The mainstream media has made much ado about the fact that #OccupyWallStreet does not have a unified, cohesive message. In trying to belittle it, they smugly point out that the occupy movement is an amorphous and heterogeneous mix of people. Every shade of political opinion and ideology is present: Makhno anarchists and Ron Paul libertarians; Trotskyist socialists and New Age neo-hippies; Anonymous and Zeitgeist; atheists and hard core believers; the homeless and those who have quit their jobs to become full time protesters against unemployment.
They mock the fact that the movement has not agreed upon specific policy changes for the ruling political parties to act upon. Those that do give credit to the protesters for “raising awareness” of the country’s problems proceed to urge them to leave the real decisions to “the big boys” in the think-tanks and halls of power. But few want to touch on the real heart of the matter: what are the fundamental reasons for the movement? Why here? Why now?
Why the protests?
Simply put, the movement is an expression of precisely the same frustrations that led to the Arab Spring. Sure, many commentators acknowledge that the Wall Street protesters were “inspired” by the events in Tahrir Square. But they skirt around the fact that from Cairo to Wall Street, the protesters are above all “inspired” by the same thing: the grim reality of life under capitalism at the beginning of the 21st century.
Aside from debt, unemployment, inequality, and poverty in a world of plenty, the post-9/11 generation has little to look forward to. For the youth in particular, the present is increasingly unbearable, and the only thing certain about the future is that tomorrow is sure to be even more bleak than today. In short, the protests have less to do with this or that specific grievance, and everything to do with the crisis of the capitalist system.
Marxists are not economic determinists. We understand that the ideological, cultural, and political superstructure can play a big role in shaping the economic foundations of society. But in the final analysis, it is the economic base that defines the basic parameters within which society operates. Before the advent of computers and the development of the technology to produce rockets, a trip to the moon was nothing more than an abstract possibility.
In other words, the economic infrastructure of society ultimately determines what is possible in society. The crisis of capitalism means that there are far fewer possibilities for the majority of humanity; at least as long as that system remains in place.
Whether we are all consciously aware of it or not, we are all affected by the conditions that surround us. At root, our ideologies and struggles are a reflection and expression of the shifts in the economic foundations of society. An epoch of economic crisis inevitably leads to an epoch of social and political crisis, although this is never a linear, black-and-white, easy to define process.
“Just the facts, ma’am”
But don’t take our word for it. The facts and figures speak for themselves. Here are just a few reasons why thousands have occupied Wall Street and hundreds of other cities around the U.S.:
In 2010 there were fewer jobs and they paid less, except at the very top. The median paycheck fell again in 2010, down 1.2 percent to $26,364. That works out at $507 a week, the lowest level, after adjusting for inflation, since 1999. At the same time, those making more than $1 million increased by 20 percent as compared to 2009. Source.
The number of Americans working any sort of job fell again in 2010, down by more than a half million from 2009 to less than 150.4 million—less than half the total population of the country. More significantly, the number of people with any work has fallen by 5.2 million since 2007, when the worst recession since the Great Depression began, with a massive taxpayer bailout of Wall Street following in late 2008. This means 3.3 percent of people who had a job in 2007, or one in every 30, went all of 2010 without earning a dollar. Source.
In addition to the 5.2 million people who no longer have any work add roughly 4.5 million people who, due to population growth, would normally join the workforce in three years and you have close to 10 million workers who did not find even an hour of paid work in 2010. Source.
Teenage unemployment (those between 16 and 19 years of age) stands at nearly 25%. For white teens it is 20.9%; 20.2% for Latinos; and an incredible 44.8% for blacks. Read more about teenage unemployment here and about the racial divide when it comes to employment here.
At the same time, non-financial companies are sitting on more than $2 trillion of cash—nearly $7,000 per American—with no place to invest it profitably. This money cannot even be invested to earn the rate of inflation. Source.
Here is another very interesting chart put together by the Economic Policy Institute that shows that since the early 1980s, most of the country’s wealth gains have gone to the top 10% of the population.
The above figures give a crystal clear picture as to the “why” of the movement. No wonder Americans are dissatisfied with the present and pessimistic about the future! No wonder so many young people have decided that enough is enough!
Who are the 99%?
The slogan “we are the 99%” is an expression of the fact that the interests of the vast majority are not represented in politics and the economy. It reflects an instinctive understanding that the real wealth and power of society are concentrated in very few hands.
Héctor R. Cordero-Guzmán, Ph.D. has produced an interesting study based on responses to a survey on occupywallst.org. As he explains, the survey “suggests that there is a huge undercurrent of mainstream dissatisfaction with traditional political party affiliations as well a huge amount of support for radical change in the United States of America.” Here are a few highlights:
- 92.5% of respondents either somewhat or strongly supported the protests with most respondents indicating strong support. 1/4th of the sample (or 24.2%) participated in the Occupy Wall Street protests as of October 5, 2011. 91.8% of the sample thinks that the Occupy Wall Street Protests will continue to grow.
- 64.2% of respondents were younger than 34 years of age. While the sample is relatively young, one in three respondents is older than 35 and one in five respondents is 45 and older.
- 7.9% of respondents have a high school degree or less. A whopping 92.1% of the sample has some college, a college degree, or a graduate degree. 27.4% have some college (but no degree), 35% have a college degree, 8.2% have some graduate school (but no degree), and close to 21.5% have a graduate school degree. 26.7% of respondents were enrolled in school and 73.3% were not enrolled in school.
- 50.4% were employed full-time and an additional 20.4% were employed part-time. 13.1% of the sample are unemployed.
- 47.5% of the sample earns less than $24,999 dollars a year and another quarter (24%) earn between $25,000 and $49,999 per year. 71.5% of the sample earns less than $50,000 per year. 15.4% of the sample earned between $50,000 and $74,999.
- 27.3% of respondents considered themselves Democrats, another 2.4% said they were Republican. A very large proportion of the sample, close to 70.3%, considered themselves Independents.
So while the movement has drawn in all kinds of people from many walks of life, it is predominantly young, highly educated, and overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the current political parties. Burdened by debt and unemployment and with few prospects for a better future, they are willing to fight to change things for the better. The parallels with Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, Spain and beyond are self-evident.
For the last 30 or so years, with a few notable exceptions, the class struggle seemed off the agenda in the U.S. In fact, for nearly the entire post-World War II period, the idea that conditions of life would continue to improve from one generation to the next received a powerful impetus from experience itself.
After World War II, U.S. capitalism received a new lease of life. Its natural resources, population, and productive capabilities were virtually intact. It proceeded to profit handsomely from the reconstruction of Europe and Japan after the catastrophic destruction of the war. New and improved technologies such as plastics and computers allowed for new fields of expansion and development. The U.S. was the world’s largest creditor nation and had the majority of the world’s gold reserves in its vaults.
The carving out of new global “spheres of influence” in conjunction with Stalinist Russia led to a certain political and economic stability for a period of decades. The material basis for the “American Dream” was built on all of this. A job, a house, a car, and a college education were now available to millions more Americans. The capitalists continued to rake in the profits, but the masses were allowed to have a few juicy bites from the table.
Despite the growing disparity in relative wealth, things actually did get better for millions of Americans, at least in terms of absolute wealth. That is to say, the portion of the surplus wealth that went to the rich grew far faster than the portion that went toward the wages and benefits of the workers, but at least many workers could afford more consumer goods and even buy a fishing boat or take a vacation now and then.
The collapse of the USSR opened up vast new territories to capitalist exploitation, giving the system yet another temporary boost. The tremendous increases in productivity made possible by robotics and the information technology revolution allowed for even greater exploitation of the workers and windfall profits for the ruling class. China and India also threw open their doors to capitalist investment, extending the reach of the market even further. The massive expansion of credit and rising house prices gave a further—albeit temporary and artificial—boost to the system. But eventually, all of that was tapped out, and the factors that led to the economic expansion turned into their opposite.
Conditions and consciousness
Good economic times give rise to optimistic outlooks on the future. Periods of crisis have just the opposite effect. For a whole historical epoch, capitalism seemed to have overcome its contradictions and was successfully delivering the goods to a significant layer of the population. This naturally led to a relative dampening of the class struggle. But that has all ended now. Long gone is the optimistic confidence of the years immediately after World War II. Long gone is the idea that the “American way of life” is here to stay and a model for all the world. U.S. capitalism is a system in decline, and this is inevitably reflected in the morale of the American people.
Instead of the exciting space race to the moon, NASA is being cut and privatized. Instead of full employment there is massive unemployment. Instead of efficiently churning out scientists and doctors to search for a cure for cancer, an education means a lifetime of debt and no guarantee of a job. Instead of a “kinder, gentler” society for all, the prisons are overflowing. Instead of absorbing the world’s “tired, poor, huddled masses,” immigrant unemployment and deportations are at record levels. Instead of rising wages and a guaranteed pension, there has been a collapse in real wages over the last 30 years, and a comfortable retirement is a pipe dream for millions.
The crisis of capitalism, which shook the system to its foundations in the 1930s, was partially overcome due to a unique concatenation of factors, some of which are outlined above. However, those factors cannot be reproduced, and as night follows day, open battles of the class struggle are firmly back on the agenda.
Like lighting from a clear blue sky?
Many were taken completely by surprise by the movement. But to anyone paying attention to the economy and to the growing mood of discontent, it was clear that something big was simmering beneath the surface. After all, the recent period has not been entirely calm. Other movements preceded the Wall Street occupation. The 1999 anti-WTO protests were a harbinger of the present movement. But September 11, the Patriot Act, and the “war on terror,” drove it underground, where it simmered for another decade before inevitably bursting to the surface again, this time on a higher and more broadly supported scale. Much energy also went into protesting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and against George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s policies in general. And in 2006, as the system was beginning to seize up, it was the immigrant workers who bore the early brunt of the crisis and came out massively on the streets to fight for their rights.
When the crisis first struck directly in 2008, there were spontaneous rallies in lower Manhattan. Our leaflet titled “Capitalism has Failed” was well-received on Wall Street itself. The Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago was occupied by the workers. Anti-bailout protests took place in New York and around the country. But the effects of the crisis came as a major shock. Offered no way forward by the union leadership, the workers had their heads down as the economy hemorrhaged hundreds of thousands of jobs every month. But the 2008 elections cut across all of this. Obama’s campaign offered Americans the hope of “change they could believe in” through a simple vote at the ballot box.
As the effects of the crisis trickled down to the states, there were important student movements, above all in California. Public sector workers were increasingly the target of cuts and austerity, with important mobilizations by teachers in states like New Jersey. Then, on the heels of Mubarak’s fall in Egypt, Governor “Hosni” Walker’s attacks on public sector workers in Wisconsin sparked an inspiring fight back on a scale not seen in decades.
Now it is the un- and under-employed youth who are at the forefront, occupying plazas and calling attention to the role of the banks in bringing about—and profiting from—the economic crisis. But it is still only the beginning of the beginning. As the Marxists have consistently explained, the youth are an important “barometer” for the pressure building up within society, and an indication of far bigger things to come.
Fighting against the “new normality”
The emergence of the #occupy movement entirely confirms the perspectives of the Marxists. We explained that even in the “belly of the beast,” the workers and youth would eventually be forced to fight back. We explained that this is the “new normality” of capitalism. There will be no return to the mythical “good old days.” There will be no alternative but to struggle.
Some will still complain that the intended target of the pent-up rage is not as focused as, for example, the struggle to topple Mubarak. It is true that the movement in Egypt was initially united by the relentless desire to rid the country of a hated dictator. However, as the Egyptian revolution has continued, the deep class divisions in society are increasingly coming to the fore. A similar process will unfold in the U.S. in the coming months, years and decades. The “school of hard knocks” that is life under capitalism will provide plenty of clarity.
At present the movement contains everyone from reformists to revolutionaries, and everything in between. A lack of clarity and heterogeneity is normal and natural at this stage of the revival of the fight back against capitalism. One thing is clear: the protesters may not be entirely sure about what they are for, but they are quite certain about what they are against!
It is the duty of the Marxists to fight shoulder to shoulder with the movement and to patiently explain the ideas of revolutionary Marxism. “Socialism” is no longer the “dirty word” it used to be. Thousands of young people are excited by these ideas and are eager to learn more. And although many are understandably turned off by electoral politics, the idea of a mass labor party based on the unions and armed with a socialist program is connecting broadly in discussions with #occupiers around the country.
The movement has broad support: make the rich pay!
The media can scoff at the movement all it wants. But they cannot avoid reporting on it. Whether they are for or against it, every American knows that there are some among them who are so fed up with the status quo that they are camped out in Zuccotti Park to protest against corporate greed, unemployment, and inequality.
There are literally millions of Americans who sympathize with them and are watching events unfold. Despite the bally-hoo about a lack of clear demands, a recent poll shows that 67 percent of New York City voters agree with the demonstrations. Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, explains that “seven out of 10 New Yorkers say they understand and most agree with the anti-Wall Street views of the protesters.”
Furthermore, 72 percent of New Yorkers statewide favor a “Millionaire’s Tax” in order to increase taxes for those who earn more than $1 million a year. According to the poll, released by Sienna College, the tax has the support of 83 percent of Democrats, 70 percent of independents, and even 55 percent of Republicans. A similar survey conducted by Daily Kos shows that nearly 75 percent of the entire country also supports such a tax.
The U.S. is the wealthiest country on earth. It has vast natural resources and a huge, skilled, and productive workforce. And yet, the government is cutting vital social programs and claiming there is not “enough money” to go around. Americans instinctively understand that this is simply not the case. There is more than enough wealth in this country to fund and expand social programs, provide universal health care and education, and to create quality jobs for all. There is just one small detail: the bulk of the wealth is concentrated in the hands of several hundred individuals and corporations.
A study by the National Priorities Project has calculated that tax cuts for the wealthiest 5 percent cost the U.S. Treasury an incredible $11.6 million every hour of every day. No wonder so many Americans are in favor of taxing the rich! Of course, a modest tax on the wealthiest Americans would in and of itself do little to infringe upon the real wealth and power of the capitalists. But even this modest reform is resisted tooth and nail by the ruling elite. Not only would this mean fewer profits for them, but it could also set a dangerous precedent. Making the rich pay higher taxes could open the flood gates for making the rich pay in other ways. For example: aggressive progressive taxation, trial and imprisonment for fraud and corruption, and expropriation of the key levers of the economy if the capitalists cannot put them to use in the interests of the majority. This is why we say: make the rich pay!
Another poll, this one by Time magazine, showed the following: 54% of Americans have a favorable view of the #occupy movement, 79% think the gap between rich and poor has grown too large, 71% think CEOs of financial institutions should be prosecuted, 68% think the rich should pay more taxes, only 27% have a favorable view of the Tea Party movement.
In short, the protests have broad support as they express the deep-seated frustrations of the majority of Americans. The occupations have already dramatically changed the political dialogue and mood in the country and mark a new stage in the changing consciousness of the American working class and youth. Filmmaker Michael Moore—another “sensitive barometer” of the moods in American society—summed up his views in a recent appearance on BBC Newsnight by saying that “capitalism has to be ended.” We couldn’t agree more!
The #occupy movement, if it becomes generalized, represents a mortal threat to the interests of the capitalists that control this country and the world. This is why the media is attempting to throw dust in the eyes of those following the movement, to divert people’s attention from the root cause of the crisis and the discontent. They may succeed in confusing people for a time. But all the media manipulation in the world cannot change the fact that capitalism only works for a tiny minority.
So far the movement does not have a clear political expression. But this can and will change. The laws on the books favor the 1%. In order to change this, we need politicians and parties that represent the majority.
Although they are the party in power, the Democrats are working hard to co-opt the movement, to turn the rage against the rich to their advantage. They hope to energize their party’s base in the run up to the 2012 elections. But many of those camped out already tried that route and are protesting precisely because change did not come by voting in Obama and the Democrats. In fact, things only got worse. So who are they to vote for if not one of the “greater” or “lesser” evils?
The labor leaders could cut across the confusion by offering a bold alternative. They must take the initiative to help spread the movement to every factory, workplace, school, and neighborhood. They could change the dynamic of the movement and of the entire country if they changed their present course of collaboration with the bosses on the shop floor and partnership with the anti-worker Democratic Party at the ballot box.
The labor movement has the power and resources to mobilize millions of union and non-union workers to fight back on the streets and in the workplace. It has the infrastructure and numbers to break completely with the Democrats and build a mass labor party, not as a “third” party, but as a contender for political power. Ultimately, it has the power to prepare for and successfully launch a nationwide general strike. This is the way to really shut down Wall Street and “business as usual” in Washington!
Great events shape consciousness like nothing else. What we are witnessing is a classic example of what Leon Trotsky called the “molecular process of revolution.” The simmering discontent is reaching new layers of society. Others will follow. At some point in the not-too-distant future, wave after wave of workers will join the fight back. This will dramatically change the character of the movement, the methods of struggle, and the content of the demands. The entry of the working class will put its stamp on the movement and will mark a new stage in the preparations for the American socialist revolution. The participation of thousands of unionized workers on Wall Street is an indication of things to come. From service workers to heavy industry; from the traditional union strongholds in the North to the powder keg of unorganized labor in the South; waves of strikes, mass picket lines, and the unionization of millions of unorganized workers is on the agenda in the years ahead.
International events and the overall economic situation will play a role as well. We need look no further than the experience of the crisis and the fight back of the workers and youth in Greece for a peek into our own future. Although the details may differ from one country and even from one city or region to another, the fundamental processes are essentially the same everywhere.
The contradictions of the system cannot be resolved through mere reforms. The only way the capitalists can get out of the crisis is by further driving down the conditions of life of the working class and the poor. Even then, a recovery is not at all guaranteed. Another, perhaps even deeper economic crisis is not at all ruled out in the next period. The effect this would have on workers’ confidence in the system can easily be imagined, though that too will not be a mechanical, linear process. But every action has an equal and opposite reaction. There are only so many blows the workers can take before they decide that something fundamental has to change and they begin to take things into their own hands.
So the next time someone asks you what the #occupy movement is all about, tell them that deep down, they probably already know the answer. Like all movements, the #occupy movement and its offshoots will have its ups and downs, its ebbs and flows, its advances and retreats. But one thing is sure. The floods of the class struggle are beginning to overflow the channels so carefully constructed by defenders of capitalism. In time, this will be transformed into a raging torrent of discontent with the potential to sweep capitalism aside once and for all. This is the perspective the Marxists are preparing for politically and organizationally.