Thank Obama for the Occupy Wall Street Movement
There is no particular political genius to the Occupy Wall Street movement, no soaring, searing vision that sets the world afire in some new and different way. When it comes to political analysis, much of what emanates from the swirl of activity is no more than soggy old left-liberal reformism that only feels more dynamic when wrapped in a youthful, “movement” package. And yet it is the most promising mass U.S. phenomenon in more than forty years. Why, and why now?
The power of the movement derives from the inexorable logic of its animating slogans. It is, at root, opposed to the rule of finance capital—although even the word “capital” is repugnant to some participants who believe themselves to be engaged in a spiritual quest far beyond the parameters of political economy. Nevertheless it is a fact that opposition to the rule of finance capital—to Wall Street—is opposition to capitalism as it actually exists in the here and now. Judging by the ballooning of the movement and the demeanor of its troops, opposition to capitalism as it actually exists turns out to be an exquisitely exhilarating and fulfilling activity, whether those so engaged consider themselves socialists or not.
The anti-Wall Street slogans and rhetoric have their own logic and dynamic that should—in struggle and over time—push aside left-liberal pabulum and weak reformist nostrums that cannot possibly even begin to contain, much less defeat, the hegemonic power of massed capital.
It did not take genius to identify the rule of finance capital as the common enemy of humankind. Millions, if not billions, have already come to that conclusion, and the inevitable trajectory of capital was predicted and plotted long ago. But the United States, a nation conceived as a white man’s empire and singularly dedicated to the project of business, confronts the 21st century as a political-cultural desert, a place where May Day is largely unknown, supplanted by a Labor Day four months removed on the calendar and eons away in class content. The centrality of racial oppression has so distorted relationships of class that the very language is impoverished and popular political discussion, infantilized.
Thus, we in the U.S. are relegated to working our way through the logic of slogans that are broadly informed by a reality that is everywhere manifest, but only stiltedly articulated. But that’s the political culture we’ve got, and the OWS slogans do point, inexorably, to confrontation with The Hegemon: the Lords of Capital, their servants and institutions.
The brilliance—if not genius—of the movement, is in the evocation of “occupation” when coupled with the address of the enemy, Wall Street. To many of the participants, “Occupy Wall Street” signifies the elevation of human needs and values over Wall Street profits—a laudable, though amorphous, goal. But to “occupy” the enemy’s camp is to grapple with him for physical and/or political space. Inevitably, that means a struggle whose outcome can only be measured in terms of power. In this arena, left-liberal nostrums of tinkering and accommodation with fundamental evils must fail—and will be seen as inadequate to the struggle, early on.
The imperative to “occupy” space means the movement is constantly challenged to find new arenas to manifest itself, whether or not the original occupation sites are lost. It is a promise to the people that the movement intends to be permanent, a commitment to provide a focus for expanding spaces of struggle. That is the new and dynamic element that has intruded upon the national psyche, and has so energized and inspired previously existing Left political forces. It is the promisethe possibility—of a popular, activist movement that is, for practical purposes, as permanent as the presence of the enemy: Wall Street.
The cumbersome horizontal mechanisms of the Occupy movement are, in practice, a prophylactic against co-optation by the Democratic Party—a greater danger than the police. To put it bluntly, OWS practice makes it difficult for the movement to make a “deal” with Wall Street’s minions in the Democratic Party and like-minded circles, even if the weaker reformers in the ranks wanted to—which many do, judging by some of the proposals swirling around the milieu.
The movement’s machinery has also stifled radicals in some locations, but it does not prevent them from functioning outside of and in close collaboration with OWS elements. That’s because there is no OWS “franchise” that must be bought into; if there were, then OWS would become its own opposite—a limiting structure in a movement whose central purpose is to constantly expand against the hegemonic power of massed capital.
The movement has had dramatic effect in Black America. By virtue of its whiteness, the OWS has been allowed to exercise citizenship rights that have been effectively denied to African Americans in their militarized communities. A Black-occupied Zuccotti Park, or Freedom Plaza in Washington, DC, or any of the other occupation sites, is unthinkable under the New Jim Crow. It would invite massacre, as virtually every African American knows. White privilege—in this case, the privilege not to be summarily shot or beaten to a pulp en masse when confronting authority—has been on televised display for the past six weeks. Black perceptions of the spectacle were mixed. There was, of course, deep resentment of the ease with which young white kids from “wherever” could flaunt petty public assembly laws and, for the most part, get away with it, while Black youth are routinely accosted, humiliated and falsely imprisoned by police while simply walking or standing in their own neighborhoods. Black activists who have labored for decades in the urban trenches recoiled at the media exposure garnered by even relatively small groups of white OWSers at their downtown encampments.
But, there is another side of the racist coin. The mostly white OWS movement had, in a sense, legitimized civil disobedience and confrontation with the cops in the current era—an opening that could be exploited. And, if the cameras followed the white people like drones on the kill, then Black outfits should take advantage of the new publicity. After all, African American audiences get most of their information from the same corporate media as whites. If white people could take over a city site and proclaim themselves the Occupation, why not “occupy” Black neighborhoods? In a matter of weeks, Occupy the Hoods proliferated, quite often generating more neighborhood-organizing activity than had previously existed, and this time with the cameras rolling.
To the extent that it collaborates with people of color within and outside the OWS, the mostly white movement gains legitimacy among those with the greatest (objective) stake in toppling Wall Street. Without such legitimacy, it is doomed, and no amount of white privilege will save it.
It is doubtful that there would have been an Occupy Wall Street phenomenon, as we have experienced it, if President Obama had not lost his last stitch of emperor’s clothes this past spring and summer. His abject subservience to the “market’s” (Wall Street’s) demands that the budget deficit take priority over human needs—a logic that would necessitate the gutting of virtually every social program of the New Deal and the Great Society, including Social Security—broke the heart of every left-liberal Obamite, and every Black person that was not still drunk on ObamaL’aid. His 2008 activist base watched as Obama pleaded with Republicans to accept his $4 trillion budget cut “Grand Bargain” that would roll back a lifetime of social safety nets. The “progressive’s” champion became the star in their nightmare. This is what their votes had bought them: a total disaster.
And then the OWS folks gave them a movement.
In that sense, we should thank Obama for shattering the illusion that a Black corporate Democrat with better snake oil-selling skills than Bill Clinton can be anything but a more efficient facilitator of Wall Street’s all-consuming, world-killing agenda. However, this unintended favor is nothing compared to the catastrophic harm Obama’s ascent has wreaked on Black politics. The advent of the First Black President has politically neutralized Black America, the most progressive constituency in the nation—despite the fact that Obama opposes every element of the historical Black political consensus on peace and social justice. The opening that OWS has created for movement politics comes not a moment too soon for African Americans, the group most in need of a movement, and with the deepest historical experience in movement-building.
Glen Ford is Black Agenda Report executive ecitor and can be contacted at .
—Black Agenda Report, November 9, 2011