Occupy Wall Street: Another world is possible

Obama’s rightward shift since taking office has alienated many former supporters, helping to fuel the ‘Occupy’ movement.

Global recession
The ‘Occupy’ movement began in New York, but has since spread to many cities around the world [EPA]

Blogger David Dayen at Firedoglake hit the nail on the head last week: “The Occupy Wall Street protesters have done more to change the political dynamic in the country in a month than national Democrats have done in 30 years.”

If only the national Democrats had the wits or heart to notice or care. Yes, Obama has changed his tune and is pushing hard on his new-found jobs agenda. But it’s ultimately as superficial and opportunistic as his entire 2008 campaign turned out to be, given how disconnected it remains from the rest of his overall neo-liberal agenda. Above all, his long-term welfare state slashing priorities remain completely intact, along with the monstrously anti-democratic deficit super-committee and its mandated appetite for destruction. It’s little wonder that a poll of Occupy Wall Street participants found relatively low support for Obama’s re-election, compared with those who voted for him in 2008.

Corporate inequality fuels Occupy movement

The shift in political mood has been striking, as summarised recently by Think Progress blogger Zaid Jilani. In late July, after months on end of elite drum-beating about deficits, cable news networks mentioned the word “debt” 7,583 times, compared to 427 mentions of “unemployment” and 76 mentions of “unemployed”, Jilani reported. But less than a month after the Occupy Wall Street protests began, the situation had changed dramatically: “Review of the same three networks between October 10 and October 16 finds that the word ‘debt’ only netted 398 mentions, while ‘occupy’ grabbed 1,278, ‘Wall Street’ netted 2,378, and ‘jobs’ got 2,738.”

Yet little has changed inside the Beltway. To the contrary, Democrats on the deficit super-committee just came out with a proposal that’s well to the right of previous bipartisan “deficit reduction” plans – cutting much more from the 99 per cent and asking much less from the one per cent. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) explained:

The significance of the Democratic plan stands out clearly from its basic numbers: The Democratic plan contains $92bn more in Medicare and Medicaid cuts ($475bn) than Bowles-Simpson ($383bn), and the same or a greater amount of cuts in this area than the Gang of Six plan.

At the same time, the Democratic plan contains $800bn to $900bn less in revenue increases than the Bowles-Simpson and Gang of Six plans. The cuts in discretionary programs are as deep in the Democratic plan as in Bowles-Simpson and the Gang of Six.

It’s as if the Tea Party had been dominating the news since September 17, rather than Occupy Wall Street. 

“[Obama] is making a choice – not just cut Medicare to save Medicare, but also to cut Medicare in order to cut taxes for the rich.”

 – Jonathan Chait of the New Republic

The point is not that we should forget about balancing the budget. To the contrary, budget-balancing was never the point of hysterical budget-balancing rhetoric, as anyone familiar with Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine would easily understand. Rather, the point of such rhetoric was to panic people into accepting an enormous transfer of money and power from the middle and lower classes to those on top. Nothing makes this clearer than Paul Ryan’s budget plan, which passed the House earlier this year with almost unanimous Republican support. Just one problem: even by his own account, Ryan’s plan wouldn’t actually balance the budget until 2062, more than 50 years from now – an eternity compared to Bill Clinton’s record of balancing the budget in just five years.

What’s more, in the medium term – the next decade – Ryan’s plan would have added $6tn in debt, while cutting the deficit by a mere $155bn. The $4.3tn in spending cuts – two-thirds of which would fall on programs for low-income Americans  – would be almost entirely offset by $4.2tn in tax cuts, with the biggest benefits for the top one per cent, most notably by making the Bush tax cuts permanent. As Jonathan Chait of the New Republic put it: “He is making a choice – not just cut Medicare to save Medicare [Ryan‘s perverse rationale], but also to cut Medicare in order to cut taxes for the rich.”

Another world is possible

At the same time, this deceptive non-deficit-cutting plan was dominating the national debate, there was an almost total media blackout on a real deficit-cutting plan, put forth by progressive Democrats in Congress. The progressive’s “People’s Budget” would have eliminated deficits by 2021, more than 40 years faster than Ryan’s plan. Here’s a quick overview of its highlights:

  • Deficit reduction of $5.6 tn
  • Primary spending cuts of $869bn
  • Net interest savings of $856bn
  • Total spending cuts of $1.7tn
  • Revenue increase of $3.9tn
  • Public investment of $1.7tn
  • Budget surplus of $30.7bn in 2021
  • Debt-to-GDP ratio of 64.1 per cent in 2022 – compared with 70 per cent under Ryan’s plan.

Revenue increases are clearly key, since unlike Ryan’s plan they come primarily from the most wealthy. Key points include:

  • Allowing the Bush-era tax cuts to expire at the end of 2012, but to extend marriage relief, credits, and incentives for children, families and education
  • Immediately rescinding the upper-income tax cuts in December’s tax deal
  • Taxing all capital gains and qualified dividends as ordinary income
  • Establishing a progressive estate tax 
  • Taxing US corporate foreign income as it is earned
  • Eliminating corporate welfare for oil, gas, and coal companies
  • Enact a financial crisis responsibility fee
  • Incorporate a financial speculation tax

Even with top marginal tax rates of 49 per cent, this would be less than during most of Reagan’s term in office. And yet the package as a whole would dramatically reverse the wealth-concentrating trajectory that Reagan helped to create.

My point in highlighting the People’s Budget is to clearly show that a dramatically different world is possible. But that’s not to say that long-term deficit plans are or should be the main focus of Occupy Wall Street. Quite the opposite. They represent a vitally important form of political content – how to design the basic architecture of a long-term fair and just political/economic order.

But as important as this may be, it is still a matter of political content, not context. What constitutes “fair” and “just” is highly dependent on the political context – and this is where Occupy Wall Street’s focus on the 99 per cent takes centre stage. To be sure, that cannot and should not be the only test of fairness and justice. But the historical record is clear that, over the past 30 years, it has been overwhelmingly the most egregiously missing test of fairness and justice. And as the old saying goes, the most important leg of a three-legged stool is the one that is missing.

Clarifying Obama’s betrayal

When one adopts the 99 per cent perspective, a great number of problems – many of them almost invisible on the national stage – come into focus as interrelated, which is a tremendous benefit if one is actually interested in solving them. The 99 per cent perspective also serves to dramatically clarify how President Obama’s neo-liberal governance betrayed the hopes of those inspired by Candidate Obama’s quite different, populist, idealistic campaign. 

Of course, there was always a profound ambiguity in Obama’s campaign, for those with eyes to see. On one hand, his promise of hope and change strongly suggested a profound shift of direction, relying on broad-based public participation. On the other hand, he seemed to assume that greater bipartisan cooperation was the means to achieving such change – even though Washington-style bipartisanship had helped produce the wide range of problems we faced, from the Iraq War to the worst economy since World War II – even before the Great Recession began. Obama was right to argue that there was much more uniting the American people than there was dividing them. Decades of public polling attest to that. But he was terribly wrong to assume that the logic of the 99 per cent carried over to national politicians, who overwhelmingly represent and belong to the one per cent.

‘Occupy’ protesters in New York City faced cold weather as a snowstorm hit the US east coast [Reuters]

And so, for his first two years, Obama largely ignored the 99 per cent, seemingly without even noticing what he was doing.  He governed not as a traditional Democrat, but as a traditional (not extremist) Republican. This is how he proposed to unite the United States – a rather different path than that which most of his supporters had expected, based on his vague but soaring campaign rhetoric. Because we lacked the language of the 99 per cent at the time, people lacked the framework to realise – even after the election – that Obama’s talk of unity was implicitly meant for the one per cent and their servants in Congress, not for the nation as a whole. Arguably, Obama himself didn’t truly realise the profound disconnect between his status-quo, managerial, reformist agenda and the profound transformation that his supporters had been lead to expect. Four examples should suffice to clarify what I mean.

First, Obama pushed through a stimulus bill that was minimal, given the size of the crisis he faced. It was roughly half the size economists said it should be. It was top-heavy with tax cuts that Republicans favoured, short-changed the public sector – particularly state and local governments, which would be forced into anti-stimulative cutbacks – and it gave us a Republican recovery: The stock market recovered, but the job market did not. Because Obama moved so far to the right, Republicans later attacked him from the left at the midterms: “Where are the jobs?” they asked – a question they immediately forgot once the election was over.

Second, Obama passed a Republican health care reform bill – one based on the Heritage Foundation’s 1995 model, which Romney later implemented in Massachusetts. Obama rejected the Democratic approach outright. He excluded a public option, much less the prospect of an all-inclusive Medicare-for-all system that could drastically lower costs over the course of decades, bringing our healthcare spending in line with all other advanced industrial nations at 30-50 per cent lower than current levels over time. Instead, like a good Republican, he protected the basic monopolistic business model of all the corporate interests involved – the insurance companies, HMOs, hospital chains, drug manufacturers, you name it – and guaranteed them tens of millions of new customers. 

Third, even before he was inaugurated, Obama dedicated himself to cutting back the welfare state, promising a “deficit commission” and long-term spending cuts in advance to conservative “blue dog” Democrats before asking them to support his temporary Republican-style stimulus. Then, when congressional Republicans withdrew their support for a congressional deficit commission, Obama just shrugged and appointed his own “presidential” commission instead – one heavily loaded with anti-99 per cent types, co-led by Alan Simpson, who loved to demonise who he termed “greedy geezers”. Simpson’s Democratic co-chair, Erskine Bowles, wasn’t an elected official, but rather a Wall Street banker and former Clinton chief of staff.

Fourth, Obama’s overt refusal to uphold the rule of law when it came to Bush-era war crimes, and his implicit refusal to prosecute Wall Street financial crimes, both served to strengthen the two-tiered “justice” system that gives the one per cent almost complete immunity for their crimes, actively encouraging their most destructive behaviour. Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald’s new book With Liberty and Justice for Some goes into great detail exploring and explaining this devastating divide.

Not surprisingly, Obama’s traditional Republican agenda disappointed his electoral base. Those who came out to support him in droves in 2008 stayed home in droves in 2010. A much older, whiter and conservative electorate put a good chunk of crazies in office. This was an easily foreseeable result of Obama’s failure to worry about mass unemployment, traditionally a mistake made by Republicans.

Obama’s implicit dream – based on his own successful political trajectory – was that he could negotiate a truce within the one per cent to substantially improve the overall management of the US political system. As a result, the nation as a whole would benefit substantially. Thus, he was not so much unconcerned with the welfare of the 99 per cent as he was scornful of them getting in the way of his supposedly skillful negotiations, particularly when what they wanted appeared to be “left-wing”: jobs, peace, universal healthcare and the prosecution of elite criminals.

Obama’s Republican opponents were much more thoroughly anti-99 per cent, combining Obama’s implicit scorn for the 99 per cent with intense hostility towards them, as illustrated above by Paul Ryan’s budget plan. And yet, Obama’s own fixation on comity within the one per cent drew him much closer to Republicans in Congress than to his own electoral base in the 99 per cent. 

For almost three years now, Obama’s attitude has been: “Why listen to them? They have nowhere else to go.” But now they do: to occupy Wall Street, public squares across the land, and the dreams and imagination of America. This is only the beginning. Far from being an irresponsible rabble, as the poet Delmore Schwartz reminds us, “in dreams begin responsibilities”.

There comes a time when a dream deferred can no longer be delayed. That time is upon us now. Another world is not just possible: It is absolutely necessary.

Paul Rosenberg is the Senior Editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper

You can follow Paul on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.