On September 17, 2011, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement staged its first protests in Zuccotti Park, a location in New York’s financial district. This “direct action” movement has been defined in terms of its opposition to economic inequality, institutional corruption, and the revolving door between corporate America and government. Within one month, the movement was protesting in more than 70 cities and hundreds of communities around the world.
Depending on one’s perspective, it can be seen either as a complement to or an opposing version of the Tea Parties. Like the Tea Parties, the Occupy movement identified systemic rottenness in the financial system and the government bailouts of Wall Street and big business. It presented itself as largely a leftist phenomenon, a cultural opposition to the Tea Parties. Yet the Occupy movement, like the Tea Parties, claimed to stand with the majority of common Americans — 99 percent of them, in fact, against the top 1 percent. This top 1 percent is at least implicitly defined in terms of wealth, which gave the movement a distinct egalitarian flavor. Yet it is also at least implicitly defined in terms of power and access to privilege. There is a class analysis implied in OWS’s “we are the 99 percent” chants that overlaps with that of the Tea Parties.
Occupy Wall Street was neither demographically nor structurally homogeneous as a group. A general assembly issued an official list of grievances in September 2011. Among them were complaints that the government failed to intervene in the marketplace to stop discrimination. Most of the hostility was aimed at corporations, rather than the government that enabled them to exact privileges. Yet at least a number of the grievances could easily be tweaked to target the same federal government lambasted by the Tea Parties:
[Corporations] have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give Executives exorbitant bonuses.… They have poisoned the food supply through negligence, and undermined the farming system through monopolization.
They determine economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce.
They have donated large sums of money to politicians supposed to be regulating them.…
They have accepted private contracts to murder prisoners even when presented with serious doubts about their guilt.… They have perpetuated colonialism at home and abroad.
They have participated in the torture and murder of innocent civilians overseas.
They continue to create weapons of mass destruction in order to receive government contracts.
In each of these areas, the document targeted corporations, yet the government could be seen as the primary culprit — the same government that agitated the Tea Parties. But the solution the Occupiers often embraced involved more government power. That raises the question of whether government itself is part of the top 1 percent, and whether it can be wrested away from the wealthy.
Among the Wall Street Occupiers were many “working groups.” One of them had an unofficial document, “The 99 Percent Declaration,” which was representative of the ideas of many Occupiers. Aside from a condemnation of war and prison profiteering, the war in Afghanistan, and Internet censorship, most of the document was a call for more government, although sometimes with the aim of ending corruption in that very government. There was a call for “elimination of the corporate state,” but the mechanism advocated was campaign-finance regulation, rather than stripping government of the powers to regulate the economy. Other demands included overturning the Citizens United ruling (which legalized corporate and union contributions to independent campaigns in behalf of political candidates), a “fair tax code,” “health care for all,” more environmental regulations, and national jobs programs.
This group planned a huge conference in Philadelphia on July 4, 2012, hoping for delegates to come from all 50 states to draft a “petition for a redress of grievances.” The “official” Occupy Wall Street group did not endorse the conference.
Occupy versus the state
There were also anarchist contingents in Occupy Wall Street. Doug Henwood of the Demands Working Group complained of their influence. Some of the so-called anarchists committed vandalism and were therefore seen by much of the movement as destructive. Yet there has been an intellectual strain of anarchism since the beginning of the protests. David Graeber, one of the anarchists, wrote in November 2011 of the split in the radical Left going back to the 19th century:
Even back in the 19th century, anarchists argued that this [the Marxist idea of abolishing class through the state] was a pipe dream. One cannot, they argued, create peace by training for war, equality by creating top-down chains of command, or, for that matter, human happiness by becoming grim joyless revolutionaries who sacrifice all personal self-realisation or self-fulfillment to the cause.
Graeber did not share the big-government enthusiasm of many of his fellow anti-capitalists:
I should be clear here what I mean by “anarchist principles.” The easiest way to explain anarchism is to say that it is a political movement that aims to bring about a genuinely free society — that is, one where humans only enter those kinds of relations with one another that would not have to be enforced by the constant threat of violence. History has shown that vast inequalities of wealth, institutions like slavery, debt peonage or wage labour, can only exist if backed up by armies, prisons, and police. Anarchists wish to see human relations that would not have to be backed up by armies, prisons and police. Anarchism envisions a society based on equality and solidarity, which could exist solely on the free consent of participants.
Graeber argues that the Occupy movement embodied many anarchistic principles: “The refusal to recognize the legitimacy of existing political institutions [or] the existing legal order” and the rejection of “an internal hierarchy.”
The state appeared to treat the Occupiers worse than the Tea Partiers, a point that conservatives used to favorably compare the law-abiding Tea Parties to the unruly Occupiers. In the fall of 2011, as the movement had just begun in New York, the police corralled people into fenced-off areas, aggressively pepper-sprayed them, seemingly with little provocation, and slammed at least one peaceful protester’s head into a car. Seven hundred protesters walked onto the Brooklyn Bridge, many or most of them apparently thinking the police wanted them to take that path, only to find themselves arrested. Insofar as the protesters see their cause as one against institutional violence and exploitation, the police have done more to bolster their narrative than the activists themselves.
In October 2011, in Oakland, California, the Occupiers struggled to maintain their grip on Ogawa Plaza, a chunk of public property near City Hall. I witnessed from my apartment dozens of police cars zooming in from neighboring jurisdictions the night of October 25. Hundreds of police in riot gear confronted the mostly peaceful activists. Police fired a projectile at activist Scott Olsen’s head and then shot percussion grenades at those who came to help him. In November a video of police pepper-spraying student protesters at UC Davis as they sat unthreateningly on the ground went viral. In January 2012 hundreds were arrested in Oakland.
The Occupy protesters appeared to be split on electoral politics and identification. In October 2011 Democratic pollster Douglas Schoen found that out of 200 polled OWS protesters, the “overwhelming majority of demonstrators supported Barack Obama in 2008.… 48% say they will vote to re-elect him in 2012, while at least a quarter won’t vote.” The support for social democracy was strong in this poll, with the protesters evenly split down the middle on the bank bailouts:
Sixty-five percent say that government has a moral responsibility to guarantee all citizens access to affordable health care, a college education, and a secure retirement — no matter the cost. By a large margin (77%–22%), they support raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans, but 58% oppose raising taxes for everybody, with only 36% in favor. And by a close margin, protesters are divided on whether the bank bailouts were necessary (49%) or unnecessary (51%).
From the beginning, the Occupy Wall Street movement had both anti-establishment and statist elements. Adbusters, a key organization behind launching the movement, saw it as an engine for more regulation from the beginning. In February 2012 John Paul Thornton filed to create an Occupy Wall Street Political Action Committee — the very mechanism symbolizing evil to the movement.
There is another complication concerning the identification of the top 1 percent. It cannot be defined merely in terms of wealth. There is a group of wealthy Americans, “1% for the 99%,” who support higher taxes, and most 99 percent types seem to welcome the group. Nor is it clear that everyone in the 99 percent is actually part of the victim class — most of the police who are harassing and assaulting the Occupiers do not qualify for the top 1 percent.
Then there is Obama and the actual governing class of this country. While half the Occupiers did not plan to vote for him, about half did. Much of what they want is for the government to crack down harder on corporate wrongdoing — but that raises the question of how much of the government itself would count as being in the top 1 percent. Not just financially, but also in terms of power, surely the president would qualify.
The right-wing response to Occupy
Many of the criticisms of Occupy Wall Street are about as dubious as those the progressives level at the Tea Parties. OWS has been derided on an ad hominem basis for being unkempt and anarchic. Occupiers have been accused of advocating policies far more disruptive to the prevailing political order, for better or for worse, than most of them actually do. And they have been accused of playing “class war,” sometimes by the same conservatives who criticized Mitt Romney for being rich or Barack Obama for being out of touch with common Americans.
Former Federal Reserve official Herman Cain made headlines with his very stern admonition directed at the Occupiers:
I don’t have facts to back this up, but I happen to believe that these demonstrations are planned and orchestrated to distract from the failed policies of the Obama administration. Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself!… It is not a person’s fault if they succeeded; it is a person’s fault if they failed.
In a presidential debate Ron Paul criticized Cain and sided with the Occupy movement. As the Los Angeles Times reported the exchange,
“I think Mr. Cain has blamed the victims.… There are a lot of people who are victims of this business cycle.” And Paul delivered a veiled attack on Cain’s past as a member of a regional board of directors of the Federal Reserve, Paul’s favorite target. “They created the bubble,” he said. Cain had said the protesters “are directing their anger at the wrong place. They ought to be over in front of the White House taking out their frustration.” The back-and-forth was part of a larger debate over the role of the federal government in the recession and the Wall Street bailouts in 2008. “Guess who they bailed out?” Paul said. “The big corporations who were ripping people off in the derivatives market. Who got stuck? The middle class got stuck.”
Many other critiques of the Occupiers, as with the Tea Party movement, have been a bit misguided. The idea that Occupiers are predominantly unemployed, like the assumption Tea Partiers were largely uneducated, has been refuted. The idea that Occupiers are overwhelmingly young is also off the mark. The accusation that Occupiers are “Astroturfing” — getting lots of their funding from establishment billionaires — is also, as with the Tea Parties, not the full truth.
One of the most interesting responses to the Occupy Wall Street movement’s “we are the 99 percent” chant has been the conservative slogan, “We are the 53 percent!” The slogan refers to the 53 percent of Americans whose incomes are high enough to be taxed. The implication is that the true victim class is that group, everyone else (including, implicitly, many Occupiers) being beneficiaries of an unfair transfer system. This response, aside from amounting to bragging about being victimized, fails to take into account the many other taxes paid by most of the remaining 47 percent — payroll taxes, of which most Americans pay more than they do in income taxes; sales taxes; excise taxes; property taxes; tariffs; the inflation tax; and many more.
Conservatives have in many cases cheered on the police in their violence against the protesters, siding with the state against the movement, just as many progressives reflexively defended the establishment against the Tea Party. To the consternation of Tea Partiers, in October 2011 Time magazine reported a poll showing the Occupy movement was about twice as popular among the general population as the Tea Parties. The accuracy of that poll became the subject of controversy.
In February 2012 Salon reported a most inspiring story for those seeking a true realignment against the establishment, as Occupiers and Tea Partiers were seen bonding at Washington’s Conservative Political Action Conference over beers, agreeing with one another about the problems with crony capitalism. One of the Occupy Wall Street leaders called it “the most important thing happening at this conference tonight … a table of Tea Partiers, Republicans, and Occupiers who have been here for a few hours in solidarity, finding things we have in common.”
In one recorded exchange, an Occupier said that both the Occupiers and the Tea Parties oppose crony capitalism, but they disagreed on the solution. The Occupier mentions the restoration of the Glass-Steagall banking regulation — a common regulatory ambition of the Occupiers, and one with a very tenuous connection to the financial collapse — and said such regulatory moves, in contrast with the free-market reforms the Tea Partiers want, represents the Occupiers’ idea of a solution. (Ron Paul opposed the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999 because he did not want restrictions removed from banks while the taxpayers were still on the hook through government deposit insurance.) It would seem from this that the Tea Partiers support less government and the Occupiers more, although the methods that many Tea Partiers have adopted — the support of Republican candidates — hardly seems consistent with that goal.
If there is a unifying theme in both Occupy and the Tea Parties that could possibly pose a true threat to the establishment, it is in a class consciousness that puts the Tea Party’s Country Class and the Occupiers’ 99 percent against the real Ruling Class, the 1 percent who run the government and benefit most from its pilferage. We see a hint of it in the similarity between insights from Occupier Graeber and Tea Party hero Angelo Code-villa. Graeber, as mentioned above, believes “that vast inequalities of wealth, institutions like slavery, debt peonage or wage labour, can only exist if backed up by armies, prisons, and police.” Codevilla has written that “[whatever] else government may be, it is inherently a factory of privilege and inequality.”
To realign the spectrum and unify disaffected ordinary people against the ruling elite, what is needed is libertarian class analysis. That’s what we will explore next.
This article was originally published in the June 2014 edition of Future of Freedom.