My first reaction to hearing about the Occupy Wall Street protesters, having lived a block from Wall St., was a mix of “ah, Adbusters, I used to read that” and “there’s no companies left on Wall Street, the protestors should be at mid-town.” It also seems that New York’s policies have been successful in trying to fill the empty space with residents, as I read about complaints from residents about the protests.
My second reaction, reading about some of the issues that the protesters were bringing up, is that there does not seem to be much new in what they are citing. Much of what they mention is covered in any introductory Sociology textbook. Fifty years ago C. Wright Mills wrote The Power Elite, and even President Eisenhower warned of the military industrial complex. Neo-Marxist Economics professor or the Political Science professor who grew up in the 1960’s also covers these issues. Publications like Adbusters or musicians like Rage Against the Machine for years have been talking about the dark side of capitalism, religious groups like Catholic Worker House live an alternative, just as its not an invention of 2011 for graphic designers to map the interconnectedness of the world’s banks and major corporations, (see they rule).
My third reaction is that I want the protesters to go home. I don’t want to read any more stories about those out of work, weighed down with student debt receiving lectures from tenured professors via the human megaphone. I don’t want to hear any more stories about this or that Hollywood celebrity coming to make a visit and offering their support. I got excited when there might be the possibility that the protests might be cleared out.
I got excited because I thought that maybe it would then be possible for the protestors to start living an alternative in their daily lives, engaging with neighbors and co-workers. But an alternative is not easy. An earlier blog post cited the existence of credit unions. I used to bank with a community bank that focused on funding environmentally sound projects in a rural town in Washington economically devastated by restrictions on logging, yet the bank only had three branches.
I used to be a member of the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, where I could buy local and organic produce often for less than conventional food at a local grocery store. I had to put in three hours of my time once a month. The coop, the largest in the country, had a membership of 12,000 in a metropolitan area of thirty million people. I use the metropolitan population because members included those that drove in from Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
As scholars like Robert Putnam point out in Bowling Alone, the United States does not seem to be the Tocquevilian America of the 1840’s or even the 1950’s where individuals joined the Elks club or a local bowling league. Increasingly Americans move to the suburbs, getting away from people. When individuals do get together, it’s to support that political candidate or that issue that follows one’s ideology.
In some ways I think that President Obama espouses what I see as a challenge to addressing some of the issues the Wall Street protestors bring up. I’m not talking about his efforts to once again ride to electoral victory financed by Wall Street supporters (see article).
Granted, I have never been a supporter of President Obama, but in one respect I sympathize. I don’t know much about him, but my sense is that to at least some degree he figured that trying to organize communities was hard and that going the route of politics, either at the state or federal level would be easier. I did get tired of hearing his talk about change quite early on because my sense was that there are too many jobs in Washington, D.C. that depend on a constant state of war. Lobbying groups need conflict in order to justify you making another credit card contribution just as much as the threat of China invading Taiwan justifies an upgrade of fighter jets for Taiwan.
As I read excerpts of Obama’s speeches on college campuses recently, its not about changing a culture of partisanship, but rather, let’s go to battle, let’s fight for the right side of the issue. Today, sometimes the issue can change by the day, as Dana Fisher points out in Activism Inc, companies are hired to gather petitions one day for an environmental issue and the next day for support of same-sex marriage. Both politicians like Obama and activist organizations tap into a population that is more polarized and less networked with its fellow citizens than in previous decades.
So the protestors in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere have in a sense created their own Washington, D.C. a space for debate that is removed from daily life. Unfortunately unlike those in Washington, D.C. the debate does not give them an income. Personally I’ve only camped outside in protest for a few days in my life, protesting the starvation of Iraqis caused by the US supported UN embargo in the 1990’s. It’s not always so fun, as you long for your “normal life.”
If you look at the United States, you can see, based on ethnicity, religion, etc. there are alternatives to simply feeling like you’re powerless. I’m not one to talk. In some ways I gave up on the US system, hoping to find in China less individualization and partisanship than I see in the US. I wonder how China will deal with social problems, and increasingly I sense that it will be similar to the US, awkwardly. Of my fifteen students, only one has ever spoken to their neighbor, and only a few more even know what their neighbors look like. I’m not sure that the Chinese I encounter, particularly those in suburban Beijing are any more ready or willing to work with their neighbors than those occupying the United States right now. My hope, whether in the US or China, is that one can figure out ways of working with those around you and not just those that think the same as you.
Follow Chris on Twitter @enviroeberhardt
Occupy Wall Street