While it remains to be seen whether the Occupation of America, from Wall Street to San Diego, will be able to sustain its amazing initial momentum, it has unquestionably struck a nerve and sparked a national discussion about class, power, and politics. The heavy weights at the New York Times have recently staked out an interesting range of opinion on the occupation movement. You have Paul Krugman, the paper’s reliable progressive, observing the panic of the plutocrats and astutely noting that, “The way to understand all of this is to realize that it’s part of a broader syndrome, in which wealthy Americans who benefit hugely from a system rigged in their favor react with hysteria to anyone who points out just how rigged the system is.”
This has been followed by the less hysterical reactions of the paper’s liberal to moderately conservative hegemonists, Thomas Friedman and David Brooks, whose takes on Occupy Wall Street range from cautious skepticism to condescending dismissal. Friedman’s column on the protests starts by citing Austrian author Paul Gilding who argues that the American and global uprisings:
“are a sign that the current growth-obsessed capitalist system is reaching its financial and ecological limits . . . Occupy Wall Street is like the kid in the fairy story saying what everyone knows but is afraid to say: the emperor has no clothes. The system is broken . . . This particular round of protests may build or may not, but what will not go away is the broad coalition of those to whom the system lied and who have now woken up. It’s not just the environmentalists, or the poor, or the unemployed. It’s most people, including the highly educated middle class, who are feeling the results of a system that saw all the growth of the last three decades go to the top 1 percent.”
Friedman then counterbalances Gilding’s take with the views of John Hagel III who argues that the new opportunities of the global economy have resulted in “a huge global flow of ideas, innovations, new collaborative possibilities and new market opportunities. This flow is constantly getting richer and faster. Today, they argue, tapping the global flow becomes the key to productivity, growth and prosperity. But to tap this flow effectively, every country, company and individual needs to be constantly growing their talents.” He then predictably concludes that his “heart is with Hagel” and his “opportunity-based” narrative rather than the “threat-based” narrative of Gilding but he thinks we ignore Gilding’s points at our peril.
…let’s hope that Occupy America is a sign that people are beginning to wake up…
Finally we have the sage of the affluent suburbs, David Brooks, the conservative every NPR-listening-liberal wishes was the face of the loyal opposition rather than that of the snarling tea baggers. His take on the occupation of America is patronizing at best:
If there is a core theme to the Occupy Wall Street movement, it is that the virtuous 99 percent of society is being cheated by the richest and greediest 1 percent. This is a theme that allows the people in the 99 percent to think very highly of themselves. All their problems are caused by the nefarious elite. Unfortunately, almost no problem can be productively conceived in this way. A group that divides the world between the pure 99 percent and the evil 1 percent will have nothing to say about education reform, Medicare reform, tax reform, wage stagnation or polarization. They will have nothing to say about the way Americans have overconsumed and overborrowed. These are problems that implicate a much broader swath of society than the top 1 percent.
Brooks follows this up by knocking down the strawman argument that taxing or taking the wealth of the top 1% would eliminate the federal deficit as if that was the key point of the entire protest. His answer is to look toward the “boring” folks proposing real policy solutions that make use of “market forces.” It’s the insiders like Sam Nunn, Pete Domenici, and former Clinton staffer Matt Miller who are the real visionaries, not the “milquetoast radicals” occupying Wall Street.
What is interesting about this discussion in the Times is that: 1) these elite columnists think it’s necessary to opine on the subject of the occupation; and 2) that the usual apologists for neoliberal globalization and corporate hegemony are both struggling to find a way to avoid basic facts just as their colleague Krugman suggests. This makes for some interesting ideological maneuvers.
The Friedman strategy is a kind of inoculation—acknowledge the obvious through another writer’s words but hold it at a distance and don’t address the key point about real economic power while shifting the discussion to a more comfortable ideological frame with regard to globalization (the world is “flat” remember?). Hence, Friedman is not in favor of a global system that benefits the economic elite, he is for “opportunity.”
The Brooks strategy is to pooh-pooh the very notion of an elite altogether as a simplistic fantasy, a facile oversimplification by the simple-minded rabble on the streets. Clearly only these conspiracy nuts who don’t read his columns regularly enough to know that Pete Domenici is out there fighting for us are a silly bunch indeed.
By obfuscating the very real existence of the American and global elite, Friedman and Brooks do what they always do and what much of what constitutes American mainstream political and economic discourse always does: fail to give Americans an accurate cognitive map of political and economic power. This is crucially important because if people don’t have the tools to clearly understand the nature of power, they don’t know how to contest it and frequently place blame for our country’s problems in the wrong places.
But let’s hope that Occupy America is a sign that, despite the obstacle of a corporately owned media system, people are beginning to wake up.
While recent discussions of the “Buffet rule” have focused people’s attention on the fact that the rich have gotten richer while the rest of us have suffered, they have also exposed the truth that, as opposed to the decade’s old mantra of the anti-tax zealots, the affluent pay a smaller percentage of their income in taxes than the rest of us. The rich have gained, the poor are poorer, and the middle class is shrinking. You don’t have to have a Nobel Prize in economics to know that this is not fair.
What this phenomenon has done is push us further towards plutocracy or the rule of the dollar. And for those out there who think this is a conspiracy, all one need do is check out the activities of American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.
What is ALEC? As the Center for Media and Democracy’s ALEC Exposed website explains:
ALEC is not a lobby; it is not a front group. It is much more powerful than that. Through ALEC, behind closed doors, corporations hand state legislators the changes to the law they desire that directly benefit their bottom line. Along with legislators, corporations have membership in ALEC. Corporations sit on all nine ALEC task forces and vote with legislators to approve “model” bills. They have their own corporate governing board which meets jointly with the legislative board. (ALEC says that corporations do not vote on the board.) Corporations fund almost all of ALEC’s operations. Participating legislators, overwhelmingly conservative Republicans, then bring those proposals home and introduce them in statehouses across the land as their own brilliant ideas and important public policy innovations—without disclosing that corporations crafted and voted on the bills. ALEC boasts that it has over 1,000 of these bills introduced by legislative members every year, with one in every five of them enacted into law. ALEC describes itself as a “unique,” “unparalleled” and “unmatched” organization. We agree. It is as if a state legislature had been reconstituted, yet corporations had pushed the people out the door.
More specifically ALEC (which is 98% corporate funded) pushes a corporate agenda at the international, national, state, and local levels with regard to union busting, workers’ rights, the privatization of education, healthcare, the environment, energy, agriculture, voting, taxes, prisons, immigration, and much more. It is not a conspiracy of the imaginary “nefarious elite” as David Brooks puts it; it is how the very real economic elites have high-jacked our government at every level. It’s how the Koch brothers’ money talks and democracy walks. To put it another way, this is what plutocracy looks like.
To review ALEC’s activities on a state by state level, see where their money comes from and which politicians are part of the organization, see: www.alecexposed.org.