Terms of the Occupation

Terms of the Occupation

Occupy Wall Street takes over Washington Square Park in New York, October 8, 2011. (Photo: getdarwin)

The first month of a Wall Street occupation that has aspirations toward perpetuity has been a wild one. What started out as a small band of protesters has now spread worldwide, shut down life in the busiest section of the busiest city in the country and grown so popular that the ranks of those appealing to it to advance their pre-existent agenda include one of the more perfidious banksters; a perjured, crooked ex-president; and a totalitarian theocrat.

As a birthday present to the movement, I'd like to invite its adherents to acknowledge the appeal of three terms whose utterances, I have noticed, are almost always accompanied by caveats. Let us consider these terms so that we might not be afraid to use them openly, smartly and with candor.

Class Warfare

On the National Day of Action this Saturday, I visited the solidarity occupation underway in Seattle, site of the last major American protest of the global corporatocracy, which took place in 1999 at the World Trade Organization summit. A former state senator addressed the “people's mike,” as it is in Seattle (an open mike – amplification provided by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees – in the afternoon for participants to share their stories), saying, “This is not class warfare,” before going on to correct the record on what this was really about.

There is a reasonably widespread attempt in progress to frame the Occupy movement in the most palatable way, and Marxian terms like “class warfare” have been so thoroughly eradicated from American political discourse – through bullying; intimidation; and, indeed, incarceration – that one tends to want to avoid them.

But this thing has appeal, and we needn't step so gingerly around it. A majority of the country likes it, and even more hate what Wall Street has done to everyone else. It is incumbent upon us then to be radically honest about what it is that Wall Street has done, if for no other reason than to capitalize on Occupy Wall Street's popularity by way of fostering in observers a deep understanding of the relevant dynamics.

Wall Street – the ownership class – engaged in fantastically reckless behavior, knowing full well that when its practices imploded, endangering the entire financial sector, bankers would be able to extort taxpayers for a bailout, on grounds that the big banks were “too big to fail” and that their failure would, therefore, portend a generation of squalor the world over. Because Wall Street has gamed the political system through and through, the bankers knew that the brunt of the economic burden would be foisted upon the backs of the majority of Americans – the working class – and the poor – the underclass – so that now, home heating assistance to impoverished Americans is being cut, while disastrous tax cuts for the already extremely wealthy are sacrosanct. This is very aggressive abuse by the powerful class of the rest of society, and we should feel free to call that what it is.


Of course, class warfare is an inevitable byproduct of a system that offers huge incentives for a combination of ruthless greed and callous disregard for suffering. And that system has a name. A popular graphic being shared around various social networks reads, “Listen, I am not against capitalism. I am against corporate greed. There is a difference.” Well, no there isn't a difference, frankly, and this sort of obfuscation isn't helping anyone.

In 1970, Milton Friedman, father of modern free-market capitalism, wrote in The New York Times, “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” That is, corporate CEO's are essentially managers of other people's money (the shareholders) and are only allowed to invest it in policies and activities that will yield the greatest returns for those investors. This means buying off Congressmen (a ready available option in the US) for legislation that amplifies corporate wealth much more greatly than the investment in de facto bribery depletes it. It means defrauding vulnerable Americans by exploiting the widespread financial ignorance the banking sector has fostered – the likelihood that banks will be held accountable for their crimes by public servants who owe their careers to Wall Street campaign funding is not nearly great enough to threaten, on the balance, the windfall profits banks stand to make off of crooked practices.

This is not a bug but a feature of capitalism. Libertarians will argue that capitalism relies on free markets and that, when collusion between government and business begins, the markets are therefore not free, the system having morphed from capitalism to corporatism. Nonsense. There is every incentive for government officials to court Wall Street cash and every incentive for Wall Street to field wealth-friendly candidates. Without severe impediments to this unseemly marriage, capitalism will necessarily tend, as the old books would say, toward state monopoly.


Revolution is normally thought of as violent and as aimed at overthrowing a government. Here, it is explicitly nonviolent (not, needless to say, the first of its kind) and aimed at overthrowing a system instead (again, not unique).

But don't let's pretend that there are merely reformist aims at Liberty Plaza Park and its brother and sister parks across the globe. Sure, the Democrats might wish to stand in front of the occupation and call it a parade for a jobs bill that was being proposed before the protests took shape, but it is not up to the Democrats to decide what the protesters want, especially to the extent that the Democrats have snuggled up in bed with Wall Street in recent years – a formidable extent, indeed.

Part of the reason behind how difficult it is to come to consensus on a concrete list of demands, even though there are good ones floating around, is the lack of faith that legislative measures of the sort that would help dismantle the system stand any chance of advancing through a governing body whose primary task is upholding that system. It is difficult to imagine what the results of a revolution would look like, but I submit that one possible outcome is a perpetual state of civil unrest, in which the people vie with wealth for power over their government by an unrelenting exercise of radical protest everywhere.

Capitalism has proven itself excellent at allowing the commission of class warfare right up to the breaking point and then making minor adjustments to keep revolution at bay.

Happy one month, Occupy Wall Street. Refuse to be kept at bay.