Are we the 99%?

By Alan Bean

Bloggers quickly learn that most readers snap up posts on the hot stories of the day, so by now I should have written something on the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Thus far, the OWS people haven’t addressed the issue of mass incarceration, and I don’t expect that to change.  The big issue that has drawn thousands of people into the streets is economic inequality.  Some OWS protesters want to do away with free market capitalism; others simply resent living in a plutocracy where the politicians function as lap dogs for the wealthy and only well-financed opinions receive a public airing.

This resentment has been hanging in the air for decades, of course, but the economic meltdown of 2008 built a roaring fire under the winter of our discontent.  Everything is melting.  We see the very people responsible for the current fiasco assigned to key positions in Barack Obama’s cabinet and we are outraged.  These people signed off on the housing bubble and turned a blind eye to the massive fraud in the economic sector that kept the bubble afloat for so long.  They have been tainted by ubiquitous iniquity and they have demonstrated their incompetence, so why are they still calling the shots?  Why are they shaping public policy?  Why is the Tea Party intent on cutting their taxes and catering to their every whim?

The questions keep coming but no answers are in short supply.  So, if a few thousand young people take to the street in protest, the more power to them.  But what, exactly, are they trying to accomplish here?  We all understand the issues behind the protest, but what’s the end game here?  If we could sweep away the status quo, what would we put in its place?

“We’re the 99%” the protesters say.  The 1% are the corpulent felines who are making out like bandits while the majority wallows in the wake of an economic tsunami.  But are 99% of Americans disillusioned with laissez faire capitalism?  Not if the last general election is anything to go by.  Is 99% of the populus inspired by the Occupy Wall Street people?  I suspect not.  Most Americans harbor grave concerns about the future viability of the economy, but the supply-side. government-is-the-problem crowd has done an excellent job of marketing its simple dogma.  Few Americans resent the multi-national corporations that have down-sized and out-sourced our nation all the way to the poor house, but few can imagine a compelling alternative.

Here’s the problem: our economic troubles have become so daunting that only a massive about-face can save us; but we have been taught to believe that America (for all her manifest faults) is still the best of all possible worlds.  Moreover, we have been taught that any attempt to fiddle with the free markets will bring calamity on us all.  The Occupy Wall Street people don’t belive that, but a slight majority of the 99% do. 

Is the government a marionette in the hands of big business; or is the government an expression of the popular will?  Or have we become so thoroughly brain-washed by a heavily financed pro-business propaganda machine that my contrast between big business and the popular will has become a distinction without a difference?   If most Americans have been taught to believe that government is corrupt and incompetent while the business community is the true and only engine of prosperity there can be no alternative to the status quo, no matter how dismal it appears.

There is a direct connection between dismantling mass incarceration and job creation.  If the United States cut its prison population by half, we would still incarcerate our own citizens at three times the rate of other western democracies.  But if we can’t create millions of jobs for poorly educated and largely unskilled people in a big hurry, we are in no position to cut the prison population by half. 

In short, we need a massive, government-sponsored job creation program for which, at the moment, there is little public support.  Even the Occupy Wall Street people are cynical about government.  How can a government controlled by corporate cash be expected to invest trillions of dollars in a colossal make-work project for poor people? 

Most of the people flocking to the Occupy Wall Street banner have been negatively impacted by the collapse of the mortgage bubble.  Homes have been repossessed.  Promising careers have been derailed.  But does anyone have the heart to propose a solution?  A handful of anarchists, socialists and libertarians have signed off on radical solutions to the current mess, but in mainstream America, fear stalks the heartland.  We hold our political leaders in utter contempt, corporate America stands discredited and the church is silent.  

The prevailing passion for small government is a cry of despair.  Most Americans have concluded that the glory days are over, that every nickel spent on poor people produces a dime of dysfunction, and that the corporate landscape (ugly though it may be) cannot be altered.  We don’t like the corporate gods we have fashioned for ourselves, but they’re all we’ve got.  A few hardy Christians have made the golden calf a symbol of their protest.  Good for them.  But for most of us, that calf is the graven image of choice.  It’s all we know.

Oddly, government is the answer.  Not the plutocratic parody of democracy we witness on the evening news; I’m talking about government of the people, by the people, for the people.  If the FDR administration could set millions of Americans to work on a crumbling infrastructure in the heart of the Great Depression, we can do the same.  But we only get what we ask for, and I don’t hear the Occupy Wall Street people asking for much.

The protestors are proud of their agenda-free advocacy.  They’re mad as hell and they aren’t going to take it any more.  I understand.  But so long as they make no demands, so long as they are completely disengaged from the sloppy mechanics of organized politics, they can have no lasting impact. 

Sure, they take the attention away from the Tea Party acolytes for a while (and for that they should have our undying gratitude), but do they represent real hope for tomorrow?  I don’t think so.

Protest is appropriate, no doubt about that.  But if we’re looking for long-term solutions we must engage politically.  How do we create jobs?  Specifically, how do we create millions of decent low-end jobs that pay a survival wage? 

To date, people of color haven’t been prominently involved in the Occupy movement.  There are many reasons for this.  White liberals generally come from affluent families and have a hard time engaging with poor people and the problems they face.  Occupy Wall Street will become a relevant political force when the unhip, the unwhite, the uneducated, and the unfortunate join the ranks.   Then the “we’re the 99%” placards will ring true.

7 thoughts on “Are we the 99%?

  1. Alan, when you talk about what you know, your work is solid. But when you venture outside your familiar territory, your grasp of facts becomes pretty weak. But instead of admitting you don’t know, you just plunge ahead with half-formulated ideas you’ve gotten from second-hand reports. You would criticise the media for lazy reporting and getting the facts wrong on a story about Jena or Troy Davis. For this reason, you should also be rigorous about your own reporting on issues you are unfamiliar with.

    1) You say, “Thus far, the OWS people haven’t addressed the issue of mass incarceration, and I don’t expect that to change.”

    What about the fact that OccupyAtlanta calls their site of occupation Troy Davis Park? What about OccupyOakland calling their site Oscar Grant Plaza? What about the OWS protest in Harlem a couple of weeks ago, against the police “stop and frisk” policies? What about last week’s OWS October 22 protest against police brutality? What about the special guest last week at OWS, Ruthie Wilson Gilmore, one of the nation’s leading critics of the Prison Industrial Complex?

    2) You say, “So, if a few thousand young people take to the street in protest, the (sic) more power to them.”

    The larger marches have had tens of thousands of people, of varying ages and backgrounds. Even most of the corporate media have by now run articles making clear that it’s not just young people, and it’s certainly not just a few thousand. It’s also more than “taking the street.” Part of what makes this exceptional is the 24-hour presence in many cities.

    3) You note, “To date, people of color haven’t been prominently involved in the Occupy movement.”

    While the movement is majority white (and there have been important critiques of that) many of the most prominent people involved – including much of the key leadership – are people of color. For example,

    A) When NY Magazine sought a representative, this is who spoke on behalf of the movement: http://nymag.com/news/frank-rich/eliot-spitzer-2011-10/

    B) This blog, almost all written by people of color in leadership positions in the movement, has become one of the main sites of OWS analysis: http://infrontandcenter.wordpress.com/2011/10/25/letter-of-solidarity-to-ows-from-tahrir/

    C) Here’s a report from people of color leadership in the Occupy Movement on the West Coast: http://www.organizingupgrade.com/2011/10/foreclose-on-wall-street-west/d

  2. Emily: Obviously, I don’t grasp every aspect of the movement–nobody does–but I know enough to share my thoughts. Most of your quibbles draw attention to exceptions to my general remarks and I’m sure exceptions exist. For instance, I know a few people involved in the movement in Manhattan who are deeply concerned about mass incarceration, but the issues of police brutality and wrongful conviction don’t necessarily involve a commitment to ending mass incarceration. As generalizations, I believe my comments are fair. Thanks for the important information provided above and the terrific links.

  3. If we could mobilize the poor to vote or say anything ever, we would be a more potent force. The great mystery in America is why people who get yanked around by the hair by Republicans all their lives will not stand up for themselves. Voting isn’t hip I guess. In the Coachella Valley, politicians will never aim their messages at Mexicans because they know Mexicans won’t vote even though 78% of residents in Riverside County are Mexican. Yet, they will allow Republican Mary Bonehead Mack to represent their interests. Imagine how interested she is in doing that!!!!

  4. I have to agree with Emily. What you have said mischaracterizes the only Occupy movement I have direct connection with, the one here in Cleveland. What they are trying to accomplish is a system that does not load the deck in favor of the ultra-wealthy. I think that’s fairly simple and their more specific goals such as “repeal Citizens United” all feed into that. They are NOT urging an overthrow of “free-market capitalism” for some mystery system; they are advocating not giving an unfair un-free edge to the powerful financial institutions. Most may not have specifically addressed mass incarceration (although it has often been mentioned here) because they see it as part of a larger issue they are aiming to change: the control of the political and economic spheres by corporations. Lots of African-Americans have shown up in Cleveland and there is a spinoff called Occupy the Hood that is active here. And while I agree some have been duped by the media Tea Party narrative, we are seeing things here like a busload of tourists on the sightseeing trolley coming by the camp and cheering, or our police dropping off tents and blankets. Of course not EVERYONE gets it, but more do than you would think. It appears Ohio is on the verge of repealing union-busting SB 5, despite a smear campaign making teachers, safety workers and other public-sector employees out to be fat cats. And this repeal has been pushed at virtually every Occupy Cleveland rally. These kids are NOT your 60s kids — idealists with the luxury of despair. They are movers and shakers determined to change things and most believing they still can.

  5. Anastasia: I can understand why you, and Emily, are feeling a bit defensive. You are involved in a major movement that is something to celebrate. My comments should not be taken as a criticism of the movement. I am merely pointing out that we are not the 99% in the sense that the hearts and minds of the vast majority of middle class Americans are with us. Perhaps they should be with us, but they are not. The major benefit of the Occupy movement is that it gives frustrated radicals something to do, a way to get involved. And the movement is finally getting the media attention it deserves–that too is a great thing. But we must find a way to rehabilitate government. It is one thing to decry corporate control of Congress; changing that fact will involve political involvement. If street protest leads to political action, that is great. But thus far, we are not influencing moderate-to-liberal politicians the way the Tea Party is influencing the political right. The reason is simple: the political right represents the interests of corporate America and so does the Tea Party. The Occupy movement doesn’t represent mainstream opinion in the Democratic Party and we need to be thinking about how we can change that. We can’t expect massive funding from a liberal equivalent of the Koch brothers. So, although I understand why you found my comments unfair and unkind, I would urge you to re-read my post and engage with its central thesis. AGB

  6. Thanks for your solid article. Yes, Occupy Wall St. here in Columbus, OH (where I spoke) is a small minority; yes, most Americans are brain washed by the corporate-owned media; no, there isn’t a movement for emptying out our prisons (I do prison visitation); but Occupy is a beginning. Also don’t forget the evils coming out of the Supreme Court, which so affect our elections, prisoners not being able to appeal on the basis of racial discrimination (read Michelle Alexander), and corporate power. As a retired pastor I am seeing the income inequality issues becoming moral, church issues, and when that gels, it will add substantial power to this protest. I see it already happening in magazines like Prism and Sojourners. We need a wholistic approach, including universal health care, job creation in the infrastructure, collective bargaining, rebuilding urban areas, a new kind of heavily regulated capitalism, progressive income tax, and less imperialism. We have been knocked out; we are on the floor and the referee has counted up to 9, but Occupy is at least twitching! LEM

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