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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Sam Smith Writes What Brought About Occupy Wall Street

From Counterpunch.org by Sam Smith 10-5-11


What Next?

The Party’s Over

by SAM SMITH
The party’s over. The national delusion that began 30 years ago with the inauguration of Ronald Reagan has run its course. Free trade, competition, innovation, entrepreneurship, market driven, bottom line, laissez faire, deregulation, privatization, mission statements, strategic plans, value added and all the other gibberish that was meant to save us has brought us to where we are today.
Three decades of sweet buzzwords and brutal economics fostered by a media that thought “free markets” were required by the Bill of Rights have left America broken, busted, and bitter.
No, it didn’t have to happen. After all, as John Maynard Keynes noted, “Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.” We might have noticed. But our teachers in government, academia and the press largely went along with the most wickedest of men, girding their cause with false arguments and misleading logic. The rest didn’t have much time to think about it all; they were too busy taking tests or finding ways to make enough money to buy all the things they were told they had to have.
But now the party’s over. A young woman protesting in Portland, Maine told a TV camera crew the other day that she was afraid she couldn’t have children because their future was so bleak.
New times often don’t announce themselves. Something just happens that makes the theretofore silent or confused suddenly realize that their angst, their cause or their dreams are not only in their minds. The lies of tyranny, propaganda, and false education no longer work as they once did. And reality returns.
When this happens, the first step is often conceptual anarchy. If you no longer dream of owning a house, rising in the firm or getting an advanced degree, the mind struggles with the empty space. The false prophets have been exposed, which is good, but it there is also a void.
It is even worse this time, because for so many years, normal sources of dissent and wisdom, such as the press, campuses, or churches have been so dutifully acquiescent as America fell apart for the benefit of the few. Even supposedly virtuous non-profit institutions have increasingly adopted the values, language and organization of the corporate world
I watch the men and women who have taken to the streets with warmth in my heart but also with fear in my mind because protest without a new place to go too often fails.
For example, we have been long under the illusion that corporate culture defined business and the commercial, when in fact – like other over large institutions – this culture increasingly led its participants far away from the imagination, integrity, and energy that once created commercial America.
Now we know we were deceived, but what goes in its place?
In other times, there were words and concepts that would leap to the fore, like integrity, community, decency, cooperative, democracy. . . joined by actions, ideas and assemblies based upon them.
There were thinkers, teachers, and organizers who gave these concepts form. But for too long we have only been allowed to talk and think without such words and concepts. And we lost the ability to distinguish between words that meant nothing and those that could lead us somewhere better.
So the party is over but we don’t yet know where to go.
Good preachers have to find courage as well as God, teachers have to introduce reality to a fantasized world, the media has to discover a better future wherever it sprouts, and the voices on the street have to speak of dreams as well as of righteous anger.
It can happen. It is already happening right now but it’s a little hard to see. Some of the angry voices are calling for things like
Repealing the Citizens United Supreme Court decision
Some form of debt cancellation
Taxes on stock transactions
A guaranteed income or negative income tax)
Reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act
Not your list? Okay, compile your own, but remember: the last three decades have been largely devoid of liberals or progressives making concise demands that others understood. Everyone knows what the right wants, but the left’s agenda has been drastically muted and obscure.
And, of course, the extremist center treats every good idea as radical. For example, CNN’s John Avlon recently dissed a negative income tax, implying it was kooky, apparently unaware that a Marxist nutcase by the name of Richard Milhous Nixon almost got one through Congress. And. of course, the centrists will never admit that our land was brought down by those who endlessly described themselves as moderate.
But beyond the specific is the political ecology in which the specific must function. Literally occupying Wall Street is part of it, but we must also end Wall Street’s occupation of our own minds, our books, our souls. We must speak and think the language of a new time, using the words and ideas that help frame a future of decency, democracy and cooperation.
The lie has failed; now we must help the truth return.
Sam Smith edits the Progressive Review. He is the author of The Great American Repair Manual.
Radical Imagination

Occupy Wall Street: a Reply to Skeptics

by JASON DEL GANDIO
On September 27th Lauren Ellis published an essay in Mother Jones Magazine entitled “Is OccupyWallStreet Working?
The essay argues that Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is not working because the movement has no clear message and is not demographically representative of those who are affected most by the current economic problems.  While Ellis does raise important points about movement-messaging and political representation, she in no way tries to understand the internal logic and outward expression of OWS.
Ellis’ conclusions center around four main points: that OWS’s “kitchen sink approach” is a form of ineffective messaging; that the media’s focus on the police brutality distracts from OWS’s main message (or lack thereof); that the hacktavist collective Anonymous inhibits the OWS movement; and that the OWS participants are the “usual suspects” of “dreamers.”  In what follows, I provide counter-arguments to each of Ellis’ points as an attempt to flesh-out some of the philosophies, practices, and communicative strategies of Occupy Wall Street.  I want to note that I am not seeking to attack Lauren Ellis in any way.  Instead, I am trying to demonstrate why her arguments—representative of many like-minded skeptics—are insufficiently substantiated.
1.  Kitchen Sink vs. Multi-Issued Messaging.  It is common practice to critique festival and carnivalesque protests (and radical social movement overall) as lacking coherent, effective messages.  I agree that protesters and social movements (of all kinds) bare the responsibility of effective messaging.  But we must realize that OWSdoes involve a rhetorical logic.  OWS is not lacking a coherent message; instead, its message is multi-issuedpolitically complex, and systemic: economic inequality, layoffs, house foreclosures, bank bailouts, million dollar bonuses, overpriced health insurance, cuts to social welfare, credit card debt, the student loan industry, tax breaks for the rich, underfunded schools, climate change, genetically modified food, the burgeoning prison-industrial complex, war, as well as racism, sexism, and homophobia are interconnected issues.  None of these occur in a vacuum; instead, each contributes to and affects the others.  One of the root causes of “this current system” is corporate dominance.  Most (if not everyone) can agree that corporations control this country.  Political, educational, prison, mass media, and military systems are dominated by the corporate will-to-profit.  Even the production of culture is a corporate manufacturing of brands, logos, jingles, and cradle-to-the grave advertising.  How many people identify themselves by the brands that they wear, consume, and purchase?  How much material support is given to independent artists, musicians, and film makers?  How many words within the collective lexicon—like Google, Xerox, and Coke—are actually corporate titles?  Corporate dominance is not the only root cause of these interrelated issues, but it isa good place to start.  Protesters are thus occupying Wall Street because it is the epicenter of corporate dominance and condenses all of these issues into one symbolic force.
2.a  Police Brutality Stealing the Spotlight vs. Political Theater.  It is also common to critique mass arrests—and the direct actions that usually spur those arrests—as another form of ineffective messaging.  But people must realize that direct action and civil disobedience are forms of messaging, albeit, forms of embodied messaging—the action is the message, with the assumption that observers will have the wherewithal to understand this form of messaging.  Just as audience members “read between the lines” to understand the actions that occur on a theatrical stage, observers must also read between the lines to understand the actions that occur on a politically occupied street corner.  This is not a lot to expect given the fact that we are all actors and audience members, everyday and all day.  Each of us is a walking embodiment-and-expression of our roles, beliefs, values, perspectives, and philosophies.  We are all constantly performing for one another, continually expressing and reading-and-reacting to one another’s embodiment.  This intersubjective and reflexive process often occurs subconsciously.  But direct actions and mass arrests call us to attention: politics is an embodied phenomenon.  Occupy Wall Street is therefore a message about reappropriating our political agency:  The business of greed, hyper-competition, private gain, casino capitalism, and political corruption must stop immediately, and people are willing to put their bodies on the line to make this happen.  And if that message is too long and complicated, here’s an easier one:  Our current system of profit before people is inhumane and unjust.
2.b  Police Brutality Stealing the Spotlight vs. Journalistic Integrity.  Arguing that direct action and mass arrests distract from the main message implies that the protesters are to blame for how the media portrays the situation.  Again, every protester has some responsibility for rhetorical effectiveness.  But in this case, we should be blaming the mass media rather than the protesters.  There are a million ways to cover a story and a million details to focus on.  But much of the mainstream coverage focuses on the cop vs. protester scenario.  Why?  Because the public has become accustomed to want such time-tested, politically vapid narratives.  As the saying goes, if it bleeds, its leads.  This is a problem of journalistic integrity, not of ineffective messaging by the protesters.  I find it hard to believe that reporters and journalists are incapable of properly deciphering the basic message of Occupy Wall Street.  At the very least, one could interpret the occupation as “Wall Street equals Bad.”  I would assume that an honest, hardworking reporter would want to understand why this message is being communicated with such passion, dedication, and urgency.  If that were to occur, then perhaps mainstream media outlets would actually air open and honest debates about the merits and pitfalls of the Occupy Wall Street message.
3. Anonymous vs. Anti-authoritarianism.  Occupy Wall Street is structured around anti-authoritarian and non-hierarchical principles of decentered organizing practices.  Unlike older models of, say, the civil rights movement, OWS does not offer up a single spokesperson standing on a well-defined stage articulating one clear message.  Instead, there are many people on many stages offering up numerous-yet-interconnected demands, goals, and/or outlooks.  The point is to resist a top-down approach and to invite, instead, a diversified, bottom-up, directly democratic approach.  No model of organizing is ideal, and neither is this one.  But this helps explain why particular groups—such as the Anonymous hacktavist collective—will appear to simultaneously champion and distance themselves from OWS.  It’s like a kaleidoscope: different groups and causes will appear and disappear depending upon when and how you look at it.  Such a structure allows people to enter, exit, and contribute on their own accord.  In many ways, then, the anti-authoritarianism of Occupy Wall Street is about radical immediacy: the immediate evocation of one’s desired reality.  That immediate evocation is partial and incomplete, but that is true for all human-created realities.  We are finite and fallible creatures always working from partial histories and moving toward unpredictable futures.  Occupy Wall Street is no different.
4.  The Usual Suspects vs. The Radical Imagination. It is too easy to reduce Occupy Wall Street to a rendition of the radical 1960s.  Such a reduction commonly occurs anytime a radical movement emerges, as if political radicalism began and ended with the hippie counter-cultural movement.  Radical social movements—along with anti-authoritarian and anti-corporate sentiments—play an intimate role throughout American (and world) history.  I agree that OWS began with a small group of people that may not have accurately represented the overall demographics of “middle-America.”  But OWS is consistently gaining sympathizers and momentum.  According tooccupytogether.org, approximately 130 cities across the United States are now organizing events and actions.  Similar events are being organized in Canada, Mexico, Europe, Asia, and Australia.  Given these numbers, I find it hard to believe that OWS is just another wannabe revolution put on by the usual suspects of hopeless idealists and out of touch day dreamers.  Instead, OWS advances a tradition of radical immediacy that is invigorating the collective imagination.  That imagination envisions a world that exists beyond corporate dominance.  The many steps to get there are still unknown.  But a first step is being offered up by Occupy Wall Street.
Jason Del Gandio is author of Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists (New Society, 2008) and an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Public Advocacy at Temple University in Philadelphia.

1 comment:

Ross Wolfe said...

One of the most glaring problems with the supporters of Occupy Wall Street and its copycat successors is that they suffer from a woefully inadequate understanding of the capitalist social formation — its dynamics, its (spatial) globality, its (temporal) modernity. They equate anti-capitalism with simple anti-Americanism, and ignore the international basis of the capitalist world economy. To some extent, they have even reified its spatial metonym in the NYSE on Wall Street. Capitalism is an inherently global phenomenon; it does not admit of localization to any single nation, city, or financial district.

Moreover, many of the more moderate protestors hold on to the erroneous belief that capitalism can be “controlled” or “corrected” through Keynesian-administrative measures: steeper taxes on the rich, more bureaucratic regulation and oversight of business practices, broader government social programs (welfare, Social Security), and projects of rebuilding infrastructure to create jobs. Moderate “progressives” dream of a return to the Clinton boom years, or better yet, a Rooseveltian new “New Deal.” All this amounts to petty reformism, which only serves to perpetuate the global capitalist order rather than to overcome it. They fail to see the same thing that the libertarians in the Tea Party are blind to: laissez-faire economics is not essential to capitalism. State-interventionist capitalism is just as capitalist as free-market capitalism.

Nevertheless, though Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy [insert location here] in general still contains many problematic aspects, it nevertheless presents an opportunity for the Left to engage with some of the nascent anti-capitalist sentiment taking shape there. So far it has been successful in enlisting the support of a number of leftish celebrities, prominent unions, and young activists, and has received a lot of media coverage. Hopefully, the demonstrations will lead to a general radicalization of the participants’ politics, and a commitment to the longer-term project of social emancipation.

To this end, I have written up a rather pointed Marxist analysis of the OWS movement so far that you might find interesting:

“Reflections on Occupy Wall Street: What It Represents, Its Prospects, and Its Deficiencies”

THE LEFT IS DEAD! LONG LIVE THE LEFT!