From Puerta del Sol to Occupy Wall Street -- a movement spreads

                                  One of the 99% at Liberty Square, NY City, October 1, 2011

The rapidly changing situations at the Occupy Wall Street and other Occupy sites around the country have some interesting similarities not only to the widespread upheavals of the Arab Spring (and summer, fall...) but also to continuing mass protests in Spain which began at Puerta del Sol on May 15.  I have no special grasp of the direction or significance of these unfolding events.  But here are some scattered observations from my visit to Liberty Square in New York last Saturday and from recent readings and conversations.

1.  The perception that 99% of the USA is victimized by the wealthy 1% is growing throughout the country, topic of widespread discussion in the press and on the Internet.  Hence, the name the New York demonstrators have chosen -- “the 99%” – is appropriate and resonant.

2.  The corporate news media is upset, reduced to babbling incoherence, when faced with the mystery of  “Who are they?” and “What do they want”?  Evidently, citizens gathering together to bear  witness to an obviously dysfunctional economic and political system is not sufficient to merit coverage and comment.

3.  As in Spain, there are “General Assemblies” in the plazas of the Occupy gatherings.   Demands and proposals evolve from these ongoing discussions.  Because the processes of debate, deliberation, and decision-making are “horizontal” rather than top/down “vertical”, mainstream journalists and pundits simply cannot understand how agreements arise.  These seem similar to the circles of debate I saw in Madrid last June, ones still going strong well past 11:00 pm in some neighborhoods.  This is the reinvention of public space.
4.  Celebrities are flocking to the sites of protest, Michael Moore and Cornell West, for example, but are by no means the “leaders” the media hopes to identify.  As in Spain, there are people who take on specific commitments – the “legal team,” “media team,” etc.  But this is deliberately not a step toward the selection  or even self-selection of “leaders.”

5.  The police ban on electronic amplification has actually played to the advantage of the protestors because they have invented the “The People’s Microphone”  in which people loudly repeat the words of the speaker so they can be heard on the periphery.

6.  Protests are spreading and their size seems to be growing.  This coming Wednesday is Occupy Colleges day in the U.S.  Students will walk out of classes and off campus.  Here’s a report from my alma mater, U.C. Berkeley, in The Daily Californian:
Occupy Colleges — a movement that stemmed from Occupy Wall Street — is calling for a national campus walkout Wednesday at 12 p.m. to protest rising college debt and a lack of jobs for graduate
“Do not go to school. Go fight for yours and everybody else’s rights at Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Los Angeles or your nearest Occupation. The time is now to join our fellow %99!” stated Occupy College on its Facebook page.

7.  As I noted in an earlier post, it seems as if the protests have begun use novel forms of software, e.g., Vibe instead of Twitter.   Net video sites also present live streams and video archives of events.  To some extent this makes up for the media blackout of Occupy events.  If software, online communication and face-to-face gatherings achieve synergy -- watch out!

8.  Gatherings and demonstrations in this genre are self-policing, effectively so far. .  For example, people who gather in Liberty Square in New York to avoid possession or use of alcohol and drugs in the park.

9.  The press and a scornful public decry the presence of “smelly hippies” and unsightly places where then sit, lie down and sleep.  This is a self-fulfilling prophecy, however.  The police have banned tents, camping equipment and other facilities that would otherwise keep protest sites clean and neat. And from what I saw, Liberty Square volunteer janitors are doing a good job.
10.  As in Spain and the “No les votes” (Don’t vote for them) campaign, Elections and “one’s vote” now seem much less important than previously.  The 99% recognized that the political parties, the ruling elites and political leaders (including Obama) no longer understand their needs and do not even begin to represent them.   They express a common question:  Are these the best leaders our nation can produce?  Much like the “indignados,” the Occupy Wall Street and similar strands of the movement will probably continue voting, but will look for new ways of participating and applying pressure.

11.  While no one is talking about the movement in exactly these terms yet, actions of this may carry some of the pungent force of Vietnam War protests.  “What are we doing?  We’re raising the costs of your goddam war.”  In this case:  “We are raising the costs of the economic devastation our ‘leaders’ have caused.”

12.  As in Europe, creating an economy in which there are millions of young people unemployed with no jobs in sight is a formula for social unrest.   My placard for Liberty Square might read: 

America take notice – We’ve Got a LOT of Time on Our Hands!


Two approaches to economic collapse

The nervousness about the world's ongoing, meandering economic collapse showed up in two quite different news stories today.  One was a BBC interview with "trader"Alessio Rastani in which the fellow offered sober advice on the best ways to PANIC!  His exaggerated rhetoric brought many to conclude that the TV segment was actually a Yes Men stunt.  I doubted that conclusion right away because the Yes Men are never malicious in their well aimed barbs.  While they poke fun at corporations, governments and the global economic system, they would never offer the jump-out-of-the-nearest-window perspective of the kind Mr. Rastani was peddling.  Now the Yes Men have denied any connection to the interview, but use the occasion to urge people to join the ongoing people's occupation of Wall Street. 

Rastani is not in Liberty Plaza
By Andy Bichlbaum on Sep 27 2011 - 9:56am 

The Yes Men wish to commend Mr. "Alessio Rastani" for his masterful performance as "trader" on BBC World yesterday. Mr. Rastani's real name is Granwyth Hulatberi; he once appeared on CNBC MarketWrap as a "representative" of the WTO. Well done, Granwyth! You're getting better and better.

Just kidding. We've never heard of Rastani. Despite widespread speculation, he isn't a Yes Man. He's a real trader who is, for one reason or another, being more honest than usual. Who in big banking doesn't bet against the interests of the poor and find themselves massively recompensed—if not by the market, then by humongous taxpayer bailouts? Rastani's approach has been completely mainstream for several years now; we must thank him for putting a human face on it yesterday.

If you'd like to see the human face of the human perspective—the perspective of the 99% victimized by our demented and out-of-control financial system—come join the occupation of Wall Street. Michael Moore did so  last night, and pointed out that in America, it's just 400 people who own as much as most of the rest of us put together—and that when we decide we really want to change the rules of the game, those 400 people won't be able to do squat about it.

On a much different plain of reference, philosopher Ben Brucato directed my attention to Paul Kingsnorth's article in the Guardian -- "This economic collapse is a 'crisis of bigness:Leopold Kohr warned 50 years ago that the gigantist global system would grow until it imploded. We should have listened."

Leopold Kohr was a self-described "philosophical anarchist" whose book,The Breakdown of Nations, analyzes the problem of sheer size as the cause of the dysfunctions and, he argued, eventual collapse of the modern economy.  In Kingsnorth's able summary:

The crisis currently playing out on the world stage is a crisis of growth. Not, as we are regularly told, a crisis caused by too little growth, but by too much of it. Banks grew so big that their collapse would have brought down the entire global economy. To prevent this, they were bailed out with huge tranches of public money, which in turn is precipitating social crises on the streets of western nations. The European Union has grown so big, and so unaccountable, that it threatens to collapse in on itself. Corporations have grown so big that they are overwhelming democracies and building a global plutocracy to serve their own interests. The human economy as a whole has grown so big that it has been able to change the atmospheric composition of the planet and precipitate a mass extinction event.

One man who would not have been surprised by this crisis of bigness, had he lived to see it, was Leopold Kohr.  Kohr has a good claim to be the most important political thinker that you have never heard of. Unlike Marx, he did not found a global movement or inspire revolutions. Unlike Hayek, he did not rewrite the economic rules of the modern world. Kohr was a modest, self-deprecating man, but this was not the reason his ideas have been ignored by movers and shakers in the half century since they were produced. They have been ignored because they do not flatter the egos of the power-hungry, be they revolutionaries or plutocrats. In fact, Kohr's message is a direct challenge to them. "Wherever something is wrong," he insisted, "something is too big."

The death of "The Career" in today's America?

As someone who works in "higher education," I'm increasingly struck by the ways in which the myths that have long surrounded our enterprise are being shattered.  Not that I celebrate these developments, mind you, but the evidence mounts that Toto has pulled away the curtain to reveal the Wizard of Oz frantically pulling levers connected to a vast smoke and mirror machine.  The chart above comes from a web site, Shareable: Life and Art, that covers this story closely.

One especially vivid description of the world that awaits those who have invested years of their young lives and assumed mountains of debt in the process is Sarah Idzik's article, "Unprepared: From Elite College to The Job Market."  A close friend, himself a denizen of this bizarre world, sent the piece to me and it's enough to make you cry, even if you're not a member of the education BIZ directly threatened as stories like this enter the stream of public awareness.  Ms Idzik writes:

"I was naïve about the real world much in the same way that I was naïve about academic life. I searched for jobs primarily on Craigslist. I didn’t know what to do with my resume. I only had enough money from my graduation gifts to last a couple of months unemployed in Chicago; after that, it would be back to suburban Pennsylvania. Looking at job postings, I realized I had no idea what I was even looking for. Jobs were scarce, let alone appealing gigs. Furthermore, I was totally unqualified, based on the advertised requirements, for anything but clerical administrative work. All that I had learned, all that I had overcome and accomplished, and here I was scanning dozens upon dozens of ads looking for the rare few with the words “administrative assistant” in them.
Not knowing what else to do, not having any clue or any direction, feeling the hot breath of unemployment breathing down my neck, I applied to all of them.

I managed to get lucky – and despite my degree, it does feel like luck. I had a job by July, one of the applications for which I had, by this point tired and getting lazy, attached my resume to an email and just dashed off a paragraph in the body about how great and bright I was. This is the same job I still have now, almost three years later—a gig at a small travel company typing and printing travel documents for unbelievably wealthy, entitled globetrotters who won’t read any of them. This was about as far from the highbrow literature of my undergraduate years as construction work. I was terrified to start an actual 9 to 5 job; it seemed like a myth, something surreal, something that couldn’t touch my life.

After starting, the disbelief soon gave way to misery. The day-to-day experience left me feeling utterly crushed. I wasn’t creating anything, I wasn’t even really doing anything of any consequence at all. I got on the bus every morning, exhausted, with all the other people who worked in offices downtown. I walked into the office every day, sat at the same desk, in the same chair, did the same things. I adopted the same bubbly, pleasant attitude as my coworkers, with whom I felt no connection at all. It made no sense to see them as real people I might connect with, since after all, I felt like this was not where I belonged: an office in an industry that had nothing to do with my life, in a job in which I had no real interest. I had nothing invested in my job or my employer, I did what I had to do: hammer out the work, play nice. But I felt all day long that I was inhabiting a strange bubble, separate from where I really lived my life, removed from anything that affected me or that I cared about."

  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
A close friend (who will remain nameless) who works at a very fine law school (that will also remain nameless), told me about some law school graduates who found that none of the great jobs they'd been promised were waiting for them at the end of the legal assembly line.  In response, they started a  blog or two to discuss the embarrassing situation, postings that angered university officials.  Especially worrisome for university brass was the fact that that the law school admissions pitch still sells the "Great Job Just Ahead!" idea to entice young debtors waiting in the cue.  When administrators from their alma mater approached, the students -- skilled negotiators, after all  --  offered a neat deal: We'll stop publishing these stories if you'll forgive our our law school debts.  

To my way of thinking, important, widespread realization in America right now is that the promise of a "career" made possible an education at an "elite university" is rapidly fading.  As news seeps out, what will happen?  What will happen to sky high tuitions along with the lavish salaries of university presidents and over-paid academic managers who never set foot in the classroom?

A booming voice proclaims: "PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN!!!"