The Zeitgeist On Wall St
Following on my last post, I wanted to collect some thoughts on the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protest, which has rapidly grown more interesting. Today, for instance, instead of biking to Golden Gate Park and seeing some of the great free music, I watched mass arrests of hundreds of marchers who made their way onto the south (bklyn-bound) lane of the Brooklyn bridge where they were kettled by the NYPD. Live on the internet. Pretty high drama, but it's possibly quite a lot bigger than that.
First of all, my initial take on all this has been skeptical. I've done my share of protesting, back in mighty Oregon and in NYC during the tense period between 9/11 and the war in Iraq. I'm not convinced the form has much value. Like my sister I don't have a high tolerance for empty rhetoric, and there's also the question of pragmatic effect. We had 100s of 1000s in the streets of NYC in early 2003 and it made zero impact on the decision to invade.
I have read my Alinsky, but I've also read my Critical Art Ensemble and they called it back in the '90s: as power becomes virtual, the ability for a physical protest to challenge that power is greatly diminished. There used to be important buildings that could be blockaded and actually stop things. Today the best you can do is create inconvenience. If the powers-that-be have something really important to do in meatspace, they use a private island.
This is something different though. In the tradition of Tienamen and Tarir, it appears to be creating a catalytic space for an alternative to develop. I'm wary of seeing this as a global movement — the Weathermen had the same notion — and the stakes aren't directly comparable to Egypt, Tunisia, Syria or Bahrain, where kids fought and died for basic freedoms I was born with.
But there is a zeitgeist at work, and that's f'ing interesting, man.
The View from Liberty Square
I'm lucky enough to know some intelligent and credible people on the ground in NYC, and their reports carry a lot of weight for me. Matt Stoller is someone I met through the Living Liberally set — if I recall he was roommies with Krebs at Harvard — and he's a smart / serious person. Most recently he worked as a congressional staffer for Alan Grayson. His impressions, I trust. Here's a particularly illuminating graph from his post:
Meaning is a fundamental human need. The act of politicization, of building any movement, is based on individual, and then group self-confidence. As Daniel Ellsberg said, “courage is contagious”. I’m reminded of how Howard Dean campaign worker and current law professor Zephyr Teachout characterized the early antiwar blogosphere and then-radical campaign of Dean, as church-like in their community-building elements. That’s what #OccupyWallStreet reminded me of. Even the general assemblies, where people would speak, and others would respond, had a rhythmic quality to them, similar to churches or synagogues I’ve attended.
Another person I know and respect is Micah Sifry, who gave me his press pass at the '04 Democratic Convention so I could get in and see the final night of action. His piece gets down into the nuts and bolts a bit more, and his skepticism is basically the same as mine. Ultimately though I couldn't be more intrigued with his conclusion:
I think it's time to recognize that we're no longer in a what veteran activist Myles Horton would have called an organizational phase of political activity, where meetings have walls around them, messages have managers, advocacy is centrally paid for and done by professional lobbyists, marches have beginnings and endings, and the story line goes neatly gives from petition to legislation to reform.
Instead, in America we're now entering into a third wave of movement politics (the first being the rise of the "netroots" within the Democratic party after its leadership collapse between 2000-2003; and the second being the rise of the Tea Party after the conservative losses of 2006 and 2008). I don't pretend to know where the "Occupy" movement is going to go, though its main purpose appears to be to show first of all that it is here to stay, and to force a different perspective into a national discourse that up until now has marginalized and ignored grassroots anti-corporate social justice advocacy.
In other words, it's not just about inequality--but the deeper failure of institutions. To let people--especially the young--redress inequality by whatever slender means they might muster, by creating new opportunities. At every turn, the people in the Metamovement feel not merely spurned and scorned--but suffocated and strangled by institutions every bit as unflinchingly lethal as a hangman's noose.
For no matter how small and insignificant those destinies might seem to those looking down from the Olympian heights, in an era where prosperity itself lies in tatters, to have no agency over your destiny is the final word; the allegorical slap in the face; the insult that cannot be borne; the spark of quiet revolution.
This is vital. The Occupation of Wall Street (and maybe a city near you) is bringing this trend home to the states. This is the latest synergy of movements and tactics that have been developing over the past several years. The live-stream tactic was developed in this spring's labor dispute in Wisconsin, where the activists streamed stirring imagery of the occupied capitol building as a way of building national support for their cause. Anonymous is running the IRC channel. A lot of the logistics are being handled by grassroots orgs that grew out of the "dot org boom" of the mid-aughts. And now it's all coming together.
Now My Own Position is Ticklish
In the days of my youth I was much more of a classist from the lower-end. I was prejudiced against rich people because of some negative experiences I had growing up, and a vague sense of injustice and resentment about it all. Since then, I've gotten to know plenty of people who are fabulously successful and/or work in the "belly of the beast" on Wall St or in other areas of finance or corporate management. Good people. Sure, there are plenty of assholes in those places, but there are also plenty of assholes who work for non-profits.
I've become myself a successful entrepreneur, and am in the midst of dancing the Silicon Valley Venture waltz. You might say it's hypocritical of me to support a protest that's rhetorically aimed at the finance sector while simultaneously seeking financing for my latest enterprise, but I don't see the two as being inconsistent. I firmly believe we can have economy that works much better than what currently passes for capitalism. This is one of the core assumptions that continues to drive me as a businessperson, and I hope most agree that it's a worthwhile goal.
So then, In the context of these protests I hope that my friends at funds and on floors and clustered in boardrooms and suchlike realize that although there's going to be some heavy rhetoric pointed their way, at the end of the day none of this is really about them. This isn't an indictment of individuals. It's an indictment of the system.
Cliché as that sounds, it's true. We are failing to create opportunity, and the loss of dignity and agency that brings is both morally and pragmatically unacceptable. There are now more 22 year olds in the US than at any time since the peak of the Baby Boom, and these young people see a very dark future ahead. That's a social responsibility we all bear, all of us with any hands on the levers of power. The system isn't working.
To me, bringing that simple fact to the fore is the immediate value of these protests. It's gob-smackingly obvious that we're in a state of institutional failure — the airplane is stalling and pretty soon we'll start on a crash-course. Everyone can feel it, but the mainstream discourse has been studiously ignoring the stomach-turning lurch. You get occasional wafts of trader-panic on CNBC, but that's mostly people upset that they might lose some money, some of what they have. No voice for the human potential currently being squandered.
That wasted potential is huge, by the way. Left unaddressed it really might mean that dark future comes true. Until we free ourselves to question everything — including and especially the guts of our economic system — we're unlikely to see the kind of serious inquiry and marshaling of political will that would presage meaningful progress.
That kind of progress is something I think most people can get behind. But it'll never happen until we start asking these fundamental questions.