By Lawrence Weschler
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.)
And after having so brilliantly rallied oppositional energies over the past several months, one way of phrasing the question now facing the Wall Street Occupiers and their as-yet homebound supporters all around the country, as the movement enters its next phase, might well be: How do we get from that inchoate no to a more focused yes?
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?
Phrased differently, if the greatest single contribution of the Occupy Wall Street movement to the progressive cause was the way it quickened a vital sense of narrative drive that had gone all but moribund over the past 30 years (through such captivating innovations as the 99 percent meme), that sense of vitality had more recently begun noticeably to flag once again, and it is now imperative that the movement instead shift the narrative up another several notches.
In doing so, the movement ought to build on another of Occupy Wall Street’s greatest conceptual breakthroughs: the insight that it’s become pointless to address our concerns to the politicians—a political system virtually paralyzed, evenly divided between bullies and weenies, with a president for all intents and purposes veritably palsied with compunction and misgiving (who knows why and who cares anymore?). You don’t occupy Capitol Hill; you occupy Wall Street. And the formula needs to continue to be: time to stop addressing our concerns to the hired help; from now on, we deal directly with the masters.
So, where are we today?
While the big corporations sit on piles of cash, small businesses are failing to thrive because people are not spending; and people are not spending because they either have already lost their jobs or live in justifiable fear that they may yet soon. Fully a quarter of current mortgage holders are underwater, meaning they owe more to the banks than their houses are worth, with foreclosure only a family-financial-hiccup away. The possibility of moving anywhere else (where there might be a job) is likewise foreclosed to them if they don’t want to lose everything they’ve put into their houses, since housing markets generally have seized up as a result of the crisis.
Meanwhile, recent college grads groan under the weight of unprecedented amounts of debt—loans of the sort students in most other countries were never required to take on to fund what most everyplace else is seen as a self-evident public good: an educated populace, which after all is to everyone’s advantage. These loans were taken out under the assurance that the resultant degrees would open out onto careers that would allow the loans to be repaid—jobs that no longer exist.
With the general exception of the notorious 1 percent (who’ve been making out like bandits all through this period, just as they did throughout the previous three decades), the vast majority of Americans have pulled back on their spending, hence businesses lay off more workers. Then tax revenues decline and local governments in turn lay off more teachers, police and firefighters, who therefore no longer spend, and so forth.
And what does government seem capable of doing in the face of all this? Not much. If anything the wheels of governance seem more bollixed and mired than those of the economy at large. One party is being held hostage by a tea party pretty much entirely untethered from any understanding of its own actual economic interests, a faux populist insurgency lashed into existence by one group of billionaires (the Koch brothers and their ilk) and prodded along via the Pavlovian ravings of opinion-shapers employed by another (Murdoch and his), the rage of its members cleverly channeled onto the governments and civil servants that have (granted) proved so hapless in trying to deal with the crisis rather than onto the financial behemoths that brought the crisis on. The other party, alas, ever since the days when the Clinton-Rubin regime engineered its grand surrender (for purposes of all that excellent fundraising), has been captive to that same finance industry, a sinister embrace that its new leader, President Obama, for whatever the reason (personal psychological issues, heartfelt political conviction, meritocratic identification, Stockholm syndrome, despairing realpolitik sense of what can any longer be achieved—who knows and who anymore cares?) has proven singularly incapable of sundering.
Bailouts—at full value, dollar for dollar—get lavished upon the banks and finance industry whose recklessness got us into the mess, without the slightest requirement that those institutions turn around and help the economy at large. While everyone else suffers, the executives take unconscionable bonuses, and meanwhile sluice good portions of the rest of their bailout funds into paying lobbyists and their designated candidates to gut even the mildest of regulations intended to forestall any further such criminal recklessness in the future. Is there any wonder that people are furious, alienated and thrashing about for a response with any hope of opening up a horizon?
It is against that backdrop that I offer the following proposal. I should say first of all that I am by no means the first to be thinking along these lines (other such proposals have been bubbling up all over); nor is this sort of proposal the only one that need be pursued. It would constitute one activist foray among many. But it does seem to me the sort of direct action that the recently evicted Occupiers and their sympathizers around the country ought now to be considering.
It grows out of the marvelously suggestive insight embodied in that classic old Yiddish story, the one in which, as you remember:
Schlomo is up again all night, tossing and turning, and by 3 in the morning Rivka, his long-suffering and increasingly exasperated wife, has had it. “Enough already with the tossing and turning, Schlomo!” she exclaims. “What’s keeping you up like this night after night, and me too while we are at it?” “It’s Moishe across the lane,” explains Schlomo, veritably trembling. “I owe him 10 rubles, due tomorrow, and I don’t have it.” To which Rivka, climbing out of bed and heading over to the window, retorts, “Is that all? Geesh, no problem.” She opens the shutter, leans out and yells, “Moishe!” A few moments pass till Moishe across the way angrily flings his window open: “For God’s sake, Rivka, what could you possibly want at this hour?” “It’s Schlomo,” she explains. “He owes you 10 rubles in the morning and he doesn’t have it!” Whereupon she latches her shutter back up and returns to bed. “There,” she tells her husband, “now you go to sleep and let Moishe stay up all night worrying.”
What would it be like if activists were to spend the next several months developing, articulating and organizing toward a major national mortgage and student loan strike? Such a loan strike would be slated to begin—provided enough people signed on in advance (and I’m talking hundreds of thousands, millions), and unless a concrete set of intervening demands was squarely met in the meantime—on some specific preannounced date in the intermediate future. Why not, say, on Oct. 1, 2012, right in the middle of the next presidential campaign?
Such a set of demands is hardly as radically over the top as it may first appear. No less a figure than Martin Feldstein, the former chairman of Ronald Reagan’s own Council of Economic Advisers, recently argued in a New York Times Op-Ed piece that the country will never get out of its current economic rut until the problem of underwater mortgages is squarely addressed. “House prices are falling because millions of homeowners are defaulting on their mortgages,” he noted, “and the sale of their foreclosed properties is driving down the prices of all homes. Nearly 15 million homeowners owe more than their homes are worth; in this group, about half the mortgages exceed the home value by more than 30 percent.” Noting the strangulating effect of this situation on the economy as a whole, he went on to propose how, in order “to halt the fall in house prices, the government should reduce mortgage principal when it exceeds 110 percent of the home value. About 11 million of the nearly 15 million homes that are ‘underwater’ are in this category. If everyone eligible participated, the one-time cost would be under $350 billion”—a cost he proposed be divvied up evenly between the banks (which is to say their shareholders) and the government.
A similar calculus could be applied to student loans. The real scandal here is the way the rates of the loans in question (I have friends who are locked into Citibank to the tune of 10 percent!) might have made sense in the day when prime was 4 or 5 percent, though it becomes utterly usurious at a time when the Fed has been busy shoveling money at those same banks at well-nigh zero percent, supposedly in order to help rev up the economy. Maybe those loans should be reset at just a few points above current prime, or some such—or else the overhanging principal reduced according to some fairer systemic formula (no total loans to exceed $25,000, with less onerous schedules for repayment, or some such). For that matter, there may be other ways of parsing the resetting of underwater mortgages (for example allowing for the temporary recasting of the mortgage payment into a non-interest-paying rental, without the loss of an accrued stake in the property in the interim).
The Occupy movement would need to enlist the advice of sympathetic economists and loan experts to craft the precise terms of the respective demands. In addition to the alleviation of tremendous amounts of individual and family anxiety and suffering, the more generalized goal of the reset—and incidentally, why is it that up till now in this crisis only the improvident banks and investment houses have been allowed to reset the terms of their deals, without any penalty, whereas none of the rest of us have been accorded similarly revivifying largesse?—would be to free up all sorts of spending money at the lower reaches of the economy where it might actually do some good.
The naively self-deluding flaw in Feldstein’s proposal, alas, is that he aimed it at the government. It’s past time that pundits like him start getting real: This government, paralyzed and entrammeled as it is these days, is never even going to consider, let alone act upon, anything of the sort. But our strategy circumvents that dead end entirely.
Again: Once the precise terms of the demand have been framed, a national campaign could kick into gear in which underwater mortgage holders and overstrained graduates would be invited to sign a statement to the effect that if by some date specific, some equally specific number of fellow debtors had likewise signed on to the plan, and if their grievances had not been satisfactorily addressed in the meantime, then all of them would simply stop paying the banks. It would become the banks’ problem—and a veritable problem from hell at that, for as lavishly as the banks’ executives have been paying themselves, the underlying institutions are still in pretty ginger shape. Let them stay up all night worrying about it. Let them figure out how to get their lobbyists to get their government retainers to respond in a fashion that would avert such a terrifying looming eventuality.
I can already hear the baying screeches welling up from the coddled opioniati—almost a whole other charm of the proposal. Not fair! Against the rules! (Wait a second, isn’t it the lenders’ responsibility to ascertain the viability of the loan in question, and isn’t the prospect of default the supposed reason they’ve been allowed to rake in all that intervening interest? Is it our fault if they weren’t able to calculate the eventual consequences of all these decades’ worth of their compoundingly insouciant arrogance?) Moral hazard! (Now they start worrying about moral hazard?) What about those who played by the rules? (You mean an earlier generation that never had to rack up these sorts of student debts because college was much cheaper? You mean homebuyers who happened to secure their loans before the bubble and back when regulations still prevented the sorts of predatory practices to which their neighbors succumbed? Beyond which, this crisis affects all of us equally, with the exception again of that impervious 1 percent. If neighborhoods don’t recover as a whole, no one in them is going to have a secure horizon.) And finally, that last-ditch all-purpose room-clearer: class warfare! (Yeah, right.)
A further charm of the proposal is that many of those it seeks to engage would be distinctly easy to organize: In many neighborhoods, house after house is underwater, and it would just be a question of going door to door. A similar pattern pertains with recently graduated students, who tend to congregate, unemployed, in the same watering holes and in any case can be reached via their alumni organizations. (Indeed one could deploy one group to organize the other.) Once reached, such re-engaged individuals could form the basis for a significant widening of the innovative mass-participatory democratic impulse so brimmingly in evidence at the various current occupations. Something old and ailing, the economy, might receive a vivifying jolt; and in the process something new and dynamic and gleamingly hopeful might quicken into being.
It’s important neither to underplay what is being asked of signers, nor to leave them to their own devices once they do sign. People are being asked to put their livelihoods on the line (all the money they have tied up in their houses, often their entire retirement savings; the prospect of a complete collapse in their credit ratings; a mountain of potential legal fees, etc.). While organizing the signers, the movement would also need to be developing support systems: legal aid cooperatives, alternative credit societies and the like (cooperatives whose seed funding could be provided by supporters not directly called upon to sign the growing commitment petitions, and which could in themselves grow into vital alternative institutions).
A final virtue of this proposal would be the way it so vividly lends itself to narrative elaboration. From the start, reporters would be tracing the upward arc of the organizing dynamic. They wouldn’t be able to help themselves—this is storytelling catnip. A few hundred signatures the first week, a few thousand the week after, suddenly several tens of thousands more. Were sufficient signatures to be gathered before the deadline, the odds are the signers would never even be called upon to make good on their threat, so spooked would the financial powers that be have become at the prospect.
On top of all that, such a plan would constitute a recovery of the great American tradition of direct action, running as it does from the true Founding Fathers (with their actual tea party and then a declaration of independence in which they chose to address the world at large rather than any longer bother addressing the king, let alone his mere representatives) through Shays’ Rebellion (Shays in that sense having been another of the Founding Fathers), the Jacksonian movements, on through the Populist movements of the Gilded 1880s-’90s (which began with farmers creating granges and other work-arounds to undercut the railroad monopolies and industrial workers uniting to wrest back some measure of control from the robber barons) and then again the FDR era (Hoovervilles, etc.) and the civil rights and Vietnam era actions.
As was the case with FDR, the point would not be to overthrow capitalism so much as to save it from itself, to usher in a more humane capitalism and specifically to address the yawning wealth gap that has so dramatically come to deform our current period. Much as the Republican eminence grise Grover Norquist’s strategy has been to starve the beast (to undermine tax revenues so relentlessly that government has no choice but to contract), ours ought to be to create a situation the only way out of which would be a vast realignment of wealth and resources. (There would likely be no way the banks could meet the sudden shortfalls occasioned by meeting all those loan demands short of government rescue, and no way the government in turn could provide such relief without substantial wealth taxes.)
Thinking more long-term: The U.S. political system is completely rigged against the formation of third parties, but eventually (though only long-term, not right now), the strategy could be for the resultant movement to take over one of the dead husks of one of the superannuated political parties (much as the Populists ended up doing with the Democratic Party under William Jennings Bryan).
But in order to be successful, such an effort would finally have to overcome the specter of racial politics that has so bedeviled American history to date. One of the main reasons the Populists ultimately failed with Bryan is that the rich were able to pit poor whites against disenfranchised blacks. Had those poor whites made common cause with their black counterparts, among other things demanding their immediate re-enfranchisement, the resultant votes could well have put Bryan over the top. Similarly, the only way FDR was able to push through his New Deal legislation was through an alliance of congressional Northern liberals and Southern racist committee chairmen, one premised on agreement that any serious addressing of the scandal of Jim Crow segregation in the South would be put off for yet another generation. And surely, as has often been noted, a good part of the impetus behind the current tea party has been white panic at the sight of a black president. But another of the nice things about the loan strike strategy is precisely the fact that there are as many underwater loans and dependent children groaning under the weight of egregious student debt amongst the tea party folk as anybody else. A loan strike movement could have the collateral benefit of peeling off substantial portions of the tea party (helping some of its members at long last to see the way they’ve been lashed into acting against their own financial interests), such that we might at long last be verging on a moment when the curse of race politics in America could finally be superseded.
The point, in sum, is for all of us, holding fast to self-evident truths, to move beyond merely occupying Wall Street and to start preoccupying Wall Street, to unsettle the nights of its denizens and to wend our way into their dreams. And the time to be doing so is now.
AP / Seth Wenig
End of phase one: A woman waves an American flag over Occupy Wall Street protesters gathered in Foley Square in New York on Nov. 15, the day police officers evicted movement members from Liberty Square.