Capitalism in the Spotlight in the Occupy Movement

It’s easy for people involved in progressive political movements to be jaded by political discourse. One of the reasons why the Occupy movement has been interesting is that it has been something genuinely new and experimental. And it is not afraid to use the ‘C’ word in an unadmiring way.

The blogger JW Mason writes: “Most of us very seldom experience ourselves as political agents, in the sense of being active participants in the collective decision-making of our community. For better or worse, most of the time we delegate collective decision-making to specialists who represent us more or less faithfully, as the case may be. The only reason for protest — for any kind of mass politics — is that this system has broken down. The message of any protest is: There is a political subject, a We, that is not being represented.”

And so it is with Occupy. Perhaps the key meme arising from it has been the slogan of “We are the 99%”. The phrase speaks directly to the sensed breakdown of an implicit social contract in the U.S. and the idea that for the vast majority, the system as it is set up is not delivering. Right wing commentators have been quick to try and ‘spin’ the protests as ‘Anti-Capitalist’ and “Anti-American”.

They are not wrong- at least about the former claim. And the occupy protestors are not attempting in any way to mask this. Signs around Occupy Wall Street and elsewhere have taken pointed, bitter aim at the nature of capitalism in the U.S. over the last few decades ever since the outset. Here is a sampling of the more direct signs in this regard.

“The banks got bailed out, we got sold out”

“Debt is Slavery”

“USA=United Shareholders Association”

“Free Enterprise is not a Hunting License”

In this, the movement is echoing a trend that has been noted by pollsters in the last few years: a marked fall in the number of people who view ‘free market capitalism’ positively. A Pew poll from 2010 showed that a narrow plurality of Americans viewed capitalism favorably (53%), a number that was smaller than in Brazil or China. Equally important, about 43% of millennials (those between 18 and 30 years of age) saw ‘socialism’ and ‘capitalism’ as positive. Fewer than half of women, low-income groups and less-educated groups describe capitalism as positive.

There is clarity among protestors and the larger public perhaps that there has been a serious betrayal of a cherished American narrative in the last three decades of neoliberal capitalism. The imagined narrative that leading an exemplary life in the face of adversity can help anyone climb from rags to riches seems cynical and bare in the face of the events of the last three years.

To recall: when Wall Street blew itself up in a paroxysm of greed and foolishness; the pain was not shared in any sense equally.

While a complete accounting of the ways in which the crisis has been disproportionately imposed on working class Americans is beyond the scope of this entry it may be worth pointing out a few key statistics. The median duration of unemployment is the highest on record, and for the first time since statistics have been kept an unemployed person is more likely to drop out of the labor force entirely than to get a job. Student debt is around 1 trillion dollars, and the average student debt is around $23,000, an increase of about 50% in a decade. According to the housing data firm CoreLogic, in 2010, about 10.9 million households, or 22 percent of all mortgaged homes, held underwater mortgages (i.e. owned houses whose values were below that at which they were bought). At the same time, corporate profits as a percentage of GDP, which saw a sharp decline in 2008, has recovered to reach near historical heights in 2011.

In the face of this lopsided rebalancing, the protestors see the system as unfair and destructive and in these the bare facts they are not wrong. What is different now is that more people are willing to call it what it is: a manifest consequence of actually existing capitalism. One sign in particular, held by a war veteran speaks to this new found clarity.

There is an explicit and clearly stated recognition that the ideas twinned in many minds-Capitalism and Democracy-perhaps are not nearly as inseparable as claimed. And with every passing week new demonstrations of the tensions between these two ideals are visible—from the perverse ‘deficit pivot’ in the U.S. to the deeply anti-democratic debt politics of Europe. And with this, the only question that arises is another old meme: which side are you on?