The big news of the last year has undoubtedly been the rise of democratic movements all across the world, beginning in 2010 in Tunisia and spreading to our own supposedly democratic shores as Occupy Wall Street. Though our intrepid reporters (me – I was the intrepid reporter) brought you a firsthand account of its Richmond branch, we are a philosophy site, not a news site. So on this New Year’s Day, I’m answering a question that I’ve heard a lot since my attempt to be involved in the local Occupation. Namely, why?
First, I have been asked “why Wall Street? They don’t make the rules – why not Washington?” (thanks Mom!). Well, that’s not actually true. It would be a mistake to see the State – the institutions of formal law-making and the coercive enforcement of those laws – as the only center of power in a society. In fact, it is rarely the actual place of power at all, but rather the source of legitimation of power. To be less abstract, the power of the financial sector has risen to consume any independent political power. Employees of the big banks rotate in and out of the financial regulatory agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission, and now most of the President’s advisors come from Wall Street, particularly Goldman-Sachs. This is not only true in the United States, but also the European Union, where financiers are being installed by the European Central Bank as the prime ministers of nations like Greece and Italy, all the better to vacuum up the public wealth into private banks. The State, whether in the United States or in Europe, has become as much an appendage of financial institutions as anything. The fact that trillions can be shoveled into the banks and nothing can be spared for the actual human beings of those societies is only the most dramatic evidence of this fact. That’s why Wall Street is being occupied.
So why “occupy” then? Why seize public places, mostly parks, and live there until forced out by pepper spraying thugs? This is not a new phenomenon, actually. The ancient Romans offer the first recorded such political activity. In the class-based republic of Rome, the aristocratic patrician class possessed the balance of power. When the plebeian class – those artisanal workers and shop-owners who ran the city – could not find justice in the Roman State, they simply walked out of the city and lived in the countryside until the patricians gave in. This was called secession plebis, or “the secession of the plebeians.” Labor strikes carry the same reasoning. The plebeians, the workers, and the “99%” are all the people that actually make society work. The patricians, managers, and financiers are all parasitic on those lower classes. When the essential party walks away, the whole motion of society, through the operation of its institutions, will grind to a halt. That is the purpose of occupying – to disrupt the operation of the institutions until justice is achieved. We make up institutions, after all, by continuing to do what is expected of us. When enough people decide to stop doing what is expected of them, the institution stops functioning.
But tying up an unjust institution by occupying is great, but what do Occupiers want in place of those unjust institutions? This was the continuous question of every political pundit who shoved their meaty faces into a television camera: “What do they want?” As if a collection of strangers would have a ready list of demands for change. And some did, with Occupy Wall Street releasing a declaration of grievances, and one its groups releasing a proposal to form a National Assembly in July of 2012, while Occupy Washington DC proposed an alternative budget that would reduce the deficit in two years while increasing social spending.
Mostly though, the Occupy movement refused to issue demands. On the one hand, there was strategy involved, as releasing demands and solutions would allow the movement to be pigeon-holed, mocked, and ignored by an elitist punditry, arrogant politicians, and a lazy press. On the other hand, many in the movement trumpeted their lack of demands as something to be lauded. “We are our demands,” they would say. Well, if that’s the case, I think we can figure out what demands follow from the movement itself.
First, Occupiers want equality. Mostly, Occupiers have been focused on the inequality of income and wealth. Since at least the Enlightenment, a rough equality of wealth has been understood as being necessary for a decent society, or a free society, or a democracy. Political philosophy has had some difficulty in precising what sort of equality we actually understand as valuable, whether it’s an equality of opportunity, or resources, or well-being, or freedom (Andrew Levine has a great discussion here). However, the results are going to be pretty much the same for the United States today: some redistribution of wealth and income has to occur for American society to continue to function. The results of a greatly unequal society are bad for everyone.
Second, the first thing that Occupiers do when the take over a public space is to form a General Assembly based on a modified consensus rule of achieving 90% agreement (I’ve expressed my qualified skepticism on this site). Thus, we could conclude that one thing that the 99% desire is popular democracy, the capacity of the people to make decisions directly for themselves, in any social context they may find themselves in. Thus, one might hope that, in the coming year, Occupiers spread the Assembly model throughout communities where state and municipal bureaucracies make decisions regardless of what the people want. Implicit in the self-management of occupied public spaces is a demand for a reconception of the public. The conflict between the Occupiers and the police is partially about who controls public space, the actual people using the space, such as the Occupiers, or the State, as represented by the police. Whereas in modern societies, the State claims the right to manage public property, in a popular-democratic society, the users, the consumers, and the producers of the public property ought to manage the space together as an open common property.
Finally, as discussed above, the targeting of Wall Street as the capital of the Occupy movement pretty clearly represents an assault on the power of finance in government. Wall Street is the symbol of an extractive, parasitic force on the real production of wealth in the United States and the world, even though finance has other headquarters (the City of London, for example). The financial institutions can be understood as being bad from a variety of perspectives. If you are a supporter of capitalism, then you should be opposed to the financier as a collector of economic rent and not profit. The capitalist at least puts forward some risk in order to collect profits, but the rentier simply possesses a claim on the wealth of others. If you are a socialist, then finance capital is the planning agency of the capitalist economy. If you simply believe in democracy, then such vast accumulations of wealth and power is unconscionable. For many Americans, however, the enmity towards finance is simply the realization that financial recklessness has destroyed people’s jobs, homes, health, and country, and that Americans are sliding further into both private and public debt to keep the 1% afloat.
What happens next? The Occupations have been assaulted and many routed by the police in most of the major cities, though the particular Occupations live on as organizations engaging in direct action. Occupy Wall Street, for example, occupied the foreclosed homes and turned them over to homeless families. A national Move Your Money day cost the largest banks over four billion in lost consumer deposits. Discussions in the press about inequality surged – in quantity, if not quality. The new year will see if the Occupy movement has more to offer, if it will disappear, or if it will transform into something new that can bring democracy to this troubled land.