Every so often the people must re-wrest control from the economically powerful forces that take it unto themselves, bit by bit, over time. This is one of those times. It’s one of the fundamental rhythms of a democracy, seen over and over throughout history. The struggle for the rights of the citizenry in the face of moneyed power is never over. I’m not advocating socialism or any other “ism” – I’m talking about the kind of democratic, free society invented here in the United States – it must be defended by every generation in one way or another.
Capitalism and democracy are not an easy mixture of systems – but democracy should always come first. The “Founding Fathers” were mostly rich white men who created a system that gave the “lesser people” enough concessions to keep them quiet, yet protected the rich white men’s power and wealth. It took the next 200 years for the actual people of the U.S. to re-forge that system into one that has the potential to be fair, equal, and free – we aren’t 100% there yet. It took the political protests of the early 19th century that put-down the power of the Federalists (led by Alexander Hamilton) in favor of the Democratic-Republicans.(led by Thomas Jefferson), and the movements of the antebellum era that further broadened liberty under Andrew Jackson, the abolitionists, and the various pro-democracy parties of the time. It took the Civil War. It took the women’s rights movement of the turn of the 20th century, and the workers’ movements at the same time. It took the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s, and now it needs the OWS movement to keep us heading toward a society where the individual has rights, but the corporation only has legislated abilities.
These aren’t riots – the Occupy protesters aren’t a mob – they have a structure and order to what they do – they have large assemblies where proposals are put forward and then debated and voted on. We saw this happen in Oakland the night before the police raided them. They knew the police were coming and actually discussed what to do. They decided on non-violent protest – most evacuated the plaza there willingly, while a few elected to sit-in and be peacefully arrested. And it worked very well – both the protesters and the cops kept their heads that morning. OWS is more democratic than the U.S. Congress because their decisions are made based on their ideals and beliefs, not on who paid them the most to vote a certain way.
It’s no coincidence that the Occupy movement is contemporary with the attempts to give corporations the same legal rights as individual citizens, most recently by the Supreme Court decision that corporations can give unlimited contributions to political organizations. People aren’t “sheeple” – they never have been. What we have seen in the Occupy Wall Street movement is just as valid as the protests that led to the Boston Massacre (of protesters by British troops) , Nat Turner’s rebellion (by slaves against the Southern slave system), and the labor strikes of the 20th century (against government-backed corporations). The politicians and corporations have to fear for their continued hold on power before any changes happen – they have to go too far to protect themselves before they will fear the public that is their ultimate support.
That’s the only way real change happens in the U.S. – we pick at things through legislation and court decisions, but real substantive change always takes civil disobedience on a scale that makes the powers-that-be afraid. Gandhian passive-resistance will work here but only if people are willing to get hurt or killed. And Americans aren’t good at passive resistance – we’ve watched too many Clint Eastwood movies. Don’t be surprised to see underground movements come out of this, some of which will rightfully be termed “terrorist” – that’s happened several times in the past. And that’s where I part company with them. Civil disobedience is one thing – terrorism in the name of political and social justice is crap.
So where has Occupy Wall Street gone? To the best place they can go: home. And they have taken their new ideals and their new experience with them, and educated millions and millions of people along the way. There will be actual street-level occupations from time to time, but the new period of the movement is introspective, and from it will emerge new forms of organization that are more focused, more strategic in their goals, and more mainstream in their tactics. The recent LIBOR scandal has shown that what the OWS movement is against is really there and really hurting real people. Real people will continue to work for change.
(NOTE: It wasn’t until after I wrote and posted this that I realized I wrote it using the same set of notes I used for the November 21, 2011 column – often word-for-word! See what happens when you take six months off? Anyway I decided to leave this up as a monument to slovenly blogging, and will try not to so blatantly repeat myself in the future.)