Radicalizing our Occupy “demands”
In this post I’m using and adapting an article by Robert Jensen, professor of journalism at the University of Texas, posted on Al Jazeera 11-3-11. Jensen starts by noting that pundits and politicians keep asking Occupy gatherings around the country what their “demands” are. His suggested response: “We demand that you stop demanding a list of demands. The demand for demands is an attempt to shoehorn the Occupy gatherings into conventional politics, to force the energy of these gatherings into a form that people in power recognize, so that they can roll out strategies to divert, co-opt, buy off, or – if those tactics fail” – suppress or crush the challenge to business as usual (bring in the cops and injure Iraq war vets). Rather than listing demands, we critics of concentrated wealth and power in the US can deepen our analysis of the illegitimate systems that produce that unjust distribution of wealth and power. Allowing these systems to remain intact, as mere reform movements do, guarantees more of the same: the new boss will be the same as the old boss.
Let’s start with American empire. It doesn’t bring freedom and democracy – like empires throughout history, it’s used and uses coercion and violence to acquire and maintain a disproportionate share of the world’s resources. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are just the most recent examples of this. American empire began with the dispossession of Native Americans, and went global around 1900 with a takeover of the Cuban and Filipino fights for independence from Spain (American suppression of Filipino freedom fighters and their families was as brutal as the same action in Vietnam). American empire emerged in full force after World War II, with the United States using the Cold War with the Soviet Union to subordinate the developing world to the US economic system. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, this effort has gone forward with the excuse of fighting drugs and terrorism, the latter “war” admitted to be never-ending.
Whether in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, or Asia, the central goal of US foreign policy has been to nip every independent course of political or economic development in the bud, using any means necessary. The victims of this policy, the vast majority of them non-white, can be counted in the millions. In the Western Hemisphere, US policy was carried out mostly through proxy armies, such as the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s, or support for dictatorships and military regimes that brutally repressed their own people (El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, and elsewhere). The economic blockade of Castro’s Cuba must also be included in this category. The result throughout the region was hundreds of thousands of dead – millions across Latin America over the course of the 20th century – and whole countries ruined.
Direct US military intervention was another tool of US policymakers, with the most grotesque example being the attack on southeast Asia. After supporting the failed French effort to re-colonize Vietnam after World War II, the US invaded South Vietnam, dropped more bombs on North Vietnam than had been used in all of World War II (including bombing dams that caused devastating floods), and intervened in Laos and Cambodia, at a cost of three to four million dead and a region destabilized. Saturation bombing of civilian areas, routine killings of civilians, and 11.2 million gallons of Agent Orange to destroy crops and ground cover were all part of the US terror war in the region, which, among other things was responsible for the genocidal Pol Pot regime in Cambodia.
The US government used the 9-11 terrorist attacks (which it may have allowed to happen) to justify an expansion of military operations in central Asia and the Middle East – most notably the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It wanted to take down Saddam Hussein not because he was a horrible dictator – the US has supported and supports dictators around the world that go along with its program – but because he’d started operating independently and challenging US control of mid-East oil.
These imperial policies and practices are immoral and illegal. Because non-Americans and non-whites have a stubborn desire to control their own resources and manage their own affairs, they’re also ineffective in the long run. The American people are beginning to reject the goal of dominance, from which we get few benefits and incur many dangers. We don’t want to run the world – we want to share it, equally and respectfully.
Capitalism, the economic system underlying US empire, is inconsistent with basic human values. That statement may be shocking to many Americans, who’ve been taught that capitalism is the only sane and rational way to organize an economy in the contemporary world (the financial crisis that began in 2008 has scared many people, but it hasn’t always led to questioning the nature of the system). But read on.
Capitalism is an economic system in which property, including capital assets, is owned and controlled by private persons; most people must rent their labor power for money wages to survive; and the prices of most goods and services are allocated by markets. Industrial capitalism, marked by the development of the factory system and greater labor specialization, was made possible in the 19th and 20th centuries by sweeping technological changes, the concentration of capital (wealth), imperialism (colonies), and the African slave trade. Finance capitalism, the system we have now, represents a shift to a system in which the accumulation of profits in a financial system becomes dominant over production processes (paper as opposed to real wealth).
In the dominant ideology of market fundamentalism (neoliberal economics, “free” trade), it’s assumed that the most extensive use of markets possible, along with privatization of many publicly owned assets and the shrinking of public services, will unleash maximum competition and result in the greatest good – and that all this is inherently just, no matter what the results. If such a system creates a world in which most people live in poverty (as it has), that isn’t taken as evidence of a problem with market fundamentalism, but as evidence that fundamentalist principles haven’t been imposed with sufficient vigor. (Note that fundamentalist principles are never applied to huge banks or stock market manipulators, who are always bailed out with taxpayer money when their schemes fail. Nor is it applied to the military or military contractors, necessary for enforcing the system.)
All of this is based on the view that since humans are basically greedy and self-interested, a viable economic system must reward greedy, self-interested behavior. Greed and self-interest are certainly part of human nature, but we’re also just as capable of compassion and selflessness, with the capacity to act out of solidarity and cooperation — as seen in the Occupy movement.
The form of capitalism in operation around the globe today is often touted as going hand in hand with, even as necessary for, political democracy, but in fact it’s inherently anti-democratic. In the real world – not in the textbooks or fantasies of economics professors – capitalism has always been, and will always be, a wealth-concentrating system, and if you concentrate wealth in a society, you concentrate power. For all the trappings of formal democracy in the contemporary US, everyone understands that for the most part, the wealthy dictate the basic outlines of the public policies put into practice by elected officials. Powerful investors rather than unorganized voters are the dominant force in campaigns and elections, which – as we’ve seen in 2000, 2004, and possibly even 2008 – can be “fixed” or managed. Political scientist Thomas Ferguson describes political parties in the US as “blocs of major investors who advance candidates representing their interests” and says that “political parties dominated by large investors try to assemble the votes they need by making limited appeals to particular segments of the electorate.” There can be competition between these blocs, but “on all issues affecting the vital interests that major investors have in common, no party competition” ever takes place. Democrats and Republicans are essentially the same — an oligarchy, or, as Michael Moore puts it, a kleptocracy.
People can and do resist the system’s attempt to sideline them, and an occasional politician joins the fight, but such resistance takes extraordinary effort. Those who resist sometimes win victories, some of them inspiring, but to date concentrated wealth continues to dominate. If we define democracy as a system that gives ordinary people a meaningful way to participate in the formation of public policy, rather than just a role in ratifying decisions made by the powerful, it’s clear that capitalism and democracy are mutually exclusive.
As a system dependent on continuing growth (on a finite planet), capitalism is also ecologically unsustainable. Technology can help a little, but it won’t enable us to transcend physical limits. Both the human communities and non-human living world that play host to capitalism will eventually be destroyed by it. Look at any crucial measure of the health of the ecosphere in which we live – groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of “dead zones” in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species, and climate change – and the news is bad. Living as we do in a petroleum-based system fast running out of easily accessible oil, we also face a huge reconfiguration of the infrastructure that undergirds our lives. Because our leaders, who profit from the current system, want to keep that profit going as long as possible, we haven’t faced the fact that our system is incompatible with life, or prepared for any of these problems.
The question now isn’t how to prevent crises, but how to mitigate the worst effects. Most crucially, we need to abandon the dominance/subordination dynamic, if we want to survive and, eventually, thrive in a cooperative, sustainable way. Rather than taking this an invitation to panic, our best course is to take our time and continue with the process the Occupy movement has begun – acting from love rather than fear. Rejecting the election campaign/debt crisis mass media political babble, Occupy gatherings are experimenting with a different kind of public dialogue about our common life, one that rejects the forces of terror deployed by concentrated wealth and power-over. These are ordinary people just learning how to cope, feeling the power-with of beginning by not accepting the legitimacy of the current system, then talking together – taking the time to hear every voice – about how we can do things differently.