Occupy: What It's Done and What Remains to Be Done
By Dennis Loo (2/10/12)
Yesterday (February 9, 2012) David Carr at The New York Times wrote an article about Occupy entitled: “The Occupy Movement May Be in Retreat But Its Ideas Are Advancing.” He points out that Obama’s SOTU address took up the rhetoric of Occupy and quotes an Occupy participant, “Brendan Burke, a protester, said the president’s State of the Union speech ‘was all our message. It was great. I mean, he didn’t mention Occupy Wall Street, he doesn’t have to. The conversation in the culture has changed now, over four months, and it’s a blessing.’”
As I’ve written previously, OWS did win a major victory that will last into the indefinite future: it has changed the conversation by substituting the 1% v. 99% frame for what was there before – “I’ve got mine, don’t you envy me?” This is enormously important and points to the significance and power of social movements such as Occupy and how paltry or useless by comparison hitching your wagon to electoral campaigns is. Obama would not have made economic fairness the centerpiece of his SOTU if Occupy had not happened and if instead progressives had devoted themselves to lobbying the White House and the Democratic Party.
The 1960s’ social insurgencies changed the conversation in a similar fashion:
In the 1960s, liberal elites argued that concessions (e.g., the War on Poverty) needed to be made to the insurgents lest a conflagration result. Conservatives argued that concessions would only fuel the fires of insurgency and a crackdown was what was needed. The Sixties insurgency breached the public agenda ordinarily generated by elites. A society-wide debate raged over whether the key social problem was crime or social injustice.
The crime issue, as authored initially by conservative elites in the Sixties, was challenged largely successfully by social movement activists who argued forcefully that social injustice, not crime, was the central social problem of the day. This is one of the key reasons—probably by far the most important reason—that the public did not adopt the elite discourse that crime and social protest were one and the same. The Sixties’ insurgencies created significant splits—for a short time—within elite ranks. The insurgencies’ influence prevented crime from emerging at the top of the MIP [Most Important Problem in the Nation] polls during the Sixties, because the public was split in its views and its loyalties, with the majority faction favoring the insurgencies. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, p. 113)
While the ascension of the 99% vs. the 1% motif is very important – you can’t mobilize people and you can’t change things if you can’t create a competing interpretive frame to the dominant one – at this point the only thing that the Democrats are doing is, on the one hand, trying to co-opt the movement with their rhetoric, with their actual actions on the policy front to be negligible, and, on the other hand, forcefully suppressing the Occupy Movement’s protests. The recent violent crackdown on Occupy Oakland is a sterling example of this, as was the prior co-ordination by the White House and DHS of the evictions of the Occupy encampments and Obama’s signing of the National Defense Authorization Act. Obama is at his best when he can sound superficially wonderful. But that is where it stops. He is not going to do anything more than sound superficially good if he has anything to do with it and he isn't absolutely forced to do otherwise.
It's worthwhile going into more depth on this last point. Obama has not broken his campaign promises because he's a two-faced politician or because he discovered things once he took the White House that he didn't know when he was a U.S. Senator. He has broken his promises because his promises were never more than an attempt to mislead people into thinking that he was going to right the wrongs that Bush and Cheney had so famously committed. Obama's candidacy was an effort to rope people who were threatening to spin out of control in their allegiance to the system into believing that they could once more have faith in the system. His policies since taking office (and even as President-elect in votes in Congress) have been to not only not reverse the general direction of Bush and Cheney but to carry them even further in the wrong direction from the standpoint of the public's interests.
The following comes from Globalization and the Demolition of Society, pp. 155-158:
When running for office and after taking office, Obama made a point of saying that he believes in, and is implementing, transparency in government:
"Just weeks after taking office, the Obama administration adopted an unprecedented policy of sunlight, directing bureaucrats across government to 'apply a presumption of openness' regarding the release of documents to the public, according to a memo by Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder.
"Obama’s policy does not cover an important part of the White House: the Office of Administration, which oversees much of the day-to-day functions of the president’s own office and staff.
"In 2007, then-president George W. Bush, whose penchant for secrecy was a reliable villain in Obama’s campaign speeches, became the first president to declare the White House Office of Administration off-limits to public inquiries. At the time, Bush was engaged in a heated court battle with good government groups over access to information about a massive batch of missing White House e-mails.
"A federal court ruled in favor of the Bush administration, agreeing that the office was not technically an 'agency' as defined by FOIA, and was not required to abide by the openness law.
"Today, the Obama White House Web site announces that the Office of Administration 'is not subject to FOIA and related authorities.'"
This outcome was actually predictable.
First, as I have been arguing in this book, neoliberal policies have been ascendant and dominant, and both major political parties in the US operate within the overall parameters and logic of that ideology.
Second, public policy and especially public policy shifts are not ever carried out successfully by individual leaders, no matter how powerfully placed. They require movements and they require institutional support. This is true from the top of the political system and it is also true from the grassroots or from any other social or economic stratum. The widespread notion that electing a particular individual to high office will produce anything more than superficial changes reveals a lack of understanding of how politics actually operate.
Third, the elevation of an individual to the status of a viable, “legitimate,” and “electable” candidate cannot occur absent the backing of powerful organizational and institutional forces that are by their nature key players in the status quo.
Fourth, promises that public officials make are not immune from evaluation to determine what they actually intend; one does not have to wait and see until after they take office. We can, with proper analytical tools, decipher what these public officials’ promises and pronouncements really mean before they take office.
As I wrote in June 2008, after Obama was nominated: “How can the same system, and the same specific individuals, who have cooperated in, permitted and/or legalized the outrageous and profound crimes of the Bush regime – including torture and war crimes – now tell us that the candidate that they endorse is the solution to the monstrous things that this system and these individuals have themselves allowed and colluded in?”