Monday, September 17, 2012

Occupy Wall Street--Year One

(Yes, Margaret, There is An Alternative)
I’d like to start with a confession. When I first descended upon the Bowling Green statue in Lower Manhattan on the morning of Saturday September 17, 2011 to discover a handful of people doing yoga, I was not impressed. While my spirits were raised when a larger, but still small group of people marched from Bowling Green to Zuccotti Park I did not believe that we were on the cusp of a historic moment. I had been involved in activism since I was a high school sophomore and as a result have participated in more protests than I care to admit publicly. At the time the events of that day didn’t seem particularly special or memorable.
 Looking back a year later, never in my life have I been so glad to have been so wrong. Far from being just another protest, Occupy Wall Street is unquestionably among the most important social movements of the past decade (which truly is an accomplishment, because in spite of the media narrative of passivity the last decade saw sizable protests against the IMF and World Bank, the war in Iraq, racism, and for women’s and immigrants' rights). Occupy has captured the public imagination like no other protests since the 1960s.

As the one year anniversary approaches, the media narrative will most likely focus on what Occupy has accomplished. Perhaps the media will fixate on the fact that many of the encampments are gone (whether or not they will mention that these encampments were violently broken up by the police is another story). Of course, while no single individual speaks for Occupy, it doesn’t take much to realize that Occupy’s victories lie not only in the encampments. They lie in the newly mobilized activist networks that have waged (and even won) battles in their own communities--whether it be the many homes defended against foreclosure or Occupy Baltimore’s campaign against a proposed new youth jail.

Just as important as these victories is the impact Occupy Wall Street has had in shifting the dialogue concerning economic issues. For decades, the spectrum of acceptable discourse has been rapidly closing. At the beginning of the 20th century there was a vigorous debate about how humans might organize their society. Socialists, anarchists, syndicalists, and radicals of every stripe attracted sizable audiences. Even relatively mainstream intellectuals like John Dewey expressed dissatisfaction with the wage economy and proposed that true democracy meant not just popular participation at the ballot box, but in the workplace as well. In short, capitalism and democracy were not one in the same, but were instead deeply antithetical to each other. 

Yet only eighty-some years later Margret Thatcher, one of the architects of the current neoliberal economic order, would chastise the people that there was “no alternative” to her particular brand of capitalist economics. What happened?  First, we were told that there was no alternative to capitalism. Then, not only did we have to accept capitalism as the only viable economic system, but we could only choose a particular brand of capitalism: A deregulated, cutthroat brand of capitalism that mixes unchecked corporate power with a disempowered working class, free markets with accelerated rates of incarceration and police repression, tyrannical technocrats with diminished formal representative institutions, corporate welfare with gutted social services, and in times of crisis, bank bailouts with austerity.

There was no alternative. And every politician accepted it. If you lived in the United States it didn’t matter if you elected Democrats or Republicans, the policies were essentially the same (as were the corporate donors). Western Europe, where social democratic and socialist parties still existed in name, faced a similar closing of discourse. 

Anthropologist David Graeber got it right when he said that Occupy was about the rediscovery of “the radical imagination.” While Occupy's coalition of supporters include everyone from left-leaning Keynesians to anarchists, Occupy’s power and appeal rests in its fundamental core assertion than there is indeed an alternative. It is the rejection that private profit is the only valid raison d'etre for anything, whether it be education and healthcare or prisons and the military. Instead, Occupy proposes the radical alternative that the lives, well-being, and futures of flesh and blood humans are too precious to be traded along with slips of paper on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Hypocrisy of Mitt Romney

Even though Clint Eastwood’s bizarre and rambling monologue (which managed to upstage Romney) contained a vague anti-war statement and the implication that Romney would bring all US troops home from Afghanistan “tomorrow” (in actuality his platform calls for a withdrawal by 2014) Romney minced no words in his nomination speech about his foreign policy. While most of the foreign policy parts of his speech were nonsensical misstatements of Obama’s foreign policy (misstatements because Obama has been just as diligent in maintaing the American Empire as any of his predecessors) one point seemed particularly hypocritical for Romney.

Romney who repeated the absurd claim that Obama had been on an “apology tour” for the United States boldly claimed that America does not “dictate” to the world, but instead has “freed the world of dictators.” On face value this claim is almost too laughable to debunk. Between the long list of democratic governments deposed by the United States, the even longer list of dictators it has backed, and the realities faced by civilians in countries subject to US intervention it’s hard to even know where to start with the falsity of Romney’s claim.

However what makes Romney’s remark worth noting is the blatant level of hypocrisy inherent to this remark being made by Romney. The Huffington Post recently reported that Romney’s venture capital firm, Bain Capital, started by receiving money from individuals connected to Salvadorian death squads. 

During the Salvadorian Civil War over 75,000 civilians were killed, 85% percent of them killed by the US-backed government. Particular low points of the war were the murder and rape of four American nuns, the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero while giving mass, and the massacring of 900 citizens in the village of El Mozote. All crimes committed by death squads with close links to the government.

As if Romney’s business ties with Salvadorian death squads were not enough Truthout recently revealed that he was not the only person on the Republican ticket with ties to atrocities in the region. Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan has been receiving advise on foreign policy from Elliot Abrams. Abrams, who was convicted of two misdemeanor counts for his involvement in the Iran-Contra Affair, has a long history of supporting atrocities committed in Central America, including denying the El Mozote massacre--a tragedy confirmed by not only the New York Times and the Washington Post, but the United Nations Truth Commission and eventually recognized by the government of El Salvador itself. Abrams was also a noted supporter of the Contras, a rightwing group supported by the CIA that sought to overthrow the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) would find that CIA operations with the Contras, which included mining the harbors of Nicaragua, constituted an act of aggression. This ruling made the United States the only country ever found guilty of aggression by the ICJ. In addition to the ICJ’s finding Human Rights Watch’s predecessor organization concluded that Contras deliberately targeted civilian health care workers, and routinely engaged in rape, torture, and kidnapping. 

While the United States has never been a “Good Neighbor” to Central America the period in the late-1970s to early 1990s is one of the darkest in US-Central American relationships. During this time the US sought to suppress popular movements against oligarchical dictatorships and overthrow them when they succeeded (like the Sandinistas did in Nicaragua). To do so they supported brutal death squads and terrorist groups like the Contras.  For Romney, given Bain Capital’s ties to this dark chapter in American history, to speak of America “freeing the world of dictators,” shows a particular level of hypocrisy.