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Pushed to the wall

Published : Nov 04, 2011 00:00 IST

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There is no question that the occupy movement, irrespective of what eventually happens to it, has edged open a new, radical imagination.

I was lucky enough to see with my own eyes the recent stock-market crash, where they lost several million dollars, a rabble of dead money that went sliding off into the sea. Never as then, amid suicides, hysteria, and groups of fainting people, have I felt the sensation of real death, death without hope, death that is nothing but rottenness, for the spectacle was terrifying but devoid of greatness. I felt something like a divine urge to bombard that whole canyon of shadow, where ambulances collected suicides whose hands were full of rings.

Frederico Garca Lorca, 1932

INTO the canyons of shadow, in the heart of the financial empire at lower Manhattan, first came the youth of America, then came the many ordinary people frustrated with the insecurity that has come to define life for what they called the 99 per cent. A Canadian website (Adbusters) had put out a call, but this echoed earlier discussions about the need to replicate the energy of the throngs that gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square and then around Madison, Wisconsin's Capitol. The energy of the Arab Spring and the resilient protests in southern Europe asked a question that has resonated in the byways of American progressivism: Where is our protest to come from?

The answer had been resoundingly negative. It cannot happen, one was told, largely because the population has been spoiled by access to commodities, by the fetishism of technology (mainly social media) and by the illusions spawned by an Obama presidency. Despite the escalation of the wars from the Atlas Mountains to the Hindu Kush, there has been only an anaemic anti-war response (but for one very strong protest in New York City on April 9 this year). The economic catastrophe, from foreclosures to the unemployment rate, had also not germinated many progressive outbursts. The collapse of many of Obama's promises produced disappointment and disillusionment among liberals, who saw the torture regime, the wars and the Wall Street bailouts continue unabated.

It was left to the right side of the spectrum (the Tea Party) to show themselves on the streets, opposing Obama surely (and for all kinds of despicable reasons), but also opposing the cosy relationship between Washington and the financial elites. While the Tea Party did emerge organically out of citizen frustration, it was rapidly seized and directed by a coterie in Washington, D.C., led by the Far Right (lubricated with money from the Koch Brothers and their allies). It became apparent that the Tea Party ceased to be a grass-roots movement, and was more an astro-turf one. Money and the Republican Party rapidly suborned the Tea Party to operate as their Far-Right subsidiary.

In the shadows, far from the canyons of finance, the American Left has incubated a series of organisations, from anarchists to environmentalists, from anti-war to anti-rape radicals. A wide spectrum of issues and grievances has poured into the open container of the American Left. From afar, it seemed as if these various campaigns were too disparate to be ever unified, and that egotism of identity and special interest put paid to ideas of solidarity and unity. But what seems from one perspective as fragmentary is from another a symptom of the myriad problems in society and a resource for a broad and powerful movement, if it ever came to that. The currents of American progressivism made their appearance, as if in a dress rehearsal, at the 1999 protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organisation meeting, at the February 2003 anti-war march in New York City and elsewhere, and then again in the thronging crowds that went out amongst the population in 2008 to elect Barack Obama President. These were indications of the Left that existed, but it had little access to the mainstream media and no political party of any heft whose standard it might lift.

The United States government's response to the credit crisis was the final straw. Taxpayer money went to the banks and the automobile industry, with nary a care it seemed to the crisis in the heartland. No schemes came to lift the terror of foreclosure and no policies came from Washington to provide income support or social support to a population seized with fear about the stagnation in the economy. In May 2011, personal debt in the U.S. stood at an astronomical $2.4 trillion, and current student debt is just under $1 trillion. These are formidable expenses, and no one seems willing to lance them to the benefit of the population. The steps the Obama administration took were weak and had no appearance of seriousness. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 tinkered with the margins of the problem. The 2,300-page Act offered some anaemic policies to strengthen capital requirements of banks, took a moral approach towards excessive Wall Street compensation, and modestly pointed a nervous finger at the conflict of interest between credit rating agencies and investment banks.

The Act's cautious tone regarding derivatives meant that banks could continue to do what they are now habituated to do, namely, to take enormous risks with other people's money through financial instruments that do nothing to engineer productive investment. There was nothing like the suggestion that came from the economist Ha-Joon Chang that all new financial instruments should be regulated like new drugs, tested by a federal agency before being allowed to enter the body finance.

The Act called for the formation of a consumer financial protection bureau, but its significance lapsed when banks (with the connivance of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner) forced the Obama administration to back away from its nomination of Elizabeth Warren to its helm. It was not that Elizabeth Warren would necessarily have been so significant, but the fight to block her ended up weakening the political significance of the bureau. Before the Dodd-Frank Act was passed, a staff economist at the New York Federal Reserve Bank told me that his entire team would do what it could to block the enforcement of the Act. To them, any regulation was anathema.

With the unemployment rate steady at 9.1 per cent and Obama's jobs plan trapped like an insect in amber, it is no wonder that the population was despondent. The Occupy Wall Street movement lifted the mood of sections of the country. Initially, there was scepticism from the mainstream media, who were disdainful of the young people. When the park in the Wall Street area remained under occupation, as the New York Police Department fumbled with unnecessary violence, and as the young people self-organised their protest site with cooperative efficiency, the mood began to shift.

Even in the mainstream periodicals, serious discussions have opened up about the social imbalance occasioned by the economic inequality. The tide is at such a point that even people like the CEO of GE Capital had to admit, If I were unemployed now, I'd be really angry too. There are a lot of unhappy people right now and there's not a lot going on that gives you much reason to be inspired.

After the first weeks of the occupation, many important trade unions offered their support, as did several former marines and other armed forces personnel. Intellectuals and musicians, actors and journalists came out to lend their names, including the Nobel Prize laureate Joseph Stiglitz. The stirring moved from New York to Boston, to San Francisco, to Portland, to other large cities and to small towns. The occupy movement has now spread across the country.

The official Democrats are largely silent. The Republicans, on the other hand, have not altered their script. Leading Republican Eric Cantor told the press on October 7, If you read the newspapers today, I for one am increasingly concerned about the growing mobs on Wall Street and the other cities across the country. The use of the word mob is curious given that there have been no acts of violence from the protesters; all the violence has come from the police. The establishment will do its best to either wait out the protesters or crack down on them (one attempt in New York was unsuccessful).

Whatever eventually happens to the occupy movement, there is no question that it has edged open a new, radical imagination. As one slogan put it audaciously, We will not go back to apathy. We will see this march to its victorious end.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Nov 04, 2011.)

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