Writing on the Wall

Published : Dec 16, 2011 00:00 IST

A DEMONSTRATOR HOLDS up a sign during a protest in New York. - REUTERS

A DEMONSTRATOR HOLDS up a sign during a protest in New York. - REUTERS

The police crackdown on protesters and the futility of the political response to the worsening social crisis propel the Occupy dynamic forward.

The only way to experience the American Dream is while sleeping. Sign at Occupy Wall Street.

WALL Street bankers have had enough. A flyer designed by one of them floats through the streets of New York's financial district. It is headlined, We Are Wall Street: Wall Street Strikes Back. It is a defence of the bankers' trade: It's our job to make money. I didn't hear America complaining when the market was roaring to 14,000 and everyone's 401k [retirement] doubled every three years. Anger overwhelms the writer, who bemoans the idea that the banker is lazy, We get up at 4 am and work till lunch break. We don't demand a union. We don't retire at 50 with a pension. We eat what we kill, and when the only thing left to eat is on your dinner plate, we'll eat that.

No surprise that the bankers are frustrated. The Occupy dynamic has not only placed the reality of escalated social inequality on the table but pointed the finger at the banks for this outrage. One of the most difficult elements of advanced capitalism and modern society is that it is hard to identify the culprit for one's sorrows. In feudal days, there was always the baron's castle or the moneylender's office; they could be located, and the peasantry could convert their agricultural implements into weapons as they rushed to these sites. No such ease in our times. Abstract social domination makes it harder to point precisely to the cause of one's distress. Banks often stand in for the problem, being the front lines of financial capital it is banks, after all, that foreclose on houses and deny credit. But the banks are only a cog in a complex system that is built upon the simple premise that only a few people are able to wield power and property for their betterment, whereas the vast mass of people have only the illusion of property and the hopes for power. The actual employees in the banks who produced this flyer are likely to live on as shaky a foundation as those on the streets.

The banks stand in for the system in general. Too much is wrong with the world now to seek salvation in the regulation of banks alone. Anger at the vast social inequality and at the austerity policies of the government come alongside anxiety about the jobless present for populations that have become disposable on the altar of globalisation. It is the entire system that has been adjudged to be unreasonable. This does not mean that there is no moral condemnation of inequality. After all, the chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, makes $16,000 in two hours, which is what a worker on the minimum wage makes in a year. Oscillation between moral condemnation and disillusionment with the system sets the terms for the Occupy dynamic. It has also shaken New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the embodied unity of both the political and the economic elite. While protests tore through New York on November 17, Bloomberg told a group of business leaders: The public is getting scared. They don't know what to do, and they're going to strike out. They just know the system isn't working, and they don't want to wait around.

Bankers stood in their high-rise buildings, throwing their flyers down on the streets below. The dirty work was done by others, the New York police in this case (their average annual salary is $59,000, what Blankfein makes in just over seven hours). The Occupy Wall Street encampment was violently removed, reminiscent of the violence used by the Oakland police against the Occupy site there.

The playbook has been similar across the country (as if the Mayors are now coordinating their response): massive police deployment, helicopters in the sky, tear gas and flash grenades fired at the protesters, rubber bullets used at point-blank range, hair-pulling and baton-beating, penning in and intimidation. Non-violent civil disobedience is met with the full thrust of what the police scientists now call crowd easing. (It is worthwhile to keep in mind that the Chemical Weapons Convention, the arms control agreement signed in 1997, bans the use of tear, or CS, gas in the battlefield this gas is used routinely by police departments against protesters.) There was no sympathy for the former Philadelphia police captain Ray Lewis, who showed up to offer his support for Occupy Wall Street. He was arrested, cuffed and made to sit on New York's sidewalks. Bloomberg's recognition of the problem did not stop him from sending in the battalions to thrash those very people who don't want to wait around.

The response to the crackdown has been a hardened resolve among the protesters. Jack Kelsh, a bus driver who joined the Occupy Denver protests, put the case plainly to the media: I don't think anything is going to stop this. The more resistance they get, the stronger they are going to get and the more rallies you are going to see.

The recent jobs report shows that the United States remains far behind its target of keeping up with population growth, let alone recovering ground from the sustained haemorrhage of jobs over the past five years. This bleak picture is not given adequate seriousness in political circles as the Republican Party finds itself on the wrong foot for lack of adequate challengers to Barack Obama and the Democratic Party finds itself hamstrung by its alliances with Wall Street. The Republican and Democratic parties are both the party of Wall Street. It is the futility of the political response to the worsening social crisis that propels the Occupy dynamic forward.

Winter approaches, but this does not seem to matter to those few who want to maintain their vigil in the encampments. Discussions are afoot to widen the struggle beyond the tent cities, especially as the police have now turned on them in a systematic fashion. Like the mythological Hydra with its many heads, the Occupy dynamic seeks to forge a plurality of centres in each city. Such diversity would allow new people to bring themselves directly into the struggle and move from passive supporters to active participants. They might not have been willing to camp in the cold or to be exposed to police violence. But they would be willing to participate in teach-ins or vigils outside banks, to manifest themselves publicly to build their confidence. Such discussions are afoot and there is a promise to forge new tactics and new forms of community engagement.

Police violence cannot beat down an idea. It has now taken flesh.

Events in the U.S. are linked closely to the convulsions in the rim of southern Europe, from Greece to Spain via Italy. Acute financial problems have raised the yield rates for the three southern European countries to the magical 7 per cent marker (the German yield is at 2 per cent). The Third World debt crisis of the 1980s is being replayed on Europe's soil. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) riot is no longer in Caracas it is now in Athens and Madrid. The root cause of the older crisis and the more recent one is the same, as pointed out by the Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis in his new book, The Global Minotaur: The True Origins of the Financial Crisis and the Future of the World Economy (2011): it has to do with the failure of the world economic system to have a surplus recycling mechanism that would redistribute accumulated surpluses across the world. Rather than have such a mechanism, the mandarins of the world order in the 1970s and 1980s preferred to allow vast surpluses to get sucked into the world of finance (with New York's Wall Street as its centre). This institutional failure was the cause of the new culture of greed (and not the other way around). That the political class in the Atlantic world prefers to see the solution in austerity policies against the ordinary people rather than in terms of institutional failures (let alone the system's failure) demonstrates the vacuity of its leadership. Since it offers no new political and economic project to earn the trust of the population, it must resort to the baton.

The baton offers no solutions. The writing for the Street is on the wall.

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