May 24, 2013
Time to Start Preoccupying Wall Street
Posted on Dec 9, 2011
Tyrannies all over the world—and here I include the tyranny of the market that the proponents of unfettered capitalism (which is to say, by and large, the system’s increasingly concentrated winners and all those handsomely paid-off apologists and retainers they regularly choose to hide behind)—exist in the ironclad certainty that people are nothing more than meat on sticks. Anything that their subordinates, their inferiors, their underlings are or have beyond that exists at the sheerest whim of the regime. Indeed, the notion that human beings have absolute rights simply by virtue of their humanity—the right, for instance, not to be tortured, on the one hand; or to secure lodging, decent livelihoods, adequate health care and so forth, on the other—arises initially as a wild, untethered assertion in the face of eons of stark evidence to the contrary. But it is a magical assertion.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The truly revolutionary advance in that declaration is contained not so much in such words as “truths,” “self-evident,” “unalienable,” or “created equal” as in the calm self-certainty of that opening phrase: “We hold.” The text does not launch out with “It is manifestly self-evident that” or some similar construction, as strict logic might seem to dictate. I mean, either it is or it isn’t self-evident, right? Except that in this instance, the self-evidence of the assertion does in fact remain hidden, fugitive, immanent at best, until people rise up to embrace it, to hold fast to its insistence (mutually pledging their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor in the process). It is holding such truths to be self-evident that first makes them so—and, more specifically, doing so in concert, alongside others.
I first began to think along these lines myself several decades back when I had the privilege of reporting from Poland during the early ’80s and thereby got to witness the astonishing Solidarity upsurge firsthand. As it happens, one of the principal architects of that seismic convulsion, Adam Michnik, was in town a few weeks back and paid a visit to the Occupy Wall Street encampment in full bloom. We were talking a few hours afterward, and he told me he’d recognized a kindred spirit. “Sort of like Poland a few years before the actual Solidarity uprising in 1980,” he explained. “The prologue to that moment, say Poland in 1976, when Polish workers began to rise up and say ‘no.’ They weren’t yet sure what it was they wanted, what they wanted to say ‘yes’ to, but they had become absolutely convinced of what they did not want, what they could no longer abide—and that is the beginning of the end for the regime.”
His comments put me back into those days, in the early ’80s, when Solidarity full throttle first got going, a movement that would, within less than a decade and notwithstanding temporary setbacks here and there, go on to utterly rout one of history’s vastest totalitarian regimes (a regime so entrenched and so stolid that hardly anyone beforehand had so much as granted himself permission to imagine its full eradication). Back in those days, the nascent mass movement’s theorists—people like Michnik—used to speak of Solidarity as an expression of “the subjectivity of the Polish nation,” by which they meant the Polish people’s sudden insistence that they no longer be treated as the objects of other people’s histories but instead start behaving as the subjects of their own. It was literally a grammatical transformation—as basic as the leap from “Please, please stop doing that to us” to “Damn it all, we simply won’t take this anymore”—and it had profound, ultimately world-upending implications.
As indeed might—one almost shudders to think it—the new movement under way here at the very heart of the capitalist market. (There’s that joke of a few years back, to the effect that in 1989 capitalism defeated communism and in 2008 it defeated democracy. That was never exactly right: In 1989 it was a mass people’s uprising that overthrew communism, albeit one that was overwhelmed by the very rampaging neoliberal capitalism that went on to overwhelm Western democracy as well in 2008, a seemingly totalizing triumph that, on the other hand, may yet now be proving short-lived.)
That the movement is entering a new phase can hardly be doubted. Merely occupying public squares in towns and hamlets all around the country was never in and of itself supposed to have been the point (though for a few weeks there it seemed to be becoming so). For that matter, as has been noted, the encampments themselves were becoming increasingly problematic: attracting all sorts of homeless often mentally unstable elements whose care in a less savagely cost-cutting era would have been the wider society’s obvious responsibility; having to divert substantial energies to sanitation and other similar day to day requirements; gradually wearing out their welcome with neighboring residents and businesses (those nonstop bongos); etc. Given such problems, as well as the relentless onset of the coming winter, it could be and indeed has been argued that the various municipal authorities have been doing the movement a kind of unintended favor by shutting down the encampments themselves (and especially doing so in such a repeatedly ham-fisted way).
Nor need the remarkable upwelling of a radically participatory form of democracy within the camps themselves, no matter how bracing and potentially valuable in the long run, in itself be fetishized as the point of the exercise. The fact is that at some point the Occupiers were going to need to sharpen their demands, or at least to widen their tactical and strategic vision, and that point is now. They are going to need to find a way of reaching out to constituencies well beyond their original cohort, including millions of fellow citizens who, while they may not have the time or the current life situation or the disposition to be able to join the die-hards in encampments, would nevertheless love to be offered some concrete way into the movement, a practical means of expressing their anger and frustration, to say nothing of sheer human solidarity with one another. It is becoming the responsibility of Occupy Wall Street (just as it was the responsibility of the original anti-war mobilizers back in the Vietnam days) to find some way of building bridges to those people. Sure, we may all reconvene in those encampments come the spring, and it is to be hoped in ever greater numbers, but what to do in the meantime?
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