A surprising shift has occurred in mainstream attitudes toward the openly anti-corporate Occupy movement: after first ignoring and then downplaying the effort, skepticism has given way to praise. While some continue to draw foolish parallels to the Tea Party – always part of the Republican Party, while Occupy activists are working outside electoral politics – even political moderates like New York Times media critic David Carr now describe Occupy with respect. And conservatives are increasingly angry at Occupy’s throwing a spotlight on startling income inequality in the United States. An exasperated FOX News anchor told Occupy activists to “go take a shower,” and conservative pundit David Brooks falsely associated the Occupy movement with anti-Semitism. Occupy activists have again reminded progressives of the importance of going beyond electoral politics in challenging economic injustice.
If you are among those still wondering if the Occupy movement sweeping the nation is sustainable, read Jane Mayer’s article “State for Sale” in the October 10, 2011 New Yorker. Mayer paints a stark picture of how right-wing millionaire Art Pope, little known outside of North Carolina, has used to wealth to effectively buy control of the State Legislature.
Like her landmark piece August 30, 2010 on the Koch Brothers war against Obama, what makes Mayer’s story on Art Pope so significant is that Pope is another wealthy right-wing plutocrat who has gained vast political and economic power – and has done so without media scrutiny.
Pope’s agenda, like the Koch Brothers, promotes the interests of the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. And Pope has achieved his power through the United States system of democracy, which even before Citizens United allows the most uneven playing field for the wealthy in the Western world.
Mayer shows how Pope has used foundations, non-profit institutions and other legal means to effectively rig the electoral game in his favor. And that’s why activists cannot simply battle Pope or other right-wing interests by the standard rules, but must instead chart their own course – as is happening with Occupy Wall Street.
Directly Pressuring Wall Street
After writing a book on the farmworker’s movement and its success at mobilizing national consumer boycotts to pressure large corporations, I wondered why similar grassroots, non-electoral strategies did not target Wall Street. Activist disappointment (for some bordering on depression) over President Obama’s lack of aggressive action was certainly one reason, and it may have taken the worsening of the nation’s economic crisis to galvanize action.
But now that Occupy has begun, there is no turning back. Even the largest activist campaigns often start with small steps, as those who attend a rally increasingly feel comfortable using more confrontational direct action tactics. We saw this increasing activist influx happen with the African-American civil rights movement, UFW boycotts, anti-Vietnam War activism, the anti-nuclear power campaign, the Central American Solidarity movement and other grassroots progressive movements through the end of the 20th century.
But we did not see such sustained progressive movements over the past decade. This is largely because the dangers of the Bush Presidency justifiably compelled activists into prioritizing electoral politics. But as the Obama years and the rise of people like North Carolina’s Art Pope have shown, putting all progressive eggs into the electoral basket has proven a mistake.
Now progressive activists are playing a game by their own set of rules. Conservatives know how to win elections; but they have not figured out how to squelch a growing movement targeted at Wall Street and specific corporate behavior.
Occupiers are too smart to fall into the trap of measuring success by demands granted and/or new regulations on Wall Street behavior passed. They have already reframed the national debate and forced even the national Democratic Party to at least rhetorically embrace their demand for reining in Wall Street.
Will, as Paul Krugman asks, the Occupy Wall Street protests “change the national direction”? Well, the election of Obama and a Democratic-controlled House and Senate in 2008 did not meaningfully change Wall Street’s control over the economy and the political process – so that’s a tall order.
But what we do know, as Krugman also points out, is that the super-rich and their political allies are angry. And they appear more upset about Occupy Wall Street than they were about Obama’s election, which Wall Street insiders apparently knew would not threaten their control.
Unlike Obama, Occupy activists have no hesitation about waging “class warfare.” And like the Freedom Riders, UFW boycotters, ACT UP die-in activists and anti-nuke blockaders of the past, the Occupy Wall Street activists will not be bound by their opponents’ rules, but will instead seek economic justice by all nonviolent means necessary.
Randy Shaw is author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.