Look Beyond the Street
Look Beyond the Street
This week, the world witnessed another intercontinental event that has become the hallmark of protest in the Internet age. In four continents, from Tokyo to Toronto, thousands of people joined the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest movement, which began quietly last month in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. This was the first such globally coordinated protest since 2003, when between six and 10 million people in 60 countries took to the streets on a single weekend to protest against the impending US invasion of Iraq. The message of anti-war protest was clear, but it did not halt the march to war. It did nevertheless mark the beginning of a rapid decline of American prestige in the world. The latest protests against the excesses of capitalism — sprouting as they are in capitalism’s Mecca — may well help the US to regain its leadership in ideas. That is, of course, assuming that the movement crystallises into actionable policies or at least pushes the political system to act.
The speed with which the OWS movement has grown in the US and spread across the developed world leaves no doubt that, despite its disparate slogans, the movement has struck a chord with the middle classes of all ages.
It is easy to mock their idealistic calls to end greed or abolish the Federal Reserve, but beneath their myriad demands lie serious and justified critiques of financial shenanigans and official complicity that have brought on this Great Recession.
For the ‘Indignados’ of Spain, youth who see a jobless future surviving on the dole, and young American graduates facing the crushing burdens of student loans without hope for work to repay those loans, life is bleak. For middle-aged Americans who lost their jobs and homes, and saw their pensions evaporate in the financial collapse, the OWS has been a long time coming. They find their misery mocked by the million-dollar bonuses reaped by the very corporate bosses who caused the disaster and were bailed out with taxpayers’ money. They are offended to learn that, thanks to a tax system rigged by legislators and lobbyists, the super-rich pay less tax than average citizens. Wall Street stands as a symbol of the plutocracy and OWS is a populist response to glaring inequality and injustice.
OWS also offers a catchy slogan that has galvanised people. Sixty-seven per cent of New Yorkers support the cause. Some $300,000 has flowed into Zuccotti Park in donations and package delivery firm UPS is struggling to deliver a torrent of care packages arriving for the protesters. But to sustain its momentum, the movement has to translate anger and emotion into practical demands that can be pushed through the political system. Greed cannot be abolished nor can the capitalists be weaned off profit-seeking. Wall Street as an icon of capitalism will be there, whether symbolically occupied in Zuccotti Park or not. But a political system that thrives on campaign financing by the rich, corrupting legislative processes and creating crooked taxation can be changed.
It was, after all, the big business-backed deregulation of the banks and financial services that created the casino-like conditions allowing for subprime shenanigans. The complex tax system honeycombed with loopholes for the rich, built over the years by lobbyists and complicit legislators has allowed inequality to rise to unbearable height. The power of Political Action Committees to raise unlimited campaign funds has spurred legislators to fight progressive taxation and dilute regulations that seek to protect public interest. The way Republican legislators have been chipping away at the Democrat-passed Dodd-Frank Act (2010) demonstrates Wall Street’s clout over the Congress. Adopted in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, the Dodd-Frank Act had sought to limit the power of the financial services industry.
Divided about the means to achieve their goal of reining in Wall Street, and reluctant to be seen as partisan, the OWS demonstrators have shunned taking a political position. But the fact is that Wall Street as representative of the country’s financial sector can only be brought under control by the elected executive and legislature and judiciary. The protesters hold the financial elite — the one-percenters — responsible for the reigning inequity and unfairness. But to restore some semblance of balance, the protesters need to do more than occupy Wall Street. They need to occupy the political space that regulates Wall Street.
The author is director of publications at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization and editor of YaleGlobal Online.