Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Last Sunday afternoon L. Turino, NVN, and I were sitting at a raised table at a Boylston St. bar eating buffalo sliders, waffle fries, and cheese pizza, and discussing the Occupy movement. We tried for quite a bit to distill what was really going on down into a few points. At the risk of lumping them in with my ideas unfairly, you should ask them personally their uptake from the conversation. Here’s mine though. Attached with each is a poster I believe sums up the point I’m making. All the posters are distributed freely from “occupy together” the website.

1. The movement has good intentions.
I believe wholeheartedly that the people who are actually behind these protests have good intentions and want the US to be a better place for all. They want to preserve the American dream. They want the common person to have a fair chance of making a living and supporting a family through hard work and basic skills. This poster seems vaguely socialist to me, and in a sense its appropriate. These occupiers feel they have been let down by capitalism, and are asking for more equality. We’ve read Orwell. We know that socialism leads to some “more equal than others”. Philosophically, I believe socialism is the perfect system for the perfect world, it’s that utopian caveat that ultimately will always cause it to fail. What’s interesting, and I think persuasive about the occupiers is they are not looking for handouts. They are saying they’ve worked hard their whole lives, many even going to college, but now feel they have been let down. So perhaps what they are asking for is a pseudosocialist meritocracy. No one is really complaining that some have more than others, but that the disparity is out of hand. Reel that in, and I think the protestors do have a valid case for social/political reform en route to a healthier America more in line with the original founders vision.
2. The movement has a LOT of dead weight.
Ok. Freedom. Of what? Speech in this poster maybe? Or maybe at first sight just freedom. From what? The oppressive corporations? Here’s where things get lost and the movement loses focus and solidarity. You can go on youtube and watch ridiculous videos of “occupiers” ranting about whatever they’re pissed about and generally doing a bad job of representing the movement and making asses of themselves. One could argue that the more people on the streets, the more attention the movement in fact gets (any publicity is good publicity yadda yadda). But at the same time, what the true protestors need is credibility. Attention has certainly been gained, now some real leaders need to emerge and push the real changeable issues.
In the mean time the occupy camps have been joined by homeless, annoyingly privileged students, drug addicts, and various other dead weight who don’t care about the issue or severely misunderstand it. (Side note: many can’t be blamed for wanting to sleep in a tent instead of on a stoop.) There is something extremely exciting about taking it to the streets and living with others who feel the same strong feelings. But in this case unlike for example the 1960s Vietnam protests, there is no focus of feeling. There are anarchists who just want to break down anything they can. They are the ones looking for the elusive “freedom” in the poster. They are angry and are using the occupy movement sometimes in a violent way. None of this is good for the actual protestors.
There are also what I would call “student complainers”. These are the people holding up sheets of lined paper complaining how they didn’t get a job after they went to college for a non-practical degree. That is sad, but it is NOT related to Occupy Wall Street. That is not the fault of corporations. It is a problem with the US. It says that we are failing our populations by unfairly propagating a message that if you go to college, you will be able to get a good job and have lots of money. Sometimes though, this is just not true. This would never have been true in good economic times if there were this many graduates. Unfortunately, by popularizing this plight, we have lost focus on the true sufferers, the workers who were laid off or lost their homes directly as a result of the greed of corporations and the housing bubble.
The strangest thing about this part of the movement is that if you went to college, you had money. I know people took out loans, and worked at the same time to get through. That’s truly admirable, but unfortunately, it wasn’t always worth it. On the other side, there are many students who had their school paid for. 200 large is a lot of expendable money and puts anyone who is spending that freely up near the dreaded 1%. While the ‘youth in revolt’ thing is a powerful indicator of problems with our society, many of these students should perhaps disentangle their personal misfortunes from the losses of the country.
Finally, there are so many people who just don’t understand what is going on. They should read on.
Capitalism in it’s most laissez-faire is a organism grown out of millions of parts acting toward their own goals. In fact, the same mathematical techniques used to model random fluctuations of grains of pollen floating in water or cells floating in plasma can be, and have been used quite successfully to model the markets. In theory (see Adam Smith) the economy should govern itself and wages and prices should be set organically by the trending markets. But this is not what happens in the US. This is because the large corporations fund the government, and the government makes the rules. Here is the fundamental concept the occupiers should be focused on and aiming to change.
The reason CEO salaries are so high is partially because they deserve it. This is hard to stomach but it’s true that if they didn’t get their million dollar bonuses, they would take their proverbial talents elsewhere, probably to Miami actually. This would, in the end, probably hurt the rest of the stock holding public. However, what is absolutely unethical and unfair is that these CEOs get to have their cake and eat it too. They are not a part of the meritocracy. Their salaries are not dependent on the company’s performance. Moreover, they have a ridiculous safety net because the government HAS to help them if they fail, as they did, by being too damn greedy. This is because without the bailouts, everyone would suffer more, and more insidiously, because certain members of the government would lose campaign funding. It is true that Obama’s vague endorsement of the Occupy movement may well be related to his subpar fund raising campaign in the coming election.
The poster says the revolution will not be privatized, but privacy is not the problem. The experiment of privatization is what has built America into the most powerful nation in the world. The consequences of unequal wealth were well predicted, but it is the unfair disparity due to a failure of separation of powers that is the culprit for our recent misfortunes. So. If you want to occupy something, my wholehearted recommendation is that you take a hard look at what is actually going on, and what the protestors are actually accomplishing. The problem is the link between government and big business, not just one or the other. We are the 99% and we can make a difference with real focus and leadership. What goes on right now will, I guarantee, influence the economic climate of the rest of our lives. In this thick soup of issues and problems I can only hope we’re fighting to change the correct ingredients, not just stirring the pot.


  1. Dan, awesome post. I think you really do sum up the occupy movement accurately. I'd like to just add a perspective from someone who is very much involved in the movement. After becoming a regular at the OccupyFresno general assemblies and actions, I think I've got a good hold on what we all are trying to accomplish. The way I see the movement is initially meant to be an awareness/education mechanism. The goals and accomplishments so far have been to reverse the public's bad habit of apathy and lack of questioning. I personally think the greatest benefit of this all is that Americans are actually talking about the economic/political structure of this country. People are actually stepping up, asking questions, and not just sitting back and accepting the misfortunes of living under an oligarchy. This so far has been done by education (teach-ins, general assemblies, websites).
    However, this is not the only thing the occupy movement is doing. Awareness/education is the constant while periodically direct action is taken. And the direct action is very local. In fresno we go to school board meetings and evictions of houseless encampments. Every city has their own issues that they address in their own way. Coupled with that is the Move Your Money bank transfer action, which was pretty sweet. And that was national. So there are actions that are taken along with the continuous education/awareness.
    The prediction/hope of mine for this movement is that the more people get curious, the more people will become educated, the more people will become involved themselves.
    And I do disagree that this is a socialist movement. I personally don't think socialism works, but I also don't think capitalism works. (I believe in universal cooperatives, but that discussion is for another time). That said, I understand that this country is not going to give up on capitalism easily. So, baby steps. If Occupy can get this country to separate corporations from politics (and do so permanently); reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act; and create a culture of not slipping into apathy again, this movement will have won and this country will be much better off.


  2. Good post, I largely agree with your main, heading points. However, I also find myself largely disagreeing with the subsequent analyses (surprise, surprise!) and I’ll try to articulate why. (I wrote too much so I have to break this into 2 comments.)

    1) Engaging the whole socialist vs. capitalist dichotomy at all is completely buying into a rhetorical debate, a debate that I think is not at all grounded in reality and is extremely convenient for conservatives as it creates an association between liberalism and socialism. Socialism is no more an ideal or utopian system than capitalism. No “pure” version of either has ever been implemented in the real world, and no “pure” version of either would result in anything good in the real world. I don’t think anyone’s asking for America to become “pseudosocialist” – American already is, and has been for a LONG time, a social democracy. There is no, and never has been, a free market. The point is that “socialism” is a defining characteristic of America – but those aging GOP capitalists still scream when you try to take away their Medicare! Socialism is a bit of a Scarlet Letter (Red Letter?) because it makes people think of Stalin and Castro and Mao and because it’s so naively idealistic – but no more so than capitalism. The reality is that America exists somewhere between these two poles – the market is heavily regulated and there are social programs galore, but people are also allowed to own property and disparage the Party if they want. I think by attributing some sort of socialist aspirations to the Occupy movement, you’re sort of playing right into the hands of its detractors. They don’t want a socialist meritocracy, they want a social democracy where the elected representatives represent citizens rather than corporate interests.

    2) I understand what you’re saying here, but I think part of the success of the Occupy movement is due to its “dead weight”. What I mean by that is that because the movement isn’t a single, targeted protest (i.e., “Stop the Keystone XL pipeline!”), I think it’s been able to endure in the public discourse for much longer. It’s an all-comers movement for people who are fed up with the way money has distorted politics. And as you note, this has been expressed by the 99% in oh so many colorful ways, some more, ahem, eloquent than others. But I think the dead weight is a necessary load that the movement has had to bear to achieve the kind of success and publicity that it has.

    I also disagree that the post-college job rate is not an Occupy-related issue. The whole point of the movement is that there is disturbingly little separation between corporations and the US government; if something is a problem with the US, it probably has some connection to corporations. I think if you trace back why young people with degrees are having an unprecedentedly difficult time finding professional jobs, Wall Street interests would be an important factor. I don’t really have the time or energy to pursue that argument to its end right now, but I just wanted to raise that.

    And about paying for college - $200,000 is no small potatoes, for sure, but just remember that to be in the 1% you’d need to take home about $350,000 every year.

  3. 3) Re: capitalism. Already touched on that a bit. But further, regarding why the US economy isn’t laissez-faire, it’s not because of corporate lobbying. If anything corporate lobbying would aim to make the economy more like Adam Smith described, with fewer government regulations. The economy doesn’t work like Adam Smith’s theoretical invisible hand, because there isn’t actually an invisible hand; markets don’t necessarily correct themselves if left alone.

    Regarding CEO salaries, I have no idea what you’re getting at. They deserve their bonuses because they would quit if they didn’t get them? But their salaries aren’t dependent on performance? What definition of “deserve” are you using here? Part of the problem with the exorbitant bonuses and the extreme pandering to “the shareholders” (i.e., Wall Street) is that priorities are extremely skewed towards short-term profits, while long-term growth is mostly left by the wayside. So jobs are cut, R&D budgets are slashed and entire workforces are moved to places where labor is cheap. And obviously there are other issues at hand (e.g., corporate tax policy) but I think this ties directly into why so many graduates are wondering what their degree can do for them (unless it’s a degree in finance!).

    I’m also a little confused by “privacy is not the problem”. I assume you mean privatization, not privacy, but even so, isn’t a main message of the Occupy movement that TOO much is privatized? The private sector is responsible (read: able to find loopholes for) too many rules and regulations that the government should be in charge of. And I think to make the message a little snappier, the problem is that public interests have been privatized. That’s a slogany way of saying that the government doesn’t answer to who it should these days.

    Anyway, I’ve leveled a load of criticisms your way, but overall, I do agree with what you’re saying. Just not how you’re saying it! Consider yourself corresponded.

  4. Well, here we go.

    Thanks Dave, I really like your point about each city doing it differently, which ties into Dan's point about the abilities of many diverse issues allowing the movement to stay pertinent and wide reaching. Also, I'd like to hear more about the Move Your Bank, and I just read a bunch about Glass-Steagall. So thanks for the enlightenment. We should definitely talk.

    Dan, thoughtful responses appreciated.

    1) I think you're spot on about the rhetorical mistakes and false dichotomies playing into the hands of the McCarthys. Point taken.

    2) In full, I still think those people are hurting the movement.

    I think the college jobloss/corporations argument does require pursuit. You'll notice I didn't cite anything either. Point is, there are too many college graduates for the number of positions in high ranking fields -- especially academia. I think there's too much of a push that its advantageous for everyone to go to college. Four extra years of work, or apprenticeships and work can get you a lot further in some cases, and I think it should be increasingly looked upon as an intelligent, respectable choice.

    You're splitting hairs. If you pay for college out of pocket, you're at the top.

    3) "partially deserve". Maybe that's still too generous. There's qualified people out there, but the separations are too drastic to be considered fair in any case.

    Putting words in other mouths can be offensive. I purposefully chose privacy because privatization is a sucky/jargony word. I think it works when companies are "private". Also, I like my last paragraph, the problem is the connection, not either part.

  5. I'm loving this, and I STRONGLY urge you guys to go to one of the general assemblies of whatever Occupy group is nearest you. I hear/read about the movement from the media, then I actually go to the events/GAs and talk to all the other occupiers, and it just befuddles me how much the media simply makes up. So please, before any judgement is passed on who/what this movement is, go to a General Assembly. Feel it out. You'll be pleasantly suprised to see real democracy in action.

    (Miss you guys)