Occupy Movement and the Economy

Occupy Wall Street: What You Can Demand versus What You Must DO

By Glen Ford

If the signage at the Wall Street occupation site and its thousands of satellites around the country tells the tale, the dominant sentiment in the nascent movement is that finance capital be ejected from the commanding heights of power. True, there are myriad other issues in the churning mix of leaderless people power, but this is the tie that binds, without which centrifugal forces would have hurled the small, founding band of organizers into oblivion. Washington, DC’s Freedom Plaza, the other pole of the occupation force field, was established by significantly older, veteran activists, some of whom have wished Wall Street dead since the days before the bankers murdered and cannibalized (liquidated!) the last Titan of Industry.

Having challenged the plutocrats and all their minions—and gaining majority support of the American people in the process—the “movement” is called upon, from inside and out, to make specific demands. Of course, Old Fred [Frederick Douglas] taught us that power concedes nothing without a demand. But the wrong demands can undo a popular project, so this is not something to rush into. And, in many cases, there is no point in demanding anything from your enemy, except that he drop dead in a hurry.

It is by no means clear to me that all of the folks who claim to be bankster-slayers really want to kill the beast, or merely attempt to shrink or tame it. The logic of political economy, historical experience and common sense dictates that, if the vast wealth and power that flows from concentrated private capital is what allowed Wall Street to achieve hegemony over every important aspect of U.S. society, then concentrated capital must be vanquished; that it be given no space or opportunity to regroup to make further war on democracy.

Ah, democracy, the other dominant current in the occupation conversation. What does a movement of the 99 percent versus the one percent mean by democracy, when measured against the privileges of money? Is it acceptable that any human being wield a million times as much influence on society as the average Josephine, by virtue of his wealth or connections to money? What about the only somewhat rich, with a few thousand times as much societal clout? Would they be prevented, like parolees, from fraternizing with their peers, lest they combine to exercise mega-clout? And, what about when these rich guys put on their masks and call themselves “The Markets.” Will we allow them to run around freely, buying and selling stuff to make millions (and then billions and derivative trillions) for themselves while, as a byproduct, affecting the terms of life for all the rest of us, wholly outside the democratic process or any civilized notion of development?

the dominant sentiment in the nascent movement is that finance
capital be ejected from the commanding heights of power.

Does anyone seriously believe that today’s Masters of the Universe will allow themselves to be shut out—as a class—of the electoral pathways to state power, without wreaking havoc on an impudent society through their current control of every lever of power and the sheer crush of their money? One cannot simply leave the hegemon intact, allowing him to retain all the powers of concentrated capital that made him Master, and expect him to accept the new limitations.

The idea that the plutocrats can be quarantined from power, while remaining plutocrats, is absurd. And no, there is no difference between Warren Buffet, the Koch brothers, Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, the Walton (Mal-Mart) family and the late Steven Jobs. Their very existence is an insult to any legitimate concept of democracy. Every one of them would kill a million people to preserve his billions. They already do.

A movement must be prepared to break the plutocrats’ power—confiscate his fortune or make it impossible to spend—or find themselves like Lilliputians trying to tie down a huge and vicious unchained Gulliver while he stomps on you like roaches.

There is a nostalgia and romanticism in some neighborhoods of the movement—understanding that anyone is welcome to wander in and claim membership—that has echoes in the Tea Party. A Washington Post column by Barry Ritholtz, an author and head of a quantitative research firm, offers advice to the OWS movement. He wants to “bring back real capitalism,” with no bank bailouts. His closely related position is to end “too big to fail” banks in order to “restore competition.” None of this works, however, if the “real” finance capitalism at this stage in its development is exactly what we have experienced: an inherently unstable system that inexorably moves toward further consolidation, suborning every social institution along the way as a consequence of its very nature. If capitalism is in deep crisis—which is the case—and if the nature of that crisis compels finance capitalist institutions to search for ever-increasing returns through rigged markets, derivatives, systematic looting of vulnerable communities, overseas plunder under U.S. military protection and wholesale privatization of public assets in the developed capitalist countries, all of which requires massive corruption of the political and moral life of the home society, then we have simply experienced late-stage finance capitalism as it actually exists. Ritholtz would have us send the banks back to some previous era, where they will regain the vigor and moral uplift of youth.

Ritholtz clearly loves banks, or the idea of banks, and would never transfer their societal functions—which they no longer fulfill—to public entities under democratic direction. He thinks “competition” will solve the problem. However, Ritholtz does support a constitutional amendment to keep corporate money out of congressional elections, which I suppose gets his nose under the broad OWS tent, so to speak.

What about bringing back Glass-Steagall, the 1932 law that separated investment banking from commercial banking, but was repealed in 1999 under President Bill Clinton? Would reinstatement of Glass-Steagall fit the bill for meaningful reform worthy of OWS? I don’t think so. If the power of Wall Street was such in 1999 that a Democratic administration would collaborate in repeal of a foundational New Deal economic pillar, then finance capital was already hegemonic. Well before 1999, Wall Street power had passed the point where it could be controlled by conventional regulation. Rather, the struggle is to free society from its fatal embrace. There is no reforming Wall Street, only its dismantling and simultaneous replacement by public institutions for allocating capital for human needs and development.

The crisis of capitalism is the hegemony of finance capital, which is beyond repair. $16 trillion dollars in infusions from the public sector under President Obama—more than the gross domestic product of the United States—have failed to cause Wall Street to function as a social asset of the nation or the global economy. Quite the opposite; finance capital preys on the real economy and is most responsible for devouring and privatizing the public sector, leaving the people naked to the predations of a dying and parasitic system.

People can choose to be ruled by rich men who call themselves “markets” or they can trust themselves to erect public institutions that are responsive to human needs. For four weeks now, the swelling OWS movement has claimed to be contemplating how to harness democracy and end plutocracy. Since it is patently clear that plutocrats and democracy cannot coexist, the project is to rid us of the plutocrats, while there’s still time to save our world. Once that’s understood, the rest is in the details.

BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at

Black Agenda Report, October 19, 2011