Tag Archives: occupy wall street

Can We Overthrow the Creditocracy?

In the long history of oppression, where are we today? And what can we do about it?

The simplest, most direct form of oppression is forced labor: Work for me, do what I say, or I’ll beat you. And if no beating short of death will induce you to do what I want, then the example of your demise will at least make my next victim more pliable.

Unfortunately for the oppressor, though, forced labor is also morally simple. The press-ganged victim knows I have wronged him or her. Given the chance to run away, or (better yet) kill me, he or she will feel completely justified.

That’s why history is full of attempts to dress oppression up and make its morality more confusing. If you want to be cynical, you might tell the whole economic history of the world that way: as a series of systems to dress up oppression and shift the guilt of it from the order-giver to the order-taker. In every era, the many work and the few benefit, but those who run away or revolt are the immoral ones. They are ungrateful wretches who bite the hands that feed them and repay their kindly benefactors with violence.

For example, from today’s perspective the slave society of the old South seems pretty stark: Do what I say because I own you and your children and your children’s children down to the last generation. And yet, the literature of the time — written by whites, naturally — often waxes lyrical about the great good the white man has done for his undeserving servants: given them the gift of civilization, saved their souls for Christ, accepted them in his home and fed and clothed them since birth, or perhaps purchased them from an animal-like existence under a slave-trader and bestowed upon them new names and new roles (however lowly) in human society.

How dare the slave forget his obligation and steal himself away!

Freedom without access. Most systems are more subtle than that. The people at the bottom aren’t owned, and in fact their freedom may be a central point of public celebration. But a small group controls access to something everyone needs to survive. To guarantee your own access, you must strike a deal with them — on their terms, usually — and do what they say. And because society frames its story in a way that justifies the access-control, the people who tell you what to do are not your oppressors, they’re your benefactors. You owe them for giving you the opportunity to serve.

Whatever that necessary something is, and however access to it is controlled, tells you what kind of oppressive system you’re in. In feudalism, a small group of lordly families control the land you need to grow food. To get access, your family must swear fealty to one of them, and God have mercy on the traitor who breaks his vows. In the sharecropper system that replaced slavery in the South, whites (often the same whites who had owned the antebellum plantations) controlled access to money and markets. Freedom and even a small chunk of land might be yours, but the wherewithal to survive until harvest had to be borrowed, and then you were obliged to sell your crop to your creditor, for a price he named — usually not quite enough to clear your debt. If you tried to escape this system, you weren’t a runaway slave (as your mother or father would have been), but you were a runaway debtor and the law would hunt you down just the same.

In the North, oppression took its purest form in the company towns immortalized in the song “16 Tons“, where the singer imagines that not even death will get him out. The company controlled every side of the transaction — not just access to productive work, but the scrip you were paid in, and the company store where you could spend it. The system wasn’t quite so obvious in the bigger cities, where many employers drew from the same labor pool, but basic outline was the same: To get access to what Marx called “the means of production” — land, factories, mines, or any other resource that human labor could turn into the stuff of survival — the masses at the bottom of the pyramid had to deal with a fairly small group of employers, who could dictate wages and working conditions.

As on the plantations or the feudal manors, the language of morality had been turned inside-out: The oppressor was the benefactor. Give me a job, the worker begged.

The American exception. Underneath all that oppressiveness, though, something new had been blooming in America from the beginning. Dispossessing the Native Americans of an entire continent had created opportunities for wealth so vast that the old upper classes couldn’t exploit them all without help, so common people were cut in on the booty.

Already in 1776’s The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith had documented that wages were considerably higher in the colonies (where there was so much work to be done and a comparative dearth of hands) than in England itself. The post-revolutionary Homestead Acts codified a system that had been operating informally for some while: For whites, American wages were enough above subsistence that you could build a stake of capital, buy tools and transport, and then set out for the hinterland and establish an independent relationship with the means of production. For one of the few times since the hunter-gatherer era, working-class Europeans could apply their labor directly to the land and live without paying for access.

Post-Civil-War American history can be told as a struggle by the capitalist class to claw back those hastily bestowed opportunities by manipulating markets, monopolizing the new railroads, and generally “crucify[ing] mankind upon a cross of gold” as William Jennings Bryan famously put it. But they never completely succeeded. Hellish as turn-of-the-century mines and factories could be, the vision remained: Capitalism didn’t have to be so bad, if workers had a way to opt out and employers had to compete to hire them.

The early 20th century brought a series of shocks to the capitalist system: the world wars, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, and finally the very real threat of Communist revolutions. The devastated Europe of 1945 in some ways duplicated the opportunities of the New World: There was so much work to be done that for three decades (les Trente Glorieuses, as the French put it) full employment and rising wages could be the norm.

In the Cold War competition with Communism, Capitalism had to loosen up to maintain the workers’ loyalty. And so a mixed public/private social contract developed: The means of production would continue to be privately owned, but government would keep the worker in the game. Government would provide education at little or no cost to the student; guarantee a liveable minimum wage; protect consumers from unsafe products and workers from dangerous workplaces; prevent monopolies from forming; create jobs by building public infrastructure; defend the workers’ right to form unions powerful enough to negotiate with corporations on equal terms; maintain a safety net against unemployment, disability, and old age; and (except in the United States) take care of the sick. The political expectation was that a rising tide would lift all boats: If profits rose, wages would rise, and everyone would benefit.

Counterrevolution. But by the late 1970s, the failure of the Soviet system to make good on its economic promises made Khrushchev’s we-will-bury-you threat ring hollow, and Western capitalists started to wonder if they’d given away too much. The theme of their Reagan/Thatcher counterrevolution would be privatization. Wherever possible, get government out of the picture so that the natural power imbalance between worker and employer can re-assert itself.

And that has been the story of the last not-so-glorious forty years: Powerful unions and nearly-free state universities are mere memories. Inflation has pushed the minimum wage down towards subsistence. We are told that the wealthiest nation in the world cannot afford a safety net; if bankruptcy looms (or can be manufactured), the solution is not to commit new resources, but to slash benefits. Consumer and worker protection is “job-killing regulation”, and making up for a job shortfall with public works is unthinkable. Increasingly, even public K-12 education is under fire; if you really want a high-quality education for your child, perhaps a government voucher will defray the cost a little, until inflation eats up that subsidy as it has the minimum wage.

As a result, even as productivity-per-hour and GDP-per-capita have continued to rise, wages have not. Ever-increasing shares of the national income and the national wealth are controlled by the top 10%, the top 1%, the top .01%. Even in the uppermost levels of the economic pyramid, there is always an even smaller class of people just above you whose skyrocketing wealth is leaving you far behind.

Creditocracy. Andrew Ross’ book Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal points out that the goal of the counter-revolution is not just a restoration of late 19th-century capitalism, in which large employers dominate by controlling access to jobs. It’s a subtly different system of oppression entirely: a creditocracy.*

Everything the Cold War social contract promised is still available, you just have to pay up for it. How will you do that? You’ll get loans, and spend the rest of your life working to make payments. Rather than beg “Give me a job”, you’ll beg “Give me loan, so that I can get what I need to get and keep a job.” The bankers will be your benefactors, and then they will tell you what to do.

Education is where this project is most advanced. Probably there will always be some way to warehouse children at public expense while their parents work, either in public schools or in minimal private schools fully covered by a public voucher. But if you want the kind of education that gives a child options beyond minimum wage or welfare, you’ll have to pay up. Some people will be able to cover that expense, but most will have to borrow. If we’re talking about college, we’re already there. Working your way through college was once a realistic goal; it no longer is. The Federal Reserve recently estimated total student debt at $1.13 trillion, with about 1 in 8 borrowers owing more than $50,000 each, and a small but increasing number beginning their careers more than $200,000 in the hole.

If you just want to live somewhere, that won’t be a problem. But if you want to live in an neighborhood where potholes are fixed and police protect you rather than prey on you, you’ll have to pay up. Need a loan?

Public transportation? Forget about it. You can stay home for free, but if you want to work you’ll need a car, and cars cost. Calories are easy to come by, but safe and healthy food? Still available in certain upscale groceries, if you can afford it. Medical care? We’d never just let you die, and we have repayment plans with attractive rates. Clothes? I see you’ve got your body covered, but you’ll never get a job looking like that. Libraries? Parks? There are some you can join for a membership fee, though probably not in your neck of the woods. News? Comes from cable TV or the internet, via the local monopoly. Retirement? You can never be sure you’ll have enough to stay out of poverty, but maybe your kids will co-sign for you if you live too long.

During the post-war Trente Glorieuses, debt was a way to anticipate your rising income and get a few luxuries earlier than you otherwise might. But in the Creditocracy, debt is a necessity; all but the wealthy need to borrow to stay in the game. And once you owe, the onus is on you to toe the line: You’ll never cover your payments working in a field you love, or letting moral considerations control what you will and won’t do for a living. (Are you sure you don’t want to fight in our war? We’re hiring.) You don’t dare stick your neck out politically or socially, if you want to stay employed and keep making your payments. Maybe someday, if you get it all paid off, you’ll live by your heart and your conscience. But until then …

And where does this needed credit ultimately come from? It’s conjured out of the aether by the Federal Reserve, and distributed to the big banks by loans at rock-bottom rates. That’s the controlled access that makes the whole system possible. They have access and you need it, so they can tell you what to do and leave you thanking them for it. And if they ever push things too far and make loans that can never be repaid, then they’ll have the government behind them, bailing them out and sticking ordinary taxpayers with the bill. You may have lost your home, your savings, and God knows what else in the whole mess, but at least the banker will be made whole.

The Morality of Default. On the rare occasions when systems of oppression are beaten, they are first beaten morally. Slavery can’t be defeated until the runaway slave becomes a hero rather than a scoundrel, and the rebellious one can become a soldier rather than a murderer. The company town can’t be overthrown until the worker who refuses to work becomes a striker rather than a bum, and values solidarity with his comrades over the debt he owes his employer for “giving” him a job.

Today, it seems like an impossible dream that debtors could ever take the moral high ground away from creditors. Somebody who borrows and then won’t pay is a deadbeat, a moocher, a loser. It seems hard to imagine a debtors’ rights movement that could win popular support for a repayment strike or the outright renunciation of unreasonable debts.

But that’s what Ross envisions. To get there, we need to develop and popularize moral standards that separate good debts from bad debts. For example, view John Oliver’s piece on the payday lending industry, and then consider the idea that many of these loans — particularly ones where the original principal amount was paid back long ago, but the compounding interest has taken on a life of its own —  should just not be repaid. Similarly, the Consumer Financial Protection Board is suing ITT Educational Services for tactics that seem widespread in the for-profit college industry: using high-pressure sales tactics to push students into taking out loans, when they have little prospect of either getting a degree or paying off the loan. Some of the sub-prime loans of the housing boom were likewise made with no reasonable prospect of repayment, then sold off to investors anyway. The primary fraud came from the banker, not the borrower.

Other debt is perhaps no fault of the lender, but should not be charged against the debtor either. Medical debt — often as clear a case of pay-or-die as any highway robbery — is the best example, but much student debt fits as well. The debt exists because of society’s failure to provide what ought to be public goods. If any debt is going to vanish in the fancy bookkeeping of the Fed, this kind of debt should.

Some debts are legitimate, but there are equally legitimate claims in the other direction, ones that the Creditocracy does not take as seriously. Much of the developing world’s debt to the wealthy countries might be cancelled by fair reparations for colonialism, or by the responsibility that industrialized nations have for using up the carbon-carrying capacity of the atmosphere. Today, the obligations in one direction are considered iron-clad, while the ones in the other are optional. Why should that be?

Probably most debts should eventually be paid. But even they might also be part of a larger debt strike, to force action on the ones that should be renegotiated or just renounced.

In the long run, the infrastructure of the Creditocracy might be torn down and rebuilt into an economic system whose primary purpose is to create useful goods and services rather than profits, a world with more co-ops and credit unions and crowd funding, and less money swirling around in financial derivatives.

But long before that can happen, the moral structure that supports the Creditocracy needs to be challenged and shaken at many levels. Imagine, if you can, a world in which the debtor who does not pay — like the slave who runs away or the worker who sits down on the job — is a hero.

Not a deadbeat, a moocher, or a loser. A hero.

* One reason this “review” is so long is that although I think the ideas in the book are important, I don’t actually like the way Ross makes his case. His style is repetitive, needlessly polemic, and sloppy with numbers. So I’m recasting the ideas in my own way.

One example: While making some point about Google and Facebook, Ross mentioned what each “earned” in a particular quarter. The numbers seemed high to me, so I checked them. He had actually quoted the companies’ revenues, not their earnings.

He was making a qualitative point, in which revenues worked just as well as earnings (i.e., some other number was small potatoes to companies that big). So it seemed to just be sloppiness rather than deception. But I don’t have to hit many such examples before I start to doubt everything.

Occupying the State of the Union

The conventional wisdom about Occupy Wall Street is that it failed. It made a splash and generated headlines, but ultimately it elected no candidates, passed no laws, and didn’t even leave behind a memorable lost-cause proposal like the Equal Rights Amendment. So it was all a big waste of the activists’ effort and our attention.

By contrast, the Tea Party did elect candidates and has influenced all kinds of laws, especially at the state level. Without the Tea Party, the government wouldn’t have shut down last October. You may not consider that much of an accomplishment, but it is proof of continuing influence. The Tea Party may eventually even displace the Republican establishment and take over half of the two-party system.

What has Occupy done to rival that?

But all along, Occupy visionaries like David Graeber were defining success differently:

For the last quarter millennium or so, revolutions have consisted above all of planetwide transformations of political common sense. … What they really do is transform basic assumptions about what politics is ultimately about. In the wake of a revolution, ideas that had been considered veritably lunatic fringe quickly become the accepted currency of debate.

The French Revolution, for example, failed to hold power, “but afterward, institutions inspired by the French Revolution … were put in place pretty much everywhere.” Suddenly, it was obvious that monarchy was obsolete. Not only did people around the globe believe that, they believed that they had always believed it.

Now consider President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union and the responses from Cathy McMorris Rodgers (for the Republican Party), Mike Lee (for the Tea Party), and Rand Paul (who seems to be a party unto himself). Maybe it’s not surprising that President Obama would talk about inequality and how difficult it is to stay in the middle class:

Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have  barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by – let alone get ahead.

But here’s the interesting thing: The responders accepted that framing of the problem, they just tried to shift the blame.*

Bear in mind how conservatives used to respond whenever liberals tried to make inequality an issue: Wealth has nothing to do with poverty. Wealth is conjured out of the aether by creative capitalists, not usurped from the common inheritance or distilled from the blood and sweat of the laboring masses. So talk about poverty if you must, but don’t talk about wealth and poverty in the same paragraph, because they’re totally separate phenomena. This was still the conservative conventional wisdom two weeks ago, when David Brooks argued (in his own italics):

to frame the issue as income inequality is to lump together different issues that are not especially related.

More than just conservative dogma, some version of that argument has been the conventional wisdom of Very Serious People for decades. It has been fine for liberal politicians to talk about the plight of the poor or the struggles of the middle class, but if they combined that downward-looking and sideways-looking compassion with an upward-looking head-shake at the explosion of wealth among the few, mainstream pundits would start lobbing phrases like “class warfare” and “redistribution of wealth” — warning shots that come just before “Why don’t you go back to the Soviet Union, comrade?”.

But post-Occupy, everybody knows about the 99% and the 1%. And it’s no longer anti-American to point out that the 1% (and mostly the .01%) have owned all the productivity growth of recent decades.

Mike Lee’s Tea Party response doesn’t deny any of this, but instead tries to pin it on government and President Obama:

This inequality crisis presents itself in three principal forms: immobility among the poor, who are being trapped in poverty by big-government programs; insecurity in the middle class, where families are struggling just to get by and can’t seem to get ahead; and cronyist privilege at the top, where political and economic insiders twist the immense power of the federal government to profit at the expense of everyone else.** … [W]here does this new inequality come from? From government – every time it takes rights and opportunities away from the American people and gives them instead to politicians, bureaucrats, and special interests.

Rodgers points to the same problems, but calls them by a different names and promises that vague, unnamed Republican “plans” will solve them.

our mission – not only as Republicans, but as Americans, is to once again to ensure that we are not bound by where we come from, but empowered by what we can become. That is the gap Republicans are working to close. It’s the gap we all face: between where you are and where you want to be. The President talks a lot about income inequality. But the real gap we face today is one of opportunity inequality… And with this Administration’s policies, that gap has become far too wide. We see this gap growing every single day.

And this is where the spin becomes obvious, because the metaphor changes: The gap “between where you are and where you want to be” would seem to be in front of you, between you and the people whose examples inspire you to be more successful. Republicans are going to help you bridge that gap, so that you can be rich too.

But as Rodgers gets down to cases, it’s clear she’s talking about a chasm opening up behind middle-class voters, threatening to suck them into poverty as it has already claimed so many of their friends and family:

We see it in our neighbors who are struggling to find job, a husband who’s now working just part-time, a child who drops out of college because she can’t afford tuition, or parents who are outliving their life’s savings. Last month, more Americans stopped looking for a job than found one. Too many people are falling further and further behind because, right now, the President’s policies are making people’s lives harder. Republicans have plans to close the gap.

Even Rand Paul has to recognize the hollowing out of the middle class, though (unlike the others) he sticks to the old-time religion that the rich will save us, if only we let them keep getting richer. (It never worked before, but it will if we give it one more shot.)

Parents worry about their children growing up in a country where good jobs are few and far between. More than ever before, Americans wonder how they’ll afford to send their kids to college, and what will happen if they lose their job. … Prosperity comes when more money is left in the private marketplace. … Economic growth will come when we lower taxes for everyone, especially people who own businesses and create jobs.

Another piece of conservative dogma has been to blame the poor for failing; their laziness, crime, drug addiction, and general irresponsibility is dragging down the rest of us. And if people are falling out of the middle class — losing their jobs, getting their homes foreclosed, failing to send their kids to college — well, that’s their own damn fault. We aren’t failing them; they’re failing us.

Recall the opening shot of the Tea Party’s rebellion, Rick Santelli’s famous rant a few weeks after Obama took office. Backed by a cheering mob of traders on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Santelli challenged the new president:

How about this, president and administration: Why don’t you put up a web site to have people vote on the internet to see if we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages? Or would we like to at least buy cars and buy houses in foreclosure and give them to people that might have a chance to actually prosper down the road, and reward people that could carry the water instead of drink the water? … [Gesturing to include all the traders***] This is America! How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills? Raise their hands! [boos from the crowd]

Tuesday night no one was blaming the “losers” for falling out of the middle class, or fantasizing about picking the bones of their foreclosures. Instead, everyone sympathized with growing middle-class anxiety: how hard it is to find good jobs, how hard it is to pay for college, how insecure you feel even if you currently have a good job. Everyone acknowledged that Americans are losing faith in the old nostrums: work hard, study hard, say no to drugs, get married, buy a house, pay your bills … it just doesn’t seem like enough any more. You might do all that and still lose out, even as billionaires get ever richer.

Everyone but Rand Paul is acknowledging that some kind of gap needs to be bridged, that some people have more of this vaguely defined “opportunity” that you wish you had. Mike Lee is even denouncing “privilege at the top”, though he blames this privilege on government favors rather than the normal workings of capitalism.

It’s important to realize what we’re seeing: an early stage in the “transformation of political common sense”. People who believed and may still believe that OWS was horribly misguided and failed completely — those same people see the world differently now. The problem isn’t that a few “losers” are dragging the rest of us down. The problem is that there’s a 99% and a 1%. We’re arguing about what caused that and how to fix it, but we all see the problem now.

Thank you, Occupy.

* Ultimately they’ll lose that argument, because the facts are clearly against them. Look at the graphs: This problem didn’t start with Obama. It started in the Carter-Reagan years. If your explanation doesn’t account for that, you’re just spinning.

I explain it by Carter and the Democrats in Congress turning to the right: de-regulation, lower capital gains taxes, free trade deals, and turning a blind eye to union-busting. That all started slowly under Carter and then really took off during the Reagan administration. The long version of this story is in Thomas Edsall’s The New Politics of Inequality from 1985, but William Anderson of the conservative Mises Institute noted the same thing in 2000:

Republicans like to point to the failures of the Carter Administration and then claim that Ronald Reagan brought us into the present era. Alas, while I prefer Reagan to Carter, I cannot say that the above statement is true. Granted, much occurred during the Reagan Administration that was good, but if truth be known, many of the important initiatives that enabled those boundaries to expand came from Carter’s presidency.

I agree completely, if you reverse the value judgments and define “the present era” as the Second Gilded Age.

** Perversely, the purest examples of cronyism are due to a trend conservatives champion: privatizing public services like prisons or public schools.

*** I love the assumption that the well-compensated wheeler-dealers on the CME represent “America” and the people who “carry the water”. I think it’s arguable that American productivity would go up if the Earth swallowed the Chicago Mercantile Exchange whole. The people who really “carry the water” are the ones who grow stuff and build stuff and deliver services. The water-carrier is the single mother who cuts your hair (and who may need Food Stamps to feed her son), not the venture capitalist who conjured up millions by franchising Supercuts.

Apocalyptic Optimism

It’s the end of the world as we know it*, but Gar Alperovitz and David Graeber feel fine.

Lately Robert Jensen has been importing religious terms into journalism. Borrowing from the seminal theologian Walter Brueggermann, Jensen defines three stances from which a journalist can report:

  • royal, relaying the vision of the Powers That Be
  • prophetic, calling the Powers That Be to repent and reform, as the prophets confronted the kings in the Old Testament
  • apocalyptic, announcing that the status quo is beyond reform and calling on the people to think in dramatically new ways

It’s easy for a royalist to be optimistic, because the system is basically sound and a few policy tweaks — a tax cut, a jobs bill, a new general with an improved strategy — will fix whatever temporary problems we might be having. A prophet may rail against current trends, but prophetic warnings rest on the optimistic subtext that we still have time to change our ways. If we just end the war or restore the Constitution or throw the crooks out, we’ll be back on track.

“I was planning to rebuild anyway.”

But the rarest kind of optimism is apocalyptic. The apocalyptic reporter sees that the cavalry won’t arrive in time or isn’t coming at all or will just make the destruction more complete. To be an apocalyptic optimist, you need to see the new seeds already sprouting in the shadow of the doomed sequoia.

In his new book What Then Must We Do?, Gar Alperovitz recognizes all the signs that the American-system-as-we-know-it can’t survive.

  • Even after crashing the world economy in 2008, the big banks are still too powerful to regulate, and the private-profit/public-risk dynamic still dominates. So given time, they’ll crash the economy again.
  • Greenhouse gases keep accumulating in the atmosphere, but even now that we’re seeing the results in droughts, heat waves, and violent storms, we still can’t raise the will to do anything about it.
  • Inequality keeps growing, regardless of which party holds power. For decades, all the apparent growth in the economy has been captured by the rich. The  average person’s standard of living is not improving at all, even as valuable intangibles (like job security) are being lost.
  • Our health-care system gets ever more expensive, and yet we get worse results than the other wealthy countries.
  • The unlimited corporate money pouring into political campaigns has captured both parties. The Democrats may be slightly less receptive to the corporate agenda, but they can’t stand against it either.

And while he by no means rejects traditional political organizing and movement-building, Alperovitz doesn’t think politics will solve the problem. Historically, progressive change in America happened in two big bursts — the New Deal and the Great Society — and both depended on external circumstances that aren’t likely to recur. The New Deal needed not just the desperation of the Depression, but a conservative president (Hoover) to blame for it. If things had shaken out differently, all that despair could have energized the Right, as in Germany. (Imagine the nativist backlash if the immigrant-backed Catholic liberal Al Smith had won in 1928 and been in the White House when the bottom fell out in 1929.) The Great Society couldn’t have happened without the confidence and generosity that resulted from two decades of widely-shared growth; and that couldn’t have happened if World War II hadn’t wrecked all our industrial competitors.

So yes, political reform movements can make a difference, but only in the presence of circumstances we can’t count on. And that’s pretty much what we’ve been seeing: We had three consecutive wave elections: Democratic in 2006 and 2008, and Republican  in 2010. But how much actual change did they bring?

And if we somehow managed the political will to, say, break up the too-big-to-fail banks, wouldn’t they just merge back together as soon as our attention shifted? Isn’t that what the old AT&T phone monopoly did?

Looking at things that way should make a person pessimistic, right? Not exactly. Alperovitz’s introductory chapter ends like this:

as a historian and political economist, it is obvious to me that difficult historical times do not always or even commonly persist forever. In my judgment “we shall overcome” is not simply a slogan but in fact the likely, though not inevitable, outcome of the long struggle ahead.

It is possible, quite simply, that we may lay the groundwork for a truly American form of community-sustaining and wealth-democratizing transformative change—and thereby also the reconstitution of genuine democracy, step by step, from the ground up.

The key phrase here is “long struggle”. We can’t just be socially conscious and politically active for a few months, elect President Wonderful, and then go back to sleep. We tried that; it didn’t work.

Alperovitz’s long struggle isn’t purely political. It’s more than just a series of marches and demonstrations that you attend before returning to your old life. The struggle he envisions involves creating institutions that democratize wealth: co-ops, credit unions, employee-owned businesses, and so on. Alperovitz envisions replacing the flighty government/capitalist partnerships of today with more stable alliances joining local governments with fixed local institutions (like hospitals and universities) and the worker-and-consumer-owned businesses that could service and supply them.

The seeds of that revolution are all around us. (I suggested painless ways you can start participating two weeks ago.) And Alperovitz believes they may sprout first and best in the places where the old system has failed most completely — rust belt wastelands like Detroit or Cleveland. (He cites Cleveland’s Evergreen Cooperatives, which are modeled on the successful Mondragon Cooperatives of the Basque region of Spain.) His logic is perverse but compelling: As long as capitalists can threaten to move the factory to China, they have the community over a barrel. But after the factory is gone, why listen to capitalists any more?

Alperovitz foresees a snowballing process as each new democratizing institution changes the consciousness of the people who participate and enlarges the constituency for democratically managed solutions. Before long, the resources that communities waste enticing corporations to locate there will instead become available to invest in the community solving its own problems.

David Graeber’s new book The Democracy Project, presents a somewhat different brand of apocalyptic optimism. (His last book, which I also reviewed, was a marvelous work of economic anthropology called Debt: the first 5,000 years.)

Graeber is one of the architects of Occupy Wall Street, and is at least partly responsible for coining the term “the 99%”. That makes him a leading voice in what The New Yorker has dubbed “the anarchist revival“, and puts him in something of a delicate situation: In order to promote anarchism, he has to shut down the media’s attempt to anoint him as the movement’s leader. Graeber is a “horizontal” activist who believes in groups finding consensus, not a “vertical” activist who wants to tell folks what to do. If you think people should either lead, follow, or get out of the way, Graeber is not for you.

The essence of Graeber’s worldview is a question: How would groups co-operate if they knew from the beginning that they couldn’t force dissenters to go along with what the group decides? That makes him more radical than a Libertarian, because Libertarians believe in a police-enforced property system.

Like Alperovitz, Graeber sees the approaching end of the current system, which he believes is based ever-more-nakedly on extracting value by force, under the pretense of increasingly empty rituals like elections and loans and trade agreements. Today’s young people, for example, face a choice between accepting unstable careers at minimum wage or borrowing heavily to get an education, then working as unpaid interns before beginning to earn money to pay off their debts. How different is that from feudalism or slavery?

But he also is optimistic that new ways are sprouting in the shadow of the old. The establishment view of Occupy is that it failed because it didn’t produce a set of demands that could become the platform of a political party. But to Graeber that outcome would have been failure. (In Jensen/Brueggermann terms, it would recast OWS as prophetic rather than apocalyptic.) To make that case, The Democracy Project not only retells the history of Occupy from the inside, it retells the history of American democracy and of revolutionary movements in general.

And the punch line is: The really successful revolutions don’t seize power, they change our common sense about what power is and what it can do. The French and Russian revolutions failed to the extent that they became new governments; Robespierre and Stalin represent the defeat of the revolutionary ideals, not their victory. But both revolutions succeeded as “planetwide transformations of political common sense”. The French Revolution ended monarchy as a viable option for forming new governments, and the Russian Revolution drew a line in the sand that capitalists didn’t dare cross. The New Deal and the social democracy of postwar Europe never would have happened happen without the Russian Revolution.

Similarly, Graeber points to another so-called “failure” — the antiwar movement of the Johnson/Nixon years. Arguably, it didn’t shorten the Vietnam War. But American governments have avoided high-casualty wars for the four decades since. (Put together, the Iraq and Afghan Wars have produced about 1/10th the number of combat deaths as each of the Vietnam and Korean Wars.) That attempt to avoid casualties led to increased “collateral damage” as we bombed from a distance rather than aimed down a barrel. That stiffened local resistance and

pretty much guarantee[d] that the United States couldn’t achieve its military objectives. And remarkably, the war planners seemed to be aware of this. It didn’t matter. They considered it far more important to prevent effective opposition at home than to actually win the war. It’s as if American forces in Iraq were ultimately defeated by the ghost of Abbie Hoffman.

So as Occupy morphs into the future, its goal should not be to launch a new party or seize control of an old one. It should be trying to change political common sense. Graeber closes his book by suggesting places where a change in common sense could make a significant difference. Most have to do with the nature of work, the virtue of working long hours, the value of helping people rather than producing more stuff, and bureaucracy as a problem in both the public and private sectors — a problem that could be avoided if groups organized in ways that didn’t require forcing dissenters to co-operate.

Graeber does not minimize or wish away the signs of global catastrophe, but Occupy has made him hopeful because

the age of revolutions is by no means over. The human imagination stubbornly refuses to die. And the moment any significant number of people simultaneously shake off the shackles that have been placed on that collective imagination, even our most deeply inculcated assumptions about what is and is not politically possible have been known to crumble overnight.

* I’ve never thought about R.E.M. and the Tarot in the same sitting before, so I never noticed: Isn’t that the Fool’s dog in the End of the World video?

When Centralized Institutions Fail, Is Anarchy an Answer?

Last week I raised the topic of institutional failure: Why is institutional trust and trustworthiness failing more-or-less across the board? Corporations, political parties, the various layers and branches of government, churches, academia, the banking system, the media — none provides a solid base to stand on while we reform the others.

Two leaps. Then I made a leap you might not agree with: Even though each institution has its own failure story, I decided to look for some common cause, which I called a UFT (Unified Fuck-up Theory). I chose a tongue-in-cheek label because I realize I’m getting uncomfortably close to conspiracy-theory territory. (In Valis, Philip Dick wrote, “It certainly constitutes bad news if the people who agree with you are buggier than batshit.”) But the alternative is big-coincidence territory, and I’m not comfortable there either.

I followed that leap with another, which I’ve since come to call the Agatha Christie Hypothesis: If the clues don’t add up, it means that the culprit never made it onto your suspect list. So the common cause is likely to be something we instinctively don’t question.

Chris Hayes went down that path in Twilight of the Elites and pointed his finger at meritocracy. The certainly satisfies the ACH: Literally nobody had been saying “Our problem is that talented, hard-working people get ahead.”

As I laid out in more detail last week, Hayes argues that meritocracy justifies a level of inequality that has created a new ruling class, i.e., the elite have enough power to game the system that there is no longer anything like the level playing field meritocratic theory assumes. As a result, our institutions are run by an entrenched, hyper-competitive, self-serving elite that feels entitled to whatever it can grab. We have re-created the noblesse without the oblige.

In The Leaderless Revolution, former British diplomat Carne Ross adds another unexpected culprit to the suspect list: representative democracy.

Sheep and Shepherds. The basic idea of representative democracy is that a world of sheep and shepherds is fine, as long as sheep get to elect their shepherds. Presumably, the sheep will choose good shepherds, who will stay good because the sheep could replace them.

Ross criticizes this model from both sides: First, the options offered to the people are too limited and too easily manipulated by those with money and power. My favorite expression of this situation comes from the Cake song “Comfort Eagle

Some people drink Pepsi, some people drink Coke.
The wacky morning DJ says democracy’s a joke. 

More prosaically, Benjamin Barber wrote:

We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, [but] the powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers.

In November, for example, the American people will elect either Romney or Obama. How many important issues does that choice take off the table?

Second, the job of “good shepherd” is impossible in such a complex, diverse, inter-connected world. Even with the best intentions, no one can “represent” a nation like the United States or the United Kingdom. The very attempt (as Ross knows from personal experience) leads you to adopt grossly oversimplified worldviews that create more problems than they solve.

Representing the UK at the UN. The stories from Ross’ diplomatic career are worthwhile whether you end up agreeing with his conclusions or not.

The British Foreign Office is an elite Chris Hayes would recognize. A hyper-competitive process selects Ross and a few others out of thousands of applicants.

We were a chosen elite, given to expect that in due course we would become ambassadors and undersecretaries, the most senior exponents of our country’s wishes. I was elated to join this exclusive club and happy to undergo the many compromises membership in this group entailed.

Then the recruits are indoctrinated into the groupthink of the Foreign Office, which affirms the diplomats’ superiority: Only they know the classified information. Only they have unfettered access to the real experts — each other.

Eventually, Ross becomes head of the Middle East section of the British mission to the UN, where he and his American allies design and maintain the trade sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq — sanctions that were not only based on false assumptions about Iraq’s WMDs, but whose burden fell mainly on the Iraqi poor. Ross now accepts demographers’ calculations that the sanctions caused an “excess mortality rate” of half a million Iraqi children.

In other words, half a million children died. Though Saddam Hussein doubtless had a hand too, I cannot avoid my own responsibility. This was my work; this was what I did.

In what way, Ross now wonders, did he “represent” the people of the United Kingdom? Given the information and responsibility he had, how many of Ross’ sheep would have let hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children die in exchange for a small theoretical increase in their own safety? Might they instead have shown some compassion and courage? And if ordinary citizens of both countries had met in the same room, might they have come up with completely different options?

Rather than a series of gates through which information and power flow, representative democracy has become a series of walls: The people are cut off from their diplomats, and the diplomats in turn are cut off from the foreign peoples their actions affect.

Similar stories could be told in every country, about every aspect of government policy.

Renouncing the pact. So Ross is attacking government from a different side than conservative libertarians do. Libertarian rhetoric focuses on the tyranny of governments interfering with sovereign individuals, and minimizes any collective or social responsibility. “Society” is just a myth that justifies the few ruling the many.

Ross is saying almost the exact opposite: Not only do we have collective responsibilities to do things like take care of the planet, help each other, establish justice, and live together in peace, but those responsibilities are too important to hand off to leaders. He wants us to renounce what he calls “the pact”:

We vote, they act; we get on with our lives, they protect. … For most of us, politics is a spectator sport.

He cites the 2008 Obama campaign. Obama called for and got unprecedented participation from individual citizens. But

The political end of his campaign was not change itself, but for him to be elected to deliver change — a subtle but crucial distinction, and the disjunction at the heart of representative democracy.

Grey anarchy. Ross uses the word anarchy in a positive sense, but he means something subtle by it. Usually we talk about anarchy in a black-or-white way. We have a government or we don’t; anarchy is achieved by overthrowing government and not replacing it.

Ross’ anarchy has more grey in it. Government isn’t evil, just hopelessly inadequate. We need to figure out how to work around government — rather than through it — in order to fulfill our social responsibilities.

If government cannot provide for the stability, safety and just arbitration of our common affairs, who can? The answer is both radical and discomforting. For there is only one alternative if government cannot successfully provide: We must do so ourselves. Self-organized government is one term; another, rather more loaded term, is anarchism.

His model is more the everybody-pitch-in model of Wikipedia than the every-man-for-himself model of conservative libertarianism. Rather than electing the next savior, activists should focus on creating new arenas of interaction and trust where creative self-organization becomes possible.

The goal is to make the leaders become the followers: Rather than change society through politics, directly create social change that the politicians will have to react to.

Methods, not programs. Predictably, Ross’ prescriptions are on the vague side, and are more about methods than programs. (If he said, “Pass my program” he’d be back in the representative democracy model, offering himself as a leader.) He ends with nine principles for action, but unfortunately they take more space to unpack than I have. So I’ll have to do my own summary.

The ideal anarchic action, from Ross’ point of view, is something that will start a wave: It tackles the problem in some small but direct way, other people will see it, and they will be inspired to imitate. It is nonviolent and builds new trustworthy relationships. It will achieve something even if it doesn’t totally catch on. It focuses on those who are suffering most, and asks what they want rather than imposing a solution on them.

Gandhi’s salt march, Rosa Parks not giving up her seat — these are both cited as good examples.

Or maybe we could look at Ross’ current project, which he describes in this interview on the Colbert Report: He’s working an Occupy Wall Street bank.

What Happened in Wisconsin?

Short version: The long anticipated recall of Governor Scott Walker fizzled. Walker won the rematch against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett by almost exactly the same margin (53%-46%) as their 2010 race.

Longer version: Split decision. The Democrats appear to have won one of the four state senate recall elections. The Republican hasn’t conceded and a recount seems likely, but if the 779-vote margin holds up, Democrats will control the Wisconsin senate.

So the upshot is that the union-busting Walker has already done will stand for another two years, as will his education cuts and the voter suppression law (if it ultimately survives its court challenge). But Walker won’t get any new shenanigans through the legislature until at least 2013, if then. That’s a big improvement on the way things were when the demonstrations started in February, 2011. Then Walker had solid majorities in both houses and could do pretty much whatever he wanted.

What it means. Everybody has been working hard to spin the result. Republicans want it to be a vindication of Walker’s policies and a sign that Romney can win Wisconsin in the fall. Democrats want to read it either as a rejection of the recall process itself, with little meaning for President Obama or even for Walker’s re-election in 2014, or as a sign of the Citizens United apocalypse, in which massive contributions from the very wealthy can buy a result.

Exit polls. The big reason to doubt Obama is in trouble in Wisconsin is Tuesday’s exit poll: Obama over Romney 51%-44%.

Republicans spin this by claiming the poll had a Democratic bias:

Considering the exit polls the media relied on showed a razor-thin difference between Walker and his Democratic opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the logic behind some huge lead for Obama, produced by the same exit polls, melts away. Walker defeated Barrett by a 7-point margin.

Apply that same analysis to Obama’s 7-point lead in the same exit polls and the race in Wisconsin is actually closer to being dead even.

This point is bogus. The early exit poll, reflecting only people who voted in the morning, showed a neck-and-neck race between Walker and Barrett. But Obama’s 7-point lead comes from the final exit poll, which shows Walker winning by about the right margin. (Atlantic’s Molly Ball describes how exit polls work.)

Doubting the process. Walker got 53% of the vote. But according to the exit poll, 70% of the voters were dubious about whether a recall was appropriate at all. Of the 10% who said a recall was “never” appropriate, 94% voted for Walker. 60% believe in recalls “only for official misconduct”; Walker got 68% of their votes.

I think the wording of the choices skewed this result a little. The only other option — that a recall is appropriate “for any reason” — is too loose.  The actual justification for the recall — that compared to Walker’s radical policies, his vaguely conservative 2010 campaign amounted to fraud — might have gotten more than 27% agreement.

Still, it does seem that many voters set Walker a lower bar than he’d face in a regular election. For them, the question wasn’t whether Walker or Barrett would be a better governor, but whether Walker had done anything so egregious that the 2010 election should be overturned.

A good comparison here was the Clinton impeachment. Many people who disliked Clinton’s policies and thought his sexual escapades were shameful nonetheless believed that impeachment was unwarranted.

Not like Ohio. Another instructive comparison is Ohio, where Governor Kasich’s similarly vague cut-spending/create-jobs 2010 campaign led to a similarly radical ALEC agenda after the election. As in Wisconsin, Kasich’s attack on workers’ rights led to a popular backlash.

But Ohio’s constitution allows the voters to go after laws directly. So last November Ohio repealed Kasich’s anti-union S.B. 5 in a referendum by a 61%-39% margin.

In Wisconsin, the voters’ only recourse was to recall the people it had just elected, and the recall couldn’t begin until the officials had served a year in office. As a result, Tuesday’s recall was the culmination of more than a year of political turmoil: Democratic senators escaping to Illinois to deny Walker a quorum, the April 2011 Supreme Court election, and the state senate recall elections of last summer.

So it’s not surprising that some fed-up voters would be angry the recall itself. As one questioner at Netroots Nation’s Wisconsin post-mortem panel commented Friday: “If Wisconsin had had the same mechanism as Ohio, if we’d been able to go directly after the law, we would have gotten the same result.” (I watched the session’s livestream and haven’t re-watched the tape, so my quotations are only approximate. The fuzzily-sourced quotes below are due to my sketchy notes.)

Madison was the first Occupation

The message disconnect. The massive demonstrations in Madison in 2011 were the prototype for Occupy Wall Street. The Wisconsin protests had the same grass-roots, horizontally organized structure and the same independence from parties and candidates. As Harry Waisbren put it at Netroots Nation:

This movement is not about electing Democrats, it’s about ending the corporate subversion of our democracy.

But that led to a problem: The Occupy-style grass-roots movement was great at collecting one million signatures for the recall-Walker petition. But as soon as that petition was filed, the focus of the process necessarily shifted to electing Democrats — precisely what the movement is not about. Election campaigns continue to be top-down political-consultant-driven operations.

Things got worse after the primary, which was won by the centrist Barrett rather than the activists’ favorite candidate, Kathleen Falk. So rather than a referendum to restore workers’ rights, public education, and environmental protections, the campaign became a generic do-over of the 2010 Walker/Barrett race. As one Netroots Nation panelist put it:

Barrett never really focused on the messages that were coming up from the grass roots.

Now, maybe Barrett looked at his polling and decided those issues were losers. Who knows? But as a result, the logic of the recall slipped away. “The narrative was lost,” Waisbren commented. That led directly to the sense of the recall’s illegitimacy that was expressed in the exit poll.

Walker’s money advantage. This was the most expensive campaign in Wisconsin history, and Walker had an overwhelming money advantage. Mother Jones provides this chart:

In addition to these millions, millions more were spent by outside groups like the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity on “issue ads” that couldn’t directly say “Vote for Walker”, but left little doubt who you should support. All told, the Center for Public Integrity estimates that $63.5 million was spent. Walker’s ads started appearing back in November. As one Netroots Nation panelist said:

No one who lives in Wisconsin could doubt that Walker owned the airwaves.

What money can do. A lot of people are skeptical that it’s possible to buy an election. History is full of well-financed candidates who went nowhere, like Rudy Giuliani in 2008 or Phil Gramm in 1996. As Giulani now says:

Campaign spending doesn’t mean anything because you can spend it incorrectly.

Similarly, Rudy could say that being seven feet tall doesn’t mean anything in basketball, because you might be clumsy. But what if you’re not? What can you do with a cash advantage like Walker’s if you spend it correctly?

Obviously, nobody’s going to vote for Walker just because they’ve heard “Vote for Walker” 100 times and “Vote for Barrett” only 10-15 times. Where Walker-level money comes into play isn’t just in repetition, it’s in re-defining reality.

The jobs issue was a key example. The slogan of Walker’s controversial 2011 budget was “Wisconsin is Open for Business“. His agenda’s whole point was that industry would create jobs if the state cut corporate taxes, broke unions, and stopped protecting workers and the environment.

It hasn’t worked. The Wisconsin Budget Project looked at statistics from the Federal Reserve and concluded:

If we use December 2010 as our baseline for analysis, the newly released data indicate that only one other state (Alaska) has experienced slower growth than Wisconsin.

And Bloomberg News — hardly a left-wing outfit — reported:

Wisconsin was ranked last among states and the District of Columbia in economic health in 2011, the first year of Walker’s tenure, according to the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States.

Walker didn’t like those numbers, so he made up his own. The Bureau of Labor Statistics said Wisconsin had lost 33,900 jobs. But Walker’s re-analysis said that Wisconsin had gained 23,321 jobs. And then he blanketed the airwaves with this ad:

As Netroots Nation panelist Emily Mills pointed out, any state could adjust its numbers in the same way:

Whatever metric you use on jobs, if you apply the same metric to every state, Wisconsin is still dead last.

But nobody had millions of dollars to spread that message across the state, so Walker’s message stood.

That’s Wisconsin’s lesson for the post-Citizens-United era: The best use of money in politics is to define reality. Don’t just tell citizens to vote for you, create a virtual world in which voting for you makes sense.

What it means for November. Mitt Romney has a lot of disadvantages: He’s not very likeable. He’s a bad campaigner who has a habit of saying things like “I like to be able to fire people” and “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” He’s a wooden debater who has yet to appear outside the conservative bubble. He has taken a lot of radical right-wing positions that he’ll have a hard time running away from. And he’s the poster boy for income inequality and financiers run amok.

But you have to give Romney this: He knows how to raise vast amounts of money and bury his opponents with it. And he has no scruples about redefining reality.

Limitless amounts of money are going to be spent in the fall. And while Obama is no slouch as a fund-raiser, he’s going to be outspent by a wide margin, especially if you count the corporate-funded outside groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove’s Crossroads, whose ads I’ve already seen repeatedly during the NBA playoffs.

The bulk of that money isn’t going to be spent saying “Vote for Romney”. It’s going to be used to redefine reality. Millions already believe (falsely) that Obama raised their taxes, that he cut defense, that he isn’t really an American citizen, that he’s secretly Muslim, that the stimulus didn’t create jobs, and on and on and on. By November, millions more will believe other false things that make it logical to support Romney over Obama.

In Wisconsin, Obama currently benefits a little from Walker’s redefinition of reality: If the Wisconsin economy is getting better, maybe Obama isn’t so bad.

But now that Walker is safe until 2014, the up-is-down campaign will reverse itself. Wisconsinites can expect to start hearing that they’re in a depression, that things were never this bad under President Bush, and so on. It will make a difference.

A 7% difference? Too soon to tell.

Where Occupy Goes Next and other short notes

With winter coming and mayors prepared to unleash the police as ruthlessly as they can get away with, debate has turned to where the Occupy movement goes next.

Partly this is about constructing an agenda. (Michael Moore’s seems fairly typical.) But Glenn Greenwald writes:

I disagree with the prevailing wisdom that OWS should begin formulating specific legislative demands and working to elect specific candidates. I have no doubt that many OWS protesters will ultimately vote and even work for certain candidates — and that makes sense — but the U.S. desperately needs a citizen movement devoted to working outside of political and legal institutions and that is designed to be a place of dissent against it.

while Julian Sanchez disagrees:

protest, however vital as a consciousness raising tool, can only be a preparation for the more humdrum enterprise of convincing your neighbors with sustained arguments (or being convinced yourself), electing candidates, and all the rest. To imagine protest not as prologue to politics, but as a substitute for it, suggests a denial of the reality of pluralism, and an unwillingness to find out what democracy actually looks like.

Some Democratic politicians would like Occupy to raise enthusiasm for them the way that the Tea Party has for the Republicans, but movement activists are wary of being co-opted. Van Jones is recruiting (presumably Democratic) candidates “to run under this 99% banner“, provoking Occupy DC’s Kevin Zeese to write “Van Jones Can’t Occupy Us“.

Cenk Uygur has announced Wolf-PAC as a vehicle for pushing not candidates but issues like a constitutional amendment against corporate involvement in politics.

Mitt Romney’s first ad of this cycle quotes President Obama as saying: “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.”

The problem: Obama was quoting a John McCain aide in 2008, not talking about his own 2012 campaign.

A Rick Perry ad quotes Obama as saying, “We’ve been a little bit lazy I think over the last couple of decades.” Perry replies: “That’s what our president thinks is wrong with America? That Americans have gotten lazy?”

And Romney piles on: “[Obama] said that Americans are lazy. I don’t think that describes Americans.”

The problem: Again, context. The fuller Obama quote makes it clear what he means: Previous administrations have been lazy about trying to attract overseas investment in the U.S., and he’s trying to correct that in his administration.

Well, if that’s how the game is played now, let’s play it. ThinkProgress assembles a collection of Mitt Romney “quotes”.

This speaks for itself:

And this (the world’s lightest material) is just cool:

Does it seem to you that conservatives have the advantage in the scurrilous-viral-email department? They do.

The U.C. Davis pepper-spraying cop has become an iconic image. A whole tumblr is devoted to photo-shopping him into all the other iconic images.

I’m becoming a fan of Noah Smith’s economic blog Noahpinion. This article raises an interesting thought: What if the values conservatives claim to love (hard work, individual responsibility, etc.) are promoted better by a liberal welfare state than by a conservative dog-eat-dog utopia?

Now Look What You Made Me Do

The last two weeks have seen a widespread violent crack-down on non-violent protesters, the like of which has not occurred in the United States in many years. So far the police have been using non-lethal weapons like pepper spray, rubber bullets, tear gas, sonic cannons, and the old-fashioned nightstick, so there is not a body count to report. But the difference between this suppression of dissent and the ones in Cairo that President Obama denounced as far back as last January is largely of degree and not of kind.

You would not suspect this from the coverage in the mainstream American media, which has been doing it’s usual even-handed he-said/she-said thing. Protesters “clash with police” reports the New York Times, not specifying that protesters’ eyes clashed with police pepper spray or that protesters’ heads and stomachs clashed with police nightsticks. “Violence erupted” said New York Magazine, as if violence were some volcanic process independent of human decisions.

AllVoices anchor Veronica Roberts reported that Iraq veteran Scott Olsen suffered a fractured skull “after he was caught in the violence that erupted between police and protesters”. Olsen was not “caught” in anything; he was protesting peacefully when police shot him in the head with a tear gas canister (perhaps intentionally). (He may have suffered brain damage and was still unable to speak several days later.)

(Even this morning’s NYT article about the coverage of Occupy Wall Street says nothing about the coverage of police attacks. The Times seems unaware that there could be an issue here.)

But this shouldn’t be a contest between my rants and the rants on Fox News. The only way to appreciate what is going on is to look at the pictures and watch the video for yourself. In this video, the camera-holder is slowly walking parallel to (and maybe 60 feet away from) a line of unthreatened Oakland police when one of them decides to shoot him with a rubber bullet — apparently just because he can.

Here, a UC Davis policeman calmly pepper-sprays students who are sitting on the ground, immobile. Other police watch and do nothing.

BTW, you should see how this incident ends: Starting at about the 5 minute mark, the police see that the crowd is neither retreating nor attacking, and they start to lose their spirit and look confused. Using the human mic device, a protester invites them to retreat, and they do, leaving the quad in control of the protesters. It’s a stunning example of how nonviolence works.

At UC-Berkeley, students are peacefully behind a line of police who suddenly start using their nightsticks.

Here, a young woman with her hands at her sides, surrounded by people armed with nothing more than cameras, is pepper-sprayed in the face by police in riot gear. The LA Times reports the incident in he-said/she-said terms: “Occupy Portland organizers allege law enforcement took an inappropriate and heavy-handed approach.”

In Seattle, police pepper-sprayed this 84-year-old former school teacher. Local TV news even-handedly reported that “mayhem took place” and “chaos erupted in downtown Seattle”.

Retired Philadelphia police captain Ray Lewis (who was arrested in New York Thursday) put it a little differently: “Corporate America is using our police departments as hired thugs.”

I have read many claims by police that protesters threatened or assaulted them in some way. With all the video cameras out there, you’d think someone would capture assaults on police if they were really happening with any frequency. I’ve looked for such video, but I can’t find it.

On YouTube, the query “occupy protesters assault police” led me to this local TV-news report from Toledo, which shows two protesters at a city council meeting “assaulting police” by flailing helplessly as they’re being dragged away. So far that’s the worst protester violence I’ve found video of.

In public-opinion terms, this “even-handed” coverage is anything but. Obviously, the reason there is an incident at all is because people are protesting, so if “violence erupts”, the reader’s natural inclination is to think that protesters caused it. Similarly, when ABC News reports that nine cities have already spent more than $10 million responding to the protests, the protesters seem to be to blame.

What actually costs money, though, is the cities’ extreme now-look-what-you-made-me-do over-reaction to the protests. The protesters are not demanding to be surrounded by armies of police in riot gear earning overtime. City mayors and police chiefs are making those choices, which are justified by what, exactly? Where is the bad example of a city that under-responded and suffered some awful consequence?

Virtually every “problem” offered as an excuse to break up the occupation protests is actually made worse when the police attack. Are the protesters “trashing” the public parks? Well, here’s what the Occupy Oakland site looked like the morning after the police violently “cleared” it.

Mayor Bloomberg has cited complaints about noise as a reason to drive protesters out of Zuccotti Park — with noise cannons. As the NYT’s Nicholas Kristof observed:

Sure, the mayor had legitimate concerns about sanitation and safety, but have you looked around New York City? Many locations aren’t so clean and safe, but there usually aren’t hundreds of officers in riot gear showing up in the middle of the night to address the problem.

When the unprovoked and counter-productive violence of the authoritarian reaction is masked by “even-handed” coverage, though, the natural reaction of the news-watching public is to grumble at the protesters who are causing trouble and wasting their tax money.

And as the mainstream media coverage suffers from false equivalence and fake even-handedness, the coverage from the right-wing media — Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, the Washington Times, the New York Post, the Weekly Standard, and (now that Murdoch owns it) the Wall Street Journal — drips with vitriol.

For weeks, Fox News has pushed two related lines of propaganda on a daily basis: invoking a Woodstock drug-taking dirty-hippy stereotype of the protesters, and de-humanizing them by focusing on their animal functions — urination, defecation, sex, etc. Karl Rove’s Crossroads PAC has put out an anti-Elizabeth-Warren ad tying her to the occupations, where “protesters attack police, do drugs, and trash public parks.”

Unsurprisingly, when one side’s propaganda goes uncorrected, the other side’s public image suffers. A PPP poll shows Occupy Wall Street’s popularity declining.

This combined police-and-media attack exposes a long-term weakness in the Left: We lack solidarity. When media coverage goes against some group we sympathize with, we distance ourselves rather than stand up for them.

The Right has dug-in, billionaire-financed infrastructure, so it will defend its clan from media attacks (as it has done with Herman Cain) even if the target is clearly in the wrong (like BP). Compare the Left’s reaction to the Dean Scream: Objectively, the scream meant nothing, but suddenly it was embarrassing to be associated with Dean, so his support melted.

It’s important that those of us who sympathize with the goals of Occupy Wall Street not melt away. Ordinary Americans have started protesting against the way that the rich (especially the parasitic financial community, which on the whole adds little if anything to our economy) have captured all the economic growth. In response, the rich have leaned on City Hall to call out the police to rough them up (except in New York, where no leaning was necessary because a finance-industry billionaire already is City Hall), and the corporate media has covered these events in a way that distributes the blame unfairly on the protesters.

We can’t let that be the end of the story.

Nonviolence and the Police

I assume that by now you’ve heard about this week’s police attacks on the Occupy protests — most outrageously in Oakland, but also in Denver and Atlanta. (If not, chase the links and watch some of the video. Descriptions don’t capture it.) These attacks resemble what had happened previously in New York and Boston.

This is a good time to review how nonviolent protest works, because a violent response challenges a nonviolent movement in two ways: First, violence makes protesters angry and tempts them to respond in kind, which hardly ever turns out well. You can’t win physically against the police, and unless it is clear that the violence comes entirely from their side, you won’t win in the media either. “They started it” wasn’t a convincing argument when you were ten, and it still isn’t.

Second, watching your nonviolent allies lose the battle — as they always do when the police are determined and ruthless enough — is discouraging. You might wonder: How can we ever win when they can be violent and we can’t?

And yet, nonviolent movements do cause major change (the Civil Rights movement), have defeated empires (the British in India), and can even overthrow dictators willing to torture and kill (most recently in the Arab Spring). How does that work?

In stages:

  1. Bring a problem to public attention and make its victims visible.
  2. Demonstrate the injustice of the system’s response.
  3. Make explicit the implicit violence that maintains the unjust system.
  4. Turn the servants of the unjust system, including (eventually) the police.

If you make it to stage 4, where the police simply refuse to follow orders, the government either gives in or falls. Governments know this, which is why they frequently give in sooner.

Now let’s go through the stages more slowly.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has already succeeded at Stage 1. FDL finds the value of the protest in

its shoving the Overton Window away from the far right end of the spectrum, far enough away to make talk of meaningful solutions possible, which is the first step towards making them politically viable. Putting a surtax on the rich and/or letting the Bush tax cuts finally expire was considered politically verboten as recently as a month ago. Then Occupy Wall Street got started, and suddenly surtaxes on millionaires start becoming very much discussed indeed.

Also, people are finally starting to pay attention to the fact that many of the financial manipulations leading up to the crash were illegal, and that the bankers/criminals are either getting away with it or paying wrist-slap fines far smaller than their ill-gotten gains.

Sometimes stage 1 is all that’s necessary to create change, but usually you need to keep going.

It’s working on stage 2, occasionally popping up to 3. The main response the authorities are making to the protests is to identify broken regulations — there’s no camping in this park — and then say “We can’t tolerate breaking the law.”

The movement hasn’t succeeded yet in making the public see the hypocrisy in this. What the system actually can’t tolerate are little people breaking little laws. When Goldman Sachs commits fraud, or Bank of America illegally repossesses people’s homes, no one is arrested and no heads get broken. But put up a tent someplace you shouldn’t and all hell breaks loose.

The next job is to get people all over America asking, “What’s up with that?”

Here’s the comparable phase in the Civil Rights movement: when ordinary white people started seeing the Whites Only signs differently. At some point, they realized that there were no separate-but-equal facilities for blacks, and that blacks’ absence did not mean that they were happier with their own kind. Instead, whites began to see Whites Only not as an organizing label (like Men and Women signs on restrooms), but as a threat to have blacks carted away by force. Ordinary white people began to see the violence implicit in their apparently peaceful segregated lunch counters.

In order to win this phase, OWS has to stay as peaceful and orderly as possible, while continuing to keep up the pressure. The disproportion between their civil disobedience and the response it draws — and the contrast with the easy law-breaking of the financial elite — is what makes the case.

One NYC protestor had it exactly right (at the 5:30 mark)

Each new depiction of the abuses of the police on the First Amendment, the more people will show up here in New York City, and the more waves of occupation will spread across this country. And you should be proud of that, police, because you are participating in our media publicity campaign. Thank you for attending.

The challenge will be to keep Wall Street in the picture, and not let the financiers disappear behind the police.

Stage 4. Sometimes you establish the injustice of the system and the violence that maintains it, and it’s still not enough. The moral pretentions of the powerful have been exposed, but they’re basically saying, “Yeah, we’re bad guys. So what? We’re still bigger than you.”

That’s when an invisible moral force begins to work in your favor. You see, most people don’t grow up wanting to be evil. Maybe a few become bankers so that they can foreclose on widows and orphans, Snidely Whiplash style, but probably not many. Maybe a few become police so that they can get away with pepper-spraying defenseless young women in the face, but probably not many.

A lot of police joined the force because they wanted to be good guys, not bad guys. Many of them still want to be good guys. That’s why they can be turned.

Turning the police takes incredible courage and persistence on the part of the protesters. Basically, you have to let them beat you up until they can’t make themselves do it any more. One event that spins out of control is usually not enough. Police have to go to bed knowing that tomorrow they will get up and beat innocent people, like they did today.

At some point they’ll just stop. The order will come down and they’ll say no. It sounds incredible, but it happens.

Usually it doesn’t come to that, because the authorities will do anything to avoid it. (In Cairo, the army forced Mubarak to resign rather than see their ranks dissolve. At Tiananmen Square, the government brought in troops from the provinces, because they were afraid local soldiers wouldn’t obey.) But whether things actually go that far or not, the ultimate threat of a nonviolent movement is to turn the police. No government can survive that.

Protesters need to understand this threat from the beginning, and treat the police accordingly: Shame them but don’t insult them, and above all don’t threaten them. They are your ultimate weapon.

This video from Occupy Boston, of protesters chanting “Who do you protect? Who do you serve?” is exactly right. Those are the questions we want cops asking each other in the privacy of their squad cars, and asking themselves late at night when they can’t sleep. We want them discussing that topic in their union meetings, and mulling it over when the 1%’s refusal to pay taxes leads to layoffs of good cops.

Who are the 99%, officer? You are. So what are you doing on that side of the barricade?

Gracious Statesmanship and other short notes

Reflecting on the Republican response to Muammar Qaddafi’s death, following so soon after the death of Osama bin Laden, The New Yorker’s David Remnick wrote:

If a Republican had been responsible for the foreign-policy markers of the past three years, the Party would be commissioning statues. In Tripoli, Benghazi, and Surt, last week, Obama won words of praise; on Republican debate platforms, there was only mindless posturing.

And, noticing the same phenomenon among the Party’s Congressional leaders, Jon Stewart asked: “Is there no Republican that can be gracious and statesmanlike in this situation?”

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Apparently not. But that’s just ordinary partisan politics, right? Democrats who were running against an incumbent Republican president would be the same way. Wouldn’t they?

Well, no. About 30 seconds with the Google led me to what Howard Dean said after Saddam Hussein was captured in December, 2003:

This is a great day of pride in the American military and a great day for the Iraqis and a great day for the American people. President Bush deserves a day of celebration.

So the American war in Iraq is finally going to end on December 31, when our last troops leave.

Juan Cole explains why things turned out this way, even though hawks in the administration and elsewhere clearly wanted to keep thousands of American troops in Iraq indefinitely: When the UN Security Council’s resolution recognizing the US as the occupying power in Iraq expired at the end of 2008, the Bush administration negotiated a status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) with the new Iraqi government. The Iraqis insisted on some deadline, so President Bush accepted 2011, confident that the US could renegotiate later.

When President Obama tried to negotiate an extension, the hang-up was the issue of “extraterritoriality” — American troops’ immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts. It would have been political suicide for the Iraqi government to grant that.

Why? Because all Iraqis remember the Nisoor Square massacre when Blackwater security guards killed 17 Baghdad civilians in a mistaken shooting spree. Extraterritoriality meant that Iraqi courts couldn’t touch them, and then an American court let them go. No Iraqi politician is going to let that happen again.

Personally, I’ll be glad to have our troops out of Iraq. But if you’re not happy, put the blame where it belongs: on Blackwater’s trigger-happy mercenaries.

Meteor Blades objects to wrap-ups that call the Iraq War a mistake.

Planning for invasion, the concoction of evidence, the ignoring of counter-advice, and the lying to Congress, to the United Nations and to the American people were not “mistakes.”

The war, he writes, was a pre-meditated crime, not a mistake. In a just world, the perpetrators “would some time ago have arrived in shackles at The Hague.”

Harold Camping’s prediction of the Rapture last May got a lot of attention, especially when it didn’t happen. (Or maybe it did, and there were just a lot fewer real Christians than everybody thought — and Camping himself wasn’t one of them.) But the Rapture was always just a prelude to the End of the World, kind of like when “last call” is announced before a bar closes. The real EotW was scheduled for last Friday.

Still here? Back to the drawing board.

Can’t decide between living in a forest or in an urban high-rise? Why not move to Milan and do both?

American feminist bra-burning is a historical myth, but Japanese environmentalist bra-burning is happening now. It even sounds like a pretty good idea.

Hunter on Daily Kos explains Occupy Wall Street to pundits who refuse to understand it.

Thom Hartmann explains the way in which OWS has already succeeded: It forced the media to remember the unemployed, who had been almost completely forgotten during the manufactured “debt-ceiling crisis” last summer.

Occupy Wall Street continues to be a great source of visual humor, most of which just adds to the movement.

And some older images are having a revival:

But the funniest thing I saw this week was this piece by Bad Lip Reading:

A View from Dewey Square

I doubt the world needs another occupation-protest eye-witness blog post. People much better known than me have already been there: Michael MooreChris Hedges, Rick Perlstein, and Jeffrey Sachs, just to name a few. And Pistols At Dawn already did the ordinary-person-checks-out-the-hype thing pretty well.

Still, when I heard there was an Occupy Boston protest at Dewey Square (at the South Station T stop across from the Federal Reserve), I couldn’t resist taking a look. And having been there, I now can’t resist writing about it. But I’ll try to restrain myself from repeating what’s already been said hundreds of times.

Two things struck me about Occupy Boston. First, Dewey Square is tiny. I didn’t do a count, but Salon’s description of a “field … filled with hundreds of tents and tarps” is a vast exaggeration. We’re talking at most a few dozen small tents, and they totally fill the available space but for a walkway. Mayor Menino’s warning “you can’t tie up a city” is similarly absurd. Any occupation confined to Dewey Square isn’t even a mosquito bite on a city the size of Boston.

Second, the way conservatives try to make the Occupation movement sound scary is ludicrous. Eric Cantor’s talk about “mobs” and Glenn Beck’s warning that “They will come for you and drag you into the streets and kill you” — we’re in Fantasyland here. People who say things like this are just hoping you don’t bother to get any genuine information.

I was at Occupy Boston on Tuesday (the same day as The New Yorker; their photo shows about a third of the encampment). Monday the camp had tried to expand to the next park down the Greenway (for obvious reasons; they’re out of space), and police violently ejected them at 1:30 in the morning. The video got national attention, and not in a way that made the police look good. Veterans For Peace positioned itself between the police and the protesters, and the police manhandled them.

So if ever the Occupiers were going to be surly and vengeful, it would have been Tuesday.

But I didn’t run into anybody surly and vengeful. Annoyed, maybe.  Some of them were amazed (in that way educated white people get) to realize that police don’t necessarily act reasonably or even obey the law. But everyone seemed to understand that the Occupation is nonviolent by definition. If they get provoked to violence, they’ve lost the argument.

Two of the people I talked to were white-haired folks who reminisced about the Vietnam War protests of their youth. One had a Santa-Claus beard and was selling anarchist pamphlets, probably for less than it cost him to photo-copy them. (I bought one for 50 cents.) The other was a woman who was trying to figure out how to start an occupation in Cambridge.

A young man wearing a pink wig was holding a sign about police abuse, so I asked him about the previous night’s confrontation. He told the same basic story I eventually heard from just about everyone (each in their own words rather than rehearsed or programmed): The police were violent and the demonstrators peaceful.

The clean-cut 20-something geeks in the media tent told me the most outrageous Monday-night story: Someone had rented a hotel room overlooking the square and were broadcasing a live feed of the police raid, until the police came up and stopped them — on no particular grounds anybody could imagine.

But as in the famous John Gilmore quote, “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” The geeks were excitedly processing all the Monday-night video they could get their hands on and posting it to the Web. That seemed to be all the revenge they needed.

The guy at the information table was collecting bail money. At the logistics tent they were hoping for donations of tents to replace the ones the police had thrown in a garbage truck Monday night.

Everybody was careful not to speak for the group. Future strategy was going to be a topic of that evening’s General Assembly, and nobody wanted to prejudge the outcome. (The Occupiers were proud of their democratic process, though they all admitted it was tedious.)

Anger? Not so much. There was stuff to do. Venting or riling each other up wasn’t going to get it done. No one seemed hurried or panicked, but many seemed focused.

Like so many middle-aged people who see an Occupation protest, I can’t resist making a sweeping generalization: I don’t think people my age appreciate the effect a lifetime of computer games has had on the rising generation. They are both more strategic and more relentless than we expect them to be.

So they did not experience Monday’s police raid as some primitive horror; it was just the new challenge that marked the Occupation’s progress to Level 2. It’s something else to overcome, like bad weather. So the Occupiers bail people out, get more tents, and keep going until they can find the door to Level 3.

[I haven’t been to Occupy Wall Street, but the way they met the weekend’s park-cleaning challenge sounded similar. This level has a new obstacle; how do we marshal our resources to overcome it?]

If the authorities think they’re going to get rid of these protests through slow escalation, they’d better think again. They’ll just be training the protesters to reach ever-higher levels of proficiency.