Less than a mile away from Wall Street, the heart of global capitalism, the U.S. and the world have for the past three months witnessed a phenomenon unseen in almost four decades.
Angered by growing disparity in incomes between fat-cat executives and the rest of America, several thousands of protestors cutting across regional and even political backgrounds have gathered in a show of strength not seen since protests over the Vietnam War.
The protests started on September 17 at Zucotti Park, a concrete plaza that was chosen since it is privately owned – by a company called Brookfield Properties – and so the government could not evict protestors without a court order.
Every day since, from dawn to dusk, crowds of protestors have shouted slogans, displayed posters and slammed both the current Obama administration and former President George W. Bush for policies that have given tax breaks to the very same richest Americans who were behind the economic collapse of 2008. Protestors have come from across the U.S., and even visitors to downtown Manhattan often drop by to join in the protests.
The protests -- and how the city and federal administrations have dealt with them -- offer important lessons in understanding where America and the country’s public mood stand.
The frustration that is the trigger for the protests stems from statistical evidence and the day-to-day experiences of millions of ordinary Americans that show that economic disparity between the richest and the rest in the U.S. is growing, and with very overt and brazen help from the state.
Ordinary Americans are suffering from the continuing effects of the economic crisis of 2008, with unemployment in the U.S. the highest in 50 years. Layoffs are daily news and many industries have put in place unofficial hiring freezes.
But the earnings of the top executives of these companies have continued to soar.
A recent report of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) – the budgetary arm of the U.S. Congress – showed that between 1979 and 2007 the inflation-adjusted-after-tax incomes of the richest 1 percent Americans grew by an average of 275 percent. Over the same period, the average inflation-adjusted-after-tax income of the middle 60 percent of the American population grew by just 40 percent. The average income of the bottom 20 percent grew by only 18 percent. The richest 20 percent constitute 53 percent of the country’s total income – or more than the remaining 80 percent put together. The top 1 percent alone earns 17 percent of the nation’s income.
Other studies and reports paint an even grimmer picture of the disparity. A Federal Reserve study in 2007 concluded that 73 percent of the country’s net worth – income, property and other goods and possessions – was in the hands of the richest 10 percent.
The CBO in the report itself pointed to the growing inequity and cited the less “progressive” tax regulations, referring to the regular tax breaks that the two main American parties have both consistently given the richest individuals and big corporations, as a major factor.
Americans have not forgotten the bailout packages to the financial institutions and banks when they were on the verge of collapse in 2008 and 2009, under the administration of Barack Obama, who was projected by the bourgeois media as a savior. The argument presented to the world was that the bailouts would help minimize job cuts and help ordinary Americans. Three years later, these same companies are still firing people – even as the incomes of their top executives rise.
The protests against this blatant disregard for the interests of the vast majority of Americans by the U.S. state have been met with police brutality. Officers have been caught on camera spraying pepper into the eyes of protestors, hundreds have been arrested and even journalists from mainstream media organizations like the New York Times have faced police assaults and arrests.
The brutality shows the true character of the world’s oldest democracy and its claimed beliefs in the freedom of expression and the right to dissent.
But the protests and the state’s reaction also hold a deeper lesson.
Despite the pile of evidence exposing the policies of the U.S. state, and despite the persistent and dogged protests and display of anger which has widespread support, America’s top managers appear fairly sanguine.
The Occupy Wall Street movement was started by a Canadian anti-consumerist group called the Adbusters, which pitched the idea online, and immediately drew support from people, especially the youth across America. The movement has since been supported by other groups like Anonymous, a group which was active in the European anti-austerity protests.
But the movement has no leadership, no clear goals. It has a slogan – “We are the 99 %” – but no position on what exactly needs to happen to empower the majority of Americans. It is exactly what it was proposed as – a group of thousands of individuals and groups with disparate ideas of what America should be like. That can always be a fine starting place for a movement, if the aim is to then channel this mass of frustration and anger into something concrete with a direction, purpose and a vision for change.
That is absent.
The movement teaches us the importance of organization. This large group of protestors will make headlines – just like the protests of the 1970s did, with anti-war sentiments, civil rights demands, flower power and general anarchism coalescing into one mass. But just like their predecessors four decades ago, they will be unable to bring any fundamental change because of the absence of an organized force, a party leading the demand for change.
This does not mean that the movement is pointless: far from it. The Occupy Wall Street saga has caught the attention of Americans across the country, with copycat Occupy movements sprouting up in almost every other major city, revealing the deep disenchantment among ordinary Americans with the economic and political policies of their state.
It is important to learn the lessons thrown up by the Occupy Wall Street movement, and to support the protestors as they brave the challenge what is still, despite the cracks in its edifice, the mightiest capitalist and imperialist state in the world.