of the night raid. However, the political activity that it set in motion in the United States has not stopped. Not only have occupations and pro-Occupy demonstrations and pickets taken place throughout the US in hundreds of locations, but large mobilisations and even strikes, such as that in Oakland, California, have been possible. These have usually been in defence of the “right to occupy” in the face of police attacks.

The numbers of people directly involved in these actions have remained small, in comparison to the US population, 300 million. But while the level of mobilisations has been, in this sense, low, all the polls report 60-80% sympathy for the “occupiers” and their protests. The slogan that has captured this sentiment with great genius is: “The 1% versus 99%”. It is worth reminding ourselves of the draft earliest manifesto. It included demands to:

  • Halt foreclosures on the unemployed, sick and elderly
  • Increase funding to public services by taxing the richest 1%
  • Forgive all student loan debts
  • Reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act [regulating banks] to control speculation
  • Work with the other G20 nations to implement a 1% “Robin Hood” tax on all financial transactions and currency trades
  • Ban high-frequency “flash” trading and bring sanity to the markets
  • Break up the “too big to fail” banks that threaten our future
  • Arrest the financial fraudsters responsible for the 2008 meltdown and bring them to justice
  • Ordain a presidential commission tasked with ending the influence corporate money has on elected representatives in Washington

This sentiment combines demands for redistribution of wealth away from the 1% to the 99% with a recognition that this can happen only if political power also shifts from the 1% to the 99%. There are many potentials in the awareness of this interconnection.

Uniqueness of the US situation

There have been actions either replicating or in solidarity with the US occupations in other countries, including Australia. But it is in the US that the occupations have the greatest reality, support and momentum. In Greece and Spain, mobilisations are taking a different form, great mass mobilisations against drastic austerity measures being implemented by banker-backed, or even banker-installed, regimes. In the US, in some ways, the ruling class is in even deeper trouble than the capitalist elites of Europe.

There is a deep economic crisis in the global capitalist system, now a permanent crisis. The world’s capitalist classes will be in permanent crisis management mode for the foreseeable future, perhaps until they are overthrown. In some countries, there is another, interconnected, crisis, a budgetary crisis, primarily as a result of massive reductions in taxes on rich individuals and corporations over the last 30 years. This has been made worse in the US by massive military expenditures and corporate bailouts.

However, while the economic and budgetary crises underpin the tremendous changes brewing in the US, they are not the primary location of the danger faced by US rulers. Yes, the increased unemployment (14 million people, at least), homelessness (3.5 million), home foreclosures (2.8 million in 2009), increasing numbers under even the official poverty line (46 million) and people without health insurance (49 million) underpin the deepening unrest. But these processes have been accumulating steadily since the Reagan years.

While this worsening mal-distribution of wealth has become clearer to more people, it has been becoming even clearer that it is happening in the richest country in the world.

Liberal economist Joseph Stieglitz got front-page coverage in 2008 for his analysis that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars had cost US$5 trillion. Since 2009, the US people have been treated to daily newspaper and TV reports of bailouts of private corporations measured in the hundreds of billions and trillions. The period of crisis and bailout has introduced the words “trillions of dollars” into mass culture. Every US citizen now knows that the US is a rich country, with a huge economy.

But at the same time, ordinary citizens are being told that they can’t have a sufficient share of this wealth to guarantee a secure and dignified life. They are also finding out, from official government sources, that this enormous wealth is owned by no more than 1% of the population. Figures about the massive mal-distribution of wealth are circulated everywhere; they too are becoming part of mass culture, not only in the cyber-universe but even in the big-business-owned media.

Furthermore, the openly pro-wealth media, such as Fox News, celebrate wealth and greed and openly campaign against all forms of redistribution of wealth as socialism. Their celebration of the flat tax, taken up by Republican presidential hopefuls, is symbolic of this.

All this points to a more or less insoluble ideological crisis for the US capitalist class. They can’t and won’t make redistributive concessions significant enough to quell the public unrest. The reforms advocated by the likes of Warren Buffet and George Soros are now far too little and too late. The tax reduction plans of Obama, even if implemented, will be just the left hand giving out a part of what the right hand has taken away.

The secret is out in the wider domain; it is part of everyday ideological life. There is no hiding it again. And the Occupy movement is its exclamation mark. In the US (and perhaps also in the UK), the ruling class will now have to manage a permanent ideological crisis as well as a permanent economic crisis.

Repression and ideological crisis

It is not surprising to read of the coordination between the federal government, US state governors, police chiefs and private security agencies in devising the police methods used against the occupations in the US. Just as neo-conservative “thinkers” understood that the neoliberal globalisation push from the 1980s would squeeze the Third World and create hostility and therefore require the US to arm itself better, now there are those who realise that it is not tenable to convince 300 million people to accept the 1% versus 99% divide and that they must pay through poverty to ensure the continued enriching of the 1%.

Now that the secret is out, protest will become endemic. Better to nip things in the bud, some are already thinking.

When riots occurred in London and other UK cities, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron used the language of military occupation, borrowed from Iraq, to call for a police “surge” against the rioters. Now in US cities stun grenades and plastic bullets are being used, among other techniques. We can expect more of the same.

However, the US is not a fascist state able to repress all critics and opponents. The occupiers have been able to fight back, one way or another. Information and analysis around issues of wealth redistribution are spreading, especially via the internet. A new terrain is opening up, and new maps will be drawn, as more people in the US seek ways to fight for a redistribution of wealth and – crucially – for the power to implement such a redistribution. Finding a path through that terrain will involve fighting a war against what will be more and more like an occupying power.

Occupy in Australia

The situation, while sharing some similarities with the US, is clearly different in Australia. The US actions quickly inspired people in Australia who were also alienated from a reality that is so marred by mal-distribution of wealth, and from the elitist culture that goes with it.

But “mainstream” politics in Australia has not been marked by the same campaigning, open, gross and vulgar defence of trillion dollar bailouts of fat cats by big sections of the ruling class, nor has there been the same three-year-long jolting dislodging of millions from their homes. There has not been the extra burden of no access to health care. However, Australia has its equivalent, a steady grind downwards. In Australia, the same imbalance in distribution exists, with 20% of the population owning at least 60% of the wealth and the top 10% of households “earning” around four times as much as the rest. The poorest 20% own only 1%. And while there hasn’t been a big across-the-board jolt, there has been a steady decline in disposable income for a significant percentage of the population. Costs of utilities have increased more than 150% over the last three years, and rents have increased dramatically.

But a grind is different from a jolt. The political atmosphere of the circus of bourgeois politics is also different. In the US the terrain of bourgeois politics is defined by mass disappointment in Obama among his earlier supporters as he fails to resist seriously the pro-rich onslaught of the Republicans. In Australia, the atmosphere is created out of a supposed choice between a government that wants to raise taxes on polluters and mining companies and one that doesn’t. Labor’s carbon and mining taxes are at best just tinkering with the system, and most people will feel no real benefit. All the same, the current acts in the centre ring of the circus are not ones that in and of themselves are likely to expose contradictions easily.

Culture and movement

The surface objective conditions in Australia appear to be less conducive for the Occupy movements to achieve the same level of impact as in the US. All the same, I think that they point to coming very important changes. The political atmosphere in Australia is also influenced by the developments in the US (and Europe to some extent). What is discussed politically is not determined only by conditions and developments in Australia. The Occupy Wall Street actions and the political discussion they generate also remind everybody that the same basic inequalities exist in Australia even if a crisis of mal-distribution has not yet hit. We don’t know how long selling minerals to China will delay a similar crisis here.

Perhaps the biggest impact of the activities in the US is in the cultural challenge to ruling classes and systems everywhere. The early pictures of the activity at Zuccotti Park inspired people with the realisation that life can be more than just shuffling along obsessed with consuming the next meal, no matter at whose expense. There was life, excitement, courage, creativity.

Of course, as Slavoj Zizek said in his speech at the park, “Carnivales are cheap”. But the life that the actions emanate stems, not from form, but from content. Fight for the 99% against the 1%, for a society’s wealth to be used for its people, for it be produced in a habitat-friendly way, and do it together, respecting everybody’s rights and freedom of speech. The ideas are what created the life of these actions. The form looked and no doubt was exciting, and these forms may be used again, but the most important thing is that the form intensifies the excitement that the ideas generate.

The immediate task is to spread the idea of collective activity to win the power needed to redistribute wealth in a more humane way and to produce it in a more environmentally friendly way. Winning such power will be no easy task, although in the end 99% should be able to defeat 1%. There is a lot to analyse, understand and explain. An organisation trying to use the same tools of analysis collectively can help advance this process. There will be a lot of activity to organise and a lot of chances for that activity to unite people with the same general goals, even if attempting analysis with different tools. Occupy is an example of the latter whose spirit needs to be replicated.

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