The Increasing Visibility of Occupy Wall Street
America is a country where a $6 Netflix fee increase causes more of an uproar than a $5 debit card fee for Bank of America customers. Over 1 million Netflix subscribers closed their accounts in response to the increase. Here was a company, beloved by its subscribers for the near-infinite entertainment it provided, losing customers over a mere $6. The outrage was steeped, it seemed, in disbelief–how could they do this?
On the other hand the outrage surrounding the $5 BoA debit card fee has been muted by the public’s cynicism towards banks–a cynicism banks wear as a badge of honor. Indeed, when asked about the new fee, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan simply responded that the bank has a “right to make a profit.”
I’d like to think that people would be more likely to drop Bank of America over $5 than Netflix. However, this doesn’t seem to the be case. The reason is simple: the public will put up with a certain level of institutional discomfort–the sort of grin-and-bear-it fees, taxes, and tolls Americans have always accepted–but the one thing they won’t put up with is a disruption of the things that make day-to-day life bearable: food prices, housing, alcohol, and entertainment.
Which brings us to Occupy Wall Street.Occupy Wall Street is ultimately a reaction to the declining quality of life in America and specifically the issues of: unemployment, debt, economic insecurity, and inadequate health care. Every day it becomes a little bit harder to lead a normal life in America and out of that frustration comes Occupy Wall Street. The occupiers represent the 99 percent–the 99 percent who are at the mercy of the 1 percent who hold all of the money and power in America. But in the weeks since the occupation began, there has been much confusion and criticism over their perceived lack of goals and organization.
So: what are the goals of Occupy Wall Street and why are they being attacked?
Howard Zinn wrote in his A People’s History of the United States that “the more of the 99 percent that begin to see themselves as sharing needs, the more the guards and the prisoners see their common interest, the more the Establishment becomes isolated, ineffectual.” In other words, the Establishment (the 1 percent) uses guards (the economically secure and somewhat privileged) to protect the status-quo (the system that allows the 1 percent to keep 99 percent of the wealth). In periods of economic uncertainty, that system risks being exposed as more and more of the 99 percent “see themselves as sharing needs.” So while the guards of the system work to make the 1 percent invisible, they also work to encourage differences among the 99 percent to ensure their common needs remain invisible. The goal of Occupy Wall Street is to reveal that simple truth: We, all of us, are the 99 percent.
The anger, frustration, and discontent must be focused else it get reflected back on to the 99 percent in the form of racism, xenophobia, and other forms of hate. In the late 1920s, when millions were out of work and starving and as the US government seemed unable to offer any solutions, those millions were forced to turn elsewhere for solutions. One of those solutions was the brotherhood offered by the Ku Klux Klan. During that period, the KKK had grown to approximately 5 million members. Around the same time, trade unions were also beginning to learn how to harness that discontent. Just five years later, by 1930, KKK membership had fallen to 30,000 members, while trade unions had well over 3 million members. Once focused, the people were able to make demands on the Establishment that eventually led to creation of FDR’s New Deal.
More recently in 2008, during Obama’s run for the democratic presidential nomination, he got into trouble for alluding to exactly this sort of discontent while talking about the increasing unemployment numbers in Pennsylvania: “it’s not surprising, then, that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Hillary Clinton quickly attacked his comments: “Sen. Obama’s remarks are elitist and they are out of touch.” Obama later apologized and never really returned to that type of populist rhetoric, but for a few moments, it felt as though the veil had been lifted. What Obama saw while spending time in rural Pennsylvania were people desperate “to explain their frustrations.”
It’s not surprising then that the protesters at Occupy Wall Street have not received any direct support from politicians–republican or democrat–but instead have faced criticism from all sides. On a recent O’Reilly Factor, when asked about Occupy Wall Street, Dennis Miller launched into ad hominem attacks on the protesters:
when you mix into the fact that we raised a generation that are a little narcissistic, you know what I mean, like no dodge ball, relativism in everything, everybody gets the same grades, nobody wins tug-of-wars, you’ve got a bunch of kids who were taught to be precious out there
Of course, it’s important to remember that these kids were taught to be precious by Miller’s own generation–a generation that promised their children a better life, but whose policies made such a promise impossible. But this tactic of blaming the victims is by no means reserved to pundits. Potential republican presidential nominee Herman Cain recently commented on protesters at Occupy Wall Street:
I don’t have facts to back this up, but I happen to believe that these demonstrations are planned and orchestrated to distract from the failed policies of the Obama administration. Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself! … It is not a person’s fault if they succeeded, it is a person’s fault if they failed.
Two things: 1. “I don’t have the facts to back this up…” coming from the mouth of a potential candidate for the office of the United States of America is simply unacceptable; and 2. Cain’s comments strike me as unnecessarily cruel. What happened to “compassionate conservatives”? In the past month, conservatives have cheered for the death penalty, shouted “let him die” at a hypothetical uninsured sick man, and booed a gay soldier. The net effect of these sorts of attacks is to create and encourage a clear divide between the haves and the have-nots.
The strategy is simple enough: by attacking the protesters, the issues become invisible and it reengages the guards against the 99 percent by setting them against each other. Herman Cain’s attack is a compliment to the economically secure–if you succeeded, you did it on your own, so why can’t the protesters? Simply put: the protesters are lazy and you wanted it more; you worked harder; you’re better than they are.
But it’s simply not true.
On the most basic level, the goal of Occupy Wall Street is to make the 99 percent visible and convince the economically secure that they share the same interests as the economically insecure. Because it’s quite possible that one day you, too, might find yourself without a job, without insurance, and without anywhere to turn.