Steve Fraser on Occupy Wall Street, its historical precedents and its current significance (updated)
Writing for TomDispatch, Steve Fraser, a historian of labor and Wall Street as well as a publisher of important books, recently provided his readers with a capsule history of America’s resistance to American finance capital. His article is worth reading.
Fraser begins by asserting that:
Occupy Wall Street…may be a game-changer. If so, it couldn’t be more appropriate or more in the American grain that, when the game changed, Wall Street was directly in the sights of the protesters.
The fact is that the end of the world as we’ve known it has been taking place all around us for some time. Until recently, however, thickets of political verbiage about cutting this and taxing that, about the glories of “job creators” and the need to preserve “the American dream,” have obscured what was hiding in plain sight — that street of streets, known to generations of our ancestors as “the street of torments.”
After an absence of well over half a century, Wall Street is back, center stage, as the preferred American icon of revulsion, a status it held for a fair share of our history. And we can thank a small bunch of campers in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park for hooking us up to a venerable tradition of resistance and rebellion.
Which game might be changing? I would call it the Masters of the Universe or MOTU Game. The MOTU Game (which refers, of course, to an American political-economic regime) belonged to the rise of finance capital in the United States during the post-Vietnam era; to American deindustrialization and privatization; to America’s tax cut mania, its rejection of 1960s leftism and its race relations backlash; to the decline of its common and very high standard of living; to the development of an exceptionally large and historically unprecedented prison system; to the unhealthy growth of its overseas empire and its security-surveillance system; etc. These mostly were elite projects. Yet, politics is never an activity confined to the elite. The MOTU Game strongly and necessarily depended on the mostly apathetic response of America’s “lesser people” (Alan Simpson) to this political regime. After all, Americans elected Nixon and Reagan, Clinton and Obama. They accepted with little complaint the rise, consolidation and workings of the MOTU Game. Even apathy is politically significant! Their acceptance conferred democratic legitimacy on the MOTU Game. Their — our! — “going along to get along” meant then and means today being complicit in some way and degree with it.
Lest my MOTU Game talk create confusion, we could also call it the Neoliberal Game.
What, then, is the new game? I would call it: Push Back. To play the Push Back Game, a fraction of the lesser people must choose to no longer passively and silently endure the workings of a social system which often fails to meet their basic needs (needs which includes the need for a personally secure form of life and for a future worth having) and which lacks a political mechanism by which the lessers can effectively hold accountable some of their “greaters” (that is, their political representatives). The Push Back Game, assuming it endures, is a feature of our time, our world. It reflects the autonomy and foolishness of a political caste which acts as though they were not citizens of a democracy. It also reflects the realistic fear of a people who sense that their way of life is dying and that the vultures are ready to pounce on some of them. Those who play the popular side of the Push Back Game are, to my mind, defending some parts of that dying way of life and, along with it, America’s civil society. They want to survive, and secure a way of life worth having. They are pushing back against those groups, organizations and institutions which now threaten them.
Normal politics in the United States appears to be changing, as Fraser suggests, and we ought to thank the Occupy Wall Street movement for being an early adopter of this embryonic political reality. (The Wisconsin Protests would be another.)
If the Push Back Game endures, that is, if American politics will henceforth include the popular element it lacked since the protests of the 1960s, then normal politics in America will no longer refer to the machinations of professional (system) politicians, to political parties deeply embedded in America’s federal state system, to deep-pocketed lobbyists buying influence, to news media led and staffed by individuals who are nearly government and party propagandists and, most importantly, to a passive citizenry willing to accept nearly anything from their greaters. An altered normal politics would now include popular actors giving voice to their concerns, doing so in and to the public.
Since Push Back Game rejects passivity and since this rejection contrasts sharply to the politics of the MOTU era, we may wonder why Americans failed to resist the assaults on their personal and collective interests. Why would Americans willingly kneel before their betters? They had not always done so, as Fraser reminds us. They would act when threatened. Why would they obey corrupt laws, suffer elite criminality, watch their standard of living falter, their jobs disappear, etc.? I would say that, in general and abstractly, many conformed in order to conserve their place in the American way of life, a social condition they have known since they were children. They feared a near complete loss of what they considered a livable world, a world they wanted to live in. If America happens to change because of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the appearance of a Push Back politics, this change will reflect the fact that much of the once silent majority will directly participate in the new normal politics they will help create. They will participate because they must if they want to live with dignity in the America coming into view.
Sadly, perhaps, America’s consumer republic (a social system which binds the citizen to the consumer) dying. It began to die in the 1970s. The disease cluster killing it includes the ‘maturity’ of America’s capital base, the rise of a predatory finance capital, the emergence of the Reagan coalition, etc. It was then that both the consumer and citizen components of that Republican figure began to fade. Americans generally traded a fulsome use of their citizenship rights for an increasingly insecure bundle of consumer goods. As a consequence, life in America has become harder, meaner and more precarious as the years passed. Americans increasingly found themselves yoked to an economy and a polity which failed them. I believe these burdens and the personal responses they elicited comprise a kind death work. Americans were forced to work through — that is, to recognize, mourn and recover from — the death of their way of life. But what is truly sad — if “sad” is even the right word to use — is the diligent work performed by the legacy parties and their loyal supporters. As we know, American’s professional politicians want to replace America’s consumer republic with an austerity regime. Naturally, their austerity regime also affirms elite power and, of course, America’s predatory political economy. Their efforts amount to class conflict in action, to political power mustered to serve the interests of America’s profit-taking class. They too are a kind of death work, albeit work that aims to kill off the hopes many Americans would want to place in their future and the future of their children. Stated in different terms, I believe the elite today wish to euthanize the American way of life, to kill off that which is dying because it has become an expensive and unnecessary burden to America’s political and economic elite.
I believe the achievement of the Occupy Wall Street movement can be located in its effort to contest America’s greaters as they seek to secure their austerity regime. This is no small achievement given the political apathy seen over the last three decades and the power in the hands of America’s political elite. Nevertheless, it is a needed task given passivity and losses of the past. They are speaking to a growing fraction of Americans willing to listen to their criticism. We will know when the trigger setting free a more rambunctious politics has been tripped when common Americans are willing to do more than just listen.
In other words, the initial phase of the Push Back Game remains incomplete. Much is to be done. The Occupy Wall Street movement needs to survive. In the near-term it will need to overcome the legal and political obstacles placed in its path. It certainly will need to grow in size. To conclude, I believe we will know when America has achieved a new and better society if the Occupy Wall Street movement (or a movement like it) finds an enduring place in American politics. We will know America has achieved a significantly better society when it no longer needs an Occupy Wall Street movement. America’s consumer republic may not survive much longer, but the austerity regime the elite want to put in its place is hardly inevitable.
Writing for the New York Times, Bernard C. Harcourt, a University of Chicago political scientist, provided a different name for the phenomenon I called the Push Back game. Harcourt explains:
Our language has not yet caught up with the political phenomenon that is emerging in Zuccotti Park and spreading across the nation, though it is clear that a political paradigm shift is taking place before our very eyes. It’s time to begin to name and in naming, to better understand this moment. So let me propose some words: “political disobedience.”
Occupy Wall Street is best understood, I would suggest, as a new form of what could be called “political disobedience,” as opposed to civil disobedience, that fundamentally rejects the political and ideological landscape that we inherited from the Cold War.
Civil disobedience accepted the legitimacy of political institutions, but resisted the moral authority of resulting laws. Political disobedience, by contrast, resists the very way in which we are governed: it resists the structure of partisan politics, the demand for policy reforms, the call for party identification, and the very ideologies that dominated the post-War period.
Besides Harcourt’s “political disobedience,” I have also seen the Occupy Wall Street labeled as a kind of antipolitics. An antipolitics refers to politically significant action that is not a part of the predominant political institutions in a society. Antipolitics involves a principled refusal to use political power and force as these are normally understood.
When first considered, antipolitics and Harcourt’s political disobedience appear to me to be cognate terms. That said, Harcourt wishes his term will include a popular effort to avoid drawing upon Cold War political ideologies. This might be wishful thinking. I believe any social movement we are likely to encounter will flounder badly if it refuses to talk about rights, justice, need fulfillment, collective identities, regulation, etc. Moreover, the personal choice many made to participate in the Occupy Wall Street movement also entails facing additional and related decisions. These follow from the initial decision to participate in the movement. We are creating a future whether or not we are aware of this fact. Even Herbert Marcuse’s “great refusal” (1964, 257) was meant to guide a hopeless humanity to a place wherein hope can be realized.