Posts Tagged ‘Occupy Wall Street’

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Today is the second anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. To judge by the lack of coverage of the OWS movement in recent days, you’d think the movement was a failure.

But you’d be wrong. Wrong because it put the issue of economic inequality on the political map in the United States. “We are the 99 percent!” continues to resonate, especially given the return to the unequalizing pattern of growth that caused the crash of 2007-08 and marks the New Gilded Age.

And wrong because, as Allison Kilenny explains, many of the former Occupards continue to work to change things around—in activities like Occupy the SEC and Occupy our Homes.

There has been little talk of a mass gathering to celebrate the two-year anniversary of OWS, but that’s not unusual (anniversary protests are notoriously underwhelming).

But the lack of organizing may also stem from some of the best and brightest organizers having moved on to instead channel the spirit of Occupy elsewhere: in the battle to keep schools from closing, to lend solidarity to striking fast food workers, to fight to keep people in their homes and to hold officials accountable.

The “Occupy is dead” trope is ridiculous precisely because all of the elements that led to the movement’s birth are still in place—if not worse now. The rich are richer, the corrupt live without fear of going to jail, and everyone knows institutions aren’t coming to save us.

Occupy’s spirit of resistance may be scattered, but it can never die. Not as long as a sense of injustice lives.

That sense of injustice is what galvanized the initial OWS movement in the first place. Now, two years later, much work remains to be done.

Update

Speaking of ongoing work, Lisa Pollack provides a sympathetic commentary on (and an actual copy of) Occupy Finance, produced by the Alternative Banking Group of Occupy Wall Street. This is from the introduction:

This book is our reckoning. Some of us have long experience in the world of finance, having worked in banks or hedge funds or as financial advisors. Others of us are teachers, lawyers, students, or Teamsters who started out with a limited understanding of “securitization,” “credit default swaps,” and “collateralized debt obligations” but have taught ourselves about these instruments because we recognize their importance within our current economy. We have found that you do not need a PhD in math or economics to understand what is happening. We have also learned that it is imperative for us to know as much as we can about the workings of the financial system because some of the most interesting facts never get reported. Contrary to what the 1% would have us believe, the way things are is not the way they once were, not the way they have to be, and most importantly—not the way they should be. . .

We know that the way it is is not the way it has to be. Economic arrangements, however complex, opaque, and interconnected, are created by human beings and can be changed by them—by us. Taking on this responsibility is daunting, but also exhilarating. It is the first step in the direction of economic justice.

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Timothy Noah has one story about inequality. Mine, I think, is a bit different.

According to Noah’s story, while conservatives mostly deny the existence of inequality, liberals tend to focus on the gap between the 1 percent and everyone else and forget about the skills-based gap between those with a college education and those without.

I wonder what people he’s talking about. At least in the discipline of economics, while he’s mostly correct about conservatives (who spend a good bit of their time, when they address the issue of inequality at all, denying it’s a problem), liberal economists are the ones who have focused on the different rewards to different levels of education (which can then be solved by improving schools and encouraging higher levels of education). What conservative and liberal economists share is the idea that, in a market system, everyone gets what they deserve (at least when markets clear and there’s full employment).

As I see it, the idea that we needed to worry about the widening gap between the 99 percent and those at the very top actually came from outside the terms of that conservative-liberal debate—in the empirical work of Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez and in the critique of current economic arrangements posed by the Occupy Wall Street movement. It has represented a challenge to both conservatives (based on the idea that inequality is a real problem) and liberals (since the 1 percent-99 percent gap simply can’t be accounted for by skill-based technical change).

Moreover, focusing on the top 1 percent (and, within that, the top .1 percent and top .01 percent) of the nation’s income distribution raises, in turn, the issue of class, which neither conservative nor liberal economists ever want to discuss.

Nor, as it turns out, does Noah. Until the end, when he finally mentions the divergence between the share of income going to capital (which has been rising) and that going to labor (which has been falling). But focusing on factor shares actually takes us away from skill-based inequality, even when connected to the demise of the union movement, and toward something more fundamental: the growing gap between the vast majority who produce the nation’s wealth and the tiny minority at the top who are able to appropriate a larger and larger share of that wealth.

And solving that problem means going beyond the terms of the conservative-liberal discussion of the problem of inequality and putting class itself on the table.

I guess, in the end, that’s where my story about the problem of inequality differs from the one Noah wants to tell.

Occupy Wall Street

More than 5 years into the Second Great Depression, capitalism continues to suffer from a legitimation crisis.

How do we know this? Two recent examples give evidence of the fact that capitalism’s legitimacy remains in question.

First, those who believe austerity needs to be imposed as a way of saving capitalism continue to search for an example of where such a set of policies has worked. And, once again, they are trying to point to Latvia as a success story. At least that’s what the lead-in to the New York Times story would have us believe.

When a credit-fueled economic boom turned to bust in this tiny Baltic nation in 2008, Didzis Krumins, who ran a small architectural company, fired his staff one by one and then shut down the business. He watched in dismay as Latvia’s misery deepened under a harsh austerity drive that scythed wages, jobs and state financing for schools and hospitals.

But instead of taking to the streets to protest the cuts, Mr. Krumins, whose newborn child, in the meantime, needed major surgery, bought a tractor and began hauling wood to heating plants that needed fuel. Then, as Latvia’s economy began to pull out of its nose-dive, he returned to architecture and today employs 15 people — five more than he had before. “We have a different mentality here,” he said.

But the information supplied toward the end of the article undermines that rosy view.

Economic gains have still left 30.9 percent of Latvia’s population “severely materially deprived,” according to 2011 data released in December by Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics agency, second only to Bulgaria. Unemployment has fallen from more than 20 percent in early 2010, but was still 14.2 percent in the third quarter of 2012, according to Eurostat, and closer to 17 percent if “discouraged workers” are included. . .

Since 2008, Latvia has lost more than 5 percent of its population, mostly young people, to emigration. The recent exodus peaked in 2010, when 42,263 people moved abroad, a huge number in a country of just two million now, according to Mihails Hazans, a professor at the University of Latvia. . .

Alf Vanags, director of the Baltic International Center for Economic Policy Studies here, is skeptical. “The idea of a Latvian ‘success story’ is ridiculous,” he said. “Latvia is not a model for anybody.”

As it turns out, Latvia is a better example of the shock doctrine than it is of the proposition that pain pays.

And then there’s the Wall Street Journal worried about “How Capitalism Can Repair Its Bruised Image.”

One of the alarming effects of the global financial crisis has been the widespread erosion of confidence in capitalism itself. Doubt has grown that capitalist societies offer everyone as much chance of success as risk of failure. Better government policies might help accelerate economic recovery, but only business itself can restore faith in capitalism.

The need is acute, because the general public’s sense of disenfranchisement goes well beyond the Occupy Wall Street movement or protesters on the streets of Athens and Madrid. A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 70% of white working-class Americans, 78% of blacks and 69% of Hispanics believe that the U.S. economic system “unfairly favors the wealthy.” And according to the latest Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Project survey, support for capitalism since the 2007-08 financial crisis is down in nine of the 16 countries surveyed, and in none—not even in thriving China or Brazil—has support risen.

But the best they can come up with is a few suggestions about how “companies should invest in workers and business relationships” in order to restore faith in capitalism.

The fact is, capitalism’s legitimacy continues to be questioned in the United States and around the world. And, to be honest, that’s not because of its longstanding critics but because of the pain and suffering capitalism itself has wrought.

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Occupy London may have dwindled somewhat, “with a few brave souls gathering on the steps of St Paul’s once a week to debate what to do with the £37 in the kitty.”

But, Charlie informs me, the interview I did with the Occupied Times exactly one year ago did in fact appear.

OT: If you could have Occupy achieve one thing, what would it be?

DR: I think the Occupy movement has already achieved what I wanted: it’s disrupted and changed the terms of the existing discourse. The opposition between the 1 percent and everyone else has put a whole host of items on the agenda, especially the increasingly stark and actually grotesque levels of inequality in the distribution of income and wealth within and across countries, that had been largely ignored within mainstream discourse.

And if you pushed me a bit further, I’d say I want one thing: a growing commitment to the idea of engaging in a “ruthless criticism of all that exists.”

OT: How can a broad-ranging movement like Occupy engage in “critical thinking”?

DR: It’s easy, actually. First, there wouldn’t be an Occupy movement unless critical thinking had been taking place. The people who started the movement and those who have since joined were already thinking critically about the economic and political institutions that created the current crises.

People are connecting the dots and asking critical questions about, for example, the relationship between economic and political power, the role unemployment plays within capitalism, and how workers themselves are quite capable of making the key decisions about what should be done with the surplus they produce.

In the past, the pact with the devil meant giving control of the surplus to the top 1 percent as long as they made decisions to create jobs, fund schools and healthcare, and take care of the natural environment so that the majority of people could lead a decent life. But, as has often been the case, those at the top broke the pact (simply because they had the means and interest to do so) and now they’ve lost their legitimacy to run things.

Occupy Wall Street is now buying up peoples’ debts and forgiving them.

Its new initiative, called Rolling Jubilee [ht: sm], is being spearheaded by Occupy’s Strike Debt team toprotest a “predatory” lending system. The group held a telethon and variety show called “The People’s Bailout” in New York on 15 November to raise money for the cause, and the proceeds will be used to buy defaulted debts—such as unpaid student loans and medical bills—and erase them.

This weekend saw the Million Muppet March in Washington, D.C.

It was preceded by an Occupy Sesame Street demonstration, back in October, organized by the number 47.

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Steven Ashby thinks we’re in the midst of a historical turning point:

So are Wisconsin, Occupy and the CTU strike another turning point that future historians will see as the beginning of a new mass workers’ movement demanding social change?

If I was a betting man, I’d put my money on it. One key ingredient in the making of historical turning points is that people begin to view street protests as normal instead of weird. Instead of viewing a mass march on TV or the occupation of a building as strange and scary, many people watch those same events and think to themselves, “Good for them. That’s what it takes to get anything done in this country. Maybe I’ll join them.”

I can’t say I’m as optimistic as Ashby. But, as I’ve often explained to students, history is unpredictable.

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