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Occupying the moral high ground

by on October 20, 2011

A couple months ago, “Occupy Wall Street” wasn’t a phrase.  The Arab Spring was just ending; it was spilling over into Israel, which was having its own Israeli Summer.  People were camped out on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv  protesting many of the same things as those before them in Tahrir Square in Egypt and those after them in Zuccotti Park in New York.  “Social justice isn’t only about alleviating poverty. It is about a very simple idea: people should be able to make a decent living if they invest in their education, take a lot of responsibility and work hard.”

In February, I wrote an article about why there would be no protests in Israel.

Why should people here take to the streets? We have democracy, don’t we? Free press, free consumption, a flourishing free market. People aren’t going hungry, Facebook and Twitter are open to everyone.

But the truth is that it is difficult to expect the Israeli public to take to the streets, because in fact it has too many things to protest….continued occupation, the recurrent wars, depriving workers’ rights, diminishing health and welfare services, increasing and aggravating societal gaps of all kinds, and – in more recent years – eroding democratic rights and personal freedoms, and growing government corruption.

The difference I see between this critique of Israel, and any critique of America, is the word ‘occupation, and the difference between the word ‘Israeli’ or ‘American’.

I was, I need hardly point out, quite mistaken. Israelis took to the streets to protest – indeed, to occupy – several months later.  The reasons should  be obvious.  Graduates with an MA in Clinical Psychology found that

after having worked around the clock to enter one of the most competitive programs in higher education; after having studied about the human soul and how to alleviate psychological suffering, the outlook for their future was bleak.

After finishing their MA, in order to qualify as clinical psychologists, they have to do a four-year internship, at least 30 hours a week, for which they receive less than NIS 2,000 a month. This means that all of them will have to take additional jobs, often late into the night, to make ends meet. To make things worse: many of them will have to wait for up to three years to find a slot for the internship. “I finished my studies to continue working as a waiter”, one of them said.

You may have noticed that this situation is not unique to Israel.  Indeed, the lucky college graduates in America are able to begin or keep their job waiting tables or tending bars; the unlucky ones have occasional volunteer jobs (or pay money to have an internship), and most live at home with their parents because nothing else is economically feasible.

The reasons for Occupy Wall Street should be obvious.  “What we’re demanding – what people in the Occupy movement are demanding – is the same responsibility from these large institutions, and the so-called 1%. It’s really that simple.” And, “many people are asking why? While the occupation of city squares all over the nation is inspiring many people, others are (understandably) a bit perplexed.  But I think people understand more than they know. Something is very wrong with our country and our world. The rich got richer from our economic crisis and the poor barely got the crumbs from their banquet table.”

And, “in the midst of the financial crash of 2008, enormous debts between banks were renegotiated. Yet only a fraction of troubled mortgages have gotten the same treatment. [Professor David Graeber] said: ‘Debts between the very wealthy or between governments can always be renegotiated and always have been throughout world history. … It’s when you have debts owed by the poor to the rich that suddenly debts become a sacred obligation, more important than anything else. The idea of renegotiating them becomes unthinkable.'” It’s not surprising that  “President Barack Obama has proposed a jobs plan and further efforts to reduce the deficit. One is a so-called millionaire’s tax, endorsed by billionaire Obama supporter Warren Buffett. The Republicans call the proposed tax ‘class warfare.'”

After all, we see a

powerful cultural protest against the corruption of capitalism in the last decade, the crony-ridden political system that even now is trying to stall or gut Dodd-Frank, and against the staggering inequalities that now exist in this country and threaten to change its core democratic nature. And this is a good thing. It’s a good thing because it provides essential balance to the Tea Party’s case against government as a whole. Only one entity can restore some equity to the system and it’s government. Disempowering government at a time when the current system is consigning millions to decades of unemployment while rewarding a fraction of that with simply unimaginable rewards … that’s a recipe for social unrest.

In other words, this street movement is emerging to demand some accountability from the bankers who helped destroy this economy, from the politicians who used our money to save them, from the GOP even now balking at basic regulations on Wall Street to help prevent another crash, and from Obama whose conciliatory style so many now regard as betrayal.

It’s a question of movement and mood. The anger was first directed at Obama from the right (and largely redirected away from Bush and Cheney). Now it is being directed at those who were rescued after staggering recklessness. Each mood creates a different climate.

Or we could just read communiques put out from Occupy, which still has a somewhat participatory, horizontal leadership, structure. “On Saturday we held a general assembly, two thousand strong. … By 8 p.m. on Monday we still held the plaza, despite constant police presence. … We are building the world that we want to see, based on human need and sustainability, not corporate greed.” Not everyone who attempts to interview the group appreciates the style, though. Although the group “declares it is for and by everyone, that everyone has equal say and no claim to leadership over anyone else. I [Michael Morgenstern] was told that having a blog did not qualify me as media; that if I wanted to count as media, I would have to attend a media leadership training the next day, and until then I would have to leave.”

Also, the reaction from the establishment left, which for years and decades has been working on the same cause as Occupy Wall Street, has been somewhat mixed or unflattering. “There is no danger that the protesters who have occupied squares, parks and plazas across the nation in defiance of the corporate state will be co-opted by the Democratic Party or groups like MoveOn.  The faux liberal reformers, whose abject failure to stand up for the rights of the poor and the working class, have signed on to this movement because they fear becoming irrelevant”.  Union leaders, as they bargain away rights and benefits of the rank and file, know the foundations are shaking.  “So do Democratic politicians from Barack Obama to Nancy Pelosi.  So do the array of ‘liberal’ groups and institutions, including the press, that have worked to funnel discontented voters back into the swamp of electoral politics and mocked those who called for profound structural reform.”  The official Obama campaign position is that the movement is exciting, but that the campaign can’t take a position or help in any way.

Chris Hedges, perhaps a tad pessimistic, found that “these protesters in that one glorious moment did what the traditional ‘liberal’ establishment has steadily refused to do—fight back.  Resistance, real resistance, to the corporate state was displayed when a couple of thousand protesters, clutching mops and brooms, early Friday morning forced the owners of Zuccotti Park and the New York City police to back down from a proposed attempt to expel them in order to ‘clean’ the premises.”  However, in a realpolitik sense, Hedges is right that

tinkering with the corporate state will not work. We will either be plunged into neo-feudalism and environmental catastrophe or we will wrest power from corporate hands. This radical message, one that demands a reversal of the corporate coup, is one the power elite, including the liberal class, is desperately trying to thwart. But the liberal class has no credibility left. It collaborated with corporate lobbyists to neglect the rights of tens of millions of Americans, as well as the innocents in our imperial wars. The best that liberals can do is sheepishly pretend this is what they wanted all along. Groups such as MoveOn and organized labor will find themselves without a constituency unless they at least pay lip service to the protests. The Teamsters’ arrival Friday morning to help defend the park signaled an infusion of this new radicalism into moribund unions rather than a co-opting of the protest movement by the traditional liberal establishment. The union bosses, in short, had no choice.

The Occupy Wall Street movement, like all radical movements, has obliterated the narrow political parameters.  It proposes something new. It will not make concessions with corrupt systems of corporate power.  It holds fast to moral imperatives regardless of the cost.  It confronts authority out of a sense of responsibility.  It is not interested in formal positions of power.  It is not seeking office.  It is not trying to get people to vote.  It has no resources.  It can’t carry suitcases of money to congressional offices or run millions of dollars of advertisements.  All it can do is ask us to use our bodies and voices, often at personal risk, to fight back. It has no other way of defying the corporate state.  This rebellion creates a real community instead of a managed or virtual one.  It affirms our dignity.  It permits us to become free and independent human beings.

In fact, Occupy Wall Street is something of a moral imperative.  “What kind of nation is it that spends far more to kill enemy combatants and Afghan and Iraqi civilians than it does to help its own citizens who live below the poverty line? What kind of nation is it that permits corporations to hold sick children hostage while their parents frantically bankrupt themselves to save their sons and daughters? What kind of nation is it that tosses its mentally ill onto urban heating grates? What kind of nation is it that abandons its unemployed while it loots its treasury on behalf of speculators? What kind of nation is it that ignores due process to torture and assassinate its own citizens? What kind of nation is it that refuses to halt the destruction of the ecosystem by the fossil fuel industry, dooming our children and our children’s children?”

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