Wednesday, October 12, 2011

More of my comments on Occupy Wall Street


A newspaper interviewer from Brazil, Thiago Carrapatoso, sent me a list of questions about the Occupy Wall Street movement.  The story with some quotes eventually appeared in Portuguese.  For those curious about my observations, here is the interview in full.

1) The manifestation [demonstration] was organized firstly by two groups: AdBusters and
  Anonymous. Several other ones entered the fight, but the importance of both
  is evident. What this context can say about the manifestation as a whole? Is
  it the same traditional way of organizing manifestations? The general
  question is because Anonymous is a hacker group and is known for defending
  questions about digital policies. But, now, they are handling with hundreds
  of people sleeping in the streets. You can't go more physically (against
  digital or virtual) than that.

LW: The interesting dynamics are those that connect activities in the digital realm with that out in the world of face-to-face social life and politics.  In and of itself, cyberspace is a hollow, sterile realm, one often characterized by narcissistic forms of expression and non-stop, alienated complaining .  The events of the Arab Spring, the demonstration in Spain recently and now Occupy Wall Street show the positive energies produced when online and geographically situated activities interact, combine and expand.  

  2) The social media had an enormous impact at the calling for people join
  the manifestation. Again, what this can say about the whole manifestation?
  Is it provoking a new type of protesters? I ask that because it would be
  extremely hard to gather so many people for a manifestation with so many
  causes using the traditional media. Social media made possible to hear this
  kind of calling. How this context influences in the manifestation? (They are
  even streaming the occupation!)

LW:  The protests are increasingly widespread, spreading to numerous cities and towns.  It appears that their social make up is strikingly diverse.  What is now called “Occupy Together” is open to anyone who cares about the future and has something to contribute to the debate.  While social media make it easier to attract and assemble large groups, there are far more important sources for the energies we see here.  

The first decade of the 21st century has been a crash course in how institutions fail.  The federal government, our political parties, our political leaders, the whole financial sector, and the Pentagon have shown home completely disconnected they are from the well-being of everyday people.  A great many people have lost jobs, been evicted from their homes, watched their incomes decline, seen their pensions evaporate, and noticed the rapid accumulation of wealth at the very top 1% of society.  The simple, attractive message of the occupation is that the other 99%  are now demanding to be heard.
 
3) One of the differences of this manifestation and the others is the
  hierarchy of the organizers. They created work groups and made an Assembly
  to decide important issues. Each work group can decide alone and have some
  independency from the assembly, ensuring that everything can work fine. How
  this decentralized organization can say about the manifestation? Is it
  something from contemporary culture to think in structures without a leader?

LW:  Historically speaking, it is not unusual for decentralized political processes to spring up during times of economic crisis and social upheaval.  Modern revolutions have often included a period in which workers councils, neighborhood assemblies and similar informal structures were organized to debate the issues at hand and to seek consensus about what to do.  In Madrid last June I walked through several plazas at 10:00 at night and saw circles of twenty to fifty people engaged in intensive discussion about the next steps for “los indignados.”  Something very similar is happening in the general assemblies of Occupy Wall Street at present.  Eventually some particular “leaders” may emerge.  But for the time being there is really no need for them.  As long as the demonstrations and assemblies remain non-violent and open to the idea of  “we the people,” I expect both process and organization to develop in agreeable semi-structured ways. 

  4) The lack of a definitive goal of the manifestation is something
  interested to analyze and try to understand. At the same time they doesn't
  have one specific, they have several. What do you think about that?

LW:   It is perhaps the greatest strength of this movement that it did not begin with a fixed, rigid set of goals.  For one thing, it drives the mass media crazy because it cannot pigeonhole the events or pin the story on a particular set of “celebrities.”  While there is a strong consensus that Wall Street has totally wrecked the U.S. economy and that something must be done to repair the damage, the specific grievances, goals, and proposals are extremely numerous.  How those demands are defined, weighted and communicated is something that will evolve over time.

To cite just one example, today’s young people face horrible conditions of unemployment.  This situation is all the worse because it contradicts what they had always been promised – “The American Dream.”  The amount of student debt from loans received to pay for higher education now exceeds the total debt on credit card accounts.  It’s almost $1 trillion!  Students leave their universities with tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt and find that there are no jobs waiting for them.  Are they a ticking time bomb?  You betcha!

It is important to realize that the open protests we see today were postponed for several years because the tens of millions of people who voted for Barack Obama believed that his leadership could solve the terrible problems we face.  Now it is perfectly clear that Obama is just another politician, someone regarded as  unwilling or unable to address the painful economic and political crises that Americans experience every day.  Obama and the other Washington, D.C. elites have missed their moment to act.  They’ve proven their irrelevance.  For very good reasons, people have decided to take democracy into their own hands. 

It’s worth noting that  social uprisings in America do not always announce particular goals, at least not at first.  For example, in  the 1950s there were films, “Rebel Without a Cause,” for example, that portrayed the restlessness of youth with no particular agenda. The best moment came in the middle of the “The Wild One.”  During a wild party, a woman asks the young man (played by Marlon Brando), “Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?”  Brando answers, “What ‘d ya got?”

Later, of course, during the 1960s the rebels took up a number of causes  -- Civil Rights, the movement against the Vietnam War, women's rights, gay rights, and others.
 
  5) And sorry to ask a more technical question, but how it works the laws
  here in NYC about manifestations like OccupyWallStreet? Is it legal to camp
  in the middle of a public space?

LW: I don’t know much about this.  Towns and cities have different ordinances and regulations about public gatherings.  I’ve heard that tents are forbidden at Liberty Square, but it seems to be OK to bring a sleeping bag.  The most important development at present is that some members of the NYPD have interpreted their authority in arbitrary ways, involve clubbing demonstrators, spraying them with mace and arresting them on a whim.  Such misbehavior has had a boomerang effect, building support for the gatherings and marches.  People are outraged watching YouTube clips of young women screaming as they’re sprayed with pepper gas. 
 
  6) The movement is now in several cities of the country. What do you think
  is the importance of these occupations in a more wide context? It will
  change the way people manifestate? -demonstrate] What changes we can expect after this?

LW:  The typical mode for American demonstrations is to go to a place for a day, carry a sign, make a statement, have a good time, and then go home.  What’s promising about the models of Occupy Wall Street, Tahrir Square in Cairo, the acamapadas in numerous plazas in Spain, is that they ask people to go to a park or plaza and stay there until genuine reforms begin.  There are precedents for this in the U.S. – the Bonus Army of  U.S. soldiers launched in 1932 and Martin Luther King’s Poor Peoples Campaign planned for 1968, just as Dr. King was assassinated.  Both of these movements were meant to be long term encampments, rather than one day media spectacles.  The Bonus army was eventually routed by the U.S. Army, but its presence contributed to the formation of The New Deal.  The Poor Peoples Campaign could not survive the death of its leader.

Right now there are numerous occupations underway in hundred s of places around the county.  The crucial question is whether or not Americans are willing to show up repeatedly for these encampments and to endure personal discomfort, social scorn and police harassment.  My feeling is that a great many people are angry enough, desperate enough to take a stand.  I’m hopeful about the prospects.

  7) In your text, [earlier blog post] you say about the plazas in Spain, which have general
  assemblies as well. It remembered me the concept of the greek "√°goras",
  where the political decisions were made in the public space, with everyone
  interested about that subjects. Do you think the model of direct democracy
  adopted by the occupation is similar with that concept?

Yes, the model is entirely similar.  A notorious problem in representative democracy is that it excludes direct participation of citizens.  Today, a great many people hunger for forms of citizenship that go beyond obeying paying taxes and voting every four years.  Since our elected leaders have been unmasked as brain-dead, subservient agents of corporatocracy, the populace is ready to “throw the rascals out!” 

It is too early to tell if this ferment will move society toward  greater justice, equality and public engagement.   Alas, one possible outcome is a virulent fascist backlash, something that often happens when economies crash, as happened in Europe during the 1930s.   In the U.S.A. at present it’s a toss- up whether Occupy Wall Street direct democracy or Tea Party fascism will prevail.  These are extremely dangerous times.

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