Breaking the Spell

by Paul Street, Alex Doherty

Paul Street, author of 'The Empires New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power', discusses his experiences at Occupy Iowa City and the broader prospects for the Occupy movement.

First published: 22 October, 2011 | Category: 

Paul Street is an activist and author whose works include 'Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11', 'The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power, and 'Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics'. He spoke to NLP's Alex Doherty on the makeup of the Occupy movement, its likely trajectory and attempts from within the democractic party to co-opt the movement.

You were in attendance at Occupy Iowa City. What was your impression of the occupation there: its scale, the makeup of the participants, and the process of making tactical decisions?

I marched with Occupy Chicago on October 2nd and attended my first General Assembly (GA) meeting (with at least 150 people in a public space downtown) with that group the next day. I was in New York City for a book event and visited the original occupation site twice (on October 4 and 5th), including the day when tens of thousands of union members marched in solidarity to Zuccoti Park from Foley Square.

The night my wife and I got back to Iowa City we started to head over to the gym and I saw all these tents up in College Green Park, which is just three blocks from our home.  I said “I bet that’s an occupy movement over there.” We parked and walked over.  There were about 40-50 mostly young people doing a GA –  the elaborate democratic discussion and decision-making process on things like procuring food and blankets, media outreach, and what have you.  I was told that the initial meeting for Occupy Iowa City drew 200 people.

There are about 30 tents in the park. The Iowa City General Assemblies have been well attended and have drawn good sized groups, from 30 to 40 people.  Last Saturday Occupy Iowa City had a spirited rally outside a local branch of Wells Fargo Bank.  The crowd was over 150.  It was loud and angry.  I had no difficulty leading the crowd in two cheers: “Fight the Rich, Not Their Wars” and “How to Solve the Deficit, Stop the Wars and Tax the Rich.” There were a lot of union people in attendance.

The participants I’ve met across the three locations I’ve seen in action are fairly diverse.  I’ve met disillusioned ex-Democrats and ex-Obama fans who want to explore something new and different.  I’ve met a few (I personally think confused) libertarians in the Ron Paul mode. There’s a big contingent from the University of Iowa’s Graduate Student Employees Union in Iowa City.  There’s a handful of left anarchists who are pleased to see a new popular struggle against concentrated wealth and power that is dedicated to direct action and democratic process and to building a movement beneath and beyond elections. There’s a few Green Party members in the IC group.

Some participants seem vaguely dissatisfied outside of any particular political or ideological orientation. They sense that something’s really wrong in America and the world; that what’s wrong has a lot to do with the power of the rich; and that the usual political channels (elections and candidates and the “two party system”) don’t have anything positive to offer anymore if they ever did.
The movement feels fluid. People seem open to new and different perspectives and skeptical about picking any particular fixed position or “line.” I face zero resistance when I tell people that the problem is “the unelected dictatorship of money” that emerges from capitalism’s inherent tendency towards the concentration of wealth and power.

There are some homeless people who have found community and a sense of empowerment as well as food and shelter at the site (the group has voted to help supply homeless and hungry people with donations they get from the community).  I’m guessing that the Occupy sites have taken on something of a direct social service role across the country.

Even though Iowa City is a university town, I’ve seen almost no academics at the meetings I’ve attended.  Although, I do think some professors are sympathetic and contributing support, this is more disproof of the FOX News and right wing talk radio thesis that American universities are some sort of hotbed of tenured radicals out to save the world.

The consensus process can be frustrating and tedious at times. The main issues are how long it takes and the way it can sometimes empower small groups to be obstructionist. The consensus process really requires good skills on the part of facilitators.  I have noticed a significant improvement in GA efficiency over time. I have seen it work pretty well and quite democratically when facilitators are skilled and on their game.  The process looks and feels very empowering at times.  The small committees the broader GAs create have gotten a lot of practical things done: maintaining the camp, communicating with the municipal park and permit authorities, inviting outside speakers and holding events (I did a teach-in on economic inequality last week), communicating with the other occupation chapters, soliciting donations and other forms of assistance, generating public outreach materials, holding marches and demonstrations and more.

My impression is positive on the whole.

Were you surprised by the emergence of the Occupy movement? Why do you believe the movement has emerged at this particular moment in time? What is driving the protests?

Well, I’ve been hoping for and half-expecting some kind of genuine, left-leaning populist upheaval (something considerably more authentically grassroots and anti-establishment than the fake-populist, right-Republican and corporate-funded “Tea Party”[1]) for some time.[2] But I didn’t see it coming in the current forum any more than I saw the Republic Door and Window plant occupation (in December 2008) or the Madison, Wisconsin rebellion (last February and March) coming. There’s a lot I don’t know about how and why the leading original New York City activists came together with their action at the precise time they did but Adbusters’ idea of occupying the belly of the global financial beast somewhat on the model of Tahrir Square was genius. Also brilliant is the slogan “We are the 99 percent,” which is something very simple and easy to remember and repeat and reflects something very real about who rules America.  Maybe it's really the top 10 percent or even (if we include the managerial, professional, and/or coordinator class elite) the 20 percent that owns and runs the country, but let’s be honest: “We are the 99 percent” is a lot more chant-able than “We are the 90 percent” and the more of the population the movement claims to speak for (and the more isolated they can make the aristocracy seem) the better.

The time was right. This last summer was sort of the final nail in the coffin of the last lingering hope that there’s anything remotely like progressive and democratic change on offer from the White House, from the Democratic Party, and indeed from the whole rotten political process in Washington. The lesson has been kicking in for some time.  I predicted and denounced from the beginning the progressive “betrayals” of Obama (who is, in fact, a deeply conservative , corporate-neoliberal).[3] I’ve documented the “betrayals” - the other side of the coin of promises kept to the Wall Street and corporate elites who put Obama into the Oval Office with record-setting campaign contributions - for more than two years now. I won’t try to cover them here except to say that Bill Greider got it right in a Washington Post column he wrote early in the “new” presidency: “People everywhere [have] learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t”. “They [have] watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe.  They [have] learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it.”[4] And after January 20, 2009, they got the lesson with Democrats in nominal power – a critical point.

The manufactured debt-ceiling crisis of July and August said it all.  Here you had most of the population believing (with good reason) amidst a continuing vicious human recession that that the nation’s leading problem (imagine!) is mass unemployment, that the government’s top priority should be job creation, not deficit reduction, that the rich have too much wealth and power and that the best way to reduce the deficit (insofar as that matters) is to tax the filthy rich.  None of that majority sentiment was remotely represented in Washington during the debt-ceiling fiasco, which ended with Obama yet again “surrendering” to the right and the business class by agreeing to a deal that cut social spending without any tax increases for the wealthy or their corporations. It was all about complete defiance of the citizenry (identical with government in standard democratic theory) in accord with the wishes of the economic elite, the unelected dictatorship of money – the “One Percent” that has taken the risk out of democracy and annexed the nation’s political and policy processes and more (Adbusters is rightly concerned with the wealth’s control of minds, feelings, culture, and lifestyles).  It was just so absurd.

I wanted Obama to win the 2008 election because I thought there was radical potential in U.S. voters and citizens, especially younger ones, experiencing life under a Democratic administration instead of George W. Bush and one of his GOP successors.  I wanted Americans to come into more direct and visible contact with the bipartisan nature of the U.S. imperial and business system and to confront the gap between their rising and ridden expectations and the harsh reality of persistent top-down corporate, financial and military rule with Democrats at the nominal helm of the ship of state. I wanted them to be subjected to the reality that (in Marxist writer Doug Henwood’s words) "everything still pretty much sucks" when Democrats hold the top political offices – that the basic institutional reality stays the same. As the antiwar activist, author, and essayist Stan Goff put it last year, "I'm glad Obama was elected. Otherwise, people would blame the war on McCain and the Republicans and continue with the delusion that elections can be our salvation” (emphasis added).  The age of Obama would, I hoped, be a very teachable moment for leftists with a taste for direct action and social movements beneath and beyond the big money, big media, and candidate-focused election spectacles they call democracy.

Some of that ironic sort of hope is bearing fruit with OWS, I think. Recently the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by the conservative Democratic pollster Doug Schoen, whose firm did a random survey of nearly 200 Zucotti Park protestors on October 9th and 10th.  Schoen’s senior researcher Areielle Alter Confino determined that “an overwhelming majority of demonstrators supported Barack Obama in 2008” but that now more than half disapprove of him.  Less than half will vote to re-elect Obama in 2012.  At least a quarter won’t vote at all and fewer than 1 in 3 (32 percent) call themselves Democrats.  A third (33 percent) say that they “aren’t represented by any political party.”

“What binds a large majority of the protestors together – regardless of age, socioeconomic status or education,” Schoen says in horrified terms (the point of his editorial is that Democrats are making “a critical error by embracing the Occupy Wall Street movement”) is “a deep commitment to left-wing policies: opposition to free market capitalism and support for radical redistribution of wealth, intense regulation of the private sector, and protectionist policies to keep American jobs from going overseas.” [5]

Now, whatever the real accuracy of Schoen’s early findings and the weaknesses of his questions and methodology (“free market capitalism” has never really existed in U.S. history and does not remotely describe the fundamentally state-sponsored corporate system that OWS opposes), I do think that he’s on to something more than what he probably wants to acknowledge. Among other things, OWS reflects the fact that many young people have learned their lessons from the fake-progressive Obama HOPE and CHANGE ascendancy, followed by the in-power “betrayals” of NOPE and CONTINUITY.  The kids get it that American “democracy” is no less crippled by the dark cloud of big money and corporate rule when Democrats hold nominal power than when Republicans do. They grasp that real progressive and democratic change can only come from an epic peoples’ fight against concentrated wealth and power – a fight that goes to the economic root of social, environmental, and political decay. A lot of them now know in their bones that (to quote Howard Zinn) “it’s not about who’s sitting in the White House” - or the governors’ mansion or the congressional or state-legislative or city council office – at the end of the day. It’s about “who’s sitting in,” marching, demonstrating, occupying, and, last but not least, organizing on a day-to-day basis beneath and beyond the masters’ “personalized quadrennial [electoral] extravaganzas” (Noam Chomsky’s term). They also know that real and lasting progressive change involves the democratic re-structuring of humanity’s interconnected relationships to itself and to nature.  Ecological concerns are very, very high among many of the occupiers I have met.

The issue they have gravitated towards – the control of politics and policy and more by the filthy rich – happens to resonate with a progressive U.S. majority that hates the over-concentration of wealth and power in America. A vast swath of survey data shows that the American public is well to the left of both of the nation’s reigning business parties.  As Kevin Young recently noted on  ZNet,

 “The public is fiercely distrustful of corporate power and thinks that workers should have far more incomeworkplace protections, and political influence than they do. Strong majorities believe that the government has a responsibility to ensure that everyone has access to food, education, and health care. On tax and spending issues, polls have repeatedly confirmed that majorities favor large cuts to the military budget, higher taxes on the wealthy, and government stimulus spending to create jobs; this trend holds true for polls from the last two months. Yet public disgust with the unrepresentative nature of US politics and what Edward Herman and David Peterson call ‘the unelected dictatorship of money’ is sky-high. One 2010 poll from the Program on International Policy Attitudes found that an astounding 81 percent of the US public thinks that their country ‘is pretty much run by a few big interests.’”

Among the 50 percent of Americans who consider themselves familiar with the OWS protests, 79 percent think the gap between rich and poor is too large in the U.S.; 68 percent think the rich are under-taxed; 73 percent favor raising taxes on millionaires, and 86 percent think Wall Street and its lobbyists enjoy excessive influence in Washington.

No wonder that just three weeks into OWS, a TIME poll found that 54  percent of Americans had wither a “very favorable” (25 percent) or “somewhat favorable” (29 percent) view of the  movement.  OWS is considerably more popular among Americans that the fake-populist so–called Tea Party, a top-down creation of right wing business and Republican elites that dominant corporate media sold as a genuine independent and anti-establishment citizens’ movement.

There's been a lot of discussion about the ideological complexion of the protesters. Is this a reformist, social democratic movement or one that ultimately aims to transcend capitalism? If it's a mix of the two then can you tell us anything about the respective sizes of the different groupings and how they are interacting and relating?

It’s a mixed bag. I only have an informal impression, no scientific survey and in the closest we thing we may have to such a survey so far (the Schoen poll mentioned above) the pollsters didn’t really get into the difference between reformism and more revolutionary sentiments. The people I’ve met seem about evenly split between those who think it would be sufficient to reform capitalism and make it more humane and progressive (make capitalism less greedy, vicious and, well, capitalist) and those who think (as I do) that the only realistic path for humanity in the ever more near-term is to transcend the profits system.  Related to that there’s a difference between (a) those who seem to talk a lot about corporations and the rich (this includes a small number who seem to be libertarians, unfortunately) but not about the underlying system of capitalism and (b) those who get it that corporate power and the concentration of wealth and influence cannot ultimately be properly grasped and meaningfully opposed outside the broader framework of understanding and challenging capitalism and working to replace with some form of democratic and participatory socialism. Within anti-capitalist elements, there are the usual differences within and between the different variants of anarchism and Marxism.

These and other internal divisions seem secondary right now to the bigger immediate task of building and expanding a democratic populist movement against plutocracy and austerity and for things that people need: good jobs, fair wealth/income distribution, increased social justice and security, greater democracy, reduced imperial spending and a peace dividend, livable ecology, safe food, universal health care, enhanced housing, infrastructure, and education. I happen to think that radicals and reformers need each other and that struggles for revolution and for reform are dialectically inseparable. American capitalism has exhausted its capacity to meaningfully answer reformist demands.  It has nothing to offer humanity any more but literal death and destruction: endless war, soulless narcissism, perpetual savage inequality and austerity, ugly authoritarianism (both hard and soft), and fatal eco-cide (think Keystone Pipeline). It has gone completely malignant for humanity.  It’s “socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky” as Istvan Meszaros puts it. This harsh diagnosis and the inescapable remedy will become evident to all who commit to an ongoing and long-term, people-friendly struggle against the rich, who are destroying a livable Earth and crucifying humanity on a cross of greed.

You have argued that the Democratic Party will have little success in its attempts to co-opt the movement. Why do you believe that to be the case?

Well, I could be wrong about that, God knows.  The Schoen poll did find that 44 percent (far too many for my taste) of the Zucotti protestors “approve” of Obama, that a third (also too many) called themselves Democrats, and that 49 percent will vote for Obama in 2012.  I doubt the accuracy of those numbers and suspect that they reflect the fact that many of the more astute and radical protestors likely (and correctly in my opinion) refused to participate in a formal survey. . Still, there probably is a more-than-negligible soft contingent for seductive Democrats to work with inside the movement. I think that Democratic cooptation efforts are the leading current threat to the occupiers. Those efforts are in full swing, as I recently documented.[6] My sense that the movement is not easily co-opt-able is an impression from conversations I’ve had with activists and from movement statements in which I’ve seen and heard activists say quite explicitly that this is a long-term independent, anti-establishment social movement that isn’t going home and is determined to challenge fundamental underlying institutions of elite class rule.  My optimism also emerges from the depth of the current American and global slump, the greatest crisis of capitalism since the Great Depression – the first real crisis of capitalism in its neoliberal phase. Real or functional unemployment of 16 percent (or higher) combined with record U.S. poverty numbers (46 million as of last count) and massive persistent personal debt overloads and deepening environmental crisis and more have a way of making the populist-sounding pillow talk of paid party hope-peddlers seem pathetic. The curtain has been pulled back behind the Wizard of Ozbama [7] to reveal the real forces that control him and any other politician who wants to attain and keep higher office in “America, Inc.”  I see a remarkable new cadre of young adults and others who get it like never before that it’s not going to work to go into a voting booth and click your heels and hope to be magically transported back to a nice American Dream home. Dorothy has woken up from the fantasy and decided to lean into and push against the living nightmare of the corporate death state. She’s headed off to expose and confront the wicked financial and corporate barons within and beyond their Eastern, Wall Street lair – the deep pockets bankrollers behind the not-so great and powerful Ozbama and the rest of the money-sucking political class that fouls the rotten Emerald City. Dorothy has jumped out of the ballot box coffin to kick some plutocratic ass to and save humanity.  She isn’t buying any more fake-populist snake oil from slick-talking, wealth-serving political charlatans like Bill Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Al Sharpton, Ron Paul, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama.  Zinn said it well in May of 2007, as the country was moving into full thrall with Obama: “Except for the rare few…our representatives are politicians, and will surrender their integrity, claiming to be ‘realistic.’…We are not politicians, but citizens. We have no office to hold on to, only our consciences, which insist on telling the truth.” [8]

Paul Street (http://www.paulstreet.org)  is the author of numerous books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011). Street will speak on the last book (and on the OWS movement) at 57th Street Books in Chicago (Wednesday, November 2 at 6pm), the Third Unitarian Church in Chicago (Sunday, November 6 at 9 AM), and Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City (Monday, November 7 at 7pm).  Street can be reached at paulstreet99@yahoo.com

Notes:

[1] See Paul Street and Anthony DiMaggio, Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011). 

[2] I wrote the following in the spring of 2009: “It's not too late for genuinely progressive activists and citizens to pursue radical-democratic change in defiance of both the profit system and that system's Democratic Party guardians. Thankfully, we may be heading for something of a new populist moment in the U.S., despite efforts of leading political, economic, ideological, and communications institutions. As giant financial bailouts expose the crippling chasm between the investor and political classes and the broad citizenry, ‘people everywhere learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn't. They watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. 'Where's my bailout,' became the rueful punch-line at lunch counters and construction sites nationwide. Then to deepen the insult, people watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for 'entitlement reform'—a euphemism for whacking Social Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid’ (William Greider)…This is essential raw material for a radical rebellion, one where citizens and workers move from ‘watching’ to demanding and acting in ways too ‘dangerous to ignore.’ Happily enough, there is left-progressive potential in the confrontation between Obama's progressive-sounding rhetoric and his corporate and imperial commitments. The popular resentment and hopes he rode to power need more genuinely democratic and effective solutions than an Obama (or a Hillary Clinton) presidency could have been realistically expected to provide. Obama and other Democrats have been riding a wave of citizen anger and excitement that goes beyond their conservative worldview and agenda. They have done their best to contain and co-opt that popular and progressive energy, but their lofty political rhetoric seeks to safely channel popular expectations that may well transcend the political class's capacity for top-down management and control.” Paul Street, “Obama’s Violin: Populist Rage and the Uncertain Containment of Change,” Z Magazine (May 2009), read online at http://www.zcommunications.org/obamas-violin-by-paul-street. 

[3] Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008); The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Rea World of Power (Paradigm, 2011). 

[4] William Greider, “Obama Asked Us to Speak But is He Listening?” Washington Post,, March 22, 2009. quoted at length in note 2, above. 

[5] Doug Schoen, “Polling the Occupy Wall Street Crowd,” Wall Street Journal, October 18, 2011, A17.

[6] Paul Street, “OWS and the Politicians: Against the Manipulation of Populism by Elitism,” ZNet  October 15, 2011) at http://www.zcommunications.org/against-the-manipulation-of-populism-by-elitism-by-paul-street

[7] I am referencing the legendary Frank Baum novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Depression-era film (starring young Judy Garland as the youthful Dorothy) based on that novel –  “The Wizard of OZ.”. As Quentin Taylor noted in his incisive essay “Money and Politics in the Land of Oz”: ‘The Wizard, who ‘can takeon any form he wishes,’ represents the protean politicians of the era, especially the presidents of the Gilded Age. Given the even division of Democrats and Republicans, and the razor-thin majorities of most presidential elections, candidates rarely took clear stands on the issues. As a result, voters often had difficulty in determining what the candidates stood for. The Wizard fits this description, for "who the real Oz is," Dorothy is informed, "no living person can tell." Indeed, when the foursome [Dorothy, the Lion, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow] enter the throne room, the Wizard appears to each in a different form. Like many politicians, he is unwillingly to help them without a quid pro quo: "I never grant favors without some return."  ......Politicians are also infamous for failing to keep promises, and the great Oz is no different. When Dorothy's party returns after killing the Witch of the West, the Wizard keeps them waiting, then puts them off. By accident, the all-powerful Wizard is exposed and his true identify revealed. Far from a mighty magician, "Oz, the Terrible" is merely a "humbug," a wizened old man whose "power" is achieved through elaborate acts of deception. The Wizard is simply a manipulative politician who appears to the people in one form, but works behind the scenes to achieve his true ends.” See Quentin Taylor, “Money and Politics in the Land of Oz,” The Independent Review at
http://www.independent.org/publications/tir/article.asp?issueID=40&articleID=504

 

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